Joe Quesada is the savior of Marvel. Simply put, without Joe Quesada coming in the late ‘90s to create Marvel Knights, Marvel Comics would be a defunct company. While many editorial decisions made by Quesada are controversial, he is the most unsung hero to modern comics. When Quesada came to Marvel he was the co-owner of the Independent Comics company Event. Marvel had been lagging, having collapsed deeply with the comics’ crash of 1995. To try to boost lagging sales, Marvel once again[i] outsourced several characters to an independent company, this time to Event Comics. The line was entitled Marvel Knights and was the start of a creative renaissance with Marvel.
In an invaluable and candid interview[ii] conducted by the two creators of “Guardian Devil” Quesada shared his personal sentiments about comics at the time. Quesada had envisioned himself as an artist, but mainly a graphic artist for magazine covers and other works. He enjoyed comics in his youth but had moved on as the years went on. But The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen drew Quesada back into comics, and he noted that DC was superior to Marvel in quality. While there were exceptions, Marvel was moving more towards focusing on images rather than quality stories which drove Quesada to seek DC’s greater nuance. X-Men was impenetrable to new fans and “pretty pictures” didn’t make compelling reads. Quesada above all, appreciated quality stories, and when he eventually came to work with Marvel through his own company he wanted to ensure that the focus of Marvel Knights would be dominated by story over art.
Quesada’s focus on story above art is surprising given him being an artist, but shows also an acute awareness that the ultimate purpose of comics is to tell a good story. The attitude of Marvel Knights was to emphasize the talent working on the books. For too long Marvel had been operating under the mindset that the intellectual property was the sole compelling reason people would pick-up the comic. The belief was that the draw to superhero comics was not the stories told by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko and John Romita Sr. but the superhero itself. The major artists who eventually created Image Comics supported this mentality of a focus on artwork, gimmicks and the characters rather than any story actually being told. It was only in an outsourced production company that the original Marvel approach of utilizing major talent on appropriate books was successful, the biggest talent on Marvel Knights of course being Kevin Smith.
Kevin Smith’s was then (and still now) a cult figure, yet his journey into comics made considerable news in both the world of comics and Hollywood. Smith entry into comics opened the window to many prominent writers in television and film writing comics. Smith’s entry into the comics’ medium was also a demonstration of the range and depth of his talent. Smith’s Daredevil-run proved to be an opportunity to demonstrate Smith’s talent with drama and action-oriented storytelling. Guardian Devil showed that Smith could write far more than comedy. In his introduction, Ben Affleck remarked that Guardian Devil was both the maturation of his friend as a writer, and also the strongest work he had crafted at the time.
Smith was able to craft a compelling story that was able to bring new life into a character that had been mostly forgotten. While Frank Miller was able to breathe life and excitement into Daredevil, subsequent writers and artists struggled to bring the same quality of storytelling to the character. Even the great Denny O’Neil was unable to bring the same quality or lasting impact as Miller had with Daredevil. It seemed that Miller was the only writer capable of making Daredevil interesting to readers. But Smith had a passion for the character and was able to come up with a story that was both new and also a true successor to Miller’s approach to the character.
The story bears many similarities to Daredevil: Born Again, something that is later revealed to be quite intentional. Murdock begins confused and looking for meaning following Karen Page leaving him to pursue work in LA. Murdock turns again to church, but his faith in God has been shaken. Murdock is suffering from Catholic guilt, a spiritual guilt that Smith as a lapsed Catholic is able to deftly portray. The focus and strength of the story is in the exploration of Murdock’s uncertainty and lack of faith both in the spiritual and in those he surrounds himself with. Miller had injected Catholicism and Catholic guilt in Daredevil, and Smith took this to a whole new level. Miller’s approach to Catholic themes were subtle and dealt with the spiritual struggle. Smith brought Catholic-themes to the forefront and included the supernatural elements of Christianity. Just as Smith’s Dogma included angels, devils and God herself, Smith’s Guardian Devil was a story that included the fantastic elements of Catholicism. Murdock confronts a possible second-coming of Jesus, the anti-Christ and demons. The invasion of the supernatural into Daredevil’s world may seem jarring to those who enjoyed the nuanced realism of Miller’s Daredevil work, but Smith was able to reconcile these new elements by preserving the struggle of Daredevil to remain sane in the face of alarming pressure.
Miller’s attitude towards Daredevil always was that Matt Murdock’s greatness came from being able to persevere in spite of all the hardships that befell him. Smith agreeing with such had Murdock struggling more and more with hardship after hardship causing him to nearly break-down. His purpose as a superhero seemingly frivolous given the death toll by the culmination of the story. With a brilliant sequence drawn masterfully by Quesada has Murdock contemplate suicide following the death of Karen Page. It is only from Murdock’s friend Peter Parker that some clarity and hindsight gives Murdock the vindication and support to believe in himself once more.
But perhaps the most fascinating element of Guardian Devil itself comes in the penultimate chapter of the book with the reveal of Mysterio as the mastermind of the entire plot. What follows is an excellent deconstruction of a classic supervillain as well as an example of meta-fiction. Meta-fiction was at its most popular in the 1990s with the popular Scream franchise having self-aware characters involved in the same slasher-movie scenario that had become clichéd and idiotic. Smith used combined meta-fictional awareness with comic deconstruction to create a vibrant take on Mysterio. Smith always a moviemaker was able to bring a character who lived in the movie world. But unlike Smith, Quentin Beck never had any success. Mysterio’s success as a criminal made him incredibly rich, but his own ego cannot accept being labelled a second-stringer. This self-aware rage at fans attitude toward the villain helps to capture a perfect irony in Guardian Devil. Mysterio himself says that it would be fitting for a second-string villain to take down a second-string hero. Smith offered a commentary on Marvel Knights itself, as second-tier characters dominated the line of comics. Smith keeping with the mindset of breathing life into a second-string superhero chose a self-aware second-string supervillain as the antagonist of the story.
The great combination of meta-fiction and deconstruction comes in Daredevil’s verbal critique of Mysterio. Daredevil comments on Smith’s Guardian Devil being similar to Miller’s Born Again. As if trivializing his own story, Smith had Daredevil dismiss the entire psycho-drama of the supernatural invasion as “a basic B-movie plot”. Furthermore in commenting on the similarities to other stories Smith makes Mysterio a pitiful figure as he represents the uninspired minds both in movies and comics. Daredevil coldly points out that everything Mysterio has done was done before and by better people, a sly reference to past writers and Smith’s attitude of his placement in the history of comics. Mysterio broken and humiliated commits suicide, but points out that this too is an example of being a human-Xerox as, Mysterio “stole it from Kraven.” The issue is a fantastic example of meta-fiction and a demonstration of Smith’s awareness to the similarities his book has with previous works.
Guardian Devil along with the other books in Marvel Knights sold exceptionally well. The line demonstrated that there was life in Marvel’s characters and helped provide the guide for Marvel’s future business model. Going forward Quesada would be given the position of editor-in-chief at Marvel where he focused on talent acquisition on the right books and a return to story-driven comics. While many may balk at many decisions made by Quesada, his work on Daredevil helped to save Marvel from bankruptcy and a return to being the number 1 comic company (in sales).
[i] Marvel had originally outsourced several of their titles to Jim Lee’s Wildstorm Comics and Rob Liefeld’s Extreme Studios in Heroes Reborn. It’s impact is mostly a footnote in history.