With Shadowland reviving the classic DD vs. Bullseye rivalry, and Matt Murdock continuing his decades-long slide from the superhero side of the spectrum towards the Punisher/vigilante side, there’s been a lot of talk about The Most Important Superhero Comic Of This Era. Why do I call it that? Becuase in my lifetime we’ve seen two major movements in how comic stories are told, and both occurred in Daredevil. First, there was the movement away from the emphasis on words, with panels representing still-images in time–illustrated stories. Frank Miller and Klaus Janson brought fluidity between panels (and a maturity in storyline) that made comic books something more than picture books. They were now like movies. Then, Brian Michael Bendis and Alex Maleev advanced the neorealism movement by basically telling one long story: A life. Their work on Daredevil was a biography, not a series of 4- or 6-issue stories chained together by theme or a few ongoing relationships. The character changed slowly, gradually, until he hit bottom. Their Daredevil wasn’t about events, it was about the person. That’s why I’d argue that Daredevil is the Marvel comic that matters most in the history of the medium.
So, when a blogger I enjoy reading published his top 10 list of Daredevil stories, I thought, I should do that too.
Is it copying? A little. But this one goes to 20! Plus, they copped out by saying that the Bendis/Maleev run is one long story. It isn’t. Yes, it’s best to read it like a long-form novel, but there are definite story arcs within the series.
Here’s my favorite DD tales . . .
THE TOP 20 DAREDEVIL STORIES
20. Daredevil: The Man Without Fear. Miller + Romita Jr. retelling, and adding much detail to, Daredevil’s origin. Widely recognized as the definitive version of this story.
19. Pawns of the Purple Man (Marvel Team-Up Annual #4). Every comic nerd has to have his quirky pick, and this one is mine. Written by Miller (who also did the cover), and drawn by Herb Trimpe, this is just a fun superhero story with a truckload of my favorite heroes (including, of course, Spider-Man and DD, along with Power Man, Iron Fist, and Moon Knight). This wasn’t reprinted in the “definitive” three-volume “Daredevil by Frank Miller and Klaus Janson” series. Too bad.
18. The Murdock Papers. The end of Bendis/Maleev’s run allows Kingpin to triumph. But not without some irony involved. A brilliant end to a brilliant run.
17. Duel (Daredevil #146). When I was a kid, I put Gil Kane’s terrific cover of this issue on my wall. The story—Bullseye vs. DD in a TV studio—is a little dated. It’s written by Jim Shooter, after all. But it’s drawn by Gil Kane with Klaus Janson, so the art is terrific. It’s also got a behind-the-scenes big bad, The Purple Man, who proves to be a recurring problem for DD and DD’s side characters. (For the best use of Purple Man, see Brian Michael Bendis’ “Alias” series.)
16. Redemption (Daredevil #200). The issues leading up to this, #196-199, have Daredevil going to Japan to try to figure out where Bullseye is being holed up and healed up. They’re good, but not great. But in #200, with a fantastic John Byrne/Terry Austin cover, a script by Marvel editor Denny O’Neil, DD and Bullseye meet in the same ring that Battlin’ Jack fought in when Matt was a kid and, with a broken hand, Daredevil beats the living crap out of his greatest adversary. The William Johnson period isn’t a great one artistically, but this story has merit as a chapter in the Bullseye/DD legend, and also for its use of Matt’s personal history.
15. Return of the King (Daredevil #116-500). The final arc in the Ed Brubaker/David Aja run, a worthy successor to Brian Michael Bendis, brings back Kingpin and sets up Daredevil as as the leader of The Hand. The reason this is one of the greatest stories ever is the introduction of Master Izo, an immortal ninja who was Stick’s sensei—making him sort of like DD’s grandpaw. Izo’s character is hilarious and scary, and this tale recalls Brubaker/Aja’s amazing work on the Iron Fist title.
14. Devils (Daredevil #169) (Miller/Janson). Not only does Frank Miller make fun of one of the most obnoxious talking heads of his day by renaming Tom Snyder “Tom Snyde,” but this issue manages to show the lighter side of a terrifying, hallucinating, homicidal maniac. In this issue, Bullseye goes on a killing spree when he thinks that everyone he sees is Daredevil. This issue marks the first (of many) times that the reader has to ask: Why is Bullseye still alive, let alone out of prison? Bullseye is to Daredevil what Spike is to Buffy: A perpetual pain in the ass who just can’t seem to disappear.
13. Daredevil vs. Doctor Doom (Fantastic Four #39-40 & Daredevil #37-38). The sole silver age DD tale worth getting, here Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and Gene Colan tell the tale of Dredevil switching bodies with Victor Von Doom in a bizarre turn of events that also features Spidey, Thor, and The Trapster. Lots and lots of fun.
12. Blind Alley (Daredevil #163). The one where Daredevil uses his brains to defeat The Hulk. Frank Miller was the artist, and it’s cool to see him draw something you don’t normally think of when it comes to Frank Noir: One long, extended superhero battle in the daylight. And Roger McKenzie, a fairly traditional author, did a good job with the Banner/Hulk sequences.
11. Guts (Daredevil #185). Wherein Foggy Nelson takes over as narrator but has the same internal voice as Daredevil; Turk tries to become a powerbroker; Foggy faces down Wilson Fisk; and all kinds of fun and games ensue. It’s a done-in-one comedy break, but at the same time it advances the storyline and shows that when it comes to women, Matt Murdock is kind of an asshole.
