“To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;
A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up.” — Ecclesiastes 3:1-3
“Why hast thou forsaken me?” — Mark 15:34 and Matthew 27:46, in a quotation of Psalm 22:1
By Sergio Lopez
Reading comics is a creative and interpretative act which often requires the imagination of the reader in order to fit into a unified whole, as texts that are assembled by different authors across the decades are nonetheless read as part of a cohesive story. Sometimes the same events are later retold by entirely new writers — gaps you didn’t even know were there, filled in. The work is read both forwards and backwards, with echoes across time, texts gaining new resonance as the grander narrative progresses. Such an act requires a leap of faith from both creator and audience: in many ways it resembles no other artform so much as it does the act of Biblical interpretation, making it especially appropriate for the story of Matt Murdock — otherwise known as Daredevil.
Rarely does this kind of reading reward the audience as richly as it does in Daredevil #191, a fulcrum point in the larger tale of Matthew Murdock, and an issue voted the tenth greatest comic book of all time. There’s no big battle nor dramatic revelations and the premise is simple: Daredevil has a chat (really an internal monologue) with his arch-nemesis Bullseye. The latter is currently convalescing in the hospital, completely paralyzed and unable to even speak, the result of his battle with Daredevil after murdering Elektra, the woman Matt Murdock loved.
Beginning with an introductory sequence still shocking today, our apparent hero plays a game of Russian roulette with his foe and a .38 calibre pistol. As he does so, he recounts the story of Chuckie, a boy he encountered as both Matt Murdock and his alter ego, with tragic consequences. We’re also taken back in time to a retelling of Daredevil’s origin from Stan Lee’s days writing the series, this time with a dark revelation.
Another word for when the past intrudes upon the present is trauma, and trauma forms the key theme of the issue as it reveals an unexpected aspect of Daredevil’s past. Part of why Daredevil #191 works so effectively is because this ‘retconning’ aspect of the comic book reading experience works to mirror the character’s experience of remembering a trauma, which fragments our real selves, resurfacing parts of our past even when it’s no longer an appropriate response to the present, or altogether burying parts of our selves which we can’t face.
Maybe we knew about an experience all along, but like Daredevil we’ve forgotten — at least until we remember once more, and suddenly, everything makes sense.
In remembering Chuckie’s story, Matt Murdock confronts a long-buried fact about his past: his abuse at the hands of his father, the man who sacrificed everything to give him the opportunities he enjoys in his civilian identity, and the driving force between his desire to change the world as Daredevil. The narrative of Battlin’ Jack Murdock’s past as an abuser, and how that shaped Matt Murdock into the man he became, would be revisited and expanded upon in Miller’s 90’s saga The Man Without Fear, but with a muted impact compared to Daredevil #191. A lesson that Miller forgot (certainly in his 21st century work) is that less is more, and his writing was never more subtle and restrained — and therefore all the more richer, under the surface — than it was in this issue, the culmination of his legendary initial run with the character.
For an example of how effectively this restraint works here, see how we’re never explicitly shown or even told of Chuckie’s abuse. Instead it happens between the lines, only implied and therefore infinitely more frightening. It reflects for the reader how abuse most commonly functions in the real world: hidden behind closed doors, at the hands of those you love and trust most, and locked away.
For both Chuckie and Matt Murdock, the experience of abuse at the hands of a loved but flawed father figure — both idolized and, maybe buried deep down, hated as well — translates into a mixture of guilt and shame. Chuckie voices it best when he first sees his father’s flaws on public display and then sees Daredevil bring him down like a common thug:
“Poppa’s bad … bad … or Daredevil wouldna hit him … and if Poppa’s bad … so am I … So am I …”
Chuckie acts as a stand-in for Matt Murdock, an example of the toxic mixture that occurs when your role model is fatally flawed, leading to the lasting, nagging feeling that maybe you forever are, too. A dynamic captured in Daredevil #191 is that because of this complex past, Matthew Murdock is both one of the most broken as well as most morally upright mainstream comic book leads, and therefore a distillation of one of the dynamics that has made superheroes so compelling for generations of readers.
Let’s come back to the shocking opening with Daredevil pointing a gun at a paralyzed and bed-ridden man, and remember that this is not what heroes do. Even though the gun is ultimately revealed to have been empty the entire time, Bullseye’s terrified eyes throughout tell the whole story. Matt’s response to an inability to cope with traumatic circumstances sets up a pattern that will be explored by later writers (including at length in Brian Michael Bendis’ run) — how patterns of abuse are replicated years down the line by victims, hurting both Murdock’s loved ones as well as the criminals upon which, at his lowest points, he takes satisfaction in inflicting violence upon.
And while Matt’s Catholicism isn’t explicitly addressed here, reading forwards in time you can also see in this origin the roots of later arcs; from Miller’s “Born Again,” to Kevin Smith’s relaunch, to Chip Zdarsky’s current run. These writers explore how his religion’s concern with sin and confession translates into both his hero complex as well as his constant anxiety that he is irreparably broken. And in the fundamental questions Miller raises here with regards to the role of a superhero — and their failures and limitations — you can see the root of Matt Murdock’s modern-day arc, in which we see his attempts to build institutions that will outlast what he can do as Daredevil, even as he then comes up against the limits of institutions themselves, mirroring his own personal turmoil in Daredevil #191.
Those larger questions ask us to confront what makes someone — even someone who is inevitably flawed — a hero, as well as to understand the limits of what any individual hero can do for us. So many modern narratives trace their roots back to Daredevil #191’s twenty-two pages of restrained yet masterful narrative and art. It’s just a part of why it earns a spot as one of the greatest comic books of all time.
Daredevil #191: Roulette
Writer and Penciler: Frank Miller
Inker: Terry Austin
Colorist: Lynn Varley
Letterer: Joe Rosen
Sergio Lopez is an author and City Councilmember for his hometown of Campbell, CA. He graduated Yale University and attends Duke Divinity School. Follow him on twitter here or visit sergio-lopez.com for more of his work.
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