His run on Daredevil with Marcos Martin, Paolo Rivera, and now Chris Samnee has centered on a Matt Murdock who wants to be better, wants to end the cycle of depression and loss that’s afflicted him for thirty years, basically wants to break out of the Miller straitjacket. But Waid doesn’t simply put on a smiley face and do a series of retro-sixties callbacks to the wisecracking swashbuckler of old. He knows that depression isn’t battled so easily, and he keeps the threat of relapse alive. Characters are constantly raising the possibility that Murdock is just faking it till he makes it, and it’s by no means certain that he’ll make it. It’s a smart use of the overriding limitations that face all comics about corporate-owned properties, namely the knowledge that any change, any bold new direction, is just one creative team change or editorial whim away from a return to the status quo.
Unfortunately, we may be coming up on that return fast. Waid and artist Chris Samnee are slated to end their run in just a few issues, and nobody knows what’s happening to Daredevil after Marvel’s next big crossover. It’s a shame, because it feels like Waid and Samnee could keep this up for years to come.
Samnee’s bright, clear art and strong draftsmanship are a perfect fit for the series’ upbeat tone, but he’s also adept at handling the pain (physical and otherwise) that always threatens to break through. His art has been a master class in how to cut up space on the page to show time, motion, and action—Daredevil’s battle with Ikari in the last volume was a standout in that regard—and like his predecessors Martin and Rivera, Samnee has devoted admirable attention to taking the blind crimefighter’s sensory experiences out of the caption boxes and putting them onto the page, finding visual strategies for representing things that cannot be seen. Waid has proven equally game at playing around with the medium of comics, including one of its most basic and rarely exploited conventions, the placement of lettercolumns and other paratextual material—which he used to set up a false ending in one recent issue before completely changing the emotional register. These are creators who never seem to get tired of their work.
Nevertheless, a little over a year ago they breathed new life into their run by moving Daredevil to San Francisco (setting of some not terribly highly regarded stories from the 70s) and making some other changes to his supporting cast: a law partner who’s living in hiding, a girlfriend who’s not a psycho assassin (for once), and a complete abandonment of his secret identity. To be sure, the changes have mostly been cosmetic, and early issues were too prone to get dragged back to New York for flashbacks or company-wide crossovers (those damn crossovers again), but there’s been just enough new material to make the move worthwhile. In particular, one ongoing storyline—the only one this volume of Daredevil has managed so far, sadly—pits DD against the Shroud, a third-rate vigilante whose powers are so similar that he takes the high-profile hero’s arrival in his town as a personal affront.
This volume has also been given over to fresh takes on old but not particularly impressive Daredevil villains like the Owl, the Purple Man, and even the Stunt-Master, all of them overcoming the lame source material to provide new hooks for entertaining stories. I do wish Waid and Samnee had let some of them breathe a little more. (The first part of the Stunt-Master story hit an absolutely perfect emotional beat and then kept going for another six pages, presumably so everything would fit into two issues.) Then again, maybe they knew they wouldn’t have the room.
If that’s so, if Waid and Samnee are leaving even one issue earlier than they wanted to, then that’s a shame. Their work on Daredevil marries a consummate command of comics storytelling to the illusion of change that Marvel thrives on. This is not an insult. Daredevil is the work of two creators at the top of their game, and I only wish they were staying longer.
Appetite whetted by the Netflix series, honed by the unfortunate Dark Knight announcement, desperate for some non-crazy (okay, less crazy) Frank Miller comics, I went back and reread "Badlands," the single issue Jersey western/Springsteen noir Miller did with John Buscema and Gerry Talaoc in Daredevil #219 back in 1985.
This comic probably read a lot better when it first came out than it does today. Within the context of a long run of Denny O'Neil stories where Daredevil fights the Jester or whoever, this had to feel like a breath of fresh air, a return of the master. Outside that context, it reads like an overheated noir parody that doesn't know it's a parody. Broken Cross, NJ is supposed to be one of those crooked little towns that one strong man can clean up, but it's filled with a gallery of typical Miller caricatures spouting his trademarked repetitive "crazy" dialogue. ("Kill you I'm crazy tonight kill you I'll kill cut out your heart and eat it" TM Frank Miller 1984, all rights reserved.)
Still, there's something to be said for a Daredevil comic in which Daredevil doesn't appear in costume and doesn't say a word. Instead Matt Murdock adopts another guise, inadvertently assuming the identity of a dead sheriff whose story emerges only gradually with what could almost pass for subtlety in a Marvel comic in 1985. Murdock doesn't even have to rely on superheroic feats; his taciturn presence alone is enough to tip the town's corrupt establishment into a spiral of self-destruction. You can see Miller itching to leave the superhero genre, but he hasn't quite found a way out yet.
Again, as a one-issue departure from a series that had fallen into a post-Miller rut, this would have been a breath of fresh air. As a stage in Miller's career, it shows him stretching towards the crime fiction of Sin City without hitting the different kind of rut that series represented. Characteristically for Miller's work in this period ("Born Again" would start just eight months later), collaborating with another artist keeps him from returning to his own worst excesses. A paragon of the Marvel house style like John Buscema might not seem to be the greatest fit for Miller, but he keeps the work grounded in an only slightly exaggerated realism that many a younger artist wouldn't be able to match.
This comic is also an amazing snapshot of its time, complete with a copy of the annual circulation statements that Marvel used to run in its letter columns. Here's what Marvel publishing looked like in 1984:
At first glance this might seem like more fuel for one of those ever-popular rants demanding that publishers put comics back on the newsstands: Marvel printed 362,000 copies of Daredevil a month?!
In fact, it shows us why the comics industry needed the direct market. Marvel did indeed print an average of 362,000 copies of each issue of Daredevil cover-dated 1984, and newsstand vendors returned an average of 126,000 copies. And this was after the comics companies had started shifting their business to the direct market; those 126,000 copies must have made up the bulk of comics allotted for the newsstands, assuming they ever made it to the newsstands in the first place. (Distributors could simply declare comics unsold to claim credit from the publishers, then resell them under the table and keep all the profits.) Daredevil actually holds up pretty well, losing just a third of its print run to returnability or fraud; according to the numbers at John Jackson Miller's Comichron, books like The Avengers and Iron Man lost between 40 and 50 percent before the shift to the direct market was complete. For all its sins, the direct market kept American comics alive.
On a lighter note, the letter column also offers the following snapshot of comics fandom, which had some high praise for regular series artist David Mazzucchelli:
"I didn't think anyone could draw DAREDEVIL so powerfully, but Mr. Mazzucchelli is doing a fantastic job. So well, in fact, I am daring to compare his detail of faces and body expressions to the master himself, John Byrne."
Oh, and the "Bullpen Bulletins" in this issue has Jim Shooter comparing himself to Attila the Hun and basically admitting that he browbeat his own employees into throwing him an anniversary party. Not his wedding anniversary or anything--the anniversary of his taking the editor in chief job from Archie Goodwin.
And that would be Marvel Comics circa 1985. Today the bosses are less brazen about their treatment of their subordinates, but the editorial hand is just as strong. Every new direction runs its course. We got a nasty, rotten little industry here, stranger... and we aim to keep it that way!