Each week, Big Issues focuses on a newly released comic-book issue of significance. This week, it’s Daredevil #31. Written by Mark Waid (The Indestructible Hulk, Kingdom Come) and drawn by Chris Samnee (Thor: The Mighty Avenger, Captain America And Bucky), this issue uses current events to tell a riveting story about fear and anger taking over a city.
(Warning: spoilers ahead.)
It’s not very often that superhero stories are “ripped from the headlines,” but if there’s one character fit for tackling real-world issues, it’s Daredevil. The hero’s civilian identity as Matt Murdock puts him in a courtroom environment that allows for more grounded drama than the usual costumed-vigilante action, and current events are an easy place to find inspiration for the legal half of Matt’s narrative. It’s a major reason why Daredevil is one of the best superhero candidates for a television series, which would have the opportunity to balance Arrow-esque street-level action with courtroom drama in the vein of Law & Order and The Practice. In a perfect world, Daredevil would resemble Damages, following a brilliant lawyer with a double-life that threatens to destroy his soul, and there have been enough brilliant comic-book stories that the series could sustain itself for quite a while by adapting the plots of Frank Miller, Brian Michael Bendis, and Mark Waid.
Waid’s run has done brilliant work juggling Matt’s superhero life with his struggles outside of costume, giving him a new role as legal coach for people defending themselves in court, a new flame in assistant D.A. Kirsten McDuffie, and a potentially fatal new enemy in the form of his best friend Foggy’s cancer. While Foggy undergoes treatment for Ewing’s sarcoma, Kirsten has taken his old place at the law firm of Nelson & Murdock, adding a constant source of sexual tension to Matt’s workplace. (See how this would make a great TV show?) As Matt deals with these personal issues, Daredevil has been facing down the white supremacist group The Sons Of The Serpent, and their latest act of terror brings an old rogue back into the mix to send New York City into race-fueled chaos.
The Bainwood case finds “an entitled society harpy with a long and recorded history of bigotry” going free after following and shooting a “suspicious-looking” black teenager in her building, and this not-so-thinly-veiled stand-in for the Trayvon Martin trial is a great way for Waid to explore a major theme of the series in a different context. Fear is an essential part of Daredevil’s character, and Waid’s plot looks at fear on a broader scale as New York City citizens rebel against a justice system that has betrayed them. This anger is bred out of fear that the system in place is no longer serving the best interests of the public, and all it takes is the smallest spark to turn that fear into a raging fire. That spark comes courtesy of the Jester, an actor-turned-supervillain who is hired by The Sons Of The Serpent to interrupt a post-trial news broadcast with footage that shows D.A. James Priest revealing the names and addresses of the 12 jurors who let a racist murderer run free. (Among those names: grown-up versions of Family Ties’ Alex P. Keaton and Mad Men’s Sally Draper.)
While the broadcast change is undetectable to the eye, it can’t evade Matt’s radar sense, and he immediately suspects the Jester, who has tried this type of trick before. As he goes out to track down the villain and save the D.A. who has now become a public enemy, Daredevil also has to stop a massive riot on a steaming summer day, forcing him to call in help from one of his superhero buddies. Dr. Hank “Ant-Man” Pym plays a smaller role than Kirsten or Foggy in this book’s supporting cast, but he’s become a valuable member of the title, giving Matt someone to confide in and look to for help when he’s in costume. Pym is busy building an artificial kidney, so he sends an army of bees to seed the heavy clouds with a compound that forces rain on the city to dissolve the violent crowds, a sequence that showcases the artistic prowess that earned Chris Samnee an Eisner Award for Best Penciler/Inker this year.
Chris Samnee isn’t credited as this book’s artist, sharing the title of storyteller with Mark Waid to emphasize how integral his contributions are to Daredevil’s continued success. His attention to detail is meticulous, both in terms of character and environment design, and he has a talent for depicting extraordinary superhero action in a world that feels real and familiar. (That talent really came in handy in last issue’s team-up with the Silver Surfer, a breathtaking surf ride through Samnee’s evocative rendition of New York City.) His inking adds remarkable texture to his linework, and he’s found a perfect collaborator in colorist Javier Rodriguez, a fantastic artist in his own right as evidenced by the two issues where he filled in for Samnee.
