INTERNATIONAL IRON MAN #1
This book teams Brian Michael Bendis with his old Daredevil running mate, Alex Maleev, and so it is going to be a love-it-or-hate-it-affair. In its favor, you get solid dialogue, an intriguing new take on Tony Stark, and plenty of emotion and mood through Maleev’s art. On the other hand, you get that Bendis/Maleev explosion-in-the-word-balloon-factory style of storytelling, plus it is going to cost you four bucks a month for the next year to get the whole tale. Despite my early reservations, I have come to appreciate this team’s style, and I enjoyed this latest Iron Man book, though there is precious little Iron Man in it — aside from the opening and the coda, Iron Man is a distant dream in this story, which concentrates on a fateful meeting during Tony Stark’s pre-heroic college days. There are a lot of talking heads and only a little action, but the characters are authentic and the plot does move forward, at least by Bendis standards. It is an unconventional take on Tony but Bendis pulls it off, and he has earned some credit — the work he is doing right now makes most of Marvel’s other writers look like they are playing with Tinkertoys.
Approachability For New Readers
Fine. Bendis has a cinematic sensibility, and while his story starts in the middle, he catches you up with the who, what, and why as he goes along.
Sure … when it is collected.
Seeing as my All-New All-Different review project began with an Iron Man book, this latest Iron Man book seems a good place to bring the project to a close. Thanks to everyone that stuck with me through these better than 60 (!) reviews, and keep an eye on Longbox Graveyard for a summary post about my experience with Marvel’s latest relaunch, coming soon!
Read more about Iron Man at Longbox Graveyard
Read more capsule reviews of Marvel’s All-New All-Different rolling relaunch.
It’s always a special day when Chasing Amazing’s Mark Ginoccho favors Longbox Graveyard with a guest blog! Take it away, Mark!
Paul has been generous enough to once again allow me to have the run of the Longbox Graveyard so I could conduct a blogging experiment of sorts that connects LBG with my personal site, Chasing Amazing. Today, as part of my month-long acknowledgement/celebration of Daredevil’s 50th anniversary, I’ve written two concurrently published blog entries that put one of the great Marvel villains on a pedestal, Wilson Fisk, aka the “Kingpin” of crime. My Chasing Amazing post will examine Kingpin’s adversarial relationship with Spider-Man, while this one will shine a light on the Fisk/Daredevil dynamic.
Modern readers likely associate Kingpin as a Daredevil villain, and while they would be mostly right, it can not be forgotten that Fisk was first introduced as a villain for Spidey in 1967’s Amazing Spider-Man #50 and was a non-factor in the life of Matt Murdock/Daredevil until Frank Miller/Klaus Janson’s revolutionary run on Daredevil (Kingpin first appeared in ‘Ol Hornhead’s book in issue #170 in 1981).
Spider-Man and Daredevil are two of Marvel’s premiere “street level” heroes, so it makes sense for both to have a major beef with the New York City’s Kingpin of organized crime (not to mention Fisk’s blood feud with Frank Castle, aka the Punisher). But despite Fisk getting a 14-year head start tormenting the friendly neighborhoods of Spider-Man, his time going toe-to-toe with Daredevil is significantly elevated by the fact that Daredevil/Kingpin had far more groundbreaking creators crafting their stories over the past 30-plus years – most notably Miller and Brian Michael Bendis.
When Miller first took over on lead pencils on Daredevil in 1979, he immediately infused Roger McKenzie’s scripts with a film noir style that would become a trademark for the title. As Daredevil continued to struggle with declining sales, Miller was eventually given both scripting and penciling duties (with Klaus Janson providing inks), which is when the aesthetic and tone of the book would change for good.
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Gone was the glossy Silver Age-isms leftover from the 1960s and 70s, and in its place was a griminess and grittiness that probably smacks of “been there done that” to today’s audiences where everything related to comics (books, films, television, et al) is supposed to be DARK. But at the time these tonal changes were quite extraordinary. Miller’s style put the “Hell” in Hell’s Kitchen and while the sociopathic assassin Bullseye was certainly a worthwhile adversary for Daredevil to square off against, what the title really needed to ascend to the next level was a kingpin. Enter, Wilson Fisk.
