Friday, October 15, 2021

Great Comic Book Writers -- it's a visual medium

 

  

In the history of comic books, it could be argued the 1980s ushered in the time of the superstar writer. Certainly, prior to 1980, there were notable writers in comics: the two Steves, Englehart & Gerber, Marv Wolfman, Gardner Fox, and Stan Lee had burnished his myth to a high sheen through editorials and essays, as well as his many speeches on college campuses. But the breakout of writer as commodity for selling and marketing comics certainly took place in the early 80s. And the vanguard of this movement emanated from the U.K. in the form of three particular authors--Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, and Alan Moore. 

  

Forests of metaphorical trees have succumbed to the writings examining the works of these three writers. They imbued their stories with an adult sensibility, refusing to talk down to their audience, in a medium historically marketed toward children. They had a distance to the material--American superhero comics, in the main--that allowed them to view these characters through a different lens and bring something new and innovative to the stories. And they brought a bit of magic to the medium that ignited a passion in a generation of comic book readers, including me. But what doesn't seem to get discussed as much in these pieces is the fact that all three of these writers were also, to a greater or lesser extent, artists. And that, in my opinion, made a huge difference in their facility in crafting comic book tales. 

  

Within comics, Neil Gaiman is best known for his dark fantasy, Sandman. Created with a multitude of distinct artists, including Mike Dringenberg, Jill Thompson, Marc Hempel, et al., the story of Morpheus is a poignant and tragic one, encompassing multiple genres. Unlike other comic series, Sandman benefits from the various artistic styles utilized to delineate its grand narrative, with Gaiman leaning into the strengths of his myriad collaborators, in order to tell the story of the Lord of Dreams. It is an epic tale wherein readers are rewarded with multiple readings of the entire series. 


Though the artists involved should obviously be accorded the bulk of the accolades for the artistic accomplishments within Sandman, I feel that Gaiman's visual sense need also be acknowledged. Gaiman has stated in interviews that he would often do thumbnails of an issue--smaller and sketchier artistic layouts for a comic story--before scripting, in order to see how the narrative flowed and whether the focal points of the story worked. He also wanted to know where the advertisements in the monthly issues would fall, within the page count, so that he could be sure that big reveals would occur on the left side of a two-page spread, as one turned the page, thus preserving the surprise for the audience. And although Gaiman's thumbnails for his comic scripts will probably never be published, his art has seen print. Two examples include the 24-hour comic Being An Account Of The Life And Death Of The Emperor Heliogabolus, which can be seen here, and the cover for Peter David's collection of his CBG columns, But I Digress... 


One of the best examples of this application of visual sense to a comic story can be found in issue #7 of Sandman. Morpheus is confronting Dr. Dee, who took the Dream King's ruby, which is infused with much of Morpheus's power, and corrupted it, making it a weapon in Dee's hand. They are battling over the amulet and Dee unleashes a furious onslaught, eventually destroying the ruby with the outpouring of oneiric energies in a blinding flash of red. Turning the page, we see a diminutive Dr. Dee on a completely white page, a vast emptiness stretching on to infinity, as far as readers are concerned. This continues on the next page, as Dee ponders what has just happened. Then he raises his arms, triumphant, having defeated Morpheus. And we turn the page once more, to find Dee, small and insignificant, standing in the alabaster palm of Morpheus's hand. It's a stunning bit of comic book storytelling, especially the first time you see it, and it all hinges on the understanding of the visual aspects of comic books and utilizing the "camera" of the comic panel to focus on the bits necessary to convey the story. 




Grant Morrison gained prominence in America with their revitalization of Animal Man. Taking what was considered a fairly silly character in a silly suit, Morrison gave Buddy Baker (Animal Man's alter-ego) a down to earth family life, made him a vegan and an animal activist (how could Buddy not be when he utilized all these animals' abilities?), and changed Animal Man from the butt of the joke to a complex and engaging character. And people responded. Initially contracted to write a 4-issue mini series, Animal Man was upgraded to an ongoing series, and Morrison went on to write a total of 26 issues, which are some of the best comics you may ever read. Certainly, Morrison's distinct point of view buttressed by wide-ranging interests helped to launch this title, as well as its young writer, to critical acclaim. But again, Morrison's artistic background and their understanding of comics as a visual medium must also be considered essential to the success of Animal Man and all their subsequent works. Morrison, like Gaiman, is known for thumbnailing his scripts, most notably seen in the anniversary edition of Arkham Asylum, which Morrison created with Dave McKean. In the back of that edition the full thumbnails for the entire story are available to examine. Morrison also drew a page for his seminal work, The Invisibles, and also contributed a well delineated sketch to Bryan Talbot's landmark comic series, The Adventures of Luther Arkwright

