Looking back at Miller & Mazzuchelli’s Daredevil Born Again saga
by rick olivares
Thirty years ago, Marvel Comics put out an incredible story in the pages of its Daredevil titled. Penned by superstar writer Frank Miller and drawn from full scripts by artist David Mazzuchelli, “the Born Again” saga, that encompassed Daredevil #227-233, was a tour de force that defined the character for the rest of its publication history. The story where a protagonist’s life was plunged into the depths of modern-day hell before making his way back. Many writers have since sicced various heroes and super-teams through that same device of “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”
Miller first came on board with DD #158 pencilling writer Roger MacKenzie’s scripts. That work featuring some early battles with Bullseye would go one to be collected in a tome titled, “Marked for Murder” when Miller took off as one of comicdom’s brightest creators. That happened when Miller took over the writing chores with #168 that also introduced the assassin Elektra to Daredevil’s world.
Around that time of Miller’s writing debut in January of 1981, the Uncanny X-Men as a title was comic’s top dog and the “Days of Future Past” story was out. Roger Stern and John Byrne were in the middle of their short but acclaimed run on Captain America. David Michelinie and Bob Layton were working on their acclaimed Iron Man run.
Miller went on a two-year run in his twin role as writer/penciller featuring stories about crime that was infused with Japanese culture. Many plots and twists were introduced and remain an indelible part of today’s fare — Kingpin became his deadliest adversary (outside Bullseye), the ninja assassin order the Hand was introduced, and Stick and the Chaste were written into Matt Murdock’s origin. And for the second time in that incredible decade that was the 1980s for comics, another top character in Elektra was killed (the other was the Phoenix in the pages of Uncanny X-Men).
He returned for a brief one-shot with DD #219 wherein his introduces another side to Matt Murdock, “the stranger” who seeks justice in some crooked town in New Jersey.
David Mazzuchelli came on board Daredevil with the story “Savages” as written by Dennis O’Neil. That kicked off what would eventually be called “the Micah Synn Saga” that told of a descendant of English settlers in East Africa from over a century ago with his peoples living somewhat of a tribal lifestyle. His tribe’s subsequent discovery and their transportation to New York City catapults Synn, their leader, into an instant celebrity as he is seen as a modern-day Tarzan. Yet there’s a dark side to him that eventually puts him at odds with not only with the police and other criminal elements and later on, Daredevil.
At first, I thought that Mazzuchelli's style was done in the manner of previous artist William Johnson, to keep the art consistent. I sort of liked Johnson’s gritty style that was inked by Filipino Danny Bulanadi. It would be in DD #214 where Mazzuchelli began to ink his own work giving the book a grittier feel.
Then the two came together to work on the “Born Again” storyline.
I thought this was a great era where Marvel Comics pushed the envelope in story telling. In Iron Man, Tony Stark dealt with alcoholism. In Uncanny X-Men, there was suicide. In the pages of Amazing Spider-Man, it was drug use. For Daredevil, it was hard-boiled crime as well as murder, corruption, drugs, and prostitution.
However, what made the Born Again story significant is it literally depicted the rise and fall and eventual rebirth of a character (Matt) after his life is torn asunder by the Kingpin. Karen Page, a major supporting character is set up for a tragic end.
The story arc is also significant for its introduction of faith into a character. Previously, it was Nightcrawler who talked about his dreams of becoming a priest in the pages of the Uncanny X-Men. Here, Frank Miller delves into Matt Murdock’s Catholicism and makes use of a lot of religious symbolism in weaving his story. In fact, the various story titles make use of biblical terms from apocalypse, purgatory, saved, and born again (despite this last term being a term connected to the Protestant faith).
In this story, a lot of Matt’s origin where he was raised by his down-on-his-luck boxer for a father has become a central piece to the character’s personality. A defining point if you will; one constantly brought up and used as a plot device.
Miller also introduced another of those failed attempts to replicate the Super Soldier serum that begat Captain America (in Nuke). But of all the sub-plots, it was the secret identity of Matt being found out by an adversary; something that every masked hero fears. And the ringer and descent into madness that Matt is put through is a chilling one.
Furthermore, the manner in which Miller wrote Born Again, there was a sense of poetry to his words. The words flowed and storytelling gave rise to the first person point of view. It is also where Miller came into his own as a writer. His dialogue - making use of sentence fragments and odd phrasing — is still oft imitated up to today by writers like Ann Nocenti, Dan Chichester, Brian Michael Bendis, Ed Brubaker, and Brian K. Vaughn to name a few. The first four oft borrowed sub-plots from Miller’s story for their own arcs. Of course, all four writers have done very well for themselves while penning great stories not only for Daredevil but other titles as well. However, the Born Again arc remains just as influential today.
The work produced by Frank Miller and David Mazzuchelli in Born Again is said to be perhaps the greatest Daredevil story ever told and I would have to agree to that. It still reads as fresh today as it did 30 years ago; a ture teastament to a classic tale.
The duo would later tag team once more a year later in 1987 on Batman: Year One, a story that also defined and shaped the Caped Crusader for the next three decades. That’s how good those guys were.
Now it is surmised that the third season of Daredevil on Netflix will touch on the Born Again saga (now that Karen Page knows Matt’s secret and there’s the impending return of the Kingpin). Given how good the series has been, I have no doubt that they would do it justice.
I can’t wait for this classic storyline’s television adaptation.