Friday, 12 April 2013

Books: Daredevil: Born Again


Daredevil: Born Again
Written by Frank Miller
Art by David Mazzucchelli

Available now from Islington Libraries
You can reserve this item for free here:

I think us comic fans (all the comic fans in the house say "yeah!") can all agree that Batman: Year One is one of the best superhero comics out there. Right guys? I mean - come on: it's got pretty pretty everything - the dark and gritty gloomy atmosphere (that thankfully never skews too dark [1]), a sense of realism that lets you believe in it's premise (without making you realise how gosh-darn silly a man all dressed up like Dracula would be) and a non-stop frantic energy that makes you bounce from page-to-page like a pinball on some kind of unholy mixture of crack coke speed and caffeine [2]: what's not to love?

But for those of those who know - well - they know that before Year One Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli [3] combined their forces to create a comic that's still rated as one of the best Daredevil stories ever (I realise that that sounds like I'm damning with faint praise - but it's not supposed to: I mean - come on: if you know where to look there are a lot of great Daredevil stories out there - most especially in Brian Michael Bendis' 2001 - 2006 run: which always manages to go out like extra delicious hot cakes when I get them for the Comic Forum meetings....). The late 1980s was a period when a lot of classic epoch-defining comics came out which ended up changing everything for ever (or whatever) but (sadly) one of the inevitable   consequences of all the big love going to the smash-hitters is that - well yeah: there's a few other books that came out at the same time that kinda of got left in the shade a little.

Of course the end of that thought is that Daredevil: Born Again is one of those unsung masterpieces (or - well - unsung in comparison to blah) but - well - the truth is a little bit more tricky than that (damn it).

If I was only going to use one word to describe it then that word would be: immense. Not so much because it has big gigantic spaceships or world-smashing machines or anything like that - no, no, no. This isn't Jack Kirby or Grant Morrison or whatever: nah - the immensity here is of the emotional sort: it's taking your operatic mainstays like: doomed love, existential depression, thwarted something-or-other (thwarted anger? thwarted chances? I dunno -but thwarted is such a good word so - what-the-hey) and - most especially - consuming, all-enveloping, life-defining revenge.

The old Klingon proverb says that revenge is a dish best served cold [4] but - come on - that's not really much of a recipe is it? (Imagine buying a Delia Smith cookbook and that was the total amount of the instructions you were given: it wouldn't be very helpful now - would it?). Thankfully in Born Again Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli present a culinary masterclass in just how to prepare, spice and season one of the best accounts of superhero-flavoured revenge that I think I've ever seen. I mean - I wasn't the one who was eating it: but I could still feel it in my mouth - fizzling on the tip of my tongue.

Skip past reading the introduction (which reads like the person who wrote it swallowed a thesaurus and it keeps returning on him through his fingers) and just jump straight into the hard-boiled (it is Frank Miller after all [5]) beat-down that awaits within: "Winter hit Manhatten like an unwanted relative. Drops in with no warning and seems to stay forever." and stuff like that.

The other thing you should know is that it's very much front-loaded in terms of the goodness: that is to say - that when it starts (and if you're anything like me) the tautness of - well: pretty much everything (if you could pluck a comic: then it feels like this one would ring out like the bottom note on a cello): the plot, the art, the little character moments: it all joins together to make something that makes me crackle with (I dunno how to say this properly) - artistic electricity?

The first four parts especially especially [6] are spell-binding in their comics-style mastery: check the way that Matt Murdock's [7] sleeping body gets smaller and smaller at the start of each chapter or the two-page scene with Ben Urich on the phone. The way that the backround conversations weave into the throughline. That slow zoom in to his face. And the way it ramps up the colours in his face until realism has been left behind and his skin is red and his eyes are yellow: it's cool is what I'm saying. I mean - yeah: ok - it gets laid on a little thickly at points (at one point Matt's superhuman senses are described as: "a great way to catch all the misery of being alive." - which I know is a bit much but (at the same time) is utterly fantastic - no?).

But then: I dunno - (after all that bliss) towards the end: it hits somekind of wall and starts to deflate a little - a trait which it shares with Batman: Year One (and which I put down to the limits of trying to write something that feels complete within the limits of a franchise where nothing is ever really allowed to change too much [9]  ): I mean - I can see that Frank Miller is trying to write about something about the misuses of patriotism (or something): but the problem is that Matt Murdoch's struggle kinda of gets lost underneath: plus (for me) there's only so many scenes I can take of the Kingpin [10] being mean to his underlings before it all starts to feel a little bit like Dr Evil [11]: but what the hey - it's a fun ride while it lasts.  

[1] By which - of course I mean - no one gets raped (for those of you that don't know: having someone rape one of your (female) characters was the default option of choice for superhero comics searching for some sort of prestige back in the late 80s and early 90s: because that's the one thing that made Watchmen so great -obviously: and hey (by the same logic) - if you get a mop-top haircut then - yes - you too can be as big as the Beatles).

