Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Man Without Fear

By Jay Stringer


A few weeks back, that McLean fella wrote a fine piece about Batman being the ultimate noir superhero. And I almost agree with him. Almost.
I mean, I too was a Batman kid. And part of me always will be. I learned to read using comics, and it was the recognisable pop-culture image of Batman that provided the in. My young mind was warped by Batman:Year One and a little later I was hooked big time on the stories from Grant and Breyfogle. One of my clearest childhood memories was managing to sneak under-aged into a viewing of the first Burton Batman film (which was rated 12 in the UK and I was 9) None of this is me attempting to appear to be an uber fan, or show any crass secret handshake. It’s simply important that you know how much I care for the character, that he is miles ahead of my third favourite. That, if I veer into the realms of shit-talking the Bat in this blog, it’s all relative, and it’s all in service of making my point.
Because, ladies, gentlemen, and that guy at the back searching for Batman porn, I give you my ultimate noir superhero.
I give you Daredevil.
Bruce Wayne is Batman because he can be. He can afford to be. His is a life that gave him the privilege to swan off around the world learning to be the best at everything, then to come back and fund a private war on crime. Beneath it all, he is a spoiled brat, angry with his parents for leaving him and getting closer to them every night. I love that Christopher Nolan doesn’t shy away from this. The Batman of the most recent film is a self-righteous fanatic. His belief in his own worldview is matched only by the Joker’s belief in nothing. That is one of the things I like most about the character; he is heroic but it’s not necessarily fuelled by the right things, and his personality is not necessarily likeable.
But Matt Murdock isn’t a hero because he can afford to be. His is not a life that has afforded him any leg up or moment of comfort. He is a hero despite his background and, arguably, despite himself.
In the Batman universe, Murdock would be another of the great villains. His mother ran away after he was born –later we find out she became a nun- and his father was a washed up alcoholic boxer. Young Matt was lonely and poverty stricken. His father demanded one thing from him; a promise to never use violence. Never use his fists. Use his brain, study and work his way out of the hole.
His father couldn’t provide for him. Couldn’t protect him. And couldn’t be of any use to his son moving forward. But he could give him one final, important lesson. He was murdered by the mob for refusing to throw a fight. A washed up, broken down old boxer, way past any shot at the big time, would rather go down honest than stay up as a crook.
Cut to a decade or so later, and the son who promised to never use violence wears a mask and beats up criminals. That’s an added reason to wear a costume; shame.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Item 1; Matt is blind. He was blinded in a moment of childhood heroism. He jumped in front of a truck to save an old man, and in doing so he lost his sight forever. A moment of total selflessness that cost him everything. That sets a pattern. So, we have a blind man who jumps off rooftops. Insane? Whoa yes.
Item 2; Matt is a Lawyer. And a good one. Pound for pound Matt Murdock is the best lawyer in the city, he’s strong, he’s smart, and he’s determined. It also makes him a hypocrite. He is sworn to uphold the law. His professional life is dedicated to serving and protecting the justice system as if it were a religion, a pure faith. Then at night, he puts on a mask and breaks the law, the very thing he serves. Nuts? Whoa yes. And that's without mentioning that he's a catholic who dresses like a devil to do the right thing...
Item 3; Matt is a liar. Totally. Completely. In a long running storyline of a few years back, Matt was ‘outed’ in the press. It was leaked that he was Daredevil. His response? He lied. He stood in front of the worlds press and stated that he wasn’t. He sued the newspaper for libel, and won. He sued anyone who made the accusation. He refused to resign from his job, and continued to serve both as a lawyer and a masked vigilante. His friends were not shy in calling him on his bullshit, his arrogance. But he kept going. He endured. Did that make him a hero? That’s a difficult issue. It certainly made him a great character.
Item 4; Matt is insane. He is. There is no doubt. In the seminal Born Again storyline he cracks. He is pushed right up the edge of his sanity by his archenemy and…well…his sanity doesn’t fare well. He starts to see conspiracy. He talks to himself. He sleeps rough. He breaks off all ties with the world around him. He’s had at least one other nervous breakdown since then. He is not a stable person, if you didn’t already get that from the ‘blind-man-rooftop’ thing.
Item 5; He fails. A lot. I don't think any superhero has had his or her ass handed to them as often as Ol' Hornhead.
He’s been worked on by many fine writers. Stan Lee created him of course, as a poor-mans version of Spidey. So right there, he has the inbuilt chip on his shoulder that all great crime fiction characters have. From there, Frank Miller turned him into a ‘film noir superhero,’ the book was filled with moody lighting, smoking, dark alleys and backlit skyscrapers. He fought organised crime, ninjas and hitmen. Two of my favourite modern writers, Brian Bendis and Ed Brubaker, have both taken turns at wrecking Matt’s life and knocking him to the canvas. In between there have been such great comic-scribes as Denny O'Neil and Anne Nocenti.
If you want to read what is (in my opinion) the greatest achievement of super hero comics, you can pick up Daredevil: Born Again. It’s a systematic dismantling of the genre, but its not done against the backdrop of a grand canvas like Watchmen, or with a true icon like Batman: Year One. It’s done in the grubby back alleys of Hell’s kitchen, with the evil plan being nothing more than destroying one mans life.
Matt’s ex-girlfriend, Karen, has fallen into drug addiction. And for the price of another fix she sells Matt’s secret, betrays the one man she loves. Once the Kingpin has this information he begins to squeeze. He picks at every corner of Matt’s life; his job, his money, his home, his friends. Bit by bit, he starts to take the hero apart, peeling away layers. By a third of the way through the story, Matt isn’t even wearing the costume anymore. When you strip a man right down to his core you see what’s left. When you strip Matt Murdock right down to his core you see that all he is, at heart, is a survivor. Coupled to this is Karen’s fight to save herself, to find Matt and seek forgiveness. Can the two of them find redemption on the streets? Can they put themselves back together?
Matt’s father taught him,"It’s not how long it takes you to get knocked to the canvas that counts, it’s how long it takes you to get back up.” And Matt does keep getting back up. He doesn’t know anything else.
The true heart of the character is that he has nothing to lose and “..a man without hope is a man without fear.
And so I submit my case, folks. Daredevil; a man who has every reason to be a villain, who is at best arrogant and inflexible . He lies, he fights and he’s cold to those who love him. He makes the wrong decisions and frequently lets the cracks in his sanity show. Despite all of this, he succeeds.
At great cost to himself every time.
So what about you guys? Who would you stack up against Batman and Daredevil and great noir or hardboiled comic book characters? Is there anyone fucked up enough to match them?

