Friday, August 28, 2009

Stuff I Have Read

Daredevil #500

I was talking with a nerd acquaintance the other day about the fact that Daredevil has been one of Marvel's better, and perhaps most consistently readable title for the last decade or so. This despite the somewhat puzzling fact that the book has spent the entirety of the last ten years doggedly recycling through all of Frank Miller's favorite stylistic ticks and tropes - ninjas, the Hand, Ben Urich, watered-down noir, the Kingpin, Bullseye, etc. The book is perverse in its commitment to these same minimally variable elements repeated ad nauseum. And yet: Bendis' run was good, and even great in a few places (by far his most consistent extended run in the mainline MU); Brubaker's run has been - if a little less dependably than Bendis - still enjoyable; and even Kevin Smith's arc at the beginning of the Marvel Knights relaunch was good fun (even if Karen Page's gratuitous death marred the ending).

So here we are with a big fat anniversary issue marking the conclusion of Brubaker's run and the culmination of many years worth of storylines. The result certainly isn't bad, but nevertheless leave much to be desired. Brubaker is an extremely utilitarian writer, and he constructs his storylines with the methodical patience of a bricklayer. Sometimes seeing them unfold is about as interesting as seeing real-life bricks being laid. So too with this book: all the pieces of the puzzle are laid out methodically, all the clues are assembled and everything falls into place with a lockstep neatness.

The result is unsatisfying. The whole point of the story is that everything Daredevil has ever done has been manipulated and influenced by forces outside his control, and the climax of the story does not see Daredevil triumphing over his adversaries and rejecting this determinism but capitulating to circumstances and following through on something for which he's been forced into a corner. That's a really awesome superhero trait: capitulating to unseen, inevitable forces. Remember that one for the next movie, guys.

But the real attraction is the back-up feature, "Jacks", which features Ann Nocenti's return to the franchise. In just thirteen pages, it's still better than any other Daredevil story I can remember from at least the last decade - and as I said, the last decade actually has actually been pretty good for ol' Hornhead. Brubaker's writing kids' adventure stories with warmed-over noir action figures; Nocenti's on another tip entirely. She's not recycling Miller's old underwear, she's going straight to the source of Miller's own tics, Eisner's Spirit.

Nocenti still knows what she always understood: you don't need to dig very far for the symbolism inherent in a religious man dressing like a devil in order to mete out justice. Daredevil isn't really that compelling a character, see - at this point, he's pretty unlikeable, not to mention passive. Matt Murdock the character doesn't do a lot but Daredevil the symbol crashes in and out of people's lives just like the Spirit did, providing an ontological blank against which other characters can reflect. Miller understood Eisner in terms of narrative mechanics, without ever internalizing the fact that Eisner's best setpieces were dedicated not to illustrating action but to illustrating character through action. It's a subtle difference, sure, but that's the difference between The Spirit and 99% of all the superhero comics that followed. From Eisner, Miller learned how to draw a good splash page and dynamic panel designs, but his understanding of character - even at the height of his powers - was always limited to broad-brush primary colors.

It's not even really a criticism of someone like Brubaker to point out that his characters are one-note ciphers - that's simply the way these things work. Matt Murdock (usually) hasn't had more than two character traits since 1980 - stoicism and stubbornness. Comic-book characterization usually consists of picking a characters' two or three primary character traits are and constructing stories which present problems that pit their traits against each other. It's simple but most of the time it works, and considering the limitations some very good stories have been constructed using that template.

But Nocenti is, well, better than that. Just in these pages she gives us a lot: a Daredevil / Bullseye fight, yeah, but that's not really the main event. The main event is the two spectators who watch the fight and then, with a wounded Daredevil, explicate the preceding action. So not only do you see the fight, but every action in the fight is interpreted after the fact. The fight isn't what's important - in fact, you don't even know why they're fighting, or even what year the fight occurs. It could have happened in 1982 or 2006. I've read dozens of Daredevil / Bullseye fights over the years, but I haven't read one that actually felt this visceral in years and years - you see every punch, but you also see the moment after the punch lands. No wonder one of the spectator characters is a boxer - boxing is another symbolically freighted activity, and Daredevil's history with boxing makes for a nice overlap of symbolic metatext. Daredevil isn't the invincible ninja master anymore, he's a broken fighter with a concussion - possibly hallucinating.

Again, the fight is incidental, even though it is rendered in almost fetishistic detail. We aren't seeing the fight as Daredevil sees the fight, or even as comic book readers usually see fights - as some kind of soap-operatic duel with his arch foe - we are seeing it through the eyes of these spectators, who reveal themselves through their explication of the events. But what are they really revealing? You've got two figures - an idealistic young religious girl, and a past-his-prime fighter - externalized avatars of the two contradictory sides of his personality, as well as symbolic approximations of his parents, who are explicitly mentioned throughout the story. (Even the title betrays the subtext - "Jacks".) Their conversation may seem cute or even silly - but it's really just Daredevil, talking to himself in an empty bar on the Coney Island boardwalk. He's a walking metaphor, so obviously the externalized avatars of his unconscious speak in metaphors. Somehow Nocenti manages to sidestep Matt Murdock's problematic character by playing the story on an almost entirely symbolic level - and the end result is, paradoxically, a riveting character study of the one man who says the least throughout. Remember how I said earlier that Daredevil doesn't have an actual character? Well, I lied: he does when Ann Nocenti writes him.

It's a great story, and one I find myself drawn to read and reread. It is actually honest-to-God thought-provoking - my only thoughts after finishing the Brubaker feature were something along the lines of, "ugh, more ninja shit". If Marvel publishes a better story this year I'll eat my hat - and yes, I'm remembering that Strange Tales thing. Frankly, if I were Ed Brubaker I'd be embarrassed that my by-the-numbers ninja shit had to sit next to this between two covers. Why Nocenti isn't working in comics more regularly I have no idea, unless she herself chooses not to - her CV on Wikipedia certainly suggests that she has no problem finding other interesting and rewarding things to do in order to keep herself busy. But at least we know someone at Marvel still has her phone number: my suggestion is that they use it. She's the best - really.

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