February 16th, 2009
Sometime in the nineties the cry rang out: Marvel was gonna put the “character back into comics”.
This was news to me.
As far as I was concerned the Marvelverse, with the possible exception of the X-Men, was still firmly rooted in a pre-Watchmen era. It was only the energizing touch of the man Miller that rescued the company from my utter contempt. DC on the other hand, was, in my rather woolly analysis, the natural home of adjectives like mature, and visionary, the only company where character was likely to flourish. My case rested upon little more than DC’s willingness to publish The Dark Knight Returns, The Killing Joke, and Arkham Asylum, and the serious moonlight cast over the DCU by Watchmen, and the Vertigo imprint.
While I’m now well versed in the legacy of Marvel’s legendary creators, if I’m honest I remain skeptical about Marvel’s claims to the concept of character. I grant that Lee and Ditko’s willingness to subordinate super to man was likely revolutionary back in the late sixties, and that they quite possibly changed the landscape of comics, but the reality is that while character is certainly the focus of many Marvel titles the characters in question have seldom been allowed much more than superficial depth – the MU as a place of histrionics rather than history. That, even as its best, seldom produces character studies with more going for them than I’d expect to see in a well realized soap opera. Don’t get me wrong, I think good soaps have their own virtues, and, and this is important, I’m not sure that I want to see rigorous character studies in (many) superhero comics, but I think it’s worth pointing out that by treating the term character as a monolith, and not admitting to its multiple meanings – the different ways in which the centrality of the concept can be approached, from Dynasty to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolfe – Marvel, and its die hard fans, are perhaps heaping undeserved glories on themselves. I mean, we’ve all read the Ultimates, right?
That said, when rereading Born Again I am always struck by some of the character work. Work which, while still undeserving of the description ‘character study’, made good on the Marvel promise in ways which Captain America couldn’t and perhaps shouldn’t hope to. Daredevil, the original hero with a disability, never struck me as actually lacking functionality in any meaningful sense. Granted, he couldn’t watch telly, but he could to all intents and purposes see (through walls and in every possible direction at once, no less) with his radar vision, and experience the world in a far more profound, and deeper way than those of us lacking his super-senses* could ever hope to. Just imagine the guy’s sex life, for the sake of fuck. Add to that his charm, intelligence, wealth and extreme good looks, and you get a guy who it’s difficult to see as handicapped in any way**. Enter Miller, however, and suddenly the outsider/tragic/damaged superhero that Marvel is so famous for starts to coalesce, interestingly less around his blindness and more around his mental health.
*In addition to super-smell, touch and hearing, it seems to me that Daredevil’s other senses – balance, proprioception, and sense of time – must also be hyped up, hence his awesome ninjaness
**I know that I’m running close to ableism here. I’m framing disability as negative because that’s clearly the intention behind making Daredevil a disabled character: his disability was introduced, at least in part, as a key driver of dramatic conflict. We are supposed to think of the character as in some way tragic, or lonely, or isolated.
Miller paint’s a Daredevil teetering on the brink of sanity, a man conflicted on a number of fundamental levels, and under siege by a set of superpowers which are, in the words of a broken Matt Murdock, “a great way to catch all the misery of being alive”. This is a man who was taught to fight with his fists by some of the toughest bastards out there (his Dad, the street, Stick) but spends his days as a defense attorney; a man whose conscience demands justice, but works to uphold a necessarily flawed legal system; a man who dances across the rooftops by night, and walks with a stick by day. This is a man of deep contradictions, an existence built on lies and deception. Miller doesn’t work hard to foreground these tensions, rather he takes them as a given and focuses on their negative implications for the character’s psyche. In Born Again he posits, albeit retroactively, that (in the words of the Kingpin) “Matthew Murdock is a man on the edge — That even before his ruin, he was nearly mad”.
I don’t want to oversell my case, this isn’t astonishing stuff – it’s just a canny way of building a strong basis for the story, and a character we can root for. In fact the bulk of Born Again relies more on the well worn ‘a hero must fall so that he can rise again’ plot that we’ve seen a hundred times elsewhere. Murdock is given just enough flesh to bulk out those rickety old narrative bones, but along the way Miller and Mazzucchelli give us enough truthful human moments to make actually care about what happens to the protagonist, and for me the heart of that effort is to be found over the course of 4 or 5 pages and in Miller’s portrayal of mental illness.
