The first published Daredevil comic ends with a sketch of Matt Murdock — a blind man with heightened physical senses, a lawyer by day, and a vigilante by night — looking out the window of a city skyscraper while thinking of his deceased father. Above Murdock’s head is a thought bubble that reads, “Dad, wherever you are . . . I kinda hope you’re resting easier now.”[1] The silhouette of Murdock’s shadow on the wall outlines his horn-headed, crime-fighting alter-ego, Daredevil. The image foreshadows the tumultuous journey Murdock would face as both a man of the law and a man who bends the law to stop crime. Nevertheless, it was writer Frank Miller who first shed light on many of Murdock’s personal conflicts. Miller’s version of the hero was pushed to the brink of introspection, trying to solve moral dilemmas and bring an end to crime while upholding the law and living out his Catholic faith. Over the entirety of Miller’s Daredevil run, Murdock’s faith would consistently shape his identity as a vigilante whose moral code is consistently tested by an ever-present evil.

Frank Miller pointed out the paradox of the men in tights who live as if they are above the law. In Frank Miller’s Daredevil and the Ends of Heroism, Paul Young described Miller’s work as unique for its time:

 

Miller was not making superheroes more realistic in the way that, say, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons [creators of The Watchmen] confronted vigilantism with real-world physics, politics, media, and sexuality. Rather, he was exploring the internal makeup of the superhero genre, poking around for contradictions and paradoxes, with the similarly stylized “realist” genre of crime fiction as his probe.[2]

 

Miller’s version of Hell’s Kitchen (the city Daredevil protects) is full of these “contradictions and paradoxes” that created internal turmoil for Murdock. Just a few examples include the fact that Murdock, a devout Catholic, must decide if he should let his enemies live, even though they may continue to kill innocent people. In one issue he must work with a villain and mob boss, Kingpin, to achieve a greater good. In another, he attempts to suppress feelings for his first love and deadly assassin, Elektra Natchios, to bring her to justice. It’s these dilemmas that give such psychological and moral depth to Miller’s Daredevil comics and brought the initial wave of attention from Marvel fans.[3]

Despite Murdock’s internal tensions, his Catholic faith remains constant. Frank Miller, a self-described atheist, once said that Daredevil was the “most Christian of heroes.”[4] [5] Miller’s run didn’t typically showcase religion within the dialogue as often as other Daredevil comics, but it remained an ever-present characteristic of Murdock’s conscience. Paul Young writes, “As a devout Catholic, Miller’s Murdock believes in the metaphysical thermodynamics of sin: the sinner is held to account by a higher power and must atone for each sin committed in turn by embracing Christ, admitting fault, and paying penance.”[6] Young’s description of Murdock’s metaphysical reality is a recurring theme even if it is not explicit. While Miller rarely wrote scenes of Murdock giving confession (as is so often portrayed in the popular Netflix series), nor used faith as a focal point of plot development (at least until Miller wrote the Born Again series which is much more religious in scope), when it came to making life and death decisions, Murdock left judgment to God and refused to murder even the vilest criminals.

Despite having a moral compass regarding murder, it could be said that Daredevil is the worst version of Matt Murdock. Murdock is a lawyer who solves problems by the book and operates within the same rules as the common man, while Daredevil does whatever needs to be done to ensure justice. When the mask is on, he bends the law to his will so that victims will be protected and avenged. Frank Miller once said, “I see Matt Murdock as being a grown man and Daredevil almost being a boy . . . He believes in everything he’s doing and he works very hard at it, but part of him just gets off on jumping around buildings.”[7] Indeed, Daredevil seems to enjoy showing off his abilities for spectators. For example, in issue #170, Daredevil races an elderly man across a rooftop and leaps off the building in acrobatic fashion. The man quips, “I can’t match that act, horn head!” To which Daredevil replies, “You’re doing fine, Pop!” as he glides to the next rooftop.[8] While a hero leaping across buildings is astounding, Murdock’s utilization of the criminal justice system is nobler.

