By David Brothers
For the past ten years, I’ve been a proud resident of Oakland, California, and for a good while longer than that, I’ve been black. The conversation about police brutality and seeking alternate routes to justice to the police kicked off well before I was born and is impossible to avoid. It’s a conversation I’ve paid close attention to growing up and as an adult, both through my own experiences with the police and because The Town is also currently exploring those alternate routes.
The question of what the police actually do; what they should do; and what I grew up thinking they did has been running through my mind for ages. Our collective perception of cops over the years fascinates me, as well. Lovable schlubby cop Lieutenant Columbo wields his badge in lieu of a loaded gun and with equal effectiveness, while Vic Mackey’s ripped-from-the-headlines approach consistently dehumanizes those he serves. These takes say something about our society and how we view both policing and the police.
Daredevil #304 is a story structured around the idea that a murder happens roughly every 3 hours, 55 minutes in New York City, and that the only time when 24 hours passes without one, it’s just because a tragedy has been super heroically averted. Accordingly, in this issue, every three-to-four-ish hours Daredevil stops a crime or saves a life or does a good deed in an issue-length montage.
As a comic, it’s fine. There’s some solid action, a frankly baffling bum note with an ironic racial slur that feels completely out of place for the story and the series, and some greatly evocative writing, but it’s not necessarily a barnburner for me. I do love how Ron Garney, Bud LaRosa, & Max Scheele do Daredevil’s vision in this one though, with gestural-looking drawings unlike the more cross-contour stuff we see nowadays. The issue touches on a fair number of hot buttons of the day and clichés, and even calls out one antagonistic character as being stereotypical in the text. That broad focus actually does a good job of showing the breadth of what Daredevil gets up to each day, the position he has and role he plays in society.
During the issue, Daredevil rescues several people across the city, including a cute baby. The baby’s stroller catches in the gap for a train, putting him in extreme danger. Off-panel, an unhoused person is nearly killed and then quickly avenged, followed by Daredevil preventing a Classic Marvel Comics Tough Guy from violently attacking a recently laid off stock broker. One lady with an arm full of bags has a cab she hailed nearly stolen by a real jerk before Daredevil puts a stop to it and flings the guy into the street. A speeding car knocks over an unhoused man’s positions, which Daredevil restores in a flash. Good deeds, big and small.
That stolen cab isn’t quite as bad as the others, but it did end up being a nice example of where superheroes stand in the social order. Daredevil is a proactive protector, someone who shows up in the nick of time to save people from accidents, unseen dangers, belligerent weirdos, and actual hostility. The cops in this issue don’t do any crime fighting or crime solving, but are happy to receive the fruits of Daredevil’s labors, laughing along the way. Essentially, in this world, two things are true: Daredevil is present and the police arrive later.
There was one aspect of this issue that really struck me: the best cops in here are absolutely useless, and one is actually a danger to the public by the end. Here my obsession with police violence intersected with this random issue of Daredevil and greeted me with a new question: “What do superheroes do for us that cops don’t, exactly?”
It was remarkable to me that the crimes Daredevil is preventing aren’t crimes that cops are generally expected to handle. Cops don’t usually walk around stopping muggings or saving babies from falling off of stuff. That isn’t really what they’re paid to do. It feels like a slightly obvious realization, but this issue made me wonder if an understated but vital part of the superhero fantasy is that they will be there for you specifically in the ways cops cannot or will not.
Daredevil is a good lens for this fantasy. As Matt Murdock, he’s an attorney focused on defending victims who are generally bigger or meaner than they are — evil corporations, Big Pharma, real estate developers, and similar organizations that will take your stuff for their own. Matt Murdock is such a true believer in justice that he frequently operates pro bono, and frequently acknowledges the failings of the system and even works to ameliorate them on occasion.
If you happen to be a villain who was pushed to crime to feed your family or raise money for an operation and was then soundly defeated by Daredevil in a climactic battle for the ages, you may just find Hell’s Kitchen’s best lawyer coming by later on to offer his services and make sure you get a fair deal in court. Daredevil has a compassionate tinge that plays well with his unending inner turmoil and the frankly thrilling violence that punctuates his efforts. He’s a bad-boy boy-scout.
These aspects of the character shift and move under different creative teams as they pursue different goals. Some runs emphasize the law, others the turmoil, and others the ninja antics. All of these heroes mean different things in different ways to different people, but I personally took the juxtaposition of superheroes with the police at face value, a purely surface-level read. After Batman concusses and ties up a criminal, the cops put them in jail, yada yada, then the Joker is free to kill again. Very simple, very straightforward, and missing the nuances I’ve granted to the other interpretations.