Rodriguez’s expressive coloring helps set the tone for the different scenes: The bright green of the first page creates a sickly mood for the sequence, showing a candy striper visiting various patients in the hospital’s cancer ward with a gift from Foggy. But that green is replaced by a serene ocean blue when the patients gather for a special meeting. Waid has been exploring different types of fear and fearlessness in his run, and Foggy’s struggle puts this theme in a very human perspective as he takes inspiration from Daredevil to keep his spirits up during a hard fight with cancer. His gift for his neighbors is a red Daredevil t-shirt, and he gathers them together to tell them about the friend who taught him that fearlessness is contagious. Samnee does a lot of heavy lifting during these two pages, contrasting the grim faces of Foggy’s fellow patients with the optimistic smiles of the nurses and their benefactor to show just how much these people need Foggy’s words of encouragement. The scene ends with one of the perpetual frowners cracking the slightest of smiles, and while it’s not much, it’s a start.
When Daredevil leaps into action, the art shifts to reflect the environmental obstacles he will be facing, beginning with bright yellow and orange colors to capture how scorching New York City gets in the summer. After he lands in the middle of the riot, Samnee throws in a sequence of nine square panels to show the quick, chaotic change in Matt’s surroundings, overwhelming the reader with images and sounds that are felt even more acutely by the hero. When Daredevil calls in Hank’s help, his lab is colored in a cool blue that tells the reader what Daredevil needs before he says it, and that blue cuts through the hot yellows and oranges when Hank’s ants appear to turn down the temperature. The rain gets rid of the immediate riot threat (and looks gorgeous under Samnee’s pen), but it also signifies the issue’s shift from an action thriller to a horror story as Matt makes a terrifying discovery on a stormy night.
The cover image of the Jester, Foggy, and Kirsten watching Daredevil get beheaded doesn’t actually depict anything that occurs in the issue. Rather, it’s a striking visual that tells a completely separate story, informing the interior contents, showing Daredevil in a death trap as Jester imprisons those nearest and dearest to him. The cover actually corresponds with the very last page of the issue, revealing Matt walking into a room where someone who appears to be Foggy Nelson is dangling from the ceiling with a noose around his neck. It’s very possible that this is an illusion created by the villain, but it’s a shocking image to end the issue with and introduces a slew of questions for the next chapter to answer.
Like the cover image, a rope is a major component of the danger in this cliffhanger, but both pages also showcase Samnee’s ability to create an incredible sense of motion in a single static image. His composition makes the eye move in a cyclical direction around the page, adding visual depth and an element of disorientation to the grave situations. Looking at the cover, the logo sits on top of the guillotine, the guillotine blade draws the eye down toward Daredevil’s head, the basket and floor of the Jester’s platform pull the focus to the left, and the purple and blue steps bring the eye up to the villain, Kirsten, Foggy, and the two drama masks. The rope closes the circle, running from Kirsten’s hand to the top of the guillotine blade.
That circle becomes a spiral for the issue’s cliffhanger. The man hanging by his neck with a red Daredevil shirt is at the center of the image, but he’s at the end of a visual journey that begins at the door. The bright blue of the rain outside stands out against the heavily shadowed inside of the building, pulling the eye to the corner of the page where Matt is opening the door. The tipped-over chair with a suicide note attached guides the line from the door to the body, the stripes on the wallpaper direct focus up to the ceiling, and the rope guides the reader back down to the body dangling in the air. The cover is broken into two vertical segments—Jester, Foggy, and Kirsten on one side, Daredevil on the other—connected by an invisible circle. The cliffhanger is broken into three vertical sections—the far left wall with the stripes, the dangling body and the tipped over chair, Matt walking through the door—connected by a spiral, and the addition of that third section creates a dizzying effect.
The eye takes in all these visual cues at once, but Samnee’s composition creates a more immersive picture. That sharp artistic sensibility, combined with Rodriguez’s coloring and Waid’s writing, has kept Daredevil one of Marvel’s strongest titles. This “ripped from the headlines” issue is a perfect jumping-on point that looks at real-world events without sacrificing any superhero spectacle, and it’s another shining example of the greatness this creative team achieves month after month.