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As threatened, I’m writing up some thoughts on the Bendis/Maleev run of Daredevil, a run which is an important one for a number of reasons.
First, and most evidently, it’s one of the three key books that made Bendis’s reputation and career within Marvel. Really, it was his success on Ultimate Spider-Man half a year earlier that had nailed things down for him at Marvel. Likewise, his work on Alias overlaps with his DD material to some extent, but it’s hard to argue that this was the title whose critical success won him the level of influence and the plum assignments on Marvel’s high-sales superhero books, and especially the Ultimate line for which he is all but creative director.) More to the point, critics and fans tend to read his work on Matt Murdock and Jessica Jones as somehow more personal than his work on Ultimate Peter Parker, perhaps because Bendis remains forever associated with his independent work on noirish crime fiction and superhero/police procedural genre fusions.
Second, the title is often held up as a high point of the so-called “decompressed” (or, more pejoratively, “Quemas” or “NuMarvel”) direction that Marvel as a company trended towards some years back. Moreover, it seems that the critical reception of the Bendis/Maleev Daredevil has withstood the test of time; certain other efforts from the same period are now often made the targets of the backlash (absurd as I find it) against “decompression.” The Bendis/Maleev run on this book, by contrast, is generally treated as a crowning achievement. It also, in both intranarrative and metanarrative terms, determines the current direction of the Daredevil property at Marvel; like Frank Miller before them, Bendis and Maleev seem positioned to cast a long shadow on the book’s plot elements and general narrative style.
Third, it presented a particular variation on a longstanding trend, a variation that arguably replaced that trend. At a time when everyone from Warren Ellis to Grant Morrison — well, you get my meaning, anyway — was championing the ejection from the genre of many of its tropes, the Bendis/Maleev Daredevil demonstrated the potential of using the same elements of older days, including secret identity plots, costumes, supervillains, and grand narrative conflicts, but approaching them from the perspective of other genres. In this case, it was the crime genre; but what it announced was the return of the costume, the secret identity, and the like with a different pacing and a different idiom applied to their execution. Here in 2007, the masks and costumes have not vanished, but more books than ever seem to be applying the standards of other genres to the superhero standards. Whether it’s as anti-nostalgic a writer as Warren Ellis adapting his post-Gibson cyberpunk sci-fi to the Ultimate line and Thunderbolts or as traditionalist writer as Dan Slott finding a way to bring David Kelley legal dramedy to She-Hulk and “boot camp” movie stylings to Avengers: The Initiative, genre fusion of this sort has predominated where the prediction of superheroes-as-The Matrix has gradually petered out.
These reasons are the broader ones that I think permit yet another of the many, many critical considerations of this milestone run. But there is another, perhaps greater or at least (I hope) uniquely compelling reason to look back on this run, a reason that underlies those I have stated above: the Bendis/Maleev Daredevil manages at once to stand in for a certain era of Marvel comics and to explain a certain dominant creative direction at Marvel today. It opens debates on Bendis’s own creative power at Marvel, the use of a variety of techniques shocased in the run, and an entire attitude towards doing superhero comics that has caught on at Marvel. If it originates only some or none of these things, it remains a vital and focal point from which a great many such trends can be evaluated and treated at once.
You’ll note that I am treating the Bendis/Maleev run, which will exclude both the earlier Bendis arc and the David Mack interlude with Echo. This is because the Bendis/Maleev run is clearly meant to stand as a piece, with its graphic novels as chapters in a longer novelistic fiction, while those other arcs are essentially stand-alones or onto other business. (The Echo arc was commissioned as a miniseries before it was drafted into the main title to give the regular team a break.) A word, also, on method: Though I foreground themes and methods over plot, I will still be proceeding through the run roughly chronologically, the better to track what shifts and changes in the run’s progress. However, I will permit myself — and more importantly, will beg your indulgence for — analepses and occasional analogies where my own admittedly subjective views and readings seem to demand them…or at least wish for them in a spirit of whimsical velleity. On to the meat, then.
From the beginning, Bendis and Maleev deploy two interlocking strategies which I think bear outlining at the start. They are, to wit: 1) A narrative effort to deconstruct or push beyond the boundaries established for noir superheroes by Frank Miller’s earlier and nfluential work on the feature; 2) An effort to insistently foreground the filmic and more specifically film noir roots of the verbal and visual — comics, kids — language being applied to the feature.
These elements are apparent with the opening pages of their first issue as a team, the first part of “Underboss.” Sammy Silke sits before the Kingpin’s seeming corpse, rendered in a chiaroscuro style with a (for comics illustration) rather phgotographic quality. This photographic quality is not simply in the pencilling, inking, and coloring style; the panel sequences themselves treat the image like a photograph, and will for the entire run, using stats, “zooms,” and so on of single panels repeated.