 

A prime example of this visual approach can be found in issue #5 of Animal Man, "The Coyote Gospel." In this tale, a coyote that walks on its hind legs and apparently cannot die has become a bogeyman across the deserts of Death Valley. One long haul trucker in particular, after having encountered the coyote a year prior, has come to think of this animal as the devil incarnate and plans to kill it, to be rid of its curse. When Animal Man comes across these two, the coyote reanimating its limbs after having been shot and blown up by an explosive charge planted by the trucker, the coyote wordlessly hands to Buddy the parchment it carries around its neck. On the parchment is laid out the story of the coyote, a being from an alternate dimension where the animals that live there only know strife, and the destruction and victimization is eternal, since their bodies instantly renew themselves when harmed. But Crafty, the name of this coyote, wanted an end to this and approached God and said he would do anything if only peace would come to their world. And God told Crafty that if he wished, he could be sent to live in the hell in the dimension above, and while he lived and bore the suffering of the world, peace would reign below. And so, Crafty was reborn in Death Valley, and he could not die, and he suffered. But with his immortality, Crafty hoped that one day he might be able to return to his world and throw God off his throne to build a better world for everyone. With this story, Crafty hoped to recruit other beings with powers who might assist him. Animal Man is the first of these recruits. 


And here is where Morrison reveals an advanced understanding of the visual aspects of the comic book medium. Throughout this origin story, the audience has seen images from Crafty's original world with the narrative shared through text boxes--this could be Crafty speaking, though it seems unlikely, and thus, in readers' minds, it must be the actual text from the parchment. But, as we reach the end, there's a glimpse of the parchment in Animal Man's hands, and then we pull back to see more of it--squiggles and markings that are gibberish to our Terran eyes--at which point Animal Man provides the emotional kick in the gut when he says: "...I can't read it." Morrison understood how readers would accept the text boxes for Crafty's tale as the text on the parchment, and only at the end, when the foreign alphabet is revealed, would the full realization of Crafty's tragedy become evident. It's brilliant and a revelation that might almost exclusively be achievable in comic book form. 


Moore started out as a cartoonist, selling two strips in 1979 -- Roscoe Moscow to Sounds, a weekly music magazine, and Maxwell the Magic Cat to his local Northants Post. He found his labor intensive style too time consuming and decided to focus more on writing than art. But the experience of writing and drawing a strip for publication would certainly lend itself well to his career that followed. In 1986, Moore (with artist Dave Gibbons) reimagined the Charlton heroes bought by DC Comics and created the landmark series, Watchmen, to great critical acclaim. Watchmen has become the touchstone for superhero comics and is considered by most fans as Moore's magnum opus. With this series, Moore and Gibbons worked together to exploit the unique aspects of the comic book storytelling medium, to great effect, storytelling aspects and approaches that, as should be obvious, revolved around the visual primacy of the medium. 


One of the unique aspects of the comic book that Moore & Gibbons wished to utilize was its format, i.e. the fact that, though a comic is like a book with its pagination and a dedicated reading order (left to right in America) and like a film or television show with its visuals, a comic book is, in fact, neither of these things. Unlike a book, a comic has a strong visual component. Unlike film, which is intended to tell its story from beginning to end without stopping, in a comic one can easily jump front to back within the story and make comparisons of imagery and scenes, in order to better understand symbolic, thematic, or other facets of the narrative. In Watchmen, there are myriad instances where these two creators take advantage of this aspect of comics. There are recurring visual motifs, within chapters proper as well as across the book as a whole, such as the bloody smiley face button or clock faces, that add layers to the story being told. Scenes, especially those set at the intersection in town with the newsstand, are told from various points of view at different times, with characters from prior scenes visible in the background, not only to enrich the whole, but also to, again, add layers to the story on the page. So much happens in the gutters and the backgrounds of Watchmen, it's more than can be processed with a single reading. And it all stems from the fact that comics is a visual medium. 


