dimanche 19 avril 2015

The Red and the Black - Redux - Parallel portraits of Batman and Daredevil

The Red Devil and the Dark Knight, pencilled by David Mazzucchelli

Recently, I had the occasion to rewrite this article in French for Bruce Lit, a blog I occasionally contribute to. I received positive feedback about the new pictures I choose to illustrate it. So, to come full circle, I decided to update the old English article with the new pics and rewritten parts.

Once upon a long ago, sitting at the table of a Parisian Café, a friend of mine asked me who my favourite comic-book character was. More precisely, he asked me which character I most identified with. I gave him three names : Wolverine, Batman and Daredevil (I had a Visionaries TPB by Frank Miller in my bag and quickly showed him some pages). The berserker mutant is more related to my teenager years, when I believe I was unbreakable and also had some bad temper. So in the rest of this essay, I'll only talk about Daredevil and Batman. Creatures of the night. Angel of terror and devil without fear. Comparing the two will give me the occasion to explore the richness of their fictional universe.


Bruce and Matt : both orphans, as depicted by Sean Phillips and Alex Maleev.

The young Bruce Wayne attended the murder of his parents assaulted at the exit of the movie theatre. He swore to avenge their death. He travelled the world and honed his skills to become the world's greatest fighter and detective. Heir of the Wayne's' fortune, he devoted his life to fight a never-ending war on crime. He adopted a scary symbol to become an urban legend and to strike terror in the heart criminals.

The young Matt Murdock became blind by saving a man who was going to be run over by a truck transporting radioactive waste. Following the accident, his other senses were highly developed. A Master ninja taught him how to control them. His father, a lowlife boxer, was killed after having refused to lose a fight. Matt avenged his father and started his double career of lawyer and vigilante.

When you try to summarize these two stories, you can realize that the origins of DD are more complex. Sure, for Batman, you could add a fall in a cave during his childhood and the phobia of bats that resulted. This phobia will be overcome so that Batman can be the one who incarnates terror for the criminals, a terror which he himself knew and controlled. The movie Batman Begins treats this topic very well. But in my opinion, that's simply a variation on the classic schema: trauma, grief then resilience.

Intense trainings and demanding mentors. Art by David Mazzucchelli and John Romita JR

Daredevil follows a similar but more chaotic schema. His history is even more tainted by loss and irony. Indeed, raised by his single father (lost Mother), he had to promise not to fight at school against the other kids who insulted and mocked him (they gave him the sarcastic nickname of "Daredevil").
To the oath of revenge on Bruce on the grave of his parents, is opposed the promise of non-violence reluctantly made by Matt to a father that he respected… and feared. The only time Matt hit back, he got punished by his father. Short running away and birth of a vocation: his father did not have the right to do that, neither did the other kids and if you cannot use your fists, which weapons can you use? The law (a very "American" answer).
Then the accident comes. Lost sight. Darkness and a chaos of feelings. Then his mother at the hospital visited him. Wasn't his mother supposed to be dead? In fact, she had become a nun. He made her a new promise, to get beyond pain, to get stronger. Then the tough training with his master : Stick. Not much place for fantasy. Not much time for the chitchat and the confidences. Lost childhood?

And finally, he lost his father, murdered for his last brilliant deed. Because he had refused to give up the fight. Because he had refused... to lose.

At the law school: love-story with Elektra who leaves him after her father's death. Lost first-love.

Batman on the rooftops of Gotham and Matt Murdock giving hand to Karen Page : an urban legend and street-level guy, superbly painted by Tim Sale

 A detailed reading of the origins of DD emphasizes this succession of injustices, frustrations, losses, reluctantly made promises... Because of all that, I find DD much more complex and touching than Batman and I can't help thinking that this stuff was badly exploited in the Daredevil movie. Because in spite of all these losses, the character will not turned sour, cynical or whiny: he will persevere, fight, rise for what he believes right, to make something good of his life.

