Trouble with Comics

Daredevil - End of Days #1 (of 8)

Writer: Brian Michael Bendis and David Mack

Pencils: Klaus Janson

Finished Art & Paintings: Bill Sienkiewicz

Marvel Comics

Brian Michael Bendis has taken his share of knocks as a writer over the years. Those distinctive stylistic tics that marked him as fresh over a decade ago have settled into formula, some might say self-parody, not unlike other distinctive writers like Chris Claremont or Frank Miller. I’ve taken my shots, too, and honestly am looking forward to his departure from the Avengers books. But I think his Daredevil run, while flawed, like anything, is still a pretty impressive accomplishment. And as with Claremont’s return to X-Men books or Miller going back to Batman, there is incredible risk in returning to past triumphs. Do you really have something left to say, or can’t you really go home again? 

I was really worried with the first few pages here, an ugly fight between Bullseye and Daredevil that results in D.D.’s death, captured on cameraphone. It’s meant to be brutal, sure, but the combination of Janson and Sienkiewicz is surprisingly off-putting. As great an inker as Janson is, he’s often a stiff penciler, and finds in Sienkiewicz a finisher so eager to add pizzazz to the page that he ends up cluttering it with too many blood spatters and tendons and wrinkles and speed lines that it’s a mess. Try as he might, the opening splash page just doesn’t actually convey the feeling of a punch being thrown, because no matter how much he slops on or whites out, the angle of the pose is just wrong. Janson defeated him before he started.

On page 3, it’s a different story, a well-composed Janson page undone by excessive detail and shading that makes Matt Murdock look like he’s in blackface, not just bleeding and bruised. It’s not all bad, but there are several pages of fights in this issue, and Janson is hit-or-miss in dynamic action, and so, something like the last battle with the Kingpin, which leaves him dead and Daredevil disgraced, is actually anticlimactic and draggy.

I’m not really for superheroes killing, except in extreme circumstances, but I would have to admit that the final Daredevil story is one of those circumstances. And yet, Bendis does really set himself up for disappointment here, challenging the reader to recall the old, pure-hearted, non-murderous Daredevil to make us accept this new one. There are no scenes of that old Daredevil in the book, which I think was a mistake. We need to be reminded of what Daredevil was, so we can accept and understand what he becomes. As it is, storming into a restaurant and ordering the Kingpin to leave town forever or he’ll kill him, is unacceptable. That the Kingpin chooses to fight instead of run doesn’t justify Daredevil beating him to death with his billy club, and Daredevil shouting to the horrified onlookers that he’d “tried everything else” just feels hollow. He came there and made a death threat that he knew he would likely carry out.

What Bendis and Mack get right is Ben Urich. Ben had been the custodian of Matt Murdock’s secret identity as Daredevil, knew him as well as any man, and so is the only one to tell of his final days. And of course, it’s the last thing he wants to do, because it makes him feel even worse and he doesn’t want to engage with it. But J. Jonah Jameson is not going to see the end of print media by putting out a half-assed paper, and so he’s damn well sure the right writer is on the story. This is all good stuff, and Bendis/Mack write Urich as well as anyone has. It reminds me of their first Daredevil collaboration a decade ago, in that that story also found Urich as the protagonist, an investigative reporter hunting down leads. It seems the video shows Murdock uttering a mysterious name before he dies, and it’s not Bullseye’s real name or anyone we’ve ever heard of before. So that’s what we’re in for, a murder mystery—or is it? There’s some suggestion that maybe Daredevil is still alive somehow. 

Later in the issue, Janson and Sienkiewicz seem to get a little more in sync, though it’s still uneven, with some pages looking much more like Sienkiewicz and others mostly Janson. Again, both terrific artists, but very different styles. 

So is it any good? It has some parts I liked, some I didn’t like at all, but I’m interested in seeing it develop. When you review first issues, it’s hard to walk that line between condemnation and faith. The fact is, Bendis is an old pro and is good enough at his craft that there should be enough going right in a first issue for it to basically work. At the same time, when was the last time he wrote a gritty mystery that was light on conversation and absolutely absent of humor? There might be some rust there; for me, it’s most apparent in the fight scenes, where it feels like his brain kind of shuts off. There’s nothing in those scenes that’s unusual or containing important information; you get the idea those script pages are very basic, allowing the artist to figure out the staging. It’s in the Urich stuff where he feels engaged, and so far it’s not bad.

—Christopher Allen

David Mazzucchelli Daredevil: Born Again Artist’s Edition

There’s one page in this magnificent volume that has a caption that says something like “This single page is the only one in this book not reproduced from the original art.” It’s a cover image of reporter Ben Urich, made small in his terror, having been brutally attacked and his hand broken by an enormous, evil nurse sent by the kingpin.

Somehow the presentation of the book is made more pure by the upfront admission that one page out of so many here isn’t reproduced from the original art. “Who cares?” I thought to myself, admiring the art of that page nonetheless. “The rest of it is, and it’s incredible.”

