After an acclaimed run that permanently transformed the characterization and perception of the hero with collaborator Klaus Janson, Frank Miller had one final statement to make on Daredevil. After years of loss, love, new dangers, and brief redemptions, The Man Without Fear had one final confrontation in the pages of Daredevil #191
A confrontation with the man who took away the woman he loved. A confrontation with his own worth in the world. And, beyond it all, a confrontation with the very idea of the superhero in the quickly changing landscape of comic books.
This is one of the darkest Daredevil stories ever written and one of Frank Miller’s greatest creations. This is “Roulette.”
Spin The Cylinder
“Roulette” was published in February 1983 and, while it builds on everything that Miller has put Matt Murdock through across the previous 23 issues, its simple story is a completely self-contained narrative.
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The comic picks up after the end of “The Elektra Saga” and specifically the final battle between Matt and Bullseye, where our hero let his archenemy fall to what could have been his death. Instead, Bullseye lies paralyzed in the hospital and with the villain immobilized, Daredevil decides to play a game of Russian Roulette with his unwilling partner. Slowly pulling the trigger on himself and Bullseye, Matt questions his own heroism and recounts a recent legal case that brought him into the lives of young Chuckie Jurgens and his father Hank.
While Matt has taken the case to defend Hank from charges of embezzlement, it’s Chuckie who’s the focus of this story, as we soon find out that the young boy is not only obsessed with Daredevil, but his terrible home life has pushed him into a delusion of believing himself to actually be the hero. But since when is Daredevil willing to murder and why would he be ok with taking his own life?
Miller, pencilling here with inks by Terry Austin instead of frequent collaborator Klaus Janson, fragments the issue between the game of roulette in the present and the story of Daredevil and Chuckie in the past, stringing along the reader in search of what happened to make DD be so guilt-ridden.
While he would come back to the world of the character with stories like Born Again, Elektra: Assassin, The Man Without Fear, Daredevil: Love and War, and Elektra Lives Again, issue 191 would be the final issue of Frank Miller’s legendary run on the ongoing title and, from its cynicism to its search for answers, “Roulette” would be Miller’s final statement on the power and powerlessness of Daredevil.
Frank Miller’s run on Daredevil is, of course, legendary and is cited as one of the all-time great superhero stories. In the context of Daredevil’s entire publication history, it’s the dividing line between his original and modern incarnation. And what’s important to understand, especially in the context of examining what is probably Miller’s darkest DD story, is that this run’s variety of tones is one of its strongest aspects. Miller may break Matt down mentally and physically, have Elektra killed in comics’ most iconic death, and place him in a suicidal game to end his time, but he and Janson also remember to have a lot of fun. This is, of course, before the late-80s insistence that superheroes must be dark and tortured to be taken seriously. A classic mistake that still seems to haunt the genre decades later. Miller would play a part in establishing that with The Dark Knight Returns, but what he aims for here is a complexity of tone that makes his lead hero a more dynamic character. Matt can be extremely sympathetic in his bruised and battered life, but he can also be a terrible, narcissistic manipulator who slowly pulls apart the life of love interest Heather Glenn until she agrees to marry him. Why? Mostly because it makes him feel better about himself.
Miller’s Matt Murdock is no saint. But he lives in a technicolor world where Foggy Nelson can go on the comedic adventure of Guts or Turk Barrett can become the brand new and worse than ever Stilt-Man. These are the silly highs that make the crushing lows all the more impactful. And “Roulette” is absolutely a crushing low.
After a lengthy partnership with inker Klaus Janson and several different colorists, “Roulette” sees a shift in the art team for this finale. Miller is once again providing complete pencils after his writing duties caused him to slowly cede control of art over to Janson across the run. And the Miller that returns in full force is a very different creator than the one who once drew for Roger McKenzie when he first joined Daredevil. It’s clear that Miller has been through an evolution of style heavily influenced by Janson’s inks.
Miller has moved away from the John Romita-influenced Marvel house style and has instead embraced a much more minimalist approach. That manga-influenced heavy hatching for shadows is in full force here, with every character a thicker, heavier version of what they once were. Opposed to that meticulous character detail is Miller’s decision to remove the backgrounds from every panel taking place in Bullseye’s hospital room.
This creates the impression of space instead of actual space. The only things that exist in this space are Matt, his enemy, his enemy’s bed, and the gun. Everything else is a stark white, with venetian blind-slashed light splayed across the floor from an implied nearby window. The entire world drops out from beneath these two enemies, isolating them in this moment of impending death. Only Murdock’s memories of Chuckie and eventually of his own childhood are rendered in complete color with full backgrounds, making them feel more real than the game of life and death happening in the present. These are provided by Lynn Varley, who would eventually marry Miller and provide coloring for many of his future stories, including Dark Knight Returns, 300, and Ronin, as well as the U.S. editions of Lone Wolf and Cub, a ronin manga that influenced the stories and style of Miller’s work over the years.
