I’ve been doing weekly reviews of some of the new comics I get each week for a year or so now, but a while back I said I’d review some old classics, so here’s the first one, Frank Miller’s best Daredevil story, Born Again. This story in nearly 30 years old yet it’s still the well that every single writer since has drawn from when writing about not just Daredevil, but that type of superhero however this is by far the best example of the story of a hero who has it all before being brought down by his main villain and then coming back from the dead and renewed in purpose.
30 years ago mainstream comics were in a very different place. DC were reshaping their entire line thanks to the miniseries Crisis on Infinite Earths, while they published the first American work of Alan Moore in Swamp Thing a few years earlier that started to change how mainstream superhero comics were written from a more literary background than many previous writers. Before all that Marvel had let Frank Miller loose on a comic called Daredevil, a fairly second rate superhero whose main identifying characteristic was that he was blind, but had a radar sense thanks to being exposed to radioactive waste in the same accident that blinded him. He was essentially Spider Man lite, but this meant he ended up being a pretty blank slate for when Frank Miller took over writing and drawing Daredevil in the early 1980’s. Miller, like Moore, drew from a literary background but Miller’s influences were more hard boiled and pulpy and this made his Daredevil more visceral than any other superhero comic on the market at the time.
It’s also worth noting that the Marvel Comics of 30 plus years ago under the then Editor in Chief Jim Shooter was a strange place. In one hand it published the likes of Daredevil that was breaking new ground, or John Byrne’s Fantastic Four which is still for me, the last really great run of that title, while it also published crap like Secret Wars. Marvel on one hand could publish some fantastic material or pump out endless shite but shite that made the company vast sums of money at a time when people thought comics were dying. In fact the mid 1980’s energised comics as a whole with the effects still being felt today.
Born Again came at a time for Marvel when DC Comics were biting into their market share, and at a time when there wasn’t much in the way of any critical praise for 99% of Marvel’s output (though work like Moonshadow for Epic received rightfully high praise) until Born Again hit the shelves with the first part appearing in Daredevil #227.
This issue outlines how The Kingpin tears down Matt Murdock’s life bit by bit, making his life as Matt and Daredevil a living hell, and then in the next issues, the Kingpin and Matt face off with the Kingpin thinking he’s killed Matt/Daredevil off. It’s a story that’s been done in various form so often over the last 30 years but here it’s raw, brutal and allows Miller to rip all the things that makes Daredevil what it was and gives Miller a chance to reshape Daredevil.Matt in his image. At the time the only other example of this is Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing, but that was a title on the verge of cancellation and a character that wasn’t especially beloved of a load of fans so Moore could do pretty much what he wanted. Here, Daredevil was a solid Marvel character (thanks mainly to Miller’s previous run that dragged him up from the B Team to Marvel’s A List) with a large fan following, and done during a run that was getting acclaim thanks to David Mazzucchelli’s superb art.
Daredevil in these issues is mad. He’s had everything taken from him, and Matt even has Daredevil taken from him as the Kingpin knows his identity. And then as Matt is at his lowest, Miller redeems him and rebuilds him.Gone is the fancy Manhattan house, the big time lawyer practise, and Daredevil fighting traditional Marvel super villains. Replacing it is a Hell’s Kitchen setting. A more working class, Catholic background. A grounded Daredevil fighting for the weak, and not just beating up baddies for kicks and giggles.
Daredevil for a while doesn’t even appear in the book. Miller relegates him to a mythic figure so he can rebuild Matt as an almost Messianic figure saving the people of Hell’s Kitchen from the crooks, mobsters, drug dealers and pimps infecting the area, and of course, from The Kingpin. Miller teases the reappearance of Daredevil choosing to have the costume worn by a psychopath used by The Kingpin. It’s only at the end of this issue that Miller has Matt back in costume in possibly one of the most iconic splash pages of the 80’s.
The one thing Miller understood at this point was the power of comics. Sure, you could make this page work fine on screen, but turning the page and seeing this was astonishing and the praise Miller and Mazzucchelli get for this is never enough. At this point Miller was on an astonishing roll with Dark Knight Returns, Batman Year One, Daredevil: Love and War and the still extraordinary Elektra: Assassin all coming out within a few years. Any one of these works would be a single creators finest, but Miller did all those and of course, this one, for me, probably the finest bit of work Miller did in the 1980’s.
Once Matt’s back in the Daredevil outfit Miller allows superheroics to reappear. There’s a lovely cameo of The Avengers that mirrors Alan Moore’s use of the Justice League in Swamp Thing and then Miller throws the reader aside by giving us a Captain America story in the middle of this big Daredevil one. It’s only as best half an issue, but Miller’s Captain America ends up being the template for not only much of what comes after (Cap is this libertarian/liberal out to protect the ideals of America as opposed to this flag waving patriot he’d often been previously) but in today’s Marvel films.
And that brings me to the Netflix Daredevil series out this week.Advance reviews are astonishingly positive, with the series looking as if they’ve simply used Miller’s Daredevil work as storyboards.
Of all the Marvel projects they’ve done, this is the one I’m utterly and completely excited for. It’s clear that Born Again as a film is the end goal which is testimony as to how great a story this is. Miller and Mazzucchelli didn’t just create a fine work that dragged the medium of comics on a bit, but they created a story that could work in any medium, as long of course you’re aware of the history of Daredevil, hence why Marvel didn’t just launch into this from the off.
Born Again is one of the finest superhero comics you’ll ever read. It’s a story of failure and redemption. It’s a story of a middle class hero being stripped down to his working class roots to stand out from Marvel’s legions of billionaire genius’s, Mutants, gods and aliens. It’s an ordinary man with extraordinary skills trying to do make things right for the weakest in society. It’s a story that’s been on TV and film to some extent (Arrow especially owes a lot to Miller’s work) but never to the level of quality that’s in Born Again.
I’ve avoided going into too much detail about the story of Born Again as it’s one that’s best appreciated by how little one knows about it before diving into it, and as a favour to those of you that haven’t read it, I suggest doing so sooner rather than later as you’ll end up enjoying something that changed superhero comics, not to mention the superhero genre across multiple mediums, forever.