Some Thoughts on David Mazzucchelli’s Daredevil: Born Again Artist’s Edition

Last month IDW released David Mazzucchelli's Daredevil: Born Again Artist's Edition (that's a mouthful, let's call it DMD). It contains color reproductions of the original artwork for Daredevil issues 227-233 (1986), comprising the entire "Born Again" storyline created in collaboration with Frank Miller. Very simply, the story follows Matt Murdoch/Daredevil as his life is dismantled by his nemesis, The Kingpin. He loses faith in himself and the world, then regains it. Miller conceived the story and then he and Mazzucchelli collaborated very closely, as described by the artist in his unexpectedly candid and moving introduction:

This is why we chose not to separate the credits into writer and artist; because although technically I did no scripting and Frank did no drawing, I was contributing ideas for plot, characterization, and storytelling (such as the succession of title pages charting Matt's descent), while Frank was describing the contents of each panel in his scripts.

Mazzucchelli's introduction is also a brief but incisive character study of both himself and Miller, describing not just their working relationship but also, more unusually, their relative positions within the comics business at the time -- Mazzucchelli the newcomer and Miller the older hitmaker.

The gentle, informative tone of the introduction continues by virtue of the material assembled around the ink on board originals. Mazzucchelli wisely asked to include  a handful of vellum overlays to show how certain production effects were indicated or achieved -- in effect to demonstrate the "incompleteness" of the art-on-board. There are also both pencil layouts and color images of the actual printed comics. It's a tacit acknowledgement that the drawn pages being (let's face it) fetishized in the book are one piece of the finished comic book puzzle. That what we're looking at when we look at comic book art is necessarily incomplete. So we're really viewing a very peculiar mode of drawing -- one that anticipates and leaves out, and one that is made to be altered. What brings the visceral intrigue, of course, are those drawings as they are. These pages are energetic, beautiful and more concerned with mark making and expressive drawing-qua-drawing than I anticipated.

So here are some thoughts on the project, the artifacts, and the drawings.

1.  While this is a book made more for looking than for reading, I couldn't stop reading it. It's Miller's finest application of his hard boiled noir obsession to comic book heroes. There's an emotional intelligence here that immerses us in the particular world being depicted, so that the characters around Daredevil, particularly the writer Ben Urich, assume primary importance. Urich is intimidated, his wife is nearly killed, and finally he himself kills, all in harrowing detail, and all because of the ripples from his subject's actions. Yes, the Catholic redemption of Daredevil is important, but nothing is more (to use Mazzucchelli's phrase in his introduction) gut-wrenching than watching the smashed up lives of the minor characters.

2. This is helped tremendously by Mazzucchelli's restraint. Again and again throughout his career Mazzucchelli has adhered to a show not tell, and even then, show only what's necessary approach. Here, even as a young man, he avoids obvious histrionics and melodrama. And given the subject it would've been very easy to indulge. But he doesn't.

3. However, Mazzucchelli was very physical on these pages -- there are glimpses of the Baselitz-cum-Panter approach he would employ in Rubber Blanket, but mostly I was struck by how much he treated these surfaces -- the long-outdated techniques he had to employ on board in order to achieve illusory printed effects. Look at this page and think of the deduction necessary to get from concept to drawing to screen application to color. That’s a lot of knowledge in one page.

4. As the artist acknowledges in his introduction, these pages were done by a young man. And it's fascinating to observe the artist training on the job. In comic book form the differences are mostly covered up by the coloring. But looking at the original drawings shows an artist learning and experimenting as he goes. The artist who did this fine but relatively conservative cinematic sequence...

...is very different than the artist who uses nervous linework, abstracted figures and subtle body language to achieve this sequence:

5. Mazzucchelli crafted some of the best down-and-dirty action sequences of in comics, employing a kind of Toth-ian clarity in combination with urgent linework and tone. The viewer always knows where the fight is going, who is doing what, and the brutality of it is, if anything, accentuated, because everyone looks human and breakable.

6. This brings us to Mazzucchelli the image maker. It's fairly unusual for an artist, particularly one working where Mazzucchelli worked, to be able to construct iconic, powerful images within a page. Already effective in color, I found these even more startling as unadorned drawings.

Here is Ben Urich in deep fear, all expressionist lines, a stand-in for the reader's reaction. It's a radical departure from realism, and one Mazzucchelli takes just enough times throughout the book to make each of those moments important punctation marks in the narrative.

And this is still the the best depiction of post-1980 superheroes. The Avengers as majestic (and somewhat malevolent) enforcers. There's no Kirby-esque dynamism here -- just level images of imposing government authority.

7. It takes looking at dozens of pages in sequence to pick up on all the long-gone artifacts that litter each page. They highlight the oddity of this particular kind of comic book art -- it's pure functionality. I mean, these are drawings not on a blank piece of board but on official comic book art board, complete with slots for "Book", issue # "page #". There are text edits on the page, production notes, wite-out, miscellaneous dirt, and most pages were cut at the corners when removed from the photostat machine. Basically each page is a glorious mess.

8. Finally, there is a publishing story in these Artist's Edition books: Marvel is allowing outside editors and publishers to work with its back catalog. Granted, it's a limited edition and a very particular kind of project, but it's a good sign. It's easy to forget that Marvel is sitting on some incredible cartooning (Aside from the probably too-hot-to-handle Kirby and Ditko, think of Wolverton and Everett; Gil Kane is on the way.) that could use far better treatment than the current "Masterworks" series allows. Obviously this is mitigated by the availability of original art, the vagaries of the marketplace, and a million other factors, but I've found this series heartening, and, in terms of concept and scholarly value, DMD is the best volume yet.