Daredevil has long been one of Marvel Comics’ premiere characters, with a long list of writers and artists crafting some of the greatest comic storylines ever by using the character of Matt Murdock and his crime-fighting alter ego. While there have been many different approaches to Daredevil over the years, one constant has almost always remained in place since writer/artist Frank Miller’s defining work on the character during the 1980’s – Matt Murdock suffers.
Racked with Catholic guilt, dedicated to stopping crime due to a tragic past, and suffering countless losses (including the death of many loved ones), Daredevil is one of the most tortured characters in comic books. Thankfully, writers like Brian Michael Bendis, Ed Brubaker, Kevin Smith, and the aforementioned Miller have managed to tell fresh and powerful stories with this theme, even when the darkness in Daredevil’s life seemed both inescapable and foregone in the process of crafting a compelling narrative that uses the character.
That is, until writer Mark Waid came on board as the new writer for Daredevil in 2011, resulting in a seminal run that lasted through 2015, including 58 issues spread across two volumes. Teaming up with a range of artists that included Paolo Rivera, Marcos Martin, Javier Rodriguez, and, most importantly, Chris Samnee, Waid’s epic run on Daredevil is the story of a Matt Murdock who fights against his inner darkness, as well as the outer forces of darkness that threaten to take everything away from him. The result was a brilliant, inspiring rollercoaster of a saga that will go down as one of the character’s great stories thanks to Waid’s emotionally honest and vibrantly beautiful take on the character.
But to better understand the power of what Waid did with Daredevil, we have to step back into the past.
The Tortured Hero of Hell’s Kitchen
When Daredevil was created by Stan Lee and Bill Everett in 1964, he was a far lighter character than the modern version familiar to most. Yes, Matt Murdock was blinded at a young age by radioactive chemicals that enhanced his senses and gave him radar ability. He also fought crime due to the murder of his father. But his adventures typically had a swashbuckling tone characteristic of most superhero comics of the time. It wasn’t until Frank Miller pushed the character into far darker and more tragic storylines that the idea of Daredevil changed. It also led to countless incredible and unique stories that made the most of this narrative sensibility.
Now, Daredevil was a tortured vigilante whose guilt weighed him down just as much as the tragic losses he would experience across the next several decades. Everything from the murder of several love interests to his true identity being exposed to the public to the general darkening of his storylines defined who Daredevil was to readers. By the time Waid came on board, Daredevil had recently been temporarily possessed by a demon and turned into a full-fledged villain. Even though he was redeemed, Daredevil’s storylines had become about as dark as they could possibly get. It was time for a change.
When Marvel gave the reigns of Daredevil to Waid, an industry veteran whose work includes seminal runs on both Marvel and DC Comics characters, the writer decided to take the character in a new direction. Gone were the dour and depressing storylines from past comics and in their place was a brighter, faster, and more fun take on Daredevil’s adventures. But the brilliance in Waid’s run isn’t that he simply chose to return to the character’s original tone, but that the tone was in and of itself a choice by the character within the narrative. Rather than allow the darkness of his past years to continue to define him, Matt Murdock made the conscious choice to be happy and upbeat once again.
But is this a new reality for Matt Murdock or is he simply faking his new persona under the crippling weight of countless traumas?
That question looms over Matt throughout Waid’s story and gives a great emotional weight to the many smaller arcs that make up the larger narrative at play throughout his run on Daredevil. While the series as a whole took on a brighter and more adventurous tone in comparison to the noir crime stories that came before, Waid’s Daredevil stories often veered into the disturbing and deeply troubling. Matt himself must struggle against these serious challenges, each of them threatening to send him spiraling back into depression for good. And the hero often buckled under the pressure, despairing until faith, hope, and love restored him.
Crucially, Matt’s great burdens are balanced with his wreckless attitude, an attribute that has consistently defined The Man Without Fear since his early days. That attitude speaks volumes about Matt’s mindset, as he’s both selflessly pursuing justice and also near suicidal in his actions at times. What other description would you give to a blind man who leaps into danger at the slightest provocation?
Equally important as the narrative choices are the artistic choices made to bring Daredevil’s story to life. Starting with Rivera, Matt’s adventures were given a far more vibrant and colorful tone than what was seen in the many years prior. Each artist brought onboard gave Daredevil’s adventures a new take, but the constant was how exciting every story could be, no matter how dark the ideas were. Waid’s time on Daredevil also brought new life to Daredevil’s signature radar vision. Rarely shown in comics prior, Waid’s Daredevil showed his power to full effect, interpreting it as brilliant red sonar outlines against a matte black. Matt Murdock doesn’t live in darkness; he sees the world in greater ways than what someone could possibly imagine. That vibrancy of vision matches up womderfully with the tone of the series and the superhero adventures that filled every page, making the series an even greater visual experience for readers.
When Chris Samnee came onboard, Waid found the perfect partner for his vision. Drawing the majority of the series, Samnee’s art has a heightened, angular quality akin to a cartoon series. But it also embodies relatable human emotions. Combined with often stunning panel layouts, Samnee was able to bring both exhilarating action setpieces and intimate character moments to life in equal brilliance.
