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Friday, January 27, 2012

Sunny 'Daredevil' collection lets gritty hero have fun

GOOD THING HE CANT SEE HOW HIGH HE IS: Daredevil #1
  • MARVEL COMICS
  • GOOD THING HE CAN'T SEE HOW HIGH HE IS: Daredevil #1
If I could pivot off something Marc Maron said, optimism has become the edgiest thing creators can do in pop entertainment. Comic books and graphic novels attracted older readers in the 1980s and 1990s with darker, more cynical characters and storylines. After a couple of decades of gritty, hardboiled superheroes and antiheroes, the comics that embrace a more positive approach, like Mark Waid's Daredevil, can stand out as risky.

Daredevil, a.k.a. attorney Matt Murdock, has always been one of Marvel Comics' most tormented heroes, partly because he's a blind man with heightened senses that help him fight evil. He's also a street-level crime-fighter with a closer relationship to poverty and other urban problems than the likes of Thor and the Fantastic Four, who take on more outlandish cosmic menaces. Frank Miller in the 1980s and Brian Michael Bendis in the 2000s conceived the character as very much like a film noir hero, and put Murdock through a wringer that was harsh even by Marvel's angsty standards. The past 10 years have seen Murdock's life ruined in every possible way, including his secret identity made public and a stint in prison with his arch-nemeses. Andy Diggle's miniseries Shadowland, saw Murdock cross numerous moral lines while possessed by a bloodthirsty demon called Snakeroot. When you've got a demon named "Snakeroot" in your book, any pretense at real-world credibility goes out the window.

By the end of Shadlowland, the character had nowhere to go but up, and that's exactly where writer Mark Waid takes him in his first Daredevil collection (Marvel Comics, $19.99), released to comics specialty shops this week. Waid doesn't ignore or rewrite Daredevil's previous continuity, but tempers Murdock's attitude, so that rather than wallow in anger, he seeks out and appreciates the joys in life. He's less a terrifying vigilante than a swashbuckling civic protector, and as a connoisseur of perfume, he's now quite the ladies' man.

The new volume includes a 10-page story in which Murdock and Foggy Nelson, his best friend and law partner, simply walk through New York's bustling streets. While having heightened senses of smell and hearing would seem nightmarish in a big city, Murdock reveals their positives: "Do you realize that every single strawberry on this table smells a little bit different?" he remarks when they visit an open-air market. Where the gritty takes on Daredevil make New York City (especially Murdock's turf of Hell's Kitchen) look like a metropolis of dark alleys and long shadows, the current version, drawn by Paolo Rivera and Marcos Martin, is bright and bustling.

Waid's Daredevil has won acclaim, and was chosen as one of the best comics of 2011 by The AV Club and Comic Book Resources. Readers who know how bleak Daredevil may appreciate Waid's sunnier approach more than newcomers to the new volume.

At times, Nelson and Murdock's attempts to revive their law practice prove more compelling than the straight-up superheroics. A two-part clash with old school supervillain Klaw, who's made of solid sound, is pleasingly creepy and reminiscent of a sci-fi TV show like "Fringe" or "The X-Files." It's undeniably fun when Waid's first story pits Daredevil against The Spot, a brazenly ridiculous Spider-Man villain. But it's too soon to tell if Waid will build up the kind of rich story arcs that make the earlier Daredevil runs so strong. But since Daredevil is known as the Man Without Fear, it makes sense that he'd be capable of having some fun.

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