Just how far can a hero fall? In the hands of writer Ed Brubaker and artist Michael Lark, we’re about to find out.
Over the last several years, I covered Brian Michael Bendis and Alex Maleev’s Daredevil run – a story that saw Matt Murdock on a path of self destruction that inevitably found the hero of Hell’s Kitchen locked up in Ryker’s Island prison for his obstruction of justice. And this is where Ed Brubaker’s run begins. But if you think being in prison and surrounded by the countless criminals he’s helped put away is a bad place for Daredevil to be in, things will only get worse from here.
By 2006, Ed Brubaker had already made a name for himself in comics with runs on Batman, Catwoman, Gotham Central, and Captain America, bringing a noir lens to the superhero genre through detective and espionage stories that grounded more colorful adventures within dangerous worlds that reflected street level and international crime. So when Brubaker was chosen to shepherd Daredevil after Bendis and Alex Maleev’s award winning run, it was no surprise that Brubaker’s noir storytelling sensibilities would seep into the world of The Man Without Fear.
After coming onboard, Brubaker and Lark’s time on Daredevil volume 2 spanned from issues 82 through 119, an annual, and the special renumbered issue 500, running from February 2006 through August 2009. It was a time of transition as well as balancing long running plot threads with new directions. It was also the run that saw Daredevil end its time under the Marvel Knights imprint and transition back to the traditional Marvel banner.
But after a long-running story that saw Matt Murdock suffer a nervous breakdown, get married, seize control as the new Kingpin of Hell’s Kitchen, become more violent than ever, and be locked away by the FBI, where could Brubaker go next?
Under Brubaker’s control, Matt Murdock will slip further and further from the light in a series of seemingly inevitable choices and consequences that take the Devil of Hell’s Kitchen from prison to Europe to New York’s ancient underbelly. But does Brubaker’s Daredevil run live up to the gargantuan crime epic of his predecessor? What is a Daredevil story when filtered through the noir fiction approach? And how will this story of a damned hero in a devilish world find new levels of darkness?
This is the story of Ed Brubaker and Michael Lark’s Daredevil and the downward spiral of a hero.
The Road to Hell
Even in the bright adventurous early days of the character, Daredevil’s stories have always had a smaller scope than his contemporary Marvel heroes. He’s someone that’s defined by his connection to the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood of New York and even when fighting someone like Electro or The Hulk, it’s usually in the context of a smaller real world location. Daredevil’s usage of real world aesthetics and crime that was more drug deals and human trafficking and less world domination and spandex really took hold during Bendis’ Marvel Knights run. And it’s within this context that the majority of Brubaker’s run is placed.
Matt Murdock finds himself locked in Ryker’s Island, a real world jail just made bigger and more dangerous with its supervillain prisoners. Daredevil travels across Europe, with only the most extravagant locations playing host to his adventures. A crime wave of realistic robberies sweep Hell’s Kitchen, but are propelled by a new drug that sparks ultra-violent impulses. Brubaker is focused on small, intimate violence that ripples through the lives of his characters, but with a comic book flair that acts as the cause. And then there’s The Hand, but we’ll get to the undead ninjas and their unbalancing of Brubaker’s focus later.
Right from the start, Brubaker is using these real world threats to put even more pressure on Matt’s mind. There’s no better mission statement for Brubaker’s brutal testing of Daredevil than the opening arc of The Devil in Cell Block D. And there’s a reason why this creative team’s first story is usually held up as their best.
Marked for death by the many enemies around him, trying to keep his plausible deniability of being Daredevil intact, and with the situation only growing worse with every issue, Cell Block D is the perfect example of how you test the mental fortitude and morality of a very fallible hero without breaking them. By the time Ryker’s inevitably explodes into a riot, forcing Matt to team up with fellow inmates Kingpin and Bullseye, you realize that Brubaker is intent on making his hero compromise his morals for the sake of his own survival. And while Chip Zdarsky would later revisit the idea of Daredevil behind bars, this story of Murdock’s downward spiral still feels fresh.