A great example in Watchmen of Moore & Gibbons utilizing the visual aspects of comics to full effect can be found in the mystery of Rorschach's true identity. What readers discover, with the end of issue #5, is that he was right in front of them the whole time. 



In issue #1 of Watchmen, pages 4 and 5, Moore & Gibbons introduce us to Rorschach, and with the layout of the panels actually reveal who Rorschach is (a fact only obvious upon a subsequent reading). In the final panel of page 4, in the light of day, we see the vagrant carrying his "The End is Nigh" sign, in front of a multi-story office or apartment building, an ad for 'mmeltdowns!' on the side of the building mostly obscured by shadow. In the first panel of page 5, the very next panel, we see the same scene, but at night, with the 'mmeltdowns!' ad now fully visible on the side of the building, and in the foreground is the top of the fedora that Rorschach, whose character introduction occurs on this page, wears. With this mirroring of the imagery between these two successive panels, Moore & Gibbons were showing the audience who Rorschach is. But it isn't obvious for a few reasons: 

One -- when we see the vagrant with the "End is Nigh" sign, Rorschach hasn't yet been introduced, so when he is on page 5, all of our attention goes toward that. 

Two -- the scene may look familiar to readers but it isn't readily obvious that it's the exact same spot, as the scenes occur in day and night, respectively, making certain details obscured or not, accordingly. 

Three -- the first image is at the end of one page, feeling like a summation of that scene, while the second is at the top of the next page, starting a new scene and providing a strict demarcation line between the two, which, along with the time differential, severs any connection between them in our mind.

  

In issue #2, three of the remaining heroes -- Dr. Manhattan, Nite Owl, and Ozymandias -- attend the funeral of their former comrade, the Comedian. Outside the cemetery, at the beginning of the service, we see the vagrant with his "End is Nigh" sign walk past the entrance of the cemetery. At the end of the service, after a mysterious attendee places a wreath of roses on the Comedian's (Edward Morgan Blake's) grave and exits the cemetery, we see the same vagrant passing by once more, following this mysterious attendee, who, it turns out, is Moloch, a former antagonist of the heroes. Back at his apartment, Moloch hangs his coat and hat and goes into the kitchen to prepare something to eat, when Rorschach launches himself from Moloch's emptied refrigerator (in the shadows of the middle panel on this page, Gibbons has drawn all the frozen foods, taken from the fridge to make room for Rorschach, in a corner out of Moloch's sight, one of myriad great visual details) in order to interrogate him about the funeral Rorschach "heard" Moloch had attended. 

Again, Moore & Gibbons are putting clues into the book that would allow readers to see who Rorschach is, if only they could focus on the invisible vagrant in the background and make the connection between him and Rorschach's sudden appearance with information that would have been challenging to get in such a short time. But these creators are counting on their audience to focus on the main point of the various pages, allowing the vagrant to pass through panels as something that fleshes out the world and makes things feel more real, rather than seeing what, upon reflection, feels like an obvious connection revealing Rorschach's secret identity. 






A final example of how Moore & Gibbons placed clues into Watchmen about who Rorschach really was comes in issue #5. We see Rorschach, in his civilian identity, eating in the Gunga Diner, as he watches his maildrop, a public trash receptacle, across the street. The scene is shown from Rorschach's POV, so readers never see his face, only his hands, in a few instances. Later, as the scene shifts to the newsstand owner on that same intersection where the diner is, the vagrant with the "End is Nigh" sign is seen, twice, digging through the trash receptacle that is Rorschach's maildrop. Again, Moore & Gibbons are showing their audience who Rorschach is "in real life," but our prejudices do not allow for dots to be connected. Having seen this vagrant earlier in the series, readers know his appearance to be less than shabby, indicating he is not well off and may even be homeless. So, to see him digging through trash does not seem that unusual, if we see it at all, since, again, this is done in the background of panels and  is never the focus. And just to make sure it does not feel like a cheat, Moore & Gibbons show the vagrant digging through the trash two times in the same day. Why else would he sift through rubbish a second time if he were not Rorschach checking on his maildrop? It's a wonderful bit of sleight of hand by Moore & Gibbons, and it is this that makes multiple readings of Watchmen so enjoyable and rewarding. 




