Still adrift in the sea of figuring out how to carve a niche for myself amongst the Savage Critics sea of talent, a task made that much worse ever since The Hibbsnation 2000 vetoed my proposed 27 part multimedia series "Fantasy Tales Involving Chris Eckert Coating The Chest Of Sean Collins in Warm Peanut Oil," but unwilling to break for the beckoning seas of non-participation, I, you're friendly Can O' Spinach, thought it might be best to just dive in and "punch the keys" as if I was a poor kid trying to get through private school on something besides my amazing free throw skillz. Lay down all your burdens, unbuckle your pants, throw on Japan's Adolescent Sex: this was the best single issue comic I read on March 4th, and it's going to take me about 9 paragraphs before I get to the point where I mention what it is. Ed Brubaker's career of late hasn't, for my money, had a lot of misfires. His work on Captain America is arguably one of the tightest usages of long-range plotting currently available in any serialized comic, his collaborations with Sean Phillips have resulted in one of the most seamless storytelling partnerships in contemporary comics, and his willingness to keep his feet squarely planted in both creator-owned work as well as the corporate stuff that keeps his name in the minds of buyers point to a guy who knows what the hell he's doing with his career. (Unfortunately, he's been known to read this site, so it should be clear that, while I enjoy his work, I don't particularly like him as a person, because he wears a hat, and everybody knows that hat-wearers are inherently contemptible people deserving of disdain. Hats. Ugh. For peasants, really.)
Most praise, including any I might have given in the past, is usually focused on how his stuff is so tightly constructed, how the stories he tells--especially the genre ones--often spin through twisting, labyrinthine plots that consistently ratchet up the tension of while subtly tricking the reader into believing that a climax is right around the corner. It's the necessary trick of super-hero comics these days--the need to tell something strong, compelling, and yet never get around to actually playing out a true ending. With work like Captain America--a nearly 40 issue story that luckily dovetailed with the willingness of Marvel Comics to retire the Steve Rogers version of the character for a time--Brubaker found easy fans in people like me. I came to the book only because of my appreciation for his previous work on Catwoman, Gotham Central and Sleeper, and this, coupled with an absolute zero relationship with Captain America (ignoring that Amalgalm Age thing where they crossed Steve Rogers with Blue Beetle and Mannix), made for a willingness to buy into whatever he had to offer. Sure, it wouldn't have worked if I hadn't ended up enjoying the comics as well, which are a sort of combination of Steranko's Fury with the addition of a brutal, almost overwhelming sadness. But it does work, and it's damn good stuff on an aggregate basis.
Daredevil was a tougher one: it's a comic that's always been either wildly good or absolutely horrible, and its damn good runs include Frank Miller and David Mazzuchelli's solemn Born Again saga, as well as the years of punishment wreaked upon the character by the previous-to-Brubaker team of Brian Michael Bendis and Alex Maleev. Unlike Captain America--actually, unlike all the Brubaker stuff I've previously enjoyed--I do have some love for a few of the character's stories. I'm not coming at this one naked, covered in my mother's slime. I'm a...shit. Shit, I like this comic, don't I?
The rules for good Daredevil are pretty well laid out. Either bring something that's really hell-on-wheels intense, or watch it get filed alongside the goof-tastic retardation that was the period where Matt Murdock dressed like a Go-Bot while the Kingpin ate out of a trash can. And you know what? Brubaker's run has been a rough go at times. Daredevil's history is a tough one to manage, even when you only pay heed to the better stories--Matt's girlfriends are constantly getting lit on fire, murdered, or chucked into wells, Matt himself is about as broody as you can get before somebody brings up Young Werther and bad indie comics, and, with only a few exceptions (Kingpin & Bullseye) the rogue's gallery has a serious case of weak sauce.
It hasn't helped that the dude was saddled with the Bendis/Maleev climax, which, if you don't remember, was when the main character of a super-hero book got thrown into prison. (And if dealing with morons is your thing, it's notable that some people at the time were actually internet-style upset because that meant that they weren't going to see Daredevil wear his Daredevil costume. Apparently some people actually sit around flipping through comics angry when the people doing the punching aren't wearing spandex outfits more often than they wear cotton and linen based clothing.) Brubaker spent his time--more time than might have actually been required--tying off the various loose ends of the Bendis/Maleev run, successfully introduced his old Gotham Central partner Michael Lark as the new artist, and eventually got around to telling new stories. For whatever reason, those new stories read like remixes of the old ones--people went after the women in Matt Murdock's life, he defended an innocent man and worked to redeem hard-case criminals, Foggy was fat and whiny, crybaby sex was had, somebody got pushed in front of a train. Honestly, if it hadn't been such a tight art/story partnership, and if Brubaker had ever experimented with the current Marvel vogue of having their stock-serious characters wink their way throughout the silly repetition of it all, the comics wouldn't even be classed alongside the same team's previous work.
Anyway. March 4th comic, right? How long is this thing? Too long, right? Ah, whatever. You'll figure out who you should read out of the new Savage crew soon enough.
