I haven’t been reading many superhero comics lately. Late night, comfort fare isn’t so comforting when it lionizes Captain America putting a boot to heads in ski masks and Spider-Man pummeling street toughs. The celebration of state-guided violence is so common in superhero comics as to be perceived as an essential element of the genre; it transforms these caped crusaders into something reprehensible. At least in the pages of a Punisher story, like “The Slavers,” there is a moral nihilism that refuses to endorse violence, observing instead the inhuman entity named Frank Castle and the fellow monsters upon which he wreaks terrible vengeance. Better to have this form of authoritarian marked as death than to pretend the brutality represents a grand ideal. Violent enforcers are not heroes, simply gaolers.
This is the problem the current volume of Daredevil has confronted from its very first issue. It skirts the self-indulgent impulse to discuss what “superheroes” mean and avoids being pigeonholed as a “very special episode” in Marvel’s canon by acknowledging how these fictions reflect very real beliefs and conditions. The 19 issues building to the climax of “Inferno” are devoted to creating some form of praxis in a genre devoted to ideas of justice and heroism.
This is obvious given the canvas painted for Daredevil #20 to play out. The hero is wracked with guilt, aware of the impossibly high cost of violence and knowing he is a murderer. His work as a parole officer has revealed the humanity of the same people who he spent years beating in the streets. In this same moment powerful forces, both in government and capital, have moved to make his neighborhood, “Hell’s Kitchen,” a literal embodiment of its name so that they might reap profits. The police will not protect the community and disenfranchised men and women are the only ones willing to take to the streets. No help is coming and the rare powerful man with a conscience is wracked by the guilt of his own enormous failings. It is a powerful starting point and one that accurately represents the perspective and themes of Daredevil from its very first issue. That it speaks so clearly to our present moment is a testament to the social consciousness of its creators, not an accident.
It’s the clarity of the series convictions that allow this issue to exist as it does. So much occurs in these pages and the action is allowed to guide the story because themes have been embedded in the setting, circumstances, and characters. There’s no need for the sort of grand speech that populate Millar and Bendis comics at Marvel when the writers remember they need to make a point after the superhero brawl. The decisions and actions on the page speak for themselves, and they offer a complex view on the clash of ideas they embody. Detective North and Daredevil, even as they act in heroic roles battling mercenaries, are still filled with conflicting motivations and never presented as exemplars to the reader. North, in particular, continues one of the most subtle threads in the series as an officer acknowledging that he must break with the police in order to protect his community.
The climax delivered in Daredevil #20 is genuinely thrilling comics too, making it clear that one does not need mindless comfort fare in order to enjoy a superhero brawl. Stilt-Man, Rhino, and Bullseye are only a few of the antagonists who factor into a variety of adrenaline-fueled sequences, cleverly deploying super-abilities and paneling to make each battle impactful. One sequence in particular stands out, revealing Checchetto’s essential contributions to the series. Daredevil’s final stand against a horde of outside disruptors requires a seemingly impossible series of events, yet inset panels and carefully framed panels provide a step-by-step encounter that offers some of the best action in any superhero comic this year. It is an astounding feat and one that clarifies the specific form of heroism being expressed. This moment does not lean on platitudes about general goodness, but instead reflects how Daredevil is capable of being the right person for a specific moment. His achievement is grounded in his disability, faith, and convictions, all of which allow him to be a hero in this moment.
This is what also stages the final pages of Daredevil #20 perfectly. There is no facile balancing of the scales or banal call for self-forgiveness; this is not a comic that plugs punches and murders into a balance sheet like so many modern superhero stories. The inciting event was not created by Wilson Fisk or the Stromwyns, it was Daredevil’s own fault that a man died and he cannot reckon with that event by reaffirming the same violent methods that left a mother without her son and a brother walking this world alone. It is an ending that refuses to celebrate or honor the very actions that have harmed communities like this fictional Hell’s Kitchen for so long. It is a reaffirmation of the outlook and ambition that defined Daredevil from the start.
Daredevil #20 made me think about so much from the last two weeks. The opening sequence in which journalists are called because police won’t help reminded me of how grateful I was to see reporters while police aimed guns at and surrounded protestors in the streets of my city. Daredevil doesn’t predict our moment, but it rhymes with it. That’s also what makes reading it feel like a genuine relief. It does not frame the violent suppression of anyone named a criminal as some inherently good act, but interrogates the state of our society and what it calls justice. Zdarsky, Checchetto, and their collaborators have crafted something that rejects the propaganda embedded in the superhero genre to wrestle with something more worthwhile than cheap reassurance. The result is a series that is bold, engaging, and capable of carrying more than the most juvenile of convictions typically found in the pages of Marvel comics. Daredevil is the rare superhero series capable of rising to meet a historic moment, and in doing so it might offer us a vision of genuine heroism.
Published by Marvel Comics
On June 10, 2020
Written by Chip Zdarsky
Art by Marco Checchetto
Colors by Mattia Iacono0comments
Letters by Clayton Cowles
Cover by Julian Totino Tedesco