Christmas Book Club: ‘Daredevil: Born Again’ – Chapter 4

by Koom Kankesan

Daredevil #230. This issue’s cover is one of my favourites. It highlights Ben Urich’s struggle to stand up with dignity and honour for his knowledge of what has happened to his friend Daredevil, at the hands of the Kingpin. It is also a fairly stylized cover employing an economy of line and design, using a dramatic bird’s eye, slightly slanted perspective. We can see that David Mazzucchelli has begun sporadically drawing characters less realistically, in a more stylized way, reducing details and features to their cartoonish expression, a harbinger of the directions his art will take in future years. He also seems to be using less organic, curved brush strokes and that can be felt in the shapes of people’s faces, their mouths, etc. At times, Maggie is little more than the outline of a black nun’s habit with a face and hands peeking out, the merest evocative squiggles for eyes and mouth.

There seem to be many such stylistic progressions and experiments that bob up from beneath the surface of the art. The horizontal panels that seem to represent Frank Miller and Mazzucchelli’s fused art style is still predominant. It becomes a kind of shorthand for them to move space and time quickly through the story. An excellent example is when Matt wakes up and tries to use his senses to figure out where he is. Besides the use of sensory detail in the writing, the visuals shift in scale like sonar waves, bouncing outward and back at high velocity, a kind of perception and motion that transcends regular human sensation. These horizontal panels and shifts in space are used most dramatically when Urich, emotionally paralyzed and traumatized, is frozen, listening on the phone as Lois kills Manolis in his hospital bed. This harrowing sequence of horizontal panels is extremely effective because it alternates between the Bugle newsroom and the hospital room, creating a baseline rhythm of dread. Within the Urich panels, a tension is created between the manic hustle and bustle of the Bugle’s newsroom (with all its ambient cacophonic scattershot dialogue) and the frozen spotlight focusing on Urich’s horrified face. He is unable to talk, accentuated by a camera which focuses on Urich in the centre without moving around, only zooming in. The panels in the hospital room however are muted in darkness and contrast, heightening the difference with the Bugle, relatively silent and dreadfully private as Lois acts out her awful agenda. The camera moves around dramatically here, in the hospital room, giving us choice angles and framing that in their unpredictability, only enhance Lois’ power and mobility even as Urich is rooted. A real sense of terror is created by this disjunction and the alternating rhythm that is produced.

Other standout scenes include the conversation between J. Jonah Jameson and Urich, bathed in red noir lighting, and Foggy’s meeting with Karen. Could anyone else except Miller make Jameson quite so noble and dignified, if a still unlikable figure? Once again, Foggy steps up and gives definition to his new self as a very human character, reacting to the condition Karen is in by first acknowledging it and then insisting, despite their unhappy romantic associations of the past, that she leave Paulo and stay with him, because she is “family.”

This brings us to the question: exactly what is Karen to Matt/Daredevil? For the purposes of this story, she is the love interest, the damsel to be saved. However, Matt doesn’t seem to quite love her (at least, not in the way we understand romantic love as longing for someone) except as someone to be saved. We know that she has descended to a nadir of social status – her status as a ‘junkie’ and porn actress something to be despised and looked down upon – even she refers to herself negatively in that way, and her virtue, if any, is that she stays alive and chooses to look for Matt even after betraying him. That is, she gives herself to Matt so that he can resume his role as saviour and protector after coming through his trials and tribulations. She of course also ‘gives’ herself to Miller who uses her to kickstart the whole narrative. In a sense, Miller indicates through his writing later that by doing this, she frees Matt from the civilian identity weighing him down, when Matt tells her that she hasn’t taken away anything important and does not resent her actions which does stretch our credulity. But hey – there are many such elements which make this story interesting and unusual.

