Comic books and graphic novels are not just ways to tell a fun superhero story, they can be powerful mediums that are on par with film, television, and novels. Over the years, I have been wowed by a wide variety of comic book stories, some philosophically deep like Alan Moore’s Watchmen, others epics on a grand scale like Walt Simonson’s The Mighty Thor.
But none have grabbed my emotions and squeezed my heart like writer Frank Miller and artist David Mazzuchelli’s Daredevil: Born Again. Not only did it become one of the greatest comic stories I have ever read after one read-through, it is the only comic book that has ever made me cry.
Destroying the Man Without Fear
Lasting a total of seven issues, from Daredevil #227-233, the story follows Matt Murdock, aka Daredevil, a crime-fighting vigilante by night and lawyer by day. As a child, Matt pushed an elderly man out of the way of a speeding truck, only to be blinded by radioactive material being carried by the vehicle, robbing his sight, but superhumanly heightening his other senses and giving him a type of radar sense.
At the start of Born Again, Matt is already at the end of his rope due to an ever-worsening personal and professional life. In Mexico, Matt’s former girlfriend Karen Page, who left to be a movie star, has become a heroin addict and porn star. With nothing left, she gives away the last thing of value she has for one more hit – the knowledge that Matt Murdock is Daredevil.
Eventually, this information gets back to The Kingpin, the head of crime in New York, who decides to systematically destroy Matt. Not because he is a serious threat to him, but, because he is the only good man he has ever known, has been a consistent annoyance to him. With the knowledge of Matt’s secret identity and a seemingly endless amount of power in New York, The Kingpin pulls enough strings to take away all of Matt’s money, cost him his license to practice law, disgrace him, cut him off from his friends, and, finally, blow up his apartment building.
Matt is left with nothing and experiences a nervous breakdown that threatens his sanity, but he still has a long ways to go before he hits bottom, if he doesn’t die first. What follows is a powerful story of spiritual death and rebirth, faith, redemption, and forgiveness as Matt and several other characters are dragged through their own personal Hells.
Miller’s dialogue is hardboiled but believable and emotionally resonant and he crafted a story that is resonant for both Christians and non-believers alike. Mazzuchelli turns in art that should be hung in galleries. Characters feel human, fallible, and frail, ready to break under the physical and emotional storm they must weather. The expressions of each character are powerful render, which is insanely important for this story. Add in religious symbols that only reveal themselves after multiple reads and you have one of the best-drawn stories in all of comics history.
Christ-Like Death and Rebirth
Every chapter of Born Again is steeped in Christian symbolism and themes. Matt’s journey is parallel to Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection, with ideas of faith and forgiveness playing major roles in the story itself. Each character is put through a cycle of tribulation, death, rebirth, and redemption, with these storylines intersecting in multiple sequences. Each issue is titled with a Christian concept – “Apocalypse,” “Purgatory,” “Pariah,” “Born Again,” and “Saved.” Each one has a full-page image showing Matt – three with him curling into the fetal position, one in the crucifixion pose, and one standing with him risen from spiritual death.
Matt’s true spiritual death comes when, upon confronting The Kingpin, he is badly beaten and left for dead at the bottom of the river, only to narrowly escape.
Matt stumbles through the streets of New York, a physically and spiritually broken man. He falls three times in his journey – hit by a cab, stabbed by a thug, and collapses in the gym he trained in as a child. It is a reflection of Christ’s falls while carrying the cross on the journey to Golgotha. The issue ends with a beautiful version of the Pieta, with Matt in the arms of a nun. This and many other aspects of the book use the Stations of the Cross as powerful symbols in Matt’s journey to spiritual resurrection.
As Matt struggles to be born again as he heals from his wounds, Karen desperately seeks him out. Convinced that only the man she has betrayed can save her, she journeys from Mexico to New York. Her desperation forces her to lie, steal, and prostitute herself, all in an effort to reach Matt, who could be dead by the time she arrives. While Matt is not a perfect man like Christ, it is Karen’s sins that have metaphorically crucified him, yet she still seeks out salvation and forgiveness from him.
Reflecting on how his attacks have only strengthened Matt, The Kingpin ruminates, “But he is more than this. Now he is much more than this. He always was. And I — I have shown him … that a man without hope is a man without fear.” This is Frank Miller at the height of his writing prowess.
Matt’s rebirth sparked rebirth in Karen and several other characters in stories that run parallel to one another. Matt is taken in by nuns (one being his long-lost mother) and healed in a church, Karen is helped by Matt’s friend Foggy, and reporter Ben Urich chooses to reject his violence-induced fear and move against The Kingpin.
The Power of Forgiveness
While Matt has been spiritually reborn, he is still lingering in the shadows, appearing at will as Christ did following the resurrection. Matt suddenly and decisively saves Ben and his wife from certain death, but the rest of the characters have not yet been saved from destruction.
