on 3 January 2014
Frank Miller's influence on the character of Daredevil cannot be overstated. At the time he began working on the book, it was in a bad shape, almost epitomizing the issues most comics faced at the tail end of the Silver Age. Garish colours, stilted exposition and the active encouragement of wackiness were abound at the time, and Daredevil seemed to push this awkwardness even more than it's contemporaries. To get a real understanding of the intelligence, talent and skill Miller brings to the Man Without Fear over the course of these collected issues, one only has to contrast the first issue collected in this omnibus, which has Matt Murdock kidnapped by a conglomerate of what seem like talking animals, with the final issue, which consists of a quiet conversation between Murdock and a paralyzed Bullseye over a game of Russian Roulette. While I don't at all hold these stories as Miller's best work, or even his best take on the character of Daredevil, this collection is a veritable treasure trove of comics history, illustrating both the redefining of a marvel comics mainstay and the development of one of the medium's most influential writers.
The book begins with a series of issues scripted by Roger McKenzie, with Miller serving as artist only. The opening stories here are mediocre at best and espouse very well the myriad reasons the book was on the verge of cancellation. The stories lack much in the way of continuity between one another and instead offer concise one shots or two parters. These are usually self contained, often goofy stories that seem to hinge mostly on gimmicks, namely the inclusion of a Spider Man villain or other, more interesting guest stars from other slices of the Marvel Universe (like The Hulk) in a desperate grope for attention. Worse than that however, is that Miller's vision for the character doesn't really congeal with that of his writer's, which is pretty efficiently demonstrated just by taking a look at the cover of issue 163, which has a battered and bruised Daredevil making a final stand in a darkened alleyway, bringing Miller's noir sensibilities to the forefront, but having him fight The Hulk, a big green man child that embodies the pulpy, science fiction trappings of Silver Age comics.
However, upon Miller taking up the reins of the book, he immediately sets about making his mark. Daredevil's rogue's gallery was fairly horrendous at the time, including figures such as a talking ape and the book nabbing whatever Spiderman villain they could get their hands on. Miller reduces this to a core trinity, Bullseye, Elektra and The Kingpin. Elektra herself has since become synonymous with the character, as has Bullseye, but it was the stories here that really defined them. Positing Elektra as Daredevil's former lover for instance gave their confrontations a real sense of pathos and drama that was lacking in pretty much any other hero/ villain dynamic at the time. Bullseye, the most conventional of the three villains (with a costume and gimmick to call his own) stood out in the crowd with his characterisation as a complete and unflinching sociopath, the type of freak that could very conceivably dress up in a garish outfit, despite the more grounded take on Daredevil and his world. The Kingpin was, before his importing over to Daredevil, a novelty Spider-Man villain, that Miller himself concedes could easily have been renamed 'Fat Man'. Miller's take on the character as a duplicitous business man however set Daredevil apart as a hero that focused on fighting non costumed villains, in a universe swarming with garishly outfitted maniacs. This approach has really been vindicated in the following years by the fact Daredevil's villain selection never really expanded beyond the ones given focus here. Other minor villains like The Owl and even to an extent Stilt Man have been given either a gritty sensibility or had their silliness mocked to make them stand beside the Kingpin.
Miller isn't afraid to depict his protagonist as an immensely flawed individual either. While I wouldn't go as far as to call his portrayal of Murdock an 'Anti Hero', Matt is given a lot of very human flaws, making him immediately more human than the majority of heroes surrounding him at the time. He treats his girlfriend with cold disdain, ruining her business to ensure she marries him at one point. He attempts to murder one of his adversaries, albeit after saving his life earlier, only for that to cause innumerable other deaths later on in the collection. Miller has various characters make reference to Daredevil as flawed to drive the idea home. This was a layer of depth a superhero had never really received before. Other darker shades were incorporated into the world around Daredevil, most notably in The Hand, an army of ruthless ninja assassins that are shown to commit suicide upon defeat, really pushing the limits of what he could get away with in a superhero comic at the time.
Miller also established some continuity between issues, with stories bleeding into one another and creating long form events, like the Gang War Saga early in his run. There's also the development of ongoing themes, the most notable of which being Daredevil's controversial decision to save Bullseye's life early on in the book, which has a major effect on him and his supporting cast afterwards. Miller's stories read more like a layered, intricate crime epic than a bunch of loosely connected, twenty page fight scenes with some comedic relief surrounding them. There are also some one shot stories that really stand out though. The final issue collected here, 'Roulette' is perhaps one of the finest single issues of any comic book ever written, as well as serving as something of a precursor to Alan Moore's 'The Killing Joke'. Other highlights include a story where a hallucinating Bullseye starts seeing Daredevil everywhere he goes, and another that has Murdock going through a trippy journey of self discovery, which culminates in him fighting the physical manifestation of his own neurosis and hatred.
