Thursday, January 27, 2011

My Daredevil Year Begins With Kevin Smith's Daredevil: Guardian Devil Graphic Novel!

The Good: Decent character struggle, Generally good introduction to characters, Great coloring, Interesting plot.
The Bad: Artwork is very static
The Basics: I finally announce Daredevil as my graphic novel subject for study for the year and open my exploration with Guardian Devil by Kevin Smith!

I love irony and I love balance in my life. Irony comes in the form of my wife today. When I announced to her who my Super Hero Of The Year was, she instantly told me "I am not supporting this." This made me laugh because, as my regular readers know, 2010 was my Wonder Woman Year. I immersed myself in every graphic novel, movie and toy, the latest of which was Wonder Woman: Contagion (reviewed here!), I could get my hands on in the tumultuous year of my reviewing that was about Wonder Woman in order to truly understand the heroine. My wife, more than a little peeved about me looking at comics of a leggy chick who is frequently fetishized, still illustrated a lot of tolerance and support of my choice of graphic novel study for the year by finding me figures, encouraging me to get the old television series and actually listening to me when I would reference something cool I read in one of the books (just yesterday, she made the poignant argument that Anne Hathaway should drop out of The Dark Knight Rises as Catwoman and go play Wonder Woman in a film about her!). So, when I told her that 2011 would be my Daredevil Year, she said, "I am not supporting this" and I was a little baffled. Her logic was simple: she was bored by the film Daredevil (reviewed here!) and did not want to hear about anything Daredevil for a whole year (I also suspect that because red and maroon contradicts so much of our colorscheme around the house, she is not thrilled about the merchandising, which I have no real interest in anyway).

As for balance, that comes in my choice of superhero to investigate for the year. At the end of 2010, the heroes I was most interested in studying (I decided early on I would alternate male and female yearly, assuming there was enough heroine material out there) were Green Lantern and (of all people?!) Deadman. But, I decided that because I had devoted so much attention to the DC Universe last year, for 2011, I should check out the Marvel Universe. Balance came in choosing a Marvel character, a male and a character who was not gifted special powers from the divine, alien origin or mutations. Daredevil seemed like the logical choice. So, I was pretty thrilled when my very first graphic novel to open my study of Daredevil that arrived from my library was Daredevil: Guardian Devil by Kevin Smith.

I am a fan of Kevin Smith's movies and Guardian Devil was Smith's first foray into comic books. The eight-part comic series is now anthologized as the Guardian Devil trade paperback anthology. And while I usually like to start my stories from the beginning, I eagerly leapt into Daredevil at this point, years into the hero's journey. Anyone who has ever seen Daredevil ought to be able to recognize most of the principle characters in the book and Smith does an exceptional job of catching new readers (like me) up completely.

In Hell's Kitchen (New York City), Matt Murdock has been left by his girlfriend, Karen. Karen has taken a job on the West Coast and Murdock is feeling abandoned. He does not have much time to marinade in his self-doubt before he must suit up as Daredevil to go rescue a girl and her newborn baby from thugs who are chasing her. While he initially fails to catch the girl to find out why she is fleeing men who are violently harassing her, she soon ends up at his law firm where the baby is turned over to his care and she disappears. Murdock places the baby in Natasha (Black Widow) Romanov's care while he attempts to learn about why the baby is so important. That, too, does not take long to come to light when Murdock is visited by a mysterious old man who knows his double life and who informs Murdock that the baby is, literally, the antichrist and he must turn the child over to a secret organization lest Armageddon itself come.

Concerned this might be true - despite wrestling with his own faith - Murdock is reunited with a panic-stricken Karen, is captured by another mysterious being and flees only to incapacitate Natasha and abduct the child. As his law partner twists in the wind for a murder he insists he did not commit, Murdock finds himself at a local mission in the company of an unlikely ally who tries to help him work through his struggle, a plan which is exacerbated by Murdock's feelings of betrayal from Karen and the appearance of Bullseye, who has been hired to ruin Murdock and recover the baby.

Right off the bat, what works with Guardian Devil is that it characterizes Daredevil as an imperfect hero. He is a man, a blind man, whose senses have been heightened by years of training and an intimate knowledge of his surroundings. But he is just a man; when he is wounded, he takes a while to heal. He is susceptible to drugs, magic and acts of divine intervention, which makes him an interesting hero as he wrestles with larger-than-life machinations, but very real and familiar human emotions. Kevin Smith's incarnation of Daredevil is plagued by self-doubt, loneliness and a crisis of faith. This makes him realistic and viably heroic.

On the other end of the spectrum is Bullseye, who pops up in the later chapters of the book as a very monolithic villain who lacks any real purpose or distinction. He is motivated by money, apparently, and is happy to be used as a tool. Despite his incredible ability to cast anything and land it where he wants it to, Bullseye has no real motivation or conscience. He is a hired goon for the primary villain of the story and there is a monolithic quality to him that is boring, despite Smith's witty dialogue for him.

What Bullseye's appearance does, though, is offer a context to reference the artwork. Joe Quesada's pencilwork is good, but hardly extraordinary. While the coloring of this Daredevil volume is rich and does great things for shadow and vibrancy of color, the pencils are somewhat lazy. For sure, all of the characters are recognizable on the page and panel to panel, there is an easy understanding for readers of what is going on. But what the panels lack is a real sense of movement within the frames. The fight with Bullseye, for example, looks more like a series of very static shots, as opposed to windows into a movie where one can see movement happening in each frame.

That said, Quesada does an excellent job with some of his larger panels. Murdock's arrival at the Mission in the rain is beautiful and has a classic look and feel to it. Similarly, the anguish of Murdock in bed that opens Chapter Six is exceptional from a visual level, making the humanity of the moment ring true. As well, the demon that Quesada draws when Murdock visits Doctor Strange has very cool creature design and makes for a distinctive contrast to some of the other panels (ironic because the demon barely moves!).

More telling than the artwork being surprisingly static is the sheer number of words in this graphic novel. Kevin Smith, whose movies I absolutely love, is exceptionally wordy in Guardian Devil and while that works for creating a wonderful story, there are moments it undervalues the strength of the medium. So, like a film with too many voice-overs, sometimes in Guardian Devil there is too much exposition - telling instead of showing - that makes the reader feel like Smith is less comfortable with this medium than with using his words. Conversely, it also makes one think he could write one hell of a novel (though given his obsession with miserable characters struggling with their love lives, one wonders what more he could actually say on the subject . . .).

At the end of the eight-chapter anthology - which includes bonus cover galleries and a foreword on the influence Smith had on coming to Daredevil - one has to respect what Kevin Smith has done with Guardian Devil. In this book, Smith reintroduces Daredevil and Matt Murdock and a hero and man on the quest to find his faith and redemption while writing the exits of several characters extraordinarily well. I was excited by the book and I am eager to see what comes next in the story. Though, because I know Smith did not write the volumes that follow Guardian Devil, I know they will not include the cute references to Smith's movies and personal life (Jay and Silent Bob references are sprinkled through the book, mostly in later chapters and a reference to Smith's wife and daughter are there to be picked out). But it is easy to see why Smith would be sought to write Guardian Devil; the angst of the protagonist is well within his abilities to express and make both interesting and compelling. And for those who love Smith's movies, it is refreshing to read something by the able writer that is remarkably devoid of dick and fart jokes.

For other graphic novel reviews, please visit my takes on:
Watchmen by Alan Moore
Luthor by Brian Azzarella
Lost Girls by Alan Moore


For other book reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2011 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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