Every two weeks, Big Issues focuses on a newly released comic book of significance.
This week, it is Daredevil #16. Written by Chip Zdarsky (The White Trees, Marvel Two-In-One) with art by Jorge Fornés (Batman, Magnus), colorist Nolan Woodard (All-New Wolverine, Dead Man Logan), and letterer Clayton Cowles (Pretty Deadly, Captain Marvel), this issue spotlights the insightful character development that has made this a top-tier superhero run. Note: This review reveals major plot points.
Matt Murdock can’t stop making mistakes. After getting hit by a truck and ending up on the brink of death, he jumped back into the superhero life and accidentally killed a man during routine patrolling. In the midst of a serious crisis of faith after the manslaughter, Matt started sleeping with a woman married into a dominant Hell’s Kitchen crime family. That relationship blew up in his face, and now he’s back together with his assassin ex-girlfriend, Elektra, restarting a toxic romance while training to regain the fighting ability he lost in the accident. He can’t stop making mistakes, but at least he’s starting to recognize when he makes them.
Chip Zdarsky’s run on Daredevil hits on all of the fundamental elements of Matt’s character: his fraught relationship with Catholicism, extremely bad judgment with romantic partners, and desperate need to use his superhuman gifts to protect others. The best Daredevil runs of the past 20 years have erased the line between Matt Murdock and his superhero alter ego. Brian Michael Bendis and Alex Maleev did it by revealing Daredevil’s civilian identity in a tabloid, and Mark Waid and Chris Samnee ran with this idea by having Matt publicly confirm that he’s Daredevil. Reinstating Matt Murdock’s secret identity killed the momentum that Waid and Samnee had gathered, and while Charles Soule and Ron Garney’s run had some interesting moments, it always felt like a step back for the character.
Matt’s secret identity is still intact, but this current run erases the line by having Matt leave his Daredevil persona behind. He wore the face of the devil and killed a man, forcing him to reevaluate what he’s doing with his life. Zdarsky is delving deep into the ramifications of superhero violence in this story, and he ties religion into this discussion to make Matt’s vigilante lifestyle an expression of his faith. He has this gift given to him by a higher power, and he has a duty to use it to help others. But that path doesn’t have to lead to violence.
In this week’s Daredevil #16, Matt sits on a rooftop after a tense conversation with Wilson Fisk and listens to Hell’s Kitchen for the first time without the intent of finding a crime to stop. “I listen for what they need from me,” Matt narrates. “They say God is in the details. Maybe these voices, these are the details.” This internal monologue is accompanied by a beautiful image of Matt meditating amongst water towers that point toward the sky like steeples, a subtle way of presenting the entirety of Hell’s Kitchen as the church where Matt worships.
Zdarsky writes a great Matt, but Wilson Fisk is the most compelling character in this series. Zdarsky takes advantage of his position as New York City mayor to push the villain into new situations that test him in different ways than his previous life as a crime boss. The legalization of cannabis is a major plot point as Fisk looks for ways to gain political power, but he’s quickly learning that he’s a small fish in a big pond full of bloodthirsty predators. Recent issues have had Fisk clash with the billionaires who directly influence policy, attacking him with insults and endless condescension until he eventually snaps and kills one of them in a bathroom. That murder is a genuinely shocking cliffhanger, and the consequences for Fisk have been huge. Fisk is currently in a hospital bed after getting thrown out of a window, and when Matt shows up to grill him about recent events in Hell’s Kitchen, Fisk laughs in his face, realizing that he doesn’t have to be worried about killing this man anymore. “Your sickness over twenty blocks by four will kill you!” Fisk shouts. “Hell’s Kitchen will kill you!”
Artist Jorge Fornés returns to the series after making a big impression with issue #10, and he’s totally in sync with Zdarsky’s storytelling, bringing emotional depth to character interactions, presenting action with forceful swiftness, and lovingly drawing the Hell’s Kitchen environment with thick inks that gives this world weight. He draws a very sexy Matt lounging around in his signature tighty-whities, and it’s always refreshing to read a superhero book that leans into beefcake, which is something readers can expect from a Zdarsky series. Fornés is a more subtle storyteller than main Daredevil artist, Marco Checchetto, who leans into superhero grandiosity, even when working on street-level characters like Daredevil and Punisher. Fornés was recently thrust into the big leagues as one of the artists on the tail-end of Tom King’s Batman run, accelerating his already rapid evolution as a visual storyteller and giving him a familiarity with gritty urban environments that elevates his Daredevil art.
Jordie Bellaire colored Fornés’ first Daredevil issue, using flat colors that made Fornés’ inks the primary source of definition. Nolan Woodard’s coloring is significantly more rendered, and he does impressive work depicting different textures and how figures interact with light sources. Woodard makes strong palette choices throughout the issue: Matt and Elektra’s morning after is colored a gentle, romantic violet, which becomes a more heated neon pink when they team up to break into a massive data server. The scene of Matt listening to the neighborhood is backed by a fiery sunset, evoking hellish imagery as Matt talks about getting closer to God in this moment.
Julian Totino Tedesco is one of the best cover artists in the industry, creating images that set the emotional tone for the issue’s story with unconventional compositions and bold graphic elements. His covers for the “Through Hell” arc have been particularly striking, illuminating the arc’s central themes of falling into bad habits, finding common ground with old enemies, and rediscovering a superhero spirit. Issue #13’s cover of a blood-spattered Wilson Fisk is a chilling depiction of the moment when fear sets in after a deadly rage. The application of the blood has a glitchy quality, adding to the unsettling atmosphere and emphasizing that Fisk’s killer instinct took over a brain reprogrammed for civility in tense situations.
Issue #14 is the quietest cover of this series, showing the diner table where Matt and Detective Cole North—a cop making amends for his past sins by trying to be a hero in a department full of crooked police—meet to sort out their differences. Tedesco posted some discarded sketches for this cover on Twitter, and comparing these to the final image shows the impact of imaginative framing. The sketches are zoomed out to full show Matt and Cole sitting together, but the final image is a close-up of the table-top, identifying the two men only by their hands and their accessories. Totino creates tension by contrasting Coles’ clean hands and police badge with Matt’s bloodied fists and batons, and even though there aren’t any faces, it’s clear what the emotional conflict is here.
Last month’s issue featured a cover of Matt and Elektra leaping into action together, but they’re in a very different position for this week’s Daredevil #16 cover. Holding each other in a cloud of covers, Matt and Elektra exude intense intimacy, but all around them are indicators of the violence that fuels this sexual attraction: they are surrounded by their weapons, the floral wallpaper has little shurikens integrated into the pattern, and the image itself is covered in little slash marks. The tenderness exists between these two lovers is a product of shared brutality, and being with Elektra puts Matt at odds with the righteousness he’s trying to achieve.
In the short-term, Elektra helps Matt regain control of his physical power, as evidenced by the scene of Matt beating down ninja security guards while Elektra hacks a server. Woodard tones down the rendering here because much of the scene is presented in silhouette, and he punctuates specific action beats with pops of red when Matt taps into his radar sense. Matt tells himself that he’s in control, but this is just another mistake he’s making. The real control is in Elektra’s hands. She uses him to steal a billion dollars for herself, and when Matt storms out of her place in anger, Elektra writes his real name on the mirror. She had her memory wiped of Daredevil’s civilian identity just like everyone else, removing an essential aspect of her relationship with him. Now that deeper connection is back, introducing fresh complications for a hero already struggling to keep it together in the face of endless tribulations.