Monday, 2 September 2013

Daredevil #177 and the Impact of Frank Miller

A Childhood Discovery and its Enduring Influence

by J. Albert Barr


In the Fall of 1981, when I was thirteen years old, living in my hometown of Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada, I happened to walk into a convenience store that was located at the corner of Rothesay Ave. and McAllister Drive on the eastside of town where I lived with my young family. If memory serves, I was simply visiting the store with the intention of buying some candy (a not altogether unusual activity for someone around that age, certainly back then) but when I saw that they had a spinner-rack of comic books, I found myself helplessly gravitating towards it to peruse the collection of new comic books on display. 

The spinner-rack featured comics from the two main publishers - then and now - of superhero comics: DC Comics and Marvel Comics. There were also a few issues from the likes of Gold Key, Harvey, and even Charlton Comics, but DC and Marvel dominated the selection, no doubt. I saw the latest issues of, say, Batman, Detective Comics (the other Batman title, of course), SupermanAction Comics (the other Superman title, of course), Green Lantern, Amazing Spider-man, Incredible Hulk, Moon Knight (issue #14, in fact, which I would buy about a week or so later, thus introducing me to the fantastic artwork of Bill Sienkiewicz; a brilliant, multimedia illustrator whose work is second only to Frank Miller's, IMHO), Captain America, The Micronauts (a personal favorite of mine from the 80s), so on and so forth, until I finally came across an issue of Daredevil ("...in His Strangest Adventure", and it turns out they weren't lying!). It was a lone copy of #177, and it had an immediately eye-catching front-cover, as well as a very intriguing tag-line at the lower right-hand side of the cover that read: "Yes, we did...we dared to publish this, the most offbeat story of the year!" The title of this specific, personal watershed, issue was/is: "Where Angels Fear to Tread". That famous title (which E.M. Forster gave to his 1905 novel) comes from a previously famous line from Alexander Pope's 1711 poem "An Essay on Criticism". The full line reads: "Fools rush in where angels fear to tread." 

The cover to this seemingly irresistible superhero comic book (which only cost a mere fifty cents in 1981, though the next issue - #178 - would cost me sixty cents when Marvel increased their prices to match DC's) featured our titular hero, Daredevil, in apparent peril attempting to escape the gaping, razor-sharp jaws of a huge and hideous, multi-eyed demon! Only on this issue's cover do we actually see Daredevil wearing his cowl (i.e., his mask); it hangs behind his shoulders like a hood all through the issue's interior panels, and with good reason. I picked up this issue and started flipping through its 20-plus pages with great interest and curiosity.

As I jumped from page to page, the speed in which I commenced initially began to slow down as each subsequent page more and more transfixed me and the burgeoning sensibilities I was unaware of inside me during those days of pubescence when the biological changes of a boy just entering his teens had begun to sprout, so to speak. I eagerly purchased that issue of Daredevil and brought it home to read it through excitedly, both absorbing Frank Miller's hardboiled-style writing and his engrossing art more thoroughly. I was immediately smitten with this man's work! I also learned that Miller's first issue on Daredevil was in 1979 with issue #158. He began writing the issues as well beginning with #168, in which introduced his very popular female character, Elektra.

To my mind and memory, at the time, I had never seen such a dark and weird, moody and mature looking superhero comic book before (the closest being Batman #251 a couple of years prior; the classic "Joker's Five-Way Revenge" issue featuring the amazing, realistic artwork of industry legend, Neal Adams), where the story appeared to depict the hero unmasked and fighting some sort of monster in his own mind. In other words, a superhero, in human alias-mode (blind defense lawyer, Matt Murdock), struggling with the psychological complexities of his internal world and past childhood trauma. In Jungian terms, Daredevil/Matt Murdock was fighting against his "shadow", his "personal demon". This kind of storytelling (the raw modern text, the taut, visual illustrating, creatively fluid and cinematic panel structuring, emotional texture and visceral, noir-like atmosphere) was something completely new to me at that understandably na├»ve age of thirteen. And in a subplot within the same issue there was a story involving the political corruption of a mayoral candidate who was being controlled by one of Daredevil's recently established arch-villains, The Kingpin (Frank Miller needed a crime lord for his developing, issue by issue, plot in Daredevil, and so appropriated The Kingpin from Spider-man's rogues gallery with complete impunity); political corruption was a concept which I was not very familiar with in the "real world" until I got older and more informed (as well as cynical, of course) about said real world.

