Each week, Big Issues focuses on a newly released comic-book issue of significance. This week it’s Daredevil #16. Written by Mark Waid (The Flash, Fantastic Four) and drawn by Chris Samnee (Thor: The Mighty Avenger, Ultimate Spider-Man), it’s a master class in crafting a story that embodies the core values of a superhero while still taking the character into unexplored territory.
“Back to basics” is an overused phrase in superhero comics, often appearing when a new creative team takes over a title after a less-than-successful run. Rather than realigning a character’s central ideas and creating stories around those concepts, “back to basics” is usually a precursor to narrative backtracking that returns to a more recognizable version of the hero. The best superhero comic-book writers take those fundamentals and expand on them in new and exciting ways, and few creators have honed that skill as finely as Mark Waid, who earned three Eisner Awards last month for his work on this title. Whether he’s telling more personal, relatable stories as in his Flash or Fantastic Four runs or a sprawling epic like Kingdom Come, Waid never loses sight of the qualities that define these characters.
The past year of Daredevil has brought a Silver Age brightness to the book in line with Stan Lee and Bill Everett’s original take on the character, but just because Matt Murdock is smiling doesn’t mean he’s erased the darkness from his life. Waid has emphasized the superhero elements of the title, pitting Daredevil against Klaw, Mole Man, Doctor Doom, and five of Marvel’s most formidable terrorist organizations, but Matt’s greatest enemy remains the darkness inside himself. His recent abduction and torture in Latveria resulted in a swarm of nanobots shutting down all of his senses from within his brain, leaving him completely paralyzed to the outside world. Since the start of this series, Matt has been trying to prevent himself from plunging into the despair that has defined the past 25 years of the character by overcompensating with positivity. With his senses cut off, he’s enveloped in a physical darkness that reflects the negative emotions he’s been trying to subdue.
The person tasked with bringing Matt back to the light is Hank “Ant-Man” Pym, a hero who has had his own dark times in the past. Working with Tony Stark and Dr. Strange (with a non-speaking appearance by Night Nurse), a microscopic Hank takes out the insectoid nanobots that are chewing at Daredevil’s brain, but also gets a peek into how Matt senses the world. Due to Ant-Man’s damaged helmet, Matt and Hank become mentally connected, and while Matt sees vivid images of Hank and the late Janet “Wasp” Van Dyne, Hank finds himself in a black world of fear as he remembers Matt’s first days after the accident that left him blind. Daredevil’s tagline is “The man without fear!” but he had to force himself to reach that point. Many writers have shown Matt’s first experience with his radar sense, but never has it been done in such a chilling way, emphasizing the otherworldly horror that comes with his new senses.
“Sometimes there are blurry contours in the air,” Matt remembers. “Monsters. Ghosts flickering at the edge of the darkness. And I have never felt so terrified.” Matt Murdock is a man that has seen multiple lovers slain before his very eyes and takes down super-powered maniacs on a regular basis, but his most intense moment of fear is when he first comes into contact with the spectral world that he’ll live in for the rest of his life. The idea that everything Matt sees has a ghostly quality is genius, as the character has been haunted by the spirits of the past ever since his father was killed. Hank is someone who has been similarly afflicted by his past, and seeing Matt’s strength in his greatest time of fear rejuvenates Hank and gives him hope. With Edgar Wright’s Ant-Man film potentially debuting in 2014, it would be smart of Marvel to start pushing Hank Pym to the forefront, and making him a supporting character in one of their most popular titles would be an easy way to do that. And Matt is going to need a friend after this issue’s conclusion.
Once Hank eliminates all the nanobots, Matt takes off to do damage control at his law firm, where he’s been missing for nine days. He’s greeted by a somber Foggy Nelson, who has had enough of Matt’s secrets and decides that until he seeks treatment for his mental issues, Matt is no longer a partner. Matt is stunned by his friend’s reaction to his typical Daredevil absence, but when he begins to defend himself, Foggy dumps out a drawer full of Matt’s father’s bones, having been retrieved from the casket Matt thought destroyed by Mole Man. It’s a stunning reveal that Waid has been building to ever since Daredevil’s encounter with the Fantastic Four villain, a last-minute twist that pushes the book in a new direction as it charges into its second year with a boost of momentum. Who robbed Jack Murdock’s grave? How is Matt Murdock going to practice law? Will Daredevil succumb to the darkness within? These are just a few of the questions Waid leaves at the end of the issue, closing on the heartbreaking image of Matt’s name being scraped off the door as he exits in disgrace.
The tradition of outstanding visuals on Daredevil continues with Chris Samnee’s rich artwork on this title, and while he doesn’t have the meticulous realism of Paolo Rivera or the inventive layouts of Marcos Martin, he compensates with the vibrant energy of his linework. His characters are brimming with life, and as beautiful as the superhero action is, it’s the relationship moments where his artwork really shines. That said, his first image of Ant-Man opening fire on tiny robots in Daredevil’s brain is probably the coolest that character has ever looked. During the aforementioned sequence of a terrified young Matt, Samnee does a fantastic job capturing the spookiness of those first radar images, altering the signature pink contours of Matt’s “vision” to make the world appear more insubstantial. His ability to capture the full impact of those depressing moments makes the images of positivity and optimism all the more effective, and Samnee’s most striking visual comes just after Daredevil has been healed and he leaps out of Stark Tower. The building looms in the background as Matt dives through the air, a blue light on the side of Stark Tower creating a halo behind his head. It’s a panel that superbly captures the spirit of Waid as well as Samnee’s interpretation of the character: a smiling guardian devil who dives head-first into the darkness, no matter how relentlessly it tries to consume him.