Daredevil #158

May, 1979

BEFORE FRANK MILLER CAME ALONG, Daredevil was pretty much a Spider-Man clone — a wise-cracking New York hero swinging from the rooftops and dealing mostly with colorfully dressed criminals. Like all the other heroes of the day, he was a good guy, someone who never thought twice about the violence that comes hand-in-hand with working outside the law. And the bad guys he fought weren’t all that bad, really — just maladjusted fellows who chose the wrong side of the law. Heck, Daredevil even managed to reform one or two of them after whupping their butts.

Clearly, Daredevil was fertile ground for an exploration of the darker side of superheroing, but for the longest time his adventures were straight-from-the-script
super-heroics and his second-tier status among heroes seemed unalterable. But Daredevil made history when Frank Miller took over the scripting with issue #165 (he had been the title’s artist since #158). Miller’s tenure on the title is generally regarded as the beginning of the “grim-and-gritty” trend of the 1980s, a time in which heroes were psychologically flawed, villains that were once simply greedy were now capable of unimaginable evil, and the world in which they all inhabited was darker, dirtier and full of moral ambiguities.

For instance, Miller took the Kingpin — an old Spider-Man foe who was positively cartoonish in his speech and actions — and reinvented him as the overlord of a vast criminal network, a respected businessman whose legitimate enterprises masked the suffering and pain he caused as New York’s most powerful gangster. By giving him more than the usual superficial motives of a comic-book villain, Miller infused him with a life all his own, and he grew to become Daredevil’s greatest nemesis, a man who would not be satisfied until Murdock’s body, mind, and soul were completely and utterly broken. More than once, the less-than-invulnerable Daredevil nearly obliged him.

Indeed, Miller’s tenure on the series was not a carefree time for the Man Without Fear. Where once he was a joking, snappy-patter kind of hero, he was now questioning his belief in a justice system that allowed criminals to go free. The stories in which he appeared took on a film noir kind of quality, as artists — most notably Miller himself, Klaus Jansen, and David Mazzuchelli — used contrasting shadows, dramatic lighting effects, and muted colors to reflect an urban landscape that rarely saw color or happiness. More often than not, the villains in Daredevil’s world weren’t brightly costumed world conquerors or cartoonish gangsters with Tommy guns — they were as close to real-life villains and psychopaths as the real world could produce.

And Daredevil was capable of faltering. This alone made him seem more heroic. While heroes of earlier times always did the right thing, Daredevil would often be tormented by the decisions he made. He is not guided by some abstract notions like “truth, justice, and the America way;” his actions are rooted in the belief that the system, however imperfect, must be preserved. “We’re only human… we can be weak,” he tells a young boy. “The only way to stop us from killing each other is to make rules, laws. And stick to them. They don’t always work. But mostly, they do. And they’re all we’ve got.”

Against incredible odds, Daredevil tried hard to adhere to those words. And in doing so, he managed to become that much more heroic. ever since.

From The 100 Greatest Comics of the 20th Century By Mitchell Brown


Did you know…

One of Miller’s best ideas was the introduction of Elektra, a female assassin who was once Daredevil’s true love. She was killed off in 1981, but Marvel brought her back in 1994, against Miller’s wishes. (Elektra was inspired by Sand Saref, a femme fatale in Will Eisner’s The Spirit.)

Miller was indirectly responsible for the creation of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, who were a parody of the numerous “grim and gritty” imitators that failed to catch the spirit of Miller’s work.

A fan of Mickey Spillane and hard-boiled crime novels, Miller wanted to write crime stories, but the publishers were only interested in superheroes at that point. You can guess how he got around that little problem.

Daredevil #1