“Anyway, it’s been a hell of a week. (Hell of a week …) Hell of a year! Hell of a year is what it’s been … Almost a year to the day when Matt Murdock took control of ‘The Kitchen.”
And so begins the second half of Brian Michael Bendis and Alex Maleev’s Daredevil, a story that began with a good man’s most self-destructive impulses turning him into his own worst enemy and whose fallout will see him unable to outrun the consequences of his actions.
When Bendis and Maleev took over as the ongoing creative team for Daredevil under the Marvel Knights imprint, they inherited a character with decades of history, but whose new mature label provided them with a freedom to explore weighty tales of urban crime and deep-seated corruption. And for a hero whose stories have consistently provided a layer of grime and torment on top of his bright red spandex, it was the chance to explore what years of loss and guilt would do to one man.
As we discussed one year ago, the first half of Bendis and Maleev’s run begins with Matt Murdock’s true identity as Daredevil being exposed and, although the media and the police are never able to definitively prove it, the sudden destabilizing of Matt’s world informs everything that comes after. Most importantly, that includes Matt beginning a relationship with the blind Milla Donovan and his increasing desperation to keep his life intact. It all culminates in an explosive battle between Daredevil and the newly returned Kingpin. But issue 50 sees Matt brutally beat Fisk and drop his body in front of a small group of criminals, declaring himself the new Kingpin.
What does this mean for both the soul of Matt Murdock and the soul of Hell’s Kitchen? Readers would have to wait 6 issues, as the creative team took a break for David Mack to return for his second Echo story, but when Bendis and Maleev resumed their run, they dropped readers back into Daredevil’s world one year after that fateful night. And with Matt Murdock’s status as the new Kingpin of Hell’s Kitchen would come a bigger target on his back than ever.
After examining the first half of Bendis’ and Maleev’s run last year, we’ll be examining the second half of their time on Daredevil, spanning from issue 56 through 81, to see how this creative team breaks apart Matt Murdock through the use of shifting, constantly widening perspectives and what their run says about The Man Without Fear within a more complex sociological system.
And no matter how hard he’ll fight, this devil will eventually have to pay his due.
The Devil in the Details
If the first half of this run was the story of years of grief and loss piling on Matt Murdock’s back until it broke in one fateful night, then the second half is the exploration of the fallout.
Bendis has structured his narrative around a Matt Murdock operating in a more realistic world of urban crime and personal loss, but it’s the start of his second half that tracks us back even earlier than his secret identity being exposed and toward the true start of this spiral – the death of Karen Page.
Page was killed by Bullseye in Daredevil vol. 2 #5 – the biggest moment in Kevin Smith’s “Guardian Devil” arc that kicked off the Marvel Knights era of Daredevil. And while Karen had been gone from the pages of DD for awhile, her death protecting Matt and a baby that may be the reincarnation of Jesus (long story, it wasn’t, let’s not get into it) causes the hero to briefly contemplate suicide. However, the end of “Guardian Devil” sees Matt return to the light and find a renewed faith and purpose in his fight.
That’s a quick way for Smith to return the character to status quo for subsequent writers, but in the world of Bendis’ Daredevil, the death of a woman he’s loved for years (decades in real world time) wouldn’t be nearly as easy to move on from. In the aftermath of a fight with the Yakuza that leaves Matt heavily injured, Ben Urich confronts his friend with the belief that he had a nervous breakdown in the aftermath of Karen’s death and everything that has happened in the time since is the result of having fallen into a deep depression and being in constant denial of it.
The revelation causes Milla, who married Matt during the missing year, to leave him. And understanding that the weight of years of loss have caused Matt to become violent, desperate, and erratic helps us understand everything that’s come before and what will come next. This is a Daredevil living in deep depression and with no one there to help pull him out.
The second half of Bendis’ Daredevil is comprised of five major arcs. Together, they illustrate the inescapable situation that Matt’s put himself in.
“King of Hell’s Kitchen” picks up a year after the end of “Hardcore” and is largely told from Ben Urich’s perspective, who intends to find out what happened to Matt. We’re given glimpses into what happened during the break, including a reign of terror on criminals by Daredevil, his long absence from crime fighting, and a confrontation between Matt and his fellow heroes. Soon, Murdock is pushed back into being Daredevil when he’s targeted by the Yakuza, which will lead to even more confrontations.
“The Widow” brings Black Widow back into Matt’s life at the worst possible moment, on the run from a government that wants her dead and slamming into criminals looking to take out the new Kingpin. Their long-standing attraction to one another tests Matt’s love for Milla while allowing Bendis to explore one of the oldest relationships in Daredevil’s history.
