Superheroes have struggles and conflict. Their stories need this. Without conflict, they wouldn’t have any reason to wear spandex and go jumping off rooftops. But not all conflicts have to be outlandishly dressed villains. The Marvel character Matt Murdock/Daredevil has his share of foes (mostly ninjas). Matt’s crusade against Wilson Fisk, the criminal Kingpin of New York, and the other villains who invade his ninja-filled home in Hell’s Kitchen is fantastic, and his representation of disability as a blind superhero (albeit with some fun powers) makes for some fun adventures. But this is not all of what makes this character so great.
Daredevil struggles with depression. This is a comic book character who has openly confessed to struggling with clinical depression; this is a comic book that has treated depression as a mental illness and has portrayed it realistically.
It didn’t start out that way. In his early stories, Daredevil was a grinning, swashbuckling acrobat, whose quips and stories were just as silly as any other (he once pretended to be his own twin brother for some reason). But as time went on, Daredevil took on a much more adult edge. He became a darker character that inhabited a grimmer world, a world where most of the people around him died—sometimes repeatedly. Throughout the 80s, Daredevil stories were lead in an increasingly bleak direction with the introduction of grief and depression.
But the story that really introduced depression as a foe was the 1986 story Born Again (Daredevil Vol.1 #232-233) by Frank Miller. In this story Kingpin’s discovers Daredevil’s real identity, and proceeds to ruin the hero’s life. He bankrupts Matt and burns down his building. This is the point in the story where the hero always feels like they can’t win, before they are reminded of how cool they are and then going back out to kick some butt.
But that’s not what happens. Instead, Matt feels crushed, hopeless, and alone. Matt feels like his life is over. But this isn’t done with melodramatic tears and cheesy monologues.
He reaches for the phone, but is incapable of calling his friends for help. Matt finds himself lying in bed, and he can’t get up. When Matt finally does get help, it’s because those who care about him go and find him. In the end, of course, Matt puts his Daredevil horns back on and goes to save the day, but this is an important turning point for his character. This is a rare example of depression being portrayed as depression.
Then, jump forward more than a decade and come to the Daredevil run of Brian Michael Bendis that stretched from 2001-2006 (Daredevil Vol.2 #26-50, 56-81). This five year saga has Daredevil’s identity publicly revealed by the press (because Matt can’t keep his mask on); has the character get married; and, most notably, violently claim control over New York’s mafia himself, threatening all crime with gruesome retribution. The saga shows the character acting increasingly violently and erratically as he loses more control over his life.
But when this comes to a head, it isn’t really with a fight. It isn’t with bloody knuckles or a dramatic car chase. The true climax of this story is when Matt’s friend Ben Urich comes to him while Matt is lying hurt and asks if he is okay. It turns out that Matt’s increasingly erratic and dangerous behavior was part of depression and a nervous breakdown. This is the turning point of Bendis’s saga for Daredevil: his friends noticing he needs help.
Now let’s jump forward just a few more years, to the current run of Daredevil, written by Mark Waid. Never before has depression been such an ever-present foe. In Waid’s run, Matt openly acknowledges his struggles with mental illness, and makes a commitment to being a healthier, happier version of himself. This run has Matt, and his friends, consciously acknowledge depression as an obstacle, and several of the story arcs involve Matt’s struggle to continue to rise above the darkness in his life and in himself.
Now Daredevil is about a constant struggle against the darkness of depression, which grows ever more apparent with each issue. This culminates perfectly in the tenth issue, in which writer Mark Waid pens a story where not only is the hero fighting his illness, but he even allows Matt to describe what his experience is like. This is a moving, insightful, and informative piece, allowing us a window into both what it is like to struggle with mental illness and what it is like to be around those who do.
Superheroes’ lives usually suck. So on one hand, it is a little surprising that there aren’t more costumed characters that struggle like Matt. But the point is that it doesn’t matter how good or bad Daredevil’s life might be—he would struggle regardless. The story of Daredevil is deep, and is a decade’s long, insightful look into the mind of someone fighting the good fight against both mental and physical handicaps. Daredevil is a rare character in that his creators are willing to take him to extremes; they are willing to take him right to the edge, to break him down, and to try to find their own ending for the man without fear. But, as is the nature of comic books, nothing ever really ends. So every time he gets knocked over, Daredevil still gets back up and fights without fear.
Daredevil is great. Go pick up an issue. I promise you won’t be disappointed. (He also fights ninjas, guys—so many ninjas. I’m not even sure where all those ninjas come from.)
-contributed by Ben Ghan