The inaugural Kingpin/Daredevil arc spins off from a previous Amazing Spider-Man storyline where Fisk gives up the life of crime at the request of his wife, Vanessa. Miller and Janson introduce us to Kingpin in Daredevil #170 as a sumo-sized behemoth, tossing around his lackeys like ragdolls, while simultaneously making it clear to whoever is within earshot that he had officially divorced himself from his former life working as the “K” guy.
But like every mob boss in the history of media, Fisk learns the hard and fast way that one doesn’t just “leave” the criminal underworld. A full-blown gang war breaks out with rival bosses seeking the Kingpin’s “files.” At one point, Fisk is drawn out to make a deal and it turns out to be an ambush. A sonic blast causes a building to fall down, assumedly burying Vanessa underneath and leading Fisk to embark on a warpath of vengeance unlike any the criminal underworld has ever seen.
In the midst of all this, Daredevil has his first encounter with Fisk under the guise of “Shades,” a wannabe mobster trying out for Team Kingpin. Matt, of course, is just trying to gain access to Fisk’s files and learns rather quickly that Kingpin is not a man to be trifled with. After trying to break into his vault, Kingpin and Daredevil engaged in their first of many battles, with Fisk decisively getting the better of the hero and dumping him into a sewer pipe.
And thus marks the beginning of a very long and winding, complex hero/villain relationship. Miller’s characterization of the underworld plays into the wheelhouse of the Daredevil/Kingpin dynamic. There’s muck, dirt and grime everywhere. It’s unsightly. Daredevil, by definition, is a hero who lives in a world of darkness. The accident that caused him to become blind but also enhanced his remaining senses, gives him a unique power-set, but not the standard superhero skillset of super-strength, flying, advanced technology, etc. Kingpin, despite his rotund figure, is incredibly strong, but again, not “super-powered.” Plus, how fitting is it for a superhero who spends his “normal” life outside of his tights working as an attorney, to have an arch-nemesis that bends the law to his will?
Still, there’s more to the Daredevil/Kingpin dynamic that just the poetry of their interaction. At the onset of this inaugural “Gang War” arc, Miller sets out to connect Murdock and Fisk on an extraordinarily personal level. There’s a cat and mouse game going on that extends beyond the punches and kicks that are thrown. At the end of Daredevil #172, Fisk hands over the precious files to Daredevil, telling him to do what he pleases with it – that he will just rebuild into a stronger, meaner organization. And Daredevil realizes there’s nothing he can do to combat the tidal wave that is the Kingpin.
Miller/Janson ratchet up the drama between Daredevil and Kingpin during run of issues dubbed “The Elektra Saga,” which also marks the introduction of one of Marvel’s most famous femme fatales, Elektra Natchios. Elektra, a former love of Matt’s from college, has been hired as the Kingpin’s personal assassin.
During “The Elektra Saga,” readers learn that Fisk has a hand-picked mayoral candidate, the crooked Randolph Cherryh. When Daily Bugle ace reporter Ben Urich starts to reveal the scandalous link between Fisk and Cherryh, Elektra is deployed to send a message with one of her trusty sai. Urich backs off his story, but not before handing some of his research over to Daredevil. Among a pile of photos is one that shows Kingpin’s thought-to-be-dead Vanessa lurking in the sewers as a vagabond. Daredevil is able to use this information to gain total leverage over Fisk, getting him to pull Cherryh from the New York City mayoral race in exchange for Vanessa’s whereabouts.
These are the kinds of storylines that have the Daredevil/Kingpin relationship mimic a game of chess. In the penultimate issue of the inaugural Miller run on Daredevil, he even adds a scene where Kingpin tells Daredevil that the two of them are inextricably linked and are not that different from each other. But the mutual admiration society ends in brutal fashion during what many consider to be one of the greatest storylines in comic book history: 1986’s “Born Again” by Frank Miller with art by David Mazzucchelli.
If you’re a devotee of the “House of Ideas” and have never read “Born Again,” stop everything that you’re doing, run out to the store and pick yourself up a trade paperback copy (or find it on the Marvel Unlimited app) and then get back to me.
Thanks for doing that.
Seriously, “Born Again,” encapsulates everything that is wonderful about this sometimes-satisfying, often-maddening world of superhero comics. For the uninitiated, “Born Again” starts with Matt’s former love, Karen Page, hooked on drugs and in need of a fix. She sells Matt’s biggest secret – his Daredevil identity – in exchange for some drugs, and this information naturally finds its way to Fisk. Fisk uses this information to systematically destroy Murdock piece by piece: his home, his law practice… everything. Matt is so broken, when he goes to confront Fisk, he gets a beating that’s even more brutal than the first time the two squared off. Kingpin assumes victory, and goes on to live a life as a “legitimate” businessman.
