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Giving the Devil His Due

  Daredevil: Underboss

 

Brian Michael Bendis, Alex Maleev

Marvel Knights/Marvel, 2002

Rating: 4.5

 

 

Posted: August 31, 2002

By Kevin Forest Moreau

It's a rare superhero comic that really, meaningfully shakes up its status quo in ways beyond the cosmetic. For every year's worth of illusion-of-change storylines (see recent reviews of Batman: Bruce Wayne: Murderer?, Superman: Our Worlds At War and Superman: 'Til Death Do Us Part), the comics reader will count himself lucky if he comes across one book, one author, that drastically kicks over The Way Things Are in an irrevocable fashion, the way, say, Alan Moore did with Swamp Thing. Underboss, which collects the first six issues of acclaimed crime-comic scribe Brian Michael Bendis' run on Daredevil, isn't quite one of those sagas. Not quite. But it sets the stage for some sweeping changes, the repercussions of which are still being felt in the title at this writing, and which could very conceivably equal, if not -- dare I say it? -- possibly surpass those that Frank Miller introduced during his groundbreaking 1980s run on the book.

Don't laugh: The Miller comparison is valid, and not just because Underboss snatches the rug out from under its blind protagonist in much the same way Miller's classic Born Again storyline did. Bendis, the Quentin Tarantino of comics thanks to works like Jinx and Torso, displays an intuitive knack for mining the character's rich history for "Why didn't I think of that?" twists that seem not only credible, but, in hindsight, inevitable.

In fact, Underboss builds plausibly from the seemingly status quo-shattering conceit Miller introduced in Born Again -- namely, the idea of his nemesis, the Kingpin of Crime, knowing his secret identity as blind attorney Matt Murdock. The underboss of the title is a cocky, slick-talking made man known as Silke, the son of one of the Kingpin's oldest compatriots. Silke, relocating to the New York area to lick his wounds after an undisclosed failure at home, brings with him one request from his father: That Wilson Fisk, the Kingpin, "take care of" a lawyer currently in litigation against a company in which Silke's father has an interest. Upon learning that the lawyer in question is Murdock, Fisk flatly refuses, without so much as an explanation. Silke's confusion grows when Fisk's bitter son Richard lets him in on Murdock's secret.

Silke's incredulity is deserved: Fisk has known of Murdock's secret for years, and (at least after Born Again) has refused to act on it, instead actually serving in a way as Murdock's protector. As Bendis recently told Wizard magazine, this state of affairs -- whatever special relationship Fisk (now, ironically, as blind as his nemesis) enjoys with Murdock -- simply had to go, and it only makes perfect sense that Silke feels the same way. In short order, he's done the unthinkable, involving Fisk's top henchmen in a conspiracy that ultimately leads to an "Et tu, Brutus?" scene straight out of the Julius Caesar Story.

With Fisk out of the way, Silke and his new crew are free to establish their dominance, part of which involves taking care of the Daredevil problem as a show of strength to the neighboring crime families. It doesn't give anything away to reveal that as Murdock, frustrated and on edge, hunts down clues to the identity of the man who put on a price on his head, things begin to unravel for Silke, as an outside party begins taking vengeance on all involved in Fisk's alleged slaying (that he's still -- barely -- alive, in the secretive care of a few loyalists, should surprise no one). Ultimately, Silke is forced to play his only trump card -- Murdock's secret -- again, a completely believable and expected action, as opposed to Fisk's status quo-preserving refusal to do the same.

Throughout, Bendis shows off his penchant for snappy dialogue, and further earns the burdensome Tarantino comparisons by telling the story in a jump-cut, flashback-heavy style throughout the story's six issues. It's a risky gambit, but ultimately effective. Additionally, he wisely grounds the story in the streets and on the rooftops of New York, and in the "real world" -- only a brief scene involving the villain Boomerang (decked out in a suitable urban-tough-guy look) and a fleeting, unnecessary glimpse of Daredevil's arch-foe Bullseye nod to the book's more superheroic tableau. And Alex Maleev's outstandingly gritty, sketchy artwork, tinged with the same photorealistic touches Bendis has brought to his own works (Jinx, Goldfish), sets the perfect tone of urban squalor and ever-building noir tension -- abetted by the appropriately seedy palette of colorist Matt Hollingsworth.

Underboss isn't perfect -- Bendis too often indulges an urge to show off his quirky dialogue, and the story's back-and-forth style occasionally grates -- but it's no less a commendable work for its flaws. It remains to be seen just how permanent and far-reaching Silke's actions will prove, and how long things will play out before reaching another comfortable status quo. But for now, Bendis' decision to push a ridiculous situation to its coldly logical extreme, coupled with complementary, picture-perfect art, makes for some of the year's best comics reading.

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Pulp Fiction
Fans of hard-edged crime stories should definitely make a beeline for Bendis' Jinx, Goldfish and Torso. While his murky black-and-white style is occasionally confusing, and Jinx in particular suffers from a surfeit of grammatical errors, they're all engrossing reads.
Getting Be-Deviled
Those interested in Frank Miller's defining Daredevil run should check out the Marvel Visionaries: Frank Miller series, which collects his work on the title in chronological order. Further reading should include Born Again, Daredevil: The Man Without Fear, and Elektra Lives Again.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: Breaks new ground
 4.0-4.9: First-rate
 3.0-3.9: Solid
 2.0-2.9: Mediocre
 1.1-1.9: Bad
 0.0-1.0: The worst

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