It’s Miller Time (Again)

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It saddens me that there’s a significant portion of the audience out there who won’t get the title reference. For anyone falling into that portion, here you go:

It was exactly one year ago today that I published my Elektra opus. That post was about… well, Elektra. I mean, it was an overview of Frank Miller’s original star-making turn on Daredevil that concentrated mainly on Elektra. At several points in that somewhat lengthy post, there were opportunities to go down side roads, get into related topics either broader or narrower in scope, but I resisted because I wanted to keep things on track (and under 20,000 words). Now, precisely one year later, I want to revisit one or two of those side roads. I’m talking about what makes a superhero a superhero, and some of the genre conventions that have evolved as a result.

So how realistic should superhero comics be? How realistic can superhero comics be? And how realistic should superhero violence be depicted? Can that violence potentially go too far? These are the questions of the day.

Where to start? Well, in the immortal words of Cersei Lannister, “I choose violence.”

Superhero Violence

Superhero comics almost always have fight scenes in them. It was my favorite part of the comics when I first started reading them as a little kid. And there has almost always been concern, to some extent or other, of how children are affected by the violence they are exposed to in various media, including comic books.

I grew up in a violent home and was often its victim. I knew the difference between real violence and comic book (or cartoon) violence. I knew that Superman punching Lex Luthor in the face was not real violence, nor was Bugs Bunny smashing Elmer Fudd with a giant hammer real violence. When my mother hit me or some schoolyard bully knocked me to the ground, that was real violence. But it started to become a problem in the early 80s when characters like Elektra and Wolverine began stabbing people with sais and claws, respectively. And Miller’s violence in Daredevil always had a more realistic quality than other comics. Characters bled and were bruised with much greater frequency and, of course, sometimes they even died.

For example, here’s some classic Miller violence you might remember:

I’ll never forget shopping at the Quality Comics stall at the U. S. #1 Flea Market on Route 1 in New Brunswick some time in early ‘82, and one of the guys there holding up this page and declaring, “Damn, I wish they’d let Wolverine do that!”

I don’t know if the guy meant to be so specific in his reference to Wolverine, but there was a famous (or perhaps infamous) incident regarding X-Men #133 (May 1980), in which it sure looks like Wolverine slices up a whole bunch of Hellfire Club scrubs, only for fans to discover later that Wolvy didn’t really hurt anyone fatally with his razor-sharp, adamantium claws. This is because editor-in-chief Jim Shooter had told Chris Claremont and John Byrne that Wolverine was not allowed to kill (because he’s supposed to be a hero) and had them retcon the deaths.

So there were four scrubs taken out in the first four pages of said issue, and their names (as revealed via dialogue) were: Murray, Angelo, Cole, and Rosen. Cole turns back up in X-Men #152 (Dec. 1981), with the other three guys following him back to the land of the living in God Loves, Man Kills (Marvel Graphic Novel #4 from 1982). While badly injured, it turned out their Hellfire Club employers saved them by turning them into cyborgs (that’s one hell of an insurance plan they got at the HC!). For a while they were even used as recurring baddies known as “The Reavers.” Anyone wanting to read more about this, there are some great articles here, here, here, and here.

So why was Elektra allowed to kill people while Wolverine was not? Because, as mentioned, Wolverine was supposed to be a hero while Elektra was a villain who was destined to receive her karmic comeuppance from Bullseye. (Which leads me to wonder, without Shooter’s strict rules in place, might Miller have changed his mind about killing Elektra off? It’s a question I only thought of just now.)

Realistic Consequences

Miller himself addressed the topic of violence and its effects on kids in the last story of his original DD run, “Roulette,” in Daredevil #191 (Feb. 1983). Surprisingly, the story would seem to suggest that Miller believes the violence of Daredevil’s world does damage children, as Chuckie, a child who starts out the story as a DD admirer, takes a gun to the playground and shoots another child after seeing DD beat and arrest his father. But then again, Chuckie is living in the same fictional world as Daredevil, and not our true reality, so… maybe not? After all, there’s a fairly huge distance between reading a comic book about a guy in a devil costume beating someone up and actually seeing a guy in REAL LIFE in a devil costume beating someone up.