Except as Fisk rightly notes, “there is no corpse,” and of course Matt finds a way to rise from the ashes. Daredevil completely rebuilds his life as gradually and systematically as it was destroyed, and even reconciles with Karen along the way. Daredevil dispatches of an evil Captain America-esque super soldier, Nuke, who had been hired by Fisk to go on a killing spree in Hell’s Kitchen. Together, Daredevil and Captain America produce evidence that connects Nuke and Fisk, thereby destroying his public image as a legit titan of the business world.
The storyline demonstrates just how far both Kingpin and Daredevil are willing to go to destroy the other, and while it ends on a note of optimism for Matt, the arc comes across as the end of the road for Fisk, whose grand plans that have been building since Miller first worked him into the Daredevil univrese have finally been ruined. Other writers continued to tackle the Daredevil/Kingpin dynamic, including a fun arc during the Ann Nocenti/John Romita Jr. that introduced another femme fatale in Typhoid Mary, but none were able to match Miller’s portrayal of the relationship.
Then Brian Michael Bendis came along.
Similar to Miller, Bendis is known for saving Daredevil from near-certain cancellation (though to be fair, BMB’s predecessor, filmmaker Kevin Smith, is who truly resuscitated Daredevil from a commercial standpoint). And like Miller, Bendis had a brilliant grasp of what made Daredevil/Kingpin such an effective hero/villain pairing. During the Bendis run, it wasn’t just about hackneyed world domination, but rather a slow moving game that was constantly being played out seven moves in advance.
Bendis (and artist Alex Maleev) had a fantastic grasp on the tone and rhythm of the underworld. A lot of Bendis’s most successful stories don’t even read like comic books as much as television/film scripts starring characters like Tony Soprano and Don Corleone. The first Bendis Kingpin story, “Underboss,” shows a weakening Kingpin who tries to maintain what little leverage he has left on Daredevil by hanging the threat of outing his secret identity over his head. When an arrogant wannabe mob boss demands that Kingpin reveal this information, it leads to Fisk’s (temporary) removal from his position of power when his entire crew betrays him and attempts to murder him.
Fisk returns to the throne eventually, as featured in the Bendis/Maleev arc “Hardcore.” But in a unique twist that demonstrates how the Kingpin/Daredevil dynamic continually finds way to evolve, Matt decides that he’s tired of the same old “cycle” with Fisk. He confronts Fisk and beats him within inches of his life, claiming that Hell’s Kitchen now belongs to Daredevil. It’s a shockingly brutal role reversal, and one of the few times the usually more passive Matt comes out on top when it comes to his physical altercations with Fisk.
Similar to how Miller leaves things at the end of “Born Again,” Bendis would go on to script a Kingpin on the ropes. With nothing left to lose, Fisk turns himself over to authorities. But in exchange for immunity, he promises to produce evidence that Matt is Daredevil and has obstructed justice many times over the years under the guise of this dual life. Fisk successfully sets Daredevil up to out his secret to the authorities, and the Bendis-era ends oddly, yet appropriately enough, with both Murdock and Fisk in jail.
Again, other creative teams would get a turn on Daredevil, and would go on to develop successful and interesting stories about Daredevil and Kingpin, but none would go on to be as riveting and significant as Miller and Bendis. These two indisputably defined the two characters and their relationship with each other in a way where Kingpin is now unblinkingly synonymous with Daredevil.
Perhaps if the Spider-verse ever had creators who had the long-game vision for Kingpin that Miller and Bendis did, the villain would still be better associated with the series in which he made his debut. Fortunately, Spider-Man would go on to have very successful inter-personal relationships with his own unique villains, while Daredevil’s existence in the Marvel Universe was likely saved by the addition of Fisk and the grittiness of his criminal underworld.
Thanks, Mark, for another outstanding contribution to Longbox Graveyard! Make sure you check out Mark’s post on Chasing Amazing that looks at the rise of the Kingpin within the Marvel Universe as a member of the cast of the Amazing Spider-Man series.
IN TWO WEEKS: #130 Punishment Is Black & White
I’ve made few pains to hide my biases here at Longbox Graveyard. Readers who have stuck with me for the last hundred-odd weeks won’t be surprised when I say I favor the Silver and Bronze Age of comics to contemporary books, or that I prefer four-color superheroes to the grim vigilantes of the current age. I am stuck in the past, and happily so.