It’s possible you weren’t there when Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli seized the reins of Daredevil after a long spell that had its ups and downs but never reached the heights Miller and artistic partner Klaus Janson reached in issues #168-181. When we (the readers) found out Miller was returning to write a few more issues starting with #227, we were disappointed Miller would not also be drawing and Janson would not be inking. That disappointment was gone by the end of Miller and Mazzucchelli’s first issue of the Born Again storyline, because it was clear that Mazzucchelli was more than up to the task of illustrating this story; it was clear that it was something he was born to do.

And Mazzucchelli had already been around a while, too, that’s the amazing thing, looking back. If you pick up the Daredevil TPB “Loves Labors Lost,” you’ll see how awkward Mazzucchelli’s art was when he first came on the title, and you’ll see how amazingly quickly he developed some serious chops. In his introduction to IDW’s Artist’s Edition of Born Again (a seven issue storyline plumbing the psychological depths of both Daredevil and his arch-enemy during Miller’s run, The Kingpin), Mazzucchelli, now long-removed from superhero drawing, reflects honestly and in detail about his skill-level in those days, who influenced him (primarily Gene Colan), how he met Miller, and what their working relationship on this masterpiece was like.

It may be heresy, but I don’t think there’s a better story ever created for Marvel Comics than Born Again. That’s why this Artist’s Edition has been so eagerly anticipated by me — as I said to my son last night, driving home from the comic shop, it’s like having every page of original art of the very best comic book ever, and I can look at it whenever I want, for the rest of my life. So IDW and David Mazzucchelli and Scott Dunbier and Chris Ryall and whoever else made this happen? I am seriously grateful for your work in making this book a reality. Thank you.

I’ll be honest and tell you, in unpacking this giant book from its cardboard box and laying it out, I didn’t re-read every word Miller wrote. Not this time, although I may in the future. But the truth is, I have read this story at least 50 times since it was originally published, and I almost know it by heart. No, seeing this Artist’s Edition for the first time, I just wanted to take in the art, and I did. A number of things stood out as I went slowly through the pages:

* The overlays. Oh, my God, the overlays. If any pre-publication publicity mentioned them, I didn’t notice it. Much of the original art had vellum overlays for the purposes of colour holds, so the images of the art for those pages was combined in layers to create a single final image. Most of the overlays, we learn in the text, have been lost. But a handful remain, apparently, and IDW faithfully reproduces the technique. So we get maybe half a dozen pages with vellum overlays, which is just an extraordinary added value, in my mind. It’s a way of deepening the sense of examining the original art, as well as allowing the reader enormous insight into both Mazzucchelli’s artistic process and the reproduction challenges of the era (the 1980s). Gorgeous.

* Individual panels always memorable in the comic book now stand revealed, uncoloured and with no veil of bad reproduction between the reader and the art. Matt Murdock sleeping in the trash, his life ruined. The flirtatious look in the eyes of Matt Murdock’s ex-girlfriend as she gets ever closer to his best friend Foggy. The rooftop meeting between Matt and Captain America. The astonishing way Mazzucchelli presented Cap, Thor and Iron Man, reminiscent of how Alan Moore and Steve Bissette and John Totleben presented the Justice League in Swamp Thing: as gods among men.

* The covers. Mazzucchelli’s design sense and ability to bring his vision to life on the page are just astonishing. His covers for Born Again were absolutely masterful. The image IDW chose for the cover of the volume, which was originally thrown away on an issue of Marvel Age (a cheesy self-promotion pamphlet Marvel was publishing in the ’80s), is my all-time favourite Daredevil illustration, and its repurposing as the cover of this volume is further proof that this book was actually, specifically designed to make me deliriously happy.

The greatest thing about the month-by-month release of Born Again in comic book form was that, like with just a few other comics in the 1980s (Moore’s Swamp Thing, Chaykin’s American Flagg, Simonson’s Thor, Los Bros Hernandez’s Love and Rockets), we knew, at the time, how very lucky we were to be getting regular fixes of such incredible comics. Comics that elevated and transcended the industry that they came out of. Comics that changed minds and altered lives and set destinies. People became writers and artists and retailers and critics because they were so mesmerized by the quality and the level of entertainment that they experienced — take it from me, I was just barely an adult when Born Again was originally published, and I had no idea at all that a superhero comic book story could be so good, could reward so many re-readings. After Born Again, I wondered why they all couldn’t achieve their goals so easily, so wonderfully. 

Decades on, I realize that it takes a hugely unlikely intersection of talent, ambition, opportunity and luck to make comics as memorable and unique as Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli’s Daredevil: Born Again. It is given its best possible presentation in IDW’s new Artist’s Edition, made new again by letting us see and feel what Miller and Mazzucchelli accomplished in the most intimate and immediate manner imaginable. Yes, one single page is not reproduced from the original art. Who cares? The rest of it is, and it is incredible.

Alan David Doane