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The Devil and the Detective

  Daredevil: Out

 

Brian Michael

Bendis, Alex Maleev

Marvel, 2003

Rating: 4.4

    Alias: Come Home

 

Brian Michael Bendis,

Michael Gaydos, David Mack

MAX/Marvel, 2003

Rating: 3.4

Posted: February 17, 2003

By Kevin Forest Moreau

Brian Michael Bendis built his name with jittery comics noir/verite works like Jinx and Torso, and has built on that early success to become one of the industry's most prolific and admired writers with titles like Powers and Marvel's Ultimate Spider-Man. But it's on another Marvel property, Daredevil, that Bendis is turning in no less than the best work of his career. Daredevil: Out, which follows on the heels of last year's impressive Underboss, coalesces the writer's strengths -- compelling dialogue, incisive characterization and a knack for imaginative and evocative crime fiction -- into a seamless package that outshines his creative output to date.

Whereas Underboss sparkled with the promise of a crumbling status quo, Out delivers on that promise in a torrent of plausible and suspenseful ways. Sammy Silke, the mob "underboss" responsible for the downfall of the mighty Kingpin, has handed the FBI a hot potato of a tip in exchange for the hope of immunity from prosecution and protection from his enemies; he's revealed the costumed hero Daredevil's secret identity, blind attorney Matt Murdock. In a brilliant opening scene, Bendis lets us watch Bureau agents grappling with this information during an impromptu late-night meeting; laying out the events leading up to Silke's confession, debating the merits of his incredible claim, figuring out what to do next. It's a thoroughly believable bit of procedural, and it sets the tone for the rest of this collection.

Once a down-on-his-luck agent sells this juicy tidbit to a local tabloid, Murdock's life is thrown into complete disarray. The media is camped out on his doorstep; best friend and law partner Foggy Nelson argues fiercely for the retirement of Daredevil; Murdock even faces the possibility of being disbarred and sent to jail. And when he reluctantly agrees to represent White Tiger, a small-time costume wrongly on trial for murdering a policeman, the ongoing secret-identity scandal blows up in his face, with disastrous consequences. Bendis keeps the tension at a high boil throughout, deftly constructing tense emotional scenes: Murdock's confrontation with the tabloid's publisher; his late-night meeting with former lover Elektra; a terse sparring match between irate Daily Bugle & publisher J. Jonah Jameson and grizzled reporter and Daredevil ally Ben Urich; and the climactic courtroom showdown with an underhanded prosecutor. And to his credit, Bendis maintains a high level of thriller-novel suspense without the plotting missteps and belabored conversational tics -- nervous stammering, forced non-sequiturs -- so often prevalent in Powers or his earlier works.

Too bad the same can't be said of Coming Home, which collects issues #11-15 of the writer's mature-readers private eye title Alias. Where Out moves with the fluid grace of a self-assured professional athlete, Coming Home is a frustrating exercise in form (melodrama, sexual tension, wannabe-Tarantino dialogue and sloppy plotting) over Out's nimble function. Jessica Jones, the former-superhero-turned-detective protagonist of Alias, is hired to look into the disappearance of a young teenage girl from a small town in upstate New York. In the course of her investigation, she learns that young Rebecca Cross may be, or may have been, a mutant. She also gets drunk and has sex with the town's cute young sheriff (rather obviously drawn to resemble the actor Luke Wilson), stumbles onto Rebecca's whereabouts by sheer dumb luck, and allows herself to feel superior to the town's straight-laced, small-minded residents (with, it should be noted, little justification).

Eventually a key suspect is murdered, the girl is found, and everything comes to a rather abrupt and anticlimactic halt. The mutant angle, as it turns out, is a shameless red herring, an attempt to plug into the fear and persecution of mutants prevalent throughout the Marvel Universe without making any clear statements on the issue. The last installment of the collection, a blind date with Scott Lang (known to many Marvel readers as the former Ant-Man), redeems the soggy pacing and heavy-handed tone of the preceding four issues, but the affected, Tourette's Syndrome dialogue that bogged down Jinx and hampers Powers keeps the scene from achieving its emotional payoff.

It doesn't help any that colorist Matt Hollingsworth, who so perfectly shades Alex Maleev's gritty pencils in Out, swathes Coming Home in a murky palette that does little to enhance the moody, slightly-rushed feel of Michael Gaydos's self-consciously artsy linework - although he does a much better job of helping bring to life our glimpses of Rebecca's collage journals, painstakingly constructed by David Mack with a feel that echoes the early Sandman covers of Dave McKean.

Which isn't to say that Alias is necessarily a bad comic; it just hasn't yet found a way to reconcile its atmosphere and classic flawed-detective characterization with its storylines. It's just that with his work on Daredevil, Bendis has proven to be capable of so much more, of living up to his incessant hype. And given that the two storylines were written around the same time -- the two collections even intersect at one point -- it's frustrating to witness the drop in quality. For all that he still seems to have a way to go to strike gold as consistently as he's doing with Daredevil, however, Bendis proves with Out that he's the real deal, a gifted storyteller capable of crafting a stimulating and thoughtful piece of crime fiction. And with its release timed to coincide with the abysmal Daredevil movie, Out stands poised to introduce that talent to a much wider audience.

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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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