The Best of Daredevil: 10 Through 6

Be sure to check out part 1, the Nearly, but Not Quites, all about those consider closely but just were not good enough.

Inspired by Comic Book Resources’ own take on it, I decided to look back down memory lane and choose my top 10 eras of Daredevil. Today I tackle the bottom five of the top 10 (that phrase is technically accurate but not necessarily well written). Enjoy my pontificating then rush to the back issue bins and buy BUY BUY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Ten through Six

 Some kisses aren't worth it Matt...some kisses just aren't worth it. (image from manwithoutfear.com)

Some kisses aren't worth it Matt...some kisses just aren't worth it. (image from manwithoutfear.com)

10.) DD Gets Political (Nocenti, Harkness, Priest (formerly Owsley), Nicieza, Romita Jr, Windsor Smith, Buscema, Williams, McFarlane, Pollard, Patton, Giffen, Leonardi, Ditko, Bagley, Weeks, Capullo, Dwyer, Morgan, Lim; Vol. 1 #236-291)

I struggled with this one for quite a while. There are moments in Nocenti’s run that are great, that are absolutely bonkers, and that are pretty cringeworthy. Even as I pretty well documented leftist liberal (seriously, just ask Brendan Loy, he’ll tell you ALLLLLLLL about it) there are moments of issue advocacy that grind the whole thing to a halt. But I get ahead of myself. Let’s talk about why I did give it the nod.

First off, because as a more writer oriented fan I tend to short-shift artists, I have to address John Romita Jr. He’s so damn good. Not quite as boxy as he would later get (although I still like that style too), his DAREDEVIL was drenched in shadows and boasted an intensity that conveyed how badly Murdock was getting hurt, which happened early and often in this run. Of particular note was his reimagining of Mephisto and Blackheart in a form that felt truly demonic while casting aside a lot of the “this is the Devil!” clichés that defined Mephisto during most of his “career.” To this day Romita Jr remains one of my favorite DAREDEVIL artists.

This run has also brought us some great new villains, although sadly only a few of them (one, really) has gotten much ink since it wrapped. There’s Bengal (a Fabian Nicieza creation that started here before appearances in NEW WARRIORS and, years later, AVENGERS INITIATIVE)— a Vietnamese refugee bent on revenge— Bullet—a covert agent dedicated to framing an environmental group— Shotgun—a merc under the employ of a wicked corporate type with a genetic experimentation business--The Nameless One—a zombie in the Voodoo sense of the word— The Trixter—a stuntman and master of disguise with chaos creating technology (and another character, like Trump, I would use in a DD story in a heartbeat)—and, of course, Typhoid Mary (all Nocenti’s originals)—a soap opera actor with multiple personalities and a fire starting ability—the only one that has consistently showed up since.

The run also makes excellent use of some villains not necessarily tied to DD. The aforementioned Mephisto and Blackheart bedevil (pun apologized for) Murdock for issues including a truly great Spider-Man team-up issue. Sabretooth shows up twice and is utilized in such a way that I was excited for his second appearance despite my disinterest in the character on the whole. Even better is Ultron’s two issue arc that saw DD somehow triumph over the killer robot in yet another installment of one of my favorite Man without Fear’s tropes—Matt takes down a villain he has no right to through luck, grit, and a refusal to acknowledge how crazy it is to try (see also, Hulk, Submariner, Absorbing Man).

Nocenti also delivers compelling treatises on the Kingpin/DD and Bullseye/DD relationships. Kingpin finds a new way to hurt Murdock after it seemed DD had finally taken permanent control that dynamic. The real barnburner though is when Nocenti takes the Daredevil-Bullseye antagonism to its cracked mirror extreme. The two swap identities, experiencing cognitive dissonance and the motivation to do it “better” before it all climaxes in a boxing ring brawl that sees them beating the tar out of one another in full bruising glory. To her credit, up until the very end, the writer manages to keep you as confused as the characters and there are moments where you legitimately have no idea who is who or who has the upper hand.

