Christmas Book Club: ‘Daredevil: Born Again’ – Chapter 6

by Koom Kankesan


Welcome to the sixth and second last chapter of the Daredevil: Born Again saga. Daredevil is now healthy and whole and reunited with Karen Page. This is very much a transition issue as it begins to resettle the various aspects of Daredevil’s life after the tumultuous upheaval of the first five chapters. Daredevil has lost access to his money, can no longer practice law, but this still isn’t enough for the Kingpin. What are Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli trying to say through all this?

Daredevil #232. There are many fantastic individual elements in this issue including Karen’s struggle to kick her habit and her characterization, the way scenes involving her are drawn and depicted, the wintry trees and blowing papers in the scene where Urich and Foggy meet, the re-characterization of Glori as a photographer and the internal monologue we get from her as she snaps pictures, and the incredible scene in the jail cell which sees death and more horror for Urich.

Let me avoid jumping into those so I can address the big picture stuff. There are three main themes involving Daredevil. The first has to do with the elimination of Daredevil’s secret identity and role as a lawyer. I never bought that there was a real tension between Matt’s identities as a lawyer and crime fighter. Though Daredevil is technically a vigilante, he never faced opposition from the law like The Punisher or even Spider-Man. Manolis, during the original run, was only ever gruff with him. With superheroes in general looked upon as benign entities by the time Frank Miller began his second run, it’s difficult to buy that Daredevil is as divided as he is about the law at the beginning of Born Again. There is some addressing of Daredevil’s violence in the last issue of the first run (Daredevil #191) where Daredevil ruminates on the fact that he and Bullseye are two sides of the same violent coin, but no development comes as a result of that realization.

The second theme is the religious element Miller introduces in the second run. This is fairly powerful but unfinished. The story is set around Christmas and Matt becomes a Jesus figure, replete with beard and saintly, or at least quasi-saintly, mother who has given herself to God. There is genuine and passionate suffering in this tale. It mimics the passion of the crucifixion – it’s impossible not to feel its power in the early chapters. Its gradual and intense progression might be what makes this tale resonate most deeply with readers. If we follow through with this theme, who does Matt/Daredevil become once he’s ‘saved’? What is the purpose of his transformation? Just as the Christmas season is deliberate, Miller specifically places Matt in Hell’s Kitchen for the religious connotation. I’d like to think that if Miller stayed on the title, he would have developed Matt’s relationship with Maggie and this spiritual schema more, this mixing of Heaven and Hell here on Earth. At the very least, hopefully Maggie’s character would have provided some answers but this may just be wishful thinking on a fan’s part. The truth may just be that Miller hadn’t thought these ideas all the way through at this time.

The theme that has the greatest presence for me is also the most hidden. Miller was contending in a very literary way with the economic reality of where and when he was living at the time he wrote this tale. Reading this story now between Black Friday and Christmas provides pitch perfect resonance. This story comes out in the mid eighties, during Reganomics and Thatcherism, a time of great conspicuous consumption. Karen’s line at the start of the story about it being the ’80s and doing what you have to do to survive/get ahead always hits me very deeply. We talked about Turk’s very cynical take on what he and Grotto are going to do: fool rich people into giving over their money while making them feel better. Foggy has reservations about how much he’s being paid and the upward mobility he and Glori are caught up in and she feels as if taking photos is ‘robbery’ (even Foggy’s love for her at Christmas is expressed through an expensive gold necklace which he “shouldn’t have” bought according to Glori). And of course, the Kingpin is constantly being referred to in economic terms. Miller’s really taken a page from The Godfather saga and linked the Kingpin to the state and the military; he is often shown in very corporate spaces whether they be boardrooms or offices or in front of consoles, he is at a business party in a previous issue and accepts a business award in the final chapter.

The Kingpin himself to some degree isn’t satisfactorily addressed or resolved as a character. Despite being the prime antagonist, he never again gets the depth of characterization and focus he receives in issue #228. Scenes with him after that are very fleeting. You have to be careful with a figure like the Kingpin – written too broadly, pushed too far, he runs the risk of becoming farcical or comical. #228 is very much about the opposition between Matt and the Kingpin. Despite his great power, the Kingpin is often drawn in solitude or darkness; he is an operatic villain, powerful yet unhappy despite his vast economic wealth. The only time he seems gleeful or genuinely excited is when he is pulling Matt’s life apart. Though we are given cursory access to his thoughts, we never again get the sustained intensity of introspection the Kingpin receives in 228 – the visuals in that issue also seem to get closer to him: his heavy lips and eyes full of wicked mirth.