The Knight and the Ninja

Batman is of noble lineage. He is a kind of Don Diego De La Vega transported in the modern world. As Bruce Wayne, he's part of the wealthiest people of Gotham City and as hero he is the Dark Knight, whose war on crime is half Grail Quest, half Wind Mills fighting.

If Batman is a noble Knight then Daredevil is a Ninja who forgot to turn bad. Abandoned by his mother, working-class kid, raised by a father working for the underworld, he had accumulated years of anger and frustrations.

In issue 164 (vol 1), the journalist Ben Urich discovers his identity and asks him why he became Daredevil. He answers: "Justice. Blind Justice."

Nice covers for a fake crossover by Dustin Nguyen (no parent of mine)

Symbols : The Devil and the Bat.

Lawyer and vigilante. Blind lawyer. Often blinded by love. Guardian angel in a devil-costume. Catholic demon. Child of Hell' S Kitchen. I find the DD's symbolic richer than Batman's, richer in reflections and paradoxes.To put it simply: justice, love, angels and demons are more "universal" than a bat. And although both are evolving in dark worlds, DD is carrying more hope. Batman it is the dark creature of the night, a kind of Bogeyman. DD is the red spot, the flame that shines in the night, the blind who shall guide us all.

Powers : human or superhuman ?  

Fanboys often claim that Batman is cool because he doesn't have any powers, so that you could relate to him more easily. This is technically true but "plot-wisely" false. The authors describe Batman like the best in nearly everything (criminology, martial arts, chemistry), he's always engaging a fight with fifteen contingency plans, he has a solution for everything, he is wary even of his allies on which he has files... One of the caricatures of Batman is the Midnighter in Authority: the guy who cannot lose a fight because he's already played and controlled a million of scenarios before the first second. Nobody could be Batman. It is the prototype of the physical and intellectual perfection (a scary Nietzschean "über-mensch")

A man without real limits, masterfully rendered by Jim Lee and another without fear (or faking to forget it), nicely illustrated by Marcos Martin.

Daredevil has powers: highly developed senses, radar sense. He has also skills and talents: acrobat, martial artist, ninja... But he is not "super", simply way above the average man. So again, in this field, I find DD more touching. Batman is too good in everything. Nothing can really happen to him. If it is the case, you get the impression of mischaracterization, like the writer did not write the character as the "real" Batman. DD is vulnerable to a lot of things, sometimes he doubts, sometimes he fails but he never gives up. That's his super-power, a power we can all have, or, at least, that can inspire us all.

Alter ego :

Batman is disguised as Bruce Wayne. His true life, his ultimate goal, is his war on crime. Bruce Wayne is just a facade. Matt Murdock is a lawyer and sometimes disguises himself in Daredevil. He really leads two lives that complete each other. He needs to work inside the legal system, to prove himself rules can work but he also needs to run on roofs, to watch the dark alleys and transform his anger and his childish frustrations into something more positive. DD believes in two conceptions of justice which are opposed and which he tries to reconcile. He is in precarious balance (that's why his series is full of "Falls from Grace").


Matt Murdock fights for justice with or without his mask whereas Batman uses Bruce Wayne as a cover (pencils by Chris Samnee and Dave Johnson)

Women : 

Bruce Wayne's relationships with women are often simply posturing. Bruce Wayne is a playboy, Batman only has female foes or associates, not much "Bat-love" around. Catwoman ? A thief to catch and maybe rehabilitate. Talia ? the daughter of the enemy, to neutralize or convert into an ally. Wonder-Woman ? Unreachable, to flirt with and piss-off Clark. Zatanna ? Silver St Cloud ? Others ? Way too often switchable in the role of the damsel in distress.

