After years of violent superhero crime comics, Frank Miller's farewell as combined writer/artist to the title that made his name in comics was Daredevil #191 (cover-dated Feburary, 1983), featuring the standalone story "Roulette." It's an issue so alien to the previous Miller run of #158-190 that it seems like a quantum leap from that set of comics, the beginning of a new era for both Frank Miller and Daredevil. And yet, it perfectly summarizes not only everything Miller accomplished on the title, but prophetically points the way to the writer/artist's future. The issue was to be his last as writer/artist, although he would return to write a one-off for artist John Buscema and later the masterwork serial Born Again with artist David Mazzucchelli.
The first clue to the very different nature of this issue comes right on the cover: Miller had designed some striking covers in his time on Daredevil, probably most notably that to #181, the creative peak of Miller and collaborator Klaus Janson's tenure, in which everything that had been building since even before Miller took over as writer with #168 came to a head. The cover to #191, though, is very different from the Eisner-influenced action covers Miller had been designing. For one thing, inker Klaus Janson is not in evidence, either on the cover or inside, where Terry Austin provided embellishment of Miller's shockingly controlled line.
Miller inked the cover himself, depicting Daredevil standing alone, in despair. The character is clearly in defeat at the power of New York City and its implicit violence. The city itself is seen shrouded in fog and threatening shadow, created almost entirely by Miller's by-now obsessive (but not yet fully controlled) crosshatching. Daredevil himself is also composed mostly of these sharply attacking lines of ink, and the cover is almost certainly coloured by Lynn Varley, who is to become Miller's creative partner (and more) for decades to come. The colour palette of the cover is highly unusual for its time, featuring off-note shades and graduated tones that are, of course, commonplace today. In so many ways, this issue seems like a hint of what is to come, not only for Miller but for superhero comics themselves.
Inside, Daredevil plays Russian Roulette with his now-quadraplegic arch-enemy Bullseye, having been driven to the very edge of sanity by a tragic turn of events involving a young boy who idolized Daredevil. Varley provides a spare colour tone for the issue, painting the hospital scenes between Daredevil and the paralyzed Bullseye in mostly black and white, save for sunlight coming into the room and of course the vivid red of Daredevil's mask, a key design element of page three. On this page, Daredevil reflects on how Bullseye has taken so much from him, and Miller relies on one of his most successful visual tricks, splitting up a single face into multiple panels, each moving the story along just a bit, each moving the reader along another instant in time, in this case toward Daredevil's narrative about Chuckie Jurgens.
The first time we see Chuckie, as Daredevil's tale begins, he is bathed in the nauseating green glow of the television. Undersupervised and overstimulated by repeated watchings of Daredevil beating Bullseye to a pulp on a much-watched videotape, Chuckie is entranced by Daredevil's actions. We learn in the course of the story that this tape has become his fantasy world, one that his father is all to eager to let him enter if it means being left alone to plot his less-than-legal activities.
As Matt Murdock joins the Jurgens family for dinner, Varley casts a sickly yellow pall on over Miller's spare set-piece. The family, Murdock and the dining room table are isolated in a sea of yellow, giving a theatrical feel to the sequence. Jurgens scolds his son at the dinner table, shaming him in front of Murdock, giving him even more reason to retreat into his fantasy:
"I'm not crazy. And I am Daredevil, sometimes."
Murdock is flattered, dangerously enchanted by the boy's rich fantasy life and visits him as Daredevil, taking him for the ride of his life. The boy explains to Daredevil how violence has made the costumed superhero free. Daredevil seems startled to learn what kind of lesson his own personal violence has visited upon this innocent child.
It's fascinating to see Miller take such responsibility here for the violence of the series. For nearly three dozen issues, he used his art to dazzle and entertain with balletic violence inspired by the artistic elegance and economy of Gil Kane, Bernard Krigstein, Steve Ditko and others. Miller had also infused the series with a film noir sensibility stripped right off the blue-glow of the 2 AM TV screen, transferring it intact to the comics page.
Under Frank Miller and Klaus Janson, Daredevil celebrated and explored violent acts of brutality. Thugs beat Daredevil, Daredevil beat thugs, Daredevil beat his lover, his lover beat him, his worst enemy beat them all and killed the love of his life. All the time, readers were kept on the edge of their seats by masterfully plotted cliffhangers and unexpectedly adept dialogue and pacing. Miller's years-long tour de force was a passionate mash-note to comics and violence and the special, bloody place where they intersected in Miller's psyche. That he lived in New York City while creating these stories was a blessing to the work and a boon to his storytelling powers; the series was about the Big Apple as much as it was about people in costumes beating on each other.
