Christmas Book Club: ‘Daredevil: Born Again’: Chapter 5
by Koom Kankesan
Grab a copy of Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli‘s Born Again and read along while I discuss one of my most favourite Christmas tales of all time. Chapter 5 of the saga sees Daredevil recovered and back to his fighting self. As various minor characters are threatened, Daredevil, still out of costume, must act in order to save them.
Daredevil #231. This issue wraps up the main arc of the Born Again trade paperback. There are still a couple more chapters that continue the saga but this issue sees Matt fully functional and taking care of business, which is all that some people will want. The title is ‘Saved’ and the previous chapter’s title was ‘Born Again’ so let’s examine what has happened.
The time lines are still sketchy. There’s snow on the ground and no one’s mentioned a Christmas party so presumably the big holiday days are still in the future. For Karen to drive up with Paulo and then be trailed after leaving him to stay with Foggy shouldn’t have taken very long. Ben Urich’s hand being healed should take longer. Matt’s recovery after the crushing punishment he’s taken should take longer still. Nevertheless, all these subplots converge with Matt functioning at optimal performance.
The opening uses the horizontal panels to cross cut between the Kingpin in his criminal board meeting (very reminiscent of a similar scene in The Godfather) and Matt punching the bag at Fogwell’s until the chain snaps. Similar to the sequence where Urich listens to Manolis’ death, this creates a nice oppositional rhythm contrasting these two figures and a sense of momentousness propelling the narrative forward. This issue is very much about propelling the various narrative threads towards a resolution more typical of the action we’d been used to prior to issue #227. It also indicates Matt’s physical prowess as a way of supporting the various acrobatic feats he is about to accomplish. Frank Miller tends to bend and stretch plausibility during these physical scenes – it’s the plasticity I referred to in his original run – and he’s very good at this, craft wise, so it’s worth taking a detached look at how he achieves his magic.
Like the scene in chapter one of Batman: Year One where Bruce Wayne shatters an old tree with his kicks, breaking the punching bag’s chain in this issue doesn’t make sense in terms of physics. In Batman: Year One, Newton’s third law would have seen Wayne shatter the bones in his leg even if he was capable of the strength he supposedly has despite his realistic physical frame. Similarly, in this issue, if Matt possesses the kind of strength he needs to rupture the punching bag’s chain, that force would probably have ruptured the bag before travelling upwards to the chain. However, both these instances poetically convey something: some impulse, some surfeit of feeling that when rendered in an original way, hides the magic or implausibility and balances it with the fairly concrete, gritty, noir, ‘kitchen sink’ aspects that make these comics so strong. In this issue, we also see Matt punch through and then kick a door to smithereens on top of Foggy’s apartment building before fighting the psychotic killer dressed in the Daredevil costume that Melvin Potter has created. There’s something Kirbyesque here in the innovative displays of power but there is also something that comes from Miller’s love of martial arts flicks and manga which are steeped in a mystical zone of improbable feats.
The fight with the psychotic is interesting because it (not to mention the very striking cover of this issue) evokes the idea of Matt fighting himself, once again a very Jungian thing that makes us think of Joseph Campbell and the hero’s journey. Credulity is stretched because despite the brutal nature of the fight, the psychotic’s costume is completely undamaged as it has to become our hero’s own costume, replete with functioning billy club, after he has defeated the darker version of himself. Miller often had extreme caricatures of psychotics as criminals in his work around this time but given that Matt’s own mental illness is only very recently behind him in the rear view mirror, this costumed aberration sprung from a mental ward is a bit more poignant. They seem matched in terms of violent capability but Matt is completely cured now, not just that broken rib (in a record amount of time, allowing him to leap off cars and spring across rooftops with impunity) but mentally too. We can thus conclude that the magic component to his recovery must be religious and a result of Maggie praying for him.
