When I think about two characters that I relate to, whether I’m feeling my worst or my best, I think of two icons who have more in common than you may think: Daredevil and Charlie Brown.
I know what you’re thinking, how are a superpowered blind lawyer who dresses up in a devil costume to fight crime and a little boy who just can’t seem to catch a break anything alike? Well, the similarities become the most clear in their Christmas stories.
Ah, yes, Christmas. A time for love, togetherness, family, peace on earth, and good will toward men. And also the most difficult time of the year for many of us.
Christmas can be an emotional roller coaster. Wherever we are and whoever we’re with, long cold nights and constant reminders that we should be happy can magnify our struggles. It’s times like these where I look for comfort and encouragement, not just in the people around me, but in the stories I remember. And few characters provide me with as much comfort as Daredevil and Charlie Brown.
“A Charlie Brown Christmas,” the Peanuts animated special that brought cartoonist Charles Schulz’ characters to life for the first time in 1965 is a holiday classic, but Daredevil has been the star of quite a few Christmas stories over the decades, too. From a near-death trudge through snowy New York to a holiday trip for blind children gone wrong, Matt Murdock’s grief and fortitude are highlighted by his contrast to the cheerful world around him. And it’s at times like these where I find Charlie Brown’s search for meaning and Daredevil’s quest for redemption to be the most similar.
At the time of this video’s publication, we’re right in the middle of my annual Darecember series, which gives me the chance to analyze the many different iconic stories that have brought Matt Murdock to life over the years. But December is the perfect month to talk about Daredevil because, when you think about The Man Without Fear, it’s easy to picture him against the backdrop of a cold, damp, lonely New York. Sure, DD wasn’t created by Stan Lee and Bill Everett to be a hero caught in the grips of his own worst demons, but he’s been reformed into that archetype by authors like Frank Miller, Ann Nocenti, and Brian Michael Bendis. There’s plenty of stories that put Matt Murdock in the midst of a New York heat wave, but Daredevil in the rain or snow seems so much more appropriate for a character who’s often battling his own depression and anger to become the hero he needs to be. The days get cold, the nights get long, and Daredevil’s highest highs and lowest lows seem so much easier to imagine.
Theologian Henri Nouwen said, “Who can listen to a story of loneliness and despair without taking the risk of experiencing similar pains in his own heart and even losing his precious peace of mind? In short: ‘Who can take away suffering without entering it?’”
But if there’s any other character that knows what the lowest lows feel like, it’s Charlie Brown. Chuck’s been the preeminent lovable loser in fiction ever since his debut in 1950 under the pen of Charles Schulz, and while Charlie has never put on a costume and fought crime, he’s stood in for many of us at some point in our lives.
Charlie Brown and Daredevil – two characters always thinking the worst of themselves, always in contention with the deeply held beliefs that keep them going, and always in need of other people, even when they can’t admit it. I could find no two better characters to relate to when considering my own good grief.
If there’s any holiday that can contrast characters’ emotional journeys, it’s Christmas. You know how it is – carols, snow, and festive capitalism playing as the backdrop to swirling angst and brutal violence. But even without some holly jolly action, considering the modern holiday season is enough to give someone an existential crisis. Someone like Charlie Brown.
And that’s what “A Charlie Brown Christmas” is all about. Young Charlie finds himself depressed during the holidays and questions what the season means when he can’t seem to find a purpose for himself. Add in rampant commercialism and a gaggle of kids who, in typical Peanuts fashion, reflect mature problems, and you have a Christmas that does more harm than good. Emotionally, Charlie sticks out like a sore thumb amongst the happy kids. He’d only be more out of place if he wore a red devil costume.
And depending on the artist, Daredevil’s aesthetic can stick out from his surroundings, contrasting heavily against everything around him. This is a character built on a contradiction – a Catholic hero who dresses as a devil – and few environments are as contradictory to The Man Without Fear than a wintery Christmas wonderland because, while a lot of Christmas superhero comics (and there are a lot of them) cast their heroes as bringers of holiday cheer, that’s not Daredevil.
The Man Without Fear’s holiday stories seem to frequently find the hero at a low ebb and physically exposed at the coldest time of year. Charlie may be depressed and questioning everything in his life, but Daredevil is doing all of that and ALSO getting his head kicked in.
And in Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli’s “Born Again,” Matt reaches his lowest point in issue 229 – “Pariah” – the most explicitly Christmas-themed issue of this Christ-like tale of spiritual death and rebirth. Matt is, quite shockingly, stabbed by two-bit thug Turk Barrett dressed up in a stolen Santa costume. Turk, the constant butt of the joke in Miller’s more lighthearted Daredevil run with Klaus Janson, being the cause of Matt’s final fall is shocking and humiliating. It would only be worse if the actual Santa Claus stabbed Matt. This is a Daredevil who’s little more than a shell of what he used to be, nearly killed by a non-threat and so mentally broken as to not even seek help. At the issue’s end, the fallen Matt is discovered by his long-lost mother, now a nun, in a recreation of Michelangelo’s “Pieta,” and thus Matt’s journey toward rebirth begins.
Despite the darkness at the center of these stories, there’s still something warm and transformative about them. These are high concept entertainment. Something artificial we imbue with belief. Something that evokes the perfect Christmas evening we’re always trying to create. Warm and comfortable by the tree on a cold night, far away from the problems we’ve been plagued with all year, even if it’s just for a moment. These stories, after all, are meant to take us away from our own lives.
Watching “A Charlie Brown Christmas” was a holiday tradition for me when I was growing up, always tuning in to see our hero question the world around him and eventually find happiness when all seemed lost. There was something I found relatable and true, even in a cartoon made decades before I was born. As I grew up, Charlie’s depression became more and more understandable. His lows were my lows and the comfort he received from his friends finally rallying around him became my comfort. Because whether it’s trying to finally win a ballgame, get the little red-haired girl to notice him, or stop believing the worst things about himself, Charlie’s struggles are our struggles.