Michael Lark doesn't handle the art for Daredevil # 116. While he's missed, he's backed up by the extraordinarily good David Aja. Take a look at this, which reminds me of that Takeshi Kitano where he hangs out with the kid and never kills anybody:
And in case you're wondering if he did any of the sort of design work that helped the covers of The Immortal Iron Fist to stand out amongst the sea of B-list character comics that nobody with sense usually pays attention too, he did, and it looked like this: First things first: Daredevil only shows up once in this comic, and only because he happens to be mentioned in brief. This issue is all Wilson Fisk, out trying to make good on the promise he made to Matt Murdock to "honor" the wishes of Wilson's deceased wife Vanessa, those wishes being...look, her dead lady specifics don't matter. She wanted Willy to stop killing people and being a monster, that's what he's trying to do, and he's trying to do it by brooding in some rainswept area in Spain after hanging out in Switzerland's graveyards failed to do the trick. He meets a lady, she has kids, she's not grossed out by the prospect of dating a beached sperm whale, he's able to keep himself from strangling the locals because she smiles at him...it's all well and good standard genre type stuff. Since it's a Daredevil comic, it has ninjas, and since it's a Brubaker comic, the ninjas actually kill people as opposed to not killing them. Yes, like most single issue super-hero comics, you can probably figure out the big ending yourself long before you get there, especially if you looked at the cover, which says "Return of the King Part One." Pat yourself on the head, you brilliant sage: you've figured out how serialized genre stories work. I bet you get upset when Dexter Morgan doesn't get caught during season finales.
But here's the thing about Daredevil # 116, or at least "here's the thing" as I see it: this thing is VERY GOOD. It's just a flawlessly put together comic, and even the stuff that we're all sort of sick of--like killing woman to teach a lesson, or the 400th Marvel comic to open by teasing the ending--is so clean, so well paced and coherent to the story it's telling, and the art is so attractive that those minor complaints become actual strengths. Of course the story opens with the ending. The story isn't about whether or not Wilson Fisk has to start killing again, that's something Brubaker knows full well can't possibly be told in a dynamic, tense fashion, and he doesn't feel like having to do the 800th version of that story anyway. It's a done deal: Wilson's a monster. Sure, he's also a complicated, complex man, a criminal with an extensive history, he's a person who's suffered emotional and physical trauma, but those days of complicated emotional problems, of who he is--those days are over, they're long gone. He's gone so far inside his own forest of pain, power and rage that the idea that he could live long enough to make his way out is absurd. Even the way Aja draws him accents it--this isn't a guy trying to climb his way out of something, it's a guy coming to terms with the realization that he's lived a violent life that's lasted so long that even learning to change is going to be impossible. This is a guy who's slumping his shoulders, because he doesn't know what he's supposed to do, because he doesn't know how to "do"anything. The Kingpin can't work as a story of hope, and there's no reason for a story of Kingpin to start from a place where hope seems possible. He's so bereft of motive and sense when he arrives on the scene that it takes the sarcasm of the soon-to-die woman for us to register how ridiculous he is. "I knew you could not actually be sneering at the ocean."
And yet, that's exactly what he's doing. He's a grown man, and he's scowling at the ocean. That's not what people do. It's what teenage poets and stunted growth 20-somethings do, because it's the type of random, selfish act only attributable to someone who is so consumed with their own confused emotions that they can't believe that other things beyond their feelings carry real weight. The Kingpin isn't a man trying to find his way out. He's a bored psychopath with nothing to occupy his lust for rage, and his brain is trying to figure out what to do with its time now that it isn't figuring out new ways to hire Bullseye to screw up Matt Murdock's life. He's been so comfortable in hate that it's the only thing he can relax in, the same way a newly recovered alcoholic doesn't understand how to deal with waking up without urine in their bed when they're still counting days. Feeling good, feeling depressed--anything is going to seem bizarre when you're somebody whose life has been defined by not feeling at all. So he acts like a child, a lovestruck boy, he teaches foreign languages to children, he bashfully agrees not to strangle idiots, and then, and then, and then.
Then he gets exactly what he wants, which is to come home and find that somebody else wants him to come and play Fight The Super-Hero again. And since David Aja is handling the ninja fight that ensues, it's brilliant to look at, and since it's Brubaker handling the words, the "i'm still a bad-ass" lines are delivered with appropriate levels of testicle-filling pizazz. "Yes....yes. Of course. Come on, then. Let us do this." No screaming, no contractions. He's finally at peace, and he's finally calm. He has people to kill again. He's good at one thing, and somebody woke him up and made it okay to do that one thing again.
That's it, really. It's a return comic, it's a get the band back together issue focusing on one man, and since Bullseye is relegated off to the 7th level of So Many Avengers! books, it's the return of the most compelling character that Daredevil comics has ever had. (Elektra can wear a hat, please.) Will the level of quality brought to bear here stay this high? Will that handshake sequence between Daredevil and Wilson previewed on the final page result in a long Harvey Pekar style conversation about the various ways in which men deal with the death of women who made the mistake of sleeping with them?
Man, I don't know. But the next issue could be half as good as this one, and it would still be ten million times better than fucking Kingdom Come.