Monday, June 07, 2004


My comics shop was giving away free copies of the Dec. 2003 Previews, and I picked one up for a laugh. In the separate Marvel Previews magazine that came along with it, there was a preview of Daredevil #56, consisting of the first ten pages of the story. I read it and it was awful from beginning to end. Frankly, I don't remember reading a worse comic book. Since it's by Brian Michael Bendis, one of the most highly acclaimed mainstream comic book writers, and since this particular issue seems to have gotten mostly rave reviews (going by a quick check on Google), it behooves me to back up this claim with more than mere assertion. I'm going to go through the preview virtually line-by-line. This may seem like overkill, but I was actually offended by this comic. It's worse than bad: it's dishonest.

The preview begins with Ben Urich walking into a diner, and saying to someone who is already seated, whose face and identity are kept hidden throughout the preview (quotations from the comic will be put in italics):

"Hi. Sorry I'm late. I'm Ben Urich, investigative reporter for the Daily Bugle."

Now, someone might introduce themselves in this manner, if they followed it up by saying "and I'd like to ask you a few questions," or "can I interview you?" or "and I need some information." But Urich says none of these things. In fact, going by the remainder of the preview, he has no interest whatever in getting information from whoever he's talking to. What he does say next is:

"Ugh, I'm sorry. I hate that I introduce myself like that without thinking. Somehow, in my head, my last name officially became: 'Investigative reporter for the Daily Bugle.'"

Presumably, when Urich phones his dentist's secretary, he says "I'm Ben Urich, investigative reporter for the Daily Bugle, and I need to make an appointment"? The real reason, of course, why Urich introduced himself with those words is to make sure that readers of the comic will know who he is. But by providing an explanation for his introduction that doesn't work, Bendis merely enphasizes its implausibility. And Bendis deepens the hole he's in by having Urich say next:

"Hmm, it's weird... I feel nervous. Guess I'm a little nervous talking to you. Can you tell?" (Emphasis and ellipsis Bendis's.)

Urich is a veteran reporter in New York City. He's not going to turn into a blithering idiot when talking to anybody, no matter how famous. (As I was writing this, it occurred to me that perhaps Urich's mysterious interlocutor is supposed to be Matt Murdock himself. This would make his nervousness more understandable. On the other hand, his introducing himself as "investigative reporter for the Daily Bugle" would be even more ridiculous, and there'd be no reason for him to refer to Matt in the third person (as he will do consistently) other than for Bendis to mystify the reader. Moreover, the bulk of the preview would then consist of Urich telling Matt, in detail, what Matt himself has done. So if Urich's interlocutor is indeed Matt, that makes the preview overall worse, not better.)

Urich's interlocuter then speaks, for the first and only time in the preview, to say: "I don't know you that well." Urich answers:

"Yeah, I guess that's true. Anyway, it's been a hell of a week. (Hell of a week...) Hell of a year!! Hell of a year is what it's been ... almost a year to the day when Matt Murdock took control of "The Kitchen".'" [The parenthetical remark is Urich's, as are the ellipses.]

This looks good on paper, but try and imagine somebody actually saying that last sentence. What's going on is that Urich is about to launch into an extended recap of Matt's (that is, Daredevil's) activities over the past year for the reader's benefit. And since we are given no reason why Urich should be telling this to his guest, Bendis resorts to this clumsy segue.

So far, it may seem like I'm just nitpicking. But it displays a pattern: Bendis' dialogue seems realistic at first glance, but in fact it's as stilted and artificial as any 60s DC comic, just with a thin layer of "realistic" mannerisms spread on top. This pattern, as we will see, applies to the plot as well. In any case, the really bad stuff is just around the corner.

The next page is not comics, but has a prose summary of previous events through the last Bendis-penned issue, which was #50 (#51-55 were written by someone else, and are apparently being ignored). This summary may or may not have been written by Bendis himself. For the preview, the main point in this is that at the end of #50, Daredevil publicly beat up the Kingpin and announced that he would do the same to every criminal in Hell's Kitchen who didn't "clean up or get out."

But, having gone back and read #50 (as reprinted in the trade), there's something I don't understand. Everybody -- Urich, the people in the bar where Daredevil makes his announcement, the superheroes who will remonstrate with Daredevil in the half of #56 not previewed -- acts like what Daredevil said is wholly unprecented. But throughout his career, Daredevil has been beating criminals up and putting them in jail. And now he says that if people commit crimes in Hell's Kitchen, he'll beat them up and put them in jail. How is this different from what he usually does? Why should it have the enormous impact that we're told it does? If the unconscious Kingpin, whom Daredevil brings with him to the bar, had been beaten to a bloody pulp, with his face reduced to an unrecognizable mass of flesh, that would be different, to be sure. But he wasn't. He just looked like a guy who was unconscious. (True, Daredevil will apparently be doing one thing differently: in addition to beating up muggers and drug dealers, he'll be beating up prostitutes, something he wasn't doing before afaik.)

