With a new Netflix TV series on the way, now’s a good time to learn about blind lawyer Matt Murdock and his long, twisted superhero career as Daredevil. Good news. This Marvel hero has starred in some incredible (and easily-obtainable) comics.
First, some back-story. He is nicknamed the Man Without Fear.
As a child growing up in New York City, Matt Murdock was blinded in an accident involving radioactive waste. Though he lost his sight, his remaining senses were amplified to a superhuman degree, which means he can taste, smell, feel and hear way better than anyone else. Murdock also developed something he calls a radar sense, which enables him to be aware of the shape and size of various elements of his surroundings. Oh, and he somehow got trained by ninjas and went to law school at the same time.
Keep in mind that dozens of writers and artists have worked on the character since 1963 and Daredevil’s mood and tone as both a series and a character has changed multiple times. The Netflix show pulls from a smaller, darker section of a long publishing history. Consider the list below a primer for Daredevil’s fictional biography.
(Most of the comics below are available in collections from Marvel. You can also find them as part of the Marvel Unlimited digital subscription program or for download via the iOS/Android-compatible Comixology app.)
You’ll get the basics of Daredevil’s origin here, along with a glimpse at his original costume. His father, the boxer Jack Murdock, dies at the hands of crooked promoters for failing to throw a fight. He adopts his costumed identity to seek justice outside the law. Matt’s career as a lawyer — along with law school buddy Franklin “Foggy” Nelson — will continuously intertwine with his superhero adventures.
As far as any sort of superhero taxonomy goes, Daredevil is considered a street-level character. He’s a really good athlete who can’t fly, project any kind of energy or lift cars over his head. But he has a history of going up against characters — especially other heroes, because that’s a well-established cape comics trope — who are more powerful than him. That history starts here as he faces Prince Namor the Sub-Mariner in an issue drawn by comics legend Wally Wood. Debuting the costume that would become most familiar through the decades, Daredevil doesn’t win the fight against Marvel’s oldest superhero. That doesn’t matter. He showed an ingenuity and fearlessness that would become his hallmark.
Part of a long, beloved run by artist Gene Colan, this issue introduces one of the goofiest relics of the Daredevil mythos: fake twin brother Mike Murdock. When the secret of Matt’s double life comes to light to friends Foggy Nelson and Karen Page via a well-intentioned letter from Spider-Man, Matt invents a twin brother who he says is the actual Daredevil. For all its comedy, this development would foreshadow one of the biggest paradoxes of the character: he’s a lawyer who often lies to his closest friends because he’s also a superhero.
The slow shift that would been changing Daredevil in the late 1970s starts to peak in these issues.
Matt Murdock’s friendships and romantic entanglements still have a bit of soap opera to them but there’s less outlandishness to the melodrama. Fake twin brothers and costumed bank-robbers fade from view. Things start to feel more weighted psychologically and there’s less of the quippy bantering superheroics. Compare the issue #163 fight against the Hulk in to the similar DD-vs-superstrong-hero battle in issue #7.
The violence is more graphic and the stakes feel like life-or-death. Daredevil’s adventures start happening almost exclusively in a gritty underworld ecosystem ruled by the Kingpin, a formerly one-dimensional Spider-Man villain turned amoral and sadistic. The crimelord named Wilson Fisk would soon become Murdock’s most canonically significant nemesis.
Largely written and pencilled by Frank Miller with moody atmospheric inks by Klaus Janson, this run would wind darken the tonality of all of superhero comics for years to come. Film noir influences and the malaise of 1970s inflation-era America throbbed through the book, making heroic victories less guaranteed. Changes to Matt’s backstory introduced a one-time-lover-turned-ninja-assassin named Elektra Natchios, hired by the Kingpin as part of a strategy of murder and political manipulation.
Daredevil’s crusade against Fisk has him fighting his former girlfriend, along with inhumanly accurate assassin Bullseye. The tragic climax of this arc would turn Bullseye into Daredevil’s opposite number, and their relationship would become a blood feud.
After the first half of the Elektra Saga, Miller and his co-creators continued to explore the moral ambiguity that became a signature of the title, ending with a standalone issue that cemented Daredevil as one of the most haunted and conflicted characters in the Marvel stable.
Written by the man who edited Daredevil for years, the Denny O’Neil run that followed Miller’s paradigm-shifting tenure is among my favourites. Though he’s moved on from previous events and still fights crime with outsized passion, Matt Murdock gets portrayed as a man pulled apart by the demands of his double life. Future superstar David Mazzucchelli starts sharpening his artistic chops on O’Neil’s Daredevil. The run is quieter and more elegiac, composed of smaller, tighter arcs and pulp-homage one-offs. This run is gloomy. . Issue #223 is probably my favourite Daredevil story ever, a tangential tie-in to Marvel’s big Secret Wars II where Daredevil gets his sight back. The intimate scale of the story stands in relief to the cosmic sturm und drang of Secret Wars II and underscores the character’s defining dynamic: a well-intentioned impulsiveness at odds with an overdeveloped sense of responsibility.
(panels above via)
Despite his wins against a recovered Bullseye, noble savage Micah Synn and others, Matt’s reservoir of will and inner strength never gets time to replenish — which might be a metaphor for the grind of making monthly superhero comics. In short order, Daredevil becomes an alarmingly depressed superhero. In what seemed like a fit of thematic synchronicity, the character’s psychological low ebb sets the perfect stage for the triumphant return of Frank Miller.
