Every superhero gets a wake-up call, and faces an adversary so powerful it tests every fibre of their being, sending them plummeting to the depths in despair. In Frank Miller’s story arc Born Again, Matt Murdock hits the murky depths and thrashes in the dark for a way out.
Drawn by David Mazzucchelli, lettered by Joe Rosen, and colored by Christie Scheele, this graphic novel was published in 1987 and comprises of issues #227-233 from Daredevil. With Miller behind the tale, you can rest assured that this is not an adventure for kids with pun-tastic punchlines to action scenes. Instead, you get a gritty crime story about a man attacked from all angles and left for dead. A blind man at that.
The premise is that lawyer Murdock’s secret superhero identity is compromised by the woman of his life, Karen Page who has hit hard times. Starring in dodgy movies in Mexico, she sells his identity for a hit of heroin. This results in Murdock spiraling into hell and back. It’s such a great way to confound him with obstacles, rather than a simple head-on attack by a villain; to be betrayed by someone he loves is much more interesting.
Once his nemesis, powerful crime lord Kingpin, learns of Daredevil’s identity he sets about destroying Murdock’s life from every direction. The fearsome terror that Kingpin inspires in people is not simply because of his physical presence, giant walking wall that he is, but because of his connections. He has fingers in every pie, strangleholds on people from all walks of life. By the time he’s done, Murdock has lost his job, his apartment, his friends; his sanity also decides to vacate his skull sending him wandering the mean streets of New York like a raving mad vagrant.
Murdock hits rock bottom. Attacked from all sides, but the finishing blow is steeped in irony because rather than be killed by his nemesis, Kingpin conspires to send Murdock to court to be convicted of bribery and perjury, ultimately losing his job and barred from practicing law. Ouch.
He loses everything important to him and descends into paranoid depression, squatting in a rundown hotel and beating up innocent people who he thinks are out to get him. It’s great. Well, not for the poor guy, but it makes for an entertain read, because you can’t wait for him to rise up, stronger and angrier.
Kingpin is a great villain. Rather than be a moustache-twirling character wishing for the quick demise of his nemesis, Kingpin savours the hunt and massacre of his victim, and in Murdock’s case he relishes taking apart the hero’s life limb from limb. There’s a grudgingly impressive quality to a man like Kingpin, a detached business-like calm to his misdeeds. Even when given the best opportunity yet to kill Murdock with his own bare hands, he restrains himself knowing the clean-up would be messy and come back to haunt him, so instead ensures Murdock’s demise happens away from him under a controlled environment.
There is an effective moment when a reporter sympathetic to Murdock’s plight is being squeezed by Kingpin’s cronies who work in all industries; his eyes are everywhere, even at the Daily Bugle. Ben Urich has to listen to a potential ally die on the phone while surrounded by his colleagues going about their daily business, the pressure tightening around him, the feeling of helplessness is potent on the page.
There’s another awesomely tense scene featuring the reporter’s wife in peril, and it’s a scene straight out of a taut 70′s thriller. The comic is refreshingly lacking in typical superhero action, no swinging around ropes or flying punches to the face. Just brutal frenetic street fights. Well until the last part of the story anyway.
It all starts to get a tad predictable and veers into ridiculous territory with the introduction of Captain America’s weird crazy cousin, Nuke, who is recruited by Kingpin to settle matters. It’s a stark change of tone from the rest of the story, but being that it’s moderately entertaining to see mayhem explode in New York with a bazooka-wielding maniac with the American flag tattooed on his face, I give this arc of the story a pass. Plus, readers yearning for action of the superhero variety get their bloodlust satiated when Daredevil and Nuke go head to head amid a city at war with a one man army, all leading to a crowd-pleasing climax which I won’t spoil.
Mazzucchelli’s art is a showcase of the very best of the 80s. Colourful, detailed, with personality, worthy of Miller’s script. I may be spouting blasphemy here, but I just don’t like Daredevil’s outfit. He looks like a bright red circus performer or bondage victim. Luckily the outfit does not have much of a presence in the story, which is more concerned with Murdock’s plight than Daredevil’s.
Before I wrap the review up, I have to recommend another graphic novel as a double bill, called Love and War which was published in 1986. Written by Miller again, but with art by Bill Sienkiewicz, and lettered by Jim Novak, this 63 page story has some of the best art I’ve ever seen in a comic.
Pure art, soft almost watercolour style streaks, abstract yet also realistic in human expressions. Just amazing, almost every single frame is worthy of being framed on your wall.
The story concern’s kingpin’s entrapped and catatonic wife and his attempt to treat her by kidnapping a renowned psychologist. He uses a demented wildcard character to kidnap the psychologist’s wife as ransom, but things get a little out of hand. Cue Daredevil to the rescue. It’s a neat little story, but the art elevates it drastically. It goes beyond mere aesthetic beauty and works in moving the narrative. Particularly effective moments occur when the demented wildcard’s face is drawn as if splintered, highlighting his fractured and volatile mind state.
Daredevil: Born Again is a highlight of the franchise, and a great story for newcomers to the character.