Christmas Book Club: ‘Daredevil: Born Again’ Chapter 1

by Koom Kankesan

Summary

The Christmas season is upon us and I will be discussing my favourite Christmas story, Daredevil: Born Again, chapter by chapter in a book club format. If you’ve never read the story or simply have not read it in a long time, grab a copy and read along as I unpack what some people believe is perhaps the greatest comics work to come out of 80’s Marvel, perhaps Marvel as a whole. A highly literate tale by two great talents at the peak of their powers, Born Again contains both the terror and awesomeness of the Christmas season: darkness, endings and beginnings, defeat and reconciliation, and the light of spiritual salvation.

Frank Miller experienced a very successful and significant run as artist on Daredevil from issue 158 to 191. With Daredevil #168, he became writer and artist, changing both the character and the title towards a more noir, broken, serious sensibility, forever altering the wisecracking Spider-man clone Daredevil had been for many issues. After some fits and starts, Denny O’Neil and David Mazzucchelli became the regular writer and artist team on the title but Miller, unhappy with what they were doing with the title, insisted on coming back. Miller returned to the title with issue 226 which had originally been scripted by O’Neil. Miller rewrote the issue, paving way for a demolishing and rebuilding of the character and what might have been a second lengthy, even deeper, run on the title. Due to the way things went, Miller ended up gaining more notoriety for his Batman works and this second Daredevil run, prematurely aborted, languished in the shadow of The Dark Knight Returns and Year One. However, for some of us, Born Again is the story that revolutionized the way we saw superhero comics and what could ultimately be done with those characters and that medium.

The first proper issue of Born Again, Daredevil #227 – with a February 1986 cover date, but released earlier in 1985 – kicks off with a bang. Sweet natured Karen Page, Daredevil’s former secretary and love interest who left to work in the movies, is revealed to have descended so far that she is now working in pornos and is a heroin addict. Desperate for drugs, she sells Daredevil’s secret identity which in turn makes its way up through the ranks until it reaches the Kingpin. The Kingpin tests the information and then uses it to destroy Daredevil’s civilian life, not by attacking him physically as in previous stories, but by using his wealth, power, and influence to get various companies and economic entities to freeze his assets, cut off his electricity, and frame him for violating his professionalism as a lawyer. It doesn’t help that Daredevil is very much on the edge, close to mentally unhinged as a result of what he’s been through during the O’Neil/Mazzucchelli run. This chapter is the most ‘tightly constructed’ visually of the storyline. This might be a coincidence as we can see Mazzucchelli getting looser and rougher with his drawing style as the Born Again saga progresses or it might represent the fact that Daredevil’s life is very wound up and tightly constructed until the the last couple of pages of issue 227 see his life literally and figuratively blown up as the Kingpin decides to put the coup de grace on his plot by blowing up Daredevil’s brownstone where he has lived as long as we’ve known him. Just look at the cover of this issue compared to the rest which are much more figurative and impressionistic and unpredictable in comparison.

This is also the issue that compresses the most time as I figure at least a couple of months would have to pass between Matt being served notice about his hearing and his eventual disbarment. I suppose it could be some weeks instead as Matt gets his notice when winter begins and by the end of the issue, Christmas hasn’t happened yet – it tends to constantly snow in this issue and time is a little blurry. Born Again has incredible writing, storytelling, and art but there are lots of loose ends or openings or rough edges we can poke our fingers into as we read through the saga, including the ending/solution to Matt’s dilemmas and frame of mind: is his life actually better now once it’s been broken down, as Miller intended? Is Daredevil mentally healed?

Batman: Year One is sort of the perfection of Miller and Mazzucchelli’s collaboration and it possesses a very tight ending/conclusion and slick, flawless storytelling. However, you can see some of the rhythms that would be perfected in Year One being nurtured here in Born Again. The story uses slices of disjointed time to move the events forward, you have to infer things beyond the frames that are presented to us; the divisions between scenes and times aren’t labelled and pronounced as much as they are in Year One but the rhythm is new and different and modern. It is actually a lot like what Los Bros. Hernandez were doing in Love and Rockets with a kind of choppier storytelling but few agree with me about this comparison.

