Review: Daredevil Vol. 1: Devil at Bay trade paperback (Marvel Comics)

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

[Review by Doug Glassman, who Tumblrs at '80s Marvel Rocks!]

I apologize for skipping from the middle of Mark Waid's Daredevil run to the start of the rebooted title. It's a function of owning the third hardcover which collects the back half of the series and which deserves a more thorough exploration. As a result, there are some minor spoilers ahead concerning the end of the previous volume. Because Daredevil: Devil at Bay starts with a new #1, it works as a newcomer's introduction to Waid and artist Chris Samnee's ongoing story (although the first volume is absolutely worth reading in its entirety).

Rebooting the book during its change of setting instead of making it a story arc was part of something that I realized in retrospect after the announcement of “Secret Wars.” Marvel has been preparing readers for the sudden end of many titles all at once through the various NOW! Initiatives. Even though Waid and Samnee's run is slated to end very soon, it's quite possible that they could return ... and it's quite possible that Daredevil as we know him might no longer exist anyway.

Until then, though, Devil at Bay adds some energy to a title that was occasionally guilty of getting bogged down in certain plotlines. Much like the Omegadrive storyline, Matt Murdock's dealings with the Sons of the Serpent went on a little too long. It ended with what I think is a first in the character's fifty year history: Matt's courtroom antics caught up with him and he was disbarred ... in the state of New York. Back in the 1970s, Daredevil used to live in San Francisco with the Black Widow, and Waid revealed that he was still licensed to practice law in the state. After the move, he's a fairly beloved figure with a public identity and an advisory relationship with the police and city hall.

Returning to his old city also means that Daredevil crosses paths with some old villains, such as the crime-lord the Owl. Leland Owlsley has been on a path towards a dark and animalistic nature for decades and it continues here as he seeks enhanced wisdom while hunting his failed mooks. (Perhaps he still hasn't gotten over his missed brush with greatness -- in a great bit of trivia, he was the original mysterious bad guy in X-Factor until it was changed to Apocalypse.) Another old foe, the Leapfrog, makes an appearance in flashback that explains one of the apparent loose ends from between volumes: the death of Foggy Nelson.

Giving Foggy cancer was seen by some readers as a derivative move, but Waid side-stepped all expectations by putting him on a long road to recovery rather than either killing him off or curing him in the span of an arc. He's less of a presence in Devil at Bay since he's in hiding after a fake death that was either staged by Daredevil and Leapfrog or a massive coincidence (Waid makes it ambiguous). This allows Kirsten McDuffie, Daredevil's girlfriend/technical support, to take a larger role. He needs a voice in his ear to guide him through San Francisco's unfamiliar skyline, and their playful and often tense relationship is one of the strongest Daredevil has been in. Much like Deadpool's wife Shiklah, I have a bad feeling that Kirsten may not be long for this world considering how Daredevil's girlfriends are usually treated; Black Cat must have used her bad luck powers to avoid getting shoved in a refrigerator.

The most intriguing character of Devil at Bay is the Shroud, a hero who maintains the facade of being a crime lord. He's been around since the '70s and was featured in a few stories set around Civil War, helping the Anti-Registration movement as the boyfriend of the second Spider-Woman. Daredevil's move to San Francisco doesn't sit well with the Shroud, the protector of the city ... at least, that's what he is in his own mind. In reality, he's gone insane, practicing brutal methods of torture to fight crime while trying to jockey his way up the underworld's rankings. His attempts to get in good with the Owl and then betray him keep scuttling Daredevil's plans, and Matt unfortunately is too trusting to figure out what the Shroud is up to until it's too late.

At the end of the book is a collection of the digital Daredevil: Road Warrior Infinite Comic by Waid and Peter Krause, which was also published in print as issue 0.1. This comic fills in the gap between the volumes as Daredevil tracks a man without a heartbeat after their flight to California gets grounded in a snow storm. The answer to the mystery is quite unexpected and Krause has a slightly sketchier style that adds to the tone. Unlike the Silver Surfer Infinite Comics from Infinity, these don't feel quite as static in print. Main artist Chris Samnee's work is a little too cartoonish at times (to be totally honest, I would have preferred Paolo Rivera or Marcos Martin as the permanent artist) but it grows on you, especially because it keeps up visual continuity with the previous volume. Samnee also maintains the book's tradition of fantastic and unexpected sound effects.

It took me longer than I expected to finally get the Daredevil: Devil at Bay trade due to a distribution oddity. I kept waiting and waiting for it to show up at a physical Barnes and Noble for the “buy two, get one free” sale last winter, and to this day, I've never seen it stocked at any B&N location in Florida. I don't think it was singled out for any specific content (you can still find Ultimatum at some BN stores and that has incest and cannibalism). Perhaps employees are putting the books aside for their own purchase once they come in. I wouldn't blame them; this title remains a crown jewel of the modern Marvel era. Hopefully “Secret Wars” won't forget the lessons that books like Daredevil have taught.
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