Daredevil 231 has a cover-date of June 1986 and is both pencilled and inked by David Mazzuchelli. There are many Daredevil Mazzuchelli covers that I could single out, so it was a tough choice as to which to pick.
One of the reasons I picked this one is because it is part of the Born Again story line; it was what made me spend my hard won nine dollars back in grade eight to buy the trade paperback. The first Born Again issue that I read, issue 228, had the cracked face of Matt Murdock on the cover and it really affected me. Inside was a story of psychological destruction and degradation (you never see Daredevil in costume during the entire issue), the likes of which I’d never encountered in comics before. It really affected me. But it was the cover to 231 that made me buy the trade paperback the following year. Standing in Ron’s Comic Room in Scarborough and flipping through it, it was this image that made me want to buy the whole story arc.
Truth be told, the image in the trade paperback was not technically the true cover to Daredevil 231. It’d been recoloured by Mazzuchelli’s partner, Richmond Lewis, for one thing. For another, it had none of the text: the title, corner box, the Daredevil logo, etc. Lewis’ subtle yet glowing colours are much nicer than the flatter, popping colours that Christie Scheele used. Lewis also manages to add some light to the costumed figure’s profile and provide more gradations of colour, thus giving a sense of definition and bringing out the sense of weight and balance native to Mazzuchelli’s artistry.
Let’s talk about that artistry. To me, there is no eighties artist I quite like so much as Mazzuchelli. There are those who are more famous and collectible: Byrne, Miller, Simonson, etc. There are those who are more prolific: Perez, Grell, Adams (either Art or Neal – take your pick). But there is no one who carved such a singular niche for himself in terms of a balance between a fidelity to realism and an expressive sense of cartoon gesture than Mazzuchelli. Look at his figures, the small moments he captures as if his brain, eyes, and fingers are the mechanisms of some Edweard Muybridge-esque phenomenal camera. Look at the sheer beauty of his line as it delightfully moves from thickness and curve to thin and textured all within the same assured and naturalistic stroke. The progression of his growth over a few years (and beyond, into the late eighties and nineties) is nothing short of Picasso-like and the work on Batman: Year One, both in terms of artistry and design, remains an apogee of superhero comic storytelling, often imitated, never rivaled.
But back to this cover. There is something really surreal and mysterious about it. What it is – is that we see both Matt Murdock and his alter-ego, Daredevil, on it – and they’re fighting each other. Seemingly to the death. The impact of the blow and the pain it causes can really be felt, the silence of the moment deafening. If Mazzuchelli’s considerable grasp of anatomy and detail and balance weren’t being employed, this could be one of those really over the top Marvel covers, one of seemingly hundreds of covers employing the motif, and just as forgettable. The idea of the Freudian Double is not particularly new – the Superhero trope has always been fraught with the Double – the darker side, the schism between the two selves, the dream reality or paradox where the costume has a life, and a greater one at that, beyond its civilian wearer.
Daredevil 231 is lent a greater sense of that dream reality because there is no visual background or context to the fight – no buildings, no floor, you get the idea. And this isn’t because Mazzuchelli is unable or unwilling to draw backgrounds – he’s no Rob Liefeld – look at his incredible use of perspective and detail on the cover to Daredevil 225. Instead, he’s used a gradient splatter effect around the edges to create a spotlight in which the two figures fight. This further lends it a psychodynamic quality, a Gestalt experience. Narratively too, readers picking up the issue for the first time back in 1986 would have no idea what was going on – nothing in the preceding chapters provided context.
It’s not a totally figurative piece, illustratively speaking, although it is moving in that direction. By the time he renders Batman: Year One a little later in his career, Mazzuchelli will be absolutely assured in this approach: the covers will all be highly dramatic, lit strongly, often using a spotlight kind of approach (even the wings of the bat shadow logo at the top create a kind of spotlight contour) and with the exception of part three, are more symbolic rather than literal.
But just as Mazzuchelli’s line plays with the tension between the muted and the expressive, the realistic and the cartoony, his covers remain both rooted in the storyline while being effectively symbolic. There is a reason that Matt Murdock is fighting Daredevil and that is because in the story, the Daredevil costume is not his own: it is worn by a psychotic criminal, liberated from a mental institution by the Kingpin, instructed to commit a murder on Foggy Nelson and thus pin the blame on Daredevil. However, looking at the image, and before one has read the story, one can’t help but think it IS Daredevil. The costume is identical. Look at that belt – the way Mazzuchelli draws the buckle. Look at the boots which Mazzuchelli always drew more realistically and a little shorter than the way other artists drew them. Look at the shadow across the costume which emphasizes the musculature and the assailant’s horns and skull.