With the "British Invasion" of American comics, Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, and Neil Gaiman were at the forefront of those U.K. creators who came to epitomize a certain type of storytelling in mainstream American comics and helped usher in the era of the superstar writer. They have only added to that legacy in the decades since, and their works in the comic book medium are often held up as examples of works one can share with non comic reading friends. Certainly, the point of view and varied interests of this triumvirate account for much of that, but the fact that each of them had a background in art, and comic art particularly, also seems to go a long way to understanding the impact they have had on American comics, as well as comics in general. And if you don't believe me, why not check out some of their books, I cannot imagine you would be disappointed. 


-chris

Monday, September 13, 2021

Time in Comics -- it works differently

 


In fiction, time works differently than in real life. It has to, because very often the stories we read or watch or listen to take place over the course of many days, months, or years, while we experience them in a matter of hours or days. (Alan Moore's JERUSALEM took me months, but that's a whole different beast, that.) In no other medium, though, is the idea of time more malleable or more fluid than in comic books. It's part of what I love about them. 


As a story distribution vehicle, the comic book, in its most recognizable form -- roughly 20 pages of words and images combined to relate the most recent narrative chapter of a particular, brightly garbed hero's adventures on a monthly basis -- is, perhaps, the most compressed story distribution vehicle, as regards the geographical space with which writers and artists have to work. The page count has fluctuated over the past few decades, from 17 pages with a shorter backup feature in many late-70s DC comics, to 24 pages through the 80s and 90s, to around 20 pages today. An average page may have 6 panels on it, each a snapshot of a specific moment in time, but there are also splash pages -- a single image encompassing the entirety of a page to convey a moment of high drama or cool action. And although some artists may layout pages with more than 6 panels (George Pérez could do wonders in the tiny spaces necessitated by ten or twelve or fifteen panels to a page), many will often utilize fewer panels per page to tell their story. So, creators have somewhere fewer than 120 images -- and more likely fewer than 100 or 90, to be honest -- to get across what they want to say for that month, in that chapter. It's not a lot of room. 

With those limitations of space, comic creators had to figure out ways to infuse the most narrative punch in as economical a way as possible. Early in comics' history, that meant a whole lot of word balloons and thought bubbles stuffed with text that, in my opinion, dragged the narrative to a screeching halt, leaving it as limp as a pile of wet leaves. Blechh. These writers and artists, though, also figured out some tricks hidden within the mechanics of the comic page. A prime example would be the gutters, the empty spaces in between the panels. Depending on the transition between images from one panel to the next, a lot or a little could occur in the gutter. If the artist merely drew a succession of images that linked together like those flip books we used to have, then the reader had little to do in order to get what was going on. Nothing's in the gutters; it's all on the page. But, if the creators jumped from one image in one scene to a totally different image from another scene (probably set in the near future, possibly set in the past, maybe even running parallel . . . take your pick!), a connection could be made, subconsciously, between these two images. And maybe, as more context became evident as one continued reading, there would be a direct correlation between these seemingly disparate scenes. Perhaps some action in that first scene spurred what occurred in the following scene, even if it took place in a different locale at a different point in time. 


When this happens, the gutter becomes paramount in the narrative flow, because whatever happened in between these two images, which may sit side-by-side or possibly connect through a page-turn, happened within that empty space separating them, and now the reader gets to fill that in with their imagination. The gutter is the magic spark within comic books, and it makes the reader a participant within the narrative, allowing for the tapestry of a comic to expand to a (theoretically) limitless tableau. 


The publication schedule of comics -- for the most part series have run on a monthly basis, though it's common today for more popular series to run every two weeks -- is another aspect that injects time into a comic narrative. With a month between issues, readers have all that time to ponder the most recent chapter of a hero's story, to mull it over, consider the ramifications, hypothesize about what may come next or how the hero could possibly escape that issue's cliffhanger. In short, this 4-week hiatus between issues allows the story to build in the audience's mind while also expanding time within the narrative itself. From one issue to the next, as much time as a week or a month could pass, or as little as a minute. But in our brains, even if very little time passes in Batman's story from issue #546 to #547 (as a hypothetical example), readers have still experienced a month, and that added time can help with the storytelling, because things that may have happened "too quickly" in the previous issue now have the benefit of a whole month passing, tempering the coincidental nature of some of the previous actions.  