To provide a relatively brief summary of Daredevil #177, it begins with Daredevil unmasked, fully exposing the head of Matt Murdock as he sports the rest of his costume only in the presence of his former trainer and master; a considerably older, rough and cantankerous man simply called Stick. A couple of issues back in Daredevil #175, our hero was nearly killed in an explosion. Though he survived the blast, Daredevil lost his "super radar sense", which he instantly developed after an accident years before that robbed him of his sight. However, all his other remaining senses were ultra-enhanced to a super-human level. In issue #176, Daredevil is seen struggling with the loss of his radar sense, as he clumsily goes out on patrol in New York's Hell's Kitchen, keeping close vigil of The Kingpin's actions and also trying to track down the deadly female assassin known as Elektra, who just so happened to be his ex-girlfriend from several years back. His girlfriend at the time, Heather Glenn, even witnesses him nearly falling to his death as he was jumping from building to building and slipped a bit.

So clearly Daredevil was in great need of some help in order to get his radar sense back, hence the sudden appearance of Stick. The two of them, at the beginning of Daredevil #177, are in a stuffy, old attic filled with old mementoes and such from Matt's past. He is holding a bow while packing a bevy of arrows. There's a target at the other end of the attic where he's been attempting to hit with arrows for three consecutive days unsuccessfully. He's tired and frustrated, and feeling utterly lost physically, emotionally and mentally. But Stick is a hard disciplinarian and won't let Matt rest. Stick insists that Matt has to dig deep into himself, psychologically, if he wants to get his radar sense back, and that apparently involves being around familiar things in a familiar setting. And constantly trying to hit the target as he simultaneously travels back in his mind to his childhood where he lived with his single-parent father, a washed-up boxer, who urged Matt to study hard and "become somebody" unlike his father. Matt was also the frequent victim of bullying from the neighborhood kids in Hell's Kitchen. He wouldn't fight back because his dad didn't want him to become like him, which of course frustrated young Matt. After actually fighting back during one instance of getting bullied, Matt ran home, elated by his victory, only to incur his father's immense disappointment, further confusing and frustrating Matt in the process.

With each traumatic childhood memory resurfacing intensely, Matt shoots an arrow at the target only to miss it again and again, provoking Stick to whack him with his han bo (i.e., three foot wooden staff) to motivate Matt with, evidently, good old-fashioned negative reinforcement. It works because Matt takes yet another try at the target, but seems to get more and more frustrated, as well as angry with each increasingly futile attempt. Finally Matt confronts his father (who's been dead since Matt was about eleven) in his mind, in a boxing ring. As Matt (still in his Daredevil costume with the mask off) tries to embrace his father (who's garbed in boxer's shorts and gloves) he's punched in the face by him. This internal confrontation represents, in Matt's psyche, his father's continuing disapproval that still echoes deep inside of Matt even as an adult and superhero! When Matt's dad suddenly is shot in the back by an arrow, Matt is then confronted face to face with the psychological appearance of The Devil, his "personal demon", the very manifestation of all of Matt's hatred and anger, but most importantly, his fear that has been festering deep within him. After fighting the demon with little to no effect, it is at this moment that Matt has a revelation, an epiphany, thanks to the unrelenting taunting from the demon, who states: "This is the end, Mattie boy. I'm gonna rip the flesh from your bones, piece by piece...Scared?" He realizes, probably because he's just so damn exhausted by all his anger and frustration and fear that he isn't afraid anymore, that this is all absurdity and unreal, so Matt then picks up the bow and arrow, slowly and assuredly, and says calmly: "No. I'm not scared. And I'm not angry. Not anymore. And that's why I can kill you." He then shoots an arrow straight into the center eye of the demon. The demon instantly disappears and we then see an arrow stuck into the center of the target within the attic (which represents the human psyche) that Matt and Stick occupy. To be sure that Matt did indeed get his radar sense back, Stick shoots an arrow at Matt as he's pulling his arrow from the target. Matt easily deflects the incoming arrow and then grins.                              

