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Back in the late 80s, Frank Miller redefined Batman in his seminal Batman: Year One. Taking the origin story of the Batman, he cast it in a much darker light, filling in some of the blanks and creating a re-invented hero fit for the darker, more violent times in which Miller was writing.
The Man Without Fear is his attempt to do something similar with Marvel's Daredevil. It takes the origin story of one of the company's more niche heroes and looks to freshen it and reinvent it, whilst remaining faithful to established elements of the Daredevil legend.
I have to confess, I expected more from Miller. Essentially, this is a more or less straight re-telling of the origin story of Daredevil. Yes, there are some elements that are new or which present the origin story from a slightly different angle, but it lacks that same imagination and flair that made Year One such a momentous piece of comic book history.
Much of the storytelling actually felt rather flat. There was no real spark, no real sense of excitement or danger. It lacked originality and broke no new ground. Whilst it was a perfectly serviceable re-telling of Daredevil's origin, it never really felt fresh. There was no real evidence of Miller daring to be different, of taking a well-known and well-loved Marvel character and building new elements into the established story or challenging everything we thought we knew. THAT'S what made Year One such an important piece of comic book history; it did things with the character that no-one had ever dared do before. The Man Without Fear takes Daredevil down more well-trodden paths.
In many ways Matt Murdoch is a mirror image of Batman. Both suffered misfortune and witnessed the death of their parent(s) at the hands of criminals; both suffered trauma and tragedy and both trained themselves to the peak of physical perfection. They make for interesting opposites: Bruce Wayne was the rich boy who dedicated his life to fighting crime; Murdoch is a prime candidate for going bad (living in a rough neighbourhood surrounded by crime). It offered Miller the chance to view many of Year One's ideas from the opposite perspective and it would have been nice to delve deeper into why Murdoch turned his back on a life of crime and decided to uphold the law by both day and night.
Sadly, Miller skates over many of these potentially interesting ideas, raising them briefly, but not really giving them the consideration that they merit. There are issues that pose awkward questions (how does a blind kid go from being scared and angry to happily hurling himself off tall buildings?) but are never fully or satisfactorily answered. OK, some of these are part of the whole Daredevil mythos and things in comic books are not always logical or realistic. Unfortunately, you rather get the impression that the real reason Miller is skirting around these questions is because he doesn't have any answers.
It's not that The Man Without Fear is a bad book: it's a perfectly enjoyable and serviceable re-telling of Daredevil's origin story. It's just that, coming from the man who redefined Batman, I expected so much more. Maybe I just expected too much and the fault is mine, but I was left feeling rather underwhelmed and in no mood to go off and read later Daredevil stories to find out what happened next.
Thankfully, there is a real bright spot on the horizon in the form of John Romita Jr's superb artwork. Slightly ironically, it's through the artwork that The Man Without Fear comes closest to emulating the style and panache of Year One or even The Dark Knight Returns. The artwork is deceptively simple, but massively effective. Romita Jr has a real skill of capturing tone and context through the style of his drawings. During quieter moments, the artwork conveys a sense of stillness and inaction; during moments of danger the idea of tension is perfectly captured, whilst the action sequences are so vibrant that they seem to leap off the page.
Romita Jr uses every trick in the artist's arsenal to achieve this, but it never feels like the reader is being manipulated. Rather Romita chooses the style and layout most appropriate to the action on the page. Scenes of Daredevil leaping through New York take up whole pages or comprised of large panels; fight sequences look nasty and painful, with plenty of blood to depict the ferocity of the attacks. Romita Jr's sublime artwork is easily the best thing about The Man Without Fear.
As a bonus, this volume is nicely presented with lots of supplementary material that show how the project made the transition from the initial idea through to the final printed tale becoming available on the shelves. There are lengthy excerpts from Frank Miller's original script outline which shows how the tale changed and expanded over time. There is correspondence between the various collaborators, outlining the thinking behind certain plot elements or character motivations as well as some brief interviews from other sources. This supplementary material really gives an insight into the whole creative process and shows how complex putting together a comic book really is.
Despite this wealth of material, I can't say I was bowled over by The Man Without Fear. It was merely OK. It certainly wasn't the same genre-redefining work as Miller's Year One or The Dark Knight Returns and, if it hadn't been for the superb artwork, I might even have condemned this book as "disappointing". It's a shame that Miller couldn't redefine Matt Murdoch's beginnings in the same way he did Bruce Wayne's. But hey, They do say that lightning never strikes in the same place twice.
The Man Without Fear
Frank Miller & John Romita, Jr
© Copyright SWSt 2012