Which all sounds far too abstract. Let me try to illuminate this argument with a concrete example: 


In the wake of DC's mega-event, Crisis on Infinite Earths, time was reset and the history of the DC universe was re-arranged and streamlined. The comics published by DC afterward needed to reflect this change in status quo, and one of those titles was Batman: the New Adventures, retitled with issue #408, written by Max Allan Collins, with pencils by Chris Warner and Inks by Mike DeCarlo. In this issue -- following directly after Miller & Mazzucchelli's classic, Year One --  Batman decides to work solo again, with no Robin, after Dick Grayson is almost killed by the Joker (a phantom image of Dick as Nightwing reveals his future . . . which, playing along with the theme of this piece, has already occurred a few years in the past, as far as publication dates). As a solo crimefighter, Batman eventually meets Jason Todd, a young vagrant who stole two of the tires from the Batmobile while it was parked in Crime Alley. Impressed, Batman takes Jason to a local orphanage, promising to check up on him.


In the following issue, written again by Collins but drawn by Ross Andru & Dick Giordano, Batman discovers, through checking up on Jason, that the orphanage where he took the boy, Ma Gunn's Orphanage, is actually a headquarters for a juvenile gang run by the matriarch of the place. Thanks to Jason, Batman discovers their plan to steal a priceless diamond necklace and thwarts the pack of hoodlums and their elderly crime boss. In the end, Batman commends Jason for his work, calling him Robin, and resetting the cycle of the Dynamic Duo once more, a mere couple of dozen pages after his declaration to work alone. 


Reading these two issues today, that shift from working alone to again taking on a partner -- a child partner in Batman's war on crime -- may seem abrupt on the part of the Batman. That's because it is. But reading it back in 1987, as it was being published, there would have been a month in between those issues. Readers would have had almost thirty days to digest the reality that Batman was again fighting crime solo. If one considers that during the 80s the primary audience for comic books, specifically superhero comics, was children, those thirty days are a not insignificant amount of time. So, when the Batman does a one-eighty in the very next issue, they would not have been reading it as if it was only yesterday he'd declared his return to solo vigilantism (and, in fact, there's a bit of a montage aspect in that previous issue when the creators show Batman fighting crime on his own again, indicating a relatively lengthy amount of time). To them the time that had passed in between reading these two issues could have translated to the narrative within the comic itself, allowing for a less abrupt transition back to having a Robin at Batman's side. And it seems possible that comic book creators may have taken this passage of real time into account when crafting the monthly adventures of one's favorite superhero. It's certainly a trick that would allow writers and artists to compress events in order to move the narrative along more swiftly, while also hopefully avoiding complaints of coincidence or a straining of credibility (he wears a batsuit and swings through skyscrapers on his batrope when he isn't using his batwing or batplane . . . straining credulity?!!?). 


It's interesting to consider that older comics should not be read in quick succession. Many issues, even up to the 80s when I began collecting comic books, were crafted as single packets of entertainment to be digested on their own, with little, if any, connective tissue to the previous issues or those that followed (outside of the power sets of heroes and villains and characterizations of the main and supporting casts). Jim Shooter, editor-in-chief of Marvel Comics from 1978 to  1987, famously (apocryphally???) stated that creators needed to craft each issue as if it were the very first issue of a new reader. Which is a fair enough assumption. But I think adherence to such a rule wasn't necessary and could be detrimental to a creative team. My first Marvel Universe comic (as opposed to G.I. Joe or Star Wars) was Marvel Super Hero Secret Wars #4. Number Four!!!! The series was already a quarter of the way through it's twelve-issue run, starring dozens of heroes and villains with whom I had a limited experience, and I just dove in and read it. And I was hooked. 


But I digress. Apologies for the tangent. Where was I? ... time in comics works differently ...


