There are new comics every week and because of this, Wednesday is usually one of my favorite days as it promises fun adventures with new and unfamiliar heroes, that is, if you have money. Since I have been blessed with unemployment, it has given me a new opportunity to dig back into the pile of comics and revisit some gems of mine to see, if in fact they are still gems. So, welcome faithful Kronos reader to my Unemployment Review series where I'll be reviewing all of my old favorite comic book runs...Let's hope this won't be along series...
This week, I'll be diving into the darker corners of the Marvel Universe. Where nothing is what it seems, faith is put to the test and villainy isn't found in some secluded Hydra base but right in the streets of New York City. I am revisiting the world of blind lawyer turned vigilante Matt Murdock as told by some unknown writer named Kevin Smith.
Way back in the year 1998, future Daredevil actor Ben Affleck won and Oscar with co-writer Matt Damon for Good Will Hunting. Smith had 3 films under his belt and was quickly gaining momentum as an A list film maker. Given the amount of comic book references that were found in all three of those films it makes sense that Smith would lend his knowledge and talents to the graphic novel genre. Smith's Marvel debut would be in a new volume of Daredevil: The Man Without Fear! Hard to believe that this comic started nearly 18 years ago...
For those who may not know, Smith is a very dialogue driven writer, despite having characters named "Silent Bob". I always thought that Smith's work could easily be adapted into stage productions and they might be successful. Think about Clerks or Mallrats, they could totally work as an off broadway production to see with your aging hipster friends.
That same amount fast paced dialogue is present in Guardian Devil. I remember reading this in my youth and thinking "Christ, this shit drags..." while suffering through Karen Page's "It's not you, it's me and your Daredevil" breakup letter.
While I still find it a little lengthy it does set up the tone for the tale this is about to unfold. The whole arch is about coming to terms with what we lose because of the choices that are made. Karen Page has to come to terms that her porn/drug addiction past will have consequences, Matt coming to terms with his relationships with women, such as his mother and former lovers Page and Black Widow, and of course coming to terms with being Daredevil: The Man With Out Fear.
Smith addresses another interesting point in this series: How exactly does one operate with out fear? What does it mean to be with out it? A possible answer is "That a man without fear, is a man with out faith. And a man without faith is easily unmade." Faith is something that is constantly put to the test not just for Matt but for other characters as well. Foggy Nelson, Matt's partner, is framed for a murder that he did not commit and now must try to have faith in the justice system that he serves. Karen Page must have faith in herself and Matt to be strong as struggles with AIDs diagnosis.
Murdock's catholic faith is used as a weapon by a phantom tormenting him from afar. He struggles with his own morality as an infant is left in his care by a woman whom claims that angels told her that the child is man kind's savior, and that he should be protected by Matt Murdock. There is also a mysterious gentlemen claiming that the child is in fact the anti-christ and that the mere presence of the child alone will cause his life and others around him to crumble. He then asks himself that old question you may have heard in your critical thinking class: "If you could go back in time and kill Hitler as a baby, would you?"
This grey moral area lies at the heart of Guardian Devil. Matt Murdock, a man who has suffered greatly and put himself on a path to fairly balance the scales of justice, now must decide whether or not an innocent child must die to protect the lives of others. Isn't that Matt's mission? To protect the innocent? What I believe adds to Matt's struggle is that he sees himself in the child; a lost soul caught in a conflict of two ideals: embracing the struggle to fight life's obstacles (personified by his underdog boxing father) or to embrace the power of faith (personified by his catholic mother who abandoned him to become a nun).
Ultimately, Matt would be raised by the former, where violence and perseverance where always present in his father's bruised face while his mother, and to a certain extent faith, was absent. Matt sees himself in the child's eyes and perhaps, his mother is staring back at him. This brings Murdock to seek solace in faith and in his mother's arms. He has, and I believe always had the longing to embrace them both, to reconcile with that part of his life in order to save the child, the innocent lives around that child and himself. All of this is summed up beautifully in one single image: Matt lays on the steps of the church in the pouring rain with his mother, almost like he is being baptized in his rediscovered faith. He utters the words: "help me... " There is an almost golden light that engulfs all three of the characters. The scene teases that there is hope for them and that they have found light in such a emotional darkness.
