Irish rage, Catholic guilt

How do you discuss a legend? I have to focus: this is about the formal Frank Miller run only, including some of the preceding Roger McKenzie-Miller run, but very much excluding “Born Again.” Yes, I know, just shut up about “Born Again” for this one, thanks. I want to talk about the in-heaven-and-hell-made three-way among Denny O’Neil as editor and sometime co-plotter, Miller as writer and penciller, and Klaus Janson as inker, in-practice co-plotter, and sometime colorist.


I’ve come to see that the primary “vigilante hero” model is less about being one and more about (i) you could be one and (ii) meeting real ones. Daredevil nails this hard. That’s why I see him as the quintessential O’Neil character of this type and not Batman, and why this post does go into the trade-off vigilante post series by me and Steve Long: Eat hot lead, comics reader, What was the question again?, The Big Bang, Wicked good, Vigilantes R Us, In Darkest Knight, The not so secret cabal, A pretty butterfly, Jet and silver, and Red goggles at midnight.

Here’s an idea:

  • Batman is not only tolerated but valued by law-enforcement, and is most interesting when he might/might not deserve that privilege.
  • Spider-Man is well into public-and-police distrust territory, and was most interesting, during the Lee years, because he might/might not deserve that degree of rejection.

Daredevil is at the perfect midpoint of these two positions, neither established/rejected by law enforcement, nor skirting the boundaries of villainy/altruism. Furthermore, he includes all the other tropes that are associated with vigilante heroes (semi, anti, whatever) at maximum: general anger-impulse control problems; troubled interaction with guns, and he uses’em way more than you might think or remember; dry-drunk behavior, especially barely holding down a highly-skilled profession through raw competence and lying to everyone; in and out of injury; beating people up to find out whether they’re bad-guys or not; in and out of over-committed relationships; instant identification with designated victims … the list goes on. Despite the rhetoric, Batman and Spider-Man are a long way from actually “falling into the abyss,” whereas Daredevil is hovering over it, flapping his arms wildly not to fall, and somehow succeeding.

Why and how does he succeed, in credible story terms? I see two reasons. First, the character is immensely grounded in cultural reality: it’s Catholicism, specifically urban New York American-Irish version. The title is the only one to preserve an ethnic, subcultural presence in this phase of Marvel, which otherwise diminished it profoundly. Decry such presences as you might, I don’t. In this case there’s the celebration of tenacity, as Murdock is shanty Irish, not lace-curtain Irish like the Osbornes; and, also characteristic of earlier Marvel, the assimilation into American idealism. The redemption-through-humility, Madonna-whore, and even a no-lie actual miracle are all in there. Its darker side is also present in force, especially taking the injury motif to the point of mortification of the flesh, and especially, for example (among others), that Murdock wants Bullseye to feel guilty rather than to die.

Dad has a point …

Conversely, to some extent it doesn’t succeed, specifically in the deterioration of Matt Murdock as a character relative to the depicted society he lives in, to the point of devaluing him. It’s the Eighties, and he’s in the hands of a creator finely attuned to the popular consensus, and more and more inclined, as the series proceeds, to depict the “unrestrained savages roaming about the streets.” Thus Murdock runs face-first into the new cultural interpretation of defense attorneys as coddling criminals, with courts as revolving doors. Since his heroism is originally founded on a Darrow, Spencer-Tracy legal defense of the potentially innocent, the “new reality” becomes an impossible context for Daredevil as a character, and all that’s left is the other half of the character, the orphaned pugilist. To get judgmental for a moment, both Miller and O’Neil strongly tend toward scraping away the out-of-costume, daily context of a character’s life, turning the “guy” into the hero’s mask and often getting rid of a lot of it. After the rather good Gladiator sequence, the courts become a mere annoyance to the real business of fighting goons and ninjas; similarly, anything to do with Heather is particularly thick in dumbass plot-and-scripting.

Taking that as a feature or bug as you will, the details along the way are worth whole posts each. For vigilante purposes, consider the blend of Catholicism and the new social perception of crime in the role of confessions in general. It goes straight into the practice of torturing informants, or rather, torturing people to turn them into informants. The whole series hovers in this tension, yielding for a while, absolute genius ambiguity, highlighting the frustration with it, focusing on fictional humans dramatically trapped in it just as real people are ideologically. Then it collapses … or does it? If you set aside “Born Again” as its own thing, which I do, then the climax for this Daredevil is #191’s “Roulette” and its closing line: “my gun has no bullets,” a high point for that exact issue.

Obviously the other primary character must get equal treatment, and his greatness is derived from (thankfully) ignoring the whole Eighties crime model to focus directly on classic American themes of the gangster going legitimate. Meaning, to show that the Establishment is fertile territory for that same gangster’s skills. A vigilante story demands that ordinary law enforcement, and the established interests it serves, are themselves scattered and disconnected from “society’s good,” to varying extent per story. The Kingpin inhabits the shadowy overlap between criminal force and political power, all the more effectively because he doesn’t necessarily want to.