The writers of DD played with the heart of Matt Murdock in some more diverse and, to me, interesting ways. Elektra: the first love, the ninja who turned bad, the soul sister and the negative reflection, Karen Page: the One, the beloved, the betrayer. Secretary, pornstar, junkie, radio animator. Matt couldn't help falling in love with her. The Black Widow: "the ex", the playmate, the good friend ("I am happy when you are happy...") Heather Glenn: the jet-set-girl, could lighten up the social life of Matt but couldn't fit in the other side of his life. Glorianna O'Brien: redhead Irish photographer who never succeeded in shooting Matt's real portrait. Milla Donovan  : a marriage decided too quickly then annulled with a woman crazy about Matt who ended totally nuts. Dakota North : the guilty affair, for a fearless but not remorseless man. Kirsten McDuffie : some say she's the ideal GF for DD. I'm more on the fence but have to admit she's like no other.

From Karen to Kirsten or from Selina to Talia, obviously Matt or Bruce don't pick the ugliest ones…

Ennemies :

 Here's a good point for Batman. His Rogue gallery is much richer than DD's. Each villain is carrying a particular symbolic system that makes him original and attaching (the bad guys that we love to hate or feel sorry for) From the Joker, the Killing clown to Rha's Al Ghul, the megalomaniac, including Two-Face, former DA obsessed with duality; the Riddler, Poison Ivy, Harley Quinn, Scarecrow, Mister Freeze, Man-Bat, Killer Croc, Bane, Black Mask, Penguin, the Mad Hatter : as many faces of madness and monstruosity.

In regard of this long, yet non-exhaustive list, DD's Rogues can't quite keep up. There are a lot of minor villains as the Jester, the Owl, Mister Hyde and Cobra, the Gladiator, often eclipsed by the main nemesis that are the Kingpin and Bullseye So DD has a smaller rogue gallery but consequently, the duels are often more "personal", and as physical than moral/psychological. Like in the Typhoid Mary arc written by Ann Nocenti or the Mister Fear arc by Ed Brubaker. Daredevil also has quite a special relationship with the Punisher.

… but Batman has the craziest and scariest villains while DD's Rogue Gallery is dominated by a few major adversaries – Illustrations by Tom Kelly and Dustin Nguyen

Supporting cast :

On one side, there is Alfred and all the Bat-family and on the other side: Foggy, Ben Urich and Murdock's women.While I find Alfred essential (he is the local "Bernardo" to Zorro-Batman) the rest of the Bat-family has me torn: they are cool but Batman is a loner. How could the World's finest seek to be surrounded of other simple humans, weak and flawed ? Moreover, does Bruce consider them as a true family and not pawns or soldiers ? In DKR, when the Dark Knight catches up Carrie Kelley from falling, his thought is : "Good soldier".

But I almost forgot commissioner Gordon, Batman's most valued ally inside the GCPD and an important character in the Bat-Mythos as seen in DKR or Batman : Year One. 

Matt has Foggy : the law school comrade, the good pal, the sidekick of the legal team. But authors gradually changed him into a competent associate and a confidant. Ben Urich is also a stereotype: the curious journalist who discovers the secret identity but who does not reveal it. However, he has had some very good character moments (Born Again, anyone ?) and moving storylines (DD 182 : Promises by Alan Brennet and Klaus Janson). The supporting-cast of Batman is typically in a spandex style while DD's cast leans towards soap-opera or sitcom.

Batman has allies, Matt has a friend – Pencils by Dick Giordano and Paolo Rivera

Having reviewed their similarities and their differences, that will be no surprise if I tell you that, nowadays, I prefer Daredevil to Batman. Even if I sometimes daydream of Batman's omnipotence (sorry, that's got to be my inner child), I feel closer to Daredevil/Matt Murdock. You can make it through life even with handicaps. You can find love, even after many badly ending love-stories (well, in DD's case, that only works if a writer is willing to give him a break). You can enjoy the darkest night if you try to feel beyond darkness. The scents in the air, the noises of the street, the beats of the city, the breath of the world. 

You have to be a bit like Daredevil, keep a certain balance, act for what seems right to you, fight for what really matters to you and... "Never give up. Never." 

An homage to my two favourite superheroes.


Catégorie : Blogging_Comics

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