There's also the idea of characters' ages in comics. Again, specifically superhero comics. When the first original superheroes were created for comic books, the medium was seen as a cheap, throwaway bit of entertainment. Poorly reproduced art on the cheapest newsprint -- all in color for a dime! -- with little to no continuity, because who was going to hang onto these comics? Kids folded them up and stuck them in their back pockets. Issues were traded and shuffled between friends with little thought to which one belonged to which kid, because they only wanted to be able to read more and more of these adventures. And if that meant gathering with the neighborhood kids, throwing this week's issues all into a pile, and pulling out one you hadn't read yet, then so be it. With this disposability also came a lack of forethought as to the longevity of these characters. I don't believe anyone involved with the publishing of those earliest comic books expected the medium to last as long as it has. So the idea of these heroes -- Captain Marvel, Wonder Woman, Hawkman, the Flash -- aging wasn't even a consideration. 


Sure, this too might strain credulity (Batman's still only 29, even though he fought against villains in 1939!), but what else would we fans of the medium want? Sure, the older Bruce Wayne in Batman Beyond is pretty damn cool, but allowing the original heroes to give up the ghost isn't something fans seem inclined to want. I mean, Barry Allen (the original, Silver Age Flash) sacrificed himself in Crisis on Infinite Earths and remained dead for a very long time, almost three decades. And Wally West ably took up the mantle, becoming, in many fans' opinions, a far better character than Barry ever was. But, even Barry was brought back, and is now, today, the primary Flash. It's too bad, because he did mean more as a character, in death, than he ever did in life. But, what're you gonna do? Time in comics doesn't work the same, and the hardest thing to do in these four-color worlds is kill off a character and have them remain dead. 

-chris

Thursday, April 29, 2021

Miller & Mazzucchelli: How Were They Allowed To Do That?

  

During an 18-month stretch in 1986-87, Frank Miller had a number of comic series published that many creators would be pleased to list as their career output, including Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Daredevil: Love & War, and Elektra Assasin. Two of the storylines published in this period were done in collaboration with artist David Mazzucchelli, Daredevil: Born Again and Batman: Year One, both of which could be argued as the best superhero comic story every published. (Dark Knight is in that conversation too, but we're here to discuss Miller/Mazzucchelli). What these two artists achieved is impressive. What they were allowed to do with mainstream characters seems impossible. And the limited track record these two had, prior to 1986, makes it all the more improbable. 

Miller debuted as an artist for Marvel comics, in the late 1970s, doing fill-ins across a number of titles. He landed a regular art assignment on Daredevil, in 1979, and was promoted to full scripting duties, while still penciling the series, toward the end of the following year. Miller wrote 27 issues of Daredevil, garnering critical acclaim along with improved sales, for a title that was nearly cancelled before and during Miller's tenure. After this, Miller drew another half dozen or so comics, including Chris Claremont's Wolverine mini-series, until Ronin, the next project he wrote and drew, a six-issue series published as squarebound, 52-page books by DC Comics. And with that, Miller's writing résumé leading into this year-and-a-half burst of creativity was complete. 

Mazzucchelli, similarly, had a limited résumé leading into these two significant storylines -- Born Again and Year One. Mazzucchelli drew a half dozen individual issues across various Marvel titles like Star Wars, Marvel Fanfare, and X-Factor. Then in 1984, with issue #206, he became the regular artist on . . . Daredevil, roughly five years after Miller had done the same. From there, Mazzucchelli drew through issue #217 (missing #207) and then #220-226 (missing #224), or 15 total issues. At the point the Born Again storyline commenced, Mazzucchelli hadn't drawn the equivalent of two years worth of monthly comics. And yet -- in conjunction with works by the likes of Alan Moore and Art Spiegelman -- he and Miller were about to change the face of comics. 

The most important thing to remember about Born Again and Year One is the fact that these were not part of a more adult publishing arm from these Big 2 publishers, like Epic or Vertigo (still almost a decade away from inception), nor were they even outside mini-series. These two storylines took place within the regular titles of each character, Daredevil and Batman, respectively. One issue, you were reading a story from a different creative team (though Mazz was the regular artist on Daredevil at the time), the next, Miller & Mazzucchelli were bringing a whole new level of storytelling to your standard, monthly, four-color adventures: issues #227-233 of Daredevil and #404-407 of Batman. It had to be jarring for some regular readers. 

The first collaboration between Miller & Mazzucchelli was at Marvel, with Daredevil: Born Again, in 1986. Miller's initial run on the character, a few years previous, had made Daredevil a more edgy character, injecting him into the shadowy crime world of New York City, while also introducing a bit of fantasy in the form of the  ninja clan, The Hand, his blind martial arts mentor, Stick, and Matt Murdock's (Daredevil's civilian identity) former lover, Elektra, who had become a ninja assassin in the intervening years. Born Again expanded on that base in ways that would blow up the title, and mainstream comics, in a profound way. 

