Monday, April 20, 2015

The D&Dability of Daredevil

One of the great questions that faces many RPG bloggers is: When do I get to talk about comic books?

Well with everyone talking about Daredevil on Netflix, I'm going to say right now.

So here's my window to talk about the best Daredevil comics and why they're gameable.

Daredevil is a comic of particular interest to RPG people for three reasons:

1) Daredevil is blind. He can't see the word he interacts with. Just like your players. In the comics, we only understand what he experiences through a verbal description. Just like your players. The best Daredevil stories have grounded themselves in this sensory reality, using heard, felt etc detail to express a sense of place and movement. In fact one could argue (ok, I specifically could- and have- argued) that the whole "grim and gritty" late 80s-90s sensibility in comics really took off because Daredevil's blindness and heightened senses demanded that Frank Miller create a language which placed the reader's sensory information very close to the characters' sensory information (what John Gardner called "close psychic distance") which later got ported to Batman and the other grim and gritty character with heightened senses, Wolverine. In short: Daredevil has some great, evocative moments of sensory description. So there's something to learn for GMs there. The man who wrote Batman thinking "The rain is a baptism on my chest" in Dark Knight Returns is someone who'd already spent years describing what Daredevil felt but couldn't see. Compare:

"Close your eyes, let the night touch you. Feel the cold, driving rain as it batters your face and soaks your clothes...hear the moan of a freight barge on the nearby east river: the haunting chimes of a solitary church bell as it tolls the midnight hour, taste air heavy with lingering fumes of rush-hour traffic long gone...smell, in maggot-ridden garbage, the stench of another day's misery in New York's Lower East Side...let the night touch you--and you will take in only a fraction of its total texture...a texture fully experienced by only one man -- a blind man--"
--First lines of the first Daredevil issue Frank Miller wrote and drew

"The unholy three have Matt! We've got to help him, somehow!"
"O-oh, no--! It never ends...never..."
--First lines of the first issue Frank Miller drew, 10 issues earlier, written by Roger McKenzie

2) Because of coincidence or something in the very character-centric nature of the book (the book isn't usually about villains or schemes, the villains are mundane compared to more high-powered heroes, the book isn't about exploration, it's about New York and other comics already are exploring both the imaginary (Spider Man) and the hidden (Punisher) New York more than Daredevil) all of the best and most well-known Daredevil stories have an easily RPGable structure.

3) Ninjas.


The Best Daredevil Stories

Where Is A Good Place For Newbies To Start?

Daredevil: Born Again by Frank Miller and Dave Mazzuchelli


It's all collected in an easy-to-get-edition, it has a clear beginning and ending, the character's origin is mixed in there, you don't have to know anything that's not in the book and it's a fucking classic.

What happens?

Daredevil's archenemy, the Kingpin, finds out his secret identity and uses it to ruin his life. Daredevil goes a little crazy then sets out to ruin Kingpin's life right back.

Why is it great?

This is the gritty urban personal nightmare done exactly right. Flophouses, conflicted newsmen, corruption, henchmen with goofy speech patterns, subway car fights, bricks, burgers, beer bottles. This is the world of Scorcese's Mean Streets getting the closest superhero comics get to Miller's Crossing. And it's a Daredevil story so definitive every single run afterward has had to deal with it's influence, either running toward or away from the tone it set. Harold Bloom would be pleased.

In the early issues, Mazzuchelli is within a stone's throw of what you might reasonably call "normal bronze age comic art". Sometimes it doesn't look like much, especially if you're not into the sludgy, feathery inks characteristic of 70s comics...
Don't worry, this gives way very quickly in later issues to a sharper, more modernist take:

...this stuff had a HUGE influence on David Aja and Matt Fraction's new Hawkeye series, which is the talk of the town these days.

Why is it so RPGable?

Basically, the set-up is so easy you could do this to your players tomorrow--in any genre. They get up and wherever they stay wants them out. Whatever job they have fires them. The wizard's guild kicks them out, the taxman comes with his dobermans (dobermans were specifically bred for tax collection--did you know that?). Their allies are hired, unknowingly, by their enemies.

