Robert, thanks for sharing your thoughts on this very memorable run. And without further delay:
Daredevil #180: "The Damned"
First of all, I’d like to thank Matt for inviting me to contribute to his blog and his very cool concept: 1 panel or 1 page that has stayed in your memory even if years (hell, even decades!) have passed since you first encountered it. These panels can hang in your memory long after the story they once helped tell is lost, like a lyric or a melody from a song whose name you can’t remember. Those little hanging paintings in your own personal comics geek gallery.
I must admit my own gallery is not very well curated; it resembles more a cluttered attic of various Marvel, DC and Amazing Fantasy pictures with a splattering of Calvin & Hobbes and Beanos (there may even be some Citizen Kane stills in there too — I really must clean this place up). But the very first thing that popped in my brain was a page from Daredevil, Issue No. 180 “The Damned”, second to last page. I had to check which issue, though, because as I said the page stuck in my memory while the details of the story have grown hazy.
Anyone reading this blog probably doesn’t need a summary of Frank Miller’s contribution to comics. Though his more recent output has been eclipsed by his reputation for semi-coherent, right-wing ranting, it can’t erase the two decades of uniformly exceptional comics work, from Daredevil through to Ronin, The Dark Knight Returns, Sin City, Martha Washington, and on and on. Whether as a full-on auteur creating his own book (he started writing and penciling Daredevil at the age of 22!) or writing for other artists, Miller’s world-weary, nicotine stained voice is always clear. So clear, in fact, it surprised me when I re-examined the page — the penultimate issue of an ongoing three-year arc of city corruption, doomed love and urban decay that introduced Elektra and Bulls-Eye — that Miller had by this time had begun to relinquish finishing duties to long-time collaborator Klaus Janson. Miller and Janson have been one of the great art teams of the modern era, so it’s easy to ignore any change in continuity; but even in its breakdowns this page is a lesson in narrative impact and efficiency.
I remember what initially caught me about this page was its irregularity. Mainstream comics at the beginning of the eighties were still quite conservative; panels were maintained in neat order, borders were standard and bleeds were almost unheard of. So to a ten year old kid thumbing through the issue on the newsstand in 1982 it just looked plain cool. But subsequent readings of this issue (and much of Miller’s Daredevil run) seem to reveal something new every time.
Miller subverts that Marvel “house-style” convention by actually emphasizing the white space, making the page asymmetrical. Partly this allows him to exploit his signature “TV panel” device, something he’d use to ultimate satirical effect in Dark Knight. He reuses this technique three times throughout the issue, always in the same spot and always with the same emptiness surrounding it. Then below a wide establishing panel of Kingpin in a deep focus shot that contextualizes the TV and emphasizes the mob boss’ power and isolation; the ring (his missing wife’s ring, retrieved from a dark and horrible place) cuts across the panel, always pulling our eye inward to the left of the page. Once we’re in the room, Miller slows time with a series of rhythmic, heavily-cropped vertical close-ups that capture Kingpin’s enormous face. It’s broken only once by Daredevil’s looming figure which dominates an increasingly powerless Wilson Fisk in the lower left of the frame. He’s now defeated and we’re allowed to close in on Fisk’s personal space, his private emotional state. Employed effectively, this technique can be devastating, and it’s something Miller almost certainly picked up from his mentor Wil Eisner. Eisner knew the difference between time and ‘timing,’ and that using timing creates a strong emotional rhythm. That rhythm is then punctuated by a final, extreme close-up of DD’s eyes like the last stab of a slowly beating drum. And always the layout seems to be pushing us to the left, creating an undeniable sense of claustrophobia that all started with that empty space at the top of the page.
Now ten year old me certainly wasn’t thinking all this when I first grabbed Daredevil #180. But I do remember pausing on it for a long time – it was something special, a kind of storytelling and attention to detail I’d never previously experienced. And it made me pay attention to comics, the good ones, in a way I hadn't before.
Thanks again for the opportunity to reminisce about a great piece of comics art, Matt. Your No-Prize is in the mail.
Robert Perry is an art and media teacher and graphic designer living in Ottawa, Canada. He has been a comic book geek since as long as he can remember, has taught courses on the art of comics and sequential art, and has met Mr. T.