Monday, August 17, 2009

The Life & Times of Matt Murdock - A Daredevil Retrospective

This Wednesday, the 500th issue of Daredevil hits the stands and, while renumbering books, especially those that have been rebooted and “repackaged” several times before, often seems like just a publicity stunt, I gladly approve of slapping that big number on the cover of next issue. Daredevil has been a second tier title for most of its publication history and has been close to cancellation on more than one occasion.

Despite all this, and thanks to the many creators who have been able to let loose and take some risks with the character, Daredevil is still around today. He is an unlikely hero with an unlikely success story and the anniversary treatment is well earned.

In honour of this landmark achievement, Kirk has asked me to take a look back at the life and times of Matt Murdock and pick out what I consider the be the noteworthy stories and achievemetns in the character's storied history. Hit the jump for more!

Today's guest post is by Christine, a self professed Daredevil enthusiast who blogs at The Other Murdock Papers, a resource for all things Daredevil, including news, reviews, previews, and more. You can also follow her on Twitter.


In retrospect, it was a pretty daring move to create a blind superhero in 1964. While the civil rights and women's liberation movements had started gaining momentum at this time, the so-called disability rights movement was still a decade away and blindness was clearly a very stigmatizing condition in Daredevil's early days of publication.

Marvel, once again, took a chance on an unusual and flawed hero and despite the weakness of many of the early stories that followed the publication of the very first issue, enough readers obviously found the premise of the character interesting enough to make a point of sticking around.

With time, Daredevil would grow beyond his somewhat gimmicky basic characteristic, move into his own unique niche and appeal to new groups of readers. I am amazed by all the different reasons fans of the character give for why they like his stories so much, but there is no denying his versatility and his good fortune of having had so many talented people shape his destiny over the last few decades.

With the landmark issue just around the corner and the new creative team of Andy Diggle and Roberto De La Torre stepping in after that, now is a great time to take a look back at what has come before. Below, I'll be highlighting my own picks for some of the most noteworthy events in Daredevil history. Let's start by going back to 1964...

The Life & Times of Matt Murdock

Boy Meets Toxic Waste

As seen in Daredevil #1
Written by Stan Lee
Art by Bill Everett

The very first issue, presenting Daredevil's origin story and detailing his first act of vengeance, might seem like a given on this kind of list, but it's also a pretty good issue, especially compared to the often questionable level of storytelling that followed over the next several years. And it's an amazing example of just how much you can cram into a single issue of a comic.

In this issue, we get to follow the title character on his first costumed mission, going after the mobsters who murdered his father, a drawn-out battle that frames much of the issue.

In between the fight scenes, we are treated to the entire story of Matt Murdock's life, from his boyhood through his college graduation and the start of his legal partnership with Franklin “Foggy” Nelson. We learn that he grew up without a mother in the rough Manhattan neighborhood of Hell's Kitchen and that his father, a washed up boxer, was murdered when refusing to throw a fixed fight. We learn that young Matt, a hard-working student who is bullied by his classmates, struggles with his father's loving, but authoritarian ways and works out behind his back when forbidden to play sports with the other children (childhood obesity was presumably less of a concern fifty years ago).

Ultimately, he has a date with destiny when pushing an old man out of the way of an oncoming truck, an accident which costs him his sight, but gives him amazing new abilities as his remaining senses are dramatically heightened and Daredevil, as we know it, is born.

Daredevil's origin has been retold many times and most are probably familiar with the Frank Miller and John Romita Jr, Man Without Fear, but, for this list, the original and still number one contender for me is Daredevil #1.

Daredevil Starts a Sexual Revolution in Mainstream Comics

As seen in Daredevil #87
Written by Gerry Conway
Art by Gene Colan

In Daredevil #81, following up on the cliff-hanger ending of the previous issue, an unconscious Daredevil is rescued from the bottom of the ocean by a fellow red-head in the form of Natasha Romanoff, the Black Widow. This encounter is the beginning of a partnership that would last more than twenty issues and a close, though complicated, relationship which continues to this day. Their move to San Francisco in Daredevil #87 also offered something new in mainstream superhero comics in that the two move in together without being married.

Presumably to reassure concerned parents and other sensitive readers, Natasha makes is clear to her driver and surrogate father figure, Ivan, that she and Matt are “just friends” and that they will be living on separate floors of the house she's rented. Ivan, himself, serves as something of a chaperone, sharing the house with the apparently shy love birds.

At the same time, in between Matt fondling Natasha's rear end, calling her honey and being an all-around sexist pig, it is clear to any reader old enough to see it that the two characters are 1) romantically involved, 2) living in the same house, and 3) not married. It's not something that would raise an eyebrow today, but this was 1972 and with the all restrictive Comic Code Authority strong arming most comics to conformity.

