As you may have heard by now, Netflix and Disney are teaming up to bring four of Marvel’s lesser-known characters to streaming video service in 2015. Such C-list stalwarts as Daredevil, Luke Cage, Iron Fist, and Jessica Jones will each get their own 13 episode series. Purportedly, the project will culminate in a Defenders mini-series.
It’s fair to say that TV superheroes are suspect as a rule. For some reason, live-action serials are harder to pull off than self-contained movies when it comes to comic book fare. It’s one thing to spend two hours a couple times a year on kick-ass crap like Thor: The Dark World, or to read superheroes on the page. But it’s another thing entirely to spend one hour every week for months on end, just to watch implausible characters gallivant in spandex. The long-form gives viewers time to realize how idiotic live-action superhero entertainment can usually be.
But this particular project has a lot going for it. First, it looks like Drew Goddard is signing on as Daredevil’s showrunner. Goddard is hardly a household name, but he’s got some pretty decent nerd credentials. He’s a former executive producer on J.J. Abrams shows like Lost and Alias, and wrote the screenplay for Abram’s Cloverfield (2008). He also penned a bunch of episodes for Joss Whedon’s Buffy and Angel shows, and the screenplay for World War Z (2013). He even directed and co-wrote Joss Whedon’s cheeky meta-horror thought experiment Cabin in the Woods (2012).
So while Goddard may not be a made guy in the geek community, he’s most certainly a connected guy.
Second, and this is my main point, it’s exciting that Daredevil is being given an opportunity to reenter the pop-cultural consciousness. For far too long, the Man Without Fear has withered in the toxic shadow of Daredevil (2003), starring Ben Affleck, Jennifer Garner, Colin Farrell and Michael Clarke Duncan. Although I kind of enjoyed it, that film is remembered as one of Marvel’s major missteps in its steady ascension to blockbuster primacy. And we don’t even talk about its follow-up spinoff, Elektra (2005).
How often do you hear some would-be comics tastemaker claim –insist –that Daredevil sucks? For me, it’s constantly. But if we consider some basics about the character’s publication history, you’ll agree that this just isn’t accurate. If anything, quite the opposite is true. For decades, Daredevil has been quite arguably Marvel’s best-written character.
Daredevil was created in 1964 by Stan Lee and Bill Everett. Jack Kirby also had input, apparently designing his costume and signature trick billy club. The character wallowed in functional irrelevancy for around fifteen years, until a young artist named Frank Miller signed on to do pencils at issue #158 (May 1979). The first page of that issue clairvoyantly declared, “From time to time a truly great new artist will explode upon the Marvel scene like a bombshell!! [We] confidently predict newcomer –lanky Frank Miller is just such an artist!”
Needless to say, they were onto something.
At the time, crappy writing and declining sales had the title on the chopping block. Within the year, Miller was handling both the writing and the art. He took this opportunity to re-characterize the lead as fiercely antiheroic and besieged by violent tendencies. Ninjas and martial arts were incorporated into the ongoing plot and backstory, eventually forming an epic that’d come to be known as the “Elektra Saga.” Sales increased immediately.
Meanwhile, Kingpin was slowly but surely being repositioned as the title’s brilliant criminal engine. No writer has utilized Kingpin’s vicious intelligence so attractively, and Miller’s depiction still stands as one of the finest examples of criminal genius in comic book history.
After a short break, Miller returned in 1986 to write Daredevil: Born Again, with artist David Mazuchelli. (This was the same team that would produce the paradigmatic Batman: Year One only a few months later in 1987.) Born Again was Miller’s first true masterpiece. This six-issue arc is still widely regarded as an all-time great, occupying the #7 spot on Wizard’s Top 100. It was probably a big influence on Grant Morrison’s Batman: RIP (which I wrote about for the Bloglin here).
Honestly, there is so much to love about Born Again –its painfully desperate tone, its sad Catholic imagery, the counterpart themes of guilt and forgiveness, its innate sense of sympathy, and its tremendously kinetic finale –that I just refuse to spoil it with further discussion.
After 380 issues, the series was rebooted in 1998 with a story by longtime comics apologist (and filmmaker) Kevin Smith. “Guardian Devil” was an intriguing and clever story that saw Daredevil tasked with protecting a cute little baby –one that just so happened to be the biblical Antichrist. David Mack (of Kabuki fame) signed on next to write “Parts of a Hole,” which introduced Daredevil’s female sensory-deprived counterpart, Echo. This was also very good, but Mack is primarily remembered today for bringing a dude named Brian Michael Bendis into the Marvel fold.
Today, Bendis is probably Marvel’s most prominent and authoritative writer. Like Geoff Johns at DC, there’s virtually no corner of the Marvel universe that Bendis hasn’t affected; X-Men, Avengers, Spider-Man, you name it. But he got his start writing an incredible, innovative fifty-issue run on Daredevil.
Although there are a lot of excellent subplots and digressions, the story primarily revolves around the revelation of Daredevil’s secret identity to the public. The genius of Bendis’s narrative was that the newspaper publishing the story was a tabloid, completely lacking in journalistic credibility; no one believed that Daredevil was a blind criminal defense attorney named Matt Murdock…at first. This clever plot wrinkle led to an unbearably tense, slow-burning chain of events that built expertly to a harrowing, perfectly inevitable conclusion. Bendis’s decompressed storytelling style was perhaps not ideal for month-to-month consumption (and was certainly criticized in some circles), but it reads brilliantly in trade paperback form.
In 2006, Ed Brubaker brought his perfectly suited noir skills for a grimy run. If you’re at all familiar with Brubaker’s crime comics like Criminal, Incognito, and Sleeper, it’s easy to see what a perfect fit this was.
In 2011, Daredevil was again re-launched from issue #1, this time with the seasoned, estimable Mark Waid at the writing helm. And yes, you guessed it: the title has been absolutely incredible. But don’t take it from me. In 2012, the title received three Eisner awards: best single issue, best continuing series, and best writer.
What’s great about Waid’s contribution is that it looks and feels completely different than Daredevil’s previous depictions. While Miller, Bendis, and Brubaker are all known for being pretty “gritty” writers, Waid is their polar opposite. Along with Grant Morrison, he’s one of the few writers out there that still believes superheroes are the good guys. His work on Daredevil has been bright, effervescent, and principled. Flawless, minimalist pencils from artists like Chris Samnee and Paolo Rivera are the perfect compliment, and lead colorist Javier Rodriguez’s playfully iridescent palate is good as it gets. This is easily the best ongoing superhero book of the last five years, and it’s re-launching next year with the same stunning creative team. For new readers, that may be the perfect jumping on point.
If a blind criminal defense attorney spending his nights in red leather and horns doesn’t appeal to you, fine. Suit yourself. But if you’re one of those rare, mad individuals (like myself) that can name a dozen comic book writers off the top of your head, it’s likely you’d name Frank Miller, Brian Michael Bendis, Ed Brubaker, and Mark Waid. No single character, from any comics publisher, has had so dedicated a lineup of writers for the past thirty years. Keep that in mind.