As mentioned earlier, I always recognized the difference between fictional violence and real violence, and thus was never damaged by my exposure to superhero fight scenes (or Bugs Bunny). So my own personal feeling is that I don’t worry about it. If you’re a parent (which I am not) and you worry about it, then I suggest you closely monitor the media that your child is exposed to.

Beyond the violence itself and how it might affect young readers, however, was this idea that Daredevil should face real-world consequences for the “assaults” he perpetrated, as well as for the other “crimes” he may have technically committed, in his fictional world. In other words, some critics wanted to apply real-life standards to superhero characters in their comics.

This is something I’ve discussed previously here, and as I’ve said before, applying real-world standards to a superhero comic is a slippery slope. Once you start doing it, the whole superhero genre will fall apart because superheroes are fantasies that become ridiculous when you try to make them fit in the real world. Daredevil (along with every other costumed superhero) exists in a fictional world that is very different from our real one. When you try to draft him into our reality, you end up twisting him into a shape that no longer fits the idea of a superhero at all.

Understanding what makes a superhero a superhero and how their fictional world functions is going to require a bit of a history lesson.

Villains and Vigilantes

Superheroes are often referred to as vigilantes, but this is a misnomer. The label was likely born out of the superhero’s ancestors in the pulps, where characters like the Spider, the Avenger, the Whisperer, and the Shadow (who actually started out on the radio, but I digress) would mete out bloody justice to evil-doers, going beyond the law and acting as self-appointed judge, jury, and executioner. They were vigilantes; they were technically criminals by law.

Now when superheroes first got started, they took their cue from the pulp heroes and behaved like vigilantes—but only for a very short time, when the genre was just getting started, before quickly evolving into what we know as superheroes today. As most comic aficionados are already aware, there was even a time (again, VERY early on) when Batman carried and used a gun. Specifically in Detective Comics # 32, 33, 35, and Batman #1, all published between 1939 and 1940 (the first year of Batman’s comic-book life).

From Detective Comics #35 (Jan. 1940).

But by 1941, just two years into an existence that has now extended into its tenth decade, it was declared that Batman never carries a gun, nor does he kill, and the character was openly working with law enforcement. (For more on Batman’s evolution and relationship with guns, check out the “Silver Age Comics” blogspot here.)

Now Superman never needed a gun, so he didn’t shoot people, but there were times he didn’t exactly respect the sanctity of life—a quality that would later define the character as we know him today. His first encounter with the Ultra-Humanite would be a good example of how much his characterization took its cue from the pulp heroes early on.

From Action Comics #13 (June 1939).

The point of all this is that superheroes were still in a figurative larval stage and not fully formed when they first started appearing in the comics. After just a year or two, they shook off most of the worst antisocial aspects of their pulp forbears and became the paragons of virtue they’d be known as for the vast majority of their existence.

Y’know where this was spelled out best? Of all places, go back and watch that silly, camp Batman movie from 1966—specifically that press conference scene where Catwoman disguises herself as the Russian journalist, Miss Kitka:

KITKA: I am from The Moscow Bugle.

BATMAN: You grace us with your presence. May I be of service?

KITKA: If you please to take off the mask to give the better picture

GORDON: Great Scott! Batman take off his mask??

O’HARA: The woman must be mad!

BATMAN: Please Chief O’Hara, all of you, this young lady is a stranger to our shores. Her request is not unnatural, however, impossible to grant.

KITKA: Impossible?

BATMAN: Indeed. If Robin and I were to remove our masks, the secret of our true identities would be revealed.

GORDON: Completely destroying their value was ace crime fighters.

O’HARA: Sure ma’am. Not even Commissioner Gordon and meself know who they really are.

ROBIN: In fact, our own relatives we live with don’t know.

KITKA: But your so curious costumes…

ROBIN: Don’t be put off by them, ma’am. Under this garb we’re perfectly ordinary Americans.

KITKA: You are like the masked vigilantes in the Westerns, no?

GORDON: Certainly not. Batman and Robin are fully deputized agents of the law.

ROBIN: Support your police. That’s our message.

BATMAN: Well said Robin and no better way to end this press conference. Thank you and good day.

…Naturally, this was played for comedic effect in the movie, but it was also completely true as far as how comics rationalized their superheroes—they were “agents of the law.” Now is this realistic? Of course it isn’t. It’s a genre convention, one that seems ridiculous in isolation, but one that is ABSOLUTELY NECESSARY if the superhero genre is to remain viable.