Ben Urich Learns Daredevil's Secret Identity

As seen in Daredevil #164
Written by Roger McKenzie
Art by Frank Miller

Ben Urich was created by writer Roger McKenzie in Daredevil #153, pencilled by Gene Colan, and the story of the seasoned crime reporter investigating Murdock's background runs as a subplot over the course of the following issues, ultimately leading to the inevitable confrontation between Matt and Ben in the form of a classic scene in Daredevil #164.

Recovering in the hospital from his brave fight with the Hulk in the previous issue, Daredevil (still wearing his mask) has a visit from the intrepid reporter who tells him what he knows. At first, Daredevil tries to deny the allegations, but is caught in his own lies when Ben Urich asks him to prove that he is not blind by describing a photograph of his dead father. Faced with the impossible, Daredevil confesses and goes on to tell Ben his life story.

The reporter is so moved by Matt's desire to fight for justice that he takes out the finished article that he had hoped would win him a Pulitzer and burns it, promising to keep the hero's secret. It's the beginning of a beautiful friendship for the two and Ben Urich, as we all know, would eventually go on to find his own special place within the larger Marvel Universe.

The Death of Elektra

As seen in Daredevil #181
Written by Frank Miller
Art by Frank Miller

The whole Frank Miller run on Daredevil is a long chain of memorable and classic moments, but, as I'm forced to limit myself, the one that was likely the most shocking at the time was the brutal death of Elektra at the hands of Bullseye in Daredevil #181.

When Miller introduced Elektra in his very first issue as Daredevil writer, #168, he added an entire missing chapter to the title character's life. Until the introduction of Elektra as the college girlfriend turned assassin and, a little later in the run, Matt's early mentor Stick, very little was known about Matt's life before his Daredevil years. The new additions to the cast also added another – shall we say ninjaesque? – flavour to the Daredevil mythos.

These days, Matt Murdock's refrigerator is known for having more women in it than beer, but when Elektra was killed in Daredevil #181, she was the first of Matt's women to meet that fate. And the manner in which it happened certainly added to the shock value. Fatally wounded after being impaled by her own sai, she paints the sidewalk red with her own blood all the way back into Matt's arms and finally dies on his doorstep. While Elektra would eventually come back from the dead, her death remains a classic moment in Daredevil, and comic book, history.

Born Again

As seen in Daredevil #227-233
Written by Frank Miller
Art by David Mazzucchelli

Unlike other entries on this list, this is a story arc rather than a single issue, but that's how it's going to have to be because it's all so good. I remember being floored the first time I read Born Again. It's mature and edgy and some of the developments in it are downright shocking.

When readers last saw Matt's former love interest, Karen Page, she had left the book to pursue a Hollywood career nearly two decades earlier. She was a sweet and innocent secretary at that time. Here, she is back as a junkie porn star who sells the only thing of value she has left, the secret of Daredevil's civilian identity, for a fix. When the information finally reaches the Kingpin in New York, it puts her own life, and that of the man she betrayed, in immediate jeopardy.

The man in this instance is not Daredevil, but Matt Murdock, a distinction that has always been blurry to readers, but rarely to villains. Here, the clever and callous dismantling of Matt's life is bewildering to him at first, precisely for this reason, and his growing paranoia is just one of the many eerie elements of the story.

In the first issue, Matt loses his worldly possessions and license to practice law. In the second issue he finally loses his mind and over the course of the story he goes on to very nearly lose his life. For the Kingpin, who has taken great pleasure in the destruction of Matt's life, it doesn't end there. He raises the stakes of the game and destroys much of Hell's Kitchen, bringing many other characters into the mix as well.

At the very end of the story, the hero rises from the ashes a new man, “born again”, as the title implies, and rediscovers his purpose. The genius of Born Again lies not only in the destruction of the hero, but in his renewed purpose and sense of hope at the end when he emerges victorious.

Daredevil Goes to Hell

As seen in Daredevil #282
Written by Ann Nocenti
Art by John Romita Jr

Fan favorite Ann Nocenti took the character in unusual – some would say strange – directions and when choosing which of these directions to highlight on this list, I would have to go with the storyline which sees Matt, very literally, go to hell. From the perspective of “noteworthiness,” it simply represents the extreme of the character's physical and psychological journey during Nocenti's run.

Daredevil's final struggle against Mephisto (and it's a battle of wills rather than a physical showdown), takes place in Daredevil #282, but it's a few issues until we finally get there as Daredevil and his unlikely companions (including Gorgon and Karnak of the Inhumans, the genetically engineered “perfect woman”, Number Nine, and animal rights activist Brandy) become captives of the underworld with all the smoke and mirrors that such a journey entails.