This in turn has the effect of simulating a camera moving, as if we are seeing not panels in a comic but stills in a motiuon picture. Maleev’s tendency, already evident on page one, of only minimally breaking up the vertical axis of the page, highlights this. Horizontal sequence is used in Maleev’s art on this title to present “faster” cutting in a film, not to pace comics material along a horizontal axis as, say, Scott McCloud on a very off day might suggest. (McCloud would likely recognize Maleev’s maneuvers rather quickly, so I have cheerfully and unfairly handicapped him in this hypothetical for my own sinister purposes.)
The other image on page one that sets up an entire thematic for the run is that of Silke sitting and giving orders, that is, an image borrowed in some sense from Frank Miller: the Kingpin in his seat, the boss reclining, the spider at the center of the web. What contrasts this to Miller’s take is the simple narrative fact of having Silke, a brand new character, and one lacking the flashier visual elements of the Kingpin, in that visual and metaphorical position. The Kingpin’s Throne, the seat of power, will become a a metalepsis that represents the plot of this entire run and, I argue, is its ultimate theme. All contests, all grand moves, are about taking up the position Silke has on page one, panel one; this seat can never be vacant, as later arcs will insist, and the run itself takes for granted as a premise.
Miller, of course, treated individuals rather than positions of power. His Kingpin was Kingpin becaus ehe was smarter, stronger, and more willful than anyone else. Daredevil’s various stalemates with him — Miller never allowed DD to depose the Kingpin, nor, even in the nadirs of “Born Again,” really let the Kingpin finally crush Matt — were built aroudn the idea that each was special, distinct, unique, and uniquely powerful. (Stick thinks Matt is greater in potential than the students he has trained for a lifetime, and it is Matt who can purify Elektra where Stick failed; the Kingpin reasserts control from his incompetent successors and can game any process or election and is untroubled by any other superhero save when Daredevil intervenes.)
Here, we have not an immortal Kingpin, a genuine supervillain, but rather a crime boss stabbed dead on the ground. If Silke compares him to Caesar, it is to underscore his own greatness as a Brutus or an Antony. Caesar dies, he doesn’t reign. (Of course, the other side of the comparison catches up to Silke as it did to Brutus and Antony in the Shakespearean idiom that this scene and this arc are based around.)
Miller is quite often credited as having made Daredevil a noir feature. He didn’t. He applied some of noir’s visual language and conceits, but his take on the feature was still well within the realms of superheroic fiction. (There’s also his incorporation of a more mystical and Orientalist thematic that is miles from noir as usually understood, but that’s a matter for a Miller career retrospective.) Bendis and Maleev are, by contrast, fully committed to noirish principles and to a distinctly filmic storytelling style. In so doing, they push beyond Miller in generic (as the adjectival form of genre) terms precisely by fully applying noir.
Power and position run noir more than individuality or uniqueness; fate is a web, and valor and honor or lack thereof are less important in some ways than where one is at on that corrupt web. Being exceptionally clever, or, more often, exceptionally strong-willed can permit either brief exceptionality from fate, or rather temporary furloughs from the tragedy in which noir ends, but in the end it is the tangled weave of the web of corruption, the closing of the sticky net of fate that matters. Power and corruption are the order of the world, and a dispassionately moral fate the world’s motor in the genre.
This is the other reason for the endless — sometimes, yes, tiresome — Caesar bits. Caesar’s play is a tragedy, and tragedy plays out fate, not human volition. Flaws are inborn, not acquired, and the outcome is seeded in the start, the fall in the rise. This is the other aspect of the foregrounding of the Kingpin’s Throne over the ostensible Kingpin himself. Whoever sits in that chair inherits the worldly power, but also the fate attached to the position.
The Kingpin’s fall is thus not the breaking of Miller’s pattern, but the revelation of a new governing pattern that incorporates it as an Act I sort of moment. Where Miller’s take on that site of power or on the hero’s position — mirrors of one another — was the sacrifice of a certain kind of ordinariness, a certain mode of intimacy and friendship (only passionate love really survived in Matt or Fisk for Miller), Bendis and Maleev read the matter as one of pure noirish politics, in its similarly generic sense: whoever is tough enough and smart enough to conquer and win that throne becomes the Kingpin, but also achieves the fatality inherent in the position.
The inheritor will have to be of a certain nature, bestowed with certain innate gifts, to keep it for any length of time, but there is also a pattern of rise and fall which is inevitable associated with the Kingpin’s Throne. Matt Murdock’s and other characters’ various efforts to upset or deny this order or its homologues in realms ranging from espionage to mythology and the consequences that befall them in the process will make up much of the plot of the run. Fate is a place, not a personal flaw.
Next time, having set up the themes of “Underboss” and done a bit with the two pivotal characters, I’ll look at the execution of the story and do a bit of a closer reading of its plot turns, subthemes, and various characters. I’ll be covering Maleev’s action sequences as against his conversation scenes, and the layout of panels and pages; Bendis’s use of elliptical and referential phrasing, part of his creation of a postmodern hardboiled dialogue style and plot structure; and the roles played by Foggy Nelson, the other Fisks, Ben Urich, and the supervillains in this opening arc.
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