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Lightening Up


Daredevil: The Widow

Brian Michael Bendis, Alex Maleev

Marvel, 2004

Rating: 4.3


The Pulse: Thin Air

Brian Michael Bendis, Mark Bagley, Scott Hanna

Marvel, 2004

Rating: 4.0



Posted: January 30, 2005

By Kevin Forest Moreau

Mega-popular Marvel scribe Brian Michael Bendis has a habit of writing himself into a corner. On one level, that's a large part of his appeal: Plot-wise, the writer prefers to throw his protagonists into thorny scenarios of the "Oh, no he didn't!" variety, without a lot of thought about how the ensuing pathos will eventually be resolved. And often, it's not resolved -- at least not in the neat, satisfactory way readers might be conditioned to expect.

But on another level, it's not so appealing: The writer has a habit of piling hardships onto his characters until they break. Consider Daredevil : The crime-fighter's secret identity as blind lawyer Matt Murdock is exposed for all the world, and Murdock vehemently denies it. Months and months later, he's still denying it. Anyone who's ever tried to keep a lie going when everyone around them knows it's a lie can appreciate the ongoing, uncomfortable tension that results.

All well and good, but the situation has apparently driven him to a nervous breakdown, which has proven more tedious than compelling. It's frankly been difficult to either relate to or sympathize much with Murdock over the last couple of Daredevil collections (one reason they haven't been reviewed on this site).

Similarly, Bendis has thrown Jessica Jones, the emotionally fragile private eye of the now-departed Alias, against the wall so often that it's gotten exasperating. One rule of drama is that at some point, you want your protagonist to rise above their challenges. But reading Alias toward the end was a bit like suffering through the torture scenes in The Passion of the Christ -- gratuitous and void of any payoff.

Luckily, The Widow and Thin Air -- the latest collections to feature those characters -- point toward a correction. That isn't to say that Matt Murdock isn't still a seething mass of emotional turmoil -- he certainly is, what with dealing with the dissolution of his short marriage to the blind Milla, who has come to doubt (wisely) that his love for her is anything other than a symptom of neurosis.

But the arrival of his ex-partner (both adventure-wise and romantically), the Black Widow, keeps things moving enough so that we don't get too bogged down in Murdock's tiresome angst. The Widow, formerly a Soviet agent and current undercover operative for the intelligence agency S.H.I.E.L.D., is forced to go into hiding when a vengeful ex-husband applies political pressure to have her extradited to Bulgaria to answer for crimes committed there. She holes up with Murdock -- "hiding in plain sight," as it were -- and soon, the pair become targets not only for figures out to snatch the Widow, but also for Jigsaw, a former Punisher villain with his own vengeful mission against Murdock.

This setup doesn't always make sense, but it allows Bendis and artist Alex Maleev to indulge in the kind of chaotic, street-level action sequences that have helped make their run on Daredevil so distinctive. These scenes are compellingly tight, even claustrophobic, and people actually suffer when they're shot, The results invite favorable comparisons to expertly staged action programs like 24.

Even better, The Widow allows Bendis to unleash his kid-with-a-new-toybox creativity on the Marvel Universe's world of espionage and political/super-powered intrigue. It's fun watching the Avengers work with S.H.I.E.L.D., cloak-and-dagger style, to capture a wanted terrorist (Madame Hydra). And then there's the all-star issue #65, also collected here, illustrated by a host of fan-favorite artists, if that's your thing: The high points here are watching S.H.I.E.L.D. head Nick Fury offer Murdock a role in his organization as a way out of his secret-identity troubles, and Peter Parker (a.k.a. Spider-Man) undergo an internal, "There but for the grace of God" freak-out when Daredevil's I.D. is made public.

Thin Air -- the first volume of the new title The Pulse -- offers its own fun, not least of which is watching Bendis take it relatively easy on his high-strung heroine for a change. Jones is offered a job as a kind of super-hero consultant for the Daily Bugle. A steady relationship (with hero-for-hire Luke Cage), a family on the way (she's pregnant with his baby), health insurance -- things do seem to be looking up. Granted, Bendis then has the Green Goblin whack the stuffing out of Jones (in mid-air combat, no less), which can't be good for the baby (turns out mom and baby-to-be are fine). But at least it's a welcome change from the character's near-crippling grab-bag of anxieties.

It's also fun watching Bendis bring the Bugle to life, and make a star player out of longtime Daredevil and Spider-Man supporting character Ben Urich. It's Urich who traces the murder of newbie Bugle reporter Terri Kidder (a nice homage to two former incarnations of Lois Lane) to the door of super-rich tycoon Norman Osborne, who's apparently gone crazy, killing people with no regard for the fact that it might let his secret identity as the Green Goblin out of the bag.

Bendis has a lot of fun exploring the ramifications of all of this, especially when Urich confronts Peter Parker with knowledge of his secret identity, and the two of them vow to take down a villain who's caused them both extreme emotional distress. Bendis nicely sketches the helplessness Parker feels at watching the murderer of his one true love go free time and again. It's the single best scene here, and it's a powerful reminder of the kind of fist-to-throat storytelling Bendis is capable of when he's not working too hard at turning his protagonists into unlikable blobs of jelly.

It's a bit early yet to tell whether these two promising turns indicate a real change in Bendis' one-note humiliation of his star characters. But they're enough to recommend both volumes as good escapist reads. Now, if only Bendis could do something about his annoying, belabored dialogue "style." At this point, his ponderous overuse of stutters, stop-start sentences and other vocal tics and unwieldy speech mannerisms, meant to convey real-world "authenticity," just gets in the way. But that's a discussion for another day.

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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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