I didn't know it then, but that issue proved, I suppose inevitably, but no less pertinently, to be rather prescient for me personally, as I too would go on to battle my own "personal demons", and psychological impediments, through my beleaguered teens and early adulthood. But the lesson, nay revelation, learned from Daredevil #177 would stay with me, at least latently, throughout those years, becoming more and more manifest with each passing year of my own self-imposed auto-didacticism and investigations into human psychology and human history via my becoming an avid reader and talker/communicator, as well as an aspiring writer. That Daredevil issue and the many subsequent ones I collected over the course of the following year or two, coupled with the revelation that was The Police's 1983 "Synchronicity" album, inspired me to make my own comic books and characters, and write my own songs; to ultimately express myself and my growing world view.

Because of Frank Miller's memorable work on Daredevil I was compelled to seek out his other work, both past and present. One of the most unforgettable works by him, shortly after he left Daredevil with issue #191, was his groundbreaking six-issue mini-series published by DC Comics entitled Ronin. It was obviously a series meant predominately for adults to read. However, I was only about to turn fifteen when issue one was released, costing $3.00 and was presented in deluxe format, with high quality paper stock, hence the much higher price. Ronin is about a disgraced Japanese samurai warrior whose master is killed on his watch by a demon named Agat. Hunting down Agat the ronin must kill the demon with his own blood, and so when the chance arises the ronin drives his samurai sword through himself and Agat, but before they both die Agat is able to trap their souls in the sword whereupon they are eventually freed eight centuries later in a dystopic, near-future New York City. The ronin winds up being reincarnated into the body of Billy Challas, an unfortunate born with no limbs and working for the Aquarius Corporation testing out cutting-edge prosthetics, and developing his telekinetic and psionic abilities. When the merge happens between the two, Billy's body and his powers artificially develop arms and legs, and the face of the ronin overtakes Billy's own. When the ronin realizes he's back and feels the full affects of disorientation by being reborn eight hundred years after he thought he died, and then learns of the demon, Agat's, diabolically supernatural ploy to escape death, he sets out to find him and destroy him for good.

Admittedly, the story in Ronin can be a little convoluted and unfocused, but Miller's artwork was beyond anything seen in comics before, certainly North American comics, as he displayed a manga influence hitherto unfamiliar to American and Canadian readers of comic books. And the graphic level of violence depicted within the series' six issues (especially issue #2! At the time reputed to be the most violent comic book ever made) was also an example of pushing the proverbial envelope in 1983-84 when comic books were becoming more and more adult-oriented.

This growing-up process in the comics industry culminated in 1986/87 with Frank Miller's monumental 4-part Batman mini-series The Dark Knight Returns, with its heavy political overtones, and returning the Batman character to his initial roots with his 4-part Year One arc in the pages of Batman #404-407. Miller had also perhaps written the most beloved Daredevil arc a year before with the Born Again set of issues. Miller also enjoyed substantial successes with his series of Sin City comics (where several stories were eventually made into a fine 2005 film co-directed by Robert Rodriguez and Miller himself) and his 5-issue mini series 300 (which was also made into a highly successful film in 2006, directed by Zack Snyder). Alan Moore also played a pivotal role in comic books growing-up and gaining much more legitimacy outside the confines of the industry with his amazing graphic novels V For Vendetta and the groundbreaking Watchmen, which brilliantly deconstructed the superhero mythos. Other great writers like Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison and Warren Ellis would shortly follow in Miller's and Moore's considerable footsteps with their own outstanding, literary and mature works.

Admittedly, Frank Miller's latter-day work has been far less inspiring, or just plain bad. His highly anticipated sequel to The Dark Knight Returns released in 2001-2002 as a three-issue mini series and called The Dark Knight Strikes Again met with much disappointment, if not outright hostility, among fans and critics alike. His All-Star Batman and Robin would pejoratively give birth to the regrettable "goddamn Batman" slogan, and his 2011 Holy Terror graphic novel was a lurid exponent of off-the-tracks political propaganda (by his own admission no less!) and sheer lunacy. So Miller has apparently not escaped the fate that has stained the legacy of other great artists, musicians, poets, directors, and so on, who outlived their respective artistic peaks, and yet continued to produce subpar works. But for me, Miller's earlier and mid-period work made an indelible impression on me and influenced me greatly, not just as an artist in my own right, but as a human being and individual.

1 comment:

  1. Um ... just wow. I just had my kids read DD 177 (I read it when it came out, I was 13). Your writing is EXACTLY how I felt about it. Well done, and thank you very much!

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