The single issue “The Universe” touches on different moments that have happened throughout the series so far, but reveals new unseen moments. It’s a miniaturized version of how Bendis has widened Daredevil’s world, creating a web of perspectives and institutions all affected by Matt’s decision to declare himself Kingpin.
“The Golden Age” tells the return of Alexander Bont, the original Kingpin of Crime before Wilson Fisk, who leaves prison intent on destroying Matt Murdock, who put him there in the first place. And by jumping between three distinct eras, we see a constant cycle of corruption and the men ruthless enough to take power.
“Decalogue” reveals a weekly support group gathering to discuss how Daredevil has changed their lives in Hell’s Kitchen, only for their stories to reveal this group of strangers to be more connected to one another than they knew. And with these slow revelations, we expose how Matt Murdock both inspires and terrorizes corners of the world he never knew about.
And finally, “The Murdock Papers” has the FBI target Murdock for obstruction of justice when The Kingpin promises to give them the information they need to pin him to his identity. It’s the climactic arc that brings the many women in Matt Murdock’s life back into the picture as the noose quickly tightens after our hero has avoided it for so long.
This is a downward spiral, a constant pull toward disaster that must either conclude in Daredevil embracing his darkest impulses to stay free or accept responsibility for his actions and their consequences. What Bendis has done so well here is that in his hands, this is no longer a superhero book with clear morality, but a very human crime drama filled with people who have no strict moral code. And by moving his hero away from acts of daring-do (really, how many fights in this run are about stopping criminals versus how many are about Matt saving his own skin?) and instead making this about taking power by any means necessary, we are never sure what decision Matt Murdock will make until the very end.
The Vortex of Matt Murdock
In my last video on this run, I went into a more in-depth examination of Maleev’s scratchy visuals and inky blacks as the ultimate interpretation of what Bendis’ street level crime take on The Man Without Fear was trying to convey. But it’s important to examine Maleev’s art in this back half, especially as the artist becomes more experimental in his style.
Specifically, The Golden Age gives Maleev and colorist Dave Stewart the chance to employ three unique approaches to convey the shifting time periods that are critical to the story. Obviously, the black and white approach to the distant past draws a direct line to Bendis’ early noir comic “Jinx,” but it also connects the past to the noir genre in general, which is thrown off kilter by the arrival of superheroes, illustrating that the world of New York crime will soon change from the coming of the Marvel Age. The shift to the benday dot pop art of Daredevil’s yellow days is meant to help readers place this new tale in the context of the early Stan Lee and Bill Everett days, but its overly-saturated usage also evokes the satirical melodrama pop art of Roy Lichtenstein. And even in these seemingly simpler times, the violence inherent within Bendis’ take on Daredevil remains, drawing a sharp contrast between a brighter age of heroes and the seedy underbelly of crime that predates them.
“Decalogue” also affords us a rare look at Maleev’s take on Daredevil’s hypersenses – something rarely shown in the artist’s run up to this point. Maleev interprets the blind hero’s perception as a series of lenses on the exterior world. Some sharper, some foggier, but each with their limitations. To us as outsiders, it’s bewildering, and it paints this take on Daredevil as living in a chaotic world that needs constant diligence to understand.
Of course, Maleev’s filthy, stained, pencil-scratched and ink-rubbed take on Hell’s Kitchen remains throughout. But Maleev’s New York is forced into the light with “The Murdock Papers,” filled with colorful characters and bright action set in broad daylight. Even Bullseye, who Bendis only used in one other story due to Kevin Smith calling dibs on the character for his miniseries “Daredevil/Bullseye: The Target,” which, surprise surprise, never saw more than 1 issue ever published, gets the chance to shine here once again in combat with Elektra. It’s the perfect accompaniment for the story of the truth about Matt Murdock being forced into the open with nowhere to run and nothing left to hide.
The second half of Bendis and Maleev’s run uses many different perspectives to better understand how Matt Murdock’s world is influenced by his slow, catastrophic descent. While the first half of the run employs a similar constantly roaming eye to understand how Hell’s Kitchen operates, we’re now intensely focused on how Matt is perceived. Ben Urich, Black Widow, Foggy Nelson (once again experiencing an unfortunate newsstand revelation), The FBI, the members of the Daredevil support group, and more are each given brief roles as protagonist in Daredevil’s world instead of Matt Murdock.
Who is Matt Murdock now? That’s the question everyone seems to ask, even the man himself.
After all, this is the man who’s declared himself as the ruler of Hell’s Kitchen. While he’s used that position to quell crime in the area instead of profiting off it, he never truly defined what that meant to his city. The act means that he’s no longer Daredevil, the gutsy fighter constantly working to clean up his home, but the mythic figurehead whose status has been slowly accepted by criminals, cops, and everyday citizens, whether they like it or not.
