Retro Review: “Daredevil: Born Again”

This is a really beautiful cover, by the way

In advance: Spoiler warning. Sorry. For the sort of thorough review I’m attempting here it’s unavoidable. I mean, with a title like “Born Again” you can probably guess that Daredevil isn’t actually going to be dead by the end, right?

With the new season of “Daredevil” out, I’ve started dipping into the “Daredevil” comics again. Specifically, the GOOD “Daredevil” comics, which is to say, the Frank Miller “Daredevil” comics.

One of Miller’s more brilliant details (he didn’t actually come up with the idea but he immediately saw its potential and quickly zeroed in on it) is Matt’s Catholicism. Before Daredevil became a Catholic the writers seriously struggled coming up with ways to reconcile Matt’s work as a lawyer with his vigilante work as Daredevil, eventually going so far as to give Matt a split personality (I get that Daredevil-as-Scarlet-Swashbuckler had fans but you will never, ever be able to convince me that that’s good writing). Miller saw Daredevil’s Catholicism as the solution – as the quote supposedly goes, only a Catholic can be a lawyer and a vigilante – and maybe so.

Catholicism is at the heart of “Born Again”. “Born Again” is an interesting comic. According to TV tropes, which has a few interesting details, “Born Again” is considered one of the big three “superhero deconstruction” comics, along with “Watchmen” and “The Dark Knight Returns”. Of the three, “Born Again” is easily the most uplifting, since the fundamental story isn’t really one of deconstruction, but reconstruction: It is not just Daredevil being stripped to the bone, but Daredevil being Born Again. Hey, just like the title!

“Born Again” is a hidden masterpiece. I say hidden not because it isn’t famous – it is – but because nobody has heard of it but comic book fans. EVERYBODY knows about “The Dark Knight Returns”, even if they don’t realize it – every Batman movie from Tim Burton onward riffed off of it. Ever since Zack Snyder decided that he was going to make superhero movies Serious Business the public has heard of “Watchmen”. But “Born Again” has remained under the radar, though I have high hopes that season 3 of “Daredevil” will tackle the story. It’s also hidden because “The Dark Knight Returns” just so happened to be published the same year – Miller’s OTHER masterpiece (and then the next year was “Batman: Year One”, Miller’s OTHER other masterpiece. Miller was on a roll in the late eighties).

First, it’s important to recognize just how insanely ambitious this story is – even more than “The Dark Knight Returns” in some ways. TDKR, you see, was not part of the main Batman continuity. It was a miniseries, a self-contained story. But “Born Again”, incredibly, was not. And the reason this is significant is that in “Born Again”, Miller rips everything about Matt Murdoch’s world to shreds.

Comic book continuity tends to bounce around – even when major changes occur the status quo will return again eventually, resulting in infamous “comic book deaths” (even Miller isn’t immune to this, as the character of Elektra proves). In “Born Again” the sorts of major changes Miller introduced had enormous, long-lasting effects. Karen Page might not die, but unless you want to reboot the whole universe, in the main continuity Karen Page is a former porn star and drug addict now – like it or not. The Kingpin now knows that Matt Murdoch is Daredevil. Matt is disbarred. He’s homeless, at least temporarily, his apartment having been blown up. He has no job and no money.

And the story ends with none of this having been changed.

There are a thousand different ways this is utterly brilliant. This is Frank Miller at the height of his powers. His dialogue is crackling, his story exciting and absolutely bursting with suspense. His character work is brilliant, his symbolism perhaps a bit heavy-handed near the end but in general integrated beautifully throughout the story. This is really a review about writing (and how the art is integrated with it), so let me get the quality of the artwork out of the way now: Simply put, it is flat-out stunning. Like Miller, Mazzuchelli was at the height of his power in “Born Again”. The comic contains iconic image after iconic image. Paired together with Miller’s brilliant dialogue and narration some pages are works of art in and of themselves.

But again, this is really a writing review, which is something I know more about. One of the things I talked about in my earlier article on the first issue of “Daredevil” is how, over and over again, Matt just kept talking about how keen his senses were and how his powers worked. This was, like, every other sentence. In “Born Again” every new issue of the story arc neatly recaps what is happening so far and what each character’s role is – generally taking up a few lines of exposition at most and never being mentioned again. We get a very brief description of how Daredevil’s powers work, and then only bring it up again if it’s relevant to the action (such as a note that Matt has trouble driving in rain because his super hearing is dulled by the sound of the raindrops). Each issue is obviously designed to be intelligible to a new reader (even if the story might seem rushed), but it has respect for its readers and doesn’t beat them over the head with the same information, similarly phrased, over and over again. It’s masterfully concise, descriptive story-telling.