So Miller's run is fairly revolutionary and genre defining, but to review it on it's relevance and your ability to enjoy it today is another matter. As I said before, there are numerous stories here that are still very entertaining to read today, but Miller, despite his talent, can't immediately turn the book to gold in its first issue. There are a lot of growing pains throughout the stories collected here that make it much tougher to enjoy with a modern perspective. The biggest problem I faced with this collection was the over reliance on comic relief. Comedy is important as levity, especially in stories with characters and events as dark as these, however Miller's emphasis on comic relief actually undermines the drama a lot of the time. The most egregious tool employed is the character of Turk. Turk shows up in almost every issue with no reason but to fail at his goal in the most spectacular and farcical manner possible. Whether he's trying to hitch a ride on the Punisher's helicopter escape from jail, only to 'hilariously' tumble into the water, or riding into a noir story about gangsters and corrupt politicians with a robotic mech suit, it's amazing just how quickly my enjoyment of the tales here was sapped by this loathsome tool's presence, and it's no coincidence that the stories I enjoyed the most were by far those where he was either absent or only given a cursory cameo. Foggy Nelson is also rarely developed beyond his presence as a bumbling idiot, and the less said about one story where he infiltrates the Kingpin's empire through a series of whacky misadventures and coincidences, the better.
There are other flaws also. Despite what I remembered, Miller doesn't eschew the clunky exposition so common in silver age comics until much later into his run. There are entire pages dedicated to explaining the events of the previous issue in the most transparent manner possible. The most cringe inducing example being Daredevil interrogating one thug about the events of a few issues previous, to 'remind' him. Having Bullseye spout to the audience he can turn anything into a deadly weapon every single time he appears starts to grate pretty fast too. Also, as much as Miller added to Daredevil's rogues gallery, Murdock's supporting cast mostly falls flat. The stories here wisely introduced Stick, Murdock's childhood mentor, but that's about the most interesting addition made. As aforementioned, Foggy is reduced to little beyond comic relief. Murdock's love interest also was completely uninteresting, and also felt out of place against the angst Daredevil faced when dealing with Elektra. We see the pair kiss, fight for one another's lives despite their differences and have Murdock breaking down upon her murder, but also have a bland, one note love interest wedged in somewhere. Now to be fair, Miller does hint that this isn't the healthiest or most solid relationship, with Foggy commenting at one point how cold Matt seems towards her, but this idea seems extremely underdeveloped and I could have lived with having the entire subplots associated with this relationship completely removed. Miller would later do well in Born Again to instead focus on a love interest with genuine character and a relationship with Matt.
That's not to say however that the omnibus is crucially flawed. As I said, it's fascinating to observe how Miller managed to redefine a character that at one point was a struggling, low rent Spiderman rip off with a unique gimmick, into one of the most interesting figures in the Marvel Universe, as well as being able to see Miller's own unique style of writing develop, despite the problems he faces branching out from the character's corny and unfortunate past. It's just worthy of note that readers new to the character and Miller's take on him would be better served by starting with a more immediately polished and refined tale, namely 'Born Again' or ' The Man Without Fear'. This initial run features that type of brilliance, but more sporadically.
What is perhaps a more major flaw is the quality of the book itself. This is the first of Marvel's omnibus editions I've read that makes use of the thinner style of paper, which I'm not a big fan of. However, I'll admit this is largely a case of different strokes for different folks, and that the majority of readers won't have too much of a problem with it, if any. The issue is compounded by a few other niggling problems however. This edition makes use a computerized re coloring which is noticeable right off the bat if you take a look at some of the original artwork at the back of the book, or are familiar with older editions of these issues. The colour gradients used don't at all benefit or fit Miller's otherwise wonderful artwork, which made it, at least for me, a very disappointing alteration. There are also teeny niggling errors, like a typo in the introduction of the book, which I'll admit is a minute issue and one not really worth considering individually, but it paints an overall sloppy picture of the craftsmanship of the book. Omnibus editions are very pricey and generally from Marvel you can expect a good return, but this book felt like a bit of an exception.
Still, if you can look past those issues, you'll find a fascinating series of stories with a good deal of extra content to boot, including a lengthy and very insightful interview with Miller and Janson, as well as extra artwork, design concepts and covers. Overall, I'd recommend the book as a worthwhile purchase, and hope to see a reprint of the companion omnibus soon.