The Battle Against the Darkness
Waid makes it clear early on that while a sense of fun would pervade his take on Daredevil, there would be no shortage of dark developments in the life of Matt Murdock. These included the theft of his deceased father’s body, being targeted by multiple criminal organizations simultaneously, losing all of his senses temporarily, discovering a human trafficking ring that separates people’s heads from their bodies, and being targeted by the schemes of multiple villains who sought to destroy both Matt and the city he has sworn to protect. Most often, the question was not whether Daredevil would survive (this is a superhero story after all), but what he could possibly lose in the process. But Matt is able to not only overcome these many obstacles, but also strive forward in his personal healing. Unlike the Daredevil stories of the past, these mounting difficulties do not break Matt, they give him a continued reason to fight on.
Murdock’s commitment to justice takes the most unexpected of turns at the end of the first volume, where he admits in court that he is, in fact, Daredevil. It’s an admission that the character had fought against for years, but it’s a development that not only pushes the book forward, but falls in line with how Matt has come to embrace the truth and light. Here, it helps him thwart villainous plans, but it also lifts great burdens from his shoulders. As a result, Matt is forced to move to San Francisco due to being disbarred in New York, but the sacrifice is ultimately deemed as worthwhile.
But the greatest dangers within Waid’s story come when the lives of his loved ones hang in the balance. As his longtime best friend, law firm partner, and fixture of Daredevil comics since their beginning, Foggy Nelson plays a crucial role in Waid’s narrative. While supportive of his friend and wanting the best for him, Foggy can’t help but wonder if Matt has actually had a mental breakdown that is being covered up by his newfound attitude. And he’s given good cause to wonder that, as a hidden figure seeks to break Murdock completely. But it’s Foggy’s cancer diagnosis halfway through the overarching story that puts him at the greatest, and most relatable, risk. Struggling against his disease, Foggy simultaneously provides Matt with his greatest weakness and his greatest support. Matt can’t save Foggy from cancer, but they can fight together, no matter the odds.
Just as important within the story is new character Kirsten McDuffie, Assistant District Attorney and Matt’s complicated love interest. Kirsten is funny, tough, and intelligent, even if her stubbornness puts her in enough danger without being connected to Daredevil. However, Matt has a long history of girlfriends who are put in extreme peril due to his alter ego, causing his relationship with Kirsten to be cause for extreme worry. The tension resulting from his past losses creates a complex relationship between the two, but Kirsten is most assuredly not a damsel in distress. Nor is she ignorant of the potential dangers. She knows that Matt is Daredevil, even when he won’t admit it, but makes her own choices concerning their relationship, rendering her an equal partner in the decisions that affect both Matt and her. Given Daredevil’s propensity for suffering the death of loved ones, the question of her safety hangs like a dangling guillotine over the series as a whole.
But it’s when these two are endangered in the final arc of Waid’s run that Matt enters his darkest hours.
While Matt’s move to San Francisco in the second volume of Waid’s run features the same characteristic swashbuckling sense of adventure as ever, the story takes possibly its darkest turns. Not only has Matt faked Foggy’s death in order to get him cancer treatment free from the dangers associated with his secret identity being outed, but a series of villainous encounters escalate quickly, despite his move to San Francisco being the chance to turn a new page in his life. New villains arise, Matt questions the goodness of his deceased loving father, and a run-in with The Purple Man and his empowered children reawakens Matt’s crippling depression.
These events slam into Daredevil one after the other until a final danger forces Matt to come to Wilson Fisk, The Kingpin, the man who has caused the greatest pain in his life, and ask him to use his considerable assets to protect Matt and Kirsten. In exchange? Fisk will wipe Matt Murdock from the face of the earth. But Fisk takes the advantage to kidnap Matt’s loved ones and destroy them all, leading to one last battle.
Like any great comic book climax, the final battle between Daredevil and Kingpin’s forces encapsulates both the greatest physical challenges ever faced by the hero and the most important themes of the narrative. Matt’s final fight is not just a test of his fighting skills, but a battle against the darkness within his soul. The outcome bring monumental catharsis in both Waid’s saga and the many years of Daredevil stories that preceded it.
Wheras many seminal Daredevil writers of the past have chosen to leave Matt Murdock’s life in a worse state than when they came onboard, Waid gives Matt true happiness. This is not a Shakespearean tragedy, but rather is a tale of inspirational triumph. Daredevil stares into the darkness but does not give into it. His will to fight back and his love for those he cares about most is not sacrificed. Instead, it compels him in his darkest moments. There are tragedies, there are losses, but Matt never gives in. It’s only appropriate that the final panels of Waid’s run see Murdock fading into bright white light. He won. And it’s not the least bit cheap. Every moment of triumph is earned and is all the sweeter for it.
Experiencing a comic book that so deftly handles both its lightest and darkest moments is exhilarating in the superhero genre. What Waid crafted during his time on Daredevil was nothing short of a masterpiece that will stand for years to come. Bold new characters, greater depth to longstanding heroes, and a tone that will having you laughing, cheering, and gasping from page to page all form together for an emotional and spiritual journey that you’ll want to take again once you’ve reached the end.
This is the true power of comic books. This is the true power of Daredevil. This is storytelling at its finest.