First introduced by Stan Lee and Bill Everett in 1964, Matt Murdock – AKA Daredevil, “the man without fear” – started out as your run-of-the-mill 1960s smart alec hero.
Despite being a blind lawyer (a typically simple yet brilliant Stan Lee concept – justice is blind, y’see?), Daredevil lacked a reason for being. As the comic struggled to find its feet under a shifting rota of creators, Matt went through everything from time travel sci-fi adventures to living in San Francisco with Black Widow.
It wasn’t until 1979, and the arrival of a firebrand artist called Frank Miller, that the Daredevil comic finally came into its own.
Originally joining the series as artist to writer Roger McKenzie, whose own horror background was already taking the comic in a darker direction, Miller took over writing the series the following year.
And over the course of the decade the names Daredevil and Frank Miller became synonymous.
Miller re-positioned the Kingpin – then known as a Spider-Man villain – as Daredevil’s archenemy. He began building out Murdock’s past with the introduction of Stick, Murdock’s former sensei, and Elektra, a femme fatale love interest. Miller also introduced The Hand, an order of evil mystical ninjas that continue to plague the wider Marvel universe to this day.
To say that he had a lasting impact on Daredevil is selling the man short. Miller’s work through the ‘80s set the stage for everything that has come since.
Yet he wasn’t finished there. After completing a few other projects (just Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Batman: Year One, and the first Sin City story 🤯), Miller returned to Hell’s Kitchen in 1993 for the five issue miniseries Daredevil: The Man Without Fear.
Working with artist John Romita Jr, Miller set about telling a hard-boiled re-imagining of Matt Murdock’s origin story.
Marvel originally asked Miller to write a treatment for a planned Daredevil movie. This would involve a retelling of his origin and fleshing out his relationship with the assassin Elektra. As the movie never materialised, Miller instead adapted the script for the page.
The story changed format twice more during its genesis. Starting as a 64 page graphic novel, it soon grew to a 144 page graphic novel. Finally, with an additional page from Romita Jr, the comic saw release as a five issue, 145 page miniseries.
This expansion gave Miller and Romita Jr the space to fully explore the forces that made Matt Murdock a hero. The story that they created brought Miller’s work on the character full circle, and cemented his legacy as Daredevil’s creator-in-chief.
What Makes It So Good?
Daredevil: The Man Without Fear is not a superhero story in any traditional sense; Daredevil doesn’t show up in costume until the very last panel. Instead, the story charts Matt’s journey from carefree boy to an exceptional man.
The first issue opens with Matt Murdock as a mischievous young boy in Hell’s Kitchen, New York. As much as he loves to create trouble in his neighbourhood, he doesn’t dare to show this thrill-seeking side to his father, “Battlin’” Jack Murdock.
A forlorn boxer whose better days seem behind him, Jack instils Matt with a strong sense of right and wrong. It’s Jack’s actions that inadvertently push Matt to study law from a young age, thus setting his course for life – yet it’s also Jack’s role as a reluctant mob enforcer that gives his son an early introduction to the criminal underworld.
This is all build-up to the accident that gives Matt his powers. Where Daredevil #1 glossed over the incident in a rush to get Matt into costume, Daredevil: The Man Without Fear takes a much more decompressed approach.
As Matt comes to terms with his blindness, he is taken under the wing of a mysterious man called Stick. An expert martial artist and athlete – who also happens to be blind – Stick trains Matt hard to shape him into a weapon for a forthcoming war.
Stick’s introduction here is one of Miller’s big divergences from the character’s established history. In Daredevil #1, Matt is shown training by himself without any additional help. Stick’s introduction here as his sensei makes the story that much more believable.
As Christine Hanefalk wrote on The Other Murdock Papers, “the idea that [Matt] would become a master martial artist all by himself is something of a stretch, and his needing some extra guidance adds weight to the trauma of his altered perceptions.”
Romita Jr’s artwork makes this training look like glorious fun. But Miller never takes his eye off the ball – he makes sure that we understand how hard Matt is working. His ceaseless devotion to his studies by day and his training by night are the first signs of the discipline that mark him out as a hero.
Yet forces are at work to destabilise Matt’s new status quo. After an unprecedented run of success in the ring, Jack suddenly finds himself on the wrong side of the mob…
When he refuses to throw the biggest fight of his career, Jack is brutally murdered by the Fixer’s enforcers. After he has to identify the body, Matt – now well trained by Stick – sets out for revenge.
So begins a pulse pounding, brutal sequence of comic book storytelling that shows the medium at its absolute best. Miller and Romita Jr deliver hard boiled narration and fluid artwork as Matt chases the gang down across Hell’s Kitchen. Through intimidation, guile, and bloody violence, Matt reaps vengeance on the gang, one by one.