If the preceding five years of Daredevil comics was a fitfully swelling mass ofcreativity — interrupted by the workaday inevitabilities of fill-ins and occasional missteps — then this six-issue storyline is the crescendo that pays it all off. It begins with the fracture of the stalemate between Daredevil and the Kingpin after the latter learns that the masked man is really Matt Murdock. Fisk begins systematically destroying his enemy’s career, reputation and home, which sends a fragile Murdock into a spiral of paranoia and despair. Daredevil feels trapped here, painted into a desperate corner built by his dysfunctional obstinance and poor self-care. The lives of his loved ones get ground down as well.
This is Miller at the peak of his scripting powers, masterfully drumming out the rhythms of dialogue, voiced narration and panel transitions. And, at this early stage of his career, Mazzucchelli is pulling away from straight-ahead representational rendering to more stripped-down, impressionistic linework. Together, both of them strip away so much of what seemed necessary for Daredevil to function as a superhero concept, leaving behind a scorching reconfiguration that still feels dangerously hot 20 years later.
A bunch of fill-ins kept the monthly Daredevil comic going after Miller and Mazzuchelli’s dark opus but the title didn’t feel inspired again until Ann Nocenti started writing Matt Murdock. Nocenti’s Daredevil felt more focused on justice than vigilantism, with stories that channeled late-era Cold War dread, the shearing apart of socioeconomic classes in New York City and the paradox that lay at the heart of the Man Without Fear. Daredevil started to feel more like a superhero again, facing mutants and other superpowered enemies that had been sealed off by a focus on the hard-crime aesthetic. Nocenti rode the character’s symbolism to fantastical heights, taking him to hell and entangling him with Typhoid Mary, his most sympathetically psychotic femme fatale yet. The proceedings felt heartfelt, wild and unpredictable, making for a severe break from the grim ‘n gritty orthodoxy that Miller’s work ushered in.
I’ll be honest here and say I was almost going to leave this story off this must-read list. It seems clear that Marvel editorial wanted Miller (with artist John Romita, Jr.) to try and repeat the success he had with revisiting The Dark Knight’s origin in DC’s Batman: Year One. But, as he grew into a bonafide legend, Miller’s worst obsessions were well on their way to ossifying into creepy fetishes and rote, creaky habits. The extra-legal justice Matt doles out comes across as too rough and out-of-character, and the oversexed, gleefully violent tone of MWF feels twitchy and knee-jerk instead of thought-out. There are a few lyrical echoes of his best writing but the Frank Miller who was skillfully feeling out his relationship to the material is no longer in evidence. The miniseries hasn’t aged well but is worth reading for its apparent heavy influence on the Netflix show.
If O’Neil’s version of Daredevil was bleakly depressed, then the later iteration executed by writer Brian Michael Bendis and artist Alex Maleev can only be called manic. Part of that’s owed to Bendis’ writing style, filled with patter-heavy bursts of dialogue and rapid-fire digressions. But the other crucial part of the mania that took over Daredevil during Bendis’ stewardship — abetted by Maleev’s gritty expressionism — comes from the upending of a long-held status quo. Bendis introduces new characters and new relationships that Matt Murdock had to respond to in increasingly frantic fashion.
In issue #32, Daredevil’s poorly-protected secret identity is publicly outed. Then things get crazier. By the time it is all done, the flaws, similarities and differences that separated Daredevil from the Kingpin — and other superheroes — are even more compelling. It was hard to argue that Matt Murdock wasn’t a little bit crazy. All readers could hope for was a superhero who stayed on the right side of his madness.
The end of the Bendis/Maleev run left Matt Murdock in jail, locked up in a cell next to all the crazy criminals he’d fought as Daredevil. The next creative team’s test was to top a residency that had made the character seem more unhinged than ever. It seemed, intentional pun or not, like a dare. Writer Ed Brubaker and artist Michael Lark rose to the challenge expertly, capturing the self-destructive altruism that churns inside Matt Murdock. They also grew the hero’s rogues gallery in organic ways, revisiting old enemies and spinning off new ones from the character’s roiling history.
Don’t let the numbering fool you: this is one continuous run of Daredevil orchestrated by writer Mark Waid and sketched to life by a slew of top-shelf artists. Waid starts off by subverting the most long-lived interpretation of Daredevil — that he’s an emotionally troubled superhero who barely keeps a lid on his inner demons. The Matt Murdock we meet in this new volume is upsettingly well-adjusted: consistently smiling, joking and happy in ways that feel unnatural to him. This was a Matt who was mysteriously sanguine about his double life.
The man who’s most in touch with the world is finally in touch with himself. But, given the character’s history, even this new better-adjusted status quo feels like it could crack at any second. And Waid makes both delicious fun and chilling dread out the idea that Daredevil could go “dark” again. With this run ending soon, it’s anyone’s guess where Matt Murdock will end up next. He’s as entertaining when he’s distraught as he is when he’s happy. The Daredevil you love — tortured or therapeutic — probably says more about you than you’d care to admit.
Got a favourite Daredevil issue or run that I didn’t mention? Share it below.
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