What follows is what's known as an "infodump": a character delivers a huge chunk of exposition, ostensibly for the benefit of another character, but in reality for the benefit of the reader. Often the character on the receiving end in fact knows, or can be expected to know, much of what's being said: that may well be the case here, as much of what Urich will narrate is apparently public knowledge, and widely publicized. Infodumps are a hallmark of bad writing, so it's surprising to find an acclaimed writer like Bendis using one so openly. As we'll see, Bendis doesn't even try to make his dump sound like a conversation. Urich doesn't start by indicating why the story he's about to tell is relevant to anything, or why his guest might be interested, as a real person would do: he just launches right in, with no preliminary other than the clumsy segue I just talked about.

He starts by delivering a lengthy three-panel disquisition about how Prohibition essentially created modern-day organized crime (which is basically true), which I'll skip. This leads to the Kingpin taking over the city's crime:

"based right out of the oldest battleground in the country. The Kitchen. Until Matt Murdock took it from him. Can you imagine that this happened in our lifetime?"

Well, yes, and very easily. A lot of crime bosses have been knocked off. Some have even been sent to jail. But to continue:

"This is a historic event. A major super hero -- an A-list super hero --"

It's a relatively minor point, but in a universe which contains Thor, Phoenix, and Captain America, among others, since when is Daredvil an "A-list super hero"?

"in this city -- pulls off his mask and declares the city his. this is as big a story as this city will ever see."

Apparently terrorists crashing two planes into the World Trade Center and killing thousands of people is small potatoes compared to a guy who punches criminals announcing that he's going to punch more criminals. But 9/11 didn't happen in the Marvel Universe, you may object (I have no idea whether it did or not myself). This line of defense won't work, though. In the first place, the line still sounds grotesque. In the second place, what happened in the bar was objectively no big deal, as I said above: plenty of other events that have happened in New York were bigger. And in the third place, if we're going by the Marvel Universe, New York must have seen dozens of alien invasions and attempted takeovers by supervillains. And didn't Magneto take over Manhattan, destroy all the bridges, and slaughter hundreds of people just a few months ago, if I remember correctly? That seems kind of significant, too.

Urich then goes into a digression, which has no relevance whatever that I can see, about how nobody who saw Daredevil deliver his ultimatum will admit having been there. Again, I'll skip a few lines, to this:

"So scared were the people in that bar... They either left town that night, turned it all around, or killed themselves."

As already stated, what actually happened wasn't objectively all that scary. But there are a few other things wrong with this line. In the first place, how does Urich know? Nobody was taken attendance in the bar, presumably. And if nobody will admit they were there (and Urich isn't just talking about admitting on the record; he means that nobody will admit it, period), then nobody who wasn't there can know who was there. In the second place, that bit about how some of them "killed themselves" is mind-boggling. Did they love Hell's Kitchen that much that they would rather die than leave it? Or are we supposed to believe that Daredevil really was that scary? (I guess criminals really are a superstitious and cowardly lot.) And in the third place, the idea of nobody admitting they were there doesn't make much sense when you think about it. It's clearly intended as a take-off on the phenomenon of there never being any witnesses to gangland slayings. But the reason nobody will come forward to say they saw a gangland slaying is that they're afraid they'll be killed themselves if they do. Daredevil didn't tell the people in the bar to be silent, let alone threaten them if they weren't. On the contrary, he obviously wanted them to spread the news around. In any case, even in gangland slayings people do talk, just not on the record.

"Matt Murdock is the new Kingpin and it is officially urban legend."

Again, try saying this sentence to yourself, with the emphases where Bendis puts them. It sounds unnatural as hell.

"What isn't urban legend is the six weeks that followed. Six straight weeks of terror and violence against the underworld that the city has never seen before or since."

Again, this is all supposed to be part of a conversation. "How's it going, Ed?" "Not so great, Joe. In fact, it's been six straight weeks of terror and violence that the city has never seen before or since." Yeah, right.

"This wasn't some super hero bounce-around..."

Why not? We haven't found out yet. Nor will we in this issue. Skipping a few sentences:

"So, all night, every night... For weeks... A streak of unparalleled violence struck the shadows of the city."

