Update: And here’s Part 2!
Only two days have passed since the new Daredevil series dropped on to Netflix. Everyone on social media is going nuts over it. It currently stands at 97% on Rotten Tomatoes (with a 98% audience score). Former Daredevil writer Ed Brubaker is “About halfway through,[…]and it’s pretty fucking great.” So it seems this show might be kinda good. Having only watched the first two episodes, myself, I can also confirm that it’s pretty frigging great (I’m not as potty-mouthed as Mr. Brubaker).
Daredevil is my second favourite superhero. Superman will always be number one, but man, between the comics and this new show, there’s a lot more Daredevil to enjoy these days than Superman. And I think this new series will help many people forget that movie.
What’s extraordinary about ‘ol Hornhead is that many great creative hands have dipped into Hell’s Kitchen. Oddly enough, though, the title has seen many interpretations: a gritty noir, a swashbuckling superhero, kung-fu action, over-the-top hi-jinx, and other interpretations. Amazingly, Daredevil is a very versatile character that not only survives, but thrives, in every iteration.
With that in mind, let’s dive into some great runs by some of the best creators.
Honourable Mentions: I’ll be honest. I only became a Daredevil fan in the last 15 years or so. My recommendations are mostly modern. I haven’t read much of Stan Lee’s original 50-issue (!!) run, or Roy Thomas & Gene Colon’s run that followed up Lee. I’ve sadly never read any of Ann Nocenti & John Romita Jr.’s run (where’s that ultimate collection, eh Marvel?). From what I’ve heard, they’re all phenomenal for their own reasons.
(Daredevil Vol.1, #158-191, #219-233, Man Without Fear #1-5)
This is not only where Frank Miller became a household name in the industry, but it’s the run that put Daredevil on the map. Miller’s name is synonymous with Daredevil because of this run. His impact on the character is equal to Alan Moore on Swamp Thing, Mark Waid on Flash, or Grant Morrison on Animal Man. Regardless of what creative team came later, this is the one that most looked back on for inspiration.
Miller took Daredevil, who was just another superhero who fought bad guys, and added a very “street level man versus organized crime element.” The Kingpin, who started as a Spider-Man villain, fit that role perfectly and is also now synonymous with Daredevil despite his web-headed beginnings. Bullseye went from a b-level villain to one of Daredevil’s most dangerous rogues. Miller raised the stakes and showed us that he wasn’t afraid to pull punches or kill off beloved characters.
On top of that, you had Miller’s dynamic action sequences. Many of his best action sequences are through widescreen panels that showcased every kick, every flip, every punch. His style of action was almost never seen before. And with a character like Daredevil and his ninja training background, it made the fights with Bullseye, The Hand, and Kingpin incredibly iconic. Many times, he would leave the panels silent and let the action speak for itself (something rarely done in comics at the time).
Marvel has kept Miller’s run well collected. First, there’s the majority of his run in a three volume set. Each link takes you to its Amazon page:
He also teamed with John Romita Jr. for the mini-series, Daredevil: The Man Without Fear. It’s essentially “Daredevil: Year One,” showing how he became Daredevil. Miller tweaks Daredevil’s mythology some to include characters like Kingpin and Elektra from nearly the beginning. And it works incredibly well.
It should also be noted that the show lifts many things straight from Man Without Fear. The show’s opening brawl on the pier, for example, is almost panel-for-panel the same in the comic. As is Daredevil’s first all-black costume.
Finally, Frank seemed to take a break from ‘ol Hornhead for a little while but came back for what was, in my opinion, the best of his run. Born Again is not only his best Daredevil story but I would argue it’s one of Kingpin’s best stories. It shows the kind of lengths Wilson Fisk will take in order to take down his greatest enemy. Those lengths drive Daredevil to the brink of insanity and it takes a miracle for him to crawl back.