10. Lowlife (Daredevil #41-45). The big bad here is The Owl selling mutant growth hormone, and we get to see Bendis take on Luke Cage for one of the first times. But the best part is the introduction of Milla Donavan. She’s smart, sexy, blind, and Matt’s future wife. A great little story that relates heavily to the surrounding arcs, but still can be read on its own.
9. Daredevil: Love and War. This graphic novel, written by Frank Miller and beautifully illustrated by Bill Sienkiewicz, is reprinted in “Daredevil By Frank Miller & Klaus Janson Vol. 3,” and the entire book is worth buying just for this story. (The rest of it is awesome, too, of course.) Miller’s writing has never been so taut and emotional, and Siekiewicz manages to make water-colors chilling. It tells the story of how and why Vanessa Fisk left the country for Europe, and marks a high point in both of the creators’ careers. An important chapter in the life of Daredevil’s mortal enemy, but also in the work of two of the best comic-book creators of the 1980s.
8. The Deadliest Night of My Life!/Blast From the Past (Daredevil #208 and 209). There are a few comics I’ve read more than 20 times. Spider-Man vs. Juggernaut. Uncanny X-Men #143. And Daredevil #208. The tale, written by Harlan Ellison and Arthur Byron Cover with pencils by David Mazzucchelli, concerns a booby-trapped house and a creepy, suicidal “girl” robot. It’s got some of the best non-combat action sequences I’ve ever seen, and it’s just a rollercoaster ride that never lets up. Arguably, this is really just a great adventure book, not a great Daredevil book, but remember: Before Frank Miller, Daredevil was more of a swashbuckler than a street soldier. This story was more in the former tradition. To my knowledge, it, like the rest of Mazzucchelli’s great run on DD, has never been reprinted in color. For shame, Marvel, for shame.
7. The Devil in Cell Block D (Daredevil #82-87). This was Ed Brubaker and Michael Lark’s first DD story (they’d previously worked together on the Noir-ish, amazing, Gotham Central series for DC), and Bendis had really left them in a pickle, with Matt’s secret identity revealed, and the character in prison. The team showed how Matt navigates the dark world, where he’s locked in with all of his enemies. Plus, it’s got Punisher. Note: This is sold in trade as The Devil Inside and Out Volume 1.
6. Out (Daredevil #32-40) (Bendis/Maleev). This makes my list just for the ballsiness of changing Daredevil forever by outing his identity. An amazing story arc that shocked everyone.
5. Born Again (Daredevil #227-233). Frank Miller returns to the character after a several-year hiatus, with David Mazzuchelli on art chores, to tell the story of how Kingpin completely levels Matt Murdock. The character work is tremendous—the best examination of Wilson Fisk since Love and War (see above). And Miller does it without being dialog-heavy, like Bendis. This arc accents the difference between the two writers’ styles. Born Again is the perfect end to Miller’s run.
4. “Child’s Play” (Daredevil #183-184). The two iconic covers–#183 (Punisher shooting Daredevil in the belly) and #184 (DD aiming pistol at the reader with “No More Mister Nice Guy” in huge capital letters)—announced immediately that this was not going to be your every day Daredevil story. Even by Miller/Janson standars, this is pure gold. The story—about kids using PCP—could easily have come off as a morality play, like an afterschool special, but it was handled without condescension. Punisher was a perfect foil for Matt Murdock, particularly in retrospect–knowing where Miller (then Bendis, then Brubaker, then Diggle) would take the character later–and their rooftop dialog on whether justice requires death or prison, is startlingly prescient. (Note: I’m not the only one to respect these covers–#183 was picked as the second-best DD cover of all time here!)
3. “Underboss: Part One” (Daredevil #26). Bendis and Maleev begin their run by introducing the Machiavellian Mr. Silke and a style of words-complimenting-art/dual storytelling that hadn’t been seen since Miller. Maleev adds texture, atmosphere, and reality by using photorealistic backgrounds and pervasive, heavy darkness. All of the major themes of the team’s multi-year run are introduced: identity and privacy; the power vacuum left by the departure of Wilson Fiske; and the time-hopping style. You can’t casually read this. You have to pay attention. Brilliant.
2. Daredevil: Yellow. Back before Jeph Loeb became a Buckheimer hack, he used to be able to write characters. Daredevil: Yellow was part of Loeb’s terrific “color” series, in which Loeb reexamined the motivations for Marvel’s main characters (if you haven’t read Hulk: Grey, do it now). He retold their origins, but from a modern perspective. Here, Daredevil struggles to come to terms with the death of Karen Page. In so doing, Loeb shows how Daredevil went from his generic Silver Age persona to a darker character, more willing to tread the edges of justice. And Tim Sale is always fantastic. There are few artists whose work alone will make me buy a book, regardless of the content or author, but Sale is one of them.
1. Bullseye Kills Elektra (Daredevil #179-181). Featuring Elektra’s death, the most iconic moment of the Miller run, and the biggest love-to-hate moment since the death of Phoenix, it’s easy to forget that Elektra “killed” Ben Urich during this story as well. And Bullseye figured out that Matt was Daredevil. And Bullseye ambiguously “fell” when Matt “lost his grip.” There was a lot going on here, and it’s definitely the ultimate Daredevil story of all time.