I must admit to having a personal stake here, but you expected that, right? Mindless Ones is all about personal stakes. A good many years ago now, when I was pushing through the teenage placenta and out into the scary world of adulthood, I was struck down by depression and chronic anxiety. To be clear, when I say “depression” I don’t mean mere sadness, or any of the wide variety of transient emotional horrors that we must all face, I mean clinically diagnosed, barely leaving my bed in months, delusional, suicidal depression. A state of mind I once described to myself as like being the black pit into which all the horror of the universe was falling*. I know, unbelievably self important, but that’s the thing with truly depressed people, they find it incredibly difficult to see beyond their own gruesome subjectivity. You should understand that at the time that account didn’t feel at all descriptive, it sat (un)happily in my mind as a statement of fact.
*Might be one of the reasons why Final Crisis worked for me as a description of existential crisis, eh?
Born Again doesn’t attempt to touch on the full depressive experience. The comic isn’t about depression, after all, or any variety of psychological crisis for that matter. Murdock’s psychological torment simply marks the protagonist’s low point, the moment of transformation where it becomes possible for the hero to take the actions necessary to win the day. The presence of psychological dissolution is, in this instance, a means to an end, not the end in itself. It’s not smart to go in expecting a lack of cliche or profound insights into the nature of mental breakdown – this is melodrama we’re dealing with. But even painting in the broad brush strokes of melodrama, even with the gods plot and story firmly in his mind at all times, Miller’s 4 or 5 page depiction of psychological torment, of a man and not a superhero in pain, speaks to me on a very personal level.
The 3 pages spent in the seedy hotel room with a bed ridden Matt Murdock are littered, in some sense bound together, by the character’s constant references to how tired he is. Certainly upon cursory examination this scene is dealing in cliche – the tired depressive is a stock character – but it should also be noted that extreme mental and physical lethargy, a total unwillingness/inability to get up and actually deal with the world chimes precisely with my experience. It is, however, in the detail that the scene connects most deeply with me, and where Miller works to enliven the stereotype on display. The narrative arc of the scene is simple and driven by Murdock’s desire to get out of bed and back out into the world, his success at this endeavour will be signified by whether or not he manages to leave the room. In the words of Robert McKee, that is our protagonist’s “goal”. Murdock wakes up, fights his way to a perch at the edge of his bed, sets his mind on getting back into the world, and… It’s here where where things collapse: the very act, the necessity, of addressing what you have to do becomes a trap, something that must be planned for, mapped out, traced in infinite detail. It is act of getting up itself that makes getting up so impossible. What the depressive (meaning the 17-year-old me) must not do, under any circumstances, is get himself to a position where he is actually doing things, an agent once more. Thankfully the act of thinking is terrifying and exhausting enough so there’s no energy left for all that other stuff.
Matt Murdock turns the door knob. We will him to do it. It looks like it might just happen, and then Miller jumps disjointedly back a panel where he lies sprawled under the bed covers. “Tired”. In my mind he never even made it to the door, he just thought about doing it. A lot. The abruptness of the cut back to the bed certainly opens the text up to that reading. So yes, the tired depressive cliche is in evidence, but the cliche is animated and given depth by the bolting on of story. This is in some sense counter intuitive, except that this is one of those instances where one of those challenge based, goal orientated scenarios that form the building blocks of popular narrative actually speak to the experience of the audience (i.e. me).
A few pages later Miller offers up a scene which mirrors the form of the one just discussed, but this time he explicitly layers in Murdock’s internal experience – this mirroring serves to underline and transmit something of the tedious and regressive nature of the depressive experience.
The goal here is much the same, the character must make it out the door. We understand that progress towards this goal is being made: Murdock dresses for the cold city streets. Miller’s trick is to juxtapose and cap this sensible, rational preparation with a moment of outright fantasy, a vision a bloody and battered Kingpin lying at Murdock’s feet, and a caption that offers up a transparently delusional expository narrative which culminates in a “parade” celebrating Murdock’s victory over the forces of evil. The next thing we know we are back in bed: “Must’ve dozed off”. By building the tension through admitting the possibility of escape – Murdock putting on his winter clothes – the head first plunge that Miller takes into the delusional turmoil of Daredevil’s mind comes as that much more of a shock. And again, as in the last scene the brutal switch to the bed threatens to expose all ostensible progress that has been made as a lie. We now know for a fact that Murdock is delusional, so we are compelled ask, with more forces than last time, did he even get out of bed in the first place? Did anything happen here? This potential negation of story serves to reinforce the feeling of disorientation and discomfort in the reader: the protagonist has become the agent of stasis rather than change – a block in the road – just as for the depressive the self is the obstacle to be negotiated.