Daredevil’s boyish qualities extend beyond just playing superhero in the night; he is also a hero still coming to terms with his tragic childhood experiences. Miller pointed out the difference between Daredevil and Batman in regards to their being orphaned by criminals. In an interview with Richard Howell, Miller says, “Daredevil operates on a basic motive of love for seeking out justice . . . [Batman] is punishing those who killed his parents. Batman’s focus is on the criminal, Daredevil’s on the victim.”[9] The depiction of a character who’s not nearly focused on revenge as he is preventing injustice seems to undercut the impact of the death of Murdock’s father. Miller adds that the death of Jack Murdock (Matt Murdock’s father) did not have “as big of an effect on [Matt] as his father’s life.”[10] Jack Murdock, a boxer, who used violence to pay the bills, once lashed out and struck young Matt Murdock in the face for getting into a fight at school. Jack’s desire to see his son apply himself to something besides violence drove Murdock to go to law school but his father hitting him and eventually dying with ties to the mob made Murdock a victim let down by the man who was supposed to protect him. Without overanalyzing the impact Jack’s death had on Murdock, it’s clear his father shaped his understanding of justice.

While Murdock’s focus on victims is consistent with Christian charity, Daredevil is often tempted to indulge in violence. Psalm 82:3 says, “Give justice to the weak and the fatherless; maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute.” This biblical principle is embodied quite well by Murdock the lawyer, but when Murdock dons the red suit he feels the need to indulge in punishing the wicked, which cuts against the idea of forgiving your enemies. Young argues that Murdock’s defense of victims is driven by his disappointment in his father’s brutal nature. Young writes,

 

His choice to enforce the law, both officially and unofficially, was his response to a father who first dished out brutality and then fell victim to it . . . [Daredevil] admits to his most fearsome enemy that he became Daredevil not to fulfill the legacy of his father but to correct him – to discipline him and others who threaten harm to Matt.[11]

 

Murdock wants to rescue victims but the devil on his shoulder tells him to be both defender and punisher, creating a temptation to execute violence beyond necessity.

Despite the conflict waging within Murdock, his faith at least prevents him from ever taking the lives of the criminals he wishes to punish. Perhaps no one tests Daredevil’s desire to kill more than his nemesis Bullseye, the man with a perfect aim, for whom anything can be used as a weapon. Frank Miller made Bullseye into a deadly villain willing to kill anyone yet obsessed with killing Daredevil. It might be fair to say that if Murdock is an agent of the law, Bullseye is an agent of chaos. For example, in issue #169, Bullseye goes mad and violently attacks civilians due to a hallucination in which everyone around him appeared to be Daredevil. Murdock had to make a choice: he could uphold the law, not only of the justice system but of God by refusing to murder Bullseye, but doing so would mean Bullseye kills more innocent people. In the aforementioned issue, he rescues Bullseye from the tracks of a subway train, much to the objection of a police lieutenant. His reasoning for saving Bullseye is due to his faith in God and the justice system. Daredevil tells the lieutenant. “I wanted him to die, Nick. I detest what he does . . . what he is. But I’m not God . . . I’m not the law . . . I’m not a murderer.”[12] This is a moment early on in Miller’s Daredevil comics where Murdock’s faith is strong and consistent. However, during Miller’s run, Murdock’s violent tendencies will be exploited and he will at least attempt to kill Bullseye, demonstrating a shift towards taking matters into his own hands.

Throughout Miller’s Daredevil comics, it becomes clear that Murdock’s faith and his moral virtues are also challenged by Elektra Natchios, his former colleague and lover at Columbia University. After the murder of her father, Elektra made it known that “I cannot continue to study laws in which I no longer believe.”[13] Unlike Murdock, Elektra chose to become a deadly assassin, and his hope for her redemption always blinded him when it came to bringing her to justice (Young points out, the parallel of a blind lawyer and blind justice “is not subtle”).[14] The great pitfall of turning a blind eye to Elektra’s sins is that she eventually had quite the body count, including her murder of Ben Urich, an innocent reporter and beloved character of Daredevil fans. It’s when Elektra dies at the hands of Daredevil’s nemesis Bullseye that we see the greatest change in the hero’s ethical judgment. In issue #181, he drops Bullseye from a telephone wire, attempting to kill him. As Bullseye plummets for what looks like several stories, Daredevil says, “You’ll kill no one . . . ever again,”[15] making clear his intentions to finish his foe. Young writes, “Here Daredevil’s Christian charity gives way to ruthlessness . . .”[16] Matt’s love interest causes him to overlook her murderous intentions, leaving him heart-broken and bloody-handed. Thus, his revenge against Bullseye exposed the darker side of a conflicted vigilante.