The thing that stuck in my head and further adjusted my view of capes and cops is the final big scene, a multi-layered rescue sequence featuring Daredevil saving the lives of a few disparate strangers and simultaneously defusing a dangerous situation. In Central Park, a juggler, film students recording a scene involving a gun, an aggressive molester, and a plainclothes cop who’s been pushed to the edge all combine to create a classic Daredevil™ action sequence. Lots of tumbling, throwing things from neat angles—and of course, a little bit of painful self-sacrifice as he just barely wins the day and prevents the cop from making a terrible mistake.
The cop sees a young man running with a gun through Central Park and zeroes in on him. “Wrong day, wrong park, punk…” he says, bringing to mind Clint Eastwood as San Francisco’s own “Dirty” Harry Callahan, a precursor to Frank “The Punisher” Castle. The young man is running and laughing, and when the film students get the shot, he throws his hands high and gives a thumbs up. When he turns around, the cop is there, badge held high, gun held low, and a threat on the cop’s lips. The young man turns to explain that the gun is a prop, but the cop is laser-focused on the idea that the young man is a threat. The pleas aren’t enough. Caught in the grip of terror, the cop says, “It’s between me an’ you…I’m the one goin’ home to dinner tonight!” and pulls the trigger.
The rhetoric there should be familiar. It’s classic Us vs Them, with the blue line theoretically holding back the rising tides of ruthless criminals. The cop feared for his life, he had no choice, he had to pull the trigger. In many cases of real-life police brutality, the police involved explain that they were afraid that they’d be hurt or killed by the person, so they had to do what they did too. There is a culture of fear that persists, and it doesn’t play well with the sometimes openly antagonistic relationship police officers often have with the communities they serve. When you’re afraid, and you’ve been taught that the best way to solve a problem is to smash it, it’s no wonder that we see the headlines we do.
But Daredevil is the Man Without Fear, and his enhanced senses allow him to feel the truth faster and more accurately than any other character he meets. In this case, his physical position gives him a perspective that shows him a broad view of the events, and perspective on justice gives him the motivation to make sure that everyone goes home alive, whether that means un-hurt or free of guilt from doing a horrible thing.
In the park, the cop gives in to his fear and pulls the trigger while aiming at the young man. At the last second, Daredevil arrives and reaches out a hand, keeping the hammer of the gun from fully coming down and firing the round. After a moment, the cop pauses in shock when he realizes that he almost killed an innocent person. Daredevil kindly excuses him as being wound too tightly and suggests he get back on the horse by arresting the paedophile from earlier.
(While rushing to stop the shot, Daredevil also kept the performer from being impaled by his own blade and then threw that same sword hard enough to cut the molester’s arm and stop his advances. All while rushing to stop this guy from firing a shot. That’s good Daredevil™ stuff, right? That’s the fantasy—he can do everything, from all angles.)
It goes unstated in the comic, but it’s clear that the thing that wound the cop so tightly is the Us vs Them aspect of policing. There’s no space for nuance or justice in that dichotomy, just a problem and the only thing that can possibly fix it. It’s an effective form of bondage, and this cop cracks under the pressure.
Daredevil offering comfort to the cop immediately after the cop tried to kill someone made me sneer at first, I’ll admit. But if superheroes are going to be the best of us, they can’t just be about strict good vs evil. We need to see the heroes doing things that our authorities can’t or won’t do in order to complete the fantasy. We need everything from saving the world from space aliens to rescuing cats from trees. We need them to be a higher level of good than us normal humans may be capable of, so Daredevil reading the situation and figuring out the best way to defuse the intensity of the moment really works, in hindsight.
It’s good character work, and it tracks with other superhero fantasies, too. Spider-Man can identify danger, an instinct that’s helped him save countless people. Superman can tell if you’re lying. Even Batman, a completely normal trained to the gills in every discipline you can imagine, isn’t prone to making mistakes, and frequently offers employment or help to those who need it. Part of the superheroic fantasy is that we are not just avenged when we are harmed, but protected before we are harmed in a way that cops usually cannot accomplish.
In the end, Daredevil #304 trapped me. On first blush, it was strange, kind of okay. But in the time after I read it, I kept coming back around to it, thinking about the way the characters bounced off each other and how the pointedly current (both then and now, though in slightly different ways) developments made me feel. It’s nice when a book sends you down a train of thought you didn’t expect.
Daredevil #304 “34 Hours”
Written by D.G. Chichester
Pencilled by Ron Garney
Inked by Bud LaRosa
Coloured by Max Scheele
Lettered by Bill Oakley
David Brothers is fate’s cold breath upon your shoulder. You can find a listing of all his work past and present over on his site here, and follow him on Twitter here!
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