There are exceptions. One of my earliest reviews at Longbox Graveyard — and one of my highest grades — went to Ed Brubaker’s 2004-12 run on Captain America. I gave high marks to The Walking Dead and have favorably reviewed digital initiatives like Condito Comics’ Operation Ajax, or DC’s Legends of the Dark Knight. I named Saga my best book of the year for 2012. In my “Few 52” Podcast last I even admitted affection for DC’s controversial reboot of their superhero line. My reading isn’t entirely confined to comics of the past.
Spend any time reading contemporary comics and you’re going to encounter Brian Michael Bendis. After starting his career at Caliber and Image Comics, Bendis has become one of Marvel’s most prolific writers, cutting his teeth on Marvel’s Ultimate line, and becoming a mainstay on Marvel event books and Avengers titles. But it was Bendis’ lengthy run on Daredevil that first got my attention, and really got me to thinking about comics as a storytelling form.
Alex Maleev’s Daredevil does a mean Buscema Slouch!
Starting in 2001, and working primarily with artist Alex Maleev, Bendis crafted a spectacular fifty-odd issue Daredevil run that ranks among the best for a character that has seen signature work from some of the field’s top talents. Bendis’ take is grim, realistic, and street-level. With his identity revealed, Matt Murdoch is pressed to the breaking point and beyond, crossing the line from vigilante to criminal in his fight for the soul of Hell’s Kitchen. It’s a sophisticated and emotionally-mature work that offers an in-depth look at identity and ethics through the lens of a comic book. It is less about costumes than it is a gritty crime drama that would be perfectly at home on film or as an HBO drama.
I thought it was a great story.
I also thought it was a very poor comic book story.
It’s going to seem like I’m picking on Bendis here but that is not my intent. I quite like his stories — I read and enjoyed this entire Daredevil run, and I like what I’ve seen of his other Marvel titles. He’s committed to his craft; seems like a genuinely nice guy; and runs a great Tumblr blog that I shamelessly plunder for my Instagram feed. Bendis is hugely successful in his field — he certainly doesn’t need my endorsement, and criticism at Longbox Graveyard isn’t going to bring him to his knees.
I’ve selected Bendis only because his style bends the comics form until it breaks.
Consider the image below, which is typical of Bendis’ work. To my mind, this is not a comic book. This is an explosion in the word balloon factory.
Of course, it is a comic book. It is a story told with words and pictures and the only limitations imposed on the form are those created by artists and writers (and bloviating bloggers). What I’m getting at is that this is far from an ideal use of the form. It is not a story that takes advantage of the things that comics do well (and in some cases, do better an any other form of storytelling). This story feels like a teleplay or a radio drama force-fitted into comic book form where the characters are reduced to visual anchors for Bendis’ (generally quite good) dialogue and characterization.
This style of storytelling reminds me more of a fumetti or photonovel than anything else.
(And fotonovels can be artistic in their own right, but this seems rarely the case).
Many fans and critics will not see a problem here. Bendis has a shelf-full of Eisner Awards, so what do I know? But I still see this run as a missed opportunity. It told a great story of a very dark period of Matt Murdoch’s life but it did so in spite of being a comic, not because of it. Very little about the comic book form was used to good effect. Save for the (occasional) appearance of men in costume beating the crap out of each other, you might not recognize it as a superhero comic book at all.
If I’ve called out this Daredevil run as being especially ill-suited to comics, it’s only fair that I provide a counterexample that more fully explores the dimensions of the form.
Comparing apples to oranges, here’s a two-page spread from the recent vintage of Daredevil #1 by Mark Waid and Paolo Rivera.
Not every page of every comic is going to be like this (just like not every page of Bendis’ work swarms with word balloons), but this does serve to make a point. There’s so much to unpack in this panel — and much of what happens here can happen only in comics. Unique to the form is a single master shot that in still form depicts both time and motion with multiple portrayals of our principle characters — Matt Murdoch and Foggy Nelson. In this single image we see two worlds at the same time — the mundane world that Foggy perceives (watch out for that doggy doo, Councillor!) and the world revealed by Matt’s enhanced senses. Matt’s world is a mosaic of smells, vibrations, and overheard conversations brilliantly displayed with inset panels emphasizing tiny details inside this same master shot. Add to this a balance between words and art — which lets us admire Rivera’s scene-setting draftsmanship, while at the same time wonderfully framing Waid’s dialogue that advances the story and illuminates character — and we lose ourselves in a story that fully embraces (rather than fights) everything that comics do well.
