The nineties get a lot of flack nowadays from comic fans, and some of it is very well deserved. Many things happened in the nineties that made it a very dark decade for the comic industry, many things we would like to forget happened at all, and some things we just can’t seem to let go of. And pouches, so very many pouches.
For as many reasons as there are to speak in hushed tones when referring to comics in that rather fateful decade, there are many more reasons to shout at the sky in praise. Each Tuesday I discuss the many things that made that decade truly a great time to be a fan. This week, I bring you another reason the nineties weren’t all bad.
This four issue miniseries by D.G. Chichester, Lee Weeks, and Al Williamson, officially called Last Rites, pitted Daredevil against his arch-nemesis, The Kingpin, in a final battle, resulting in the Kingpin losing his empire and being forced to go on the run. Following in the tradition set out by Frank Miller years earlier, this unofficial sequel to Born Again was a darker, more real world take on the character, and the stakes for everyone involved were never higher.
The previous almost 5 year run by writer Ann Nocenti was a fantastic read as well, introducing fan-favorite Typhoid Mary, but Chichester would prove to be the perfect cleanser after Nocenti’s highly political last year on the series. And this, the culmination of years of Daredevil stories, was the obvious end game. After so much being taken from Matt Murdock over the years, it was his turn to do some world burning. And burn he did.
Miller and Nocenti gave us the fall of Daredevil, with Matt Murdock losing everything he held dear, and after years of this it was refreshing to see Matt Murdock’s life finally turning around, even regaining his attorney’s license after losing it so many years earlier. This storyline is almost Born Again in reverse, with Daredevil and the Kingpin switching the roles they’ve always had in each others life.
Issue #296 sets up the storyline, with Murdock finally having had enough of his constant rival, but #297 is where it all begins. This Daredevil is not the one we’ve come to know as the brooding protector of Hell’s Kitchen, instead he is a nasty, manipulative avenger, doing whatever it takes to crush his opponent. He begins by reminding Wilson Fisk of the loss of his love, Vanessa, who left him years before, using this to somewhat emotionally cripple his nemesis, hopefully making it easier to take him down.
Next he sets about neutering Fisk’s pet assassin, Typhoid Mary, in stunningly devious fashion. Using her own wiles against her, he manipulates her two distinct personalities, causing her shy Mary personality to come out, successfully eliminating her as a threat. As she’s being carted away by social services, he ruminates on what he’s done, realizing just how brutal he must become to accomplish his ultimate goal. And Chichester shows us just how uncomfortable this makes him. It is heartbreaking in many ways, and it will get much worse as the story moves forward.
This storyline treads in some serious water, going much deeper than most comics of the time. Chichester plays with themes of forgiveness, Catholic guilt, what it means to truly lose everything, and what it can do to a person. The story hits on some very dark emotions as well, especially in the sheer joy Daredevil takes in the destruction of his enemy, which is unsettling to say the least.
Daredevil gains some unlikely allies throughout this storyline, first with Nick Fury and S.H.I.E.L.D. who want the Kingpin taken down by Daredevil, and later with Hydra who Daredevil uses for his own means. Again, Daredevil is using manipulation as his primary weapon, and it will eventually take its toll on him.
This is Daredevil at his most confident in decades, completely in control as the Kingpin’s life falls apart piece by piece. We know right from the beginning that Daredevil is going to win, he IS the hero after all, but the fun of this story is seeing just how messy it gets along the way. It has been a long time coming, and the Kingpin has much farther to fall than Daredevil ever did, and he is going to fall hard.
This is a very different Kingpin as well. Gone are the days where Fisk is the confident crime lord, keeping control of his empire through will alone. We slowly see him completely losing control, not just of his empire, but of his emotional well being, and it makes him more interesting than he’s been in decades. Chichester humanizes the Kingpin, and while you still don’t pity him, it does make it harder to watch as he is stripped of everything that made him the Kingpin in the first place.
Even Hydra is more interesting in this storyline, as Chichester treats them with the respect they’ve never been given before, making them a true terrorist organization to fear as they take out Fisk’s holdings in New York.
This storyline crushes the Kingpin in much the same way that Born Again crushed Daredevil, but the genius in Chichester’s tale is how in breaking him he’s actually made him a more terrifying villain. For a long time the Kingpin was making strides into more respectable endeavors, and this story puts an end to that. Daredevil’s triumph is a false triumph, as he has just stripped away the Kingpin’s restraint and control, and made of him a different kind of villain, more menacing than ever.
Lee Weeks and Al Williamson were the perfect art team to bring this tale to life. Together they delivered the grittiness, the despair, the pure emotional violence that Last Rites required. Weeks’ ability to capture what’s going on in his character’s heads, and etch it across their faces, tells the story in a way the words can’t possibly. Williamson’s colors set the mood from the very first panel, driving home the darkness of the coming tale.
The rest of Chichester’s run on Daredevil is mostly forgettable, especially the armored years, but Last Rites is in every way a classic, and one more reason it was great being a comic fan in the nineties. Next week I’ll bring you another.