Here, it’s Varley’s vibrant hues that sharply contrast against the negative space. The slashes of evening orange that turn to dusk red imply the larger world around the two. In flashbacks, her sickly yellows create the oppressive overtones of an abusive household while her mellow sky blues support Matt’s idyllic, self-deluded childhood memories.
“Roulette” is a story of self-perception. So why shouldn’t its art style become the most impressionistic of Miller’s run? We’re beyond the gritty, two-fisted tales of ninja noir and are instead neck-deep in one man’s search for meaning. The real world drops away, and all we’re left with is the idea of heroism and the question of whether there really is such a thing.
A Question of Heroism
What makes “Roulette” an unforgettable piece of Daredevil history is that the questions Daredevil is asking of himself are the same questions that Miller is asking of the superhero genre of comics in general.
Seeing Chuckie’s delusions of being him, Daredevil visits the young boy at the playground and takes him on a leaping tour of New York in a moment that’s more Spider-Man than Daredevil. But the trip only has a greater negative effect on the young boy.
What’s important to remember here is that while this entire issue is narrated from Daredevil’s perspective, he never actually speaks a word to Bullseye. Seen in this context, Matt’s game of Russian Roulette is even more cruel. A wordless torture of his sworn enemy whose purpose only reveals itself at the very end. For all of the many dark, pessimistic ideas introduced throughout this issue, that may be one of the darkest, even if it’s not directly stated to the reader.
While Varley’s colors imply that the hospital room confrontation takes an entire afternoon, many of Daredevil’s revelations are meant to happen across mere seconds. And to emphasize the microcosm of time here, Miller will break down a single image into multiple panels. It would be easy for Miller to simply have drawn these without their miniaturized breaks. There’s plenty of closeups throughout the issue that push the reader to contemplate how the focus of the image is reacting to something that has just happened. But these gutter spaces force the reader to slow down and process each part of the larger image and, when coupled with a lack of backgrounds, create a sense of Matt and Bullseye being frozen in time, immobilized by the existential crisis.
And when Matt reaches the final chamber and it’s Bullseye’s time to die, the issue has barely reached its halfway point, freezing the present for a longer trip into the past.
Chuckie is, essentially, a stand-in for the countless kids reading Miller’s Daredevil stories and superhero comics in general, swept away from reality and into a moralistic fantasy where the lines between good and evil are clear, but incompatible with the real world.
Matt’s story about Chuckie concludes with the hero violently stopping Jurgens from shooting his own blackmailer right in front of his child. The cognitive dissonance of Chuckie’s hero attacking his father is simply too much for the already mentally distressed young boy. Chuckie snaps. Takes a gun like his father owns. And shoots a school bully.
These final moments of Chuckie’s story cement Miller’s outlook on the potential impact of superheroes. In Miller’s eyes, these classic tales of heroes beating their opponents with their fists until the world is bent into a better shape aren’t compatible with reality.
Is that actually true? I can’t speak for other people but I’ve always found the world of superheroes to be inspirational and escapist in just the right ways. As a young kid, I fell in love with Batman: The Animated Series, Spider-Man: The Animated Series, and the comic book worlds they slowly brought me into. But I’ve always seen these as allegorical messages of hope and strength. Chuckie is Miller’s simplistic argument against the more complex impact of superhero comics. Reflective of parts of reality, but not all of it. On the opposite end of this spectrum, you can see the adults who look at comics as being for little kids simply because of their bright colors and costumes, and only receptive toward the stories which make heroes into brutal, disillusioned figures of darkness and torment. Something that Miller himself would be partially responsible for popularizing.
Miller’s final revelation of Roulette, his final reworking of the mythos of Daredevil, is aimed squarely at Battlin Jack Murdock. Matt’s murdered boxer father and longtime saintly martyr whose death gave life to Daredevil. His encounter with Chuckie reminds him of the one time his father, drunk and enraged that Matt got into a fight when he promised he never would, hit him.
Miller would include this story point in his reworking of the DD origin in “The Man Without Fear,” but much like his examination of the fallout of superheroism, Miller is also trying to muddy the waters of superheroism’s origin. In the hands of Frank Miller, not even good ol’ Battlin’ Jack is an outright hero. The saintly father being fallible is what makes Matt dedicate his life to a set of rules.
Pull The Trigger
Close to the start of his time on Daredevil, Miller permanently defined the relationship of Matt Murdock and Bullseye with issue 169 – “Devils,” which saw Bullseye hallucinate from a fatal brain tumor. In his eyes, everyone was now Daredevil, sending him on a massive killing spree.
And although Daredevil had the chance to end his life, he not only saved him, but brought him in for a life-saving brain operation. Daredevil chooses to abide by the rules of both God and the law and not take a life. But in doing so, commits himself to an endless cycle that places the guilt of every life Bullseye will take on Matt’s head.
