Apocalypse, Purgatory, Pariah! A visual reading of Miller and Mazzucchelli’s DAREDEVIL: BORN AGAIN

After the recent release of IDW’s Artist Edition of DAREDEVIL: BORN AGAIN, I decided to dig out my old trade of it (an edition from circa 1987) and reread the book.  It’s a book I’ve always appreciated but I don’t think I’ve returned to as much over time as Miller and Mazzucchelli’s BATMAN: YEAR ONE, a story I’ve previously thought of as the superior over the two.  Hearing people gush over the Artist Edition, I wanted to pay attention to how Miller, Mazzuchelli and colorists Christie Scheele and Mazzuchelli (although the trade credits Richmond Lewis and not Mazzuchelli as contributing some colors) tell the story about the downfall and rebirth of Matt Murdock, the blind adventurer also known as Daredevil.

With the recent Artist Edition, the spotlight has been put on David Mazzucchelli, which is fine.  He deserves the accolades because BORN AGAIN is visually quite stunning.  It’s probably one of the handful of truly outstanding artist’s books put out by Marvel during the 1980s and still holds up remarkably strong today.  You can even see the roots of the way that Mazzucchelli told ASTERIOS POLYP in some of the pages of BORN AGAIN.  But that’s only part of the story.

BORN AGAIN may actually be Frank Miller’s best writing because it’s one of his only stories where he doesn’t go for the sensational.  Everything else around this time after, from THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS and ELEKTRA ASSASSIN to SIN CITY and THE DARK KNIGHT STRIKES AGAIN is going for big, loud and bombastic storytelling.  That’s the mode that Miller has been in for over 20 years.  With Mazzucchelli here and in BATMAN YEAR ONE, Miller is constructing a story around his character that is only as big as his character’s world.  Whether it’s Daredevil’s New York City or Batman’s Gotham City, Miller builds these stories around the characters and not the legends or myths he perceives his characters to be.

 

Apocalypse, Purgatory, Pariah!

 In the span of the first three issues, we see just how far Matt falls as the Kingpin systematically destroys the life of a prominent attorney.  From a wide, luxurious bed to a flop house to being curled up in a back alley, Miller and Mazzucchelli take everything away from Matt Murdock in the space of three pages. When getting these issues back in the day on a monthly basis, it took a while to realize what Miller and Mazzucchelli were doing here. And while it’s not as thematic as here, the image of Matt Murdock sleeping is repeated over and over again in the book, including a sequence where Karen Page is sleeping peacefully while clutching Daredevil’s costume, as if the fabric alone is enough to give her the peace and protection that she needs. It’s as if even back in the mid-eighties Miller realized how how long the character of Matt Murdock was dragged down after his initial run and wanted to wake the character up into a brand new day.

 

Snow

 When the first issues of BORN AGAIN were coming out as the regular monthly DAREDEVIL series, my friends and I would swear that Miller was doing a lot of the layouts, if not just downright drawing the book himself.  I’m not too sure if I still see a lot of Miller in Mazzucchelli’s artwork but Mazzuchelli was drawing those first issues in a very straightforward superhero style that was reminiscent of the work that Miller did in his first DAREDEVIL run.

I love in this early scene that you get an idea of the creative use of colors (more on this later as well.)  Look at how Christie Scheele uses the white of the page as the snow building up as Daredevil bounces around NYC.  That first panel, with the criss-crossing lines that Daredevil is running along really creates the environment and elements that this story is taking place among.  And that vivid blue background looks like nothing that happens in nature but it makes the red of DD’s costume pop on the page.

 

Color

 And here, in the 2nd issue of this run (colors credited to Mazzucchelli,) you see colors used in ways that you hardly see anymore.  The bright, flat colors still work in this age of “realistic” computer coloring that takes away so much character in the way it’s used a lot of the time.  There’s no attempt to be realistic here; instead Mazzucchelli (and Scheele in the rest of the book) uses the colors to enhance the story.  It becomes such a key part in how the story is told that I wonder how much of the impact of the story itself is lost in the Artist Edition.  That pinkish-purplish glow in the second panel and then the use of benday dots in the third panel recreates the neon-glow of 1970s/1980s New York, giving the scene a slightly lurid feel without showing any of the nudie bars or drug dens that I like to imagine littered Miller’s Hell’s Kitchen.