The opening scene of the first issue of this storyline -- again, importantly, nestled within the regular monthly series, with issue #227 -- has Karen Page, another of Matt's former lovers, giving up the secret that he is, in fact, Daredevil, for the price of a shot of heroin (unspoken at this juncture, but stated outright later in the story). We also learn that Karen has been involved in either soft or hardcore porn, as the dealer talking with her mentions he recognizes her from her flicks, that she's "big at the stag parties." At this point, in 1986, comics were still considered fodder for children, brightly garbed heroes beating up brightly garbed villains, with a return to the status quo at the end of every issue, only for the pattern to repeat the following month. These comics, particularly superhero comics distributed to newsstands and spinner racks, like Daredevil, were aimed at this demographic; they weren't yet made with adults in mind. So, for this story to begin with a character being described as popular at stag parties and selling our hero's secret for drugs was a big deal. Certainly, drugs had been used as story points before, most notably in Green Lantern/Green Arrow #85 and the anti-drug storyline from Amazing Spider-Man #96-98. These were important milestones in the history of comics publishing, but what resulted from Karen Page's revelation would add a whole new dimension to comic book storytelling.

It's the tone of this story, by Miller & Mazzucchelli, that really stands out for me. They don't treat Karen Page's addiction with anything approaching bombast or titillation. It feels like something from a hardboiled pulp novel by the likes of Raymond Chandler or Jim Thompson, authors whom Miller holds in high regard. It is this ground level, almost subdued (when taken in the context of typical superhero comic book fare) approach that elevates the story, as we follow Karen in her flight to New York hoping to find help from Matt. She hitches a ride with a skeevy character -- a pimp who wants to use Karen, to turn her out and make himself some scratch. He keeps his hold over her by offering up the heroin she needs, even as Karen desires to be free of this addiction. But combating a drug addiction is not an easy task. It requires daily vigilance even after you kick it. This truth, along with the shadow of guilt Karen feels and the torture she endures, resonates throughout her arc. 

Along with this new, adult approach to the character of Karen Page, Miller & Mazzucchelli also break down Matt Murdock, bringing him to a point as low as readers had ever seen him. Again, it is the tone of the storytelling that stands out -- no bombast or melodrama dripping with sentimentality, no overt machismo here. This feels real, genuine, a psychotic break we can believe, and it erupts into violence that is unhinged, unsettling, and unnerving. Matt believes everyone, including his former lover and his best friend, are turned against him. He sees devils everywhere he looks. When a collection of youths enter the subway car Matt is riding, intent on divesting the passengers of their valuables, and one of them points a gun in his face, Matt smiles, coldly, calmly . . . and then he reacts, taking out the armed thief, followed by his cronies, leaving them in a bloody mess on the subway car floor. As it stops, a police officer enters, gun drawn, and Matt proceeds to take him out as well. It's a bloody assault the likes of which would have been inconceivable for the lawyer-slash-hero, previously, and it accentuates the depths to which he has fallen. 

There is an even more disturbing scene of violence later in the story. Ben Urich, Daily Bugle reporter and friend of Matt Murdock, is investigating the Kingpin. He goes to the city jail with photographer Glorianna O'Breen, Matt's former, and Foggy's current, girlfriend, to question Nurse Lois, one of the Kingpin's assassins who's agreed to testify. Urich is accompanied by a fellow reporter, Blanders, and officer Hegerfors, who was assigned to Urich for protection. After the prison guard, Coogan, lets them into the cell, he locks the door. Blanders and Coogan reveal themselves to be on the Kingpin's payroll, as Blanders shoots Lois and Coogan fires on Hegerfors. Hegerfors manages to return fire, killing the prison guard, but Blanders isn't done. Everything happens quickly, Urich lunges for Blanders, knocking him down before retrieving Hegerfors's pistol and whipping Blanders with it, blood flying from the grip, even as Glori continues snapping photographs. Mazzucchelli is a beast in this scene. You can feel the tension, the desperation, the fear in Ben. It permeates every panel, with the angles chosen, the body language, the facial expressions. You know this is a life or death situation, and it stops your breath. It's brilliant. And haunting. 