Yet the hunt ends abruptly with the tragic death of a prostitute. It’s an incident that echoes through the rest of the story and ultimately helps to set Matt back on the right path.
The story then takes its first big time jump, as the middle act focuses on Matt’s college years. Whilst easily the slowest part of the miniseries, this is where we see the contrasts that show us who Matt Murdock truly is.
We’re introduced to Matt’s college experience through the travails of Foggy Nelson, his roommate. Matt and Foggy’s friendship is genuine, but Matt never fits in with the rest of his peers – and nor does he want to.
This sense of otherness draws Matt away from his college dorm at night and out to the rooftops, where he soon encounters Elektra Natchios. She is an outsider, a thrill seeker, and highly skilled. A true kindred spirit for Matt.
Through an increasingly risky game of cat and mouse, Matt and Elektra fall in love. It’s not to last. Elektra, with troubles of her own (to put it mildly), eventually leaves New York and a brokenhearted Matt behind.
The change of pace is one of the ways that Daredevil: The Man Without Fear works so well. The visceral thrill of Matt’s teenage adventures could serve as an amazing two-issue “untold tale” that lends some depth to the character. But seeing Matt in his college years gives us a better understanding of the factors that drive him.
Elektra’s role is to show what Matt could become without discipline – to show us Stick’s worst fears realised.
We need to recognise this difference between the two characters to fully understand the man that Matt becomes.
Becoming A Man With A Purpose
After college the series takes another time jump. Matt is doing well at a Boston law firm. He lives a normal – if unfulfilling – life. But when he gets an assignment that takes him back to New York, he soon falls back into old ways.
It’s not long before he revisits old haunts, beats up some low-level thugs, and even reconnects with Foggy Nelson.
This arc of the story revolves around Matt’s friendship with a young girl called Mickey. They meet at Matt’s old gym hideout and end up training there together until Matt’s work takes over his free time. But when Mickey is abducted and trafficked into the Kingpin’s snuff film network, Matt soon realises that he’s the only one who can rescue her.
So begins Matt Murdock’s final transformation. He’s no longer just a man without fear. He’s now a man with a purpose.
As befitting the story’s origin, the final act plays out like a 1980s action movie. Matt, in a homemade disguise, shows every ounce of the discipline and focus he needs to overcome the impossible odds.
Romita Jr delivers on the promise. This is comics as pure action cinema and you can feel every punch, every gun shot, every shard of broken glass. It’s brutal, bloody, kinetic, and – most impressively – crystal clear visual storytelling that makes the most of the medium.
Matt’s costume hammers home the point that Daredevil: The Man Without Fear is not about a fully-formed superhero.
Miller’s use of his radar sense is the perfect example of this. This is Daredevil’s famous superpower; his enhanced four senses that allow him to experience the world in dimensions no other human can perceive. Yet it’s never shown or referenced by name during the story.
This is because Daredevil: The Man Without Fear is about the substance of the mythology, rather than the mythology itself.
At this point Matt didn’t have the terminology for a radar sense; he simply had descriptions of his heightened perception. What Miller shows us is the years-long process that Matt needed to refine his senses to the point that his “radar sense” was just that.
These are the skills that he uses to rescue Mickey – and, in doing so, put himself on the future radar of the Kingpin.
By the end of the series, Matt Murdock has embraced who he is and his place in the world. He is “the Daredevil of Hell’s Kitchen”, and the pieces are in place for his superhero career to begin. He sets up a law firm with Foggy Nelson – with the tacit blessing of Stick – before the miniseries closes out with a marvellous two-page spread featuring his evolution as a costumed adventurer.
Anyone could be blinded by radioactive waste. Thanks to Daredevil: The Man Without Fear, we know that only Matt Murdock could be Daredevil.
The incredible writing is only part of why Daredevil: The Man Without Fear is so good. Credit is due equally to the stunning artwork of John Romita Jr, the inks of Al Williamson, the beautiful colours by Christie Scheele, and the bold letters of Joe Rosen.
Romita Jr’s art style was an incredible match for the tone of the book. Every panel of every page is expressive and clear. Given the early stage of his career, it’s a wonderful statement of intent.
His pencils are complemented by Williamson’s clean inking. Scheele’s colours entertain the eye with a wonderful palette, but Williamson soaks each image with fine detail and dense spots of ink that would just as marvellous in black and white. There’s a depth and internal consistency to the art that helps to make the reading experience completely engrossing.
Every single New York scene bleeds the gritty griminess of a 1970s Scorcese film. From the sunny days of Matt’s youth to the rain soaked night of Daredevil’s birth, the world of Hell’s Kitchen is well drawn in every sense of the term.
All that’s left to say is that the miniseries brought out the best of an insanely talented creative team.
