By Mike Batistick
This first thing you need to know about Daredevil is that he is a shitty superhero.
No super strength, no flying, no invisibility. Even his weapon is lame -- a billy club that can turn into a whip? Super stupid. And he only patrolled a small section of New York, Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen. Spider-Man defended the whole city. Daredevil looked after a couple blocks.
But this subpar crime fighter needed a friend in 1985, and so did I. Issues of his title sat untouched on the racks of Fantasy Zone in the Red Bank Mini Mall. Spider-Man and X-Men were flying off the shelves. But poor DD was in danger of being cancelled, or so it had been suggested by Dave the Fantasy Zone counter guy.
My first issue was #225. I was a fat ten-year-old kid whose parents were divorcing, and I had very few friends. Daredevil’s comic looked about as lonely me. Even the Fantastic Four seemed to move faster, and that was in the She-Hulk days. My newly single mother, not long out of alcohol rehab had trouble grasping my headlong dive into the world of comic books. In retrospect, it made perfect sense. I was trying to escape, and Daredevil became my portal to another universe. After all, he protected the city I would eventually call home – or at least one small part of it.
In that first DD issue I bought, Daredevil fights the Vulture, an old dude who wears a homemade flying suit. Daredevil discovers this creepy guy digging up his deceased girlfriend, Heather Glenn, in an attempt to pilfer her burial jewelry. Grave robbing by an old man in green wings? Sign me up.
I had picked a good time to jump on board. Frank Miller’s famous “Born Again” storyline (#227 through about #233) was only two issues away. Daredevil was in the midst of reinvention, and I had found a weird superhero whom nobody seemed to love but whom everybody was about to focus on, if only for a few issues.
But first, some table-setting is in order. There are a few basic things you need to know about Daredevil, and almost all of them are underwhelming. His power is “super senses,” in that he can hear, smell, and taste really well. When he’s not wearing red tights, he’s a blind lawyer named Matt Murdock. That’s it. The unawesomeness of his life is only compounded by his origin story. Matt is the son of struggling Irish boxer ‘Battling Jack’ Murdock. One day, young Matt saw an old man about to be hit by a garbage truck. He pushed the man to safety, only to be blinded himself when a loose can of radioactive waste (what?) fell from the truck and spilled on his head. Tough break -- except that the radioactivity heightened Matt’s remaining senses.
The origin story is so corny that it’s the satirical basis for the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comic. Seriously. Eastman and Laird’s reptilian heroes come to consciousness when their owner - carrying them in a bowl on the New York City street – is hit on the head by a can of radioactive ooze, only the can bounces into the turtle bowl. When you’re joking, it’s awesome. When you’re serious, it’s terrible.
But back to Daredevil. His super sense powers do get you something cool: the ability to “see” the way the Navy uses radar. In other words, Matt Murdock “hears” the things the rest of us see, permitting him to navigate in the dark, sense danger over long distances, etc. But here’s where Frank Miller’s retelling becomes truly inspired. Matt’s father had taught him some boxing before the blinding, and after the accident Matt took up martial arts. As good writers do, Frank Miller pulled together disparate pieces of our hero’s story and realized what two decades of comic writers had missed: DAREDEVIL WAS A BLIND NINJA.
In 1985, if you said “ninja” to a ten year old, it had the same effect as if you’d thrown him a Hustler. (All of my friends had a VHS copy of American Ninja and at least three Chinese stars; the Hustlers were hidden in a bag in the park.) Couple that with the fact that I was a loser ten-year-old in the soon-to-be-comic mecca of the Jersey Shore, which Kevin Smith would soon pay homage to in Clerks and (in particular) Chasing Amy, and you suddenly had pulp gold. Stan Lee’s second-rate Marvel superhero was about to become the crimson equivalent of Storm Shadow and Snake Eyes.
Miller had teased the Daredevil/Ninja parallel back in 1983, when he introduced the Elektra assassin storylines (see issue #191). But it wasn’t until Miller’s return in late 1985 that all the pieces came together, when he re-introduced DD’s very first love, Karen Page (who hadn’t been seen in a DD comic for a decade). She was no longer the wholesome secretary-slash-soap-opera-actress we once knew but instead a PORN STAR ADDICTED TO SMACK! Down on her luck, she sells Daredevil’s secret identity FOR ONE HIT OF HERION (!) TO DD’s ARCHNEMESIS, THE KINGPIN! When I first read issue #227 my fucking head exploded. This was the New York City I had already begun fantasizing about -- the mythical place of sin, the place where people fall apart and then are reborn.
As you can imagine, things go off the rails fast for Murdock. Kingpin orchestrates a frame-up that gets him disbarred from practicing law, his assets frozen by the IRS, and his house bombed. Homeless, Murdock fights with cops, gets stabbed, and is shoved into the East River in a taxicab, from which he barely escapes. Badly injured, he seeks shelter in a local church and is cared for by a nun. Although the final twist is a little much—the nun turns out to be his mother, who left his abusive father to join the convent -- I didn't mind. In six issues, Miller had given us a mom nun, a Mister Brownstone-banging adult film star, a blind red ninja on the road to redemption, and Don Corleone the size of the Hulk. Everyone I spoke to in Fantasy Zone knew it was a special time for the comic.
You have to be a pretty big comic nerd to know even a little bit about Daredevil, and an even bigger one to know about this six-issue storyline. Having researched the topic, I now realize why. These six issues were published almost simultaneously with Frank Miller’s far more iconic rewrite, Batman’s The Dark Knight Returns. So Miller's groundbreaking Daredevil series wound up competing with Miller's career masterpiece, starring none other than Batman. Even in history, Daredevil can’t buy a bucket.
Thankfully, time was kinder to Dave, myself, and Red Bank than it was to Daredevil. Dave went on to found the stoner rock band Monster Magnet, I became a moderately successful writer, and Red Bank acquired a veneer of late-90’s chic thanks to Kevin Smith’s films. But Daredevil just got a crappy movie forced onto the screen by Ben Affleck, who was trying to ride the coattails of the superhero film craze. Ben may have found his future soul mate on the set of that movie, but my beloved superhero barely got a workable script.
But that’s all water under the 59th Street Bridge. What I remember about Daredevil is that six-month period when he was all that I cared about, when his story provided me with a truly Aristotelian mode of escape. Daredevil’s world was my surrogate, when my real world was a bit too difficult to digest. He is and forever will be my favorite superhero. And every time I walk through Hell’s Kitchen, there’s a small kid inside me who hopes to see him fighting crime.
Mike Batistick is a playwright who lives in New York.