Brian Michael Bendis and John Romita Jr. delve into Frank Miller's iconic work on the Man Without Fear!
By Kiel Phegley
Marvel’s Man Without Fear, the blind hero known as Daredevil, may be on a creative upswing today, but ask anyone in comics where Matt Murdock became a legend, and they’ll point you in one direction.
“Frank Miller is the most important thing,” says writer Brian Michael Bendis. “[His] Daredevil story is the greatest Daredevil story ever written.”
It may be hard to overstate it today, but writer/artist Miller’s long run with Daredevil not only served as a revolutionary act in the Marvel Universe but a defining moment for comics as a medium throughout the 1980’s. Miller came onto DAREDEVIL as a penciler in the late 70’s, but it wasn’t until issue #165 when he began writing as well that the book turned to the more dangerous, inventive and personal stories that would help define comics for decades to come.
“It was stuff that I kept to look at and kept on looking at it,” recalls John Romita, Jr. who was on staff at Marvel when Miller would bring in his DAREDEVIL art. “I thought Frank was a genius from the get-go, and I still think that. Everybody knew what Frank was and the quality of his work. When a talent like that comes along as an artist, it’s glaring. Writers might take a little bit of time, but Frank hit the ground running immediately.”
Miller’s DAREDEVIL combined his interest in noir crime stories, ninja epics and his own personal connection to his history with Catholicism and the underbelly of the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood of New York where he lived. During his initial stretch with Matt Murdock, the artist redefined the character as a tortured anti-hero, rebuilt his rogues gallery with a more deranged and dangerous Bullseye and a malevolent mastermind in the Kingpin and introduced Elektra, one of Marvel’s greatest female warriors.
Introduced in DAREDEVIL #168, Elektra Natchios became much more than Murdock’s college girlfriend. After parting ways with the future Man Without Fear, she became an assassin under the tutelage of ninja clan the Hand. This led her not only to conflict with Daredevil and Kingpin but also to her surprising death at Bullseye’s hands in DAREDEVIL #181.
That moment served one of the most shocking comic events of the time, recalls Bendis who himself followed Miller with an award-winning DAREDEVIL run decades later:
“Today you hear about these things weeks or months in advance, but we all just showed up to the comic shop one Wednesday, and it was like, ‘Elektra is dead?!?’ It was traumatic!”
Bendis notes that while Miller’s DAREDEVIL became quickly established as the premier comic book on the stands, reading new issues would be a revelation to a generation of aspiring creators.
“The hype was there, but you didn’t know what you were getting,” he explains. “It was the cinematics of it and the much more mature themes than you were used to seeing in the genre. These things got to us on a profound level. We all grew up, and what we’ve taken from [books like that] is ‘I’m going to put my own world view into my story.’
“The other thing we saw then was that the page seemed too small to hold the story. It looked like just beyond the edges of the pages was more story, and that’s something I’ve tried to put into my comics as well.”
While Miller left DAREDEVIL for a short while, his connection to the character hardly severed, and his time innovating was far from over. The artist returned to the book with issue #226 in order to set up probably his best-known and most shocking Daredevil saga with “Born Again.”
Written by Miller and drawn by David Mazzucchelli, the seven-part story chronicled the Kingpin’s revenge again Daredevil after the mob boss discovered the hero’s secret identity from his broken ex-girlfriend Karen Paige. A scheme to systematically break down Matt Murdock both personally and physically followed with a visual style every bit as cinematic as Miller’s original run.
“It’s about what the ideal of the [crime] genre is, and a lot of what it’s about is cost—the cost of being Daredevil,” Bendis says of “Born Again.” “He always veers away from the main character’s point of view to show how this action has affected other people.”
Bendis feels what set Miller’s work with Daredevil apart was how he was able to totally redefine what people thought of the character:
“[Miller’s] DAREDEVIL is so subversive because he’s using this icon. I mean, Daredevil literally goes insane in that book! It’s sheer madness that he dives into, and you’d never seen that happen in a book before. What’s amazing is that Miller kind of ends the book with ‘Born Again.’ It’s over. That was the last Daredevil story, and good luck to the next guy. If you ask him today, I bet he’d genuinely be surprised the book is still being published.”
That sentiment aside, Miller did have one more major Daredevil story in him, a tale that came out of Romita Jr.’s desire to work with him.
“When I contacted him, I wanted to do a Wolverine graphic novel,” Romita recalls today. “Frank said, ‘Nah, everyone’s doing that. Let’s do something different. I have an idea. I love your stuff on DAREDEVIL. Let’s try this.’”
“This” became DAREDEVIL: THE MAN WITHOUT FEAR, a 1993 limited series that dug even deeper into Miller’s DD canon and expanded the origin of the hero in many ways.
“Until I worked with him, I didn’t know the breadth of his ability,” Romita confesses. “As it was when I worked with John Byrne, a writer who is also an artist knows what to ask for and what not to ask for; the plot that he sent me—it had some dialogue in it for nuances and acting, but he did most of that later—was worth reading over and over again.
“There was an addendum in there that was supposed to be a couple of pages long—and it ended up being 80 pages!” laughs Romita who also collaborated with late, great inker Al Williamson on the story. “Frank had more that he wanted to say. It was special. If I had to say the highlight of my career overall, I would probably mention MAN WITHOUT FEAR first. Frank would ask for something in two sentences that would go on for four pages. And with that run of pages, I think I had more success with visual storytelling than anything I’ve done since. And that includes the KICK-ASS stuff. I remember drawing that and feeling like I was watching a movie. I read those plots as if they were the screenplay to a great film from a great director.
“I hope it has a long shelf life and that people keep coming back to it. The size of it is amazing as a complete novel. The hardcover has a very impressive appearance, and I’m very proud of it. Working on it took several years—four years, I think. I will never, ever forget working on those pages. I still have the photocopies of the pencil, and I look at them and say, ‘Damn. I put a lot of detail into those.’ And that’s all because I loved doing it.”
And while creators from Bendis and Alex Maleev to Ed Brubaker and Michael Lark on through to the current team of Mark Waid and Chris Samnee have continued to make DAREDEVIL a hit, no one can doubt the impact Miller had at Marvel and beyond.
Though for Romita’s part, he hopes there’s at least one more Frank Miller Daredevil moment to come:
“I’ve never gotten to sit down with Frank on a panel at a convention and tell him how much I enjoyed reading that plot. He’s probably got other things on his plate right now.”
For more of Marvel’s 75th anniversary celebration, vist marvel.com/75