The Triumph Is the Tragedy: “Daredevil #16”

If Daredevil #16 scans as one of the singularly most impressive standalone comics of the last 25 years, it is because it’s bisected by some very unexpected vectors — by Sebastian de Grazia’s magnificent biography Machiavelli in Hell and by Tom Waits’ “World Keeps Turning”, a song off the middle disc of his Orphans album. In their very disparate pieces, Grazia and Waits both, demonstrate a remarkable artistic composure, and a kind of fearlessness that harks back to the strange, counterintuitive fearlessness of DD himself.

Nearly a decade back now, audiences were witness to a moment that absolutely broke Daredevil. Not broke Daredevil so much as showed, undeniably so, where the breaks were. It was during the Brian Michael Bendis-Alex Maleev run on the title, a run which stands out as the signature runs not only in the history of the character, but in the history of comics publication. The moment came right at the very end of “Hardcore”, the storyarc which charted the return of Wilson Fisk to his role as Kingpin of Crime.

After enduring being outed in the press as Daredevil, after fighting back against new designer-drug MGH and the Owl stepping up to fill Fisk’s void in the criminal underworld, Matt Murdock simply cracked. He fought against his old adversaries Typhoid Mary and Bullseye (thrown his way courtesy of the newly reignited Kingpin) and then beat the Kingpin himself to within an inch of his life.

Then in a surprising move, Murdock installs himself as Kingpin. Nearly a decade later, and Bendis’ writing still rings out clearly: “I am here to say: if you people need so badly some sort of Kingpin, someone to lord over you. Well, from now on… it’s me. I’m not protecting this city anymore. I’m running it! And I say: the people of Hell’s Kitchen are my people. This is my territory now. And I say: get out, or change! Tonight!”

And yet, as convincing and as emotionally-wrought and as outright powerful a moment as that was, it was only one aspect of Daredevil. While Bendis focused on the drama of a man-pushed-too-far, and of a veil of restraint being ground down ever thinner, the veneer of carefree abandon that was always so essential to the character took a backseat. Where was the signature fearlessness of the Man Without Fear? That sense of laughing in the face of danger, even as he leapt into his own death?

Bendis certainly offered a powerful and unique vision of the character, one that strike a chord with the post-9/11 moment it was written during. But ultimately, as with all singular visions, it sacrificed some elements of the broader scope of the character. On the other end of the spectrum, Mark Waid’s post-“Shadowland” DD has been nothing if not infused with that original sense of daring in the character. But in a rare moment, Waid brings together these two core strands of DD — that fearless laughing in the face of danger and that deep inner anger that the fearlessness seems to restrain — in issue #16.

Over the past year or so in Waid’s run, we’ve seen DD come into possession of the Omega Drive, a quantum encrypted-hard-disk that held the full data backups of five megacrime organizations. Over this last arc specifically, DD saw himself kidnapped by the independent nation (read “rogue state”) of Latveria, the East European home of supervillain Dr. Doom. Since Latveria had earned substantial revenue from hosting the five megacrime organizations, their aim was simply revenge on DD. This revenge took the form of nanobots that dulled DD’s hypersenses.

Issue #16, the epilogue to the Latveria storyline, is structurally very simple, but also, incredibly elegant. In the first of two acts, Tony Stark (after rescuing DD from Latveria at the end of the previous issue) brings together Ant Man and Dr. Strange. It’s down to Ant Man to micronize and physically remove the nanobots, while Dr. Strange mystically attempts to contact DD’s mind.

The connection with both Grazia’s bio of Machiavelli, and with Waits’ “bawler”, “World Keeps Turning” is a deep and abiding one. Certainly the idea of “phantom memories” seem to provide a cursory connection to the Daredevil issue. In Machiavelli in Hell Grazia focuses on how the events of Machiavelli’s life helped act as formative experiences for the Prince. And this style of narrative-driven biography does seem to echo in Ant Man being overwhelmed by Matt Murdock’s own memories. Even to the point where Ant Man is unable to clearly distinguish his own story from DD’s.

But such a connection is a fleeting one. The real connection between these three works, lies at the level of each artist’s and each character’s fearlessness.

At the level of the artists, there certainly is enough courage. Waid writing Daredevil in his 60s/70s whimsy after the unleashed fury of Bendis’ DD and the noir-inspired vision of the character Ed Brubaker offered readers certainly is an act of courage. It is the unflinching belief that DD at the core of its character is still a relevant tool for understanding our world, even today. Grazia’s reworking of Machiavelli as a historical personage into a character charting his own destiny foresees such shows as the Tudors and the Borgias nearly two decades on. And Waits’ 2007 album ran the risk of being dismissed as a “passion project”.

What we see instead, is these artists rise. And not more so than in the segue between the two acts of Daredevil #16 where, simply in narrative monologue while in conversation with his rescuers, DD identifies each of their inner weaknesses. If Daredevil #16 succeeds, it is because Mark Waid as a writer, just as Grazia and Waits before him, has been imprinted with a kind of fearlessness the character he writes is possessed of.

RATING 9 / 10