During this story, Daredevil comes to term with his own arrogance in what is, in many ways, an interesting story, though quite a departure from the expected. (Did I mention that the Silver Surfer shows up too?)

The Fall of the Kingpin

As seen in Daredevil #300
Written by D.G. Chichester
Art by Lee Weeks

Last Rites, the storyline which ran from Daredevil #297 to Daredevil #300, shows Matt Murdock turning the tables on the Kingpin and bringing down his empire. While the writer of this arc, D.G. Chichester, said that his intention with the story was simply to get back to Daredevil basics, these issues do read like a natural follow-up to Born Again and contain many overt references to Frank Miller's masterpiece.

The first issue of this story arc is the most chilling, with Matt's first order of business being the removal of former lover/nemesis Typhoid Mary, who is currently in the Kingpin's employ. He does so by rather callously seducing her before having her committed to a mental institution.

His cunning doesn't stop there. Using other circumstances surrounding the Kingpin to his advantage, he manages to help bring about the Kingpin's fall. The two face each other in a long scene in the final issue where Daredevil utters the unexpected line, “I forgive you.” Last Rites falls short of Born Again in most respects, but is a good story nonetheless.

Matt “Comes Out” to Foggy

As seen in Daredevil #353
Written by Karl Kesel
Art by Cary Nord

Imagine that your best friend, unbeknownst to you, fakes his own death by using a clone born of equal parts voodoo and genetic engineering (yes, this was the 90's). Imagine that you find said “dead” friend sitting on the floor in his bathroom in the middle of a contrived identity crisis, which has him battling aspects of himself in his head while wearing a superhero costume, and that this is the very same friend you've known all of your adult life and whom you know to be totally blind.

This gives you some idea of how poor Foggy Nelson must have felt when he discovered Matt's secret in Daredevil #347, by J.M. DeMatteis and Ron Wagner. A few issues pass before the two reestablish their friendship after Matt casually walks into the courtroom in the first issue of Karl Kesel's and Cary Nord's run on the book, Daredevil #353. Matt finally comes clean to his friend about his secret life and the abilities he kept hidden for so long and the two move on from there.

This probably seems like the strangest item on the list. The issue is not well known, it came during a very low point sales-wise and there's nothing spectacular about it (though it does include a rather funny Lois Lane cameo). But I can't imagine the issues that would come later being as strong as they were without Foggy being in the know about Matt's secret life. It laid the foundation for a more genuine and believable friendship between the two and that's why I'm giving it a nod here.

Daredevil's Secret Identity Revealed (Again)!

As seen in Daredevil, Vol 2 #32
Written by Brian Michael Bendis
Art by Alex Maleev

Bendis was not the first writer to have Daredevil's identity exposed or questioned, but he was the first to explore the story in full without sweeping it under the rug and making it inconsequential a few issues later.

In fact, the development is still felt nearly a hundred issues later. Many have argued that Ed Brubaker hit the “reset button” on this issue during his second story arc, but I beg to differ. Matt's status has been restored to the point where it has to be in order to tell other types of stories, but popular opinion of who is behind the mask has not been mind-wiped away á la Mephisto.

The consequences of the outing can still provide plenty of creative fodder for any writer who wishes to explore the matter further. The Out story arc and the many that followed were pure genius and the Bendis and Maleev run on Daredevil has already become a classic.

Matt Murdock Goes to Jail

As seen in Daredevil, Vol 2 #82
Written by Ed Brubaker
Art by Michael Lark

The logical conclusion to Bendis's decision to plaster Matt Murdock's face all over the tabloids was to go all the way and send him to jail, and this was where Ed Brubaker and Michael Lark picked up the baton in their first story arc, The Devil in Cell Block D, still considered by many to be their best. Having a superhero thrown in jail with many of the men he put there by powers that would prefer that he just go away quietly, is a great idea for a story and this particular story is equally excellent in its execution.

Rumors have it that Ed Brubaker has promised to leave new writer Andy Diggle a similarly challenging situation for both the main character and creators alike when he leaves after Daredevil #500, and as long as it doesn't mean any dead cast members, I'm all for a gut-wrenching handover.


If you haven't been reading Daredevil, or haven't done so for a while, this coming 500th issue or the Dark Reign: The List tie-in, due out in early September, which will mark Diggle's first work on the character, provide excellent jumping on points.