In fact, this is a big part of why Spider-Man was so exceptional and unique for his time, as he was branded a vigilante and an outlaw, unlike other superheroes, and had to dodge the cops while fighting super-criminals. In contrast, Daredevil, by tradition, has probably been the most socially accepted of all the Marvel superheroes. Heck, there was even a time when he was brought in by the USO to entertain the troops in Viet Nam.

So where did it all go wrong?

Realism and Escapism

Somewhere along the way, it appears Miller lost sight of the fact that superheroes (or at least Daredevil), by their very nature, are escapist. In fact, paradoxically enough, they are inescapably escapist.

It’s like writing a story about Zeus getting arrested for throwing his thunderbolts. Do his thunderbolts hurt people and cause property damage? Yes. Would these be chargeable offenses in reality? Also yes. So this would make a great story, right? No, because Zeus does not live in our real world and is not a remotely realistic figure. It would be akin to charging the Easter Bunny with breaking and entering.

In reality, the idea of Zeus is ridiculous, just like the idea of super-powered, costumed superheroes is ridiculous. Putting a superhero on trial for his “crimes” would be like putting Zeus or the Easter Bunny on trial. Such a story would only shine a spotlight on how ridiculous the idea of a superhero is in reality.

Allow me to reiterate: Daredevil (along with every other costumed superhero) exists in a fictional world that is very different from our real one. When you try to draft him into our reality, you end up twisting him into a shape that no longer fits the idea of a superhero at all. Case in point: Last year, while reading Paul Young’s Daredevil book in preparation for that Elektra post, I learned that Brian Michael Bendis and Alex Maleev followed Miller’s (apparent) thinking in their DD run from the early to mid-2000s and the result was exactly as predicted. Here is how Young detailed it:

Isolated by his secret, his heightened perception, the trauma of Elektra’s murder, and the knowledge that he could save neither her life nor her soul, he has reached a point where he no longer knows how to engage friends and lovers without grabbing the rudder and steering these relationships by himself, no matter what the consequences. Few superheroes have ever seemed so ill equipped to continue their own civilian lives. Brian Michael Bendis presses this point even more relentlessly in his Daredevil run with the artist Alex Maleev [in the mid-2000s] by making Matt give up nearly everything and everyone he cares about just to save his secret identity from public knowledge. True to Miller’s model, this iteration of Matt Murdock fails even at that. The Bendis/Maleev run ends, in Daredevil volume 2, #81 (March 2006), with Matt being arrested, arraigned, and hauled off to a cell block filled with Daredevil’s arch nemeses. The FBI agent who nabs him arranges his incarceration this way in hopes that Murdock and his enemies will all kill each other. Bendis reports that in 2003, when Daredevil won him a Will Eisner Award for Best Writer and another for Best Continuing Series, Frank Miller was the first to congratulate him: “Actually Frank took the Eisner away from me and said, ‘You know this is mine, right?’ And I held up my hands and genuinely offered back. ‘Yeah, I do. Take it.’ He smiled drily and handed it back, just goofing with me, but I was glad that he knew I knew that without him, nothing we did would have existed.”

Paul Young, Frank Miller’s Daredevil and the Ends of Heroism, Rutgers University Press: New Brunswick, N.J., 2016, p. 90.

Ruin a classic superhero character, sabotage the entire genre, win an award—only in modern comics, folks. They senselessly forced real-world rules onto a fantasy genre, turning the character of Daredevil into a convicted criminal in the process, thereby rendering the very property (if not all superhero properties) unviable as a result. Yeah, they went on publishing Daredevil comics after this somehow, they even got Daredevil back in costume and superheroing again, but how could this feel anything but outrageously fake and stupid in the wake of what Bendis had done? Indeed, how could any superhero story feel anything but outrageously fake and stupid in the wake of what Bendis had done? Essentially, he broke kayfabe.

