The 1980’s are regarded today as the dawn of the grim and gritty post-modern era of comic books when the medium stopped being a disposable form of entertainment and started being called graphic novels. The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen are often cited as landmarks in this transition but in my opinion the biggest contribution was made in the monthly Daredevil series in the form of the storyline known as ‘Born Again.’
When young Frank Miller was offered the role of artist for the ailing comic book Daredevil, he had his doubts. A character viewed by some as a substandard Spider-Man had little place on the racks and with the star artist Gene Colan no longer on the series, it seemed like a lost cause… which is exactly what a guy like Frank Miller needed. Since readers had more or less abandoned the title, it left the door wide open for Miller to experiment and try out new storytelling techniques (with the assistance of Klaus Janson, Denny O’Neil and Roger McKenzie, of course). After taking on the reigns of writer and artist, he transformed the series into a major hit and breathed new life into Daredevil, making him into one of the most popular costumed heroes of the era. Borrowing heavily from his inspiration in Will Eisner’s the Spirit, Miller took a comic that few even knew of and made it into a workshop for expanding the comic book narrative form in the pages of a monthly super hero book.
Frank Miller’s initial run on Daredevil paved the way for greatness that he has been on ever since. However, many fans wondered if he was ever wistful enough for his humble beginnings to return to the title that made him a legend in the medium. In 1986, he answered that query by showing that lightning can strike twice for Daredevil and Frank Miller alike.
As a devoted Marvel Zombie, I was just getting my teeth into the monthly titles in ’86 and had read about Miler’s impending return. While disappointed to learn that he would not be drawing the stories, I was soon to be pleasantly surprised by the artwork of David Mazzuchelli (who went on to collaborate with Miller again when the pair crossed the street to work on Batman: Year One in 1987).
The story itself followed the betrayal of Matt Murdock’s secret identity by former confidant Karen Page. Page regretted selling her friend’s secret to fuel her drug habit and in desperation rushed back home to NYC to warn Matt of the impending danger but it was too late. Long a thorn in his side, Wilson Fisk, the Kingpin of Crime, was finally armed with a suitable weapon of revenge. Engineering the steady degradation of his arch foe resulted in the loss of Murdock’s home, his job as a lawyer and for a time his sanity as well. Readers watched their hero devolve into a rage-filled knot of frustration, unsure of how to fight the destruction attacking him from all sides until it was too late. Fisk had shown Murdock that ‘a man without hope is a man without fear.’
Rumor had it that Marvel Editorial was more than a little paranoid that Miller was never going to return Murdock to his trademark red tights, but when the moment finally came it was a corker.
The artwork by Mazzuchelli is truly outstanding. The linework in any given page conveys the jagged violence and insanity as the comfortable world that the series had called home is torn asunder. A novelty at the time, the series was released in trade paperback format soon after its conclusion. Even though I owned the single issues, I purchased the trade and pushed it on each of my friends. It remains a highlight of the sequential art style and a landmark in what the right creative team could accomplish in the pages of a monthly comic book.
While many fans (myself included) view the Daredevil feature film as a flop, it still garnered quite a haul for the studio and has kept the possibility for a sequel alive. Director Mark Steven Johnson (who also directed Ghost Rider) has stated that he is very interested in adapting the Born Again storyline and in expanding the rogue’s gallery to include Mr. Fear or The Owl. Actor Ben Affleck has gone on record as saying that while acting in a superhero film is something everyone should experience, he has no interest in reprising the role of Daredevil. Many have theorized that Frank Miller may be interested in working with Johnson on the film and that action hero Jason Statham is a strong candidate for the part.
Re-released in trade paperback format, Daredevil: Born Again is both a unique time capsule of the ground-breaking work done in the comic book genre of the 1980’s and a solid read today.