OPINION: Why Daredevil is the Best Written Character in Comic Book History

For nearly six decades, the charismatic lawyer Matthew Murdock has graced the panels of Marvel Comics as the swashbuckling vigilante known as Daredevil, the Man Without Fear! As the subject of acclaim from critics and fans for over six hundred issues, the Man Without Fear has won various awards, including fourteen Eisner Awards, which is the most prestigious award in the comic book industry. Daredevil holds the highest amount of Eisner wins for any character at Marvel. Based on this fact alone, we’re inclined to believe that Daredevil, both the character and the series itself are forces to be reckoned with in terms of sheer acclaim alone, and no one would be wrong in thinking exactly that. Comic books hold a great importance in the lives of many, but Daredevil in particular stands out from the rest as not just a fan favorite, but the most consistently interesting character in the comic industry, which incidentally makes him consistently the best as well. Artist John Romita, Sr., who illustrated the series for a period shortly after it launched has even gone on the record to say “I still to this day think Daredevil is the best character Marvel has.”

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Debuting in 1964 in Daredevil #1 in the classic red and yellow suit by the creative hands of scribe Stan Lee and penciller Bill Everett, Daredevil and his lawyer alter ego were differentiated from the typical comic book hero from the very start. On the cover of Daredevil #1, the first appearance of the character, Matt Murdock was advertised as “The most unusual hero of all…” But what about this particular character was different? The cover asks the readers “Can you guess why Daredevil is different from all the other crime fighters?” The inside story then reveals that Matthew Murdock was blinded as a child by mysterious chemicals. He’s a superhero that can’t see through traditional means; relying on his every other sense enhanced by the chemicals that blinded him to traverse the world and protect the innocent. Right off the bat, Daredevil is indeed unusual and different to traditional heroes. But that was why everyone loved him. Representation is one thing that can make a story very important, and as a disabled lead, a blind man, Daredevil caught the attention of many. In the beginning and to this day, people love Matt Murdock because he is media representation for the disabled, which is a win for readers and creators alike. Daredevil was an instant fan favorite for all the right reasons.

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In 1979, artist Frank Miller began his tenure on Hornhead’s comic series with Daredevil #158. The following year, Miller began his tenure as writer of the series with Daredevil #165. Miller’s reboot of Matt Murdock’s past and present changed the character for decades to come. No longer the happy swashbuckling vigilante, Miller re-imagined Daredevil as a much darker character in a much more maturely written world than Stan Lee had originally conceptualized in the 1960’s. This particular run was what brought Daredevil into an A-list character status. “I thought Daredevil was kind of cool because he couldn’t do anything. I mean, he’s blind. It wasn’t that he could fly. His major power was an impediment. So I was intrigued. When I took over he was kind of like Spider-Man-lite, but I was able to project a lot of my Catholic imagery onto it. And I’d always wanted to do a crime comic.” Explained Miller as he looked back on his run. In addition to Matt Murdock’s disability, Miller doubled down on the character’s complicated history by making him a man raised catholic, a concept that was briefly touched upon by writer Tony Isabella when we were introduced to a priest who Matthew knew in issues much earlier on. The Catholicism served as a brilliant layer to the character. Matt Murdock was a moral Catholic lawyer that fought crime with his fists. Legal Justice by day, rough justice by night. That morality struggle was the narrative pushing force in Frank Miller’s widely acclaimed storyline Born Again, in which Matt Murdock is driven to the edge of sanity after being targeted for violent social, mental and physical attacks by the villainous Kingpin of New York.

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Years passed after Frank Miller’s run on the character. While remaining popular, Matt Murdock’s life was once again turned upside down in 1998 when Marvel decided to relaunch Daredevil with a new series. Screenwriter Kevin Smith took the reigns as writer on the book for the first eight issues, tasked with bringing the character into modern times. Smith’s storyline was titled Guardian Devil, and functioned as a spiritual sequel to Frank Miller’s Born Again, as it once again placed Matt Murdock at odds with his catholic beliefs and morality. After Smith’s storyline concluded, Marvel Comics newcomer Brian Michael Bendis picked up with the character where the finale of Guardian Devil had left him. In the fifth issue of the series, Karen Page, the love of Matt’s life who had been an integral part of Daredevil since the very first issue debuted in 1964, was killed at the hands of the villainous Bullseye in a church. Bendis expanded upon the events of that tragic moment by sending Matt down a dark path. Reporter and friend Ben Urich confronts Matt’s newfound brutality as Daredevil in Daredevil #58. During the conversation, Urich suggests that Matt had spiraled into a nervous breakdown which began with the death of Karen Page. Anyone reading the contents of Bendis’ tenure on the title could see that a nervous breakdown was certainly the case, considering the immense mess that Murdock’s life had become. Because of the events in Kevin Smith’s and Bendis’ runs on Daredevil, with Matt’s Catholicism seemingly abandoned due to Karen Page’s death in a church, another villain was added to the character’s rogues gallery: the mental battle of depression.

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Bendis’ critically acclaimed run on the character ran from 2000-2006. From 2006-2009, crime writer Ed Brubaker wrote a subsequent acclaimed run which followed in the steps of what Bendis had setup in terms of tone and narrative. However, the Daredevil series was once again relaunched in 2011 by writer Mark Waid, who took Matt Murdock’s life in a very different direction than the proceeding writers. Waid abandoned the grittiness that had defined the character since Frank Miller’s reboot, and returned Daredevil to his roots as the happy and snarky crime fighter in a bright looking world. Having said that, Waid didn’t at all disregard the mental anguish that Matt had previously been subjected to. Matthew’s battle with mental health remains at the center of the story, though Waid takes an approach that can best be described as Matt smiling through the pain rather than breaking down further. This take could objectively be described as a very realistic interpretation of depression, in particular in one issue where we find Matt describing what depression feels like to him. A piece by Mark D. White Ph.D. in response to the issue analyzed Matt’s description of the mental illness. “Convincingly, his explanation is shaped not by a literal-minded regurgitation of a textbook definition, but framed instead by Daredevil’s character and experience. Given Murdock’s Catholic background, it makes perfect sense that he describes his depression as a demon of sorts, as a living thing that provokes and then consumes his darkest moods.” Though having abandoned Catholicism, Murdock continues to be shaped by it, even in his darkest hours of mental illness. His depression and religion go hand in hand with each other and creates a rather compelling dynamic for the character that builds off of over three decades of character work.

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Decades of critical acclaim and all-star creators led Daredevil to the high status of fame and quality where he remains. Even after Waid’s run concluded, Daredevil continued under the pens of rising stars such as Charles Soule and Chip Zdarsky. There is no time in Matt Murdock’s history that can be deemed as unworthy of the character. In fact, Daredevil has received nothing but acclaim under the pens of star creators since his 1964 debut, which can not be said for any other character under any comic banner. Consistent quality maybe, but not acclaim. From lighthearted tales of a man attempting to fight for his mental health to gritty stories of a man being pushed to the edge of sanity, Daredevil has proved himself over the years to be the most versatile and deep character in the comic book industry due to his extensive development, with each writer that has written him adding new layers to his complex character. Continuous acclaim, an incredible character depth, and eternal uniqueness turned Matt Murdock into the best written character to ever grace the panels of a comic.

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