In a city which has seen countless gangland slayings, one guy punching people is a "streak of unparalleled violence"? Skipping again:

"He was everywhere. Fists flying, blood spattered. He cleaned every corner, every nook and cranny."

"Fists flying, blood spattered." You can just tell that Urich is a veteran reporter, can't you? It takes years of experience to be able to come up with vivid descriptions like that.

You might expect that the art would compensate for the lack of specificity in the writing; after all, comics are supposed to be good at showing instead of telling. But you'd be wrong. Everything from "What isn't urban legend" to "every nook and cranny" is set against a single panel covering two pages--a poster, in effect--showing Daredevil from above for some reason, with his fists raised above his head. We don't see what, if anything, Daredevil is attacking. Instead, he is superimposed against an incomprehensible collage, which is presumably meant to symbolize the underworld of Hell's Kitchen. The main feature of the collage is oodles of stippling, perhaps meant to indicate blood, though you can't really tell. In this murk you can distinguish hypodermic syringes, a couple of faces with trickles of blood from their noses or mouths, what appears to be a crude drawing of a skull (ooh, symbolism!), signs from various porn stores and peep shows (which may be sleazy, but are legal, and aren't in Hell's Kitchen anyway), and, in one corner, a deli and pizzeria (which is legal too). And that's all the visual information we get in this issue about Daredevil's "six straight weeks of terror and violence."

I should give some general information about Hell's Kitchen here, since the narration here, and in the preview as a whole, uses "Hell's Kitchen" and "the city" interchangeably, almost as if Bendis were deliberately seeking to confuse the two in the reader's mind. (I couldn't be sure from the preview whether Daredevil was "cleaning up" just Hell's Kitchen, or New York City as a whole, though the rest of issue #56 makes clear that it's the former.) Hell's Kitchen (some of its residents, and gentrifying developers, prefer the name "Clinton") is one of dozens of neighborhoods of New York City. I don't know its exact population (I don't think it has "official" boundaries, anyway), but it can't be greater than 100,000. New York City, in contrast, has a population of about seven million. I lived in the northern end of Hell's Kitchen for two years, and I never heard, or read, anybody refer to it as "the city." And while Hell's Kitchen isn't considered a particularly desirable neighborhood, it's far from being the worst, or the most crime-ridden, in New York (though it did have a lurid reputation at one point, reflected in the name). In the second half of the issue, not included in the preview, another superhero complains to Daredevil that his having run all the criminals out of Hell's Kitchen has made things worse in Queens. In fact, if you ran all the criminals out of Hell's Kitchen it'd hardly be noticed in Queens.

The remaining three pages of the preview are devoted to describing how Matt Murdock took "hundreds of millions of dollars" that just happened to conveniently fall into his lap and gave it to the city to rebuild Hell's Kitchen, thus "putting his money where his fists were" (a concealed dig at Batman?). There are just a couple of things I want to comment on here. Urich says that the money left over from rebuilding Hell's Kitchen "went into a new library." Hell's Kitchen already has at least one public library. (At least two, actually, but one is a specialized library, so Bendis could be excused for ignoring it.) Moreover, just a few blocks to the east of Hell's Kitchen is the main branch of the New York Public Library, one of the largest libraries in the U.S. Much as I support libraries, getting another library would be one of Hell's Kitchen's lowest priorities.

"And with crime down and people in better living conditions... People could walk down the street. People could look each other in the eye."

As I said, I used to live in Hell's Kitchen, and I used to walk all through it. During the day, at least, I never felt nervous. While I never encountered much foot traffic, this wasn't because of fear of crime. Rather, because Hell's Kitchen is on the edge of Manhattan, it's not on the way to or from anywhere (with a couple of exceptions), nor is there much in it to attract people from outside the neighborhood.

Either Bendis or the artist, Alex Maleev, has chosen to illustrate these words with a drawing of Hell's Kitchen before it was "rebuilt," with the "after" picture on the next page. Prominent in both pictures (they show the same view of the same scene) is a commercial building, which in the first picture is boarded up but in the second has an office and a restaurant. This gives the impression that Hell's Kitchen is full of such vacant sites, an impression reinforced by Urich's statement: "The Mayor jumped in on it. Matching funds and urging businesses to return." But it's not true: Hell's Kitchen has plenty of businesses, though for the most part they're not the sort that would attract shoppers from outside the neighborhood. In front of this building, in this picture, are two shadowy figures standing next to a fire they've lit in a trash can. I never saw a scene like this in Hell's Kitchen. Maleev is portraying Hell's Kitchen as a slum like those on Chicago's South or West sides, and that just isn't the case. "What difference does it make?" you may ask. "So a superhero story isn't one hundred percent accurate. So what?" It matters to me, not because I'm particularly attached to my former neighborhood, but because the story pretends to be connected to the real world, and yet Bendis hasn't done the research (or if he did, he ignored it), but slapped a preconceived stereotype of a "bad neighborhood" onto Hell's Kitchen.

