Monday, September 2, 2013

Opening Contract - Daredevil #16-19

There will come a day that the powers that be tell me off for consistently pushing and breaking the format of this column. Until that day…

This week I’m going to be looking at four opening panels from Brian Michael Bendis and David Mack’s ‘Wake Up’ arc from Daredevil #16–19 (additional inks by Mark Morales/Pond Scum Aka Scott Elmer, colours by Richard Isanove and letters by Richard Starkings/Comicraft’s Wes Abbott).

I chose these four panels specifically because of the changes in style and tone, a shift that shows the evolving perception of the arc’s protagonists and how it uses familiar tropes to draw us in before passing comment on the role of comics themselves in a dark and complicated world.


‘Wake Up’ involves Ben Urich trying to piece together a mystery involving Daredevil and one of his more ridiculous villains, Leap FrogTimmy, Leap Frog’s son, has witnessed an encounter between the two, an event that’s traumatised him to the point of near catatonia. Ben is trying to reach out to the boy (and others involved in the case) to find out what happened, and why no-one can find Leap Frog. Timmy, who the narrative strongly implies is autistic, communicates via the language of comics– pictures, bombastic soundbites, and alter ego’s. It’s through this, and some old fashioned detective work on Ben’s part, that the mystery of Timmy’s encounter with Daredevil and Leap Frog is unravelled.

Issue #16 opens with a single page splash. We have an anti-hero type character, The Fury ,and Daredevil soaring above the New York skyline, involved in some kind of conflict with each other. The Fury is positioned slightly above Daredevil on the right side of the page, suggesting power or advantage over him (more on that later). Daredevil is lower down the page on the left hand side. Even the colours of The Fury’s costume ensure the reader’s eye is drawn to him first rather than Daredevil. It’s classic superhero comics, drawn and executed in a house style reminiscent of the late 90’s and early 00’s with thick black lines, and shading accentuating the figures bodies and their movement. Not only that, we also have some pretty stock superhero dialogue (“End of the line, mister.” “We’ll see about that, Hornhead!!”).

It soon becomes apparent that The Fury is an alter-ego for Timmy. Comics and superheroes are the vehicle through which he protects and experiences his suppressed emotions and trauma. The Fury is his psychic armour. There’s a page later on where The Fury towers over the small figure of Ben and ,as we saw, the opening panel depicts The Fury above Daredevil, before showing him besting him physically and verbally. Comics, their tropes and power fantasies not only give Timmy protection from the real world, they also help him make sense of it. This fact makes his positioning in this opening panel all the more important. At this point of the story, the beginning, Timmy has power over Ben, he has knowledge he seeks. As the narrative progresses this relationship will shift and change.

At the end of the issue Ben visits Timmy only to see that the youngster has drawn multiple pictures in crayon of Daredevil and Leap Frog locked in combat. Timmy is expressing himself through comics once again. In fact, if one looks closely we can see the drawings all take up one sheet of paper. We’re looking at a series of splash panels– a meta-fictional end that mirrors the issues opening panel.

In Issue #17 we open on a wide panel with The Fury on the left, standing on a rooftop looking out over the city. In the middle of the panel, cloaked in shadow is the smaller figure of Ben. Again, the art, inking, colours and letters are all reminiscent of classic, traditional superhero fare. Even the mise-en-scene itself plays on these tropes. The shadowy and mysterious vigilante surveys his domain as the figure of authority asks for answers and help whilst those famous water towers loom in the background (they’re in the first opening panel too).  But something has changed. Ben is cloaked in shadow, perhaps suggesting he doesn’t belong here, but also pointing to a shift in perception, that things are changing. In the panel Ben asks Timmy to tell him about Daredevil, but he’s cut off by The Fury reasserting his identity (“I am The Fury! That is all you need to know”). Again, Timmy uses superheroes as a comfort blanket and a means of protection from the mean, dark, real world. Notably, there is no ‘Stan Lee Presents’ box this time around either. The armour is slipping. Reality is threatening to shatter both Ben and Timmy’s illusions and assumptions.

At the beginning of Issue #18 we open with a wide panel once more, but one drawn in Mack’s darker, more intricate, painted style. The panel also marks the beginning of a monologue by Ben on the duty of a journalist and the concept of objectivity.  Ben is partly cloaked in shadow, his face and hand being painted in a grey/white tone, producing a stark contrast between the dark and the light. But this time Mack’s painted style takes the lead, indicating that something has changed, that things have got more complex. There are no bright colours here this time around, but perhaps Mack is suggesting Urich doesn’t currently have the mental tools to piece this one together. He’s shackled to a black and white world, one of absolutes. He isn’t yet immersed in Matt Murdock’s world, a world where ever-shifting shades of grey exist. He exists there out of ignorance, imposing his own world view and past onto the situation. In this regard he’s similar to Timmy.

When we come around to the opening panel in #19, the arc’s final issue, we’re back to a full page splash (with a small vertical inset). This panel depicts Matt in full Daredevil costume from the feet up to chest level. The captions running down the right side of the page detail Ben’s fear, the rational and irrational brushing against each other,  inciting some serious cognitive dissonance in this man of words and facts. Ben tries to reassure himself that Matt Murdock is his friend, that Matt Murdock is a good person. Despite this, Ben still finds himself terrified at the sight of Matt in his Daredevil costume. It suggests that Ben at this point, like Timmy, is having trouble reconciling two very different viewpoints of the world.

This panel is a dark mirror to the panel we opened on in the arc. We don’t see all of Daredevil here, he’s purposefully cut off at the chest, a move which dehumanises Matt/Daredevil, giving us a sense of Ben’s fear. Not only that but the pose itself is nothing dynamic. Daredevil is seemingly just standing over Ben, towering over him and dominating. It’s here where perhaps Ben truly begins to understand, to see how things can get complicated and murky.

The Fury is noticeable by his absence. His last appearance is in Issue #18, a shot of one of Timmy’s drawings depicting The Fury scrawled in crayon as a monstrous, overbearing Leap Frog shouts the hate-filled threats of a bad father. Without The Fury here Bendis and Mack are perhaps also suggesting a shift in Ben’s thinking. With his friend towering over him, terrifying him, Ben is adrift in a world he doesn’t understand. Nothing makes any sense here.

There’s a monologue in the arc’s first issue where Ben talks about why he wanted to write and how his initial ambitions were to create a ‘word picture’– “A series of words that when strung together translates into an image that has a universal truth.” Towards the end of this monologue Ben talks about declining readership and how the only thing newspapers need to do to win them back is “show them stories that reflect back into our lives.”

That’s what the opening panels of this arc do. They draw us in an idea, a dream, an empty promise of good vs evil and rooftop fights before slowly peeling that veneer back and showing us a more complex, nuanced and unfair world that we can all relate to. We’ve all imagined ourselves or the world at large to be stronger or better, we’ve all tried to make sense of the chaos.

We all have our way of coping.

As always, comments and feedback are welcome.


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