There is, however, a less noticeable yet powerful second threat of negation at work here. Just before he tips over the edge into explicit delusion, Murdock’s internal monologue offers up a distinctly un-superheroic moment where the character speculates upon using the Kingpin as a “punching bag”, declaring him “fat enough”. Petty, sadistic, revenge fantasies and adjectives such as “fat” don’t sit well with the traditional superheroic archetype. This isn’t Daredevil talking. The Man Without Fear? He’s gone. What we’re left with, in the character’s words, is “just a blind man”, a guy who is motivated to get out of bed more by “some idiot.. playing a radio. Loud” than anything else, and is (perhaps) kept on his feet by the desire to beat up a “fat” guy who he blames for all his troubles (remember: Born Again rejects this hypothesis – see the Kingpin’s assessment of Murdock’s psychology above). Do motivations get any more banal? Could the superhero have been left further behind? Yes, Murdock is delusional, but the really uncomfortable thing is the revelation that his delusions aren’t a million miles away from the kind of bitter, tedious thoughts that weigh heavy on all of our minds, and that’s the thing with depression, it’s an extraordinary experience but at heart it’s rooted in the mundane soil of everyday life. It’s not wacky or exciting, or interesting, it’s boring and tiresome and it goes on and on and on. It’s attendant delusions come about not through access to some new way of looking at the world, but simply as a consequence of spending far, far too much time thinking and doing nothing, and doing nothing and thinking. It’s about having no reference points other than your own misery, and the raw accumulation of stupidity, boredom and pain.
Beyond this point in the narrative the character’s pain ceases to be reflected in my own experience as Miller reaches the point where the pressure of the story has built sufficiently and the flood gates must open. Rock bottom hasn’t quite been reached, that will come in the form of the Kingpin’s bloody fists and a cab ride into the river, but rock bottom is a place which many depressives never get to. A mythical transformative place that many would, I’m sure, love to experience despite the inevitable pain – anything that offers the chance to break free is to be desired. Rock bottom is in some profound sense implicitly narrativised, it is a necessary step along the way to fresh growth and a return to strong, stable selfhood. By permitting his character to reach rock bottom, Miller is allowing story to wash back into the pages, he is enabling and necessitating the inevitable, glorious ascent: Daredevil – Born Again. The spectre of mental illness transformed into just another challenge to be punched out by a red gloved fist.
That’s not to say the notion of the mentally ill hero is dropped entirely, threads run through the book and are picked up at various points. Murdock’s breakdown poses problems to which the story must find solutions, beyond those provided by the climatic face smashing dealt out to the Kingpin, but ultimately once Murdock finds his way off that damp bed and out of that icy room the character ceases to be a bridge into my own experience – a platform for meditating on a part of my life that I left behind long ago but remains immensely significant – and loses some of its psychological truth. Interestingly the story’s path away from this moment, by invoking rock bottom and rebirth, taps into the myth of self-directed recovery, the backbone of 101 therapeutic practices. The notion that self-acceptance, self-knowledge and a willingness to engage in hard work will in time lead to self-actualisation. The kind of fullness of being only to be found on the final pages of stories with happy endings.
In order to claw back my life I committed myself to just this kind of achievement – an effort of will that would need to be sustained for months on end, and that would need to be revisited many times over the following years. Stories like Born Again help sell the lie that makes this sort of striving seem plausible and possible – all the more so if the person doing the striving can see something approximating their own experience represented. I’m not out to suggest that Miller helped me out of my deep blue funk. I’m not even sure I’d read Born Again by that point in my life, my concern here has been in looking closely at a snapshot of the book that has particular personal significance and unpacking how and why it works for me as a way back into exploring the darker corners of my own life. I said above that Born Again is melodrama, and I’m fine with that – there’s a lot to like about melodrama, as I note in this very paragraph, it has its uses – but, every time I read it, for a brief space of time it manages to transcend that category. It was once me tossing and turning in that bed, imagining heading out the door and into a world that I would force into line, and it’s the echoes of that experience rippling out across the comic that help to make Born Again a consistently powerful and pleasurable read.
I say help, because this focus on this small (if important and well constructed) character moment within the overall narrative, is the first installment of a project which attempts to inspect and perhaps integrate those elements of Born Again that work to form my strong attachment to it. My interest here is to try a critical approach which more honestly represents the complex mesh (mess?) of relationships which make up this attachment, rather than attempt to encapsulate it in a single review. Let’s hope I’m up to the task.
Next time I’m going to look at rooftops.