A year later, Miller & Mazzucchelli helped usher in the "new" post-Crisis Batman, with the Year One storyline in Batman issues #404-407. Again, these two creators wanted to shake things up, to infuse more "realism" into what was possible with superheroes, while, in this case, retelling Batman's origin. They also widened their net to include the origin (at least as far as his days in Gotham City) of James Gordon, a detective in this storyline who would one day become Commissioner. And it is Gordon, as well as Selina Kyle, Catwoman, whom Miller & Mazzucchelli target, in order to add to the Bat-mythos, while also dragging the comic book medium forward. 

        

Gordon is young, but has a history in Chicago. His wife, Barbara, is pregnant with their first child, and he is hoping to restart his police career with this new posting in Gotham City. He soon learns that most of his colleagues are on the take and Commissioner Loeb is certainly corrupt (unsurprising for the cesspool that is Gotham). But Gordon is here to fight the good fight. He believes in what he does and believes he must hold to his principles. He takes out Detective Flass, a former green beret, after Flass and a half-dozen other cops roughed Gordon up to teach him a lesson. This, coupled with the good press Gordon receives for his police work, provides him with a bit of armor against retaliation by the Commissioner and his cronies. But it is still lonely, being one of the very few good cops in Gotham, and a romance blossoms between Gordon and fellow detective, Sarah Essen. Even as his pregnant wife suffers through a stifling summer in Gotham. This is one of the heroes of this story! And yet, it feels genuine, and it imbues Gordon with a humanity (though flawed) and a relatability that he may not have evoked previously. In the end, Essen requests a transfer and Gordon and his wife begin marriage counseling, but just the idea that these heroes can have clay feet feels exhilarating, and it adds a lot to this narrative, as well as to the possibilities for future narratives from these and other creators. 

We also get a new Selina Kyle (Catwoman) in this retelling of Batman's origin. She is a prostitute, a dominatrix, who works in the ugly part of Gotham. Despite this, Selina comes across as a very strong character, one who seems to have chosen her profession rather than one who is being exploited. It's a fine distinction, but certainly one that comes across in this story. When Selina decides that she and Holly, the young girl who lives with her and is starting out as a street walker, are going to leave this life, she takes down the pimp who claims to own them. Then she buys a catsuit to become a burglar, and to make a splash like this new Batman. Yet, her exploits are either mistaken as that of the Batman or she is described as his sidekick. It's frustrating for her, and only makes her more determined to succeed at this new venture. Again, Miller & Mazzucchelli imbue a character with far more humanity than had been typically done in the past (and, sadly, is still too rarely achieved in our new present, 35 years after the publication of Year One). It's a relatively simple approach, but one that wasn't often attempted up to this point, for multiple reasons. 

            

As with Born Again, Miller & Mazzucchelli also bring a more nuanced, more real approach to the violence in this story. During Bruce Wayne's initial foray into the dark streets of Gotham, even before he's latched onto the idea of becoming a bat, he is seriously injured by a knife wound and has difficulty getting home. Bruce is not the supremely able and deadly combatant he will become; he's a neophyte going on bravado and overconfidence born of youth, and it almost ends in his death. There are more examples of this too throughout the series, of punches or kicks or bullets actually having impact, causing pain, and impairing the beneficiaries of the assault. This is no WWE wrestling match, this is real life (as real as superhero comics can get), and the consequences of violence can be substantial. 

Looking back from the vantage point of 2021, it is still surprising that Born Again and Year One got the green light for publication. These two stories took recognizable, mainstream superheroes and infused a groundedness and complexity of characterization that had rarely been done before. These heroes were being written for children, their battles couldn't be muddied by the grayness of reality. Drugs? Prostitution? Infidelity? Pornography? These weren't the subjects of kids' comics, and certainly weren't character traits one would associate with the good guys. And yet, Miller & Mazzucchelli, despite lacking a breadth of experience within the comic field, were allowed to take these characters and change things significantly. And it worked. Spectacularly. And we all should be thankful that the editorial regimes at these two, large publishers took a chance on these stories, because they are easily two of the very best superhero stories ever told in the comic book medium. 


-- chris