Monday, February 15, 2010
Word Balloon: Daredevil: Guardian Devil
For my February comic book pick I though we should dive back into the world of mainstream super-heroics. I tend to really push a lot of indy titles, stuff outside the normal genre because indy titles are really good books to gateway non comic readers into the medium. They are also books avid comic readers may not be reading or may not have noticed. Still, it's nice to return to the fold a few times a year and pick out some really good super hero comics. This month we are going to turn the spotlight on one of my favorite monthly super hero books, Daredevil.
I've been reading this series consistently since the relaunch of the book in the late 1990's. Daredevil, and Marvel Comics in general, were in a dire situation. The company was entering a crippling bankruptcy as the bottom had fell out of the market. The early part of the decade was marked by rampant speculation, people buying huge event books, like the Death of Superman, the relaunching of new Spider-man and X-Men titles, and the birth of upstart publisher Image Comics. Comics were being printed in the millions with people buying and saving issues believing that one day they would be worth a fortune, not realizing that with such a huge circulation amount, books wouldn't have the same value or rarity as older comics.
Marvel chose two upstart comic book makers, Joe Quesada and Jimmy Palmotti, to come in as editors of a small line of comics, called Marvel Knights. This line of books would feature some of Marvel's under performing characters, but told in an edgier tone. Quesada and Palmotti were well respected in the comics community and attracted a number of creators to coem and work for teh company, whose image with free lance creators had been several damaged over the past few years with bad editorial control and inflexibility in storytelling. Quesada and Palmotti got to choose 4 books to start their line, and they lead off with the Inhumans, a series about a race of beings that lived on the moon, with up and coming writer Paul Jenkins and former Image artist Jae Lee. They got Black Panther, a book about an African king turned superhero who had long been a staple of the Marvel universe by writer Christopher Priest and artist Mark Texeira. Their two big guns was a relaunched Punisher featuring him as a supernaturally powered hero by novelist Christopher golden and comics legend Bernie Wrightson. The flagship book of the title though was Daredevil, featuring Quesada and Palmotti on art and writer/director Kevin Smith on story.
This was a huge coupe for Marvel. Smith was (and is) a comic book fan boy and bringing someone of his name and reputation could mean a lot for the flagging company. With the exception of the Punisher series which was met with almost unrivaled hostility, the imprint was a huge success, led by Smith and Quesada's Daredevil run. Daredevil in the early 1980's was one of Marvel's flagship books, along with the Uncanny X-Men, mostly thanks to superstar creator Frank Miller who wrote and illustrated issues along with penciler David Mazzuchelli. They created an epic run on the series, introducing much of the more meaningful elements of Daredevil, his Catholicism, his intensely personal rivalry with the Kingpin, the creation of Elektra, and his long standing feud with the villain Bullseye. Nearly the entirety of the Daredevil movie was based off Miller's run. Unfortunately since Miller's run, those were the stories that defined Daredevil and he had fallen into a slump.
Smith and Quesada really began by changing the ante on Daredevil and getting back to the fact that Daredevil's own worst enemy is always himself. In the same way that Spider-man was a hard luck hero who tried to joke his way out of a problem, Daredevil faced his demons in a more brooding way. Driven by things like guilt and anger, Daredevil was always a character who thrived in misery, the worse things were for him, the better the book was in trying to find ways for him to overcome the situation. Usually in a manner that left him worse off than he was before.
Daredevil is really about Matt Murdock, the blinded son of a boxer who was killed for refusing to throw a fight. Murdock was blinded by a chemical spill, which while costing him his sight, supercharged his other senses, giving him a radar-like ability to see through sound waves. Growing up, Murdock became a lawyer, trying to fight the good fight though the legal system. For Murdock though, some crimes fell through the cracks. To safeguard his neighborhood, Matt Murdock became Daredevil, a vigilante who protected those who couldn't protect themselves.
With Smith and Quesada on board, they set about changing the status qua of Daredevil. Matt has long since lost everything that meant anything to him, his law practice, the loves of his life, Elektra and Karen Page, and now only has his faith left. This though is challenged when a young girl leaves him with a new born baby, one that may or may not grow up to be the Messiah or the Anti-Christ. He is also greeted by a returning Karen Page, who in recent years had fallen on hard times living in California, getting addicted to drugs and doing porn, ultimately becoming HIV positive. Murdock must protect the baby, becoming increasing violent anytime someone suggests the baby is anything less than innocent.
