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.
Done? Good. Now, we have now arrived at the moment you are all waiting for! The top 5. Counting down 5 to 1! BOOM! Let’s get into it!
Five Through One
5.) Going to Prison –But Isn’t the Whole World a Prison, Really (Brubaker, Rucka, Lark, Nocenti, Guadiano, Aja, Bermejo, Djurdjevic, Sienkiewicz, Azaceta, Mann, Zonjic, Lucas, Bendis, Darrow, Grampa, Samnee, Zircher; Vol. 2 #82-119, 500 [renumbered])
Following Bendis (and Co)’s run on DAREDEVIL (see #2 below for details) could not have been an easy task. Not only had BMB defined the character for more than six years, but when he left the title, our titular hero was behind bars. How does one write themselves out of that jam?
If Brubaker (with later assistance from Rucka and splitting #500 with Nocenti) hesitated at all, one certainly cannot see it on the page. Widening the gaze of a book that had grown increasingly claustrophobic (as befitted what was happening to Murdock) Brubaker focused not just on the Man Without Fear’s ever worsening life but also on how his spiral effected and pulled others down with him. By utilized the likes of Foggy, Black Tarantula, Dakota North, Iron Fist, Punisher, and, especially Murdock’s wife Milla, the run made it clear Murdock’s private hell was anything but. Even thing that really seemed like they would not/should not work did. See, for instance, Lady Bullseye.
In a lot of ways, the run was defined by returning the pieces to the board. Murdock found his way back to the courtroom and the law office, Kingpin returned to power, and, although there was no re-concealing his dual life, the storylines found a way to put it into a context that was not so big as to derail everything around it.
Unfortunately, even with the identity being a bit more hemmed in, it still rained pain onto Murdock’s life and ultimately led to Milla being offered up as a sort of a sacrifice to it, a noir and DAREDEVIL trope to be sure, but one that it would have been nice if the run found a different way to see her off the book. Also on the negative is how quickly the intriguing idea of Daredevil being the head of the Hand is derailed. It is not bad, but it’s such a unique choice, I would’ve liked to have seen the book spend a little more time developing that idea. (Although, readers of Diggle’s DAREDEVIL saw it go down in a way and certainly the less said about that, the better.)
Lark’s realistic but still wonderfully action-oriented pencils set the style for the book nicely and other artists, like Guadiano and Aja, rise well to the challenge of matching him. When the style breaks, as wth Berjemo’s role in #500’s jam book it is for good reason and the change in style works powerfully.
Best Single Issue: #100, with its series of fear gas (no, no, not THAT fear guess) induced hallucinations that double of psychological exposure exercises, is a definite contender. So is #82, the first issue of the run that introduces Matt’s life behind bars and Foggy’s stabbing, and #88, which finds Foggy under Witness Protection. However, the run goes out on such a big bang with #50o that it has to be the obvious victor.
4.) A Return to the Red Pajamas, Jokes, and Sanity (Kesel, Nord, Hama, Buscema, Leonardi, Epting, Colan; Vol. 1, #353-357, 359-364)
Before Mark Waid, there was Karl Kesel.
I do not mean this reductively, (see #3), just that years earlier Kesel looked at the wreckage of DAREDEVIL and made asked a similar question: why can’t DAREDEVIL the book and Daredevil the character be a touch lighter? Why can’t the Man without Fear be a bit more Scarlet Swashbuckler again?
Wisely, he, along with (mostly) Nord, decided there was no reason that Murdock could not occasionally smile. That’s not to say the book is a happy go-lucky one during this time. It starts with a brutal murder, DD gets beat around a significant amount, and Black Widow is getting darker and darker as she struggles with survivor’s guilt post-“Onslaught.” It just recognizes that there can be shades of storytelling, not just dark, darker, and darkest.
To kick off the too-brief run—if I remember the rumors correctly, the plan was to have Murdock elected to AD or Mayor but Marvel balked and Kesel left—Murdock puts his love of the law as a central tenet of his life again, representing Mr. Hyde in court despite the villain being a beastly fiend because a.) he’s still entitled to counsel and b.) DD does not want to see Hyde go to jail for a crime he is somehow innocent of. The opening arc also introduces the neat idea that he subtly recruits everyone he saves to be his eyes and ears over the city, turning a “deal with the Devil” into a means of making him a better, more efficient hero. Think the current Spider-Man’s (Superior flavor) robot drones with a human face and significantly less Big Brother creepiness.