8 comments:

Paul D. Brazill said...

What did you think of that Kevin Smith Daredevil comic. I liked it. It looked great but don't you think it was a bit TOO operatic?

Jay Stringer said...

Totally agree. I was excited by it at the time, but it hasn't aged well.

To many words, too forced and rushed. It tries too hard.

Gerald So said...

Daredevil has always been my favorite for all the reasons you mention, and because his blindness means he's aware of others' and his own fallibility and frailty; few superheroes are.

I also think, because he's a lawyer, he's aware of how blurred moral lines can become. Readers are always conscious of the law and where he stands in relation as they read his stories.

Daredevil stories are sometimes too dark for me; he's screwed up a lot; done things I didn't think he ever would. All superhero stories are about right prevailing in the end, but only when we've been to the darkest parts of ourselves can we truly appreciate forgiveness, redemption, restoration of order. Daredevil can tell these fully-arced stories like no other.

Jay Stringer said...

Great comments Gerald, you nailed it.

Chris said...

Damn, Jay, you make a great case. I've always liked Daredevil, but have never really dug in. I'm going to need to rectify that.

Steve Weddle said...

Good thoughts on Daredevil. He's no Spider Jerusalem, but he's OK.

Lein Shory said...

Hurm.

Rorschach.

R Wallace said...

I'm with you on Born Again being the '80s high water mark. Watchmen may have been deeper, the Dark Knight flashier but Born Again was without a doubt the most gut-wrenching and, well, human of the lot.

And having gone back to it a couple years ago, I thought it stood up pretty well on re-reading, considering it's about 25 years old and I was just a kid when I first read it ...