Daredevil is highly accessible to new readers and, for those who wish to know more, I recommend Kuljit Mithra's legendary fansite Man Without Fear or even my own site The Other Murdock Papers. I hope you've enjoyed this look back at Daredevil history with me, and thanks to the crew here at The Weekly Crisis for giving me a chance to talk (at length) about my favourite character.

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Flip The Page said...

To be honest I forget Daredevil has his own title. one issue every two months is just painful.

mikesim said...

I would also add another highlight or two to that list: Fall From Grace (#319-325) and Tree of Knowledge (326-332 I think). Daredevil's new costume (one of the good ones to come from the 90's, IMO) and a great creative run by Chichester and Scott McDaniel. These stories got me reading Daredevil again after a long hiatus.

wirehead4ever said...

I have all the current Daredevil series with the exception of the Bob Gale 6 issues run and the David Mack Echo issues. It's all been pretty fantastic.

Matt Ampersand said...

I really need to get around to reading Born Again. I've read pretty much all of Miller's work on DD, except that story.

Also, was the "Daredevil Goes to Hell" storyline by any chnce during the Inferno event/crossover that most X-titles got into?

Daringd said...

I've had DD on my Sub for a while and have really been digging what Brubaker has done on the title. I hope Diggle can do some cool stuff on the book he has two very hard acts to follow.

Ryan K Lindsay said...

This is a pretty good list, thanks.
I'd throw in Quesada's Father because it is a good story, but it is really interesting the way Quesada draws DD, and his reason for doing so.
I'd also like to see a retrospective of Murdock's girls, what with junkie porn stars, suicidal corporate daughters that also dated Foggy, dead ninjas, crazy blind girls, multiple personaltied villains, deaf avengers and Russian spies in the mix he racks up quite the ladies gallery. And then screws them all up.
I still wanna see Murdock come face to face with Emma Frost. It would be awesome!

Matt Ampersand said...

@Ryan, you should check out Chris' site. I think she once ran down a list of all of DD's lovers.

Médard said...

Nice article.
I've really enjoyed all of Daredevil vol. 2 (except the Bob Gale arc) and the Miller runs.
I still want to read Nocenti run, but haven't been able to find it as of yet, except for a couple of issues.

Christine said...

Hey, thanks for the comments, guys!

@Flip the Page
Hmm, that's a little harsh. True, Daredevil skipped May and July, but that aside it's shipped on time every single month for years.

I'm a little torn when it comes to Chichester. I thought his early stories were very good, but am not a big fan of either Fall from Grace or Tree of Knowledge. I do know of people who feel quite differently. As for the armored costume, it was certainly pretty cool-looking though I've heard some people remark that Scott McDaniel was the only artist to get it "right."

@Ryan K Linday
Yes, as Matt commented, I have a post about Matt's women. He's slept with Dakota since that post was written though, so I'll get around to updating it one of these days.

Lucho said...

What about Kevin Smith´s Guardian Devil?

Quantum said...

The best moment in Daredevil (maybe any comic) IMO was during Bendis's run. I first read it in the TPB called "Hardcore" (I think?)

It was Typhoid Mary fighting some gangsters. She catches an incoming bullet with a sword and redirects it into another gangsters face. It was the best thing I've ever seen.

Whatever issue that is, it belongs on the list on general principle ;P

Bring on Daredevil 500!

Daniel Woburn said...

great article, i'd love to see other "Life & Times" spotlights on other characters.

fodigg said...

I've never been able to shake the sense that DD comics are 'wordy' even though I love Brubaker and read lots of Bendis. I should probably look into buying some trades.

Matt said...

Hey, Great article, but I think you're missing a couple notable eras/events. Namely:

-Daredevil #58(or thereabouts)where DD becomes one of the first, if not the first, modern superhero to reveal himself to his love interest. Something that obviously came back to haunt him once or twice. Plus it had one of the sweetest looking splash pages from Gene Colan I've ever seen.

-The Jack Batlin Era where Matt Murdock legally died and became Jack Batlin: Totally Not-Blind Social Worker. It's certainly not the most stellar era, but sometimes you got to take the sour to make the sweet that much sweeter.

Cheers to the rest of the list though, it makes me want to go read my collection again.

Radlum said...

Great article. Daredevil is one of my favorite characters since I read Born Again and the whole Bendis/Maleev run was one of the best I've ever read (Brubaker's and Nocenti's were good too, but I think Bendis made the character as interesting as Miller did). I can't wait for Issue 500

Ur Man CD said...

Absolutely brilliant - is there any plan to do more retrospectives on super heroes? Have you done others?

Nick! said...

Nice work! I'd probably have gone with something different from the Ann Nocenti run, but probably only because it's the run that marked the beginning of my long standing love of the character... a lot of highs in that run!

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