Saturday, 10 April 2010

Deconstructing Superheroes - Daredevil: Born Again & Kick Ass

Daredevil: Born Again was first published in 1986 and followed in the wake of Alan Moore’s Watchmen and Frank Miller’s own The Dark Knight Returns; both highly influential comics that fundamentally changed the landscape of modern superhero fiction. Although Born Again is perhaps far less well recognised than those comics, it’s certainly no less deserving of attention.

Born Again saw Frank Miller team up with David Mazzucchelli, a pairing that might raise a few eyebrows were it to happen today. Miller brought his trademark hard boiled crime stylings to the book and Mazzucchelli delivered art to match, with an unparalleled spatial awareness of what could be done on the page. By modern standards, it’s almost a given that Miller and crime noir go hand in hand, but it’s worth noting that his gritty detective fiction slant on the superhero genre started with his work on Daredevil.

By the time Born Again hit the shelves, Miller’s darker, Hell’s Kitchen inspired template was already firmly in place and ripe for exploitation. The addition of Mazzucchelli’s detailed, multi dimensional art, adds a visual clout to the book that goes far beyond simply rendering the urban backdrop of Hell's Kitchen believable. All this adds up to a pretty great book, but it’s not just the noir leanings and evocative art that make it such a standout piece. What makes Daredevil: Born Again truly special is its psychological deconstruction of Daredevil, aka the blind lawyer Matt Murdock.

The book opens with a down and out Karen Page selling Matt’s secret identity to a drug dealer. Of course, it isn’t long before this information drops into the lap of crime lord Wilson Fisk, who is only too pleased to discover that Matt Murdock and Daredevil are in fact one and the same. With this information in hand Fisk begins to systematically dismantle Matt’s life, methodically striping away his reputation, wealth, career, and friends. As things begins to unravel, his only means of escape is his alter ego Daredevil. Left homeless, friendless and deeply suspicious of everyone around him, he becomes increasingly violent, frenzied and animalistic as he plummets towards rock bottom with alarming speed.

Here Miller tackles the inherent paradox of superheroes; on the one hand Matt Murdock is a shining beacon of all that is good and just in the world, and on the other, he’s a violent vigilante whose secret double life borders on clinical schizophrenia. Miller acknowledges the death and destruction that surrounds Daredevil, and then follows those veins of poison as they seep into every corner of his personal life. There are some wonderful pre-echoes of Mazzuccehlli’s later work, especially his inventive use of colour and space. In issue 228 of Born Again, Matt confines himself to a cramped, seedy hotel room. Paralysed by fear and paranoia, the room becomes both a physical and mental prison. There’s a repeating motif of long thin vertical panels, lined up like prison bars, further adding to the calutrophobic nature of events. As everything closes in, fighting for space on the page, Matt struggles against seemingly insurmountable odds.

Ben Urich, the wayward Daily Bugle reporter receives a similar visual treatment when he finds himself under Wilson Fisk’s watchful eye. Following a series of unsuccessful attempts to ease Matt's plight, Ben finds himself under constant threat of physical violence from the Kingpin. As his situation turns from bad to worse, Mazzucchelli begins to visually morph Ben’s features, switching from his realist style to exaggerated elongated lines, stretching out Ben’s face so it radiates stress and nervous energy. Ben is painted a cowardly yellow, the panels themselves become narrow, boxing him in on the page as the omnipresent force of the Kingpin moves in for the kill.

In both cases mood is expressed in terms of colour and space, and it’s interesting to see Mazzucchelli experimenting with these stylistic techniques. As the attentive reader will know, these particular traits would eventually become an integral part of his artistic approach, most notably in his adaptation of Paul Auster’s City of Glass and his recent solo effort Asterios Polyp.

What fascinates most about Daredevil: Born Again is its inversion of classic comic book conventions. It takes a long hard look at the cold reality of being a superhero and doesn't shy away from the more unpleasant truths that emerge. Take ‘Nuke’ for example, the book's drug fueled nemesis; a blindly patriotic, failed military experiment who’s forever popping pills and spouting militaristic non-sequiturs. Nuke is post Cold War politics embodied. He's the anti- Captain America. Nuke is clearly cast as a villain, yet maintains the psychotic delusion that he's allied to the forces of good. He is the darker side of warfare and politics, blindly following orders, sworn to protect ‘our boys’ and his beloved USA. When a disillusioned Captain America finally lays his misguided fellow comrade to rest, it’s abundantly clear that superheroes aren’t what they used to be. All is not right in the world of the superhuman, and although the book reaches a typically ‘wrapped up’ resolution of its main plot points, it still asks some stark questions about what it would truly mean to be a superhero.

Just over two decades later, Nicholas Cage (Big Daddy) and ChloĆ« Grace Moretz (Hit Girl) face off in a disused reservoir. Big Daddy calmly points a gun at his daughter and pulls the trigger. Thus begins their journey on the road to becoming masked vigilantes in the big screen adaptation of Mark Millar’s comic Kick Ass. Big Daddy and Hit Girl are a case in point, they’re the apex of modern superhero fiction; and as apt a parody as you’re ever likely to see. Morals are swept neatly under the carpet and bloody justice reigns down at the hands of an 11 year old girl, whose aptitude with firearms and knives is nothing short of frightening.

Kick Ass is an undeniably funny film, but the reason it elicits so many laughs is, I suspect, due to the sheer perversity of the whole setup. I need not explain to you the strange pleasure of watching an 11 year old girl brutally dispatch dozens of hardened criminals, and whilst I laughed as much as the next man, I couldn’t help but feel that Kick Ass makes some interesting points about the pysche of the superhero.

In much the same way that Miller and Mazzucchelli strip down Daredevil to his very core to reveal an unbalanced, yet highly driven individual, Kick Ass too, quite adeptly acknowledges the savage duality of the modern day superhero. There’s a dark and nihilistic streak lurking just under the film’s playful action flick sheen, and therein lies the all too knowing recognition that such heroes would be flawed and unbalanced individuals long before they even put on a mask and cape.