Few writer/artists have been able to leave such an impact on a character that it has forever transformed comics after. Frank Miller was able to breathe life and vitality to characters that had been mostly forgotten by not only fans of Marvel, but the company itself. His work brought a maturity and elements of storytelling found in novels to comics. Daredevil was also the major debut of Miller’s talent and unique voice to the world of comics. His voice was instrumental to Daredevil as many artists since have attempted to imitate or, in Mark Waid’s case, oppose the voice Miller created for the character.
Miller seminal run on Daredevil alone was able to change the comics medium forever, but what makes Miller’s impact all the more resonant was that he would return to the character. Alan Moore would never write Swamp Thing again after his long run on the character. Miller would return to pen four additional graphic novels starring Matt Murdock and a spinoff graphic novel about his femme fatale Elektra. He would add greater depth to his ongoing saga that offered a beginning and conclusion to the story of Matt Murdock for those uneager to read after Miller’s departure from the character.
It’s a sprawling saga that, while probably not reaching the technical requirements to be regarded as an epic, is still the greatest superhero saga of all. Miller did not tell his story in chronological order, and sometimes crafted storylines too difficult for new-readers to pick-up. But Miller’s work on Daredevil is the single most impressive saga for any writer in the 20th Century. The work is a powerful journey of Matt Murdock coping with the constant strain of super-heroics. In Miller’s eyes, the ultimate heroism of Matt Murdock is not his success in vanquishing crime. Murdock can never truly bring the Kingpin down as Born Again solemnly remarks. Instead the inspiring heroism is that Murdock never succumbs to evil. Murdock’s first love succumbs to the pressure and becomes an assassin. Similarly, Wilson Fisk succumbs to his dark nature and loses that which made him human. Even the enigmatic assassin Bullseye gains an illogical and pointless vendetta against Daredevil which leads to a permanent paralysis. Only Murdock seems to be able to rise above the hardships that befall him. As if a supernatural accomplishment, Murdock remains a hero and can take all the blows.
But in approaching Miller’s sprawling saga some popular myths have to be addressed. The greatest misleading claim is that Daredevil had never been a popular character until Miller came. Miller justifiably wishes to perpetuate the stories that Chris Claremont and Alan Moore similarly claim with bringing life to a book that had previously never had any popularity. Claremont is fair in saying that X-Men was not popular until he and John Byrne were running the book. That title had been so lagging that the book had gone through reprints for several years. But despite Moore’s claims, Swamp Thing had been a popular character in his inception. Len Wein and Bernie Wrightson’s original Swamp Thing short-story had garnered enough support for a book about the character. While sales would eventually lag as the series went on, the character had been once very popular. Moore was able to bring attention and high-sales back to a book, while re-defining the character. S imilarly Daredevil had once been popular. When new Marvel artist John Romita Sr. came to the company he was made the penciller of the relatively unpopular Daredevil. Romita’s six-month run on the character boosted the sales on Daredevil to the point that the character was briefly one of the top-selling book’s by the company. The success was clearly due to Romita’s clean-line style of pencils that attracted the interest in the book. Romita Sr., has always been an artist that has been unfairly marginalized and even strangely attacked for reasons unrelated to his work. Romita’s artwork and storytelling proved to be something that attracted more readers and his talent was reflected when he became the Spider-Man artist. Romita’s talent made any book he drew a top-seller as Romita’s artwork brought Spider-Man to become the flagship title of Marvel. It is not malicious or cruel for Miller to proclaim that he made Daredevil popular for Marvel, but the book had shown far more potential when it was briefly drawn by one of Marvel’s greatest artists.
Another popular myth that probably is not as impressive, if given perspective, is that Miller was made the writer of Daredevil because Roger McKenzie’s scripts were found to be lacking. Most reprints of Frank Miller’s work on Daredevil include the McKenzie era of the book. Most fairly ignore these issues as they are typical disposable superhero stories. While the work is not lacking, there is a lack of lasting impact in the stories as most superhero stories tend to be. But people fairly presume that it was because of Miller’s energy and McKenzie’s lacking scripts that persuaded editor Denny O’Neil to choose Miller as sole writer and artist for the book. The truth is probably less spectacular. In reality Daredevil was such an unpopular book that it had been relegated to a bi-monthly schedule. Given that Miller was interested in leaving a book that was lagging in sales, and that Miller did show some talent in writing with a short story, there was little risk in giving writing duties to Miller. Making Miller writer was probably more of a kind gesture to keep the talented artist from abandoning the book. It is true that within two issues of Miller writing Daredevil sales improved enough for the book to be made monthly. Similarly it is true that Miller was able to make the character far more memorable and lasting than anyone had prior to.
With all this in mind it is now worth exploring, albeit briefly, the McKenzie era of Daredevil. Miller joined Daredevil as horror-writer Roger McKenzie was bringing darkness to the book. But the darkness that McKenzie thrived upon was not the darkness that Miller was particularly interested in. McKenzie had vampires appear in the first story with “Lanky” Frank Miller as artist. His stories would include colorful Marvel supervillains and the popular Black Widow as a recurring love interest to add a love triangle between Matt and his beloved Heather Glenn. The only popular and lasting impact from this era on the book was the journalist Ben Urich discovering Daredevil’s secret identity. The storyline would later become critical in Miller’s own sprawling saga.
The artwork of Miller during these issues was also much more typical as Miller was being pressured to attempt to imitate the in-house style of Marvel to allow consistency in art between the titles. But Miller and his inker Klaus Janson were eventually allowed to begin drawing the book in a style that was much more to their preference. Shadows and lighting effects would begin to slowly creep into Daredevil as Miller slowly crept away from a clean-line style and more to the evocative artstyle that would make him famous. While the entirety of Miller’s run on Daredevil is nowhere near the style that would be found in works such as The Dark Knight Returns and eventually 300, one can clearly see the beginning of the visceral evocative artwork of Miller. When McKenzie left the book, Miller was free to take Daredevil from being a low-grade superhero into a gripping crime drama.