Ever since Frank Miller reinvented the character in the 70s, Daredevil has been an anomaly in mainstream comics: a character whose stories are more rules by theme than by plot. Some of the best Daredevil stories before the 1998 relaunch were adult not only in their subject matter but also in their storytelling methods, taking an almost Faulknerian approach to cluing the reader in on story beats and the mechanics of the story.1
So then the trick with Daredevil is trying to figure out when to take the images and text on the page literally and when to understand that you’re meant to read into them. For evidence of this intermittent shift into radical interpretation, one need only look at the Bill Seinkiewicz art on Daredevil. In some ways this was the first outward indicator of the shift, and it makes sense in a visual medium like comics that a general change in writing and artistic style would be cued first by the art.
So now that we’ve set the groundwork that Daredevil stories can be told in Faulknerian, non-linear, non-plot-centric ways… does Root of Evil present us with a version of Matt Murdock who has completely lost his mind?
For some more context, before diving right in: ever since the Frank Miller run, Daredevil has been a character defined more by what he is not than by what he is. This was an obvious (in retrospect) merging of story and theme, as the thing that makes Daredevil superhuman isn’t something “extra” like with most heroes, it’s his lack of something: his sight. And the best way to illustrate what a character isn’t is by using Four-Corner Opposition, a storytelling technique in which a character is pitting against other characters who are like him but for one small detail, thus highlighting that detail in the conflict that happens between them in any scenes they share. In Daredevil this corners of that opposition have changed from author to author, but as a rule it typically returns to: Daredevil-Kingpin-Punisher-Ben Urich. The last part of that equation alters the most, with Urich being subbed out for alternative members of DD’s supporting cast as the plot dictates, but that’s a fairly good model for Daredevil’s 4-Corner Opposition.
In the opening book of Root of Evil, the five chapters called “Humanity’s Fathom,” author Greg Wright subverts the 4-Corner Opposition method to illustrate how far Matt Murdock has fallen after the previous storyarc, appropriately titled Fall from Grace.
The plot centers around Matt Murdock, the world now believing he is dead, adopting the alias of small-time con artist Jack Batlin. He has also assumed a new costumed identity, of a black-suited Daredevil who claims to be a different Daredevil from the red-suited one, having replaced him. This is one of the first a loudest signs that something is broken in Matt’s psyche: many comics have themes of duality and identity, but Wright has taken this trope to an entire new level: splitting the personalities of both Murdock and DD into further subsets, splintering his sense of self even further than it always has been to this point.
Wright illustrates this by subverting the four-way opposition in this first section of the book. Instead of his usual cast of opposition forces, Daredevil finds himself squaring off against a rotating arrangement of players that swing in and out of the story with the same LSD-trip fluidity of Sienkiewicz’s art years prior.
The story begins with Black Daredevil — a more brutal version of himself — beating on corrupt policemen who were exercising extreme force: an act that is in and of itself hypocritical, as Daredevil put on the black suit to outwardly illustrate his newfound willingness to do violence. The man they were doing violence on is a derelict called Joshua, who flees the fray to a underground sewer society of people hiding from the city above. Daredevil follows and begins his descent — both literally and figuratively.
From the moment Daredevil is underground, characters seem to come and go out of the woodwork, stopping in just long enough to lend themselves to a part of this new multi-tiered opposition hexagon and then leave again. Daredevil embarks on a quest to battle The King, a sewer-dwelling degenerate who looks exactly like the Kingpin, save for decaying flesh. In his opposition with The King, he fights more crooked cops who followed him into the sewers, Bushwaker (who represents the revenge-driven halves of Matt’s personality), Deathlok (who inhumanity / half robotic nature reflects Daredevil’s own dehumanized state), and Devourer, a half-tiger half-man creature of Mayan ancestry. All these are manifestations of Daredevil’s increasing lack of humanity that he has gained in his fight against the Kingpin, represented here by The King.
It is only when Joshua reveals himself to have been a former superhero that Daredevil has idolized as a child that Daredevil is awestruck, inspired to do better, and beats The King: taking the example of a hero bringing himself back from the depths and doing so himself, spiritually.
The majority of these characters were only ever seen once before (The King in Daredevil #180, The Devourer a year prior in Daredevil Annual #9), and are never seen again. Deathlok is a major Marvel Universe player that has no impact on the story, he just comes, is a thematic example, and leaves again. Neither King nor Devourer were ever seen again, and Joshua only ever appeared in this book… to me this lack of character continuity reveals that this story isn’t meant to be taken as actually occurring: this is meant to be metaphorical, as we take a journey into the fractured psyche of Matt Murdock.
This is supported by both a lack of supporting cast in the arc aside from The Kingpin, who is working his way back up after his fall from grace. But the Kingpin scenes are not framed the same way the Daredevil sewer scenes are… Kingpin is framed and told like a normal comic. This dichotomy illustrates how far DD has fallen. Also supportive is that the moment Daredevil returns up out of the sewers, he again finds corrupt police assaulting someone and has to deal with it, bookending the story with a close by return that implies the entire tale may have been a war for identity fought within Daredevil’s mind during the confrontation with the police.
When the next part of the book starts up we see a return of the supporting cast, Foggy Nelson, Karen Page, and Ben Urich. Each character is going through their own struggles, with Karen having discovered that the adult film studio which previously employed her is now using children as young as twelve in their films. Foggy has fallen since the disappearance of Matt, even working with a man who brazenly comments that he has seen Karen’s adult film A Tail of Two Cities to her face, and says he “didn’t recognize her with clothes on.” Ben and his wife have been attached, and he tries to use the same trick to deduce if the Black Daredevil is his old friend so that he can help.
We have, in a sense, returned to a more normalized Four-Corner Opposition for Daredevil, as we are now seeing how the rest of the supporting cast is dealing with the vacuum left in their lives after the fall of the Kingpin: Karen by finding a new target, Foggy by losing his sense of self, and Ben by becoming bitter. They’re all taking different tactics against the issue. But it quickly becomes a moot point, because the Kingpin has returned, and soon after, so does our first glimpses of the old Red Daredevil costume.
I believe the point of all this is that, after years of struggle, Matt Murdock has become psychologically dependent on his war with The Kingpin. The spirals when the Kingpin’s empire is brought down, and only begins to show signs of returning once The Kingpin returns. Matt is a man who needs an enemy, and is only truly at peace when he has one.
Daredevil Epic Collection: Root of Evil by Warren Ellis
This shows what one great author can do to right the course of a sinking ship, as Warren Ellis picks up the shards of the themes Wright and “Smithee” were fumbling with and brings them together into a cohesive narrative within one 30 page conclusion with issue 343.
Worth a read twice, as Ellis’ cap makes the rest of the issues make more sense thematically for having been there.
1. By Faulknerian, let’s be clear, I mean to imply that Daredevil has been at times penned by people who seemingly have utter contempt for the idea of spelling the story out for the reader. Faulkner came from the thought process that if the reader didn’t “get” what was happening in the story, it was on them to figure it out, not the author to explain it. This attitude has rarely been taken in success since, and Daredevil may be one of the only examples in mainstream comics of this authorial point-of-view.