Christmas Book Club: ‘Daredevil: Born Again’ Chapter 3

by Koom Kankesan


The Kingpin has learned Daredevil’s secret identity and torn it apart, as a result of Karen Page having sold it for a fix of heroin. Chapter One saw the Kingpin use his power and connections to strip Matt Murdock of his ability to practice law, and then blow up his house with everything in it. His assets frozen, Murdock, left with a few dollars and psychologically fragile, plotted his revenge in a seedy motel room in Chapter Two. It resulted in the poor decision to go fight the Kingpin in his office, resulting in the Kingpin mashing Murdock to a pulp before having his body placed in a rusted checker cab (the cabbie being beaten to death with Daredevil’s billy club so as to frame Murdock) and then dumped into the East River. However, Murdock, as fractured and broken as he is, has a tremendous will to survive and breaks through the glass of the cab’s window to swim back to the streets and alleys of Manhattan. Chapter Three finds him in very, very bad shape, sleeping in an alleyway, his mind feverish with things past.

Daredevil #229. I read in an interview somewhere a long time ago that someone gave Frank Miller a copy of Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces which he read on a plane around this time in the mid ’80s. Miller felt that the book perfectly captured what he was trying to do, everything he was feeling through his fingertips. So, if we look at Matt Murdock’s progression in terms of that Campbell pattern, and also the Christian idea of being killed and then reborn (a fairly common regenerative trope in many folklores, usually tied to nature’s annual rhythms and crop yields), we see that the Kingpin put him ‘under the ground’ in the last issue. What that amounts to is being ‘buried’ in the East River with Matt using only his will to crawl out from a very watery grave.

He is still like Orpheus in the Underworld in this issue (we know that Miller was a big fan of classical Greek mythology) and much of this chapter is encountering phantoms from his past: minor criminals Turk and Grotto, his mother (wait, what, his mother?!), the accident that gave him his powers and took away his sight when he saved the old blind man (it’d be funny if the old man also developed super sensitivities but just didn’t tell anyone). It’s a lot like the retooling of DD’s origin that Miller did with Roger McKenzie in the first run, where we see Ben Urich discover Daredevil’s past and secret identity, albeit different. The house where Matt lived with his father is now gone (Miller is realigning Matt with his mom, Maggie, and her fallen Catholicism) but the gym remains which of course symbolizes the fighter that remains. The very last thing Matt does before collapsing (or dying) again at the end of this issue is to have a go at the punching bag. In so doing, Miller reduces DD to some very basic impulses: “Never give up” – basically his last words before being ‘killed’ by the Kingpin in the last issue, the will to keep moving and staying alive (no Bee Gees jokes, please) throughout issue 229, despite the immense continued suffering, and finally, the unqualified moral impulse to do the right thing (telling Turk and Grotto to take off the Santa suits despite the futility of the endeavour for example – I’ll come back to these characters at the very end of this post).

I feel that more words could have been spent on addressing and understanding DD’s new character that is being forged/fashioned here, but Miller does shoehorn something about it in at the very end: the Kingpin muses that despite his vast powers of understanding the world in which he lives and his talent at manipulating it, he has not ultimately understood the opponent he almost bested. And it is true: the Kingpin only thinks that Matt is pretending to be blind. The true mystical secret of his senses, the true origin of his mother (Stick is not even mentioned by name, only alluded to) and her initial guidance, is kept hidden – a secret identity within the secret identity? The lines “a man without hope is a man without fear” sound good and were used as a tagline for the trade paperback but ultimately don’t mean all that much, at least as far as I can tell in terms of Matt’s progression, but perhaps people want to debate this for themselves?

It’s hard not to focus on Miller’s writing even though Mazzucchelli was aiding with the plotting through their numerous phone conversations on this project, in the same way that Mazzucchelli was coplotting the O’Neil issues prior to this. We know, due to that long Comics Journal interview that Mazzucchelli gave in the ’90s, that the decision to draw out Matt’s suffering and degeneration over multiple issues is due to Mazzucchelli’s suggestion; Miller originally thought he was going to do all that in issue 227, the first chapter. Matt’s lack of sight is a gift to a great writer like Miller who just really uses that as an opportunity to pull in the other senses which, in a primarily visual medium like comics, has a startling effect. Besides using senses to great poetic effect, Miller has a real gift for referencing the human body (often in fight scenes where he addresses particular nerve clusters and such) which lend some of the very operatic moves he makes contain a frisson of verisimilitude – the detail of Matt’s ragged broken rib that had the ‘decency to stay’ in place until he gets hit by the car and ‘pops like a wishbone’ is a stellar example.
We get all the wonderful sensory impressions in the hospital during the memories/reworking of the origin at the beginning of this issue, and also that continued impressionistic psychodrama of what it’s like to be in Matt’s head without ever really understanding him, at least not in the objective way we did during Miller’s first DD run. These sensory effects remind us of when Matt loses control of his senses around issue 187 in the first run and Stick has to be brought in to help him regain control of them, but the tone and rhythm are different here.

