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Gimmick or Good? – Daredevil: The Man Without Fear #1-5

In this column, Mark Ginocchio (from Chasing Amazing) takes a look at the gimmick covers from the 1990s and gives his take on whether the comic in question was just a gimmick or whether the comic within the gimmick cover was good. Hence “Gimmick or Good?” Here is an archive of all the comics featured so far. We continue with the red foil covers for Daredevil: The Man Without Fear #1-5…

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Daredevil: The Man Without Fear #1-5 (published October 1993 to February 1994) – script by Frank Miller, pencils by John Romita Jr., inks by Al Williamson

In honor of the 50th anniversary of the first appearance of Daredevil this month, Gimmick or Good? will take a look at the five-part miniseries that reimagined ‘Ol Hornhead’s origins. The Man Without Fear marked Frank Miller’s return to the character he revolutionized after a six-year absence. In commemoration of this special event, each issue in the series sported a red foil embossed cover.

But what about inside the comics?

Origin retellings often come with inherent risks, especially when it pertains to reimagining a story as classic as the birth of Daredevil. If the creators don’t provide a fresh or unique take on these stories, the whole endeavor runs the risk of being dismissed as superfluous or non-essential.

Obviously, The Man Without Fear miniseries has a reputation that precedes it, and is almost universally accepted as one of the best Daredevil stories ever written. I’m not about to disagree with the consensus – I think the whole thing is fantastic, from Miller’s beautifully-written script to John Romita Jr.’s inspired and dynamic artwork. The series is so well-composed and filled with wonderfully nuanced scenes, I sometimes forget that this was something that was released during the peak of the comic book “boom” period in the 90s.

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What makes Man Without Fear such an effective piece of storytelling, and not some origin rehash designed to make a quick buck, is the way Miller integrates most of Daredevil’s mythology that he first introduced during his famed late 70s/early 80s run into the character’s roots. Elektra, Kingpin and Stick are all here, and none feel out of place or clumsily inserted.

With no disrespect meant to Stan Lee or Bill Everett, who first created the character in 1964, Miller’s inaugural run with Daredevil was so influential and groundbreaking (not to mention critically and commercially successful enough to save the title from near-certain cancellation), the universe he fleshed out deserved to be part of ‘Ol Hornhead’s origin story. The Kingpin was always a much better Daredevil villain than a Spider-Man one (despite first appearing in Amazing Spider-Man #50), while the mysticism of Matt Murdock’s mentor Stick, and his college relationship with Elektra, were a critical part of fleshing out and developing the Daredevil franchise. Man Without Fear is not just a retcon done right, but a retcon that, quite frankly, was necessary.

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Miller’s script provides some trademark grit to Matt’s earliest days, especially as it relates to the tragic demise of his father, “Battling Jack” Murdock. Granted, in 1964, Lee and Everett didn’t have the luxury of slowly unveiling the origins of their new characters over the space of multiple 48-page issues. Regardless, the Man Without Fear gives us a higher stakes, more compelling version of events. We are made to understand just how anguished and tortured Jack is at the prospect of having to be the hired goon of the Fixer, and how his stubborn refusal to throw a fight is an indisputable life or death decision. Jack’s resigned “I know you’re there. Get it over with,” as he’s walking out of the gym is a total gut-punch that sells the tragedy of this moment that would go on to influence the path of one of Marvel’s most iconic heroes.

Meanwhile, showing a younger Matt working with Stick and honing his skills after being blinded just makes sense. It provides a logical explanation as to how Matt was able to compensate for his blindness to the point that he was able to assume the mantle of a full-fledged superhero. Otherwise, per the original source material, the birth of Daredevil’s powers feels too random and unbelievable.

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For Elektra, Miller and Romita Jr., reimagine the character in ways that both celebrate her, and are indicative of her femme fatale characteristics. Miller’s original introduction of the character in the early 1980s may have over-romanticized her in terms of how she was portrayed by Matt in flashbacks so, in this instance, Miller retcons his own work, by putting a fair bit of emphasis on Elektra’s emotional instability and her physical deadliness, even at a younger age.