These are all consistent with the way Mazzuchelli had drawn Daredevil before. On a side note, I want to point out that if other artists approached the drawing of superhero costumes as essentially drawing naked bodies with lines upon them, Mazzuchelli is so adept with anatomy and realistic definition that he draws them as if they are pure sinew…with lines upon them. For a psychotic who’s been housed in a mental institution, this assailant has kept in very good shape! For those who had been following the story as it came out, the noticeable absence of Daredevil in costume for much of the first three issues, contrasted with suddenly seeing DD on the cover of this one, could have nothing other than the psychological effect of thinking Matt Murdock was fighting himself. And for those who were following the story and grasped its themes, he effectively was.
Then there is the rendering of Matt Murdock himself. There is something so distinctive about the padded jacket, and the boots, and the beard, that Mazzuchelli and Miller have decked him out in that makes him stand out in this story, this version of the character. Besides making him a Christ-like figure (once again commensurate with the ‘Born Again’ themes), the beard suggests growth and age, a new iteration of the character that is more mature than previous incarnations. The gospel allusion hits home through the titles placed on the chapters (this one is called ‘Saved’) but also through the somewhat heavy-handed introduction of Murdock’s long lost mother, a nun called Maggie (an allusion to Magdalene) who is spotlighted in nothing short of a pieta with herself as Mary and the collapsed Murdock as Christ. The sense of suffering and violence that are invoked on the cover of Daredevil 331 are Christ-like too, of course. At the same time, in keeping with the dual realistic/figurative talent Mazzuchelli employs, Murdock’s boots, jacket, and beard are rendered with balance, weight, startling proportion and composition, so much so that you’d feel no other figure could occupy this moment and place in time. A wholly unique and realized image.
I should also say something about the angle of this image which is a little tilted and looks down, but because of the lack of grounding, remains hard to describe. It also seems to bleed off the page a little. While I don’t think the Marvel Method of storytelling action is a natural fit for Mazzuchelli – his renderings are just too naturalistic to be ideal for that level of action – he did provide some interesting and dynamic covers. The motion of the ‘swing’ and locking DD in combat compositionally in that motion has been a go-to in previous covers:
Whether intentionally or unintentionally, Mazzuchelli did tend to come back to certain poses that made his Daredevil anatomically distinct from the Marvel Method – it was as if he was channeling his own rather subtle frequency:
In the Richmond Lewis version from the trade paperback, they’ve cut in a little closer at the top and bottom so that some of the splatter effect is gone and I think this is an improvement. The splatter dates the image to the eighties, as does the use of the title ‘Saved’ on the ‘ground’ below the two fighters. Mazzuchelli incorporated text into the images on his covers routinely in the earlier part of his career. It’s hard to tell whether at this point, this was Mazzuchelli’s decision or an editor’s, but it does effectively ruin the power of the image by distracting the spectator – the act of reading the large letters (and the text is at odds with the ‘feel’ of the image) performs the twitch of consciousness that takes one out of the hypnotic effect rendered by viewing the image alone. I wondered if it was a Marvel staff editor who had instructed the title to be splayed thus but there is an overlay in the Born Again Artist’s Edition with the title for that cover, indicating that it was Mazzuchelli at least who physically generated it, whether it was his choice to do so or not. The other covers in the series also often carried their titles in large glaring letters while, oddly enough, using a different font every time.
The other textural element (besides the bar code/black costume Spidey image in the bottom left corner) is the Marvel corner box in the upper left. I looove Marvel corner boxes from that period and the Born Again corner boxes are no exception. Marvel had a playful approach to them during the mid-eighties and the Born Again corner boxes, drawn by Mazzuchelli, often embodied some small narrative element that was germane to the story arc. 231’s box contains a low angle view of the Kingpin, looking somewhat unsatisfied and constipated, almost as if he’s watching over the fight, knowing deep down his ploy to frame Daredevil will not reach fruition. Perhaps my favourite Marvel corner box of that period actually belongs to an Amazing Spider-Man issue where the Hobgoblin maniacally and playfully invokes you to give in to your bad side and steal the issue instead of paying for it. I might even have listened to him and given in to my dark side (or at least my Double may have) once or twice because of him. 😉