And then in one page, you go from the coolish colors of New York to the hot colors of a junkie in Mexico.  Look at that inexplicable red wall behind Karen Page.  It bathes the whole room in a heat that comics are usually incapable of expressing.  The colors aren’t trying to be realistic or painterly but they’re influencing so much of the feelings the reader has as they’re reading the book.  I want those colors back in my superhero books.

 

Triangle 1- Pieta

A number of things are so striking here:

  1. The obvious reference to Michelangelo’s Pieta.  It’s an image that used over and over again but that’s because it’s such a powerful one.  There’s no question based on the iconography of this image that the nun Maggie is Matt’s mother.
  2. Maggie finds Matt in the old, derelict gym that his father used to box in.  Those wonderful pinkish streaks (again with the powerful use of color) really shows the light streaking through boarded up windows.
  3. This is a raw picture.  The shading in Matt’s pants looks like something Bill Sienkeiwicz would do, not Mazzucchelli.

This also represents the lowest point for Matt in the book (and in all of Miller’s Daredevil stories.)  Here he is, broken and worn down, a shattered man.  His only rescue is the church/the mother/the angel to his devil.  This is also the first of the re-occuring triangular compositions in the book.  These are images with strong bases (Matt’s legs) that direct the eye up to a single image or concept.  That image here is two-fold.  The first is Maggie’s face, the mother we’ve never seen or even thought to see.  Of course, at this point, we really don’t know who this nun is.  She’s just someone who hangs around old gyms so far.

The other focal point is her cross, bringing back all of that Catholicism into Miller’s story.  I don’t think it’s reading much to look at Matt as a Christ-like figure and this is his version of the three-day descent into Hell, only to rise again after that.  Later on, Miller and Mazzucchelli will make the cross the obvious focal point, something that you can’t help but look at and reflect upon.

 “I thank you for listening, Mr. Urich.”

 Here, this is what comics do.

Over on The Comics Journal site, Dan Nadel looks at this same sequence of Ben Urich listening over the phone to the sound of a man being killed.  Nadel concentrates on the b/w image out of the Artist Edition and writes, “It’s a radical departure from realism, and one Mazzucchelli takes just enough times throughout the book to make each of those moments important punctation marks in the narrative.”  He thinks it’s “more startling” this way but I think it’s that red face and those shocked yellow eyes that make this sequence work.

For some reason, that third panel clicked with me this time reading the book because you hardly see any artist willing to exaggerate their style or the color enough like this any more.  The world around Ben goes on but he’s pulled out of it, listening to a nurse kill one of the men who could restore Matt’s good name in this book.  Mazzucchelli and Scheele really push Ben forward in the sequence as the reality of the workplace gets pushed even deeper into the background.

The image doesn’t become a figurative representation of Ben but it becomes a metaphor for him.  It’s symbolic as the drawing of Ben, the details of him, break down the more he hears.  He doesn’t become a person for a moment, he becomes a living emotion of fear on the page.  It’s actually a very expressionistic moment that most artists avoid or fear today.  You hardly see anyone dropping in a panel like this, where the image and colors so strongly convey a state of mind rather than a depiction of a moment.

We’re family.

 

When Karen Page can’t find the man she sold for a fix, she finds his best friend.  Here it’s that last panel that shows two people finding one another in this crazy, dangerous world.  Even without Matt, this sequence perfectly encapsulates Miller and Mazzucchelli’s story.  Like how the Daily Bugle staff receded into the background during Ben’s phone call, here Mazzucchelli makes the world surround and tower over two people who have only been hurt by a man they both love.

 Triangle #2- Trinity

 Another thing I noticed this time reading the book is how Mazzucchelli keeps on using a triangle composition.  Of course, here he beats you over the head with it.  This image of Maggie praying at her son’s bedside, with the perspective lines still inked in so clearly has always bugged me.  The focus on the cross seems so obvious and heavy handed here.  But the drawn triangle also pushes Maggie and Matt into their own world.  There are borders (boundaries or maybe connections) between them that doesn’t exist between anyone else in this room or in this book.

And there’s that cross again.  Well, it’s a different cross but it becomes the focus of the perspective lines.  You can’t help but look and linger a moment a moment on it.  A moment of reflection or a moment of prayer?  Cross, son, mother.  Icon, hero, nun.  The dead, the dying and the living.

 

KBLAM

I just love this panel of Karen’s drug supplier shooting his gun.  KBLAM!  I need to make that into a site banner.