But Miller’s most effective sleight of hand is reserved for how he weaves Wilson Fisk, the “Kingpin” of crime into this retconned universe. Miller is careful not to have Daredevil and Kingpin cross paths – as it’s established canon that the two didn’t physically interact for the first time until Daredevil #171 in 1981. Instead, Man Without Fear depicts Kingpin’s rise in the New York City underworld as coinciding with Matt’s path to becoming Daredevil. Fisk assumes a leadership position in the mob after murdering the old boss in cold blood. From there, he sets out to establish a newer, more profitable (and more morally corrupt) world order through the city’s crime syndicate.

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Matt first encounters the evils of the Kingpin when Fisk’s men kidnap a 14-year-old girl from the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood because she is needed for one of his “movies.” After saving the girl, Matt decides to embrace “Daredevil,” and the series ends with a beautiful double-page spread from JRJR showing all of the “Man Without Fear’s” various costumes from over the years (we are spared the gray and red shoulder pad get-up that still hadn’t been introduced at the time this mini was published).

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If you’re a Daredevil fan, or even someone who is just familiar with Miller’s various runs on the title (or even if you’re a Miller fan from his other work in the industry), then Man Without Fear warrants a spot in your read pile. It’s a story that will give you a better understanding and appreciation for the character, and is a true celebration of one of Marvel’s greatest creations.

Verdict: Good

37 Comments

Bill Williamson

April 14, 2014 at 1:00 pm

I think that The Man Without Fear is not only excellent but perhaps the last good thing Frank Miller ever wrote.

I always thought that it would make an excellent film.

@Bill Williamson

Funny that you say that, because Miller originally wrote the story as a movie. When it wasn’t produced, he recycled it. You can see the hints– No costume, the hero with a code against murder kills, training montage– even in the finished book.

I know that there is slight bias against origin re-tellings right now, but “Man Without Fear” makes the opposite case by itself.

The acid test of a retcon is its ability to be seamlessly folded into the original story. Our protagonist needs a character arc in his (or her) origin. Anything that adds to that arc is a plus. Anything that is just added coloring is fine, but inessential. Anything that takes away from the arc is bad retcon and should go.

This is clearest in re-tellings of the Origin of Superman. It is really hard to fit all the various things that people love into a coherent, satisfying story.

Miller’s re-working of DD’s back-story is really the ultimate validation of his own seminal work on the title.

“This is clearest in re-tellings of the Origin of Superman. It is really hard to fit all the various things that people love into a coherent, satisfying story.”

This is a really intriguing point.

Is it because Superman is so famous that he has too many things you have to touch on? Like, you *have* to have Lois, so you have to have the Daily Planet, so you have to have Perry & Jimmy, even though none of those things (arguably even including Lois) is important to the core of who Superman is.

Or are they? I guess that’s part of it, there are people who would argue that, at least, Clark Kent *has* to be a reporter, and it’s hard to argue against that. But I suppose part of the issue is that Clark Kent, being a creation of Superman, also has an origin of sorts that has to be brought in.

Damn, I never thought about this, maybe ‘Man of Steel’ deserves a slight apology…….

Nah.

As far as gimmick covers go, Daredevil: Man Without Fear is probably least egregious offender.

@ Sean:

With Superman, it is really about version proliferation. Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster created a character that was adapted to radio/TV, film serials, cartoons and (really) comics with DC resting control from the creators. Whitney Elsworth controlled one, Sam Katzman another, Fleisher Studios a third and Mort Weisinger a fourth. Meanwhile, none of them were the original creators.

Marvel is luckier in that regard. Stan Lee had a huge degree of control for really the first full decade that most of these characters existed. He either wrote, co-wrote, edited or managed the editor of all the comics until the early 70s. He was on the management side and dealing with the first adaptations personally.

Bill Williamson

April 14, 2014 at 5:11 pm

@ Greg Hyatt: Oh, I knew about Miller’s original plans for the project. The Marvel Premiere Edition of The Man Without Fear has various outlines by Miller indicating what he meant the project to be as well as the original synopsis before Miller added what Romita JR referred to as the ‘small addition’. Basically the TV movie left out all of the Elektra stuff.