In the end, Frank Miller leaves readers with Murdock committing to never take a life and accepting the terms of that decision. In the last issue of Frank Miller’s initial Daredevil run, Daredevil sits in a hospital room with Bullseye and a loaded gun. On the cover of this final issue is the subtext: “How does a man search for his own soul?”[17] In this scene, Daredevil looks deep into his own soul by playing Russian roulette with a bed-ridden Bullseye. While taking turns putting the gun to his and Bullseye’s head, he begins asking a series of rhetorical questions such as “Am I fighting violence or teaching it?”[18] Finally Daredevil makes the statement that sums up his role as a crime-fighter refusing to kill his enemies: “When it comes to that one final, fatal act of ending you . . . my gun has no bullets. Guess we’re stuck with each other Bullseye.” This final panel of Miller’s initial Daredevil run is bleak but from a Christian perspective, it shows a final, redemptive step in Murdock’s journey. Murdock is no longer the man that dropped Bullseye from the telephone wire in an attempt to murder him and have his revenge. Instead, he has recovered the moral virtue of refusing to kill. True, Murdock is still a conflicted, flawed hero questioning his purpose, but he seems to have at least remembered why life is intrinsically valuable.

Frank Miller’s deconstruction and reconstruction of his hero is what makes Murdock so fascinating. Daredevil is relatable to all of us who haven’t been affected by gamma radiation or weren’t born on the planet Krypton because he’s human. Young noted the significance of Murdock’s complicated psyche, saying, “Miller’s Daredevil is the only creator run I can remember on a comic book in which the ultimate climax hinges not on the hero saving the world but on the hero realizing who and what he really is beneath his own idealism.”[19] Matt’s idealism is impacted by the complications of love, hatred, and everything in between. This development of Matt’s prior notions of justice demonstrates that it’s important to fight for the oppressed even if we have to mature along the way. If he were just a hero executing justice flawlessly, he wouldn’t be a person in need of redemption, he would be a god. But as Daredevil himself pointed out, he is “not God.”[20]

When considering Christian themes within Miller’s canon, it’s worth mentioning that Miller returned to Daredevil with a short series titled, “Born Again.” True to the title, in this volume Daredevil is given new life after losing everything. At the beginning of “Born Again,” Murdock’s ex-girlfriend Karen Page is a drug addict, and Murdock is isolated from the world; he is poor, jobless, and weak in body. After being stabbed to the brink of death, he’s rescued by a nun named Maggie who turns out to be his long-lost mother. Maggie saves his life by taking him into a convent and nursing him to health. While fretting over the possibility of Murdock’s death she prays, “He will die. But he has so very much to do, my Lord. His soul is troubled. But it is a good man’s soul, my lord. He needs only to be shown your way, then He will rise as your own and bring light to this poisoned city. He will be as a spear of lightning in your hand, my Lord. If I am to be punished for past sins, so be it. But spare him. So many need him. Hear my plea.”[21] In many ways her prayer is reflective of Christ-like suffering because she’s willing to take on the punishment for Murdock’s sin. Isaiah 53:5-6: “But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed.” Maggie’s love for her son was so great that she would be willing to suffer in his place so that he might fulfill his purpose.

Miller’s Born Again volume also includes another Christian theme worth mentioning: Murdock learns that he never possessed any power that other humans can’t access. Murdock’s mentor, a blind man named Stick who trained him in martial arts, gives him a final lesson: that he’s not superhuman. Murdock’s ability to fight crime even though he is blind stemmed from a radar sense, which he always thought was unique. The image of the radar illustrated in the comics was an attempt to illustrate Murdock’s heightened senses. After an explosion, Murdock thought he had lost this radar sense. When he approaches Stick for help, he is told that he never was uniquely gifted in the first place. Young writes, “Stick reveals to Daredevil that his powers are not superhuman at all but basic potentials that everyone has. The accident that triggered his abilities did not mutate his senses or load him up with radar sui generis.” Young adds, “This is where Miller leaves Daredevil: aware at last that he is not unique and stripped of whatever part his physical singularity played in his faith that he and he alone is above the law.”[22] The last step in Murdock’s evolution was one of humility. The person who believed he was supremely gifted in a way that no other man was, came to realize that he has always been simply human.