[2] Yeah - ok: so I googled "drug that makes you jittery." Leave me alone.

[3] Frank Miller on the final page writes: "It's almost criminal how easy David makes it to write a script. He makes a three-dimensional stage of the individual panel, complete in authentic detail, nonetheless uncluttered and utterly readable. He creates actors whose dramatic range is startling, whose best and most compelling moments are wordless. He's talking of writing his own comics. Keep an eye out for them. I will." Little did anyone know but it took over twenty years (!) before David came out with his own book: Asterios Polyp (which you should check out if you haven't already).

[4] "It is very cold in space."

[5] And I bet I know how he likes his eggs.

[6] And just check out the names! Part one: Apocalypse. Part two: Purgatory. Part three: Pariah! (and that exclamination mark is theirs not mine: so you know they're serious business - right? Right).

[7] I'm sure that someone else out there has already pointed this out - but still - isn't it funny how there's this split between superheroes who you (mostly) think of by their superhero names: Superman is mostly referred to as Superman, Batman is Batman, Wonder Woman is Wonder Woman etc: and then there's the slightly lower tier of costumed do-gooders who foreground the human over the super: Peter Parker probably being the most well-known example: where the drama (mostly) comes from the trials and tribulations suffered by the hero when he's not wearing his spandex. Well (in case you didn't know): if you're talking about the comic Daredevil: you're going to find yourself thinking about and referring to "Matt Murdock" an awful lot more than you will "Daredevil" mainly (I guess) because as a rooftop super-ninja vigilante dressing up in a leather devil-horned outfit he's pretty much invincible ("The one relief i can give myself when... it all gets to be too much." [8]) - but as a blind lawyer with a string of ex-girlfriends: well - he's got more weak points: that's for sure - something which Frank Miller knows how to exploit to the maximum.

[8] The less said about that the better.

[9] And no one can ever die.

[10] I don't know if I'm reaching a bit: but I'd say it's notable that the Kingpin (as Matt Murdock's main bad guy nemesis) isn't some freak in clown make-up or somekind of hideous mutant animal thing: nope - he's just a criminal: "The boss of everything bad that makes money in what must be most of the free world.": but with no real further motivations than to increase his revenue stream (no Pinky and the Brain style: "try to take over the world!" for this guy: he'd much rather just control things from behind the scenes).

[11] And if you read the book I'm sure you'll all know which scene I mean (I think - or maybe it's just me).


Further reading: Daredevil (2001 - 2006), Batman: Year OneBatman: The Dark Knight Returns, Elektra: AssassinAsterios PolypThe Life and Times of Martha Washington in the Twenty-First Century.

Profiles: Frank Miller.

All comments welcome.


Tam said...

I think this is still probably the best conventional superhero comic I've ever read; it's particularly impressive on account of it being within continuity. Not that I care about continuity very much but I've noticed it's much harder to tell a good superhero story in continuity than an origin (which has the inbuilt advantage of being mythic) or stand alone. I really like the way Matt Murdock is a completely different character by the end of the story, which is something you don't often see in comics.

There's so much I like about this, the lovely art, the truly heroic way Matt DOESN'T really seek revenge against the Kinpin, the evocative use of powerful Catholic imagery, the moment when Karen finally finds Matt is one of my favorite comic images ever, the Avengers cameo (reminiscent of the JLA's equally nifty appearance in Alan Moore's Swamp thing) and Ben Ulrich's troubles. It really is great stuff.

One thing which no one else ever seems to notice is that David Morrell's thriller First Blood (which was made into the first Rambo film) was a HUGE influence on Frank Miller and this story in particular. Miller's work is better, but the novel's not as jingoistic as you might think and well worth a read if you like manhunt thriller type stories...

Islington Comic Forum said...

I think it's pretty telling that after Born Again (I think this is right?) Frank Miller did Dark Knight Returns - which can go the places it can go because it's outside continuity (and: is it a coincidence that the large majority of all the best superhero comics out there are either origin stories or outside continuity? (ANSWER: No)). Because - well (and we all know this already I know): but it's pretty hard to make a story (which: if you want to be really simple about it: is about something changing) when you have to work within something that never allows any real change to happen. etc etc etc.

Islington Comic Forum said...

And - but also (in terms of "best conventional superhero comic"): I would take Bendis' Daredevil over this. Which - yeah: I realise is a bit unfair (different periods and etc): but what can you do? (Still: well done Daredevil I guess).

Tam said...

Mostly agree but I think you're being a bit unfair; the interesting thing about the story is that it DID change things and ended in a very different place from where it started. He starts the story as a highly strung lawyer on the edge of a nervous breakdown and ends it contentedly working in a cafe, knowing who his mum is and without much of a secret identity any more!

I've not got around to reading Bendis' Daredevil run on account of violently disliking everything else I've ever read by him but I know his Daredevil run is meant to be the exception and a very good read so I will give that a go one of these days... Hopefully my low expectations will help top make it more enjoyable...