@sean: The problem with Man of Steel is, and I thought this as I was watching it, is that it tries to cobble together too many existing Superman stories and ends up losing what made those individual stories so great in the first place. It’s not as bad an offender as The Dark Knight Rises in some ways. In most other ways it’s a fucking mess and far worse than The Dark Knight Rises ever could have been. Man of Steel just doesn’t hit any of the beats.

As far as cover gimmicks go, “Man Without Fear” actually makes a certain amount of sense to the character. It has that raised embossed lettering for the title and made it textured so it feels like Daredevil’s radar sense. It was actually really cool.

I wish I could get over JrJr faces, and fully love his art, but, alas, I can’t

I think this might actually be peak Romita JR artwork. Such a perfect fit for Miller’s DD.

@ Bill Williamson:

The problem with MAN OF STEEL was that it felt like a first draft.

David Goyer had a nifty way into the story by having a Kryptonian scout ship under the Arctic Ice waiting for Clark to find it. The idea that Kryptonians had found Earth centuries earlier and that discovery motivated Jor-El to send his son there was a really good one. The problem was that the ship had essentially nothing to do with the central conflict. Zod and Jor-El had this whole other conflict centered around *snore* Kryptonian politics.

It is a shame that MAN WITHOUT FEAR wasn’t the basis for the Daredevil movie. It is much better than the story that we got.

I didn’t know what this was when I first bought it. When I finished reading the first issue I was practically drooling for the next. :)

Bill Williamson

April 14, 2014 at 6:34 pm

@ Jeremy: I agree. And so does Romita apparently. He called The Man Without Fear his best work.

@ Kabe: I love JRJR’s faces. Some people prefer him when he was kind of a clone of his father, but for me the moment JRJR went stylistic is the moment he went into a whole new ball game. Those lips on Elektra are just perfect.

@ Dean Hacker: While I agree that is an interesting idea, I feel the problem with the story was not the politics or the plot necessarily, but the fact that Goyer had absolutely no grapple on the characters and who they’re supposed to be, resulting in the infamous tacked on scene where Superman snaps Zod’s neck.

Of course, the script wasn’t the movie’s only problem.

This is probably the best comic ever featured in this column.

[…] 50th anniversary makes its way over to my guest blogging gig at Comics Should Be Good with the Daredevil: Man Without Fear miniseries getting the Gimmick or Good? treatment. Each of the five issues of this series is adorned with gold embossing. Meanwhile, the mini retells […]

Jan Robert Andersen

April 15, 2014 at 5:23 am

I remember when this came out in 1993-1994 and it was like the dream-team-up of Daredevil creators combining fan favorite Frank Miller with the rising star John Romita Jr. and legendary Al Williamson.

John Romita Jr. and Al Williamson had themselves worked on Daredevil from 1988 to 1990 on another fan favorite run written by Ann Nocenti and had continued onto Star Brand.

Pairing them with Frank Miller simply seemed like the perfect match bringing together the two eras and merging the styles.

Back then I remember being somewhat disappointed as I felt the miniseries sort of shoehorned a revised origin story into their respective runs.

The inker could easily have been Klaus Jansson having worked on Punisher War Zone and Punisher/Batman, and later on Uncanny X-Men, Spider-Man: The Lost Years and various Spider-Man titles since then.

Today I also find this far better than back then and perhaps it was ahead of the times or maybe this storytelling is kind of nostalgic.

My verdict would be Good as well.

What no one seems to remember is that this miniseries is actually a reworking of a shorter graphic novel that FM and JRJR had collaborated on some years previously.

You can spot the join in the issues, where newer art and sequences are patched into the old, because JR JR’s art style had evolved considerably in the intervening years (not to mention the colouring technique).

I don’t know what the motivations or reasoning were behind it, but to my mind the end result is kinda patchy. The best FM story is still “Born Again”.

@woollybully — “What no one seems to remember is that this miniseries is actually a reworking of a shorter graphic novel that FM and JRJR had collaborated on some years previously.”

What are you even talking about?