As nodded to above, however, not everything is great. The crossovers with “Fall of the Mutants” and “Inferno,” in particular, are fairly intrusive. DD fighting a demonic toaster is a decent gag but, perhaps, not worth pressing pause on the long-term work Nocenti was in the midst of.

Although part of the plan and it leading to some great issues, the choice to take DD on the road is similarly intrusive. Taking Murdock out of the Kitchen makes him feel untethered which, on the one hand, is the point, but, on the other, drags out a bit too long and kind of leaves you with some pretty sour feelings about the protagonist.

I am also a little disappointed in Karen Page’s treatment during this era. The anti-porn crusade is a bit of that advocacy creep that I mentioned earlier but I actually found it to be pretty smart, especially given both her own past (used by the industry that played upon her drug addiction) and the time period (the late 80’s/early 90’s when unprotected sex with many partners could mean death in a very real way and a world that very well might shame and ignore you if you ended up with HIV). What bothered me was her reaction to Murdock being broken, morally and physically, by Typhoid Mary. Given her own personal history—and the massive betrayal she had dealt Matt—it seemed off she would just cast him into proverbial darkness. She did not need to keep on loving him, but I found her being compassionless to him during a time he was so clearly an unspooling mess of a man to be a disservice to her own journey.

Best Single Issue: On a run of this length, that’s a tough one to choose. I love the one-off #241 with the Trixter, a possibly suicidal villain who’s using an angel look for attention; #270, the first Spider-Man/DD crossover I can recall reading, #260, Typhoid’s triumph; and any of the Bullseye/DD identity crisis issues, #194-200. However, I have to go with the second installment of the Ultron arc, #276, as I just love Daredevil somehow triumphing over the deadly machine despite being basically physically and mentally broken.

 Daredevil seems super psyched to be checking himself in Doom's mask. I wonder why...(hint, hint). (image from manwithoutfear.com)

Daredevil seems super psyched to be checking himself in Doom's mask. I wonder why...(hint, hint). (image from manwithoutfear.com)

9.) The Early Years (Lee, Everett, Orlando, Wood, Romita, Kirby, Colan, Smith; Vol. 1, #1-50, 53)

It all begins here. Matt Murdock/Daredevil, Karen Page, Foggy Nelson, Gladiator, Battlin’ Jack Murdock, Purple Man, the Spider-Man/DD relationship, Stilt Man, the yellow and brown costume, the red costume, and more are all introduced here. It is very much of the time, with Lee’s bombastic dialogue and caption boxes setting the tone. Daredevil is clearly a Spider-Man joker here at this time, which might jostle people used to his latter day characterization. This work does not rival Lee’s other early runs on the likes of AMAZING SPIDER-MAN or FANTASTIC FOUR, but it is still worthy of notice. Admittedly, if it was not the birth of the character, it might not make the list, but it was so it does.

Best Single Issue: It has to be #7, the first time Daredevil really differentiates himself from Spider-Man (in my opinion), a smart use of Murdock’s role as a lawyer and how that might be different in a world with super powered folk running around all over the place, and the first instance of him tangling with someone who is clearly doing to beat him badly and, yet, not backing down.

 This...looks troubling. (image from manwithoutfear.com)

This...looks troubling. (image from manwithoutfear.com)

8.) DD Splits, Reincorporates (DeMatteis, Wagner, Nord, Rozum, Raab, McManus; Vol.1, #344-352)

At nine issues, this is the shortest run to feature multiple writers, but I included all of them (rather than just the first seven) they read as thematically linked despite the three different writers. The inclusion of this run, which I imagine would not show up on a lot of other lists, owes a lot to timing.

When DeMatteis came onto the book (with Wagner and Nord on art) things were dire. Not even Warren Ellis’s only work on DAREDEVIL ever in the previous issue had moved the needle much. Murdock had not been Murdock in months, (but it feels like YEARS), running around as con man Jack Batlin. He was still DDing in his widely (and unfairly, damn it!) reviled armored costume in stories mostly written by someone using a pseudonym, never a good sign. DAREDEVIL the book and Daredevil the character both appeared to be stumbling towards a crushing hiatus, at the least.