We are told all of a sudden in the previous issue (#231) that Urich’s newfound courage is of great concern to the Kingpin’s organization. All of a sudden, the Kingpin seems vulnerable whereas he was indomitable before. If the Kingpin is hurt, it is through the press once Daredevil delivers Nuke’s body to the Bugle in the next issue; this doesn’t have the emotional impact we feel we need having read the earlier chapters. Once again, given more time and space, Miller may have pulled attention back to the Kingpin and resolved matters in a more satisfying manner – it’s hard to know. Perhaps Foggy might have helped Matt from within the organization – or worked against him – who can tell? The Last Rites four-parter by D. G. Chichester and Lee Weeks years later in 1992 tries to go back and address this lack of resolution but doesn’t seem all that satisfying either.

As mentioned in a previous post, freezing Matt’s assets and destroying his legal career frees him not only from the chains of legal practice, but from money itself. We are told that Hell’s Kitchen is “aching muscles and growling stomachs – children’s feet on broken glass – hopeless laughter, echoing across an empty lot.” The children’s feet on broken glass doesn’t sound that great, and neither does the hopeless laughter, but this is definitely a colourful neighbourhood of feeling and sensation, deprivation and depravity too perhaps, but also the camaraderie and life native to people living in the trenches of society. Just look at Maggie’s mission or the owners of the diner where Matt works. The sense of struggle to live in New York, day to day, and not have money is very palpable.

In Miller’s first run, both Matt and Daredevil talked readily but here, the new Matt is a fairly silent being, saying just the right thing when it is most needed. He is recast as a legendary figure even while existing alongside others. He always seems plugged in, intuitive, always in the right place at the right time. Karen says that despite Matt’s warmth and sweetness, there is “something cold and hard, something waiting, something frightening” in him. Given his ability to act with grace and precision, he is like a Robin Hood and Hell’s Kitchen becomes his Sherwood Forest where he can hide and lose himself. The Kingpin represents the same kinds of forces the Sheriff of Nottingham and Sir Guy of Gisborne represent, albeit in a modernized version. Robin Hood is very much an economic hero because he robs from the rich and gives to the poor, and nuns and friars are a very present staple in the Robin Hood mythos.

What Miller and David Mazzucchelli end up doing is giving us a hyper-realized document of the times they are living in, the tensions of mid 80’s Manhattan and the kinds of choices people had to make in that milieu. Batman: Year One seems to exist in a time that’s modern but also somehow the forties. Cars are modern but the clothes and lighting are reminiscent of the classic Batman era. It exists in a perfect bubble of design and atmosphere, but the clothes and locations in Born Again feel more distinct, more palpable, more real. Batman’s actions happen within an abstracted Gotham but Born Again belongs to a very real New York. And by association, Born Again‘s characters feel that much more personal, distinct, and real. This is a work in which we can taste and feel and hear that New York was not an easy place to live in and survive.

Even though he is not in costume, Matt’s new look: his beard and hair, his puffy blue jacket and jeans are a sort of new costume in and of themselves, at least a distinctive look that indicates a different kind of person. He is still at least partly a shell or mask. We will never be able to see too much into him despite him being the main character. It’s a kind of psychological pattern Miller will abstract more and more as time goes on until we get the very flat kinds of heroes in Sin City and the later Martha Washington stories. It’s why Elektra in Elektra: Assassin doesn’t seem like the same Elektra we met in the initial run. These characters become mythologized, almost like statues, and we rarely see Matt’s eyes or pupils properly defined. I feel a bit sad when I see Matt shaving his beard because I liked that look, it made him look mature, but it is part of the ritual of reintroducing him to the red costume. If you want to be clever, you could argue that the red of Daredevil’s costume represents socialism but I think it’s more of the devil association and the Catholic imagery Miller and Mazzucchelli are playing with here. Daredevil’s reintroduction in costume takes place against a backdrop of flames evoking hell as Hell’s Kitchen burns. Miller orchestrates Daredevil’s return with maximum operatic lighting and dramatic effect against the flames, reminiscent of the way he reintroduced the Kingpin at the end of issue #170.

Daredevil, after Miller’s refashion, becomes more like his versions of Batman: resourceful, hyper competent, streamlined and simplified psychologically, quick to act, less human, more deadly and less bound by society’s trappings and rules. In the next post, we’ll take a look at Nuke, Cap, and the death of the American Dream.

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