So after all this time, it gives the reader pause to see Miller step right up and pay the price for all the fictional blood he'd spilled for the past few years. "If you really want violence," this story seems to say, "Let's get good and bloody and see what the hell it all means." Daredevil is aghast at the effects of his exploits on Chuckie. He can't believe the boy is so in love with violence, so desperately attached to it. Daredevil is so taken aback, in fact, that he doesn't see where this path has to take Chuckie. At a key moment, he abandons the boy instead of getting him to the help he needs. Why does Daredevil make this choice? So he can go beat someone up, of course.
The person he beats is Chuckie's father, involved in a criminal scheme that has quickly gone wrong. Daredevil easily beats Chuckie's dad (of course), but there is a far greater price to pay for the easy win -- Chuckie is a witness to it all, and Chuckie snaps. If Chuckie's father is bad, then Chuckie must also be bad, very far indeed from the hero he wants to imagine himself to be. He loses himself utterly in the world of the DD/Bullseye videotape, watching again and again as the pair kicks, punches and beats each other in an endless loop of savagery. Chuckie is becoming something more pure than merely Daredevil in this fight, he is becoming the fight itself, as it burns itself on his retinas again and again. Sometime later, but not long after, Chuckie becomes another statistic as he brings a gun to school and starts shooting. The fight has consumed Chuckie Jurgens once and for all.
This, then, is what has brought Daredevil to the hospital room, where he holds a crippled man hostage to his story, and to his horrific threat of immediate and terminal violence. Again and again, he holds the gun to Bullseye's head and pulls the trigger. Then he repeats the action against his own skull, each pull of the trigger a desperate plea for an answer to the violence of his life, a violence that seems to corrupt every corner of his universe, even the most innocent and undeserving.
There's one last story Daredevil wants to tell Bullseye, about a time long, long ago when his own dad was still alive. A time when he disappointed his father, and was rewarded with a violent slap to the face. It was, perhaps, the first step on Matt Murdock's lifelong path of violence and pain. Not coincidentally, we are told, it was also the night he decided to become a lawyer -- a lifelong attempt to lay down a pattern of order and structure over a foundation of slaps, smacks, punches and kicks.
One chamber left untested in the game of Russian Roulette. The gun is at Bullseye's temple, and we know that This is It. Miller's art takes the scene into an extreme closeup, as the trigger guard of the gun becomes indistinguishable from the curves of Bullseye's eye -- Daredevil pulls the trigger, and the gun clicks hollow once more. There were never any bullets. When the most inviting target for your rage has become a bedridden invalid, psychological torture is the most violent tool at your disposal, and in revenge for Elektra, for Chuckie, for himself, Daredevil has spent an entire issue torturing Bullseye (and himself) as best he possibly could.
The tension was sustained throughout the entire issue by Miller's utterly alien choices. Inker Terry Austin's tightly controlled, mechanical line is utterly at odds with the universe of texture and shadow that Janson's inks had lent every previous issue that Miller had pencilled. I do love Austin's work here (and in the What If...? that Miller and Austin also collaborated on). It presents a whole new context for Miller's established tropes, recontextualizing the familiar angles, physiology, architecture and psychology that had been evident in the book's previous artistic era.
Varley's sophisticated colour scheme made the issue look like no other Marvel comic book probably ever quite had, with each scene set apart by its own palette, becoming its own world. And most startling of all, Miller's surprisingly mature acceptance of responsibility for the violence that had been his bread and butter for the years leading up to this landmark issue.
Daredevil #191 feels as much like an issue of Sin City as it does Daredevil. It clearly prefigures Miller's future comics work, and is a clear break-point with the traditional comics stylings he had up until now been mining. We get into Daredevil's head in a way little seen before or since, and the end of the story is far from comforting. There is no reassurance in Daredevil's resigned acceptance of the violence that plagues his life. There is only isolation, doubt, and the guarantee of more pain to come in the future.
As a creator, Daredevil #191 is where Frank Miller really began his exploration, casting off the needs of Marvel Comics and instead taking the book solely, for this one issue, where he needed it to go. It's a high watermark for the series and for Miller's career, and one of the oddest single issues any corporate comics company has ever released. It's a mature work that explores the immaturity of violence, the self-defeat that comes every time someone strikes out in rage. A layered work of artistry and complexity, it remains one of the best things Frank Miller has ever done.