Instead, the trio pushed DD into an identity crisis given physical form. Two Daredevils are running around, one brutally unhinged, one reckless and proclaim of his “realness”, one in armor, one in the original yellow togs. At the end of #344, our POV DD, the man living as Jack Batlin, awakes to find his armored suit and his sanity one step closer to dissolving. Has someone discovered his new identity? How? And what does it mean to a man already over the edge?

In quick succession it is revealed the two DD’s are one in the same and Murdock is fully cracked up. From there, he undergoes either a reintegration of his personalities (from a psychological perspective) or a healing of his very soul (from a religious/spiritual standpoint) against a backdrop of things that may or may not be happening in real life. DeMatteis is a master of this sort of thing and he pretty well nails it.

In the last two fill-in issues, the teams of Rozum/McManus and Raab/McManus continue what DeMatteis, Wagner, and Nord began by setting Daredevil against a bully who’s a fake (a mirror to Murdock’s last days in the armor) and reconnecting Matt and Foggy through a conflict with Mastermind that also brings in several classic DD adversaries (also continuing the idea of confronting and overcoming falsehoods on his way to returning to be Matt Murdock).

The art, while not spectacular--Wagner is a solid workman-like artist and Nord was still finding his footing--was a welcome antidote to months of substandard pencilling, inking, and coloring.

I’m not a fan of making Murdock's breakdown be based so strongly in his accidental killing of a prostitute (as seen in the MAN WITHOUT FEAR limited series), not only because it led to the annual in which Joe Kelly’s made that prostitute and Typhoid Mary one in the same (don't even get me started on that!), but also it underestimates the sheer volume of hideousness that had befallen Matt.  The catalyst aside, however, I think it is a strongly plotted tale of redemption (in the little “r” and big “R” senses of the word) that gets Daredevil and Matt Murdock back to an understandable baseline for a new direction after a year of fairly depressing stories with fairly muddy artwork.

Best Single Issue: The run, especially its first seven issues are so tightly linked it is a bit hard to single one out. Nonetheless, as that is my charge, I shall do so. I really cannot separate those seven issues from one another as they do not really work as individual pieces only as a collective. Thus, I give the nod to #351 wherein DD seems  more lighthearted than he has in years and squares off against the Vice Agent who is far less than he initially appears.

 Matty's got a gun dun dun the whole world's come undone because Matty's got a gun. (image from manwithoutfear.com)

Matty's got a gun dun dun the whole world's come undone because Matty's got a gun. (image from manwithoutfear.com)

7.) Everybody Falls (Chichester, Herdling, Wright, Weeks, Garney, Wyman, McDaniel, Kobasic, Cariello; Vol. 1 #292-332; 380)

While the above choice might not make a lot of top 10 lists, I think this is the controversial one. For many, it is inextricably linked to the (wrongly maligned!) armored costume and the bad stuff that follows. Along the way though, Chichester (mostly) and his artists crafted more than a few intelligent Daredevil stories including the criminally (I’m so sorry for this pun too) underestimated and underappreciated “Fall of the Kingpin.” Not only did it “resolve” the Kingpin/DD conflict that had raged since Miller took over the book, but it also featured Murdock going on the offensive for the first time, unraveling Typhoid, and breaking Fisk before pulling back at the last minute and re-finding his Catholicism in a powerful but stripped down full page spread.

However, what I liked did not stop with that storyline. The take on the ongoing saga of Punisher and DD’s “relationship” pops up a few times and Chichester does not shy away from making it straight up antagonistic—including a moment where Murdock contemplates the day when Castle’s blood will be on his hands—in contrast to the sort of respectful disagreement we see more often today.

There were also some genuinely weird stories including a two-parter that turned Matt into the Nameless One and introduced Hellspawn, a demon who seems to believe himself the “real” Murdock, a villain called the Surgeon General that gave DD and Spider-Man fits, and a two-parter where the cover captions came right out and acknowledged the story inside was just plain dumb.

