Kevin Smith vs. Mark Waid: The End of an Era for Daredevil
1998 was a very weird time for Marvel Comics. They had gone bankrupt two years before, X-Men and the superhero movie renaissance were two years away, and Daredevil had just been canceled. So when writer/director Kevin Smith came onboard to write a new volume that would also launch the Marvel Knights imprint, it seemed a boon from the gods. The indie superstar had made a splash in Hollywood with Clerks, Mallrats, and Chasing Amy, and the geek-friendly sensibility of those three films made Daredevil a fait accompli for Smith.
2016 is a new world. Marvel has released a dozen movies in their shared cinematic universe, with many more to come, and after being acquired by Disney will never worry about money again. Once obscure characters are household names, with Daredevil's acclaimed Netflix series making up for the mostly ridiculed 2003 movie. Marvel comics, meanwhile, just in the last few months relaunched with the All-New, All-Different initiative that, while not a reboot, sees most of its characters in vastly different positions than a year ago. That's certainly true of Daredevil Volume 5, with the titular character's return to Hell's Kitchen, new job as assistant district attorney and restored secret identity marking a clean break from an almost continuous 17-year-long storyline.
What started with Kevin Smith's "Guardian Devil" ended last year with Mark Waid's "The Autobiography of Matt Murdock". Smith laid the groundwork, remixing years of stories from Frank Miller to Ann Nocenti while kaleidoscoping across the fringes of the Marvel Universe. David Mack, Brian Michael Bendis, Ed Brubaker and Andy Diggle continued where he left off with a decade of grim and gritty, neo-noir street level crime fiction that saw Matt Murdock's secret identity outed to the public, his marriage to and eventual annulment from Milla Donovan, and his ascent to leadership of the ninja death cult The Hand. The throughline across every writer is Murdock never getting over Karen Page's death in "Guardian Devil". Waid's brightly colored, thrillingly adventurous take on the character is a stark contrast, with Murdock finally letting go of the past and choosing to move on.
But Waid's Murdock couldn't exist without the murky gray world of the previous writers, and they wouldn't without Smith's rejuvenation of the character. So in memoriam for the best mainstream comic book long-form story in modern times, Waid's last work will be contrasted against Smith's first. Surprisingly, they are more similar than different, especially compared to what came in-between.
So first of all, what are the basic building blocks that make Daredevil such a potent character? He's a devout Catholic, but dresses up like a devil; he's a lawyer by day but tears up the streets as a vigilante by night; he's blind but his other senses are heightened; and being blind makes him fearless as he can't see what would frighten him. Every element of the character coalesces together thematically with, for instance, his residence in the appropriately titled Hell's Kitchen lending him an Irish background that explains his shock of red hair and a religious upbringing that ironically contradicts his superheroic modus operandi. Most importantly he's a massive hypocrite known for being a womanizer, mistreating his friends and on occasion having nervous breakdowns. Throw that all together with a striking, sleek costume that has maintained the test of time (even if it gets tweaked every once and a while, such as right now) and a physical condition that at any time makes him an underdog and the most powerful person in the room, and you have the ingredients for the most multifaceted, compelling character in superhero comics.
All of these elements are present in Smith's "Guardian Devil", which starts off with classic status quo in place for the Man Without Fear. He and Foggy Nelson are working at a law firm together, his Catholic faith is present but tentative and he runs around rooftops beating up criminals. The catalyst for conflict is a young mother that claims her baby is the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. What follows is a gauntlet that turns Murdock's life upside down and the result is the love of his life, Karen Page, murdered by his archnemesis Bullseye. In the end the man behind the curtain is revealed to be (spoilers for a nearly 20-year-old comic book) Spider-Man villain Mysterio, who has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. He wishes to go out in a blaze of glory, but in a '90s twist discovers that his foe Spider-Man is an imposter (the clone Ben Reilly), so he settles for DD and ultimately shoots himself in the head. Murdock rallies in the face of despair and fights on.
Smith's eight issues read like a greatest hits tour of this corner of the Marvel Universe, but is grounded by a core of emotional honesty. Black Widow plays a major role, a wink to Gerry Conway's 1970s run. Miller is paid tribute with a Machiavellian figure that knows Murdock's secret identity pulling his strings and the dreaded Bullseye fridging a love interest while Nocenti is given a shoutout with a pivotal cameo by Mephisto. But what keeps this from being only a slideshow of old favorites is how well Smith captures the characters' voices, Murdock in particular. Although presented in an overly verbose barrage of captions that would put Chris Claremont to shame, there's a consistency of tone and melancholy insight that makes the whole thing truly engaging. Take a heart-to-heart with Spider-Man that shows an understanding of the characters' individual and shared histories in subtle, graceful ways that don't rely on Wikipedia. There's a reason Smith was once critically acclaimed for his naturalistic, witty dialogue.
