Monday, September 15, 2008

Daredevil: Hell to Pay, Vol. 2 TPB (2008)

My first issue of Daredevil was January '84's 202nd issue of the first series, part of Assistant Editor's Month. That was when Marvel made a point of indulging themselves with humorous back-up stories and weird concepts, like DD battling a modern caveman and "visiting" a grade school class. I can't tell you what drew me to start there-- perhaps the ferocity displayed on the cover, or I just really loved Danny Bulandi's inks. I didn't come back for a few months, with the Harlan Ellison issue where DD confronts an army of little android girls set to explode. That was my introduction to David Mazzucchelli, one of the primary architects of the "grim n' gritty" era. I returned again for #220, this time with Denny O'Neil and Frank Miller having Matt Murdock investigate the potential suicide of an ex-girlfriend. That was the one that finally locked me into Daredevil, and I soon continued with the epic "Born Again" and Ann Nocenti's curious run that followed.

I tell you this because I want to make it clear that from an early age, I was taught to expect something different from Daredevil. I'd guess it starts from "blind super-hero," and works out from there. Ed Brubaker's work on Captain America pisses me off, for instance. I want to like it, but it all reads flat to me, and bringing Bucky back did me no favors. Where other readers see bold twists, I find that book obvious and irrelevant, as I doubt many of the changes will stick. The ones that could, I'd just as soon do without.

On Daredevil though, the stakes have always been higher. Everything sticks in Daredevil, and even when it doesn't (I'm looking at you, Elektra,) it still spells another ordeal for poor Matt. The guy really must be a masochist to not use his amazing acrobatic abilities to jump off a bridge, as his life has just about always amounted to a world of shit. It takes a really sadistic writer to handle Daredevil's story properly, which was why I bowed out of most of Brian Michael Bendis' run. That guy's got too much heart, I figure, since he dealt more with soap opera than trauma. Brubaker on the other hand is clearly an evil bastard, so he seems a perfect fit.

"Without Fear" is the second half of an extended Brubaker story arc involving an invigorated Mr. Fear, never before all that interesting a character. The tale picks up after Daredevil's wife Milla has been battered by an old foe that had once made good, Gladiator, driven to violence by Fear. Angered at having been struck so close to home and seen positive work undone, Daredevil tracks Mr. Fear down, only to learn that too was all part of the plan. The first issue, an anniversary, spends most of its length making Daredevil look terrible in front of the authorities as he relives past indignities. These sequences are drawn or painted by artists with a history alongside the character, including Marko Djurdjevic, Jazzy Johnny Romita, Gene Colan, Bill Sienkiewicz, Alex Maleev and Lee Bermejo. Most are still as good as they ever were, and only the contrivance used to bring them together undermines their efforts. Bermejo especially proves he'll be among the greats someday, once he finds a project to draw that meets the expectations of his incredible art. Pretty pictures are the main appeal of this first installment, as it lacks a true beginning within the collected edition, and the mechanisms of plot set up a story more than tell one.

Chapter two is the entry point for the volume, as it explores the aftermath of one hell of a night. Michael Lark and Stefano Gaudiano handle most of the art chores from here, and are entirely appropriate in the Mazzucchelli/Weeks mold. There's some fill-in work by Paul Azaceta and Tom Palmer, and to be honest, I never noticed before checking the credits. Helping to keep the look seamless is colorist Matt Hollingsworth, who maintains a muted palette perfect for the material.

Brubaker meanwhile puts Murdock and his supporting cast through their paces, mingling crime stories with legal procedural and a heaping helping of human drama. His work on Daredevil is like a blueprint for serialized adaptation to other media. His scripts had me imagining a weekly television series based on a comic book that, for once, was pretty damned good. I heard something about FOX considering another DD movie, but it seems to me their FX network could benefit from a stripped down take along these lines.

As I said, it just isn't Daredevil unless pain is dealt and resolution is found someplace you never expected. The character makes choices in the story I was really unhappy with, but they make sense for who he is and the hand he's being dealt. Brubaker's Daredevil is among the best and truest storytelling the hero has been handed in decades.

Also included in the collection is an annual, scripted by Ande Parks from a Brubaker plot. The lead character takes a back seat to Black Tarantula, a Spider-Man villain introduced during the rebuilding process following the catastrophic "Clone Saga." I always found the guy impressive and well designed, so I was happy to see he wasn't going to waste. Carlos LaMuerto may overplay the barrio boy on parole shtick, but the character is sympathetic as we watch the will he/won't he tale of backsliding play out. The art by Leandro Fernandez still doesn't seem up to snuff for major company work years into his association with Marvel, but it isn't hard on the eyes either. All in all, a really solid package that I'd recommend.

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