There are three phases. First is his return to New York and losing his wife at the hands of his shitty little lieutenant, Lynch, to set him against the mobs. Then is his subornment of Bullseye from those mobs, and then, Elektra, as he simultaneously finds Daredevil to become a genuine threat. I’ll listen to the cries of fan fury with pleasure when I say that neither Elektra nor Bullseye is even the least bit interesting – actually they’re idiotic – aside from these associations with the Kingpin. The real throughline isn’t, for instance, the entirely non-credible Elektra romance but the Kingpin’s attempted control over the mayoral election, as his primary enemy turns out to restore his greatest desire. Finally, and I submit this is key, he settles into a background presence, not a Big Bad to face, not a target for takedown, and not by any means rendered unimportant, to the contrary.

From #171, Miller’s third issue as writer:

Daredevil, you have proven yourself an obstacle to me. I would have you shot but for the fact that I still have use for you.

These are my files. The state’s evidence you have so desperately sought. They are yours, to deliver to District Attorney Tower. Minutes after he receives them, he will issue warrants to arrest the entire upper echelon of the East Coast underworld. Soon, they will be imprisoned and I will replace them with my men. You shall eliminate my competition from me.

I know what you’re thinking, Daredevil. You’re planning some desperate, futile attack – you seek to bring me in, as well. You are a very passionate man.

But it is not your passion that I now address. It is your intellect. Consider your position. You have Bullseye – I’ll throw him in as a courtesy – and I shall be left with a shattered organization to rebuild. For a time, your side will be that much stronger. Consider the greater good to society and you shall see that you really have no choice after all.

From #183, at the height of the “nuts about Elektra’s body” sequence

[said with apparent concern] Daredevil — are you ill?

From #190, Miller’s second-to-last issue

You wonder why I saved your life, do you not? Consider it an illustration – of the true nature of our relationship.
Your attack on Injun Joe has served to quell a mutiny in my organization. It demonstrated to the mobs that you are a common enemy, against whom they need protection – protection that I provide.

Consider also, Daredevil, that when you needed to find this hideout, you did not contact the police. You came to me.

We need each other, Daredevil. We are partners after a fashion. We are the power in this city.

Look at that. Daredevil doesn’t augment law enforcement, and he doesn’t run around doing his own notions of do-gooding ad lib. He’s the other Kingpin, acknowledged as such, even respected, as their interactions create the context for the press, the politicians, the police, and the ruck-and-run of criminals to do their things. He is the law, in contest with the Kingpin’s lack thereof. Meaning: a, no, the vigilante after all.


You make some excellent points, Ron, so as usual I’ll disappoint readers looking for a reality TV-style argument by saying “Great job!” It deprives me of a chance to use the whole “none are so blind” line, but so it sometimes goes. (I will disagree to a mild extent by saying that I like Bullseye, but I fully acknowledge that comes from a fascination with his skill set and its implications. Personality-wise, I could wish for more.)

You touched on an issue I’d like to explore further:  the downplaying of the lawyer side of the character.

Even as a kid I knew I wanted to be a lawyer, and one of the things that attracted me to Daredevil as a character was that he was essentially two characters. One was the crusading, immensely talented attorney who fought for Justice within the legal system. The other was the costumed vigilante who fought for Justice outside the system — when the system, for all its many strengths, couldn’t or wouldn’t handle some situation. In a sense the two identities were flip sides of the same coin. (And Murdock’s penchant for adopting identities to serve his purposes can be seen in the early issues where he created a “twin brother,” Mike Murdock, to throw Karen and Foggy off the trail of Daredevil’s true identity.)

It’s not that he suffers from multiple personalities — far from that, the early Daredevil is supremely in control of himself. This was a sharp contrast from later iterations, including Miller’s take, where he seems more… muddled? Unsure of himself? Ungrounded by his principles? Hard to put the right word on it.

But ultimately the “legal warrior” side seemed to get lost, and I’ve always felt that diminished the character. Unlike all the half-boiled romances, the martial arts madness (and who doesn’t love martial arts madness?), and the indirect social commentary, the legal aspect set Daredevil apart from other vigilantes. It meant he was significantly invested in “the system” and fought to preserve it, rather than asserting in full that the system was broken and the only way to fix it is to operate wholly outside it. (Spider-Man, to a much lesser extent, also experiences this.) Without that connection, he’s just another guy swingin’ around smacking generic bad guys in the head.


Except I don’t, because yes, that’s a big deal. I guess I can’t complain as much as I thought I would, because at the moment I’m awestruck by the beauty of the meta-vigilante content. (Until this re-reading I would have said, wrongly, that the only genuinely vigilante material in the title was about the Punisher.) I can only say, “yeah, that got junked in the service of doing this other thing.”

That other thing, the lawyer superhero, deserves someone’s attention some day. It’s one of those grails, isn’t it? Exactly as you describe, doing the legals in regular clothes and the justice in the tights, such that the stories really bring out the virtues and failures in both. If such a character concept managed to avoid the by-now insurmountable how it works on TV problem, the overwhelming temptation to skewer the topic with comedy, and the depiction of crime as whatever happens to be buying the most votes at the moment, that could be excellent.

Next: Grit, meet grot

About Ron Edwards

Game author, publisher, consultant, teacher

Posted on April 14, 2016, in Heroics, The great ultravillains and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

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