The run also re-established the Page/Murdock romance with a sweetness that is never cloying, a new, cool job for Page, and a new direction for the law firm that brings in Foggy’s estranged mom (spoiled months earlier by a house ad. DAMN YOU MARVEL HOUSE ADS!) Rosalind Sharpe. In costume, DD trying to stop Widow from crossing too many lines in her quest for vengeance, and some brutal fights against the Eel (with excellent new costume), the Enforcers, Grey Gargoyle, Pyre (dying and seeking to go out in a blaze of glory, and the Absorbing Man (which is as lopsided a fight as you might expect).
Nord’s warm-up in earlier fill-in issues comes in handy as he hits the ground running here, establishing an athletic, flexible Daredevil and a monstrous look and a monstrous Mr. Hyde in the first few pages of #353. Unfortunately, he is subbed in for multiple times despite the runs briefness. Most are fine but none, even the returned Colan, match the look and energy Nord has in his issues.
The biggest strike against this run really is its briefness and the inconsistent art. It was so good, I truly wish Kesel and Nord could have put together a few year collaboration on it.
Best Single Issue: It is nearly all killer no filler here. Honestly, all the issues with both lead creators on it should be in your collection if you like Daredevil—or well done comics. I identify three possible choice is I must choose, the debut #353 that establishes the tone in a hurry, #359, the issue which reveals Page’s new job and allows us to see how the city sees Daredevil, and #360, DD vs. Absorbing Man. In a break with my usual preferences, I’m not going with the Daredevil overmatched story, but rather #359. I love how it summarizes both who DD is and is not and gives us a feel for a Marvel Universe at large that seems to be in the throes of PTSD after “Onslaught.”
3.) Smiling Through the Pain (Waid, Van Lente, Martin, Rivera, Samnee, Rodriguez, Allred, Kano, Pham, Checcetto; Vol. 3 #1-33 [and BEYOND!)
When all is said and done, I’m expecting this run to rise in my estimation. With it still going on though, I feel the need to hedge my bet a bit. I do not know why…perhaps I’m a coward (covert wordplay alert, I guess?).
Anyway, as noted above, Waid took a book coming off what I (and many) consider a disastrous run (directly, as opposed to Kesel who had the benefit of DeMatteis’s redemptive arc first; and to soften the critical blow a bit, I thought Diggle’s run started with promise…rapidly evaporating promise) and sought to lift the Man without Fear from the muck.
And again, as with Kesel, Waid sought to lighten the tone without ignoring the fact that life is dark, dark, dark for Murdock.
The run using nontraditional villains to challenge Daredevil, including the Spot, Klaw, Dr. Doom, and the brand new Bruiser, Coyote, and Ikari, while feeding into a larger, long running arc that boasts a classic DD antagonist going about things in a brand new way. Daredevil is competent, confident, and seems to be enjoying his “job” for the first time in years. However, Waid also pushes him into a corner around #23 and let’s us see Matt truly terrified for his life and the lives of those around him.
On the personal front, Murdock has to hold off the bad with a smile while his friend Foggy doubts the change. To make things worse, just as Nelson believes his friend, finally, it is revealed that he is fighting cancer.
On the art side, and I mean this statement no matter how hyperbolic it might sound, a DAREDEVIL book has never looked better. Ever. The likes of Martin, Samnee, Rivera, and Allred create a unique, awesome look for the title that continues to way, nearly 3 years in.
Best Single Issue: I give the nod to #7. Murdock and a bus full of blind children experience a bus crash and are lost upstate in a snow storm with no cell phone. With no other options and falling temperatures, DD establishes a human chain and sets about ushering them to safety. Except he’s not quite as up to the task as he thinks…
Like Kesel’s run before it, however, this one is also pretty much uniformly excellent. It’s harder to find a bad or even mediocre issue in the bunch than it is to recommend one you just must read.