The fact that this is a new, modern, different Daredevil, at least tonally speaking, is impossible to miss. This is definitely not your grandfather’s DD comic. Miller’s initial run on the comic had a kind of plasticity to it – there was a kind of antagonism between DD and the denizens of the criminal class that would always bounce back but now, that is changed. Police Lieutenant Manolis would never have compromised his integrity in the initial run but we have a very different situation here. He is the one accusing Daredevil’s alter ego, Matt Murdock, of malpractice and we learned he has been bribed in order to perjure himself.

The Kingpin was a formidable opponent before but now he is remote and frightening, someone who is more distant but capable of sinister manipulations. Foggy Nelson, Matt’s law partner, is no longer a vehicle of comic relief and a clown. The nod towards Josie’s bar where Daredevil fights with criminals to obtain information feels much less of a trope, much more disturbing than we ever remembered what those visits entailed. And as for Karen – whatever people criticize about what Miller does with his women characters – the seriousness of her character’s predicament that kickstarts the story on the first page is impossible to ignore. Mazzucchelli helps sell that situation (no pun intended) here through the way he grounds the scene, its charcoal like texture and drawing, the unglamorous and thoroughly realistic way he renders Karen. He takes a ‘fortissimo’ move by Miller, a woman selling a hero’s secret identity for a fix of heroin, something that could have easily taken place in The Dark Knight Returns but looked and felt totally different, and makes it like something out of a 70’s American film that employs a naturalistic style.

As their collaboration deepens, I think Miller quickly realizes exactly the naturalistic power Mazzucchelli is capable of and tailors the story towards that. No crazy ninja stuff – let’s reserve that for Elektra Assassin and the long suffering Elektra Lives graphic novel – and bring this down to wood and dirt and pebbles and all that other fine sooty textured stuff Mazzucchelli is great at. Besides Miller being great at fine character stuff (Daredevil’s knuckles still bruised and raw in reference to the previous chapter in issue 227 for example), poetic detail (“winter hits Manhattan like an unwanted relative”) and big picture stuff (“I hate money” – that whole caption about his assets being frozen is phenomenally wise), he is a master of time and delineating it, between scenes, between panels. The few pages we see of Daredevil moving above the city (relish these because they’re going to disappear for a while) are absolutely magical in the way they evoke physicality through smoke, snow, sound, tactile details that are hard and edged, yet at the same time somehow suspended and floating above the real world. The way suspended moments in time are balanced with writing and images is just outstanding.

In the interest of brevity, let’s look at a couple of pages where we can look at how Miller’s writing and Mazzucchelli’s art smash up against each other before they completely fuse in the upcoming issues. In both these pages we have the skinny panel on the left establishing location and the verticality of the city – very much Miller’s way of setting up location as well as mood from the first run. However, the way Foggy opens the door (not even visible in the first frame in which he speaks), then allowing us to see a hyper-detailed layout of Glori’s living room with all the composed details in disarray just right, as Foggy sees it, the impact of that and the contrast between the bare elements of Foggy and the door in the first couple of panels (think of what Mazzucchelli does later with design in his adaptation of Paul Auster’s City of Glass) and then the larger detailed panel which anchors the page, and the cinematic way the camera moves from slightly below to over his shoulder as he helps Glori up – I’d say that’s very much Mazzucchelli’s work, not Miller’s.

On the very next page, we see a similar kind of skinny panel but then see an establishing panel showing us what Urich’s desk and clutter are like, similar to Glori’s apartment. Urich and Robertson’s body language are much more naturalistic and nuanced, more believable, than the more emphasized way Miller might draw/write. However, that panel on the bottom with Urich surrounded by black space seems very Miller-esque. In between, we have one of those three panel tiers we’ve seen Mazzucchelli employ during the O’Neil run, but the timing and dialogue on them seem very Miller-esque. There’s so much more that can be said about this issue but look at some of these very strong panels where Mazz draws figures in their surroundings – the Kingpin on his yacht, Matt in his apartment – the restrained body language that say more through their careful posing than more ‘dramatic’ choices – the use of set design and composition to subtly distance ourselves from them to indicate a slightly more detached and mature sensibility.

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