But once Matt is out of jail, escaping with the help of The Punisher of all people (another touchstone of Matt’s moral compromise) and eventually exonerated, Brubaker’s run can’t help but feel like it’s still working in the shadow of Bendis’ stories.
One of the reasons I love Daredevil and why I can keep making video after video on the character is because every creative team’s run takes the central aspects of The Man Without Fear and filters them through a unique lens. Bright and swashbuckling, dark and contemplative, political and unconventional, every writer’s run feels like they’re taking up the challenge of putting their name alongside some of the all-time greats and making their own unique mark.
So what I find to be one of the biggest weaknesses of Brubaker’s run is that it is extremely dependent on Bendis’ time on the title to fill in the gaps of characterization that inform its characters’ actions. While it’s great that Brubaker doesn’t throw away the character growth and faults that his predecessor spent so much of his run developing, (*cough* Charles Soule *cough*) it also makes his narrative feel very indebted to Bendis. While there are many Brubaker hallmarks, the run can almost be seen as a Bendis coda. At this stage in Daredevil’s ongoing story, Murdock has largely shifted from a do-gooder to someone whose time behind the mask is largely spent trying to cover up the mistakes he’s made over the past several years. And while Brubaker would have his hero eventually embark on more outright heroics, with the story Cruel and Unusual, co-written with Greg Rucka, being the rare one focused on saving someone not connected to Matt, it always winds up back at Daredevil trying to keep his crumbling life intact with his fists and feet.
In order to make the run his own, Brubaker shifts some of the title’s supporting players. Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, FBI Director Davis, and, besides one crucial action, Iron Fist, are all moved out of the title, and in their place are private eye Dakota North and law partner Rebecca Blake. But overall, the main cast of Brubaker’s DD is very stripped down. Really, the only mainstays of any Daredevil run are Matt and Foggy Nelson, with every other character being chosen by the author depending on the type of story they’re interested in telling. But Brubaker briefly challenges even this long-standing notion, with Foggy stabbed and seemingly killed in his first arc. We soon find out that Foggy’s actually in witness protection, but Brubaker destabilizes his friendship with Matt even further until the two are completely broken apart before the end.
Almost every arc within Brubaker’s time presents Matt with a challenge that can only be beaten by heading further down a destructive path. It’s Brubaker taking the general arc that DD has been on throughout most of his Marvel Knights time and making it the major theme.
Brubaker does, however, manage to pull his hero out of the prison predicament by the end of his second arc, The Devil Takes a Ride, when a dying Vanessa Fisk fabricates evidence to exonerate Matt and make it look like the FBI framed him. Matt accepts the freedom and returns to his normal life, but is burdened by even more guilt. The final punishment from Vanessa for all the destruction he’s brought into her life? Matt must get her estranged husband, The Kingpin, out of prison.
This may put greater guilt and psychological burdens on the hero, but it’s also a really long and convoluted deus ex machina, with Brubaker working his butt off to make it not look that way. But it is. Vanessa having everything perfectly orchestrated to free Matt, dying of a broken heart, and not hurting the hero in any way besides psychologically is, almost literally, a Get Out of Jail Free card. I can’t blame Brubaker for trying to move past Bendis’ plot threads, but the intentionality of shedding Bendis’ continuity sometimes seems to be the reason for certain stories existing, and not a side effect of telling something organically. But we’ll get to poor Milla Donovan in a minute.
From escaping prison to exonerate himself to battling The Kingpin for control of The Hand, Matt digs himself deeper and deeper, usually escaping his worst predicaments thanks to chance and the help of other people.
While placing ongoing superhero comics within Joseph Campbell’s monomyth story structure is kinda foolish because of their endless nature, the classic superhero story still draws its power from a hero journeying into the darkness and returning to the light stronger than ever. But Brubaker’s narrative has no intention of leaving the darkness. Matt Murdock sits within his nadir and finds new ways to go darker and deeper issue by issue.
