I've Seen Bigger Muscles On Worms, Robin
Daredevil: Underboss, Out (Marvel 2003)
"Next issue -- someone dies! Major shakeups for our hero! And nothing will ever
be the same again!"
We've all heard this one. It might be that the writer is going to kill off the main
character's girlfriend (and it is always girlfriend) and make the main character into
a vengeance-obsessed lunatic for a few issues until our hero is really close to
breaking his sacred vow and taking a human life -- or maybe the main character is
going to die for half of one issue, and then be resurrected under strange
circumstances -- or maybe the main character is going to adjust his costume.
When your favorite Marvel or DC title promises something like this, it typically
means that you are going to get a few issues of elevated action, sometimes good,
sometimes totally out of character, but eventually your hero will hit the bad guy
over the head, knocking him out, (causing no brain trauma) and go back to their
Real change and genuine shake-ups in franchise continuity are pretty rare. For
years, the best example was that of Jean Grey, Phoenix, who died in one of the
most well-beloved X-Men stories ever written, and who stayed dead for fiveish
years. Then in 1985 Marvel decided it would be fun to reunite the five original X-Men, so they undid all the pathos and tears of millions of fans and revealed that she
was never really dead. (Jean Grey died again in 2003, and has actually stayed dead
since, but that's mostly because the writers replaced her with the much more
interesting Emma Frost.)
This month and next, true believer, we look at two Marvel heroes -- Daredevil and
Spider-Man -- who went through very similar shake-ups a few years ago.
Daredevil pulled off the shake-up with dizzying style, and then outdid himself and
outdid himself again until he cemented its place as the best book at Marvel, while
Spidey flailed about confused, and finally whimpered to a retcon that undid all the
Spoiler warning: It's impossible to talk about these two stories without giving
away THE ULTIMATE PLOT TWIST OF ALL TWISTINESS. You can still
enjoy both stories knowing what will happen, but I have to warn you for the
Daredevil story's sake: if you don't want it to be spoiled, go out and read it now.
(The story published as Underboss and Out has also been collected into a big
hardcover, generically called Daredevil vol. 2, or it is available as part of the Brian
Michael Bendis Daredevil omnibus (not to be confused with his successor Ed
Brubaker's omnibus). For your money, the omnibus is probably the best bet, if
only because you'll have to know what happens next once you're done.)
One more thing: you might be asking "What the heck? Daredevil is the good story?
I don't care about Daredevil; I want to hear about Spider-Man." Ah, we shall
explain this -- why the best superhero in comics somehow gets the shaft as
compared to one who is a lot less interesting.
A little information about Daredevil, for those of you who didn't see the truly
terrible movie with Ben Affleck (whose superpower, by the way, is Anti-Charm).
Daredevil is a blind lawyer named Matt Murdock by day. He was struck in the face
by a radioactive isotope as a child, which robbed him of his sight but enhanced his
other senses. One character delightfully observes in the story, "Do you know what
would happen to me if I was hit in the face with a radioactive isotope? I would get
cancer and die."
Murdock has a passion for fighting crime, specifically organized crime. His father
was a local boxer and a mob stooge who refused to throw a boxing match for the
mob and as a result got a pair of cement shoes. For most of his comics career,
Daredevil has been locked in a battle of wills with the Kingpin, a big fat mob boss
who controls most of the Marvel underworld.
Sin City creator Frank Miller, in his mid-80s run on Daredevil, made the battle
even more interesting when Daredevil's ex-girlfriend, a junkie, sold his secret
identity to the Kingpin for drug money. The Kingpin nearly destroyed Murdock
then, using his connections to wipe out Murdock's law practice and assets until
Murdock had to fake his own death. But Murdock made it back, and he and the
Kingpin continue their dance on both sides of the law.
It begs the question: why didn't Kingpin blow Murdock's identity to the press?
Miller and the later writers of Daredevil never really explained, save that it has
something to do with the privacy of their little war, but the reason is somewhat
self-evident: after all, the eye on Daredevil would also turn to his assailants,
especially if they were the ones who blew the story.
So the plot point remains: Daredevil's greatest enemy knows his identity.
Underboss follows a story in which the Kingpin himself was rendered blind by an
over-enthusiastic pal of Daredevil's, thus making him a rather weak alpha lion. In
the beginning of Underboss, a small-time hood named Sammy Silke holds forth to
the blind Kingpin on the virtue of the "good old days" back before there were any
"guys in tights."
In this initial dialogue, the genius of writer Brian Michael Bendis shows through.
Bendis at his best writes beautifully natural dialogue -- more than natural. It flows,
musically, across the page, painting a picture of the Corleone-esque characters.
"Back before I had hair on my chin, my uncle owned a guy some money at a street
rate. You know, a shark. The neighborhood guy everybody went to. My uncle?
Ends up he couldn't pay. And you know what happens next -- oldest story ever
told -- Pop. Blammo. Face down in his cornflakes. One bullet. Simple. Clean.
Right to the head. One bullet and everyone from the Bronx to Orlando --
everyone! -- knows it's a hit."
When the Kingpin asserts that those days are long since gone, Silke says, "Don't I
know it!" He turns insulting and mean, detailing the Kingpin's many failures with
costumed heroes. "My guess is you wanted to play dress up since you were a little
kid, but you were too ****ing fat even then."
And then the Kingpin's hoods pounce on the big guy and carve him up.
It's a beautifully rendered scene, between Bendis's dialogue and Alex Maleev's
photorealistic art, dripping with darkness and threat. Each frame of the scene is
portrayed like a movie, with the opening long focus on Sammy Silke to the chaotic
close shots of hands with knives and the Kingpin's face as he screams.