The Legacy of Daredevil: The Man Without Fear
In 1993, Daredevil didn’t enjoy the high profile of books like Spider-Man and the X-Men. At that point in the ongoing series, Matt Murdock was going through yet another personality crisis, which represented itself in a (actually pretty cool) ’90s costume makeover.
As mature comics storytelling morphed into the faux “grim and gritty” of titles like X-Force, Daredevil: The Man Without Fear felt like a holdover from a bygone age. Given its beginnings as a film treatment and the way it retcons Matt’s original origin story, some fans questioned whether the story was even official canon at all.
This question was answered when writer J.M. DeMatteis took over the main comic with #344 (1995). Miller’s story was finally referenced when, in issues #347 through #350, Matt goes on a journey to reconcile himself with the death he caused in pursuit of his father’s killers.
After then, the story’s status as canon gets a little shaky. For example, writer Brian Michael Bendis followed Miller’s origin story for his run on the book. However, Ed Brubaker’s stint as writer saw the book revert back to the original continuity (at least in so far as changing when Jack Murdock is killed).
Despite Marvel’s uneven approach in the comics, Daredevil: The Man Without Fear has an impressive legacy in other media.
Elements of Daredevil: The Man Without Fear made it into the 2003 film adaptation. Directed by Mark Steven Johnson and starring Ben Affleck as Matt Murdock, the film drew heavily (if clumsily) from Frank Miller’s vision. Jack Murdock’s murder, Elektra and Kingpin are all wrapped up in the plot.
Johnson’s film didn’t include Matt’s teenage vigilante crusade against Jack’s killers; the main story resolved that subplot instead. But then with only a 103 minute run time it’s easy to see why things got moved around.
The runtime of the 2015 Netflix series allowed for a larger exploration of Murdock’s past. While it only tangentially referenced Daredevil: The Man Without Fear, the influence of Miller’s story looms large.
This doesn’t only refer to Murdock’s homemade costume, which became one of the most popular elements of the series. The famous hallway fight from S1E2, in which Matt has to brawl with a Russian gang to save a young boy, is clearly in the same vein as his rescue of Mickey in the miniseries.
It’s all about the mood of the comic – and this scene nails it.
Is Daredevil: The Man Without Fear Good For New Readers?
In a word, yes, although that very much depends on your definition of a “new reader”. With a story featuring gang crime, prostitution, drug abuse, child trafficking and an incredible amount of violence, it’s *probably* not suitable for younger readers.
That aside, the miniseries is essential reading for understanding Matt Murdock’s past, his friends and enemies, and his values. It works incredibly well as an introduction to the character. But do bear in mind is that the story is very “street level”. As mentioned, Daredevil doesn’t even appear in costume until the final pages.
Regardless, if you want to read Daredevil then, in my view, there’s no better place to start.
If you’re looking to go all in on the Frank Miller era, then definitely take a look at the Daredevil by Frank Miller Omnibus Companion. An oversized hardcover weighing in at 608 pages, this includes Daredevil: The Man Without Fear alongside classics such as Born Again and Badlands.
What To Read Next
So! Let’s say that you’ve read Daredevil: The Man Without Fear and want to continue into Matt Murdock’s world. What do you read next? Take a look at the recommendations below…
And if you think there’s something obvious missing, drop a comment and let me know!
Told as a series of letters to Karen Page, Daredevil: Yellow runs parallel to the original Stan Lee comics. Created by Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale as part of their colours trilogy (see also Spider-Man: Blue and Hulk: Gray), it’s a story about Matt’s early days as a costumed adventurer.
Much lighter in tone than what you may expect after reading Miller’s work (as well as containing one or two small contradictions), it’s a different take on Daredevil and a fantastic homage to an earlier era of comic book storytelling.
Daredevil: Born Again is the seminal Frank Miller Daredevil story. After Karen Page sells Daredevil’s secret identity for a drug fix, the Kingpin takes Matt Murdock’s life apart.
Told over eight issues, many fans regard the story as the best of Frank Miller’s Daredevil work. Which – by definition – also happens to make it one of the best comic book stories of all time…
Brian Michael Bendis’ run on the Daredevil comic drew favourable comparisons to the classic work of Miller and Ann Nocenti. A pulp fiction crime noir take on the character with awesome stylised artwork to match by Alex Maleev, Bendis’ take on Matt Murdock restored the character to must-read status.
Start here and then continue with volumes two and three!
If you’re enjoying Miller’s take on the early days of superheroes then put Batman: Year One on your reading pile. This seminal story, illustrated beautifully by David Mazzuccelli, establishes Bruce Wayne’s mission and his earliest encounters with Selina Kyle, Jim Gordon, and the Gotham City underworld.
It’s influenced multiple major Batman stories since, including Batman Begins. Batman: Year One is a bonafide comic book classic.