It’s a simple image and a fairly standard pose but it’s made striking by the way its presented.  Again, you just don’t see this that much anymore.

 

Triangle #3- Salvation

Triangle #4- Love 

Look, more triangles.  Using a similar narrative trick to opening the first three issues with images of the deteriorating condition of Matt’s sleeping, here’s the end of one issue and the beginning of the next, with Matt finally rescuing Karen.  Or is that Karen finally rescuing Matt?  While not quite the Pieta, Matt finds protection and hope in the arms of the two women who have been missing from his life.  These two of Karen play nicely off of eachother.  The first is in the snow, in that heavy blue snow jacket that Matt picked up somewhere off of the street.  Like so much of the book, Christie Scheele colors this one in cool colors.

Contrast that with the reddish/orangish hue that’s over the second image.  It’s much warmer but it’s also more emotionally charged.  There’s release in the first image.  That’s their world in that moment.  The second image shows two people who desperately love each other but there’s still so much both of them have to go through.  There are tears of joy in the first image but the second image shows how much pain both characters still have to suffer through.

 

 

Foggy

In many ways, Foggy is a background character in BORN AGAIN but he’s also a key piece into how the Kingpin has destroyed Matt Murdock’s life.  Miller lays it out so subtly but of course he’s “employed” Foggy by giving him a job and still demeaning him a bit with the illegal work he gives to his new lawyer.  It’s not hard to imagine the Frank Miller of the past 20 years beating this plot point home, making Foggy into the dirty lawyer that Matt was alleged to be.  Maybe we’d end up seeing Foggy doing cocaine before going into court to defend Turk or something like that.  But the Miller of the 80’s just drops a line here or there, showing us that while Foggy may look like he’s just on the periphery of this story, he is actually a key player in the chess game that the Kingpin is playing.

 

BLAMM  klik

Like KBLAM!, this scene is made simply by the sound effects, the loud retort of the gun and the repeated and familiar shutter of Glori’s camera.  This is also the scene where Ben gets to be the hero.  He’s the daredevil that comes to Glori’s rescue.  It’s not that she thinks she needs rescuing; she’s just doing what she was hired for.

BORN AGAIN shows us so many comic conventions that were popular and used back in the 1970s and 1980s that have been abandoned, like the sound effect.  There’s a design to the way that these sounds intrude into the image, carrying the violence into a visceral realm in a way that Mazzucchelli’s images just can’t.  You can see and “read” the images above if the sound effects weren’t there but you wouldn’t get the contrast of the gun and the camera. They’re both very common and recognizable sounds that you could fill in with your imagination but Miller stages this in a way that both sounds intrude on the other.

Flag

 Back in the mid 1980s, Miller loved to have his villains wrap themselves in the flag and patriotism.  He does it here, in BATMAN: THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS and in ELEKTRA ASSASSIN.   I almost believe that the Kingpin truly is the hero of his own story.

 

 

Triangle #5- Partners

The triangle again but this time, it’s inverted and upside down.  The point is at the bottom of the image and the strong horizontal is at the top, invisibly drawn between Matt and Ben’s head.  It connects them in this moment of… it’s not victory here.  It’s more of a finish and almost surprisingly, they’re both still alive at the end.  BORN AGAIN is as much Ben’s story, the story of a reporter who may be digging too deep into a new story, as it is Matt’s.  They both have to be brought low before they can see the light of a new day.

This is a book about the attempted murder of men’s souls (hyperbole, I know) and Miller drives so many wedges between Matt and everyone who cares for him but in the end of BORN AGAIN, it’s Matt and Ben who are together, not Ben and Foggy.  Foggy is ultimately a supporting character but you could make an argument that this is Ben’s story almost as much as it is Matt’s.  And this ending drives that home; both men get a certain victory with Nuke thrown on the reporter’s desk.

Freewheeling

As last pages go, this one always bugged me a bit.  Have the characters really earned this moment together?  Karen, predominantly in white, looks clean and sober but has she earned the right to hang on Matt’s arm like that yet?  Of course, finding her is that final push out of the darkness that Matt needed so maybe that’s her purifying moment.

More than that, just the image troubled me.  The happiness that the two characters are expressing just runs to opposite of everything else in this story that the joy just seems out of place.  But then on the last reading of BORN AGAIN, I realized what this image reminds me of.

 

And suddenly, this may have become my favorite moment of the whole book, a moment of peace and happiness.

 

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