Christmas Book Club: ‘Daredevil: Born Again’ Chapter 2
by Koom Kankesan
‘Daredevil: Born Again’, written by Frank Miller and illustrated by David Mazzucchelli, is the Christmas story to crush all Christmas stories ever to come out from Marvel Comics. It’s definitely got to be the one with the most pain and pathos. In this post, we look at chapter two – the aftermath of the Kingpin having discovered Daredevil’s secret identity and having done everything in his power to rend Daredevil’s civilian identity to shreds. In the previous issue, the Kingpin manipulated events behind the scenes to have Matt Murdock’s money frozen, framed him as a lawyer resulting in his disbarment, and finally had Murdock’s brownstone house blown up. The opening of this chapter sees Murdock with ten dollars left in his pocket and spending eight sleeping the night at a fleabag motel.
Daredevil #228. David Mazzucchelli’s partner Richmond Lewis colours this issue though Mazzucchelli is credited in the original printing. I’m not sure why regular colourist Christie Scheele did not colour this issue – if the decision was intentional, there might be something to do with the fact that this is definitely the most harrowing of the tale’s chapters and one of the most disturbing news stand comics Marvel ever published. There is really no way I can discuss this issue objectively. As far as I can remember, this is my first encounter with Frank Miller and Daredevil – it was a single issue sitting in my school’s library (my school librarian would buy comics off boys for a quarter and then put them out in comic bags for us middle school patrons to read) which I borrowed and took home, curious because of the dramatic cover. I was in Grade 7. Imagine this as your first ever introduction to the character and you’re in grade 7. The inside was even more disturbing than the cover and I didn’t understand what was happening but it mesmerized me and left the strongest impression.
I read The Killing Joke and the full Born Again tpb the following year in grade eight and half-jokingly claim that they kickstarted puberty. The Killing Joke has darkness and violence, but I think it’s more of an intellectual darkness/violence – it stays with you and you mull it over – it seeps into your consciousness through the mind. DD #228 is chock full of emotion and angst and visceral, immediate violence. It enters through the gut. It was like watching Rambo: First Blood when I was ten – there was just something in it that’s a siren call for young men, something to do with violence and the troubled emotions of those times. I call it the Taxi Driver issue and the visual nods to the film with Matt Murdock on the cot in the dingy room and the checker cab in the East river towards the end cement this association for me.
I think there’s a kind of suffering and pain and violence that appeals to young men that comes down through Westerns in movies – and this is perhaps inherited from Catholicism/Christianity (the passion of the Christ/suffering on the cross). In Westerns, it is the idea of being an outsider and the ritual cleansing of violence. In this issue, Matt is little more than a mask, his grim unshaven face and tinted glasses deflect scrutiny instead of inviting sympathy as they would have in the past. His visage projects a lack of expression, but the psychodrama is so compelling that we are right in the nightmare with him. There are some very complex and disturbing things at work here. Taxi Driver plays with a similar progression but ultimately sees it as a cycle that doesn’t end – Bickle’s nervous paranoid movements at the very end suggest that killing Sport and the others, rescuing the young sex worker Iris, has not ‘cleansed’ him in the end. During future posts, we can examine how Born Again deals with these topics as it could be argued Matt goes through a similar trajectory with Karen Page serving the purpose Iris does in the movie, even though these similarities are very general. All that I can ultimately say about this issue is that it has affected me quite profoundly and powerfully. I think it’s still a stigma for men to talk about mental illness or bouts like this but like most people, I’ve had some rough times during crises or extreme conflict in my life and I often think of this particular issue in relation to them because it taps into something very disturbing, very deep, and thus resonates.
Even the subtler things like the content of the caption boxes (like Alan Moore, Miller eschews thought bubbles for ‘voiceover’ caption boxes, a preference which at that time seemed to signify a style that was more mature) where Matt’s thoughts go in circles, his ability to only think in a limited way about his situation, being so depressed he cannot leave the room and at first only fantasizes about leaving it, the disturbed phonecalls to Glori and Foggy and then the automated time service all build an atmosphere and mental feeling that is quite compelling yet alarming.
