Love and War

Do you enjoy comics that look and read like some amazing fever dream? Fan of stories about dysfunctional relationships and deeply disturbed individuals? Are you tired of all those pesky superheroes in your superhero comics? Well do I have a book for you!

Published as DAREDEVIL as part of the Marvel Graphic Novel series, this story was clearly mislabeled. While it is certainly set in Daredevil’s wheelhouse, you could easily have removed his sections and left the story little worse for wear. The true stars here are Wilson Fisk, the Kingpin of Crime, and Victor, his drug-addled lieutenant.

Frank Miller’s is a name that even the least involved comic reader tends to know, for better or worse. Whether you know him as the genius behind The Dark Knight Returns or the madman who brought us All-Star Batman and Robin, he’s a legend in the industry and someone who really did change superhero comics forever. This script is definitely Miller’s and contains many of his strengths, weaknesses, and trademarks, but, never having read his work on Daredevil before, this story feels like some of his strongest writing.

Miller writes less a comic and more a series of interconnected tableaux. Each is creatively fertile and interesting and together they form this rather unique superhero tale. Victor’s sequences in particular begin to flow together as each one opens the window to his twisted mind a little further. Particularly with the numerous protagonists, for lack of better term, this technique really does wonders. I found Daredevil’s scenes a little less interesting, but there’s not really a boring page.

The story concerns the Kingpin’s attempts to cure his ailing wife, Vanessa, and a woman that he’s holding hostage towards that end. daredevil_gnp56_fullThough the plot is simple, Miller imbues it with remarkable character. Details like Victor’s time with his sister or Josie’s worries about insurance make the world feel alive. Perhaps the strongest writing is reserved for the Kingpin. In a murky grainy world where Matt Murdock and Victor are far too similar and the status quo is some shit-stained shade of putrid grey, Wilson Fisk stands out both as an essentially decent man and a truly frightening crime boss. His reactions over the course of the story humanize him and validate the slightly excessive premise.

Where Fisk shows us the extremes of human nature, the best and the worst we can become, Daredevil is surprisingly ambiguous in his morality. Especially without context for the character and with so little time on-screen, Daredevil could easily be read as simply hounding the Kingpin for some personal reason. Whether it be greed, justice, revenge, or merely a strange instance of high-stakes trolling, the book stays essentially mum as to why Daredevil goes through with his plan. But, of course, he is the hero. Without evidence to impugn him we should assume the man in the bright primary unitard is a good guy, right? Well that’s what makes Miller’s choice to focus on the fear Daredevil inspires so interesting. By the time he starts mirroring Victor’s thoughts, I have to say that I was confused but interested what point the story was trying to make.

Victor is another fascinating character, to my knowledge only appearing in this volume. Clearly deeply addicted to some form of pills, Victor swings from horrifying to sympathetic at the drop of a hat and his struggle to merely do his job and live up to his expectations of himself is likewise equal parts frightening and tragic. It seems curious to me that Victor was able to rise as high up within the Kingpin’s organization as he has by the time of this story. Nonetheless, he is undoubtedly effective, his unpredictable mood swings always finding a way to press him forward toward his intended task. His cries that he has a right to see his lawyer, in particular, show the bizarre mental space in which he lives and the ways he justifies himself against the world.

All this of course brings us to the women of the tale. In a long tradition of noir and Miller’s work, women in this story are essential but ultimately powerless. Even as the key scene of the book revolves around the power of a woman’s choice, soon afterwards a male character implies that he bares the ultimate responsibility. Others might argue that the final victory of women over those who would possess them signals the feminist character of the story. In the end, on more fronts than merely gender, Miller is toeing that awkward line between the unsettling and the uncomfortable, but, to his credit, it is unclear where this one falls.

daredevil_gnp57_fullThe story is powerful and the writing as smart and poetic as I’ve ever seen Miller. It’s really an impressive piece of work. The only major criticisms I have to offer are Daredevil’s lack of importance to the story and the highly abridged ending. Though there’s something powerful about the sudden drop and the resulting quiet on the last page, it’s a strange choice and one I’m not sure works fully.

Though Miller is clearly a legend, I primarily picked this book up for Bill Sienkiewicz’s artwork. If the name doesn’t ring a bell you owe it to yourself to look him up, or at least hit a couple of the links on this page. As ever, Sienkiewicz’s work is truly an experience. There aren’t many artists in mainstream comics who can boast this level of artistry. Sienkiewicz’s unique style meshes beautifully with Miller’s lofty prose to create a comic truly worthy of comparison to high tragedy.

From the sharp red of Daredevil’s costume, to Victor’s morphing simian features, to the sheer enormity of the Kingpin, it’s hard to argue that any other artist could have created something quite like this. The dancing patterns of Fisk’s vests and his exaggerated proportions create a nearly psychedelic impression that highlights the paradoxes of his character as well as his importance and delusion. I mean, he’s depicted as a planet on the cover. It would be crazy if it weren’t so brilliant.

It’s not all beautiful madness, though. Sienkiewicz can follow the rules as well as he can break them and there are several fantastic scenes (generally the ones with Vanessa and Cheryl) that display just how talented he remains in his gorgeous conventional style. He even includes his warped creations in the middle of these scenes sometimes.

The layouts are varied and beautiful and hint at a good working rapport between Sienkiewicz and Miller, himself an accomplished comic artist. Though the pair primarily make use of traditional boxes, their use of empty space, panel size, and creative backgrounds make the comic seem to shift uncomfortably within the preconceived notions of the medium, only to stretch put violently in a handful of wilder compositions. All in all, this is truly one of the only books I would dare to compare visually to Dave McKean’s Arkham Asylum.

Sometimes when I finish a review I look back and think ‘But what was wrong with it’. This is one of those cases and, in this case, the answer is nothing. Objectively speaking, anyway. There are some tropes that haven’t aged quite as well and a rushed conclusion, but nothing in this book is such a misstep that it couldn’t be said to be part of what makes it great.

The story is certainly stylized, and both Miller and Sienkiewicz contribute to this. Either or both might not be to your liking, but I think that most will agree that everyone involved in this book’s creation did a fine job.

“Love and War” was published as part of the Marvel Graphic Novel series of oversized high quality comics. As such it doesn’t fit in a longbox and might be a little harder to find in your average comic shop. That said it might be kept somewhere other than where you’d expect, so if you’re interested be sure to ask someone at your Local Comic Shop. I found my copy in a pile of magazines in an antique store, so I can’t be sure what a copy might run you but I expect that it would likely be somewhere between one and three times its original asking price of $6.95. The story was also republished (together with Miller and Sienkiewicz’s other collaboration, Elektra: Assassin) in a trade titled Daredevil/Elektra: Love and War. I can’t remember ever seeing the volume and it doesn’t seem to be stocked by Amazon at the moment, so I suspect it is likely out of print. It might take a little searching to track this gem down, but I imagine you’d be able to get a hold of it without any Herculean effort, were you so inclined.

While there are other comics that I enjoy more, I can’t deny that the craftsmanship that went into this graphic novel is absolutely stunning. If you’re a fan of Daredevil, interesting comic art, or just good storytelling I highly recommend that you, at the least, flip through if you should find yourself looking at a copy. “Love and War” may not have the acclaim that many comics do, but it’s an excellent story, rendered by two legends at the top of their game.