It’s within this darkness that we see Brubaker’s noir fiction sensibilities define his Daredevil.
A Detective Devil
Brubaker is a noir writer first and foremost as a creator. Someone very focused on detective stories and street level mystery. That’s immediately at play in his first two stories, but it informs every arc’s story structure.
Given that Daredevil is often focused on fighting real world crime in a grounded power structure of mob bosses, cops, journalists, and the bystanders sucked into their webs, it’s strange that the noir approach is rarely used within these comics. As a subgenre of crime fiction, noir is usually propelled by a central mystery and the flawed protagonist searching for answers. Typically, that protagonist is an antihero detective, like Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade or Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, but anyone forced to navigate a mysterious web of sex and death to solve a crime can be a noir protagonist. And this is the role that Brubaker places Daredevil in, as the superhero action typically comes in service of the search for clues.
“The Devil in Cell Block D” is propelled by Matt’s search for Foggy’s killer. “The Devil Takes a Ride” features a classic femme fatale with a superpowered twist in the form of Lily Lucca. “Without Fear” sets up Daredevil’s battle with Mister Fear as a game of wits and clues more than a physical power struggle. Even the Milla-centric “Our Love Story” owes more to classic pulp romance than your typical superhero comic.
“I feel like I’m just getting to the good stuff in some ways,” Brubaker said in the midst of his run. “The first year of the book, it looked like the pendulum was swinging back the other way and Matt Murdock was taking back everything that was taken from him. The second year was about how after all he’s been through, he can’t just hit the reset button. It was kind of a meta-commentary on how there’s no such thing as a reset button.”
Brubaker’s noir perspective informs both the shape of these stories – mostly mysteries that set up several questions at the start of an arc and force Matt to unravel them – and the way his exposition is provided, echoing the classic noir structure and falling in line with a lot of Brubaker’s later work, most specifically Criminal, which would start while Brubaker was still working on DD.
Criminal and its many different stories is truly Brubaker’s noir masterpiece. Here, the tangled web of lives that perpetuate and are broken by cycles of violence feel like Brubaker and co-creator Sean Phillips have crystalised the types of stories they truly want to tell. The author’s time on Daredevil is great, there’s no doubt about that, but I can’t help but feel like he’s at his strongest when the superhero elements are in the background and the detective work and personal drama are in the foreground. No doubt Brubaker felt this, too. Besides his stop and start Captain America stories, he’d be done with superheroes by the early 2010s and has focused on his many different flavors of independent noir comics, largely done with Sean Phillips, ever since.
Bendis and Maleev’s time on Daredevil was so focused on stripping Daredevil down to a more real world crime story that his heroes and villains rarely wore their traditional costumes. That’s less so in Brubaker’s non-Marvel Knights stories, where Matt is constantly jumping in and out of costume and, although there are very few traditional supervillains found here, the ones we see are very happy to don the spandex.
When it comes to portraying a world of urban crime that is both realistic in its aesthetics and willing to dip into the superhero side, Michael Lark provides a grit and grime that’s necessary.
Lark is known for his work on street level stories, even when focused on superheroes. Clearly, Lark and Brubaker had already established a great working relationship with their time on DC Comics’ Gotham Central alongside co-writer Greg Rucka. And much like Gotham Central, a lot of Daredevil’s narrative is propelled by detective work and intimate conversations, with the superheroics punctuating the story.
Although Lark clearly had a lot of experience in the world of superhero noir prior to Daredevil, it seems like the illustrator has a period of adjustment needed here. Devil in Cell Block D might be Brubaker’s best arc during his run, but Lark improves a lot afterward. His pencils are almost too loose at the start, feeling a little sloppy and too willing to go off model from panel to panel. Afterward, the artist maintains his signature rugged style that fits the noir mood, but his characters and action are just more consistent.
