Thursday, December 02, 2010

Review - Daredevil: Born Again

Daredevil: Born Again
Frank Miller
Artist: David Mazzucchelli
Colorists: Christie Scheele, Richmond Lewis
Letterer: Joe Rosen
Published by Marvel; $17.95 US
Collects Daredevil Vol. 1 #s 227-233

When Daredevil's former lover Karen Page sells his secret identity for a heroin fix, Matt Murdock lives through the worst-case scenario of an unmasked superhero. Without hiring any circus-themed bad guys, without throwing any punches, without firing so much as a single shot, Wilson Fisk - a.k.a. The Kingpin of Crime - drags Matt Murdock lower than any gaudily-dressed supervillain ever could. Murdock's girlfriend Glori leaves him for best friend Foggy Nelson, a police officer accuses Murdock of bribery and witness tampering, Murdock is disbarred, the IRS freezes his assets, and the bank schedules his home for foreclosure. Murdock's grip on reality is already slipping by the time his home is reduced to rubble by an explosion. As Murdock falls deeper into a paranoid depression that leaves him a raving destitute, Karen Page tries to find her way home to both save herself and redeem her betrayal, reporter Ben Urich is scared into silence, and the Kingpin plans to finally squash his greatest enemy like a bug in Daredevil: Born Again.

Murdock soon believes everyone is in cahoots with the Kingpin, even friends like Foggy Nelson and Ben Urich. He stews in an $8/day room the size of a shoebox, dreaming of bloody vengeance but unable to will himself out of bed. His eventual confrontation with Kingpin leaves him as physically broken as he is mentally, and soon he's homeless, fevered, and bleeding from a knife wound; surviving only because of the intervention of a mysterious nun.

At the end of Daredevil: Born Again's first chapter, Matt Murdock kneels amidst the smoking wreckage of his freshly firebombed home, clutching the tattered remnants of his Daredevil costume. With the exception of a brief, single panel flashback to this very moment in the beginning of the fourth chapter, this is the last time you will see a superhero or supervillain costume in Daredevil: Born Again until the fifth chapter. This absence of the trappings of the Super leads to some wonderful storytelling the likes of which you probably won't find in another 1980s Marvel comic.

With Daredevil's mind made into as much rubble as his home, characters normally on the periphery find the spotlight. This isn't a completely original device in superhero comics, but usually the temporary promotion of a Rick Jones or an Alfred to top billing comes off like the lame gimmick that it usually is. Miller and Mazzucchelli, on the other hand, fully invest in every member of their cast. The emaciated and desperate Karen Page, Murdock's Irish ex-girlfriend Glori, the awkward and confused Foggy Nelson, the terrorized Ben Urich, and even minor characters like the yellow-coated drug dealer Paulo all resonate with you long after you've closed the book. The overweight redhead Lois scared and disturbed me more than any super-powered bank robber dressed like a zoo animal ever has or will.

Speaking of which, the story of Ben Urich overcoming his fear is one of the best reasons to read Daredevil: Born Again, regardless of whose name is on the cover. Urich, one of the few people at this point in Daredevil's history who know his real name, suspects a frame-up as soon as the criminal allegations are made against Murdock and starts an investigation. Before he can even begin to connect the dots, the murderous Lois beats a cop to a bloody pulp right in front of Urich, but not before breaking all the fingers in Urich's right hand. One of the scarier scenes of Born Again involves Lois strangling a man while on the phone with the reporter. A terrified Urich listens while the normal hustle and bustle of the Daily Bugle office commences around him. As I reread the trade for this review, I became convinced that this scene, with the perfect rhythm of the Bugle reporters' hectic dialogue and Joe Roberton's steadily increasing frustration with Urich contrasted by our knowledge of what's happening on the other end of the line and Urich's mounting horror, is simply one of the best scenes I've ever read in a comic, ever. Hulk or no Hulk. This is what I love best about Miller's work on superhero comics: his extraordinary talent for finding the tangible souls of supporting characters, just as he did with Jim Gordon in Batman: Year One.

Another result of the relative lack of costumes in Born Again is that when the Super comes back to the story, it does so with that much more impact. Shortly after Murdock heals from his physical, mental, and spiritual wounds, the Kingpin sets about killing him once and for all. He unleashes Nuke - a cybernetic, near-mindless sequel to the super-solider program that created Captain America - upon Hell's Kitchen. When the penultimate chapter of Born Again ends with Nuke telling his helicopter pilot "Give me a RED," and a Matt Murdock who is finally head-to-toe the superguy we all know faces the bad guy framed in vengeful flames, we want to get to the inevitable ass-kicking so freaking bad. It's almost a shame to read it in a graphic novel collection where you can just turn the page rather than single issues you'd have to wait a month or more for.

Daredevil: Born Again is pretty much as good as it gets. I am not a regular Daredevil reader (though I am slowly collecting the Brubaker trades) and Born Again has become the story that defines the character for me. It's the best Daredevil story I've ever read and one of the best superhero stories overall.

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