Saturday, March 26, 2005

DAREDEVIL #71

And thus begins Brian Bendis and Alex Maleev's swan song on Daredevil.

When the pair took a break after #50 to let David Mack drive for an arc, they left after putting Matt Murdock through one heckuva wringer. In the course of the Hardcore arc, Matt got set aflame by Typhoid Mary and had his home invaded by Bullseye (both situations resolved with knockaround fights) all within a day. He also met and fell for a blind woman named Milla Donovan. The arc ended with #50, which began with a bold move by Wilson Fisk to reclaim his operations all around the mid-Atlantic region and ended with Matt demolishing the Kingpin, dragging him into a bar, tearing off his own mask, and giving a speech to the wastrels therein.

The gist of the speech (repeated in this issue) was that Matt was taking Luke Cage's advice -- he was taking the initiative. Hell's Kitchen would become a clean and safe area; if you could not abide by those rules, leave. The key part of the speech, however, was Matt announcing that he was the new Kingpin. It was a theoretically expedient move -- power abhors a vacuum and someone had to step in to the spot that Wilson Fisk once occupied lest the center give and everything collapse. But that was in theory; power corrupts and people are generally happy to follow instead of lead and in practice...

In practice, nobody really knows what happened. Because when Bendis and Maleev returned with #56, a year had passed since Matt had declared himself Kingpin. And in the fifteen issues since then, they have not given many hints. The King of Hell's Kitchen arc (#56-60) told us that, on the surface, it was initially a wildly successful ploy: after six weeks of unparalleled violence on the part of Daredevil, Hell's Kitchen was transformed and Matt Murdock was hailed as a civic leader. He also married Milla and broke with Cage, Peter Parker, Dr. Strange, the Fantastic Four, and the other local hero types.

A year after the events of #50, however, paradise came crashing to a halt with the invasion of MGH-addled Yakusa scheming to take over Hell's Kitchen, culminating in a bloody alley fight that saw Matt shot and stabbed as he fended off a hundred attackers. By the time King of Hell's Kitchen begins, it has been two days since the attack and nobody has seen Matt since. In the course of that arc he is found, badly wounded in body and in soul, and while he regains his health and the respect of his heroic peers, he loses Milla. Matt has been staggering along ever since, with not even a visit from Natasha Romanova able to truly shake him out of his fog.

The Decalogue is thus the ultimate bit of closure -- Bendis and Maleev depart after filling in the gap they created by finally telling of the events of that lost year.

This first installment carries the cover title "I Am Your God", although it covers more than just the first Commandment; for the convenience of those unfamiliar, Exodus 20:1-17:

1. And God spake all these words, saying,
2. (I) I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.
3. (II) Thou shalt have no other gods before me.
4. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth:
5. Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me;
6. And shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments.
7. (III) Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain; for the Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain.
8. (IV) Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy.
9. Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work:
10. But the seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates:
11. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it.
12. (V) Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee.
13. (VI) Thou shalt not kill.
14. (VII) Thou shalt not commit adultery.
15. (VIII) Thou shalt not steal.
16. (IX) Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.
17. (X) Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour's.
The moral of the story in "I Am Your God" is that by deposing Wilson Fisk and declaring Hell's Kitchen free of crime, Daredevil set himself up as Moses bringing the slaves out of Egypt. But instead of staying as Moses, he somehow seems to have ended up as either a false god or the golden calf, depending on whether you think he did it himself or it happened outside of his control. Bendis hasn't yet shown us which one is true.

Our blonde storyteller believes that Daredevil meant only well, that he wanted people to stop needing a bogeyman to scare themselves straight although he'd serve as a temporary one to ease the shock. (Sort of a Nicorette gum for behavior modification.) Her story matters because she is the witness and the apostle, the only one we've seen thus far who heard what Matt actually said and listened. But her unwavering support is as damning to Daredevil as is the others' scorn.

The first half of the Commandments are about man's relationship with God, the second half about man's relationship to his fellow man. When the members of the support group talk about Daredevil, they speak about mystical imagery and power beyond what a normal man -- let alone a blind man -- could wield. The group members do not see Daredevil's humanity, but instead see him as supernatural, as savior or devil, as tyrant or king, for good or for ill and react to him accordingly. There is only Daredevil and no Matt Murdock, a superman (a god?) and not a man. And therein lies the problem, at least as far as the Thou Shalt Nots go.

Actually, therein lies one of the problems. Pulling back into the realm of meta... I obviously liked the symbolism (at least how I ended up interpreting things), but as a straight-ahead story, but there was something disappointing about this for the same reason the start of Mack's second Echo arc (#51-55) was a failure -- it covered no new ground. We already knew most of the reactions to Matt's Kingpin play from #56: the out-of-costume heroes confrontation in Bryant Park; the conversation with Matt being asked to run for mayor; FBI Agent Driver's having turned from friend to foe. So this was really a rather subtle meditation on an undercurrent of those already-discussed opinions and it felt... a little re-runish. It was also slow -- Bendis was a little too realistic with the halted discussion and silences and all throughout there were too many panels of people looking around, waiting for someone else to move.

Depending on how the rest of the arc runs, this may read entirely differently in trade. Not as a matter of compression or decompression, but because this is a different story in tone than what has come before; Golden Age and The Widow were more dynamic and traditional and if this ends up being a more philosophical story, then it will read better once we know to stop waiting for the bangs and crashes. Or else this could just be decompressed and it doesn't matter if Bendis is wasting my benefit of the doubt because he's gone after this story anyway.

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