In a few weeks, Marvel will branch out its Cinematic Universe to Netflix with Daredevil, a new series about the eponymous Man Without Fear. Not familiar with Matt Murdock's past? Here's a brief history of Hell's Kitchen's greatest defender to catch you up before he hits the small screen.
Daredevil was created in 1964 by Stan Lee and Bill Everett, with initial character designs by Jack Kirby (Kirby was also responsible for Daredevil's iconic weapon, the extending billy club that would also serve as Matt Murdock's walking stick). Many of the hallmarks of the character today are still reflected in his original origin story — blinded at a young age after radioactive waste from a traffic accident where he saved an old man's life spilled onto his face, heightening his other senses to almost superhuman levels in the process. Trained as a lawyer, Murdock eventually turned to superheroics when his beloved father, a boxer, was killed for refusing to fix a fight. Matt took on the Daredevil persona in secret, to get justice for his father's death, but decided to carry on fighting to protect New York after dealing with the gangsters responsible.
And yes, the yellow costume was his original look — not the now-classic red you might be more familiar with! The fully-red costume wouldn't début until Daredevil #7, a year after the character was introduced. He's had many variants since, but the red suit is still Matt's most iconic, and the one he still uses today.
Daredevil's formative days made him a much different character from what he is today. The original Daredevil was perhaps a little closer to Spider-Man, a more jovial character who quipped as well as he fought bad guys, which made him a natural partner for the web-head — they've frequently teamed up in the comics and long been friends.
Speaking of Spider-Man, Peter Parker was inadvertently responsible for the first of many story arcs with Daredevil that would deal with keeping his identity as Matt Murdock safe. After Spidey accidentally exposed Murdock's identity in a letter, Matt was forced to adopt a new identity... that of his "twin brother," Mike, who happened to be much more carefree and humorous (like Daredevil) than the stoic Lawyer Matt. The identity change almost led to Murdock developing a multiple personality disorder, but readers were confused by the story arc and it was quickly and quietly dropped.
Different creative teams in the 1970s would take the character in different thematic directions — Daredevil became a quasi-pulp sci-fi hero under the stewardship of Gerry Conway, battling robots (and moving the character away from New York to San Francisco) and futuristic villains like the Owl. The character was also teamed up with the Black Widow, a move made to save the Daredevil comic from cancellation, and the two engaged in a partnership and on-off romance for four years.
In the mid-1970s, Black Widow was dropped from Daredevil, with writers believing Murdock worked better alone, and the character was moved back to Hell's Kitchen. The character also began to take on a darker edge, dealing with supernatural elements (he even fought death at one point) and a grittier personality — which in turn played a part in a major stylistic reboot of the character in the following decade.
A Dark Turn
The early 1980s were troublesome for Daredevil. The series was bleeding readers and was once again under the threat of cancellation. Frank Miller was brought on to try and rework the character, which lead to a drastic reboot that would come to define Daredevil for the next three decades.
Under Miller, Daredevil became a much darker, anti-hero-esque character. Although characters and origin elements would carry over, Miller completely cut loose from previous Daredevil continuity. Although much of his origin was the same, Matt's father was now an abusive alcoholic whose physical abuse of the blind child would be responsible for Matt becoming a lawyer (rather than his father's sense of right and wrong as it originally was). Much of the character's rogues gallery were wiped away too, replaced with the Kingpin — who, up to that point, had been exclusively associated with Spider-Man — as Daredevil's archnemesis. Daredevil was also given a mentor figure to replace his father, Stick, who trained Matt to fight from a young age (in the process turning him from a more gymnastic boxer of a fighter into something more ninja-like). That also introduced the ninja clan elements to Daredevil's background, including the Hand Clan assassin Elektra.
To reflect his darker origin, Matt himself underwent a radical character change. Gone was much of Daredevil's joviality, replaced with a violent streak that saw him savagely beat and almost kill many of his opponents. In one infamous story, Daredevil threw his long-time archnemesis Bullseye off a tall building, making him a quadriplegic, before engaging in a game of Russian roulette with him in an attempt to literally scare him to death.
The reboot was highly controversial at the time, with long-time fans worried that Daredevil had become a completely different character. But importantly for Marvel, the new Daredevil was selling excellently under Miller's management. Just three issues after Miller took the helm, Daredevil became a monthly series once more, and one of Marvel's bestselling comics.
Although Miller left the character in 1983 (he briefly returned in the late 1980s for Daredevil: Born Again, a story arch which reimagined Daredevil's former long-term girlfriend Karen Page as a drug addict porn star who sold Daredevil's secret identity for cash, and would return frequently during the '90s), the mark he made on the character in his first three years as writer would continue to be felt for the next 30 years. Miller even returned in 1993 to explain his reboot of the character with the now-iconic origin story Man Without Fear, setting the dark tone of the character in stone once again.
Throughout the '90s, Matt Murdock would struggle with darkness, depression, and several times with the outing of his identity as Daredevil, which had a huge impact on the character (notably once again in the mid-2000s run on the character by Brian Michael Bendis, which led to Murdock handing himself over to the FBI). Although some creative teams — most notably Karl Kesel and later Joe Kelly — would attempt to bring the character's original humour and tone back the darkness, the anti-hero element of the character would ultimately win out.
That changed once again in 2011, when writer Mark Waid rebooted Daredevil. Seeking to bring a finer balance between the darker side of Matt Murdock and the original character's joviality, as well as emphasise Daredevil's powerset as a connection to the physical world around him (usually portrayed through the circular rings emanating from the character as a quasi-echolocation technique).
Waid's run would deal with Murdock once again being exposed as Daredevil — a perpetual thorn in the character's side, as we've seen — which led to the the character disbarred from operating as a lawyer in New York and a relocation to San Francisco. Those changes are still in effect in the current Daredevil series, also written by Waid. This time, Murdock would choose to embrace his alter-ego being revealed, and he's currently attempting to balance his life as a superhero with a career as a famous lawyer — and unlike he did for the 30 years prior, enjoying himself in the process.
There's obviously a lot more to know about Daredevil as a character, considering he's been around for over 50 years at this point — but if you're looking for more information before the TV show starts, there are several comics that will help you in the run up. Daredevil: Man Without Fear by Frank Miller is the obvious start: Daredevil's darker, rebooted origin story is essentially the basis for the TV show, right down to the ninja-esque black suit we've seen in all the promo pictures. If you want the most direct comparison from comic to live-action, it's your best bet.
Although it's a bit more removed from what you'll see in the show, Mark Waid's run on Daredevil from 2011-2014 is also a good place to go. Waid's run on the character rebalanced Matt Murdock as a character so he was further removed from the darkest elements of Frank Miller's interpretation, bringing back some of the humour and joviality the character enjoyed before he was rebooted. It also leads directly into the current Daredevil comic, also by Waid, so it's a great entry point into the series as it stands today. The first volume collecting the 2011 Daredevil run is available on Amazon, or the series is available digitally from Marvel.