Karen, being watched over by Foggy, is confronted by the man who brought her to New York and who is now ready to kill her. At the same time, a psychopath dressed up as Daredevil and set loose by The Kingpin is hunting for Foggy and has arrived at the scene along with gangsters searching for Karen.
Panels begin flying at a rapid pace as the noose tightens around the characters, each moments away from death, heightening the tension to an almost unbearable level. Karen, ready to end her life to save Foggy, leaves to face her certain death. As bullets start flying, she grabs the one thing she still relies on, a needle full of heroin, looking for one last hit before dying and praying that Matt will one day forgive her for what she did to him. Little does she know that Matt is on the scene, triumphantly flattening the psycho in his costume and disposing of the rest of the criminals.
No words are needed, as Mazzuchelli powerfully portrays Matt’s devoted embrace of Karen in a full page silent panel. After so much heartache and redemption, the emotions on display transcend the borders of a comic. This is the image that made me cry.
Matt’s rebirth through faith has given him the ability to forgive Karen completely. In mere moments, Matt has not only saved Karen’s life, but has unquestioningly forgiven her for what she has done. All Karen can do is embrace him back and weep. Matt’s face need not be shown. We see his love enveloping her and wiping away her sins. Mazzuchelli’s all-too human art intricately portrays Karen’s overwhelming emotions – a tumultuous blend of grief, desperation, joy, and fulfillment as she clings to the man she loves. This too is the final step in Matt becoming whole once again, healed by love and forgiveness for others.
It’s a heart-wrenching moment that depicts the true power of forgiveness, no matter what the sin may be. By embracing life and forgiving Karen, Matt has not only saved himself, but saved the lives of everyone he loves.
Forgiveness and love are rarely the focal points of superhero comics, not to mention most other forms of entertainment that feature any amount of action. But this is what sets Born Again apart from the rest of comics. In the end, it isn’t about defeating The Kingpin or finding justice for what has happened. It’s about the salvation of the soul, not matter how low a person may have gone in his or her life.
Karen and Matt still have a ways to go until they are whole again, but this is the moment that makes that healing possible.
Issues of salvation and faith play directly into my beliefs as a Christian, which made me all the more invested in the matters at hand in Born Again. Miller and Mazzuchelli spend issue after issue dragging Matt and the reader down into the dark, all but extinguishing any hope of victory. Finally, as faith, hope, and love ignite the spark of redemption, I couldn’t help but desperately cling to what little chance there was that these characters could be saved from their desperate situation and from themselves.
When Karen and Matt are finally reunited and saved, I was overwhelmed with relief while also being filled with joy. The first time I laid eyes on the panel, I felt my heart swell. Reflecting back on it at the end of the story, I couldn’t keep myself from crying. There is true beauty in this single page, a truth that speaks to the hearts of all types of people. If two fictional characters can demonstrate the true power of faith and forgiveness, imagine the impact that these acts can have on the lives of you and me.
A Cheer-Worthy Finale
While the major story arc of Born Again ends in Daredevil # 231, the story continues in issues 232-233, titled “God and Country” and “Armageddon,” where The Kingpin sets his final plan into action. With all other options failing, he uses his government ties to bring in Nuke, a psychopathic super soldier used by the military as a one-man army.
Nuke can scarcely tell reality from the ideas created by his psychosis, and Kingpin drops him right in the middle of Hell’s Kitchen in an effort to force Daredevil into a fatal confrontation. Until this moment, Matt has been living quietly with Karen, helping to get her sober and supporting their meager needs by working as a fry cook in a dinner.
Their quiet, simple life erupts into flames when Nuke begins blowing up everything in sight, forcing Matt into action. When he does, it’s in a fiery rebirth, with an image that has become forever linked to The Man Without Fear. With lives at a greater risk than ever, Matt throws himself into battle. Once again, Matt’s unbroken spirit is what gives him the edge in a fight against a man that is far stronger than him and seemingly impervious to harm.
But the story doesn’t end there. Instead, it takes even more twists and turns, with Captain America and the Avengers becoming tangled up in it as well.
When all is said and done, Matt and Karen have become fully reborn. Together, they bask in the sun, smiling and ready to begin their lives once again. After being put through such a difficult journey, we can’t help but smile along with them.
Redemption isn’t easily found, but the forgiveness and light that it brings into both Karen and Matt’s life is palpable. This final page seals what is one of the most powerful comics that I have ever read. It’s themes and meaning go far beyond colorful spandex and outlandish fights, reaching something inside of us all in the real world.
Whether you have never read a Daredevil comic or even a comic at all, Born Again is a powerful journey for any read. It is evidence of the emotional and spiritual power that can be found in this medium and is sure to make a lasting impact on anyone who dives in.