Outside of Daredevil, Miller would do very little at Marvel. Instead, he’d jump over to DC for the future samurai tale of Ronin, the redefining Dark Knight Returns, Batman: Year One, and then Dark Horse for the future-set civil war of Martha Washington and his ultra pulpy noir Sin City. All of these can be tracked on a clear line from the disillusionment of “Roulette.” Where once Daredevil questioned his heroism, the aged Dark Knight of Returns can only change a terrible future through brutal violence, the Batman of Year One is surrounded by a corrupt, grounded world resistant to change for the better, and the black and white crime of Sin City has no true heroes, only killers on the side of slightly better intentions.
There’s also a strange evolution of Miller’s relationship with guns. A gun in the hands of Daredevil is unnatural, even when used out of desperation against The Punisher. Even the Batman of Dark Knight Returns’ dark future denies the gun, calling it “the weapon of the enemy.” But by the time Miller arrives in Sin City, the gun is almost fetishized while its destructive capabilities are cartoonishly downplayed.
In “Roulette,” a gun to the head is the most terrifying threat imaginable. That shocking opening image of Matt holding a gun to his head remains terrifying and uncanny decades later. It’s the same visceral response provoked by Miller and Janson’s cover for issue 184. But in “Sin City” and “Hard Boiled,” a man can have chunks of himself blown away and find it a mere inconvenience. No longer the weapon of the enemy, the gun would become Miller’s favorite tool.
When seen over the decades, Miller’s career is one of complete disillusionment. Beyond Sin City lies the fascistic macho-revisionist history of “300,” the 9/11-fractured “Dark Knight Strikes Again,” and the repugnantly xenophobic “Holy Terror.” The question, it seems, for decades was, “What the fuck happened to Frank Miller?”
For myself, discovering Frank’s Daredevil comics, the stories that made me fall in love with the character, while Miller was at the height of his extreme nationalist propaganda era, made me wonder what would cause such a change? Or if this was simply the core of a man coming to the forefront after years of hardship?
Whatever the case may be, it’s clear that Miller had gone through many years of personal issues, never publicly confirmed but alluded to by the creator. Miller was also living in New York City at the time of the World Trade Center attack, only a few miles away from the epicenter. Coupled with a wave of post-9/11 nationalism, and you have modern Frank Miller, who often comes across as a cruel caricature of his younger self.
In recent years, Miller’s mindset has seemingly changed. And in a Guardian interview from 2018, the author reflected, “My stuff always represents what I’m going through. Whenever I look at any of my work I can feel what my mindset was and I remember who I was with at the time. When I look at Holy Terror, which I really don’t do all that often, I can really feel the anger ripple out of the pages. There are places where it is bloodthirsty beyond belief. I don’t want to go back and start erasing books I did. I don’t want to wipe out chapters of my own biography. But I’m not capable of that book again.”
With regards to his public screed against Occupy Wall Street in 2011, Miller would say, “I wasn’t thinking clearly when I said those things.”
In recent years, Miller’s few comic books have flipped their political outlook yet again, with “Dark Knight Returns: The Golden Child” seeing a battle with Darkseid become an anti-Trump allegory. Wherever Miller may find himself these days, it’s a long and winding path that can be traced all the way back to the statement made in “Roulette.”
And Miller’s final statement on Daredevil is one of disillusionment. Not just with Matt Murdock himself, but with the entire notion of superheroes. It’s almost as if Miller HAD to leave Daredevil by the end of his run. Nothing more to say on the idea of four-color heroism. It’s no surprise that Miller’s immediate follow-up would be Ronin – a future-set noir meets samurai epic that, at its center, really believes that the idea of heroism is essentially a delusion, in this case quite literally brought to life by a wandering samurai whose entire ethos is pure fantasy.
Miller would compare the idea of a wandering samurai to modern man, saying, “I don’t get the feeling from the people I know, the people I see on the street, that they have something greater than themselves to believe in. Patriotism, religion, whatever — they’ve all lost their meaning for us.”
Ronin is Miller taking his love of feudal Japan explored in The Elektra Saga and merging it with the sci-fi dystopia he would soon explore in The Dark Knight Returns. But if we see the ronin as an elemental distillation of the superhero, we see that Miller really has no more faith in these figures.
And he has no more faith in the core of Daredevil.
With one final pull of the trigger left and the gun aimed squarely at Bullseye, Miller reveals what Matt has actually meant by his game of silent roulette. This isn’t a hero choosing murder as the path forward, but instead being forced to confront his own limitations.
There is no true way forward for Daredevil, only a continual cycle limited by his role as a superhero. Spinning around forever and ever like the empty cylinder of a revolver, echoing that eternal loop Miller had cemented by the end of issue 169.
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