To quote Schulz, “Charlie Brown must be the one who suffers because he is a caricature of the average person. Most of us are much more acquainted with losing than winning.”
The myth of the superhero is of a perfect man who has no bottom to their emotional strength. But that’s why it’s a myth and why the ending of “A Charlie Brown Christmas” is so perfect. Because after everything he’s learned, Charlie still can’t quite make Christmas perfect, even for that little tree that needs him. But it’s his friends finally rallying around him that evokes the true spirit of Christmas – peace on earth, good will toward men. It’s not just comfort for Charlie, it’s affirmation that we all might have enough love for the people in our lives.
If only that could be accepted by Matt Murdock.
Ann Nocenti wrote three separate Christmas Daredevil stories. Her first two, Daredevil issues 241 and 253, use the season to highlight people taking advantage of it for their own gain, with Daredevil struggling to make a difference in a New York that festers with crime. But it was real life events that inspired Nocenti’s third Christmas story.
With no one to spend the day with and nowhere to go in a lonely New York, Nocenti spent Christmas at the local bar.
“I met other unfortunate souls like myself that had nowhere to go on Christmas,” said Nocenti. “As I drank rounds with these strangers, I thought of the comic I was currently writing, Daredevil. I was planning a story arc that was going to blow up Matt Murdock’s life. I thought, ‘Damn, he could end up here at the end of that arc.’ So, in the spirit of the camaraderie of that day, I wrote a little tale for a Daredevil story that came out a year later called, ‘A Beer With the Devil.’”
It’s a story that sees Matt, his personal life destroyed, his apartment burned down, and his friends alienated by his self-destructive impulses, hole up in a bar while in costume. All the characters from Nocenti’s real life experience show up until things take a dark turn with the arrival of a woman who turns out to be Mephisto (basically Marvel’s version of The Devil) in disguise. Here to torment Matt and tempt him into embracing his worst side. Yes, Matt does indeed make out with the devil. That’s canon.
Nocenti’s story has no real mind to fully redeem and reinvigorate Daredevil, simply to put him through new forms of torment. But every author has a different approach, bending and stretching the character in different directions as either an inspiration or warning to readers.
That the character could go in either direction is what makes so many Daredevil runs compelling. Will Matt Murdock stumble? Will Daredevil be the hero we know he can be? It seems as if Matt Murdock will always be destined to fall into darkness, even if it’s brief, but we always root for him. Like Charlie Brown and the football, we just can’t help but think that THIS time, finally, he’ll get what he’s always wanted.
When it comes to Christmas cheer, it seems like a lot of us are in the mode of “Fake it til you make it.”
If we can just play enough Christmas songs, string up enough lights, we’ll find the joy constantly promised to us. And if anybody knows anything about “fake it til you make it,” it’s Matt Murdock.
That’s the central struggle of Mark Waid’s Daredevil run – starring a Matt that’s hit the lowest point in his entire life and whose solution is to simply pretend that everything’s fine until it actually is. And this is where we find Daredevil in issue #7, which opens with a Christmas party and Matt, cheekily wearing an “I’m Not Daredevil” sweater, putting on his best face for his guests and later escorting kids from the school for the blind during their annual Christmas trip. It’s a small showing of love and togetherness that’s suddenly thrown off course when their bus crashes in the middle of nowhere during a blizzard. Now, Matt has to not only be strong for himself, but for the dozen very cold, suddenly very vulnerable children that depend on him.
In the end, Matt and the kids make it to safety. Not because Daredevil pulls them through, but because they are brave for one another, with the kids even pulling Matt along when he collapses from his injuries. And it’s all because of a vulnerable truth he shares with the children as their snowy trek begins.
Unlike so many other Daredevil stories, this small snowbound tale and all of Waid’s run believe that good things are possible, even for people who believe the worst about themselves. It’s an affirmation of the goodness in ourselves that is lived out when we love and support one another.
So many Daredevil and Peanuts stories leave their central characters right back in the predicaments they started in, but not all of them. And when these stories let our heroes win, the victories feel that much more earned.
I find Charlie Brown and Matt Murdock to be inspiring in the same ways because both have believed the worst about themselves, only to become stronger by confronting their issues. While we can all find sympathy for people in the world that are hit harder than we’ve personally been hit, it’s something else when you’ve experienced the darkness that others are now going through.
“Through compassion it is possible to recognize that the craving for love that people feel resides also in our own hearts,” said Nouwen. “That the cruelty the world knows all too well is also rooted in our own impulses. Through compassion we also sense our hope for forgiveness in our friends’ eyes and our hatred in their bitter mouths. When they kill, we know that we could have done it; when they give life, we know that we can do the same. For a compassionate person nothing human is alien: no joy and no sorrow, no way of living and no way of dying.”
As a kid, I always looked at Charlie Brown and thought, “there’s someone who could understand me like no one else could.” And as an adult, I look at Daredevil and think, “there’s someone who could help the world in ways no other hero could.”
Yes, these are fictional characters, but all emotion and truth in fiction comes from an honest depiction of the human experience. If I relate to Daredevil, and you relate to Daredevil, then we relate to each other, even if we never meet.
The truth is, after all these years, I still love Christmas, I still love Charlie Brown, and I still love Daredevil. Because, I think, no matter how many times they’ve failed, they can still get better. They’ll finally kick that football. They’ll finally find happiness that sticks. We’ll finally show each other the love we deserve.
And if it doesn’t work out? Well, there’s always next Christmas.
Daredevil at Christmas
- Daredevil #7 2011
- Daredevil #206
- Daredevil #229