Lark’s work isn’t flashy, but it has a great sense of pacing and rhythm, which is crucial for stories that rely on tense conversations and changing relationships. His figures are grounded and realistically designed. Bruised and battered people with realistic sizes and muscles to match the noir tone. Inker Stefano Gaudiano keeps Lark’s pencils fairly rough and fills in even daytime scenes with inky shadows. Combined with colorists Frank D’Armata and Matt Hollingsworth’s dingy and often washed out yellows, browns, blues, and purples, and you have a comic that looks like an old bruise. There’s nothing romantic or vibrant here, underlining just how broken down Daredevil’s world has become.
And the world of Daredevil in Brubaker’s hands is, much like Bendis, a grounded, dark, and grimy shadow world of crime, but even more subdued. So it’s even weirder when The Hand eventually show up. Yeah, The Hand have always been that flashy and weird ninja side to Daredevil ever since Frank Miller created them, but they can be integrated well with the right approach. Here, they’re a hard turn from the majority of Brubaker and Lark’s focus on making Hell’s Kitchen a more dangerous modern den of crime.
With Daredevil being out of action for several months and Hell’s Kitchen growing more dangerous without him, Brubaker creates a larger challenge for the hero. Can this out-of-step protector regain a foothold in his home and bring order back to the chaos that was sown while he was gone? And what will it take from him when he does?
The Devil Defeated
A central question about Daredevil ever since the Miller days is whether Matt Murdock is a symbol of goodness resisting darkness in the world or a figure of darkness trying to embrace the light. There’s no 1 true answer to this, but instead, it’s a question of what direction a writer will take. The answer to that question in Brubaker’s run is pretty obvious. Matt Murdock is absolutely a figure of darkness, and this is essentially the story of a hero deciding to completely embrace that darkness by the end.
As I’ve said, Brubaker’s DD is a downward spiral, but really, the ultimate defeat of Matt Murdock happens well before the end and is found in “Without Fear.” After several arcs and single issue stories that have Matt seemingly targeted by disconnected villains, we find out that old and rarely used villain Mr Fear has been targeting the hero as revenge for years of defeats. But this isn’t a physical confrontation, it’s a psychological attack on what Matt holds dear.
And specifically, that’s Milla Donovan, who’s poisoned by Fear’s toxin and permanently driven mad, leading to her killing an innocent bystander and nearly murdering a caretaker while she awaits trial.
This is simultaneously Brubaker’s biggest reworking of Daredevil’s life and also the writer’s biggest indulgence in one of the oldest and worst superhero tropes.
When Bendis introduced Milla into Matt’s life and married the two, the author fundamentally altered the playboy life of his perennial bachelor hero. It also gave his character a continual threat. Daredevil has, over the years, been plagued by the death of his love interests. Elektra, Heather Glenn, Glorianna O’Breen, and, most recently at the time, Karen Page. While Milla was an interesting character, it always seemed like the two were never meant to be a permanent couple, but Brubaker moves her out of Matt’s life in a faster and even crueler fashion than expected.
By the end of Without Fear, Milla is committed to a mental hospital with no hope for a cure and Mister Fear willingly turns himself in, reigning like a king behind bars. In essence, Brubaker is both returning Matt to status quo and breaking him down even more, but this is easily one of the cruelest things a writer has done to a Daredevil character. It works in the context of the larger story the author is telling, but it also leaves a bad taste when seen in the larger scope of how love interests are so often destroyed for the sake of the hero’s journey. You can call it fridging, but in the world of Daredevil, you might want to rename it Paging.
At the end of “Without Fear,” Brubaker makes sure to rub salt in the wound in a moment of dramatic irony as Matt is watched by The Hood, who’s taken control of most of New York’s organized crime.
Matt endures some form of loss in almost every arc. He escapes prison, but has to lie and break the system to do so. His journey to Europe sees Vanessa Fisk essentially beat him at the game she created. He tries to help Melvin Potter, but The Gladiator is turned into a violent psycho he can’t save. But the biggest fall is yet to come.
