Writer Wars Round 3: The Curious Case of Matt Murdock by Paul Arbuckle
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Why isn't Daredevil more popular? A character in continuous publication since 1964, who has appeared in two movies, multiple Netflix series and countless video games can hardly be described as unpopular. Yet Matt Murdock seems a curiously overlooked character. Daredevil is a complex, visually interesting blind ninja by night and a highly skilled blind lawyer by day. He uses heightened senses, a billy club and case law to battle crime and pursue justice. Both identities are equally immersive and it’s possible to make the case that Old Hornhead has a better back catalogue of stories than any other superhero. Yet somehow, The Man Without Fear continues to be The Man with Low Sales.
Barring the occasional spike for a new #1 or a big legacy issue, Daredevil usually sells around 30k an issue. Outside of a few key issues, there isn’t that much speculation and prices are relatively stable. Matt Murdock rarely appears on the CBSI Hot 10 and when he does, it’s usually short lived. The War Scrolls #1 Sorrentino variant most recently sold for £6.10 and £7.00 on UK eBay and it’s difficult to shake the feeling that the #612 J. Scott Campbell variant is only popular because its JSC, not because it features DD. How can a well written, well drawn, critically acclaimed character not be more popular with readers and speculators?
Daredevil is a recognizable character thanks to onscreen portrayals by Rex Smith, Ben Affleck and Charlie Cox plus appearances in video games and cartoons. He’s been in a lot of comics since 1964 and has even been an Avenger. However, he rarely hits Avenger level sales. The landmark issue #600 sold 67.1k in July 2018 making it the 88th best-selling comic of that year according to Diamond. In comparison, Issue #599 sold 24.8k and #601 dropped to 30.2k. #605 plummeted to 24k which is pretty much the title’s lowest ever sales. The recent Chip Zdarsky and Marco Checchetto relaunch offers some hope for better sales. The first issue sold 61.6k before dropping to 35.8k for #2. This sort of drop off is normal after any #1 but then something unusual happened…#3 bounced back to 51.3k. Sales for #4 are not yet available but this fledgling run is a perfect mash up of what went before and the tone of the Netflix series. It’s a great book but Daredevil has been that for a long time.
Since Marvel relaunched the title in 1998 as part of the Marvel Knights imprint, Daredevil has arguably been the most consistently well written character in all of comics. Brian Michael Bendis, Ed Brubaker, Mark Waid and Charles Soule have all left their mark on the character with critically acclaimed runs. Artists David Mack, Alex Maleev, Chris Samnee and Michael Lark have produced stellar visuals and only high -quality creative teams get put on this book. The pre-Zdarsky run by actual lawyer Soule introduced a sidekick, Blindspot, a legal precedent allowing costumed heroes to testify anonymously in court and Kingpin Wilson Fisk as Mayor of New York. It’s a very good run which added interesting new elements but sold fewer copies than DC’s rapidly cancelled Immortal Men.
Add to that the earlier work of Frank Miller, Ann Nocenti and many others and you have an impressive set of stories. Regardless of quality, Daredevil rarely sells well and was supposed to be close to cancellation when Miller revamped and redefined the character in the 1980s as he later did with Batman. The Dark Knight is now a sales juggernaut for DC while DD scrapes in to the top 100 most months.
Comic books are now an expensive niche hobby and the days of huge sales across the board are long gone. Still, there are a lot of books that sell 60k to 100k each month and Daredevil should be a strong presence on pull lists. Yet he isn't. Why is this? It seems to be down to a combination of origin story, tone and a relative disconnectedness from the larger Marvel Universe. Maybe it’s as simple as how old fashioned “Daredevil” sounds. If the much more apt “Batman” had been available, maybe this echolocation using hero would be considered cooler. He does suit black.
Daredevil has a rich and compelling origin, but it doesn’t have the straight forward hook of other DC and Marvel origins. “Child sees his parents gunned down in an alley and swears vengeance on criminality” is easy to relate to and has power no matter how many times it is retold. Similarly, “Teenager is bitten by a radioactive spider and develops cool super powers” goes a long way to explaining the continuing appeal of Spider-Man. Matt Murdock’s origin is much more convoluted. “Child is blinded by radioactive waste while saving an old man from being run over by a truck. He loses his eyesight, but his other senses are boosted to superhuman levels. His boxer father is murdered for refusing to throw a fight and his mentally ill mother left when he was a baby and became a nun.” There’s a lot to unpack there. It may sound like nitpicking but if you need to consult Google or Wikipedia to get a handle on a character, that character is unlikely to end up with Superman levels of cultural penetration.