"And that's how he saved the city."

No, he didn't. What he did was to gentrify Hell's Kitchen. Hell's Kitchen was actually gentrifying when I was living there, without the help of a super hero (though the post-9/11 slump in New York City's economy may have slowed the process down). Other neighborhoods in New York have gentrified before. It hasn't, and won't, "save the city."

At the start of this post, I said that the story was not only bad, but dishonest. The fundamental dishonesty is that the story presents itself as gritty and realistic, and yet supposes that a single man using only his fists could eliminate crime from a crime-ridden urban neighborhood in which most of the criminals have guns. This might get by in an early sixties Batman comic, where criminals who captured Batman always placed him in elaborate deathtraps from which he could escape, and when readers asked why nobody ever just shot Batman, the editors replied that it was because criminals were all insane. But in a comic that claims to be saying something about the real world, it's ridiculous. (Just to make things clear: what makes the comic dishonest is not that it's a "realistic" comic about superheroes. It's that it's a "realistic" comic which depicts Daredevil accomplishing something that, given his powers and how we're told he used them, he could not have accomplished.)

There's another dishonest aspect to it: we're repeatedly told of Daredevil's six weeks of "terror" against the underworld, but never shown or told exactly what he did. This lets readers indulge their fantasies of "getting tough" with crooks, without having to think about the human consequences of such a policy.

I'm not going to comment in detail on the rest of the issue, but there's nothing in it that redeems the first half. The main event in the second half is that four other New York superheroes visit Daredevil and tell him that he's "crossed the line" and that all he's done is shifted the crime from Hell's Kitchen to other parts of New York City. Here, if you like, is the "literature of ethics" that Jim Henley, among others, has claimed that superheroes are especially suited for. Except the ethical dilemma is phony too, because as far as we've seen, Daredevil is just doing what all other superheroes do, except more efficiently. Taking the superheroes' argument that Daredevil is just shifting crime elsewhere to its logical conclusion, superheroes should deliberately allow some criminals to operate in their territories -- or, alternatively, being a superhero is useless unless there are enough superheroes to patrol every neighborhood in every city. And if Daredevil has "crossed the line" in some other way, we never see how.

I've focused here on the writing, since that's what particularly offended me (and since Bendis is the acclaimed one on the creative team). But since it's a comic, I should say something about the art. It's lousy too, though not much more so than the average mainstream comic. Both faces and backgrounds look like they've been copied from photographs, with a lot of shadows and stippling thrown in to show how noirish gritty it all is. Urich's face, talking to Daredevil, is inexpressive; to make up for this, Maleev has him raise and lower his head a lot. Maleev's one attempt in the preview to depict action or emotion -- the double-page spread depicting Daredevils "six weeks of terror and violence" that I described above -- fails on both counts.

The bottom line is that virtually every aspect of this preview is dishonest. Urich's dialogue is supposed to be "realistic," but nobody would ever talk the way he does. The story pretends to be rooted in a real New York City neighborhood, but we are shown only a stereotypical slum. And by showing Daredevil "taking over" Hell's Kitchen, Bendis pretends to be giving us "real world" superheroics; but the idea that Daredevil alone, with just his fists, could "clean up" Hell's Kitchen, is itself a fantasy. Nor does Bendis show us what the human consequences of Daredevil's actions in the real world would be. To repeat something I said before, the problem isn't that the book is a fantasy: it's that Bendis presents this fantasy as realism. Readers who buy Bendis's "realism" can believe that they've been tough-mindedly grappling with real-world issues of crime and ethics, when actually they've just been imbibing more of the simplistic cliches so common in present-day American popular culture and public discourse.

That a book purveying such cliches should be widely acclaimed, while unfortunate, is not really surprising. What's more puzzling is why Bendis's stilted dialogue should also be accepted as realistic. My guess would be that it sounds like the dialogue on TV dramas, which nowadays is the standard of "realism," rather than the way people actually talk. But I haven't seen enough such dramas to say for certain.

[Feedback is encouraged (my email address is on the sidebar); I'll try to reply to all intelligent comments.]

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