Miller has been using a kind of removed storytelling style thus far in the story. We saw scenes that served as slices of time strung together in the last issue. You could think of them as various strands of the web the Kingpin was spinning and pulled tighter as the issue progressed. There seemed to be these jagged cracks (or flailing cobweb strands) in the edifice throughout the tightly wound issue 227 and at the very end, Miller and Mazz take a hammer to this edifice, and it cracks apart with just one blow. Issue 228 is then a kind of release where there’s a lot more unity of time, the sweet release of having the time just seep out and spread. These two issues are paired like the conscious and the unconscious, potential and kinetic, building up and tearing down.
The two scenes of physical action that really stand out in this issue are the scene on the subway train with the muggers and the scene where Matt fights the Kingpin. Both are noteworthy. In the subway scene, once again, Miller uses the narration of the Kingpin’s henchmen (hilariously trying to sound erudite and misusing words constantly) to distance us from Matt which really complicates what would normally be edgy violence, into something that is more distant, yet even more abnormal and shocking for it. I always think of this along with the equally violent subway scene in the Punisher Limited Series from around the same period in Marvel history. However, the writing and storytelling is so much more sophisticated and even mysterious in Miller and Mazzucchelli’s hands when dealing with the violence – the precise yet distant choreography of it. It ends with Matt rearranging spines and assaulting a police officer, relishing the violence. On a practical level, taking down the cop allows Matt to have a club which he can use against the Kingpin, a throwback to his Daredevil identity.
If we look at the opening splash of this issue, we see that Matt had his white club there in the seedy hotel room where he stayed after his brownstone house was blown up, but for some reason, they chose to have him leave to fight the Kingpin without it. Was this because Matt no longer wanted to pose as a blind man? Was it a mistake to include it in the hotel room in the first place? Did the rat under Matt’s bed poop on it and ruin it for him? So many questions. On a more metaphorical level, Matt assaulting the police officer signifies that he’s crossed a line he wouldn’t have before. In line with the antagonists of westerns (think of some of those Clint Eastwood roles), this Matt, this mask, is someone we don’t know from before, someone we’re not quite comfortable with, and it’s thrilling. His assaulting a cop is significant in that he’s really given up the side of him that was a lawyer and fought so ardently for the principle of the law in Miller’s first run; it signifies a symbolic break. I suppose that if we want to be cleverer, we could argue that his original billy club is white, representing innocence, and is a precisely tooled and balanced instrument, whereas the cop’s truncheon he is now armed with is black and heavy, a more brutish weapon.
OK, now to that fight with the Kingpin. What an unbelievable encounter. Compare this to issue 171 (the last time Daredevil physically squared off against the Kingpin) and they are like chalk and cheese, with perhaps the ONLY similarity being that the Kingpin has the upper hand in terms of physicality. Matt is not leaping off walls or trying to outwit the massive opponent – it’s a very believable down and dirty alley fight, brief and punishing (that spray of blood on the Kingpin’s face as he grins!), except that it’s in an incredibly modern corporate suite, rendered in exquisite abstract style as only Mazzucchelli can delineate. For me, it’s this sequence when Miller and Mazzucchelli’s sensibilities fuse together so completely that they are one living breathing creative entity. In the fight on the subway which was exquisite, we still see that extremely naturalistic grounding in the surroundings that remind us of Mazzucchelli’s virtuoso rendering techniques from the previous Daredevil issue in Venice (#221) or the one with the Vulture (#225). Here, towards the end of #228, he has streamlined the detail and the storytelling so that it’s just impression and rhythm, the detail in Matt’s face and attire contrasted with the simplicity and repetition of the plants and long hallways, the lack of feature or ornamentation on the walls, the complete abstract white space of the fight. An abstract space where the drums beat towards an inevitable end, the rose blood bursts of violent impact against the black as much a sensation of force and outcome as they are a representation of blows. It is truly incredible and we’ll see and feel this use of rhythm and storytelling used to even more powerful ends in the next issue.
And the words… the words… “there is no corpse.” This is work that thoroughly transcends its medium.