Apr 10, 2015

Daredevil: Frank Miller's The Man Without Fear

Daredevil: Frank Miller's The Man Without Fear
Ben Smith

I’ve never thought of Daredevil as one of my favorite characters, and I don’t know why that is. He’s had some of the best signature runs from creative teams in the entire history of comics. To the point that I feel like he’s had the most consistently entertaining series since he debuted back in 1964. I’ve liked a bunch of Daredevil comics, but I don’t know that I’ve ever loved any.

Daredevil, as created by Stan Lee and Bill Everett, was your standard swashbuckling, wise-cracking superhero when he first appeared. It wasn’t until a young Frank Miller took over the book as writer and artist, that he broke free from the crowd as a character of great potential (as far as the masses were concerned, I like both approaches). Miller moved him away from the splashy supervillains and costumed combat, and focused on street-level crime. When he borrowed the Kingpin from the Spider-Man books, a character that had been a bit of a joke until then, and made him into the ultimate representation of crime, that the book found its niche.

Daredevil’s ongoing tug-of-war with the Kingpin is arguably what has made him one of the most compelling characters in comics, but it’s also what makes him one of the most ineffectual. When your main goal is the elimination of crime, you’re destined to fail. Unlike Batman and Spider-Man, who also fight colorful costumed crazies, Daredevil’s never had much success in the supervillain market, beyond Bullseye. His delusion that he has to fight crime by the book, while operating as an illegal vigilante, has brought him into conflict with characters like Spider-Man frequently. Spider-Man is my favorite character, so when Daredevil comes around preaching like he knows better, it’s never sat well. Especially since Daredevil’s main accomplishments are getting each and every one of his girlfriends killed.

Before this becomes a complete assassination of the character of Daredevil, let me clarify. Daredevil might arguably be one of the biggest self-absorbed jerks in comics, but he’s given us some of the best stories in comics too. Daredevil was the next Marvel character after X-Men and Spider-Man to get his own movie. That’s not by accident. While that movie may have been extremely disappointing, I have much more faith that the upcoming television show on Netflix will be much better. The main reason for that is I’m seeing a lot of familiar imagery in the trailers that have been released so far.

As I’ve said before, Frank Miller is one of the most impactful creators to ever work on Daredevil, if not the most. Most comic fans have probably read of his initial run, introducing and then killing Elektra, the showdown with Bullseye, clashing with the Punisher. The classic Born Again, in which the Kingpin learns Daredevil’s secret identity and systematically dismantles his entire life. Much less mentioned is the mini-series Frank Miller wrote with John Romita Jr. on art, Daredevil: The Man Without Fear.

The Man Without Fear is a story re-telling the origin of Matt Murdock as Daredevil, from his early days living with his ex-boxer father, to becoming the protector of Hell’s Kitchen. Romita’s art has arguably never looked better, most likely due to Al Williamson’s finishes. It’s a beautifully written and drawn story that I couldn’t put down once I began.

Matt’s father had been a star boxer, but was now relegated to working as an enforcer for a local gangster named The Fixer. Jack Murdock hated his life, and kept his son off the streets and in the books to ensure he would have a better life than him. This didn’t endear Matt with the other children, who bullied him, taunting him with the name “daredevil” for his seeming cowardice.

One fateful day, Matt pushed a blind man out of the path of an oncoming truck, and in the process was splashed in the face with radioactive goo. The accident left him blind, but with his remaining four senses heightened to superhuman levels.

 A mysterious martial arts master named Stick takes him under his wing, teaching him to use his extrahuman senses to “see” better than he ever could with his eyes.

When Jack Murdock refuses to take a dive in a boxing match, the Fixer has him murdered. A teenage Matt Murdock takes swift and brutal revenge on everyone involved, but when he loses control and an innocent woman is killed, he rededicates himself to living by the rules.

Matt Murdock goes to law school, where he meets the lovable Foggy Nelson, and the wildly uncontrollable Elektra, both of whom would have important roles in the rest of his life. (At one point, Elektra is extremely turned on by Matt Murdock breaking into her father’s home. I’m pretty sure she has an orgasm while she’s playing the piano.)

Elektra occasionally gets her kicks by stripping naked and fighting muggers. She kicks this dude in the stomach so hard that it penetrates his flesh.

Elektra eventually has to return home after the murder of her father. And after graduation, Matt Murdock begins to live a boring life as a corporate attorney in Boston. When he returns to New York on a case, he falls in love again with the city. When a young girl he befriends is kidnapped by men that work for a rising crime boss named the Kingpin, he intervenes and saves her, making himself a powerful new enemy.

Not long after, the red-clad avenger of Hell’s Kitchen is born.

I’m not sure what elements Frank Miller added or appropriated from Daredevil’s original origin, but the results here are spectacular nonetheless. Many of these elements are present in the first images from the Daredevil television show, including Stick, his original black costume, and the Kingpin. It makes a lot of sense, because Man Without Fear is ready-made for adaptation into live-action. I’m extremely excited to watch it.

For whatever reasons, I may not have wanted to admit it, but it can’t be denied any longer. Daredevil is one of my favorite characters. If you’re interested in him becoming one of your favorites, The Man Without Fear is a great place to start.

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