Finding out all that alone could result in a session's worth of encounters and interactions even before you do anything. Then the characters have clear options: find out who did all this (it's someone immensely dangerous whose minions they've foiled in the past, ensconced in a tall tower, surrounded by assassins). Or hit the road, harried by assassins.

In the second act, the villain starts to make things worse, striking at whoever the PCs value through proxies. The problem is: the proxies are obviously horrible to everyone, and if they can be caught the connection to the foe will be obvious, turning great powers against the archenemy.

And there's more so seriously go get it. The seven issues of Born Again are a treasure trove of gameables, if only because--unlike other classic pop crime stories like the Big Sleep--who killed who when and why and how is actually pretty clear.

But What If Just Being Anywhere Near Frank Miller Gives Me Hives?

No doubt Frank Miller has said some crazy shit. Anne Nocenti, on the other hand, not only delivers the grim and the grit and the city lights but has absolutely impeccable lefty-feminist-activist-journalist credentials.

And her run on Daredevil with John Romita Jr is...ok, I won't say it's a classic--the run is way too long and regular comic book deadlines are way too short for the whole run to be a classic and Nocenti doesn't know narration and pacing like Miller used to (to be fair, nobody knows pacing like Miller used to), but the Nocenti/Romita run has some beautifully evocative moments, like Daredevil meeting the actual devil, both with beer...
...and without...

...and it has a stubbly Daredevil beating the snot out of the main villain in the upcoming Avengers movie using only a pick-up truck and a stick:
...and just generally, a lot of John Romita JR at his absolute peak, with the sense of space and weight he picked up from traditional comics shading into the stylized dynamism of his later stuff:
Issues 275-276, the fight versus Ultron are a good place to start--then, if you're interested in seeing Daredevil in Hell, read forward, if you want the urban neo-noir, rewind to the beginning of the run with 250 (Nocenti's collaboration with Barry Windsor-Smith on 236 is also worth a look, despite the awful cover).

Why is it so RPGable?

Nocenti's unenviable job was to bridge the claustrophobic and moody world of Miller's run with the crossover-happy cosmic time-travelling megaverse 80s Marvel turned into. Basically, the same mid-level switcheroo every GM has to pull once the wizard learns Fireball. She leveled D&D up from orcs to demon princes and she did it with style--the overall plot in the Nocenti/ Romita issues is Daredevil does some Daredevil adventures, collects some bad guys, then they team up and run him out of the city. He then hexcrawls across the land running into bigger and bigger trouble until he meets Satan.

This is basically exactly where my Vornheim campaign is headed.

But What If I Hate Normal Comic Books And Want Something With That Classy Graphic Novel Feel?

Then this is what you want. Miller (on art and story this time) is here assisted by his then-wife Lynn Varley, best colorist in comics and the result is magnificent and very classy. Daredevil doesn't even appear in costume the whole time (just like TV!). In fact, he's naked--and nothing is more classy than naked men.

Though the plot is kind of a lot of set-pieces held together by spookiness (it's almost more of a Call of Cthulhu story than anything else), the fight choreography is magnificent (I've blogged these pages before...

...ninjas in a snowy graveyard, ninjas on rooftops, ninjas in a cathedral worshipping the Beast, ninjas leaping from morgue drawers, chains wrapping around things, chopsticks through eyes, and classy as all fuck. Enjoy.

The larger Daredevil-Elektra metastory is totally D&Dable: she loves him, she keeps getting hired to kill him. Then she is killed. Then she's resurrected to try to kill him again. Who hasn't been there?

If you want more of the backstory on that--or if you just want to see what Miller was like back when he was kind of a normal comic book artist--then you can read all the Miller Daredevils--he starts on art on 158 and takes over writing too at 168, finishing at 191 before coming back for the aforementioned Born Again. They're collected in volumes bearing the useful title The Complete Frank Miller Daredevil.

It would be dumb not to also mention the Sienkiewicz-pencilled Elektra: Assassin here because it's possibly the best comic book in the world, but Daredevil's not in it, so it technically falls outside the remit of this blog entry. Plus it's a total railroad.

But Modern Modern Modern I Want It Modern

Then what you want is the Brian Michael Bendis--Alex Maleev Daredevils.

