If you’ve been captivated by the bold, atmospheric cinematography of Daredevil‘s first season on Netflix, you might want to seek out the similarly stunning comic book version by Alex Maleev. Series executive producer Jeph Loeb credits Maleev as a key visual influence: “With Alex’s art, we looked at that and said ‘that’s the look of the show.’ And that really captures it.” And even if you haven’t tuned in, and like your action-adventure tales on a human rather than super-powered scale — Agent Carter: yes, Agents of SHIELD: no — the program, and Maleev’s series at its best, is more a neo-noir detective drama than a special-effects driven uber-mensch fest.
For the uninitiated, Daredevil is to Marvel Comics as Batman is to DC. He’s a crime-fighter, or in less flattering terms: a masked vigilante. Having lost his eyesight as a child, all his other senses are now cranked up way beyond 11. Defense attorney by day, he metes out bone-crunching nunchuck and fisticuff justice of Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen in the shadowy darkness.
The original 1940s Daredevil comic, published by Lev Gleason, had 20-20 vision and wore a silly, harlequin-esque costume with an S&M belt. And oh, yes: he battled Germany and Japan’s diabolical, grossly diabolically caricatured villains during WWII. His first cover appearance was drawn by Jack Cole, whose Plastic Man bears the Art Spiegelman Seal of Approval but whose early artwork was rather crude and stilted. Charles Biro quickly became the primary cover artist through the rest of the decade. Another slow starter, Biro’s drawing skills became more nuanced and dimensional by the time he was producing the Golden Age’s lurid but lucrative Crime Does Not Pay.
The teevee Daredevil had its origins as a standard Stan Lee-style Marvel superhero comic back in 1964. Jack Kirby, recently profiled here, provided character design assistance. After the first few issues, Wally Wood — who I discuss here — designed his stylized double-D chest insignia and streamlined his getup in devilish red, which is the basis for the outfit Daredevil adopts in the final moments of season one. Spoiler alert! Oops, too late.
Bill Sienkiewicz’s thrillingly experimental layouts for the 1986 Daredevil graphic novel “Love and War” marked a revolution for mainstream comics in general. It was written by artist Frank Miller, who introduced his own innovative graphic approaches and designed the black garb that TV’s Daredevil wore through most of season one. Following Sienkiewicz and Miller, other design-minded pros Tim Sale, David Mack, and Maleev each contributed their own skillfully unique and dynamic visual flair.
Beginning in the early 2000s, Maleev – who’s also known for his Batman and Hellboy work – illustrated over 50 issues in collaboration with writer Brian Michael Bendis, which successfully branded the character for a new century. In The Education of a Comics Artist — a 2005 book I co-edited — Arlen Schumer, a new Print Designer of the Week, described Maleev and Sienkiewicz as leaders of an emerging, graphically astute breed he labeled “multimedia artists.” They’d incorporate everything from painting, drawing, and cartooning to photography, collage, and computer effects “to expand the visual vocabulary of their work.” Mack, whose smart and sophisticated stylings on Daredevil effectively set the stage for Maleev, also belongs in this pantheon of creative greats.
Schumer writes, “Maleev casts his characters with real-life models, photographs them in as close to what the actual situations call for, and then, through a unique combination of xerography and drawing, creates a new synthesis, resulting in a noir-ish, cinematic graphic storytelling style, its xerographic graininess befitting the gritty city streets of New York’s Hell’s Kitchen in which Daredevil’s adventures take place.” Maleev’s full run has been compiled in a three-volume “Ultimate Collection.”
And here’s one last spoiler, from the season finale: the “artist rendering” of Daredevil you see on the front page of the newspaper was provided by Maleev himself. p.s.: If you haven’t seen it yet, you can sneak a peek by scrolling down to the bottom of this column.