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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

A Word on Klaus Janson

I love tributes to artists, and believe me, I would never speak ill of anyone who takes the time to publicly appreciate a Nora Ephron or Andrew Sarris or Tony DeZuniga or any other important artist, critic, or entertainer who has died. But the older I get, the more death I see, and the more I regret not telling, or at least not putting the thought out there into the world, how much I love an artist—while they’re alive!

So, no obituary or lengthy tribute here, but today I was reminded of how great Klaus Janson’s inking/embellishing is, from some rather humble, almost forgotten comics he’d worked on, The Defenders (’70s). I was chatting with a coworker today in his cubicle. Our tastes don’t overlap all that much, and while he’ll often put an old comics image on his computer, he never seemed to have a vast knowledge of old comics. But I noticed, next to a small pile of contemporary stuff like some Avengers vs. X-Men tie-ins, that he had three consecutive issues of Defenders comics, #44-46. I have only read maybe the first year of the original series, but my understanding is that after Steve Englehart’s run ended a few issues earlier, the book entered its long and painful period of mediocrity and then outright awfulness. I can’t speak to the stories in these issues, but having three writers credited, and those writers being Gerry Conway, Roger Slifer and David Anthony Kraft, doesn’t sound promising. 

But the art really stood out, even on this yellowing, faded old newsprint from 1976. Within the haphazard Kirby covers is some really attractive work by the chameleonic Keith Giffen on pencils, but what makes it great is the effort of Janson.  I just flipped through it, but nearly every panel was magical. Panels of Craftint suggesting deep, rich fabric in drapes, with great care taken to make a metal desk gleam. It could have been just drapes, just a matte finish wood desk, you know? Half-silhouettes of women with star-stuff in their hair. A master at techniques almost nobody even does anymore. Janson is, of course, forever linked with Frank Miller for his Daredevil and Batman work, but really, for Marvel in the ’70s, and Marvel and DC in the ’80s and ’90s, the guy enriched anything he worked on. Janson, I believe, is more of an educator and commission artist now, but still takes on the occasional assignment. Thank you, Klaus.

Giffen vs. Janson

Diversions of the Groovy Kind has a nice group of splash pages from Keith Giffen’s 1977 run as penciler of Marvel’s The Defenders. It makes me kinda want to read them, which I think I have somewhere, but what struck me first is not so much what Giffen brings to these pages but what you get from Klaus Janson. Giffen and Janson are credited as the “artists,” which can cover a wide range of things, but clearly Janson is not just faithfully putting ink where Giffen’s pencils were. Janson has always been an overpowering inker, but he’s so good that usual works out fine, just different. Many prefer John Byrne or Frank Miller inking themselves, but Janson’s inking over them resulted in some of my favorite comics art. 

What you see here is a young Giffen who hadn’t quite found his style yet. Not that he’s ever settled on one style for very long, but he’s not as confident here, judging by the results later when he’s inked by Chic Stone. Chic Stone is an inker who will generally diminish the power of one’s pencils, and we see an awkward Namor image for the issue where Stone inks Giffen. And earlier, once Janson has left the book, we see that what Giffen is most comfortable doing at this stage in his career is aping Jack Kirby’s style. It’s right there in the splash to #48 with a Kirbyesque Scorpio, Giffen and Dan Green doing a credible imitation of Kirby’s distinctively jagged contour lines, while in the next issue we get an excellent, Kirbyesque Moon Knight. No surprise, as frequent Kirby inker Mike Royer inked this issue. Still, I much prefer a Janson job than another Kirby knockoff. 

—Christopher Allen