While confronting and accepting his faith he also coming to understand his mother and her choices to abandon him to embrace a life of religion. It is not a comfortable conversation and it shouldn't. Smith delivers some harsh exchanges between mother and son. Sometimes healing isn't always easy and nothing is ever easy as it seems for Matt Murdock. He also seems to embrace the situation that he has been placed in and having trouble seeing good in the world. His mother while acknowledging his pain states, "Such anger from someone who has been given so much." He retorts: "Darkness, Mother! That's what I've been given -- A life of darkness! Seeing darkness, fighting darkness, feeling darkness! You'll have to excuse me if I can't find the same faith in the so-called almighty that you've found! But then, I guess it's easy for you to jump to his defense! After all -- He let you off the hook pretty easily, didn't he!" She slaps him. Matt falls to his knees as the blanket she has given him slips off revealing his bandages. She looks down at him, shocked by what she has done as she places a hand over her mouth. They are both vulnerable; standing upon a precipice of regret as they are bathed in light pouring in from the church widow. Light and darkness play a crucial role in these scenes. Every time they reach a new level of emotional growth, there is a light guiding them.
Once he has accepted his faith and his identity as the Daredevil he faces yet another trial in the shape of Bullseye, a shadow of the past soaked in the blood of another casualty in Matt's ongoing war. Bullseye had killed his love Elektra and now has come to kill the series's first real love, Karen Page.
Shocking? Yes and at first annoying. "This again? Didn't we see him kill Matt's lady love before?" That was my initial first impression upon seeing this bloody tragedy unfold before me all those years ago. When reading this again I had to think about her death in the terms that I presented earlier in this essay: coming to terms with loss because of the choices that are made. Matt accepts his faith and alter ego is immediately faced with a trail produced by Bullseye who kills Karen in a church. How's that for symbolism? The church and the enemies of Daredevil will always bring death. Sadly there is no light that falls on Matt, save for the man made lights of the church.
Villains are not absent from the consequences of death in Smith's morality play. When the curtain is finally drawn on Matt's tormenter we see that even he is confronted with the demons of his own past: Quentin Beck otherwise known as Mysterio. As boy he had been caught up in the magic of movies as was desperate to achieve his own level of success with such celluloid entertainment. Alas, that need turned his life into one of crime, driven by his lack of deserved appreciation for the miracles that he was able to conjure. Eventually all the chemicals used to create his magic was eating away at his body in the form of a brain tumor and lung cancer. He had created his own tragic ending. When coming to terms with where his life had taken him he decided to go out with a bang; tormenting one last life.
While true, Beck has fallen into tragic circumstances provided by his own makings, he is never truly aware of himself and his impact on others. Instead he focuses on the admiration he was owed; that he was a tragic hero and not a villain. As he tells this story all of the light in it of his own creation. Fitting with in the context of what I have presented, God is not present here because Beck is not growing the way Matt and his mother have done. He is not breaking down any walls to reveal who he is at the core; a trickster whose only real victory was tricking himself.
Finally, with Mysterio's plans laid to rest, the characters must reconnect and heal like reconnecting tissue. Foggy, whom was framed for a murder he did not commit must accept that he is some one to blame for allowing himself to be seduced and ruin his own marriage. Matt tries to comfort him by explaining that charges have been dropped but Foggy tells him that they can't "erase the real crime". He makes this realization while a very hard white light beams down on him through the car window, creating harsh deep shadows on his face. Perhaps it is the light of truth that he allowing to fall on him. Not as soft as light that falls of Matt but it is of the same source.
Foggy's only crime was to be a friend of Matt Murdock. For that he has constantly been dragged through the mud. Yet, even at the end of this, Foggy is still willing to follow him in a new venture of their careers as Lawyers. His faith in Matt is unwavering, really it is only stable thing in Murdock's life. One would argue it is stronger than his relationship with his own religion.