I don’t even hate “Fall from Grace,” an exercise in 90’s excess (guest stars a plenty, gritty gritty grit) that nonetheless showcased a selfless, clever Murdock who sacrifices his “life.” There’s plenty of dumb in it, don’t get me wrong, and the technobabble in the follow-up “Tree of Knowledge” arc is even worse. But Chichester did not stop getting Daredevil just because he put him in a suit of armor.

The bigger problem is a.) I think the era ran a bit too long so it was a bit tired as it pulled into its finale and b.) the late in the run emphasis on massive multiple storylines, especially (15-20? part) multi-title crossover, “Dead Man’s Hand.”

Also to the run's credit is the art by the two pencillers who more or less defined the look of the time, Lee Weeks in the beginning and Scott McDaniel at the end. Weeks is ridiculously underrated (see his recent DAREDEVIL: DARK NIGHTS arc for evidence of this) and made Daredevil both lithe and physically formidable, a figure that seemed grounded and incredible all at once. McDaniel, on the other hand, was pure dark kinetic energy. He's often rough (and I mean ROUGH) but his work was propulsive. He is not yet the artist he would be with NIGHTWING but I would argue this was his second best gig.

Best Single Issue:  It is hard not to give the nod to #300 where Daredevil finally drinks deeply of the cup of victory in his ongoing war with Kingpin. However, I like doing things the right, but hard ways. Initially that led me to #380 when D.G. and Lee Weeks came back to the book to close things down before Vol. 2 (see below) but I actually decided to ultimately give the the nod to #304, which sees DD dedicate himself to stopping all crime for a day. 

 Daredevil is not happy with my captioning in this installment. (image from manwithoutfear.com)

Daredevil is not happy with my captioning in this installment. (image from manwithoutfear.com)

Marvel Knights (Smith, Quesada, Mack, Cassaday, Connor, Nowlan, Palmiotti, Dillon, Jones, Romita Sr., Lee, Haynes, Ross; Vol. 2 #.5-15)

Daredevil and Marvel itself were in dire straits when this book arrived. Things did not look good. Like pre-Miller bad, in terms of DAREDEVIL, and never worse in terms of Marvel. The company’s back was against the wall and so it did something desperate, giving the guys from Event Comics Punisher, Black Panther, the Inhumans, and, of course, the Man without Fear. It worked out, in case Joey Quesada’s current role at Marvel did not make that clear. Well, maybe not Earth Angel Punisher, but the rest connected critically and, in the case of DAREDEVIL, financially too.

Kevin Smith’s opening arc in #1-8 brought Matt’s Catholicism front and center in a way that not even Miller did while allowing Smith to indulge in his dialogue and his penchant from bringing in all sorts of disparate elements of the shared universe—Mephisto, Dr. Strange, Mysterio, Hulk, Kingpin, Spider-Man, Black Widow, Human Torch, Power Pack, and so on. My enjoyment of Smith is not what it once was, but I still have affection for this slickly drawn and written revitalization of the franchise. And, bonus if you were reading it at the time, Smith hit all his deadlines!

The second arc, written by Mack with an issue by Palmiotti and Quesada and drawn mostly by Quesada with Haynes and Ross helping hit (already missed) deadlines introduced the deaf Echo. Alas, Marvel never really figured out how to use her after this but in this initial platform, she was a nice update to the Elektra dynamic that somehow made it all the more tragic because she was naïve where Natchios was already deeply corrupted.

Like Smith's arc before it, Quesada's art added a generous dollop of style and the way in which he incorporated Mack's own stylistic tics and techniques without losing his own sense of presentation is laudable.

What undermines the run is, certainly, its lateness of the second arc and, at times, the kitchen sink feel of the book cut both ways. A catch-up issue written by Quesada and Palmiotti--while something I enjoyed--was an effort in wheel spinning that I certainly can understand why others would find frustrating.

Best Single Issue: The .5 issue is a great artists’ showcase that also nicely accounted for Kingpin’s presence while Murdock found his life ripped apart once again. The real winner though is #9 which sees Murdock sagging under the grief of Page’s death, a grief that is prolonged and deepened by his super senses and introducing Maya Lopez, soon to be Echo.

Anyway, I hope you enjoyed this little diversion. Come back on Thursday for the top five!