I’m not trying to push ‘woke’ politics (I tend to be suspicious of most philosophies that feel they have the easy and definitive answer to everything), but I think it’s worth thinking about the way female characters are used by Miller. One could point out if one wants that this issue doesn’t pass the Bechdel test, but I don’t think that’s the only way to rate female characters. As mentioned before, this is one of my favourite books of all time and I find the choices have many rough contours that invite discussion and debate. I like Karen’s presence in the book but I’d like to know more about her as a person, as opposed to just functioning as a crutch for Daredevil’s plot. If she acted in porn, what specifically did she do? How did she feel about it? What other experiences did she have that shaped her while she was gone? I’m sure there’d be so much more to her than simply being someone to redeem/save. And I want to point out that Karen, here in sheepskin jacket and boots, is as sartorially distinctive as Matt is in his blue puffy jacket and gloves, etc. In fact, all of the characters including Foggy, Paulo, even Glori (who never seemed quite real in the Denny O’Neil issues) are grounded through their wardrobe choices. They seem drawn different, clothed distinctly, characterized very specifically by their fashions and postures in a way that makes them fit in with their times and places. The clothes hang like real clothes, hair falls like real hair, patterns and material seem physical and thought about very carefully.

Someone once said to me that Maggie and Karen fulfill the Madonna/whore formula that is prevalent in Miller’s writing. I don’t believe this is quite true and can be reductionist. Though I think Miller’s women do fit into certain types (the action woman being a prevalent example), I think both Karen and Maggie are fallen angels, as is Matt to some degree. Everyone is sort of fallen from grace but triumphs again in Miller’s world. It is telling that Maggie is named after Magdalene, not the virgin Mary. Though Maggie is often posed like the Virgin Mary in a pieta or other religious painting, when she prays for Matt, she alludes to her past sins – she asks God to spare Matt because he has a good soul even though she herself has committed sins. We can only speculate on what these ‘sins’ might be – was she a nun first and then break her vows to copulate with Matt’s father, or the other way around? Could she simply not take married life and ran away after Matt was born? Did she commit adultery and is Matt’s real father someone else? Did she also partake in the porn industry? (I’m just kidding with the last one). My main point is that there is more to Maggie than the depth and thought we get in Karen’s character, though Karen’s subplot is thrilling and fascinating. It’s a real shame we never find out the answers to some of these questions about Maggie because Miller never finished his intended run.

I will say that the last page of this issue, where Matt asks Maggie if she is his mother, always left me a little flummoxed. I always thought that a major development like this, especially in Miller’s hands, would be handled momentously. Here, it’s sort of a throwaway question and a throwaway answer (also a lie) and when I first read it in grade eight, I couldn’t believe it signified that Maggie was his mother after all. It seemed off tonally and rhythmically; there was just something off about it in general. That being said, the process by which Matt deduces his conclusion is fascinating. I have a hard time buying that he could recognize the same gold cross which must be fairly identical to a thousand others twenty years later, but perhaps the sound of her voice, though aged, and the smell of her sweat are interesting and compelling details. I really have no idea if mothers and their offspring have similar smelling sweat glands – I’m inclined to doubt it. We should also note here that we are dealing with a Matt who is now ‘together’ and ‘with it’ – he seems to have risen from the tomb or the underworld, whole and functional and objective. We are no longer dealing with the subconsciously tortured persona and storytelling but an objective protagonist whose perceptions are also objective. And – more’s the pity – everything is being objectively written about; those subconscious episodes were very powerful. Matt seems to be magically healed. Very soon, in the next issue in fact, he is going to become that hyper competent reassuring hero that makes us readers feel tinglingly safe and comfortable again.

In terms of the writing, time once again moves forward in slices that are sometimes accentuated using the rhythm of the horizontal panels. However, we also have a few instances where chunks of prose are abetted by illustrations, such as Karen riding in a jeep with Paulo or kissing him goodbye at Penn station, or Maggie praying for Matt’s recovery. With the last example, Mazzucchelli even draws a triangle linking Maggie, Matt, and Christ – as if the composition by itself is not enough. He’s drawing in a very overt symbol to further distance yourself from the feeling that you’re reading a comic. They’re almost like slices of an illustrated novel that are inserted in between the comic sequences to compress time but also try out different things, different rhythms and combinations. I didn’t get a chance to continue talking about the larger theme of money and its evils that we ended on when discussing issue 229 but there will be time to discuss that further in upcoming chapters.

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