Compare this to the universally known origin of Superman which Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely succinctly told in eight words in All-Star Superman:
The same brevity could be applied to Batman, Spider-Man or The Hulk but not to characters like Daredevil or Hawkman without leaving a lot of information out. If Daredevil doesn’t have a simple origin story and looks like a knock-off “Red Batman”, are you really going to pick up his books? The Batman comparisons are superficial at best. Matt Murdock is much more fallible than Bruce Wayne and doesn’t have anywhere near the training, funding or expertise of the Caped Crusader. His best friend is a chubby lawyer, Franklin “Foggy” Nelson, not a godlike flying alien. Daredevil tends to leap first then worry about falling later. He isn’t big on prep-time like his Gotham counterpart unless he’s building a legal case. Other than the costumes and a penchant for a rooftop rendezvous with morally complex ladies, there aren’t that many real similarities.
Perhaps one of the biggest factors is the tone of Daredevil books. Dark, gritty crime stories set in Hell’s Kitchen are hardly pure escapism. Unless you like these kinds of tales, you’re probably not going to stick around for long. Mark Waid’s run was a much lighter and brighter palate cleanser after the grim nadir of Shadowland, but even those stories dealt with Matt’s struggles with depression. He’s not a wise cracking acrobat like Peter Parker or Dick Grayson though originally, he was. Now he’s a man stalked by loss and Catholic guilt, a man who even when he wins finds it comes at great cost.
Even romance doesn’t go well and dating Matt Murdock is terrible idea. Thanks to his many enemies, your long-term relationship status with him is likely to be dead, addicted to heroin then dead or driven insane. Themes of guilt, repentance and sin permeate Daredevil’s stories and maybe readers find all of this too much of a downer long term.
Daredevil’s relative disconnectedness from the wider Marvel Universe is perhaps the single biggest explanation for his ropey sales. He is rarely involved in huge crossovers or universe shattering stories. War of the Realms is a rare exception to this but even “The God without Fear” is unlikely to be a long-term money-spinner.
Netflix Daredevil obliquely acknowledged it was part of the MCU but was essentially left alone to do its own thing with connective tissue to the other Marvel Netflix shows. Comic book Daredevil functions in much the same way. Spider-Man or Black Widow might drop by but its largely Daredevil, his friends, enemies and his fellow Defenders – Luke Cage, Jessica Jones and Iron Fist.
This disconnectedness means these stories “don’t matter” to some comic fans as they don’t impact the wider universe. The flipside to this is the level of autonomy creative teams get on Daredevil. The gig gets you a long run to tell whatever stories you want without getting derailed by crossover events. Even when DD goes get involved in larger events, it tends to be in supplementary one shots and mini-series rather than in the middle of his own arcs. Last year’s four issue Hunt for Wolverine: Weapon Lost was a good example of this. There was no real reason for it to exist, yet it was an enjoyable detective story as Daredevil, Frank McGee and Misty Knight tracked down clues on the whereabouts of the newly resurrected Wolverine. The Man without Fear is even capable turning a cynical cash grab in into a good story.
So, what should Marvel do to try to increase his popularity? If strong creative teams, good stories and a unique set of powers can’t translate into higher sales, maybe this is Daredevil’s actual level in comics. They could lean in to the lazy “Red Batman” comparisons to sate disaffected Dark Knight fans. The internet is full of people complaining that Batman, “The World’s Greatest Detective”, doesn’t do any detecting anymore in his many books. Other readers complain that Batman is best suited to street level stories and shouldn’t be running around fighting gods with the Justice League. Want to read street level crime stories about a man who looks cool stood on gargoyles? Read Daredevil. Hopefully once there, they’ll stick around for other reasons.
Daredevil has been in a lot of video games but these have almost exclusively been cameo appearances. The only game he has headlined is the 2003 Gameboy Advance tie-in to the Affleck film. Footage from a cancelled PS2/Xbox game exists and an Arkham style open city game is long overdue and would showcase the character to a wider audience. General audiences do not flock to comic books stores after watching comic book movies, but gamers already immersed in geek culture might do. A high-quality video game would raise DD’s profile further as well as offering a crash course in why this character has endured since 1964. Maybe the Zdarsky run and a killer video game can finally be a springboard to better long term sales. Or maybe he’ll just remain an enigma – a character too storied and too prestigious to cancel but who was outsold by a DC book that was cancelled after only six issues.
There is one huge upside to the lack of sales and spec interest in the Devil of Hell’s Kitchen. Comic book collecting isn’t just about flipping and making money, it can be about buying what you like and about putting together complete runs. If you’re going to collect every issue of a title ever, Daredevil is the character to do it with. It’s very easy to get cheap back issues and eBay sellers often list multiple sequential issues in lots for bargain prices. Even a battered raw #1 from 1964 can be had for under a grand with a bit of luck. Maybe Daredevil comics will never be hugely popular money makers but he’s a unique character who deserves better. Excelsior!