Not even a talent like Denny O’Neill (the man who helped revamp Batman in the 1970’s with Neal Adams) could stop Daredevil from becoming one of Marvel’s poorer selling titles following the departure of Frank Miller. Yet Miller wasn’t gone for good. Returning for one issue, #219, Miller retold Clint Eastwood’s High Plains Drifter in the narrative of Daredevil. With solid art from John Buscema this issue still remains an oddity, but it’s worth reading for Miller’s mythic take on the Daredevil character.
A few months later Miller joined current artist David Mazzucchelli to start the most famous Daredevil storyline ever: Born Again, which started in #227. By the end of this issue Miller completely tears down everything that’s been built up around Daredevil/Matt Murdock for quarter of a century, as the Kingpin tears Matt’s life apart.
Born Again is the first, and possibly the only, example of a creator going back to deconstruct a character he’s already deconstructed. But this isn’t just about clearing out the baggage that’d been built up around Daredevil/Matt Murdock: Born Again is a brilliantly effective thriller/superhero tale that is Miller in the midst of a creative peak few creators have ever reached. Miller declutters Daredevil, strips it down and – at the same time – redeems the character while artist David Mazzucchelli delivers superb art. To this day, it remains one of my favourite splash pages from any superhero comic.
After this run, Miller left once again to do some astonishing work at DC Comics (Dark Knight Returns, Batman: Year One), but instead of the expected rut Daredevil faced before, the story goes in an interesting and different direction under new writer Ann Nocenti. Nocenti tackled social issues unheard of in Marvel Comics of the time, while at the same time using several of Marvel’s tedious summer crossover events to play in the sandbox of the Marvel Universe in a decidedly different way. This includes several issues where Daredevil and Mephisto (one of Marvel’s personifications of the Devil) have what is essentially an enormous theological debate – with people hitting each other, of course.
Nocenti’s run isn’t just vastly underrated, it’s probably the finest thing Marvel were producing at a time, when standards were in decline and the company started losing direction after the departure of editor-in-chief Jim Shooter.
When Nocenti left, Daredevil hit another decline period that, barring the odd blip, sees the title produce some appalling comics. The character and the title endured the sort of creative beating that makes DC’s New 52 revamp look like an act of creative genius. The title’s later issues at this time occupy many a comic dealer’s 50p boxes. With #380 Marvel cancel the title to bring it back a month later under the new Marvel Knights banner, and a creative team of film director Kevin Smith and artist Joe Quesada.
This by far, is Kevin Smith’s best superhero material for Marvel or DC. This isn’t to say that it’s brilliant by any means – it’s not. But Smith does a passable Frank Miller impersonation to give the title the kick that it need needed; plus the newer, darker direction of Marvel Knights slowly bled across Marvel’s titles. It is though David Mack’s run after Smith’s that shows just the still latent potential with the character, but from #16 Brian Michael Bendis takes up writing duties for another acclaimed run followed by a superb run from Ed Brubaker, and another from Mark Waid. There’s still periods where the title suffers badly – and the character has developed some tiring tropes (how many times has he been unmasked now?) – indicating that there’s a clear lack of ideas from some creators.
An easily forgotten Ben Affleck film featuring him squeezed into red leather appeared in 2003 that, to be honest, isn’t as bad as most people remember it – but it’s the Netflix series that debuted in 2015 that brought the character to a whole new audience. Starring a splendid Charlie Cox as Daredevil/Matt Murdock, Daredevil liberally pulled from 50 years of history to create one of the most finely crafted bits of superhero drama. With the latest season featuring Elektra and the Punisher, the Netflix Marvel Universe expanded to even further critically acclaim. The success of the latest season – and the massively well-received portrayal of Frank Castle – has led to Netflix ordering a Punisher spin-off series, which will expand the universe even further for the digital medium. Much of the feel of the Netflix series comes from the Frank Miller/John Romita Jnr. 1990’s miniseries, Daredevil: The Man Without Fear. It’s almost a template for at least half of the first season, though on its own merits it’s not as fine a piece of work as Miller’s previous Daredevil material, though it’s still a stunning retelling of Daredevil’s origin.
Daredevil’s a character who has experienced amazing highs and crashing lows over the years – and some of the best talent in comics have created some of their finest work using the character and concepts. At the same time, some good, and not so good creators have turned out some complete drivel that’s really best forgotten about. But this is Marvel’s first real working class lad made good. He wasn’t a genius. He wasn’t a millionaire inventor. He didn’t have a Gamma Bomb blow up in his face. He’s not a god. He didn’t get injected by a super-serum. He’s a blind man in a red suit fighting crime and corruption and he’ll go down fighting if need be; but he’ll never quit because he’s a man without fear. That’s all he needs to be, he’s Matt Murdock, he’s Daredevil.