Daredevil: Yellow, by Jeph Loeb & Tim Sale (2001-2002)
Daredevil: Yellow, by Jeph Loeb & Tim Sale
Jeph Loeb was once one of my favourite writers. It seems like, ever since the unfortunate death of his son, he hasn’t had that same magic. But as executive producer for Marvel’s TV works, that magic might be returning. And even he had a hand in writing the blind lawyer from Hell’s Kitchen.
Honestly, Loeb’s best work (which I’m sure even he’d agree) came is team-ups with artist Tim Sale. They have this fantastic chemistry that’s created great work like Batman: The Long Halloween, Superman for All Seasons, and a series of Marvel mini-series with a colour theme: Hulk: Grey, Spider-Man: Blue, Captain America: White, and Daredevil: Yellow.
Yellow is mainly a love letter to the Silver Age version of Daredevil, where he wore the hideous (and fortunately, short-lived) yellow and red costume. On the surface, it’s about Daredevil fighting his various mainstay villains like The Owl or The Purple Man. But underneath that, Matt Murdock’s inner narration show that they’re just memories from times past, possibly to happier times, while today’s Murdock mourns the loss of a loved one.
It’s a light-hearted look at Daredevil, with many funny and enjoyable moments, but with some good heart-warming (and a few heart-wrenching) moments mixed in.
Daredevil: Guardian Angel, by Kevin Smith
(Daredevil Vol. 2, #1-7
Dardevil: Guardian Devil
This is where I became a Daredevil fan. With phenomenal art by Joe Quesada, Kevin Smith’s run launched the Marvel Knight’s imprint. MK was used to showcase street level heroes like Daredevil and Punisher, bringing them back to their prime. It sure as hell worked with Punisher, since it gave us Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon’s run. And it sure as hell worked here, too.
Smith’s run is kind of a mix of the superhero daring-do with fantastical elements, along with street level noir. Of all the runs, this one is maybe closest to Frank Miller’s in style and tone.
What I liked about this story is its focus on Matt’s Irish Catholic background (something introduced by Miller). Much of the story is a test of faith for Matt. At the end of the first issue, a baby that’s apparently the second coming of Christ is literally dropped into his arms.
Both Matt’s faith and sanity are tested as he tries to figure out whether it’s true and who’s on his side. It climaxes with a brilliant reveal that left my jaw on the floor the first time I read it.
Really, after Daredevil creative teams had kind of meandered about for years, trying to ape Miller’s run, this was a return to form for the character. But it was just a taste of what was to come.
I’d never heard of David Mack before this, but after this, I hunted down his creator-owned work, Kabuki. Mack employs a unique visual style that’s fully painted, but also some incredibly unique layouts. Here, the art is done by Joe Quesada, but the layouts are clearly all Mack. For example, during a first date, with music notes flying around, the art distorts as we see the two new lovers losing themselves to each other and the music. It’s hard to describe and give it justice, honestly. Quesada’s strengths are fortified by Mack’s fantastic layouts.
Looking back, it feels like Mack was trying to introduce a new, Elektra-like love interest for Matt. And it kind of works. Maya Lopez (aka Echo) is deaf. And like Matt, she has not only acclimated to this disability but it’s her other senses were heightened. The two get along incredibly well as a result, except she’s also under the thumb of The Kingpin, who uses her to go after Murdock.
It’s primarily love story and it’s told incredibly well. I loved the chemistry between these two. My favourite moment is when they see a movie together. She describes what she sees while he describes what’s said (she could read lips). All to the frustrations of the other movie watchers.
Mack returned much later to tell a solo story for Maya/Echo, in Vision Quest. Here, he’s the writer and artist and it feels more like Kabuki (in all the right ways). Using her Native American background, Echo goes on a vision quest to find herself. It’s more her story than Daredevil’s, but I like it a lot for being so unconventional.
And I think we’ll end it there for now. We have three more big runs to cover – the biggest of all of them. In fact, I would say at least two of them might even dwarf Frank Miller’s iconic run. But this particular article has already run close to 1,600 words.