Besides the costume not being damaged at all, it must perfectly fit both the psychotic and Matt which once again is a stretch, but we are now in the zone of the more familiar ‘magic’ comics medium where suspension of disbelief carries indispensable power – the next two chapters are only going to veer more in that direction. Though I, like most other people, really appreciate these magical tricks Miller pulls out of his sleeve as a writer, it’s really the first three or four chapters that I value the most in Born Again. Those are the ones where we really get something different, something much more literary, focused on character and psychological drive: the small, trying moments which have all the power. Miller never stopped using sound effects in those issues but sfx really are more prominent in this issue which is stitched together by a number of action sequences. Miller has always loved sound effects and uses them in a variety of ways as a design tool, using them to suggest sensation through size and effect – they have a weight and physicality and sometimes even vector and force. There is still attention paid to originality and detail here though, which is fantastic, such as perhaps my favourite: a very small worm’s eye shot of Matt running across a roof dislodging icicles, which sets up the later crucial moment where Matt does the same thing in ninja fashion, instinctively and precisely, timing it beyond human capability, in order to jam an icicle onto Paulo’s arm and stop him from shooting Karen. I do love this choreography and ballet Miller has a gift for at this time in his career, especially when it is used with this amount of invention and delicacy. There’s a genuine musicality to it.
The way that David Mazzucchelli breaks down the fight sequences give them the grounding that makes them as effective as they are. The fight with the psychotic, though not as abstract as the fight with the Kingpin in issue 228, still is somewhat in an abstract space. The whiteness of the snow helps create a kind of visual link and when the psychotic hits Matt in the ribs with the club, it’s difficult not to think of Matt hitting the Kingpin in a similar fashion. The fight between Matt and Lois the nurse is extremely interesting, simply because everything concerning Ben Urich in this saga is interesting. Whereas Matt is magically healed, and though Urich does ultimately develop some resistance to his trauma, he never quite recovers from it and the episodes that happen to him factor in this experience/trauma. Furthermore, because Urich narrates the episode, the facets of the fight that we do get, incomplete and coloured very much by Urich’s experience and reactions, makes the scene more complex – a little reminiscent of the various indirect glimpses we had of Matt in issue 228. Both these fight sequences use a more varied panel layout than the horizontal panel sequences that have sometimes become the norm, and this gives them more weight and solidity, creating a nice tension and balance with the other sequences. When the horizontal panels are used in the fight with the psychotic, it is at the end of the fight to show Matt glide to a victorious conclusion, that rhythm of smooth magic being evoked.
Speaking of which, the last two pages of this chapter are probably two of my most favourite pages of all time. The splash of Matt and Karen hugging in the snow really just stops your heart, stops time. The use of the splash is rare and is unexpected after all the action, and furthermore, it’s such an arresting albeit silent composition. This is such a strong page that we fill it in with emotion and sound. It also interestingly contrasts Karen’s face which is quite emotive, crying while also feeling relief and joy (a genuine moment of spiritual ecstasy reminiscent of the films of Robert Bresson) with Matt’s which is in shadow, ill defined, lacking in expression and inscrutable. Much can be made of this but if you think about all it represents in terms of Mazzucchelli’s ability to both uncannily define realistic details while also using gestural brush strokes, comparisons and contrasts, detail and ambiguity, and the clothes and surroundings of our two characters, this splash might be a fitting coda for the entire saga. The very last page and the way Ben Urich narrates the events, combined with the way Mazzucchelli breaks up the horizontal illustrations, with the text breaking them up like a newspaper but in an unpredictable way (there really is no rational justification for the bits of the images we get on the left hand side), and the way it contrasts with the previous splash page is just phenomenal. The splash used only visual art to convey information while the last page uses a very written text-based narrative approach. It ties up the events nicely while giving you the sense that you, like Urich, are perhaps reading about them and viewing photos, and that you have to tie things together to make meaning out of them.
Like Ben Urich, I hope to do just that in the next write-up and finally discuss what Miller is trying to say with this tale.