Could this really have been Miller’s intention during his original DD run? I certainly didn’t see it at the time, but when I went back last year and started re-reading old interviews for research, I found myself rather surprised. Here’s what Miller told Amazing Heroes in 1985 when Peter Sanderson interviewed him about then-upcoming projects Elektra: Assassin, Elektra Lives Again, and Dark Knight Returns:

I think of Daredevil more as a three-dimensional character than as an archetype. He’s a much warmer character [than Batman]. He’s much more personally involved. Daredevil is interacting with his environment, and he is a force within that environment, but he isn’t that same kind of savage, primal thing that Batman is.

Daredevil’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing. I see him as someone with uncontrollable passions. He can’t control them, but he can direct them. He directs them in the cause of justice. That sense of justice can he very arbitrary and very hypocritical. He’s arbitrary because he’s given to fits of temper and to decisions that don’t make sense. He’s completely ruled by his passions and he doesn’t know it. He finds reasons for his passions, and they usually aren’t the right reasons. He’s both an attorney and a vigilante. There’s nothing arbitrary about Batman, and there’s nothing hypocritical about him….

To sum it up, Batman is like the Shadow and Daredevil is a character a bit more like the Continental Op or Sam Spade. He’s a smaller character. He has to be convincing. He isn’t quite such a roaring force of nature.

Peter Sanderson, “A Frank Miller Triptych,” Amazing Heroes #69, April 15, 1985, p. 31.

A wolf in sheep’s clothing. It’s been over three and a half decades since my teenaged self first read this interview, so I can’t be completely sure of this, but I think I read this at the time as meaning Daredevil was the wolf and the sheep’s clothing was his civilian identity of Matt Murdock. Now, however, I read it as something else. Now I think what Miller meant was that Daredevil/Matt may look like a good guy, may even think of himself as a good guy, but he’s actually a villain. Which I find to be absolutely bonkers, but bonkers or not, if this is what Miller really meant, then Bendis’s extrapolation would indeed be well founded.

Miller also described Murdock’s sense of justice here as “hypocritical,” which got my wheels spinning. The more I thought about it, I’m sure that when Miller returned for the “Born Again” storyline, he mentioned somewhere that he could no longer live with the contradiction of Matt Murdock existing as both a lawyer and a superhero, which is why the first thing he did in the story was blow up Matt’s law career. Predictably enough, I can’t find this quote now, but I’m dead certain he said it, or something very close, and that he may have even used the same word, “hypocrisy.”

Let’s note that this AH interview was from 1985, when Miller was just getting started on his second DD run (the “Born Again” arc, with artist David Mazzucchelli), which was a couple years after his original run. So while this was how he viewed the character when he started on that second run, he may not have held these same views during his original run.

In any case, there was also other stuff in this AH article that proved very interesting for our purposes here today:

Batman is much better conceived [as a character]. Daredevil was put together almost by accident. His origin is a mix of Spider-Man’s and Batman’s and God knows what else, certainly old boxing movies…. He is much more complex [than Batman] but also much less powerful, much less meaningful. I regard Batman as one of the two mythic figures that have come out of comic books. Between Superman and Batman you definitely have the light and the dark of it…. Batman is beyond good and evil: an elemental force. Thinking of him simply as a human doesn’t work….

Over 20 years ago Stan Lee brought soap opera into comics. People have developed that into something that’s far too human. The superheroes are becoming more and more preposterous the more down to earth their personal lives become. There’s this sense in comic books that you just accept people with super powers as normal. The writers have accepted the notion of superheroes being mundane. The skills of actually bringing about a sense of wonder have atrophied. As I said, I think superheroes have gotten a little too human. You do the real emotions with normal characters. I don’t know if superheroes should really work with genuine emotions. They do wear tights.

Ibid., p. 21.

Here you can see that Miller does get it, recognizing that superheroes become “more and more preposterous the more down to earth their personal lives become”; that “writers have accepted the notion of superheroes being mundane”; and that superheroes like Batman should be treated as “mythic figures” that are “beyond good and evil: an elemental force.” Earlier in this same interview, he also said that “Good superhero characters work as symbols” (Ibid., p. 20), a notion I have always supported on this blog. When you treat superheroes as symbols and their adventures as allegories, they tend to work much better. Conversely, when you try to inject too much of our real world into them, they collapse.

The problem is that Miller applies these beliefs to Batman but not Daredevil, whom he does not view as an archetype, as he’s neither “mythical” nor all that “meaningful.” But all superheroes have mythical qualities; all of them are far beyond normal humans and thus beyond normal, human rules. The rules of their very reality are radically different from ours—again, they have to be, or else their stories fall apart.