Some people think they're overly talky and nothing ever happens and Maleevs sharp, photorealistic pencils are buried under and amid too many swiped backgrounds and computer filters. But then some people think Bendis' dialogue is modern wisecracky genius and Maleev is using the tools appropriate to the job.
Either way--their Daredevil is probably the closest to what you'll see on the Netflix series in both the look and the dialogue, so if you like it, you may like them:
I actually think the Bendis/Maleev stuff is some of the hardest to directly convert to RPGs, relying as it does on slow pacing, snappy patter and Daredevil's internal (and lonely) turmoil. But it's a surprisingly long run, especially for a relatively recent comic (50 or so issues), so there's a lot there to mine.

Oh If Only It Were Not So Grim

You're in luck! The runner-up Daredevil stories are pretty much all people who've had a more light-hearted take on the handicapped alcoholic Catholic urban vigilante with the dead lover. Some highlights:

Mark Waid has done some impressive work lately with a platoon of retro-style artists including Marcos Martin and Paolo Rivera.
Karl Kesel and Cary Nord had some good chemistry--though issues with Cary Nord on art are spaced out so it's kind of hard to read, and he was uneven anyway--and the plot's kind of all over the place. Still: as the panel above clearly demonstrates, fun.
...and, of course, the original Silver Age Stan Lee Daredevil comics are, well, Silver Age Stan Lee comics.


Adam Dickstein said...

"One of the great questions that faces many RPG bloggers is: When do I get to talk about comic books?"

My answer, "Anytime I damn well please!" Which turns out to be fairly often.

Nice article. I'm never been a big Daredevil fan, but I enjoyed the Miller stuff, much of the Nocenti run, and the Netflix series.

valiance. said...

Love the comics posts Zak. You have good taste in comics: I bought Ironwolf and a bunch of other stuff on your recommendation and they were awesome.

Q: Why no mention of the Brubaker/Lark run?

Zak Sabbath said...

didn't catch it

and thanks!

piles said...

Living in the Netherlands, I hardly encountered American-style comics in my youth. Now, when reading through the many (d&d) blogs, I seem to have missed quite a bit and posts like this are especially helpful in guiding me where to start. Thank you for that.

Anonymous said...

I second what valiance said. Some of my favorite comics are things I discovered because of your blogging: Born Again, Cosmic Odyssey, Ironwolf, Walt Simonson Thor.

Here's a thing: why are genre fantasy comics generally lamer - certainly less D&Dable - than superhero comics? I can think of a couple of possible reasons, which pull in different directions. First, genre fantasy comics may deliberately skew conservative to stay within genre expectations. Second, the outer limits of weirdness for superhero comics may be much further afield, because there are more of them, or they've been around for longer, or superhero comics are just weirder, period. What else?

Zak Sabbath said...

superhero comics are better because there are more of them

and there are more of them because both the technology and the format favor the way color is used in superhero comics over how it;s used in more historically based genres.

westerns, cops and medieval stuff all look too brown and grey unless the colorist is unusually talented

Anonymous said...

Interesting. I remember you writing in some other post about how it was hard to do medieval fantasy in comics without everything being brown, but I'd never thought of color as the reason why superheroes are so dominant in comics. I suppose that also explains why pulps were more diverse, genre-wise - all they really needed art-wise was one gripping cover image, and it was probably easier to sneak color into crime, western, etc. stories for just one image than for the entire book.

Anyway, I'm always happy when you blog about comics because I know I'm about to discover new cool things. So please indulge that impulse as often as you like.

P.S. Red and Pleasant Land is just beyond. Even when I'm not running it directly, I can feel the ideas in it bending my game Voivodja-wards, like the invisible gravity well around a black hole. Thanks, sincerely, for making it.

Zak Sabbath said...


nolan said...

No love for Kevin Smith and Joe Q's Guardian Devil arc?

Doc Savage said...

So Frank Miller's constant thesaurus-referencing overwriting is superior? Comics are, ironically, a visual medium. The fewer dialogue balloons and thought bubbles and narration boxes the better.

Zak Sabbath said...

If you would argue for your taste, do it--don't make dismissive statements backed up by vague pedantry.

Comics are a medium that appears on a page, and anything you can do with a page might make the reading experience better or worse.

And if you need a thesaurus to think up "maggot" or "chimes" then I feel sorry for you already.