Murdock visits his mother, who has cloistered herself in a nunnery since his birth, as well as Dr. Strange after fighting with his ex-girlfriend The Black Widow over the baby. He learns that topical drugs have been used to cause him to hallucinate and become violent from the baby. He also learns that his arch nemesis Bullseye has attacked the church where he left the baby. He must race back to confront the man who killed the first love of his life, Elektra, before he has a chance to kill his over love, Karen Page and in the process, find out who hired Bullseye and who is trying to ruin his life.
Collected in the first 8 issues of Daredevil's relaunch, Smith's Guardian Angel is considered the book that put Daredevil back on the map of upper echelon Marvel Comics. I can't even say it was my favorite run in Daredevil, for that you would easily look at Born Again by Frank Miller or even look into Brian Michael Bendis' run, the writer who took over after Smith. They had a much large and more seminal influence on the title than Smith's short run. What they don't have though, and what makes this a far more important collection in my opinion, is the impact. Before this book Daredevil was a joke, an also ran in the Marvel universe. Here is a great story with the perfect starting point for a new reader. It brought in people who had never read comics before on Smith's name alone, and established Quesada as a creative force in comics.
Due to this run, Quesada would go on to become Editor in Chief of the entire Marvel Comics line and lead the company from the brink of ruin into an age of prosperity not seen since the 1960's. One of the guiding factors behind Marvel's Ultimate line, he made comics more accessible and shed years of baggage of characters. He attracted new creators to the company and welcomed back established acts into the fold. Without Quesada there is no Marvel film division and certainly the mainstream appeal that comics are enjoying would not be in effect right now.
Let's look at the book itself. Quesada is really at the top of his game on this book, he creates a very dynamic version of Daredevil and breathes a life into the character not seen since Miller. Truth be told, Quesada was never quite the same after this series and it was easily his last monthly book, the politics and day to day of comics becoming a bigger part of his job in 2000. Still what struck me about this book at the time was the quality. Much of Marvel was still being printed on news stock, the way the books had been done for decades. Quesada switched over to the glossier paper that many of the competitors were using. It made the colors and art also seem to leap off the page, using computer color and effects in a manner that most Marvel books hadn't seen yet. Quesada had a flash and style that had been lacking in Marvel art since the formation of Image Comics in the early 90's.
Smith himself has always been a master of dialog and you can genuinely feel his love of comics and of Daredevil in particular in this book. There are some passages that get bogged down a bit with prose in the series, but he manages to capture the essence of Daredevil, the pathos and guilt. He elevated the character back to A list status and in the process revitalized a lagging franchise. Bullseye was a big time player in Marvel again and the final bits of his story established a former B level Spider-man villain as a bigger force in the Marvel universe. He also planted the seeds for the return of Daredevil's number one nemesis, The Kingpin, an element that would have a huge impact on the series in years to come.
Not enough can be said about the impact that this arc had on Daredevil and me. This was the series that brought me back to Marvel comics after a fairly long hiatus from their books. The quality of Marvel had so declined from 1992 to 1994 when I had dropped my last Marvel book, that I hadn't read one of their publications in almost 5 years. I was still even reticent to pick up this book at the time even with the pedigree, it took me a few issue to get into the flow of what the Marvel knights imprint was trying to do, bring back the things we loved about the series in the first place. After Daredevil and Quesada's success, I looked into other books they were publishing, especially after he was named Editor in Chief. New life was breathed into many of my favorite characters, from Spider-man to another take on the Punisher that put that character back on top. This book re-opened the door to Marvel, a publisher that dominates much of my monthly comic book budget today.
Daredevil my favorite on-going Marvel book for one reason, it consistently pushes it's character to the edge. They always have great talent on the book and it operates on a gritty realism that grounds the title. Daredevil is not a "clean" super hero book. It's hard and gritty, like the Hell's Kitchen area of New York that he protects. Check out Daredevil: Guardian Devil by Kevin Smith and Joe Quesada for a really great comic that shows even the greatest of heroes don't always win in the end. It's a seminal work in Marvel's history for how it changed the publisher forever. You won't regret it.
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