Daredevil: Tragic Hero or Anti-Hero?

When you’ve taken a character so far down into the gutter, how much further is there to take him? That’s the question Marvel is attempting to answer in its new volume of Daredevil. A new number one doesn’t necessarily mean a complete change in direction. But that’s exactly what Marvel is doing with this Daredevil number one.

After “Shadowland” and Daredevil: Reborn, it’s hard to imagine a fresh Daredevil ongoing with the title character smiling. Yet, that’s exactly what writer Mark Waid and artists Paolo Rivera, and Marcos Martin have delivered. It’s the type of pulpy superhero book that the title has not been in three decades. There’s a sense of whimsy that’s tempered by the previous continuity not being stuffed under the rug, but remaining front and center.

Daredevil is still out – not matter how much he’d like the world not to know his secret identity. This is of course an excellent narrative device that if handled properly can up the drama and tension.

This is all well and good, and in the hands of Waid, Rivera and Martin could be quite enjoyable. The questions that arise from this bold new direction are what could hamper the series? The question Marvel is trying to answer is: where do we go from here? But another profound question sits just below the surface. What kind of hero is Daredevil?

He’s a vigilante, but what type of archetypal-hero-protagonist is Matt Murdock? Is he a romantic hero? Is he a tragic hero? Or is he an anti-hero?

A new take on an established and beloved character demands introspection. Mostly because it’s a vastly different take than recent incarnations. This take is more in line with Stan Lee, Bill Everett and Jack Kirby’s idea, with a generous helping of Gene Colan’s artistic influence. And so removed from the dark figure Frank Miller proposed.

Much of the confusion with what archetypal hero Daredevil represents can be traced back to Miller’s work with the character in the 1980s. While his reinvention of the character was excellent, Miller tends to turn all of his protagonists into anti-heroes – who are often mistake for tragic heroes.

Batman – another character Miller reinvented in the 1980s – is best seen as a tragic hero akin to Shakespeare’s Hamlet. With The Dark Knight Returns – and to a lesser extend Batman: Year One – Miller masquerades Batman as a tragic hero, but his treatment and exposition reveal a much more anti-hero persona. That anti-hero approach to Batman was on full display in All-Star Batman and Robin. When you connect the pieces, the storylines, the action and the exposition from the entirety of Miller’s Batman work, you are left with a maladjusted psychopath. While the idea of dressing as a bat and dishing out vigilante justice is a bit of a psychological quandary, the extent of the character’s psyche should never be so severed from the reality he exists in. As Miller does, he represents a dark-hearted existentialism more rooted in a god-complex – even possibly an inferiority complex – than in the tragedy of pseudo-vengeance.

The same can be seen in Miller’s reinvention of Daredevil. It was certainly a refreshing and daring take when it began in late 1979. The infusion of complex characterizations, noir-esque elements, and the constant tragedies of a masked man reeling from the death of his father was what the character needed to survive in Marvel’s crowded superhero world. Make no mistake. What Miller brought to Daredevil was in line with a sort of destiny for him as a writer and creator. It was his vision of the world. Much as Tim Burton has recreated pillars of our popular culture in his vision, Miller has done the same. It wasn’t necessarily Daredevil as it was Frank Miller’s Daredevil. But that’s what the character needed: a singular vision to sort out all of the conflicting elements.

Daredevil is a character of vast contradictions: a lawyer who believes in the law, but still runs into the night as a vigilante; a blind man who can “see” better than most of us. But he’s not an anti-hero. He’s a tragic-hero.

The idea that Daredevil could be a romantic hero was certainly explored in Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s Daredevil: Yellow. A romantic comic series that emphasized the romance and saw the relationship between Matt Murdock and Karen page explored in those terms. It was an ill-fitting archetype, however executed by the Loeb and Sale. Matt Murdock is too flawed in an archetypal sense to be a romantic hero.

It was, however, an out of continuity mini-series, whereas the creative talent working on continuity Daredevil certainly stayed along the lines of Miller’s take on the character. Most notably, Brian Michael Bendis and then Ed Brubaker continued to dwell in the dark territory that Miller had started. Each brought in a touch of their own world views. For Bendis it was a sort of pseudo-realism; for Brubaker it was crime noir.

Somewhere between Miller’s dark anti-hero, Bendis’ pseudo-realism, Brubaker’s criminal noir rogue and whatever Andy Diggle was trying to do, the idea of Daredevil laughing in the face of danger was lost – a trait that every man without fear should have.

Waid’s task, and thus far result, is to deconstruct the character to the point he is stripped of 30 years of continuity, yet somehow maintain that everything that was in the past is still in the character’s past. It’s reinvention at a very cerebral level. Thankfully the artistic direction is so different, so very much a reflection on Silver Age style, that Daredevil can be saved from the existential dismay of a dishearten generations of creators.

The darkly tinged creators that came between 1979 and 2011 were certainly trying to deliver a tragic hero, but through their own hands manifested yet another anti-hero in the Marvel universe.

As noted earlier, putting aside the psychological deformity of a blind man dressing as a devil to jump off rooftops and scare criminals, the elements of Murdock’s history and response are the traits of a tragic hero. The loss of his father, and his thirst for vengeance stemming from that tragedy, his physical handicap, no matter how it manifests more than human abilities, are all elements of a protagonist existing in tragedy – exemplifying a fatal flaw that has not yet led to his demise. Living without fear is in and of itself a flaw.

Fear is a guiding force in our lives. It helps to value what and who is around us. It cautions us against hazardous circumstances. Now, in the sense that Daredevil is the man without fear, whereas he glides into danger with abandon, it is not the most fitting flaw for a tragic hero. Certainly having no fear has its advantages for a vigilante. But the extent to which this fear exists is yet another contradictory element to the character. No fear in daring-do, but is there fear of losing those that he loves and cares for? Yes. He wouldn’t be even in the hero category if he didn’t.

The tragedies of his life are what guide him: from being a lawyer, to being a devil to criminals in Hell’s Kitchen. In retrospect, they are the result of tragedy. He would not be a lawyer, or blind, or a vigilante without that singular event which motivates him to this day. The full breadth of life experiences go a long way in defining who we are, much like looking at a timeline that juts out at odd intervals and then circles back to later points in time. For literary characters the same is true, thought it typically begins at one distinct point. That event for Matt Murdock was tragedy, which spawned his own fatal flaw that places him squarely in the realm of tragic hero.

Why this investigation into what type of archetypal hero Daredevil is supposed to be? Why does it matter whether he’s a tragic or anti-hero? Because that dictates direction and development, without which we don’t have a characterization to define the title character. The extent to which the direction is executed is arguable. However, the defining characteristics go a long way into signifying the type of stories we can expect. The issue of quality or enjoyment is another debate.

We know from this inaugural issue of this new volume, that the direction will be vastly different from what has been written and drawn in the last 30 years. It may not be lighter as could be presupposed from editorial statements and the first issue. It may actual have a dark element to it. It will not be the type of dark that Miller began in the early part of his stellar career. This is Mark Waid, who has played with the archetypal elements of characters before (Kingdom Come, Irredeemable, Incorruptible, etc.). It will be much more of a Silver Age revival understanding of the character – the type of which we should all be very familiar with by now in this current age of comics.

Will it be good? Who’s to say?

One thing is clear: the redefinition of who Daredevil is and what type of hero he wants to be will be the first thing to be explored. The debate will probably continue. Let’s hope whatever the direction, the work is as refreshing and bold as Miller’s was 30 years ago.