looking at superheroes - myth, pop culture, ideology...

Monday, April 09, 2007

On Daredevil

A demon searching for redemption through justice.

Daredevil is a Marvel Comics character, created in the 1960s by Stan Lee and Bill Everett. According to Lee, Daredevil was designed to fill a void in the market - bring back the swashbuckling Errol Flynn esque pulp stories to a contemporary audience. Stan Lee devised a yellow costumed hero who bounced around, fighting bad guys with style and pinache.

Daredevil is blind. Unlike other superheroes who are defined by what they 'can' do (Superman can fly, Spiderman can swing between buildings, Batman can make gadgets) it seems that Daredevil is the first character who is framed by what he cannot do. A superhero with a physical disability seems somewhat absurd when placed next to the generic staples of the superhero character. How can someone who can't see be as heroic as Superman?

This is where the Marvel Universe, for me anyway, supercedes that of DC in terms of characterisation. Stan Lee explored the humanity of the heroes, their flawed nature in contrast to their otherworldly powers. In the 1960s, the hero couldn't exist in a vacuum - a world without consequence. This was the era where the Fantastic Four were evicted. Where the X-Men were outcasts. Where the blind could fight crime, in a costume.

The construction of Daredevil as disabled was not simply a novelty. It was a risky commercial endeavour to have a physically disabled superhero in comparison to other comics that were beings produced. Daredevil was a B-grade hero, no match for the bigger names on the Marvel lineup and produced bi-monthly. Its popularity meant it didn't get cancelled, and has been a beloved character that has grown in status over the years.

Daredevil, like other heroes, is significantly flawed. The motivation in the character is inconsistent. His actions are shallow and problematic. Where this all becomes interesting is in the way justice is explored in the comic.

Daredevil's alter ego Matt Murdock, is an attorney by day. He is successful, a defender of people who can't afford lawyers. He makes a lot of money, and tries to work within the system to stamp out crime.

Note: I said that Matt Murdock is Daredevil's alter ego - Daredevil being the main character.

By night, Daredevil dishes out his own kind of justice. Cold, brutal, vigilantism. The people who escape the courtroom of Murdock find themselves hounded by a red garbed demon who will fight them until they can barely move.

How is it that someone can work within the law, believe in its power and universality, and as a great democratiser - laws define what is right and what is wrong, to do wrong you go to prison. How can someone defend that system while still act as a vigilante. Working in everyones justice - when that doesn't work, make your own justice.

The phrase 'Blind justice' is one of those gimmicky one-liners that writers like to drop into action scenes. It gains greater relevance when placed into the flawed context of Matt Murdock/Daredevil. Daredevil's actions are blind, motivated by avenging the death of his father. This is revenge, not justice.

The way justice is represented in the comic is an a flawed element of superhero ideology. To have a 'hero' who acts out of revenge, beyond the regulations of the law is a shaky thing to present to youths. It seems as though vigilantism and individual justice is the only way to equalise the world. Daredevil is ego-centric in this respect, he may be blind, but he certainly can see exactly what he wants to do. He acts on instinct and emotion. Those messy, human traits that shouldn't play part in justice.

The father/son relationship in Daredevil is possibly the strongest I've experienced in my reading. The relationship is so poignant and tragic. The father loves his son. The son loves his father. The father, wholly good hearted if a little bit stupid, is killed. The son, trying to eternalise his love for his father, fights people in his fathers name. The son in turn becomes something that his father would despise. Michael Corleone might be too harsh a comparison, but Daredevil isn't the swashbuckling Robin Hood he was designed to be.

These are some first impressions of the character. I'm working my way through an Omnibus of Frank Miller and Klaus Janson's work on Daredevil, which I'll discuss later. Miller's use of samurai mythos and catholic iconography may redirect where the character is headed. However, after going through Brubaker's recent work on Daredevil (where realism is king) it becomes apparent that the writers are aware of the paradox in this character. The only way for the character to get out is to go further into the hell that he created.

Daredevil is a tragic character, lost in his own delusions of self-worth. His justice is blind, and so are his motivations. He will never achieve redemption for himself, or his father, because everything he is has been built on a flawed grounding. He could be the ultimate superhero for today. Wholly human. Flawed. Violent. In a costume, in the name of justice.

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