RETRO REVIEW: Daredevil #181 (April 1982)

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Or – “There’s No Chris Martin Song About Murder, Is There?”

This week’s Major Spoilers Podcast showcased the Major Spoilers crew’s thoughts on Jeph Loeb & Tim Sale’s ‘Daredevil: Yellow,’ a discussion which kept referencing Frank Miller’s epic run on the title at the dawn of the 80’s.  As the only one of the crew who read comic books circa ’82 (the other MSP hosts being busy as either an athlete or a gleam in a couple of young mens’ respective eyes) I thought it was high time to take a trip back to the Bronze Age and check out one of the darkest chapters in DD’s about-to-get-much-darker superheroic career.

DAREDEVIL #181
Penciler: Frank Miller
Inker: Klaus Janson
Colorist: Klaus Janson
Letterer: Ron Zalme
Editor: Denny O’Neil
Publisher: Marvel Comics
Cover Price: $1.00
Current Near-Mint Pricing: $30.00

Previously, in Daredevil:  The early life of Matthew Murdock was trying, what with the whole “living-with-blindness-caused-in-an-accident-while-saving-a-man-from-certain-radioactive-death-only-to-have-his-sole-living-parent-murdered-by-the-mob-because-he-wouldn’t-throw-a-fight” thing, but it wasn’t until the early 1980s that we learned of his childhood interactions with a blind ninja known only as Stick, as well as a college fling with Elektra Natchios, a Greek exchange student.  (That may possibly be my favorite run-on sentence ever.)  Murdock also earned the ire of one Wilson Fisk, aka The Kingpin of crime, a man known for antagonizing Spider-Man, rockin’ purple pinstripe pants in a 68 long, and also for controlling crime on the Eastern seaboard with an iron fist.  Elektra returned to Matt’s life as a freelance assassin, working as the Kingpin’s chief eliminator, a position still coveted by its former owner, the costumed psychopath known as Bullseye.  Bullseye, for his part, has been filling his time in prison with fantasies of killing Daredevil (as well as a brain tumor) when he receives the news that he has been replaced…

This is, I believe, during the Punisher’s stint in prison for killing jaywalkers and litterers, previous to his ’86 miniseries, which shows just how much things have changed in the Marvel U.  While Bullseye fixates on the fact that Daredevil saved his life and put him back in prison, the prison administration amazingly agrees to let Bullseye be interviewed on national television, IN COSTUME (!!)   Their hope is that the interview with ‘Tom Snyde’ (his name is on the water-tower) will speed up Bullseye’s rehabilitation into a productive member of society.  It does not go as planned…

Bullseye’s headache here is one of a series, caused by his brain tumor.  Of course, it’s also a feigned attack, allowing him to use his deadly accuracy to shoot the pill into a guard’s eye and make a daring escape from the prison with Tom Snyde in tow.  Bullseye narrates this issue first-person, which is an interesting artistic choice by Miller, counter-balancing Bullseye wondering what Daredevil is doing with visuals that show us the hero in action.  Bullseye’s escape attracts attention from more than one quarter, with the Kingpin mobilizing other assassins to take down the man in black, but Bullseye finds the other assassins more afraid of him than of Mr. Fisk.  As the issue progresses, Bullseye starts to piece things together, figuring out that his replacement (Elektra) has been sent to hit Matt Murdock’s partner Foggy Nelson, and even recognizing a certain resemblance between Murdock and DD.  There are strong hints throughout the issue that the brain tumor is affecting his cognition, but it doesn’t stop him from putting together a plan to find Elektra…

I am suddenly reminded how much of this issue was adapted for Colin Farrel’s inexplicably Irish take on Bullseye for the kinda awful Ben Affleck ‘Daredevil’ movie, which makes me a little sad.  Of course, Miller and Klaus Janson on art brings me back from the edge of despondency, with their wonderful noir take on New York City in the earliest years of the Reagan-era.  Bullseye trails Foggy through the streets, which leads him to Elektra, only to witness how the young assassin is taken aback when Nelson recognizes her from their college days!

