Drew: “The man without fear” is kind of a strange title for a superhero — between absurd power levels and unmatchable competence, most superheroes have nothing to fear in the first place. Heck, the Avengers just repelled an unstoppable force of universal destruction and one of them just shoots arrows. This prompts supervillain inflation, where each bad guy needs to be bigger than the last in order to draw any drama from the situation — at least, that’s usually the solution for most writers. Mark Waid, on the other hand, has taken Matt Murdock’s title to heart, and has set out to explore the kinds of horrors that have nothing to do with the size of the guy Daredevil has to punch. The result is incredibly relatable and human, but also extremely rare in modern comics.
Issue 33 opens with Matt on the brink of death, confronting Foggy in his subconscious. He wakes to find himself in the care of Marvel’s cast of Universal Monsters, including Jack Russell, the man he came to Kentucky to see. They’re able to heal Matt from the fatal gunshot wound he sustained at the end of the previous issue, with what Waid firmly writes off as “magic.”
I love it. “It’s magic, okay? Do you want to bust my balls about an explanation, or do you want to hear a story?” With that, we’re able to shake off all of the supernatural stuff (which Matt later reaffirms is pretty far out of his normally street-level wheelhouse), and move onto the meat of the issue: Jack points Matt in the direction of Lucien Sinclair, a member of the Sons of the Serpent, who has several pages of the Darkhold, and has used them to put his home under powerful magic protections. With typical Daredevil assuredness, Matt heads in without fear, and is presented with a hallucinatory white supremacy horror show.
That’s actually incredibly harrowing. Matt is only able to make it through because he can’t actually see what’s going on, but his radar sense is more than enough to disgust him to his very core. That same radar sense also allows Waid and artist Jason Copland to show us what would otherwise be in extremely poor taste.
Those are some viscerally repulsive images — a rarity in comics — all the more remarkable because Waid and Copland manage it without any blood or guts. Matt realizes that this isn’t simply a ploy to keep him out — it’s a test to weed out the faint of heart (that is, Sinclair goes through this same fantasyland in order to get to the house, but he actually likes it). This makes Matt even more pissed off as he busts into the cabin, setting all of Sinclair’s vast occult library aflame, and knocking Sinclair out. Jack et al. arrive just in time to chew Matt out for being so careless with such valuable magical documents, but he doesn’t care — he’s already pocketed the pages he needs.
As uncomfortable as I was with the idea of Matt fighting racism (I was concerned that any “win” would ultimately be unearned and potentially trivialize the issue), Waid manages to abstract it just enough to make it really sing here. He’s able to summarize what is so disgusting and despicable about a real-world problem, but is also able to give Matt a way to punch it in the face. Indeed, as I look back on the problems Waid has put Matt up against — cancer, human trafficking, even his faith in his own sanity — it’s clear that Waid is the writer without fear, never backing down from a tough topic. It’s a brilliant approach, and has continued to make this series unique in its content.
This also comes out in the opening scene, where Matt has a frank discussion with his subconscious about Foggy’s declining health. Matt suggests that it’s harder to be around Foggy because the smells are getting worse.
Matt is notably open throughout this exchange — he even explains the well-worn dream phenomenon of being frozen in place — but Waid is careful to leave the elephant in the room as subtext: Foggy is dying, and there’s nothing Matt can do about it. I suppose the fact that Foggy is up and out of the hospital, that we famously met a real-life survivor of this particular type of cancer, and that, you know, he’s a superhero comic book character all combined to make me think that he might be in the clear, but Matt’s speech here makes it clear that things are still getting worse. A friend dying of cancer is hard, real-world stuff, but might also be the kind of thing folks could use a superhero story to help them navigate.
That sounds highfalutin, but Waid continues to impress me. He’s long been one of the smartest, most level-headed statesmen in the business, capable of handling sensitive subjects with the gentle touch they require, but this may be some of the most open, affecting work he’s ever written. It seems like no subject is off-limits. Indeed, when this run is all sewn up, this may serve as Waid’s strongest love letter to comics (and there have been several). I’m relishing every moment of seeing this history in the making, and I can’t wait to hear your thoughts on this issue, Patrick.
Patrick: It’s not just a love letter to comics, is the thing. Drew, it’s so well observed that Waid is really putting Matt through the paces to earn that title The Man Without Fear, and this issue demonstrates what exactly that means with alarming efficiency. We’ve got this very specific pantheon of Scary Things right up top — a wolfman, a Frankenstein monster, a fucking mummy. Waid knows how damn goofy this is, and he allows these creatures to be scary in a very fictional kind of way. Between the magic that Drew mentioned above and Matt’s hilarious move tethering the mummy to a burning lamp, it’s easy to side with Matt when he reiterates “I don’t really believe in any of this.” In short: it’s scary, but whatever, it’s not real.
The one character that kind of skirts that line is Satana. No one’s ever going to try to convince you in earnest that zombies are real, but people will swear up and down that the devil is real. When the menace becomes more religious in nature, Matt has a harder time shaking it off with a simple statement of disbelief. I’ll admit to feeling a tangible sense of dread the second Satana reveals that the Serpent in “The Sons of the Serpent” is actually the devil. Waid sticks the moment with a knowing smirk, and a wonderful punchline from Matt.
He can be a little cocky about the idea of Judeo-Christian horrors, but it’s a little bit different when he’s confronted with them head on. It’s beautiful, because it’s not just about whether or not Matt believes in God and the Devil, but the realities people enacted in the name of religion. It’s a segue into that masterful spread above – where everything is so scary precisely because it’s R E A L. There’s no level of abstraction any more – we don’t get the luxury of the metaphors of zombies or monsters or wolfmen or even the devil. It’s just cold hard racism and inequality.
And I don’t know about you, but there’s something super rewarding about Matt just being able to fight that specific fear by getting mad at it. Drew’s right that any kind of “Daredevil Fights Racism” story is going to trivialize just how complex of an issue it is, but letting our hero attack it with a torch in his hand? Genius. Racism’s the real monster here and he can gather some villagers together and run it out of town with pitchforks and torches and the whole thing comes full circle.
Plus, we’re by no means done with the Sons of the Serpent – Daredevil’s just got one more weapon to use against them. I love that I don’t know what other ways Waid and Samnee can strip away the mystique of the organization, but I trust that they’ll land a few more blows before Matt dismantles them entirely. And I’m super excited to see how it all feeds into the end of their run in a scant three issues. The themes are resonating at full speed here and it’s just thrilling to bear witness to it.
For a complete list of what we’re reading, head on over to our Pull List page. Whenever possible, buy your comics from your local mom and pop comic bookstore. If you want to rock digital copies, head on over to Comixology and download issues there. There’s no need to pirate, right?