2.) The Fall, Rise, and Fall Again of the Outted Urban Vigilante (Bendis, Mack, Romita, Sr., Lee, Quesada, Colan, Maleev, Gutierrez, Dodson, Oeming, Weeks, Janson, Bachalo, Finch, Golden, Hester, Horn, Quitely, Russell, ; Vol. 2, #016-019, 026-050, 056-081)
When Bendis took over DAREDEVIL properly (not counting his still very good four issue fill-in #16-19) he was stepping into a book still doing decently. He was not inheriting a mess like Miller, Waid, or Kesel did, but he also was not taking on a title that had a clearly defined voice or tone, like Brubaker, Nocenti, or Chichester did. Instead, the challenge for him was not living up or down his predecessors’ work, but finding an approach to bring heat back to the title. And so he did.
Aided ably by the pitch perfect noir artwork of Maleev (predominantly), Bendis turned up the stakes and Daredevil’s world got significantly nastier. Opening with an arc that revealed Murdock’s dual identity to the world, the run saw DD twist and turn against it but refuse to yield, no matter how deep he continued to bury himself. The tighter things got, the angrier Murdock became and the more he lashed out, in increasingly erratic ways.
The air went out the balloon a bit coming off of #49-50, wherein DD savagely defeated Bullseye and Kingpin back to back. Things felt a little leaden at times and storylines like “Decalogue” sounded promising but never quite materialized (I am still not sure why Decalogue ended up being only 5 parts and only addressing the first five Commandments). However, Bendis found his footing again in the final arc, “The Murdock Papers” and brought over years of stories to a legitimately surprising climax.
Best Single Issue: The 25th HOUR-esque #81 that closed Bendis’s run and sent Matt to prison is a great story that works both as a climax of that closing story, a climax of the entire run, and self-contained story of a man who’s gone far afoul of his morality and the law and now faces inevitable jail time and one I closely considered. The tragic #19, with David Mack’s art placing us in the mind of a traumatized boy, is a forgotten gem of Bendis’ DD work. The best for me, though, has to be #49. Over the course of the issue, Daredevil beats the tar out of Bullseye in the street, humiliates him psychologically, and permanently scars his arguably most dangerous energy, a portrait of a man so disconnected from himself he literally seems like a different person. It was Murdock at his most frightening and the scariest evidence of just how badly the run had unraveled our protagonist.
1.) Miller Time!/The Birth of the Modern Daredevil (Miller, Michelinie, Janson, Mazzucchelli, Sienkiewicz, Romita, Jr.; Vol. 1 #165-166, 168-191, 219, 226-233; MAN WITHOUT FEAR limited series)
It is this simple: without Miller, there is no modern Daredevil. There just isn’t. Everything that is immediately on your lips when it comes to Daredevil tropes came from these runs: the elevation of Kingpin and Bullseye as his chief enemies, the plethora of ninjas, the noir trappings, Elektra as doomed lover/dangerous assassin, and Murdock’s precarious Catholicism.
Miller’s own art fueled the book from the start, but those that assisted him, especially Janson and Mazzucchelli, did beautiful, undeniable work of their own. The visual language laid out in these issues also informed DAREDEVIL for years to come.
Best Single Issue: So many options! Elektra’s first appearance (#168), Bullseye’s brain tumor and his creeping psychosis (#169), Bullseye v. Elektra (#181), Matt’s obsession with Elektra after her death (#182), and Karen Page selling Matt’s identity ending up, seemingly inevitably, in Kingpin’s grasp (#227). For me, though, it is a two-horse race: the powerful #191 that is, essentially, a one-act play with just DD, Bullseye’s crippled body, and a revolver and #233, the end of “Born Again” featuring Nuke’s horrible rampage, a brilliant description of the Avengers as “seen” by DD’s radar sense, and Murdock using the law to defeat Kingpin stopping, for a moment at least, only solving his problems with his fists.
Truth be told, I vacillate between this two. Overall, I think #191 is best, but #233 has more highlights. But there is nothing wrong with choosing either one over the other.
Thanks for taking this journey with me. Drop me a line on Twitter, via email (see the About page) or in the comments section and let me know what you think, what your picks would be, or to ask me what I think about other DAREDEVIL eras (or anything else pop culture for that matter).