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Born Again

 

I've always had an unlucky habit of jumping onto a hot series too late, only to see the creative team that made the book so good leave shortly afterward. This happened to me with the James Robinson run of STARMAN and no fewer than three times with FANTASTIC FOUR: Once at the end of John Byrne's run, once near the finish of Walt Simonson's 12-issue stretch and then again with Mark Waid and Mike Weiringo. And this also happened to me when Frank Miller/David Mazzuccelli era of DAREDEVIL. A friend recommended the series to me and I managed to catch maybe eight issues before Miller left the book to work on THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS. But I did hop on just in time to catch Miller's farewell to the character: a virtuoso four-part story arc titled 'Born Again'.

The story begins in a seedy dive in Mexico, where we meet the pathetic drug-addicted shell of Karen Page, one-time girlfriend of Matt Murdock. She had left Matt long ago to pursue a career in acting; but Hollywood has not been kind to her. Broke, and desperate for a fix, she sells the one thing of value she has: the Daredevil's secret identity. Panel by panel, we see this piece of information travel up the drug chain until it reaches the man on top: Daredevil's arch-enemy, Wilson Fisk, the Kingpin of Crime.

Kingpin sets in motion an elaborate plan to destroy his hated enemy. He does not want to kill Daredevil, not yet. He wants to break him. And so Fisk uses his power and influence to make things happen. Matt Murdock's best friend and law partner, Foggy Nelson, receives an offer to join a prestigious law firm; an offer too good to refuse. The IRS freezes Murdock's accounts. The bank forecloses on his apartment; and out of the blue, a police officer testifies that he saw Matt pay a witness to commit perjury. Foggy comes to his friend's defense and is able to save Matt from a jail sentence, but Matt still loses his law license.

Matt does not suspect that all his misfortunes come from a single source until someone firebombs his apartment. As he kneels in the rubble of his life – no money, no job and now no home – clutching the shreds of his tattered costume in his fists, Murdock finally makes the connection: Kingpin. “You shouldn't have signed it,” Murdock says. The bomb was a classic Kingpin touch.

He didn't want to kill Daredevil; he wanted to break him. Murdock doesn't break, but he does snap.

The next issue finds Matt homeless; no money and no one to turn to. He wanders through the streets of Hell's Kitchen, tailed by Kingpin's minions who keep their boss updated on Murdock's descent into paranoia. Kingpin also gives an order to kill everyone who handled the information about Murdock's secret identity, to cover up all the traces leading back to him. Karen manages to avoid her assassins and begins making her way back to New York.

Matt confronts Kingpin in his office, seeking revenge; but Kingpin expects him and gives him a brutal beat-down leaving him half dead. Kingpin has his goons douse Matt with whiskey, strap him into a stolen taxi cab and shove the cab into the East River. No one will ever look closely into his death.

But you can't kill a devil that easily. Matt regains consciousness and is able to break out of the cab and swim to safety before he drowns. Crawling out of the river, he staggers through the streets of his old neighborhood and collapses in the old gym where his father used to train as a boxer. Whether by accident or by a miracle, there the man who used to dress like the Devil, is found by an elderly nun, whom we learn is his mother.

Frank Miller liked to bring religious imagery into his Daredevil stories. (As if the overall title “Born Again” wasn't a big hint). And it would make sense that the Irish-American Matt Murdock would be raised a Catholic. Matt's mother had never been mentioned much in the comic, but here Miller introduces her with the backstory that she had left her husband and son while Matt was still young and become a nun. Why she did this is not explained in this particular story; but at this point in Matt's life, when he is at his absolute lowest, she is there for him. She brings him back to her convent where she and her sisters nurse him back to health.

But Matt's friends haven't been idle while all this has been going on. Ben Urich, a reporter for the Daily Bugle who is one of the few who know Daredevil's secret identity, has been digging into the false accusation of witness tampering. The cop who made the accusation confesses to him that he was pressured into doing it to pay for his son's medical treatment. When his son dies despite the surgery, he has no more reason to lie; but he is overheard by a thuggish nurse on Kingpin's payroll as an enforcer, who breaks Urich's fingers and beats the cop nearly to death. And when the cop, now recovering at the same hospital where Nurse Knee-breaker works, still wants to come clean she strangles him while he's on the phone with Urich. The sequence showing the expression of horror on the reporter's face as he listens to the cop dying on the other end of the line is one of the striking images of the comic.