Elektra’s sudden case of conscience distracts her enough for Bullseye to sneak up on her, but her ninja training still gives Miss Natchios a momentary upper hand.

That whole page is AMAZING, from top to bottom, with some excellent (although I don’t know if they’re entirely accurate) martial arts moves in play, and Bullseye making a good show for himself against one of the most skilled fighters in the world.  Their battle goes on for page after beautiful page, until Bully cracks her skull onto the pavement and puts a stop to the fightin’.

As Elektra bleeds out on the pavement, Bullseye cockily picks up one of Elektra’s own fallen weapons, snarking “For my next trick…”

Makes you wonder what that leotard is made of, doesn’t it?  Elektra staggers away, crawling to Matt Murdock’s doorstep, where she dies in her ex-lover’s arms.  Of course, killing his rival doesn’t stop the man in black, and Bullseye’s reign of terror continues as he sneaks into the morgue where her body is kept, his diseased brain trying to find out whether Daredevil and Matt Murdock are one and the same, the better to earn his way back into Kingpin’s good graces…

With his crazy theory seemingly proven, Bullseye sets off to get his old gig back.  There’s a really enjoyable undertone to  how Frank Miller makes the subtle implication is that Bullseye’s brain tumor is making him act even more unstable that usual, as even the Kingpin doesn’t trust his judgement anymore.

The best part is, his paranoid rantings are 100% correct!  This is a really nice moment in an issue packed with wall-to-wall “OH MY GOD!,” and I’m very amused with how the story plays out as Daredevil manages to use a Silver Age ploy (a dummy in his office, combined with a recording of his voice) to simulate being in two places at once, thus distracting Bullseye from the matter of his identity.  This has the unpleasant side effect of freeing up the Bull-man’s thought processes to focus on beating, slashing, hacking and/or stabbing DD to death.

During their battle, Bullseye laments the fact that his symbolic use of the fallen Elektra’s weapons is meaningless (turns out it’s not) and pushes the Man Without Fear to the edge of his abilities, fighting their way across Hell’s Kitchen, even battling on top of the elevated train!  Daredevil barely manages to trip his opponent up, but finds that the fight isn’t quite over yet, as they both fall from a building.  Daredevil thinks quickly, but Bullseye isn’t about to be saved a second time…

Did Daredevil just drop a man to his seeming death?  I have to say, I’m not 100% clear about it, but the implication is there, which adds an intriguing and shocking edge to DD’s actions.  This issue is one of the points where the seeds of the anti-hero trend were planted, and knowing what happens in  Daredevil’s future makes this all seem even more ominous in retrospect.  Bullseye is left with a broken back, and only his hate to keep him company as he obsesses about Daredevil, Kingpin and Matt Murdock.

Bullseye’s mental narration again laments that killing Elektra didn’t hurt Daredevil, never knowing that his assumptions were correct, and that his old enemy is now wracked with grief over lost love.  Again, Miller entwines the visual record of what is really happening with Bullseye’s mental wanderings, as we see Matt Murdock at Elektra’s graveside.  This issue is PACKED with drama and intensity, the equivalent of a dozen issues of today’s more decompressed storytelling, with something important happening on nearly every page.  The interconnectedness of Miller’s Daredevil characters and their stories is wonderful, even though much of the story consists of heavy-duty retcons.  Still, they’re retcons done right, and written brilliantly, reminding me why Frank Miller has become a comic book legend.  Daredevil #181 is one of the strongest single issues of the character’s history (and that’s saying something), a visual tour de force that sucks you in and drags you by the scruff of the neck into its seedy little world, earning 5 out of 5 stars overall.  The best/worst part of all is knowing that the real trials are still ahead for ol’ Hornhead…

Rating: ★★★★★