Anyone who’s read a “Daredevil” comic in the last year knows that things are not going well for Matt Murdock. After assuming leadership of ninja death cult The Hand, the blind hero has taken one dark turn after another. And ever since the psychotic assassin Bullseye blew up an entire city block, killing 107 residents of Hell’s Kitchen, it looks like Daredevil is headed off the rails for good. He inters any he considers wrongdoers in the bowels of Shadowland, a feudal Japanese castle erected over the grounds of the disaster and also really good name for a crossover event or grindcore band.
All looks lost as soon as Daredevil appears in a black costume. And indeed it is, as Daredevil finally crosses the line and exes-out Bullseye, a move that has been a long time coming. It’s a good story; the logical conclusion of a thread running through the book for a few years, nicely written and nice to look at. There’s just one problem.
It makes you want to kill yourself.
I’m a Daredevil guy. When I first got interested in comics at six or seven, it was Spider-Man that hooked me. Hard. I begged my parents to let me change my name to Peter, and I still think that having that name would get me laid occasionally. But when I was really able to appreciate comics around twelve or thirteen, it was Daredevil all the way. I read “Born Again” and I was, as a full-fledged, die-hard, Daredevil fan, and if you didn’t agree that he was the coolest hero of all time, I’d punch you in the face then run away and cry until I threw up on myself. And even when I wasn’t reading “Daredevil,” or even reading comics, I always followed what was happening with the character. Whenever I came back to comics, I always grabbed a thumb-sized stack of back issues to catch up. And there have always been a lot of good comics to catch up on.
Like every book, “Daredevil” has gone through its ups and downs in quality. But there’s a particular tradition of good storytelling on the title, particularly over the last decade. Those who grew up reading Miller’s take took over, and approached the book with a dedication to daring storytelling. Say what you will about Kevin Smith, but he was the one who really got the ball rolling with “Guardian Devil,” a six-issue collaboration with Joe Quesada that relaunched the title and kicked off the “Marvel Knights” line. Then after David Mack’s intriguing “Echo” story comes the extended runs of Brian Bendis and Alex Maleev and Ed Brubaker with (primarily) Michael Lark. Big name creators who maintained a kind of pedigree with the character.
But something went wonky along the way. Namely, comics got fun again. The eighties and nineties were dominated by the “grim and gritty” – as if that were an actual genre – a well-intentioned status quo that found one of its primary sources of inspiration in Frank Miller’s work. Everything on the stands was “dark,” even when the darkness didn’t suit the character. Thanks to the work of Mark Waid, Kurt Busiek, Grant Morrison and several others, comics eventually sloughed off most of that dreadful “reality” that made everything so depressing. There’s still a touch of that darkness, but the joy, the lightness from comics in 1960s has returned and breathed another life into the medium.
Except for “Daredevil.” Unlike superhero comics in general, Daredevil has remained pretty much in the dark ever since Miller left. Because it really never seemed like Daredevil should stop being dark. Noir, street level storytelling is a natural fit for the character, and that should probably never change. But because the title has rested so comfortably in the dark for so long, enough negative energy has been poured into the character to take down a suicide help line.
There are twenty-plus years of Daredevil stories on the shadowy side of the street. Great stories, remarkable stories. But the combined weight of horrible things feels like it’s crushing my sternum. It’s as if everyone who has done notable work with the character is trying to one-up the previous guys. Miller made Matt Murdock’s girlfriend a junkie, revealed his identity to his worst enemy, and destroyed his life. Ann Nocenti and John Romita Jr. entangled him with Mephisto and Typhoid Mary’s crazy ass. Then the now-clean junkie girlfriend is murdered, his identity is revealed to the public, he becomes boss of Hell’s Kitchen, gets thrown in jail, falls in love and marries only to destroy her life and make her insane. And I’m not even going to talk about the movie.
Without coming across like the Leave Britney Alone Guy, I have to respectfully request that we stop destroying Matt Murdock. With the cold-blooded killing of Bullseye, the darkness has reached its logical conclusion. If there’s anything positive, anything fun left to salvage, now’s the time to do it. It’s time to break the cycle of doing awful things to the character all the time. It’s gotten to the point where plot twists don’t shock as much as they should because it’s easier to guess what’s going to happen next: the worst thing imaginable. So many dark turns over the years and it just becomes noise. At this point, the most surprising thing that could happen would be something positive, something to lighten things up a bit.
And it looks like Marvel is of course heading in the opposite direction. Shadowland is apparently leading to something bigger, and Marvel have set their phasers to tease. With taglines like “The End” and “Who Will Be The New Man Without Fear?” (which look amazing) it’s hard to believe that anything good will be happening to Matt Murdock any time soon. Which is okay, since he’s a fictional character and everything. I understand that there’s not a real Matt Murdock and ninjas don’t disappear into smoke when you kill them. Ninjas can’t be killed. It just feels like time for a new approach.
For comics to be consistently fresh, creators have to be willing to do new things. To respect the work that made them love a character and forget it at the same time. Keeping a title in the same mode for so long just wears down on the longtime reader; it grinds away at the property until nothing feels new anymore. Even the events of Shadowland just seem so familiar. Daredevil has never taken over leadership of the Hand or killed Bullseye before, but if somebody mentioned that to a Daredevil reader six, twelve, or twenty years ago, he would have nodded, nonplussed, and mumbled “makes sense” with the thin voice of a man who has been truly beaten.
It’s hard to get comics out of cycles, to steer them away from the direction that’s always done them right. But it needs to be done. Take Batman, for instance. Another comic that spent considerable chunks of the modern era trying to do what Frank Miller had done. And though there were some good stories, there were also a lot of bad ones, and as the title stretched the darkness along, it just seemed to sink. Thank the supergods Grant Morrison was able to breathe life back into the franchise, by bringing back the adventurism, by letting a little light into the dark, by making the title fun again. Even Batman’s death was fun and frigging awesome.
Maybe something good will happen. It’s possible. Shadowland might just be the Blackest Night before the Brightest Day. I’m sorry, that’s a DC metaphor. It would be truly refreshing, and surprising, to see a good, lighter direction taken with the character. But with images of Daredevil costumes engulfed in flames, it’s doubtful. It looks like we, like Murdock, are bound to remain in the dark.
But hey. It can never get worse than this.
“Up for a game of Rollerball, Eddie?”