Regarding his final arcs, Brubaker said, “I don’t think it’s a crime story at all. I think it’s a martial arts epic that has a lot of character drama going on at the same time. I think it’s going to drag in a lot of different sections of Matt Murdock’s life and take Daredevil into some territory that I don’t think it’s ever been.”
Brubaker’s final story, “Return of the King,” starts with what is easily one of his best single issues – a story that tracks The Kingpin, who has been gone from the title since Cell Block D, and is illustrated by the excellent David Aja. And like the best stories here, it’s a full-bore dive into Fisk’s psyche as he attempts to start a new life in Spain with a single mother and her children, only for Lady Bullseye and The Hand to kill them to return Fisk to his destructive ways.
Like Brubaker said, this is definitely a martial arts epic, but it’s just not as good as the rest of his run or his time on Immortal Iron Fist with Matt Fraction. It’s a story that becomes a strange blend of new dynamics and familiar tropes, as DD and Fisk team up to stop The Hand, with Kingpin in a rare state of emotional vulnerability. But the sudden shift to The Hand in these last dozen issues feels disconnected from the majority of Brubaker’s time. While there’s a few different threads that carry over, it feels like the run is split in two: the stories leading through Without Fear, and the stories after. So when we jump into our final two arcs that are pushing hard to the conclusion, it feels a little rushed.
And, let’s face it, while The Hand are a fun threat, they’re never very interesting. Alongside Brubaker and Lark’s invention of Lady Bullseye – a dangerous character with a surprising and tragic origin – comes Master Izo, who is the team’s most useless character. As a blind, mysterious, hard-drinking ninja master, it’s obvious that Brubaker wanted to use the character of Stick, but didn’t have the time to bring him back. So he just pulls out this other blind master to fill in. The substitution is too obvious and it hurts this story.
Maybe this rushed feeling comes from Brubaker leaving the title before he could tell every story he wanted to tell. In several interviews during his tenure, Brubaker revealed plans to return Bullseye to the book, bring Spider-Man in for a teamup, and get back to the imprisoned Mister Fear. Instead, “Return of the King” is the fast, definitive follow-up to “Lady Bullseye” and is the period on the end of Brubaker’s statement that Matt Murdock is a dark, fallible, endlessly self-destructive hero. He’s possibly more negative on the potential of his hero than any prior Daredevil author.
Part of the appeal of Marvel heroes is their fallibility. This is, after all, what made Lee and Kirby’s Fantastic Four so revolutionary when it debuted. Daredevil embraces that fallibility more than most, especially after Miller and Janson. The question of how Matt will fall and what it will take to get back up hangs over every run. But that second half isn’t part of Brubaker’s story. Here, Daredevil stops The Kingpin’s inevitable betrayal and accepts The Hand’s offer to become their new leader. Now, at the very end of Brubaker’s time, Matt has fully destroyed every relationship in his life and pledged himself to his sworn enemies.
However, unlike so many of the terrible decisions made by DD earlier in the run, Daredevil assuming control of The Hand is one of his most thought out acts of heroism. Knowing what destruction would be brought by The Kingpin as The Hand’s leader and how much potential evil lays within the ninja clan left to its own devices, Daredevil agrees that Master Izo’s plan to place him at the head is the only hope of redeeming the cult.
But is this the start of something good, or The Man Without Fear’s worst mistake yet?
At the end of Ed Brubaker’s time on Daredevil, our hero is left in a darker place than ever. A challenge to incoming writer Andy Diggle to top where Bendis had once left him, with Matt about to undergo a series of challenges to prove him worthy of leading The Hand. But will Matt be able to stay on the side of the angels when surrounded by ancient evil?
That answer will lead us to Shadowland, one of the most hated times in all of Daredevil’s history and the inevitable rock bottom to Matt Murdock and Marvel’s quest to sink to the darkest pits imaginable. But for now, Brubaker leaves his readers with a cliffhanger worthy of any pulp noir and questions of purpose and purity echoing within the mind of The Man Without Fear.