While any kind of story can be told in comics, I am most interested in those that can only or best be told in comics form — where words AND pictures are used to best effect. To be fair, many of the comics I laud here at Longbox Graveyard do not fit this description — for all that I cherish Silver and Bronze Age superhero stories, they don’t always take best advantage of the form. At the same time, these classic stories weren’t trying to be anything other than comic books. They might not always have been great comics, but they weren’t trying to be film or television (for the most part), and when Steranko or Paul Gulacy adopted cinematic techniques in their comics art, it was as a means of revolutionizing or revitalizing the comic book form, rather than imitating another type of media.
But there is very little competition for the heart of an old-time comic book reader such as myself. If you want those kinds of stories, there’s really only one place to get them — old comics.
Master of Kung Fu, Paul Gulacy & Doug Moench
My problem with the Bendis approach is that by electing not to play to the particular strength of comics, Bendis can’t help but compete with other forms of media which do these kinds of tales as well or better. With all this character-driven dialogue (which Bendis does very well), I can’t help but feel I’m reading a television script. Rather than read Bendis’ Daredevil, a part of me would rather re-watch The Wire or The Sopranos. Of course, there’s nothing stopping me from doing both, but I come to comics with a set of expectations, and one of those expectations is that they are going to give me a story that I can’t get anywhere else, whether it is a cosmic Jack Kirby space epic, or the unique exploration of the printed page demonstrated by Will Eisner. When a comic tale puts aside so many of its tools and techniques in favor of dialogue, dialogue, and dialogue (however clever), I can’t help but feel some fundamental aspect of the form has gone missing.
Bendis wears me out with his dialogue-heavy style, but I do like his stories, so I thought I’d search for his work in other forms.
I thought I’d struck paydirt with the motion comics version of SpiderWoman: Agent of S.W.O.R.D. After all, I kept thinking of Bendis’ work as a television script. What could be better than a comic book animatic?
Unfortunately, this form wasn’t much better than a Bendis comic. Without all those word balloons it looked cleaner, but the story was still too talky and static. Practically the entire first episode was two characters talking on a bus. Even Sandra Bullock and a satchel full of TNT would have a hard time livening up this scene. Maybe it gets better in later episodes, but I couldn’t be bothered.
More recently, though, I have found that the man and the hour have met at last in Bendis’ relaunch of the Guardians of the Galaxy. No, not the best-selling comic. I’m talking about the “Infinite Comics” prequel stories that have been made available for free in the run-up to the new series.
This format is still clearly a comic. There’s no distracting audio, and the reader controls the pace of the presentation. Transitions and scenes are presented in conventional comic book style. But the ability to re-use space finally gives Bendis’ dialogue has the physical word-space it needs to breathe, and the minimal change of art from panel-to-panel doesn’t feel as much the cheat here that it does on the printed page.
It may not look like a lot here in still images, but through the “Infinite” format, with balloons transitioning in and out … it works! These are essentially the same kind of minimally-changing images that annoyed me in Bendis’ Daredevil, but only seeing one panel a time makes Bendis’ wall-of-words less intimidating, and the transitions help denote passage of time and make it easier to notice and enjoy story and dialogue beats. These are lightweight little stories — especially when compared with Bendis’ heavy Daredevil run — but they’re fun and they do show a promising evolution of the comic book form. The effect is much easier to judge by experiencing it for yourself, and the books are free at Comixology, so check them out.
In the end it comes down to personal preference, and I’m willing to admit my tastes are idiosyncratic. What do you think? Am I being too narrow with the way I define the best use of the comics form? Share your thoughts in the comments section, below.
NEXT WEDNESDAY: #97 Top Ten Captain America Foes
- I Waited in a Line for Hours to Meet Brian Michael Bendis (nerdfarmblog.com)
- Marvel-Bendis Dominate March Sales in Another UP Month (newsarama.com)
- Marvel Comics, Brian Michael Bendis top March comics chart (digitalspy.co.uk)
- Mighty Marvel March: Enter the Age of Ultron (biffbampop.com)
- Longbox Graveyard Podcast: “Marvel Comics – A Space Odyssey” (longboxgraveyard.com)