While Frank Miller was not himself religious and although much of his work was rife with controversy,[23] he revitalized a hero who desperately needed a new identity. Critics of Miller have good reason to disavow his more distasteful work but Daredevil may not have survived without him. At least we know its production was in steep decline before his arrival.[24] Miller’s Daredevil success can be attributed in part to the trials of Matt Murdock. Furthermore, an essential component of Murdock’s character is the constant test of his faith and virtue. All in all, readers can be satisfied that Matt Murdock learns who he is — a flawed Christian trying to make sense of defending the weak in the presence of persistent evil.



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Citation Information

Clark Weidner, “Faith on Trial in Frank Miller’s Daredevil Comics,” An Unexpected Journal: Superheroes 4, no. 2. (Summer 2021), 105-120.

Direct Link: http://anunexpectedjournal.com/faith-on-trial-in-frank-millers-daredevil-comics/


Endnotes

[1] Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Bill Everett, Steve Ditko, Daredevil #1 (Marvel, March 31, 1964).

[2] Paul Young, Frank Miller’s Daredevil and the Ends of Heroism (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2016), 13.

[3] See Paul Young’s Frank Miller’s Daredevil and the Ends of Heroism, 8.

[4] See Frank Miller’s contribution in 9-11: Artists Respond, vol. 1 (Milwaukee, OR: Dark Horse/Chaos!/Image, 2002), 64-65.

[5] Sean Howe, Marvel Comics: The Untold Story (New York: HarperCollins, 2012), 241.

[6] Paul Young, Frank Miller’s Daredevil and the Ends of Heroism, 72.

[7] Peter Sanderson, “The Frank Miller/Klaus Janson Interview,” in Daredevil by Frank Miller and Klaus Janson Omnibus, eds. Al Millgrom, Mary Jo Duffy, Denny ONeil, and Tom Defalco (New York, NY: Marvel Worldwide Inc., 2016), 781.

[8] Frank Miller and Klaus Jansen, “Daredevil: #170”, in Daredevil Omnibus, 222.

[9] Richard Howell and Carol Kalish, “An Interview with Frank Miller,” Comics Feature 14 (December 1981): 24.

[10] Sanderson, Frank Miller/Klaus Jasen Interview” in Daredevil Omnibus, 782.

[11] Paul Young, Frank Miller’s Daredevil and the Ends of Heroism, 58.

[12] Frank Miller and Klaus Jansen, “Daredevil: #169”, in Daredevil Omnibus, 218.

[13] Frank Miller and Klaus Jansen, “Daredevil: #168”, in Daredevil Omnibus, 185.

[14] Paul Young, Frank Miller’s Daredevil and the Ends of Heroism, 79.

[15] Frank Miller and Klaus Jansen, “Daredevil: #181,” in Daredevil Omnibus, 502 .

[16] Paul Young, Frank Miller’s Daredevil and the Ends of Heroism, 122.

[17] Frank Miller and Klaus Jansen, “Daredevil: #191,” in Daredevil Omnibus, 731.

[18] Ibid., 747.

[19] Paul Young, Frank Miller’s Daredevil and the Ends of Heroism, 122.

[20] Frank Miller and Klaus Jansen, “Daredevil: #169”, in Daredevil Omnibus, 218.

[21] Frank Miller, John Romita Jr., and Bill Sienkiewicz, “Daredevil: #230”, in Daredevil by Frank Miller Omnibus Companion (New York: NY, Marvel Worldwide Inc., 2016), 177.

[22] Paul Young, Frank Miller’s Daredevil and the Ends of Heroism, 91.

[23] In Paul Young’s book, Frank Miller’s Daredevil and the Ends of Heroism, he addresses the backlash to Frank Miller’s comics that have been labeled misogynistic, xenophobic, and endorsing of lawless violence. See Paul Young, Frank Miller’s Daredevil and the Ends of Heroism, 9-10.

[24] See Paul Young’s Frank Miller’s Daredevil and the Ends of Heroism, 8.

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