By comparison, "The Autobiography of Matt Murdock" has Waid's unique stamp of obscure continuity intertwined with provocative character work, and culminates years of narrative building, but it's still working within the same sandbox as Smith. Murdock is living in San Francisco, a nod to the aforementioned Conway run, after admitting in court that he's Daredevil (the inevitable effect of Bendis's monkey wrench). Murdock has united his dual identities, wearing a red business suit sans mask while crimefighting and lawyering. He and Foggy, who faked his death at the beginning of Volume 4 and has been fighting cancer, and Murdock's girlfriend Kirsten McDuffie have started a firm together. Murdock has basically spent the entirety of Waid's run (and Waid's thesis is every writer's run since Smith) acting reckless, and attempting to convince Foggy it's not to avoid grief over Karen. What solace he's finally found is threatened to be shattered, however, by the machinations of the Shroud who controls all forms of telecommunications. In a desperate bid Murdock forges a deal with Wilson Fisk, the Kingpin, but that backfires, of course, with all the players colliding in a battle royale.
Waid caps off the longest sustained run of any writer on Daredevil, four and a half years, with a mix of the old and the new. The biggest throwback is the obligatory presence of the Kingpin, here a major player in the story whereas with Smith he only has a brief, if important, cameo. Like so many times before their confrontation has an air of finality, but the serial nature of comics means these two men will be locked in their maniacal chess game in perpetuity. New players include the Shroud with his exigent preying upon digital privacy, and the ninja Ikari that has mastered Murdock's abilities while also maintaining his sight. Waid lends a sense of swashbuckling adventure, with the risk of Murdock losing hope or his sanity never in question, as opposed to Smith who in classic Miller fashion (setting a precedent that subsequent writers would pick up on) pushes Murdock to the edge with him barely pulling back in time. But the key to Waid is the palpable sense of striving and irreverent laughter in the face of impossible odds is afforded weight because it's in reaction to the ball Smith got rolling.
What the two books share is an aesthetic and tone. When it comes to comics there's a spectrum of art that on one end leans towards illustration, an attempt to recreate reality, and animation, cartoonish approximation of life. Both Joe Quesada, artist on "Guardian Devil", and Chris Samnee, artist on "The Autobiography of Matt Murdock", lean toward the latter. Quesada's style is actually reminiscent of later career Frank Miller, with exaggerated extremities and impossible angles. Everyone is kind of puffy, like gravity is weighing them down, but there's also a real sense of power and passion. Samnee, meanwhile, is a bit cleaner and with less detail, but conveys a clear sense of geography and pregnant action. His look is very modern and louder about the medium. What they have in common is they are pure comics, heightened and immersed in a world that allows for demons, men in tights and courtroom judges to coexist without any cognitive dissonance.
That tone continues into the writing, with Smith maintaining his trademark fun but with a sense of edge. Smith was of course known at the time for, and has continued to be known for, his irreverent humor but he also was in the thick of what could be called his socially relevant period. Chasing Amy came out in 1997 and attempted to tackle not just a positive portrayal of homosexual characters but also the modern male's handling of his partner's sexual past. Dogma was just a year away as well, the height of controversy for Smith as the movie would satirize aspects of Catholicism. "Guardian Devil" doesn't go overboard with any social commentary, mostly maintaining a sense of banter between the characters and plot-focused momentum that stays firmly in the realm of pulp. But it's not afraid to go dark, so to speak, throwing in an HIV angle with Karen and killing her off, a practice that was shocking at the time and has only come under more scrutiny within the comic community since due to its marginalizing of female characters.
Waid, meanwhile, was at the height of his powers with "The Autobiography of Matt Murdock". Not only has his Daredevil been critically acclaimed, he's maintained a consistency over the years that started with The Flash (really cementing Wally West as a classic character) and continued with the graphic novel Kingdom Come and into the 2000s with Superman: Birthright. His key has always been to tap into the humanity at the heart of the fantastical, and he certainly did that with Daredevil, finding that core of Matt Murdock. This throw-caution-to-the-wind variation, smile on his face as he hurtles into danger, is no featherweight denial of the grimdark past but a complex layering of a history that involves avoiding introspection to survive. There was really no other way to go when Andy Diggle's Daredevil murdered Bullseye and battled all his friends, and Waid understood that. His is a long tradition of cutting the cord and starting fresh, much like Smith had to do back in 1998 when the character ran out of stream.
We'll see where 2016 takes Matt Murdock. Waid, while breathing new life into Daredevil, also painted him into a corner for those that wished to see the platonic version of the character: fighting in Hell's Kitchen, maintaining a secret identity, juggling his day job as a lawyer and his night job on the streets. What's clear is that this unprecedented era that saw an unexpected character usher in a new age of Marvel has ended after 17 impressive years of juggling plot points that few single writers could have maintained, much less six. Smith and Waid have to be given credit for taking risks while staying true to a 50-year-old character that continues to stay vital.
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