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Monday, February 24, 2014

The Pull List: Daredevil

Posted by on Mon, Feb 24, 2014 at 10:19 AM

click to enlarge dd1.jpg
Daredevil No. 36
by Mark Waid and Chris Samnee
Marvel

Look, I like superhero comics, but let’s be real—a lot of them are mediocre at best and sheer garbage at worst. It’s too easy for the big publishers to rely on the strength of franchises rather than storytelling. It’s almost as if Marvel knows I’ll buy the crappiest X-Men books just because I need to know what the X-Men are up to. Though I’m an admirer of Brian Wood’s creator-owned series The Massive, I kind of hate his current flagship X-Men title—why must Wood fill every book he writes with characters spouting quasi-military jargon into Bluetooth headsets?—but 10 issues in, I’m still buying it. (It’s a sickness, I know.)

The silver lining of this bleak dispensation is that gems such as the current run of Daredevil, which draws to a close with its 36th issue, shine all the brighter. Non-comics readers may be familiar with Daredevil—known superlatively as “The Man Without Fear,” affectionately as “hornhead”—only through the dismal 2003 movie starring Ben Affleck, which is a pity. Sure, he’s basically just an acrobat in red tights with devil horns. But scratch below the surface and you’ll find one of the richest character profiles, developed for 50 years now, in superhero comics.

Daredevil’s unique angle is that he’s sightless, but his other senses are sharpened and augmented by bat-like echolocation abilities. By night, he’s a costumed crime-fighter in the gritty alleyways of Hell’s Kitchen; by day, he’s blind social-justice lawyer Matt Murdock. He was set on this path when his father, a boxer, was murdered by a crime boss after refusing to throw a fight. He was trained by ninjas in the classic Frank Miller era. He carries a cane concealing a grappling line that never misses its targeted gargoyle or cornice. He’s a human-scaled hero, not brilliant like Batman or godlike like Superman. Standing up for the underdog in and out of costume, he's character defined, as writer Mark Waid correctly says in his final issue, by his integrity.

This is fertile territory for a writer who wants to really dig in, and Waid is one of the best in the business at robustly characterizing superheroes. His plotting and dialogue have a speedy crackle on par with the best episodic television, and his Daredevil is a brisk blend of romantic comedy, courtroom drama and madcap adventure, with lots of outlandish villains and swashbuckling style.

A smart superhero comic that also remembers that superheroes are supposed to be fun, Waid’s Daredevil would have been a flawless run if not for an odd, rather silly subplot in the homestretch that found Daredevil intriguing with Universal Studios monsters. But the series rights itself for a strong finish in No. 36, which neatly ties up all the plot threads—the outing of Daredevil’s secret identity, the cancer diagnosis of his law partner and best friend, his will-they won't-they affair with the district attorney, a vast conspiracy to undermine his sanity—that Waid has expertly paid out over the last three years. The issue also sets up a new status quo for the next leg of Daredevil’s journey under the same creative team, which is fantastic news.

Last week in this column, I mentioned how the fortuitous combination of creators can produce extraordinary results, and Daredevil is a perfect example. Waid has said that he wanted his run to focus on Daredevil’s derring-do and his unique perceptions of the world. The latter, especially, wouldn’t have been possible without the right artist, and Waid found a perfect match in the delightful Chris Samnee. The book really gelled when Samnee joined on No. 12, building on the strong visual groundwork laid by Paolo Rivera and Marcos Martin.

Samnee’s pop art style looks like the kind of stuff Roy Lichtenstein appropriated for art galleries. It’s cartoonish and classic, but with a slick modern sheen. Samnee’s chunky line has a tapering weight that conveys maximum clarity through minimal gestures, with dynamic character action coherently planted in space. One detects the influence of indie legend Mike Allred, who was a guest artist on No. 17. Elements of graphic design intrude on the cartooning, with panel-by-panel progress sometimes giving way to elegantly designed full-page compositions. This style is everywhere these days, and it’s a great thing for superhero comics; you can see it in the even more brilliant Hawkeye (which I’ll write about soon) and in a promising new lawyer/hero book, She-Hulk.

We often see what Daredevil “sees” through his enhanced senses: pink contour lines describing volumetric forms on dark fields; green EKG lines describing heartbeats that work as lie detectors. Waid comes up with ways to make Daredevil’s senses work against him—he is susceptible to chaotic sounds and radar interference—and the creators convey how aural his world is though lots of typographical onomatopoeia. In issue No. 5, bullets coming through a window are rendered as a slanting “BUDDABUDDABUDDA” rather than physical objects. To Daredevil, a boat on the horizon is a white box containing the giant letters “VRRRR.” These kinds of sound effects are a hoary old comics convention (Bam! Pow!), but Daredevil cleverly tweaks them by grounding them in the narrative context. There’s also lots of sensitive stuff about the everyday business of being blind, such as a mention in No. 22 of how Matt Murdock folds different denominations of currency in different ways so he can tell them apart.

Colorist Javier Rodriguez plays a major role in the pitch-perfect look, with his bold blocks of bright, smooth hues perfectly matching the poppy, slick vibe of the book. Even the letter boxes hit just the right notes, so no stray hairs disrupt this creative team’s seamless, modern, iconic tone. Between this series and the moving, artistically ambitious mini-series Daredevil: End of Days, these are exceptional times for ol’ hornhead. There are highlight standalone issues, such as the fantastic “blind date” (double entendre fully exploited) of No. 12 or the Silver Surfer team-up in No. 30 (seeing Daredevil riding with the Surfer, a character as cosmic as he is terrestrial, is fanboy manna). But starting at the beginning in trade paperback form is highly recommended, as this is one of the most stylish, fresh and vibrant superhero runs in recent memory.

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Mark Waid and Chris Samnee's just-concluded Daredevil shows a fresh way forward for superhero comics

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