Karen makes her way back to New York, having hitched a ride with a fan of her work in porn films – I think I mentioned that her Hollywood career hadn't worked out – who also supplied her with heroin in exchange for sex. Arriving in the city, she looks up Foggy Nelson, trying to find Matt. He can't help her there, but he does rescue her from her abusive patron and takes her into his home.

By now, Kingpin is starting to get obsessive about tidying up loose ends. He uses his military contacts to acquire an experimental Super-Soldier named Nuke. He also arranges to have a violent mental patient released and sends him to kill Karen Page while dressed in a Daredevil costume, in order to both eliminate a witness and discredit ol' Horn-head.

By this time, however, Matt has gotten his head back together and has begun looking after his friends. He prevents Nurse Lois from killing Ben Urich and, hearing a tip that Kingpin was sending someone after Foggy, is able to intercept the hit-men and defeat the fake Daredevil. He is also reunited with Karen, who confesses that she is the one who revealed his secret. He forgives her; having lost everything, what he lost no longer seems so important to him. He takes her to a decrepit, derelict apartment where he helps her as she goes through heroin withdrawal and supports them both with a job as a diner chef.

Kingpin knows that Daredevil is still alive, but not where he is; so to flush him out, Kingpin uses his nuclear option. He has Nuke flown to Hell's Kitchen to wage an assault on Daredevil's stomping grounds. Nuke is a muscular thug with an American Flag tattooed on his face, pumped up on super-steroids and rage-enhancing drugs. He's just one big bundle of violence waiting to go off, and he turns that violence on Murdock's neighborhood.

Emerging on the scene as Daredevil, (wearing the suit he took from the fake DD at Foggy's apartment), Matt takes on Nuke as Hell's Kitchen burns around them. Matt realizes that the only way to prevent Nuke from killing any more innocents is to kill him instead; but before he is able to do this, the Avengers show up.

Yeah, the Avengers live in NYC, don't they! This bit deserves a little mention. When I heard that the Avengers were going to be making a cross-over appearance in this fourth issue, I was a little dubious. Frank Miller does a wonderful job with gritty, street-level characters; I wasn't sure how he could maintain the same level of realism throwing in uber-powered heroes like the Avengers. But he handled it well. We see the arrival of the World's Greatest Heroes through the eyes and narration of Ben Urich, who is at the scene, which gives us a ground-level view of the Avengers that lets us see the familiar heroes in a different way, similar to what Alan Moore was doing over at the Distinguished Competition about the same time with SWAMP THING or what Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross would later do with their MARVELS limited series.

Captain America does some investigating on his own about Nuke. Not only is the guy a psycho-puppy, but he wears the Flag on his face. For Cap, that's something personal. The Pentagon tries to stonewall him, but in digging deeper, Cap learns that Nuke was an unsuccessful attempt to re-create the process that gave him his own super-powers. Nuke escapes from custody, leading to a big fight versus Cap during which Nuke is brought down by snipers under Kingpin's orders.

Daredevil comes on the scene and takes the dying Nuke to the offices of the Daily Bugle, hoping that this will be the evidence to bring down Kingpin once and for all. In one of the most implausible yet audacious bits in the story, Daredevil drives Nuke downtown to the Bugle. Remember, Matt Murdock is blind; and can only “see” using his enhanced “radar senses”. Miller lampshades this by having Daredevil comment on how difficult this is because what little of his radar gets through the barrier of the car's windshield is being torn up by the heavy rain falling. Somehow, Miller makes it work.

In the end, Nuke dies before he can give any evidence; but one of the hit men Captain America catches names Kingpin as the one responsible for Nuke's attack on Hell's Kitchen. Kingpin finds himself swamped with lawsuits. He will undoubtedly fight them off; he had the best lawyers money can buy, after all; but his reputation as a Respectable Businessman has been hopelessly marred.

Kingpin will get back to Daredevil eventually; but for the time being, Matt is back on his feet, he's together with Karen again, and the Daredevil is once again fighting crime in Hell's Kitchen.


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Kurt Wilcken draws the webcomic “Hannibal Tesla Adventure Magazine” at http://www.kurtoonsonline.com/ and writes a weekly blog about obscure Bible stories, “The Ones You Didn’t Hear in Sunday School” at: http://onesyoudidnthear.blogspot.com/ He also sometimes refers to himself in the third person and he lives for feedback.