Bill Williamson

April 15, 2014 at 6:59 am

@woollybully: If it is indeed a re-working of a shorter graphic novel, said shorter novel never saw print.

I’ve read/seen interviews with John Romita Jr talking about the project. Apparently, as has been mentioned, Miller planned the story to be much shorter than it was. Then, according to Romita, Miller got a flash of inspiration and wrote what he called a ‘small addition’ which, as it turned out, ended up being about 70 pages or so, accounting for the supposed shift.

As for the best Frank Miller story being Born Again, I wouldn’t completely disagree but, at the same time, The Man Without Fear and Born Again are basically Daredevil’s The Dark Knight Returns and Batman: Year One. The two stories complement each other perfectly.

I’m actually surprised to see this mini-series here on ‘Gimmick or Good’. I suspect Mark was just looking for an excuse to talk about it. The Man Without Fear is often over-looked, which I feel is a shame seeing as it is probably the last great thing that Frank Miller ever wrote.

Steve The Great

April 15, 2014 at 8:53 am

Its almost insulting that this book was featured in this page. This is for those border line books, not one of the best Daredevil stories ever.

Daredevil brings out the best in JR Jr. Al Williamson’s inks are awesome- the use of spot blacks and different line weights are highlights- but I give JR Jr. credit for the book’s visual success. He manages to make a bulky Matt Murdock work when he’s usually drawn leaner. While I don’t like his art on most projects, I’ve never doubted JR Jr’s storytelling prowess. He depicts action clearly and can set a scene expertly.

I also like the use of foil embossing on the covers.Daredevil almost seems like a ghost revisiting parts of his past.

I ocasionally like the later, madman Frank Miller, but I am still relieved that Miller’s various Daredevil stories are free of the taint of madness of his later works.

Christian Comely

April 15, 2014 at 12:09 pm

I think this was one of teh last great things Miller wrote… i dont know what happened but it seems he just started recycleing and putting his name on garbage. I loved this and i got it when it came out. the last thing i bought with millers name on it was his doomed allstar batman and robin. and i only picked it up because of jim lee’s all star art!

@Christain Comely 911 happened and Frank went crazy and super far right. He’s terrified he’s going to be killed by a terrorist or something. A shame.

I am Brazilian, and, in the collected edition of the mini-series released in my country, they included a half-true/half-fake article about the growth of this work from one-issue 48-page Graphic Novel to 240-page mini. It shows the exchange of phone calls between Miller and Romita Jr. as the latter reacts with crescent anger and agony to the bad news from Miller that “They want the thing to be bigger. You need to draw more pages!”. I don’t know if it was in the “normal” five-issue first release.

And I like both origins for Elektra: the normal girl who was corrupted while seeking revenge for her father’s death AND the woman who was already being tainted by the “voices of darkness”. Both allow several good stories based on them. But the writer can’t write anymore about the first Elektra beacuse the second is now the “official” origin. It’s because of things like this that I hate the dreaded “continuity” and “chronology” dictatorship –you _have_ to choose between one or another, and stick to it, for the good and the bad.

Bill Williamson

April 15, 2014 at 4:26 pm

@ Ivan Linares: I think the Premiere Edition trade that I have has something like that. A ‘skit’ between Miller, Romita and Ralph Macchio.

@ Bullseye12: While 9/11 certainly didn’t help, Miller’s descent into mediocrity and, from there, absolute god-awfulness was apparent much earlier when he started Sin City. 9/11 just made it worse.

This is for those border line books, not one of the best Daredevil stories ever.

It’s for comic books from the 1990s with gimmick covers. Which describes this mini-series exactly.

@Christian Comely –

What happened is that he stopped caring. That’s all there is to it.

@Bullseye12 –

Except that never happened. The Dark Knight Strikes Again was written and drawn BEFORE the WTC collapsed. And supporting The War on Terror hardly makes someone “crazy and super far right”. You have NO evidence that any of his political views have changed in the last 15 years save for his feelings about military intervention in the middle east. The only thing that’s “changed” about his personal politics is that he supports an unpopular war. And that’s it. That does not make him crazy and that does not make him “right wing”. And as has already been mentioned, he started moving towards nonsensical/dark self-satirical superhero pisstakes before the WTC incident ever happened, so that clearly was a conscious stylistic choice and had NOTHING to do with terrorism/politics. The quality of his work since Sin City and 300 might be crap, but there’s no connection between that and his political views.

