I think the best super hero stories are the province of characters with minimalist powers and more down to earth adventures, and one of my very favourites has always been the man without fear, Marvel’s Daredevil.
Daredevil – Ultimate Collection
Written by Ed Brubaker, illustrated by Michael Lark & Paul Azaceta
This volume collects together #94 – 105 of the newly rebooted title (my familiarity with the character dated to the previous run). And I’m happy to report that the feel of the comic at its very best has been maintained. Daredevil is firmly ensconced as the protector of New York’s Hell’s Kitchen district, his identity as Matt Murdock is sort of in the public domain, while the cops aren’t particularly enamoured of his failure to register with the authorities as a super powered being, and he is married to the beautiful Milla Donovan. What could possibly go wrong? Pretty much everything as war rages on the streets between the Hood and Mr. Fear. The latter has a particular and long standing grudge against Daredevil, and is determined to destroy everything he cares about. First, by way of softening DD up, the release of the Gladiator is stage managed, and then DD falls victim to fear gas, having to deal with the issues from his past, particularly those involving his relationship failures. The real target though is Milla, who is not equipped to deal with the gas, lacking Matt’s strong sense of self, and who is pushed into committing murder. Daredevil succeeds in defeating Mr. Fear, but everything suggests that it is a pyrrhic victory, with Milla hospitalised and the rest of his life torn to shreds, while Fear is simply neutralised for now. And yes, yes, I love this book. It is perhaps the best out of all the graphic novels I’ve read over the course of this month. The plot is epic and convoluted, with numerous twists and turns, but never less than convincing (and my precis only gives you a flavour). The super heroics play counterpoint to a very human drama, a tragedy in the true sense of the word, one in which the innocent get hurt and every action has a consequence. It’s a gritty, character driven piece, like the super hero equivalent of one of those acclaimed US crime dramas (e.g. The Wire or The Shield), while nearly everything else in the genre feels Midsomer Murder cosy. And the dark, brooding artwork captures perfectly the tone of the story. It is comic book narrative at its very finest. I loved it.
Daredevil – Return of the King
Written by Ed Brubaker, illustrated by Michael Lark & David Aja
Set slightly after the events in the previous volume, this book collects together #116 – 119 and #500 when it reverted to the original numbering (don’t ask – only Stephen Hawking, Nobel prize winning economists, and philosophers of an existentialist bent can aspire to fully grasp comic numeration and continuity). The Kingpin returns to Hell’s Kitchen, having failed to make a new life for himself on a European island, and proposes an alliance with Daredevil, to destroy Lady Bullseye and the Hand, the ninja group she leads. Of course Mr. Fisk (the Kingpin) has his own agenda, and the two end up competing to lead the Hand, not destroy it. There’s other stuff going on as well, with Matt’s sensei taking a role in helping him get over the recent disasters he’s experienced in his personal life, and the Owl taking a punt at our hero. Once again, if not quite on the epic scale of its predecessor, this volume contains some dazzling storytelling, with the way in which personal concerns and criminal activity intersect a highlight of the narrative. Kingpin/Fisk is a marvellous creation, a fully rounded villain, one who acts out of motives we can believe in if not share, and at times it is possible to even feel sorry for him, to feel that the losses he has endured and self-realisation they inflict makes him the mirror image of Daredevil. The artwork is superb, and just as suited to the story as before. And as before, I loved this volume too.
Dark Reign – Elektra
Written by Zeb Wells, illustrated by Clay Mann
Elektra first surfaced in the pages of Daredevil and was the creation of Frank Miller, who may have embraced right wing idiocy now, but back in the day gave the comic one of its most outstanding runs. This however is Dark Reign Elektra which, near as I can figure, is something to do with the fallout from the Skrull War that engulfed the Marvel Universe. It opens with the final defeat of the shape changing Skrulls and Elektra, one of the first to be replaced by a Skrull, being taken into care. However, not everyone is convinced that she is her old self – in particular Norman Osborne, the director of S.H.I.E.L.D. (what happened to Nick Fury?) wants to experiment on her to find out what, if any, changes the Skrulls effected in her biology. Also there is a squad of assassins after Elektra’s blood because of an atrocity she is supposed to have committed but has no memory of. Fortunately Wolverine is there to help out – ain’t it good to know that you got a friend, especially one with adamantium claws. Again, this is a book that I absolutely adored. It’s slick, fast paced storytelling, with a moral dimension playing counterpoint to the action scenes – is Osborne justified in what he does, how can Elektra deal with not knowing if she killed innocent people? The character is portrayed as an almost somnambulist, somebody who is unsure of their identity and with drugs working through her system, at times fighting almost like an automaton, but no less deadly for all that. And of course the artist takes advantage of the fact that Elektra is a very attractive woman, with a selection of skimpy costumes provided, albeit nothing that isn’t justified by the story, and in this case it doesn’t feel as exploitative/objectifying as with Black Canary (maybe I expect lower standards from bad guys and anti-hero(in)es). With superb illustrations, including splash panels that light up the page, and impressive use of colour, this is a striking story, one with a very simple plot that nonetheless manages to milk every last drop of action out of the material, and with far reaching implications regarding what it means to be a hero and to be human.