For a good long while, Daredevil was Marvel’s ultimate dark hero, a character who experienced and dealt out tragedy in equal measure. But that changed in 2011, when a new Daredevil series gave us a man without fear who wasn’t afraid of being happy—and in the process, gave us one of comic’s most human superhumans.
Mark Waid’s run on Daredevil—beginning in 2011 with art from Paolo Rivera and Chris Samnee, and continuing in a soft reboot with Waid and Samnee at the helm—has given us a Matt Murdock that’s not been seen for nearly 40 years. When Daredevil first appeared, he was a swashbuckling rogue, a character who took on foes with a quick quip and a cheeky grin, even in the face of terrible threats. That all changed in the early 1980s, when Frank Miller completely reworked Daredevil into a gritty anti-hero and turned the series around, from a near-cancellation into a smash-hit comic. It’s this anti-hero Daredevil that has persisted for pretty much the next 30 years of Daredevil storytelling.
But over that time, Daredevil got progressively darker and darker—almost ridiculously so. Girlfriends were murdered, relationships torn apart by insanity on the part of Matt or his loved ones. At one point, Daredevil is possessed by an evil demon and goes on a nightmarish rampage against his fellow heroes. What was at first a move to make the character more layered and appealing to audiences had ultimately turned Daredevil into a bit of a one-note joke. He was a character persistently, endlessly, dogged by a darkness that stopped being an interesting character facet and started becoming a metaphysical weight that made his stories exhausting to read. The moments of light were far too rare to let audiences appreciate the dark.
But there was a turning point for Daredevil when Mark Waid brought him back in 2011. Waid gave us a Matt Murdock so tired of grimacing that he might as well try smiling once in a while—but most importantly, this wasn’t just a Daredevil that was happy for no reason. This was a Daredevil whose happiness was informed by the horrors he’d endured over the past three decades, and that made it all the more fascinating.
Comic book characters, especially long running ones, don’t really tend to evolve as characters. They’ll get reboots; they’ll get new suits; their lives will have ups and downs, but a status quo is maintained. There might be an event every few years that promises to change everything for them, but by the end of it, everything tends to stay in a similar ballpark, at least from a personality perspective. It’s what helps them become icons: you can pick up a story anywhere in a character’s history and expect a similar character who thinks and feels and approaches situations in the same way. That’s what makes Waid’s decision to make a happier Daredevil all the more interesting—it’s not a tonal reboot for the sake of a reboot, which is essentially what Miller did all those years ago. It’s an actual evolution of the character.
There’s an amazing scene early on in Waid’s Daredevil where Matt Murdock’s partner-in-law and trusted confidant Foggy Nelson confronts Matt about his new happy-go-lucky attitude (Daredevil takes place shortly after the events of Shadowland, the aforementioned comic book storyline where Matt is possessed by a demon called The Beast). Foggy is confused and even angry about Matt’s new disposition, a stand-in for the audience that has grown up with a darker Daredevil, asking, “Where’s my Matt Murdock?” This is Matt’s response:
This isn’t a Daredevil who’s happier just because external editorial factors demanded that suddenly Daredevil should be a Spider-Man-esque witty remark machine. This is a Daredevil who has grown, who has decided that, to cope with the life he’s lived, he has to find joy in things, be it his career as a lawyer or his life as a superhero. Instead of being fuelled by the tragedies that have befallen him over the years, he holds himself to a higher standard: to look beyond that darkness and find the light.
It’s a fantastic rebuttal to both Foggy and the Daredevil fans who couldn’t understand why Daredevil was joking rather than brooding—not only because it gives us a reason for the tonal change as an actual piece of character building for Daredevil, but also because it doesn’t make the mistake of entirely dismissing Daredevil’s past darkness. Daredevil the anti-hero is iconic: it’s the character we’ve had, forged by Frank Miller, for 30 years. It’s the image that informed this year’s seminal Daredevil Netflix series—a show that is incredible for many reasons, including adding an element of shadow to the otherwise jovial world of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Waid’s run on Daredevil with Rivera and Samnee, which comes to an end next month, hasn’t shied away from that darkness, either. It’s dealt with Matt Murdock being exposed as Daredevil and disbarred in New York. It’s turned formerly jokey villains like The Spot into menacing characters, and even danced with Matt’s past darkness in a climactic storyline that revived Daredevil’s nemesis Bullseye. Matt has constantly had to battle with who he is as Matt Murdock and who he is as Daredevil. But the comic has been informed by that growth from a man mired in his own darkness and depression into someone willing to try and move on, to try and look on the bright side for once.
By not outright dismissing his past, but balancing the darker and lighter sides of Daredevil, Waid has, over the past four years, given the character a sense of place and a humanity that he’s not had for a good long while. Daredevil has been one of Marvel’s best comics in recent memory, not just because it was part of the pushback against grim-and-grit edginess in superhero pop culture, but also because it was willing to present a character who would tackle that darkness, acknowledge it, and chose to move beyond it. Under Waid, Rivera and Samnee, Daredevil has matured and developed into one of Marvel’s most fleshed-out characters at the moment—he just happens to have done it with a laugh and a joke, a bit of that old-school Daredevil swashbuckler persona. It’s still surprisingly rare to see that, instead of the other way round.
Paolo Rivera’s cover for Daredevil #1 in 2011—and ultimately the cover for the first collected volume of the series—is pretty much the perfect image to sum up this happier approach to Daredevil:
A billy club obscures Matt Murdock’s masked eyes from view—after all, they’re not important to the character. They’re eyes that he doesn’t need to see, what he doesn’t need to be Daredevil. What isn’t covered? His smile. For all the nightmares he’s been through, right now it’s that smile that Matt Murdock needs most. It’s what has made him, in a world of powers, of noble heroes and foul villains, fascinatingly human. Who thought superheroic service with a smile could be so powerful?