Seriously, I am beyond sick of this “frank miller went crazy lol” meme. It has no basis in fact and only keeps being parroted because people can’t bother to do a few minutes research in google before spouting some crap they saw posted by some anonymous stranger on the internet. It’s annoying as fuck and ultimately amounts to nothing more than gossip. Even worse it’s EASILY DISPROVABLE gossip, yet people will not shut the fuck up about it.

With all due respect, Brian, this story arc is now considered the classic in DD lore and with critics alike (they point out that DD Omnibus Companion is far superior than the first entire DD Omnibus Frank Miller-run). Thus, the point of this “Gimmick or Good” segment is either anti-climatic or denouement. Cheers.

It sort of amazes me that Daredevil is the one clear flop of Marvel’s cinematic Golden Age.

I mean, Frank Miller crafted the most movie ready trilogy in the history of comics: Man Without Fear, The Elektra Saga and Born Again. It needs some polishing in the adaptation process, but nowhere near what the other Marvel characters needed.

Like Electra lives again not very good.
It was mostly a re-telling origin series, and it was boring…

Interesting to see so much love for this comic, I thought it was seriously underwhelming compared to Miller’s previous DD work. The brilliantly nuanced storytelling of Born Again and Last Hand is completely missing here.

With all due respect, Brian, this story arc is now considered the classic in DD lore and with critics alike (they point out that DD Omnibus Companion is far superior than the first entire DD Omnibus Frank Miller-run). Thus, the point of this “Gimmick or Good” segment is either anti-climatic or denouement. Cheers.

It is “Gimmick or Good?” This one is Good. That you think this one is obviously good is immaterial. It is not “Gimmick or Good? But only if people aren’t already sure that it is good.”

Bill Williamson

April 16, 2014 at 9:11 am

I think Paul is just expressing amazement at seeing this book featured here, seeing as most of the comics featured have been a part of the 90s ‘XTREME’ and this story is anything but. Personally I was surprised to see it here myself, as I didn’t know about the gimmick covers, having only read the series in trade.

Romita is an artist who has a distinctive style and needs the right inker. I love his work with Hanna, WIlliamson, or Palmer, but find his work with Green a tad awkward. And his recent attempts to work with Klaus Janson have been a depressing waste of two incredibly talented artists whose styles clash grotesquely.

Bill Williamson

April 16, 2014 at 4:38 pm

@ Anonymous guy: Frank Miller DID go crazy.

I’ve read a vast body of his work both pre-1993, post-1993 and post 9/11 and you cannot deny that 9/11 had a tremendous effect on him. Miller lived not very far from where it happened and his outrage at it inspired him to make what amounted to an anti-Muslim propaganda comic, amongst other things.

The Dark Knight Strikes Again was bad and it was written before 9/11. All Star Batman and Robin and The Spirit were much, much worse and they were written after if.

You can’t deny their was a dramatic shift in the quality of Miller’s work following the attacks.

Plus there was that rant about the Occupy movement that Miler wrote a few years ago. Miller fallaciously argued that people have no right to protest great reductions in their living circumstances purely because America is at war with the Middle East (which sounds Orwellian in its logic to say the least). He even used the word Islamicism in his rant.

Thankfully when CBR had the ‘Other Comic Creators’ Rebuttal’ someone had the sense to say ‘What does Occupy have to do with the War on Terror?’

I completely agree about Stick. The movie had the problem you mentioned of Matt’s abilities as Daredevil are completely unbelievable. The movie got it even worse by having to show us how he did this stuff WITHOUT Stick. Ugh, that montage hurt me.

For the Netflix series, I really do hope they incorporate Stick into a few origin flashbacks.

Overall, I don’t think anyone can deny this story’s quality. I loved reading it, and until a while later, didn’t know it had retconned that much, since it just worked so well.

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