The amount of detail Miller puts into his stories about the side characters is also stunning. Manolis, the cop who’s framing Daredevil, has a complete story arc, as does Ben Urich, and Foggy Nelson, and Glorianna O’Breen, of all people, and Karen Page. But what makes this all so impressive is how economical it all is.

Miller is not a long-winded writer, which jives very well with my personal writing philosophy of “skip the boring bits”. The story’s most memorable lines and moments are lines and moments, not long scenes or speeches. For one famous example, here is the scene where the Kingpin learns that Matt Murdoch somehow survived his murder attempt. Notice that it only takes up a single page:

One of the most perfectly executed pages in comics history

Perfectly drawn, terse, and incredibly powerful. A hundred pages of dialogue could never deliver the power of “There is no corpse”. And, of course, there are other lines as well – the most famous being the Kingpin’s realization that “A man without hope…is a man without fear”.

But as great as that line is, I think this page is the most pure example of the power of economic storytelling.

Miller’s “Nuke vs. Captain America” symbolism at the end comes off a little strong, at least to me, but the Catholic symbolism he weaves throughout the tale is bang on point. “Born Again” is very, very Catholic. I would post a lot of images showing how Miller recreates the Stations of the Cross in the comics, but it’s hard to find that many images of the story online. Luckily, Crisis on Infinite Thoughts has saved me the trouble with their wonderful analysis of Matt’s spiritual journey in “Born Again”. I encourage all of you to read it. It’s absolutely wonderful. And I agree with them – to me, the most powerful moment of the novel is Matt’s reunion with Karen and his Christ-like forgiveness of her actions – like Christ himself, Matt has “moved beyond the loss of material possessions”. It’s another example of the incredible power of Miller’s economic storytelling and Mazzuchelli’s striking artwork.

Karen, too, has found redemption by being willing to sacrifice her life for Foggy’s, finally putting somebody else’s life ahead of her own. It is only when she entirely forgets the idea of being saved by anybody else that she is finally able to be saved.

To me, the most important scene in the comic is this beautiful panel – and once again, at the risk of sounding like a skipped CD, notice just how terse Miller is, and how that increases, rather than decreases, the power of the scene:

“‘Nothing,’ he’d said, Matt did, when she told him what she’d done, ‘I’ve lost nothing’, and laughed like a boy –and Karen didn’t understand — and Matt kissed her —

This is the most important, most moving scene in the entire novel. Matt is still homeless, still jobless, still disbarred, but he finally understands what’s important in his life – his Catholic faith, and other people. And the Kingpin couldn’t take them.

As the final panel of the comic says:

 I live in Hell’s Kitchen and do my best to keep it clean. And that’s all you need to know.

Because that is all that matters: The protector. The Kingpin does not, cannot, understand this. He believes that by disbarring Matt, he’s won a victory, even if a small one. But he hasn’t.

A common criticism I see leveled at the comic, even in otherwise sterling reviews, is that the Kingpin’s comeuppance seems rather underwritten. What, his reputation is ruined? That’s all he gets? That’s it?

But, like with the similar criticism sometimes leveled at the ending of “It’s a Wonderful Life”, I think that readers are missing a larger point here: This was never about the Kingpin. It was always about Matt. And by overcoming the Kingpin’s challenges, Matt has already won. Kingpin tried to destroy “the only good man he has ever known”, and he failed. To misquote Matt, that’s all you need to know.

Of course, there’s more after the reconciliation scene, and important stuff – mostly important because it establishes the fate and the redemption of the minor characters (Ben Urich’s change of heart, for example, is its own mini-resurrection), and because it re-establishes Matt as the protector of Hell’s Kitchen. One of the more interesting scenes come when Matt actually kills a helicopter pilot gunning down civilians…but we’ll get to that one later. One step at a time…

“Daredevil: Born Again” is widely regarded as the quintessential Daredevil story and one of the great masterpieces in comic book history. All I can do is add my voice to the chorus of praise. I can only hope that the Netflix creators see the potential here and finally create a live action version- and some hints dropped in season two give me some hope that this may be the case. Fingers crossed!