Today, Netflix unleashes the second season of Daredevil: 13 episodes hellbent on exposing the disturbing noir underbelly of the Marvel Universe. The show features Matt Murdock, a blind lawyer and vigilante with extraordinary hearing, touch and radar-like powers. In this new set of binge fodder, Murdock faces the Punisher, an ex-military serial killer who hunts criminals, and Elektra, a Greek ex-girlfriend turned ninja assassin.
For long-time readers of the comic book source material, these characters signal the creative influence of one man: Frank Miller. Not only did Miller create Elektra; he was also the first to mash the Punisher’s guns-and-ammo nihilism against Murdock’s higher-power optimism. And for much of Miller’s career, that’s been his singular obsession: tackling belief systems just as extreme as his heroes’ superpowers.
Historically, Miller’s take on religion has isolated him from the liberal-leaning industry he helped evolve. His 2011 graphic novel, Holy Terror, repurposed a Batman pitch into the original tale of a hulking vigilante called the Fixer battling Al Qaeda. Spencer Ackerman of Wired called it a “screed against Islam, completely uninterested in any nuance or empathy toward 1.2 billion people.” Miller defended himself by saying he was strictly attacking terrorism, not religion, likening the project to the old-time war comics that showed Superman and Captain America beating the shit out of Hitler.
The same alleged agnosticism can’t explain his most recent offering, The Dark Knight III: The Master Race, which takes religious fanaticism to surreal heights. The third issue introduces a cult of Kryptonians who suicide-bomb the Kremlin. Co-written by Brian Azzarello and drawn by Andy Kubert, it was the top-selling comic last February, moving 146,000 copies. Miller’s most direct commentary on faith never saw the light of day, though: Jesus!, a sequential art biography of the carpenter Messiah, was announced in the early aughties but has yet to rise from creative purgatory.
But Miller created his own gospel in 1981 when he took the reigns on Daredevil, the first character he ever wrote and drew. He guided the adventures of the vigilante lawyer for 23 issues, later revisiting the character through miniseries and one-shots. His contribution has all but defined the Daredevil legacy.
Created in 1964 by Stan Lee and Bill Everett and officially baptized Catholic by writer Tony Isabella in 1975, Daredevil’s entire existence hinges on a brand of fire-and-brimstone Calvinism. Murdock dons a crimson, horned leotard to hunt down street-level villains who escape the judicial system. He believes the most intimidating figure for rapists and murderers is the Biblical lord of the abyss, reminding them of their pending damnation. (In his defense, it’s a hell of a lot more scary than dressing up like a bat.)
Miller took this observation and let it flourish, calling Daredevil “the most Christian of heroes” in a 1981 interview. Whether by osmosis or calculated intention, Murdock’s life has paralleled the most brutal twists and turns of the Good Book. No narrative revels in that relationship more than 1986’s 5-issue story arc “Born Again,” illustrated by David Mazzucchelli in chiseled, noir perfection.
Inspired by his mounting debt after moving to California, Miller strips Daredevil to less than nothing and then promptly resurrects him. For all the sacred imagery and themes packed into these five issues, it’s almost a microcosm of the Bible. The story kicks off with a Judas Kiss from Murdock’s former girlfriend, Karen Page—now a heroin-addicted porn star suffering in Mexico. She sells his secret identity for drugs, instigating a sea of cascading dominoes that leave Murdock homeless and deranged.
The Bible has no shortage of double-crossing significant others caving into temptation, from Eve’s creation of Original Sin to Lot’s wife gazing at the city of Sodom against God’s wishes. But Delilah’s betrayal of proto-superhero Samson—the Judge who conquered an army with the jawbone of the ass and wrecked pagan temples—holds the most similarities. Delilah reveals her significant other’s hair as his source of power to the Philistines, leading to his imprisonment and, more specifically, eye gouging.
In “Born Again,” the Kingpin of Crime, Wilson Fisk, seizes Murdock’s secret and gouges every facet of his life after framing him: his profession, friends, money and reputation. Murdock is leveled on a scale unforeseen since The Book of Job.
From here, Miller segues into the New Testament with visuals inspired directly by Christ’s Stations of the Cross: One of the most evocative images of the narrative depicts Murdock’s mother, a nun, salvaging her son’s fevered body in an alley. The splash page is a direct homage to Michelangelo’s Pietà statue, showing Mary the Blessed Virgin cradling Jesus Christ’s body after its suspension on the cross.
Murdock then assumes the role of resurrected savior, even shunning his diabolic costume until the final chapters. He reunites with Page, mimicking the relationship between Jesus and reformed prostitute-cum-follower Mary Magdalene. Via dialogue boxes, Miller describes how Karen sold her soul through her descent into vice, and the last piece she fumbled was her bond with Matt; if ever there was an analogy for the Son of God sacrificing himself for our sins, cast in the ‘80s excess of Hells’ Kitchen, this is it. The last chapter—featuring a delusional super-soldier fighting Daredevil and Captain America—closes the book with the fitting title, “Armageddon.” Amen.
The implications of the comic are fascinating, especially when evaluating the rest of Miller’s work. Is his obsession with prostitution rooted in the most popular religious text? Are his ideals of hyper-masculinity and violence based on prophets who slit throats and wield ass jaws? Maybe, maybe not. Raised by a Catholic Father and Quaker mother, Miller doesn’t proclaim a deep love for faith, telling the A.V. Club that the attacks on September 11 made him “a little down on religion.” A more realistic explanation could be that Miller saw the Bible as a treasure trove of genre adventures and brutal conflict, phrased in grandiose vernacular that claims one-third of the world’s allegiance.
As for Daredevil’s legacy, that perspective of Bible-as-Literature has generated some of the most provocative comics of the past two decades. Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon’s heretic Western, Preacher, pits a burnt-out evangelist against his former Heavenly Father. The 66-issue comic (hey-oh) spawned an upcoming AMC television series starring Dominic Cooper and Ruth Negga, set to debut on May 22nd. Indie comics legend Robert Crumb released the first half of the Bible into a shockingly objective 2009 graphic novel, with the shocking objective title The Book of Genesis Illustrated by R. Crumb. On a more interpretive note, Jason Aaron and artist R.M. Guéra have recast humanity’s first homicide culprit—Cain—as an anti-hero in The Goddamned, showing the undying wanderer in a grudge match with a slave-driving Noah.
When framed through Miller and Mazzucchelli’s sequential-art noir and dissolved of its dogmatic context, “Born Again” outlines the dramatic storytelling at the heart of the world’s best-selling book. Even at a casual glance, The Bible’s DNA lines the narratives of the least suspecting media, from Coldplay albums to Lost. But in rare examples like “Born Again,” these inspired works almost rival their source material’s divinity.