Matt also must come to terms with how he had treated Natasha during this entire ordeal. She was the only sane voice calling out to him as he suffered from chemically induced indecision over the the fate of the child. While he attempts to explain that he had been drugged into being so violent toward she believes that the toxin provided by Beck was only a catalyst for his anger toward her and possibly women in general. "Think about it: You were abandoned by your mother at such a young age. And then you get involved with women, they scar you terribly - your romantic history leaves much to be desired, Matthew. The women you've fallen in with haven't exactly been angels, and that's bound to have affected you over the years..". It is an important observation for Natasha to make for Matt as it is showcases many of his demons from Elektra to Typhoid Mary; He keeps placing himself in unstable relationships with women. Why though? Could he wish to some how change these women into being able to have a wealthy relationship in way that he wished he could with his own mother? Or is it perhaps that a steady committed relationship is what terrifies Matt above all else?
What is also interesting about this scene is how the creators chose to light this moment. Both of the stand on a fire escape above the street lights of New York city. The lights slip past the bars of the fire escape and their shadows fall on Matt's face, giving the image that he is some how in a prison cell. This visual cue excellently speaks to the level of isolation and guilt that Matt is feeling, he is trapped. However Natasha, being a true for Matt in a time of need imparts her wisdom to him:
This is an important turning point for Matt. Once She shares this thought with him those bars seem to slip away and Matt is freed from another level of his personal hell. Male relationships with women have been no doubt rocky for both the protagonists and the readers for decades. They have even created the term "Refrigerator Girlfriend" a nod to one of the Green Lantern's love interests. I think that this is a very important realization not just for Matt but for comics in general, you have a male character trying to self evaluate himself and his relationship with women, and is even engaging in a conversation about with another female rather than trying to save and/or sleep with her.
Prior to this, Peter Parker (Spider-Man) meets Matt dressed as Daredevil on one of the towers of the George Washington Bridge. While discussing the heavy consequences of being a super hero there are ghosts of past failures around them: the death of their loved ones. Gwen Stacey and Elektra Natchios's death play out before them They are never far from their thoughts and it used as fuel for them to march forward, for a time. Matt dealing with the loss of Karen develops a new view on the world, there are no innocents, "we're bandages on leprosy, but still our hubris would have is believe that we can make a difference." The shadows close in on Matt again until Peter points out that good is does come from good deeds and that made saved the child from Beck. When this realization hits him we're aware of the light of the moon that was on them, like a celestial glow and perhaps even an eye watching them.
All of this of course is brought to life not only by Kevin Smith's words but by artist Joe Quesada and inker Jimmy Palmiotti. Without even reading the comic this feels like a 90's comic book. Quesada's art is of course the dead give away of the time that this was published. Now, it doesn't have that Jim Lee 90's feel to it but it does have that certain Todd McFarlane feel that always got me confused when I was a kid. This also has that strange "photoshop-ness" to it that tries to replicate a cinematic tone for it. Such as in the close up on Natasha Romanov (Black Widow) shown below, her eyes have been softened like the cornea and iris while the pupil is hard black circle. The color of her hair has also been enhanced to make seem like it is actually glowing and her lips have been softened as well.
These are not criticisms but mere observations that show that the comic is showing it's age. Why is there so much detail on Black Widow and not on Matt, Foggy or even Mysterio? There are also some strange "shout-outs" as well to the friends of Kevin Smith. Early in the comic, we have Peter Parker calling Matt about the photos of him and Karen Page taken at the "Good Will Hunting" premiere. Remember this is 1998 where Affleck, a friend and co-star of Smith's won an oscar. Another sign that this comic shows its age. Also, why the hell does Matt need photos? Yes, he has heightened senses but he's still blind.
Also, the presence of Jay and Silent Bob are never really far from our peripheral vision. In Quentin Beck's lair/work show he actually has masks of actors Jason Mews(Jay) of course Smith as Bob. Again, doesn't really hurt the comic that Smith is being self referential, it only adds to feeling that you're reading a time capsule. Honestly, if I were doing a comic you better believe I'd have Kronos contributors Angela, Rob, Will, Mark and Jay hidden somewhere in there.
Despite the fact that there are points in the comic that remind you that this is 18 years old, it is hardly fair to say that it hinders the story which added some depth to the character that was already rich with years of back story that is soaked in blood and tears, the weight of which hangs heavily on Murdock. It cements the notion that faith is an essential part of the man; the belief in the angels is what makes him a hard hitting devil guarding Hell's Kitchen.