In that moment of rage, Matt changed everyone’s perceptions of him, and here in these 26 issues, the creators allow us to slowly understand what that means.
The Devil in Heaven and Hell
While Bendis devotes much of his run to how everyone else is impacted by Daredevil’s decisions, just as much of it is about how Daredevil is ultimately subject to a world that’s larger than his influence could ever be.
This Daredevil is a hero trying to operate within a system – a system of crime, of courts, of law enforcement, of media. There are no simple solutions because there is no single end-all be-all opponent. Even someone as powerful as Wilson Fisk is simply another aspect of this system of systems, which is why his weakness at the start of all of this leads to his near assassination and a fall from power he can never reverse.
In sociology, social systems are patterned formal and informal networks of relationships between individuals, groups, and institutions. These range from family units to communities to industries, with each system adopting shared properties like location, socioeconomic status, societal function, and more. We see many, many systems within Bendis’ run and Matt’s decision to declare himself Kingpin is a social disruption within all of them. How these systems respond is beyond Daredevil’s control and leads directly to this story’s conclusion.
Every action taken by a character happens within a larger social system that either helps or more often hinders them. Ben Urich’s decisions on how much information about Matt he’s willing to share could cost him his job or even leave him in jail. Black Widow’s efforts to exert control over the FBI’s investigation are stopped because of a change in leadership at SHIELD. Wilson Fisk’s efforts to escape the law are complicated by an FBI director with a grudge, landing him right back in prison just as he’s let go. Each piece of Bendis’ story must eventually accept that the formal and informal institutions in place around the world are bigger than them.
The only one who seems to have trouble grasping that concept is our title character.
The Matt Murdock brought to life by Bendis and Maleev is a fascinating blend of hubris and self hatred, a man who believes he can somehow fix everything after his identity is exposed and who also blames himself for everything that’s gone wrong in his life. It’s why he can both declare himself Kingpin in a moment of absolute hatred and then later believe that what he’s done was for the sake of making his home a better place for everyone in it. Both of these things can be true because there’s no absolute moral guidepost within this series.
Daredevil is seeking to save himself and along the way, he lies to the press, hides the truth from his wife, makes life worse for his friends, and works to subvert the criminal justice system to which he’s dedicated his life. But it’s not only the justice system he disrupts.
Daredevil also exists within the larger system of religion. Matt is a Catholic, after all, and Bendis makes sure to include nods to that in “Decalogue,” which is part of an homage to director Krzysztof Kieslowski. However, in showing how Daredevil is a type of god in Hell’s Kitchen with his own set of commandments, we’re also shown how small Daredevil is in comparison to the God he believes in. Matt has slowly violated his own commandments over time, making him worthy of judgment in his own eyes, in God’s eyes, and in the eyes of the law.
This is the collision between the grey morality of this run and the arbiters of right and wrong found in law and religion, two institutions far larger than Matt Murdock could ever become. And no matter how hard he fights, Daredevil is eventually arrested by the FBI for obstruction of justice.
In his final issue, Bendis has Daredevil stand at his own arraignment, faced with pleading guilty or not guilty to the charges against him, only to suddenly escape to start a new life with Milla. The issue then jumps forward further and further in time, only to suddenly reveal it’s all been a fantasy – the worst possible decision for the hero to make. While Murdock pleads not guilty, he’s left waiting trial in Riker’s Island, surrounded by The Kingpin, The Owl, The Gladiator, and more who want him dead.
Said Bendis, “The ending you read here would not have been possible without Ed Brubaker. I had this idea cooking but didn’t think it was doable because it’s not fair to the next guy unless the next guy wants to go this way. When Ed was mulling over the idea to take over the book, he muttered: ‘Matt should go to jail.’”
In some ways, this ending was inevitable – the bullet finally hitting after being fired at the end of issue 50. Everything that’s come between then and now has been a form of denial.
Simply put, Matt Murdock must pay for his sins and rather than going to heaven or hell, he’s in purgatory. Perfect for a Catholic. Unable to escape his sins, unable to fully accept what he’s done. Only able to wallow in his grief, stuck in a situation he can’t get out of.
In Ed Brubaker’s follow-up run, we’ll see that the only way out is further and further down. But for now, Brian Michael Bendis and Alex Maleev’s time with Daredevil leaves us with the conclusion that whether we see ourselves as god or devil in the world, the world will always be larger than we could ever be.
Eventually, our power and luck run out and judgment comes for us all. Are we innocent? Are we guilty? We may spend our lives denying it, but we all know the truth long before the verdict.