Bendis and Maleev use tight viewpoint and a keen awareness of light and
surrounding to make this a cinematic comic. It's clear from the beginning that this
is not your typical funnybook sensibility: this is a dark criminal epic.
After Kingpin's death, Bendis takes the story through a dizzying series of
flashbacks, starting when Sammy Silke arrived in New York. Silke is the son of a
Chicago mob boss shoring up alliances with the Kingpin, and among his requests
when he arrived was to whack a certain blind lawyer whose latest case was
messing with one of their affiliates. Kingpin gave a definite no -- "Murdock is not
to be touched."
Silke didn't like being told no, so he snuck around the Kingpin's organization to
find out why Murdock was taboo, and eventually he got the information from the
Kingpin's son himself -- Murdock is Daredevil, and it is generally known in the
organization, but no one did anything to Murdock without Kingpin's approval.
Silke saw that the alpha lion had made his big mistake.
Silke can orchestrate the Kingpin's overthrow, but he doesn't count on the power
Kingpin's wife has in the organization to take her vengeance. With most of his
cronies dead, Silke runs to the FBI with all the information he has, including
Murdock's identity, trying to stay out of normal jail circles where Madame
Kingpin can reach him.
The FBI laugh at the notion -- Daredevil blind? But when they start poking
around, they find a host of coincidences and finally a government brick wall on
Murdock's file. The head of the local FBI head puts the kibosh on the story, but
one agent, who has a press connection and needs the cash, blows it.
Repeat: he blows our hero's secret identity to the press.
At the beginning of Out, another long focus shot brings us to Murdock the morning
the story breaks. He is lying in bed, turning and getting up slowly. The thought
captions detail the way his enhanced senses let him know his life is falling apart.
"I hear them on their cells. I hear the motors in their cameras whirring and
winding. I smell the coffee. The croissants. The freshly laid deodorant. I even --
yep, I even smell the saline solution in their eyes. I know before I wake up . . . I
know my life is over."
So what does Murdock do? Close to the breaking point, in driving rain, he stands
on a streetlight over the crowd of reporters under their umbrellas, not looking up.
He thinks, over and over, "I am not afraid of you. I am not afraid of you." He takes
off his mask and the thought panels drip down the page with the rain. "I'm. Not.
Afraid. Of. You.
"Look up here. I am not afraid of you. You will hear me out. You will understand
why I am. What this uniform means to me. You will hear me and you will . . ."
And then Murdock hurriedly pulls his mask over his face. "Oh no, what am I
doing? What am I doing? Idiot!"
When the time comes to make a statement to the press, Bendis and Maleev give us
a full page of waiting while pictures snap, milking the tension. Murdock clears his
throat and tells the press how he was blinded, and of the death of his father. "I have
had a lot to contend with in my life. I have coped with my handicap. I have put
myself through law school. I opened a successful law practice with my partner
here, Franklin Nelson. I have fought for each and every client who has come
through our door with the passion and integrity that they deserve and I live my life
in a fashion that hopefully would make my father proud."
And then when the moment comes: "The headline stated that I was the masked
vigilante known as Daredevil. That I was faking my handicap as a cover for my
secret costumed life. This information is one hundred percent . . .
Just before she leaves the country, Madame Kingpin slips Murdock the name of the
man who outed him. Through a little bit of clever intimidation (Daredevil standing
at your window at four in the morning is pretty effective) Murdock scares the
anonymous source out of testifying. However, the bullish head of the paper won't
back down in the face of Murdock's libel suit. "You can fight it all you want. It
doesn't matter. It's out there now."
And it's true. In one beautifully effective scene, Daredevil saves a woman from
danger, the woman thanks him, and just before he turns to leave, a man behind her
says, "Hey Daredevil -- what color's my shirt?"
He pauses, doesn't answer, and leaps away.
Bendis has repeatedly said that he will not use any magical cop-outs; no friendly
shapeshifter showing up to make things better; no other heroes putting on the
costume and posing with Murdock to show that it's all good. No cop-outs.
(Bendis has a point; if Spider-Man put on the costume he would still move like a
spider. But Danny Rand, Iron Fist, is another martial-arts based hero about
Daredevil's size, who could easily pass for Daredevil, and does in a later story. I
don't know why Bendis never addressed this, but the story moves so quickly and
intensely that you can forgive him for the sake of pacing.)
There is no Daredevil story as good as Underboss and Out. None. Frank Miller's
Born Again, Kevin Smith's Guardian Devil, and David Mack's Parts of a Hole are
mere predecessors. And long after Underboss, Bendis left the book to be replaced
by Ed Brubaker, who wrote the amazing Devil, Inside and Out -- which was a
killer story, but still couldn't top the identity reveal.
We'll go more into this next month, but why would a Daredevil story succeed so
well while the inevitable "Spider-Man reveals his identity" story failed? After all,
when Stan Lee created Daredevil in the first place, he was trying to replicate his
success with Spider-Man, and it was only Miller's crime epics that even kept the
man in the killer red tomato suit alive.
Weird as it sounds, it's the lameness of the character that makes his stories good.
Daredevil is enough of an unimportant character that his writers can take huge
risks, and with only one monthly book and few guest appearances, the writers have
most of the control over what happens to Daredevil. When a character like Batman
or Wolverine is spread thin across a bunch of comics per month, any truly daring
story has to get approved by the editors, who are then counting beans and profit
margins before the story is even approved.
You can bet they'll err on the side of safety and keep the formula. It's the same
principle that keeps James Bond in bed with hot women and setting off explosions.
But with Daredevil, Bendis and Maleev just get to go with it, to try new things, and
to push the character to greater and greater depth.
Next month we reveal Spider-Man's identity . . . and why that story was undone
less than two years later. Stay with us for a sad tale of tragedy and editors.
Read more by Spencer Ellsworth