Friday, April 2, 2010

Review - Daredevil

Written by Brian Michael Bendis; Art by Alex Maleev
2002, 2003 Eisner Winner for Best Writer
2003 Eisner Winner for Best Continuing Series

Three years ago if you asked me about it I would tell you that I did not like Daredevil. A major contributing factor to that is that his writers seem to have learned everything they know about the legal system from bad television dramas and this was a problem since they liked using the fact that the vigilante was also an attorney. So inevitably when I read Daredevil I would be about a superhero who was acting unethically and illegally and this was presented as a good thing. Who cares about a little suborning perjury or evidence tampering; he's the good guy! Eventually I read Frank Miller's defining run on the series which was really good and I was willing to give Daredevil another chance. Enter Bendis who strikes me as the first person who realized what a big deal it was to have a character who let his double life as attorney and vigilante cross regularly and he turned those inherent conflicts into a tense, gripping story.

A long time ago a crime boss discovered Daredevil's identity and has used that information to torment him time and time again. Word is getting around the boss's organization about this and some of his lieutenants decide to just kill both the boss and Daredevil to end their extended game and take over. Their scheme falls apart and New York City becomes a war zone for families seeking to fill the power vacuum. Daredevil's identity is printed as a front page story of a major tabloid leaving him in a position where he has to cover up and deny everything since any evidence of his double life will destroy him.

The schemes to protect a secret identity have been used over and over again in superhero comics but this is one of the few times where it works very well. This isn't something that can be fixed by having someone dressed like him show up at the same place he is; it could be anyone in that costume, after all. And if anyone can connected Daredevil with his real identity then he will go to jail for his numerous illegal actions. If anyone else could be shown to be Daredevil this problem wouldn't exist makes it a hole the character has dug for himself and it is a very deep one.

That makes the reaction a natural one. The cover up isn't some complicated scheme; he sues the tabloid for libel. That's a method that's popular enough in the real world for attacking someone saying something incriminating. Bendis understands that Daredevil isn't just morally gray, he's a character who has gone pretty far into the black. Through that understanding he can tell an unpredictable story where I can never be sure where things are going next. Daredevil has already taken a lot of steps down a self-destructive path so I couldn't be sure if he would take the next one.

Speaking of those legal problems Bendis also wrote the best courtroom sequences I've ever seen in a comic. He's got a good feeling for the ebb and flow of a trial and avoids sticking the dramatic beats at the usual points.

The downside to these stories is that I did not like Maleev's artwork. While he can be readable at his best far too much of his artwork looked like traced pictures of people over top of photographs that have been run through multiple Photoshop filters as backgrounds. It gives his artwork a kind of paper cut out feeling to it and his characters don't necessarily go with the action. The backgrounds are a muddy out of focus mess. He also loves double page spreads and tends to put panel splits on the page fold. I often didn't realize it was a double page spread until I had read the left side and wondered why things didn't make sense.

I am not fond of other things by Brian Michael Bendis that I have read. His Daredevil run, however, is exceptional. It's easily the best take on the character that I have ever encountered. It's not just a good superhero book, it's a good book on the moral complexities of vigilantism. It's a shame about the art but the writing is so good that I'd say it's worth it.