The continued use of horizontal panels, maintaining that impressionistic synergy fusing Miller and Mazzucchelli that I mentioned when discussing issue 228, continues. The startling effect of those panels balanced against the very slow zoom out from the closeup of Matt’s eyes and nose that bleed off the page in the opening pages is very powerful, taking us not just inside his thoughts, but sort of inside his very soul. These horizontal panels create a distinct rhythm that somewhat evoke Miller’s old style but feel different because of the way Mazzucchelli handles them. Mazzucchelli’s ability to calibrate perspective and detail, in a way that is much more nuanced and literary, is not simply dramatic and cinematic in the way we’d come to expect from Miller. It becomes a very distinctive storytelling and editing effect in Mazzucchelli’s hands and he uses its rhythm and variation to utmost effect.

The splash page of Matt curled up in a foetal position, surrounded by winos, in the alley wouldn’t be as striking if the zoom out wasn’t so slow and gradual. It’s also more striking because it doesn’t use the Marvel opening splash in the usual way of delineating a more ‘dramatic’ scene; it’s paradoxically more dramatic for showing how powerless and destitute Matt’s situation is.

We spend so much time focusing on Matt that I don’t give enough time to the supporting characters and their subplots. I’ll save Karen for a future post. Ben Urich and his dilemma: I love Ben Urich!!! It might be because I’m a writer like he is or it might be because Urich is never a tough guy whereas even minor characters in Miller’s work tend to find spirit and inspiration somewhere (even Manolis comes around eventually in this story, and Foggy defeats a mugger with a bowling ball to save Glori!). Urich’s character (we have to remember that Miller was recognized for his gifts as a writer in high school long before he developed his artistic skills – I wish Miller had written a limited series just focusing on Ben Urich) is all about his mind and what he can connect together through investigation – in a noir way, you could say he works like a detective without the tough guy mannerisms. Remember DD 179 and what a stellar issue that was because we get it primarily from Urich’s p.o.v., that incredible fight between Daredevil and Elektra he witnesses and describes, only to receive a sai in his chest for the trouble? I love Urich’s entire arc and caption boxes in this saga, the typewriter font the letterer gives his thoughts, and the fact that Miller has Lois (the nurse Ratched parody who works for the Kingpin) break his fingers. It’s an irrational nightmare writers and musicians tend to have – losing the function of one’s hands – and Miller uses it as only he can: with power, poignancy, and pathos.

According to earlier continuity, Foggy is supposed to be Glori’s uncle and this makes their romance fairly problematic. However, in this issue, we hear Foggy telling his mom that he’s ‘met a nice girl.’ Miller must have forgotten the familial relation because otherwise, Foggy’s mom would most likely know Glori and about her arrival in the U.S., even if they aren’t actually very closely related by blood. Miller is developing a more complex version of Foggy here (the fact that he’s still concerned about Matt is touching, even as Miller is labouring very hard to make us feel that Matt has no one, no one at all to depend on – he’s a lone and benighted outsider), and it looked like he was going to set up an interesting ethical complication by having Foggy work for the Kingpin, unbeknownst at first, but perhaps too seduced by the money in the end. Perhaps it would have led to an interesting story where Matt and Foggy have to square off down the road.

Similarly, there is some really nice character work with Turk and Grotto in this issue. Here, Grotto is the more sympathetic end of the partnership as he wonders why they couldn’t have just bought the Santa suits without having to roll someone, and even offers Matt some money. Money and its manipulation is very central to this tale as Turk gives a very cynical take on it which only feels too real, no longer a character who’s a running joke but a sinister reflection of his more successful counterpart up the food chain, The Kingpin. Karen of course sells DD’s secret identity and Manolis sells out. Urich will become cowed for a while after having his hand crushed. Only Matt seems truly immune to all of this as he obeys his most basic impulses to keep fighting and never giving up, but I think part of the reason why Miller destroys Matt’s affluent lawyer persona (he was going to sleep in the Park Plaza originally after his house was destroyed, remember?) is something to do with what Miller’s trying to say about money and its evils. We’ll follow that up in our discussion of chapter four of Born Again.

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