Crimes and Misdemeanors

As noted earlier, superheroes are not vigilantes—they would be in our reality, but in their own superhero world they’re not. In their world they are considered a legitimate asset to law enforcement (with some exceptions, like Spider-Man). And from day one, starting with Superman in Action Comics #1, superheroes have always punched evil doers in the face, be they wannabe world conquerors or two-bit hoods. They threaten criminal flunkies with harm if they don’t reveal their boss’s evil plans to take over the world. The vast majority also keep their civilian identities secret. And they have this bad habit of destroying property (usually in very dramatic fashion) while pursuing justice. These are accepted genre conventions, and if Daredevil is a criminal for doing these things, then so is every other superhero, which means the whole genre is kaput.

So outside of these aforementioned things, what were Daredevil’s greatest crimes and/or sins? The only one left that might be debatable is how DD leverages Vanessa into the Kingpin giving up Cherryh. Some (including Miller himself, in the same Amazing Heroes piece I’ve cited here) have even described this as “blackmail,” a tag that I don’t think fits all that well. It’s not like Daredevil kidnapped Vanessa and held her for his own selfish purposes; he found her, rescued her, and when he goes to offer her whereabouts to the Kingpin, he’s not looking for some kind of cash payoff in exchange, nor anything else along such lines—all he wants is the corrupt Cherryh out of the mayor’s race. Would this be considered blackmail in the real world? Maybe. Would it be unethical for a lawyer to do this in the real world? Oh, certainly. Is it blackmail or unethical in the superhero world?

Nah.

We had a very similar argument over Elektra one year ago. Was Elektra a villain? Yes. Was she irredeemably evil? No. (And I’m not talking about that awful retconned version of the character that Miller gave us later, I’m talking about the Elektra of his original DD run. The retconned Elektra was clearly written to be an amoral, soulless monster.)

I know it gets confusing. When we first meet her in issue #168, Daredevil refers to Elektra as a criminal even though she’s working as a bounty hunter, which is a legal enterprise. Later, of course, she does become an assassin for the Kingpin, which is very illegal and straight-up evil. Still, the only people we ever see her kill are other criminals. By this point, we had already watched her save DD a bunch of times, and then even after she’s an official “assassin,” she can’t bring herself to kill Daredevil, saves Ben Urich (after skewering him herself, admittedly), and then spares Foggy’s life against the Kingpin’s orders. These are the actions of a good person, not an evil one.

Changing the Rules

Miller knew the rules of the superhero genre, clearly. We know this because he applied these rules to Batman (at least in Dark Knight Returns) expertly. He just refused to apply these same rules to Daredevil—neither the character nor the comic. It’s the definition of a double standard. But why?

Personally, as I wrote one year ago and still believe, I don’t think it was Miller’s intent (at least not when he first got started) to get too deep into real-world legalities and ethics in Daredevil. I think this was something he got goaded into by the likes of Gary Groth and others. My guess is there was some kind of head-heart conflict at the bottom of it all. In his head, Miller wanted to shut up (or at least answer) his more high-minded critics, while in his heart he just wanted to tell a great superhero story. I think this is why he left himself “outs” along the way as far as Daredevil’s behavior, as well as Elektra’s. Even by real world standards, Matt Murdock is still a good man with the best of intentions, while Elektra never completely gives in to her dark side. Ultimately, Miller left enough wiggle room for either or both characters to be redeemed.

Was this a conscious (or even unconscious) choice on Miller’s part? Or was it just a happy accident? I suppose it doesn’t much matter in the end, because Miller had undeniably changed course when he came back for his second stint on DD. By that point, he was definitely holding Matt/Daredevil up to real world standards, leaving the superhero world behind almost entirely. To me, this was a grave error—not that the “Born Again” storyline wasn’t still excellent and wildly entertaining, but it burned Daredevil’s world down to the ground. Much like the death of Gwen Stacy in the pages of Amazing Spider-Man, the story only works if it’s the character’s last.

But regardless of the paths Miller may have taken later, we’ll always have that original run of comics perfection. Go back, re-read it, and treasure it always. Let’s end on that note.

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