Saturday, April 22, 2006

Top 10 Comics since 1979
9. Daredevil #181: Last Hand

Marvel Comics
April 1982
Writer: Frank Miller
Art: Frank Miller
Finished Art
& Colors: Klaus Janson

Frank Miller, over the course of an almost 30 year career in comics, has been many things: ugly, misogynistic, excessively violent, and sensationalistic.
He is also one the undisputed masters of the form, and holds a complete understanding of comic's strengths and weaknesses. His work envelops you into a world of sight and sound: a total sensory experience. You can hear the voices of his Hell's Kitchen street thugs, you can feel the chill of the night and the steam rising from the street.
His hard-boiled writing style works sometimes and sometimes it falls flat. But, where his characters may lack depth emotionally, he makes up for it through his art that allows you to feel the depth of their suffering.
Last Hand puts a giant-sized, 40 page capper on what may have been the best run of Miller's career: his re-invention of Daredevil. He took one of Marvel's goofiest ideas (a blind superhero. oh-kay...) and made you believe in it. By the time he was done, you had a clear picture of who Matt Murdock was, how his powers functioned, and what was at the seat of his compulsion to stalk the shadows at night.Issue 181 also features a heaping handful of Bullseye, maybe the most underrated, underutilized villains in the Marvel Universe. When the issue starts, he's in Ryker's Island prison, plotting revenge against Daredevil, who put him there. Bullseye is still suffering from his debilitating migraines, and the guards only toy with him, taking their sweet time giving him his medication.Miller turns his pain into a spiky, bright red halo, shooting straight up into the infinity of the panel gutters. This is Bullseye's life: unnerving pain and burning resentment towards the man that not only took away his freedom, but also saved his life.
Three pages later, Bullseye starts his rampage. He breaks out of prison during a live TV interview, and begins his hunt for Daredevil, killing indiscriminately as he goes. Over the course of the book, Bullseye kills at least six people on page, and certainly more off. This is Miller at his best. The fight sequences are kinetic and fascinating, the violence sudden and ugly.
Look at this sequence with Bullseye wondering to himself if Matt Murdock, blind attorney, could actually be Daredevil. It's essentially a splash page, right? Just one picture cut up into a few separate panels.But look at the divides: an empty bottle of booze lies on the floor, a bottle of pills lies spilled, cigarettes burn to their filters untouched. And, running again past the gutters into infinity, Bullseye's echoing, psychotic laughter. With this one page,and with those divisions of time, Miller tells us all we need to know about the character's single minded obsession.

Now, we come to the inevitable. The showdown between Bullseye, Daredevil's greatest enemy and Elektra, assassin for hire and former college lover of Matt Murdock.
Miller can't write women for shit. Elektra is never, at any point during this long arc about her descent from a privileged childhood to a life of vigilante revenge, a well-rounded and defined character. She exists, as so many women do in comics, solely to give the man in her life a stronger motivation for his deeds.
That said: this may be the defining moment in Daredevil's career. This happens right at the right-hand side of the page. When you turn the page, the very next panel, taking up the full left hand side, big as life:That hurts to look at. The same goes for Elektra's last stumbling moments as she makes her way step by agonizing step to Matt's door.Especially chilling: the blood pouring out of her in the first panel, and Bullseye calmly putting on his jacket in the next.

Daredevil and Bullseye meet, finally, in a six-page deathmatch, with Bullseye using Elektra's swords against her former lover. The above panels are among my favorite in the book. Bullseye is so iconic, with his logo well-defined against the black, and I love the frightening, animal ferocity with which he leaps onto the tracks below.
And here is a prime example of Miller's sensory overload:The sound of the train fills up the gutters, becoming an overwhelming roar. You don't need to imagine the sound, it's right there in front of you blocking out all other information, disorienting you just as it does the characters on page.
The climax of the fight comes with the two face to face on a wire high above the city. Miller slows down time, focusing on each second as Daredevil finally gains the upper hand, and again is about to save Bullseye's life.Bullseye would rather fall to his certain death than be in debt to his enemy again. When we see him for the last time he is in the hospital, hooked up to machines and in a full body cast. Even though we can't see it, we can imagine him with an evil grin of satisfaction.
"Maybe I didn't get you this time Daredevil, " he says in the narration, "But I got her, didn't I? I got her good. I wish that hurt you. I wish she's been yours, so that you'd spend long, lonely night staring at the ceiling, thinking about her...but ya can't win 'em all...Meanwhile, there's your buddy Murdock, who helped you beat me. How does he feel?""
Daredevil has won nothing. Bullseye will be out of prison again, Elektra will even rise from the dead. But there is still no victory, the fight simply goes on. Matt Murdock stands at Elektra's grave until he is as still and snow-covered as the tombstones that surround him. As a much better writer than Frank Miller once said:

"His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead."

Did I just quote James Joyce in a critical analysis of a Marvel comic? Oh, you bet your ass I did.

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