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Abstraction, Trauma, and the Orphan in Brian Michael Bendis and David Mack’s Daredevil: Wake Up

By Rex Krueger

Wake Up is a curious book: ostensibly a superhero comic in the Daredevil1 series, it seems to have few or no elements standard to the genre. Apart from a few flashbacks, the titular character appears only once and has only a small part in the narrative. The story’s protagonist is a decidedly non-super newspaper reporter named Ben Urich. While he is supposed to be covering the trial of a notorious crime boss, Ben stumbles across the story of a catatonic child named Timmy who seems inexplicably fixated on Daredevil. Having apparently been through some great trauma, Timmy is numb to the outside world and sits in his hospital bed endlessly repeating a comic-book style narrative involving a fight between Daredevil and a made-up villain named “The Fury.” Intrigued and saddened by the boy’s situation, Ben abandons his assignment and spends his days trying to find the cause of Timmy’s condition. This psychological detective story by itself is unusual in the formulaic super-hero genre.

Even more puzzling than the non-standard plot and characters is the book’s artwork. While Wake Up starts off in the standard “glossy” format of stark lines, bold colors and smooth shading, it quickly disintegrates into a highly abstracted and post-modern hybrid style. The distorted and abstracted artwork is both bold and self-consciously arty. If this illustrative style was not connected to some narrative purpose, then it would be an impressive but ultimately trivial experiment in pushing the boundaries of comic art. But when the artwork is considered in relation to the story, it becomes apparent that the two narrative elements combine to illuminate characters’ psychological states. Wake Up is deeply concerned with the traumatic experiences of its characters and its artwork reflects the ways that traumas manifest through characters’ ways of perceiving the world. The book has three narrators, each with a distinct visual style. When Timmy narrates, his ‘glossy’ comics style indicates standard symptoms and coping strategies associated with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Ben’s more abstract narrative style (which makes up the majority of the book) reflects the various irrational insecurities which typically plague survivors of trauma. The short section narrated by Daredevil has a style like neither Ben’s nor Timmy’s, and Daredevil’s lack of abstraction as a narrator points to some difficult contradictions within his character.

In order to interrelate the apparently disparate visual styles of Wake Up, I must begin by exploring the psychological backgrounds of the characters and then move on the wider implications of their reactions to trauma. The first part of this paper examines Ben’s and Timmy’s narrative styles and how their narrative modes reflect suffering from and coping with trauma. Part Two uses Daredevil’s narrative style to explore contradictions inherent in the character and connect his character to broader archetypes in American literature. The connections I make with Daredevil’s character will also allow some final insights into Ben and Timmy and their places within the book.

I: Abstraction as Reaction to Trauma

Bendis and Mack place Timmy at the opening of Wake Up because his situation drives the plot. This narrative strategy paradoxically gives the child, virtually inarticulate (but compulsively making drawings of his fantasy world), the responsibility of introducing us to the issues that must be resolved. The opening of Wake Up reveals that Timmy is the child of an incompetent would-be villain calling himself Leapfrog (Bendis and Mack 9-11).2 By the end of the work, the reader learns that Timmy has witnessed a fight between his father and Daredevil in which Leapfrog momentarily gained the upper hand and appeared to be about to kill Daredevil. Timmy intervened by electrocuting his father with a live wire that had been broken during the fight, saving Daredevil and killing his own father. The resulting trauma, coupled with a history of parental abuse, forces Timmy’s retreat into a comic-style recurring fantasy in which he casts himself as the Fury and endlessly battles Daredevil–winning each time but always restarting the battle from the beginning just as it ends. This behavior indicates Timmy’s specific psychological problems. In “The Black Hole of Trauma,” Bessel van der Kolk examines Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which seems like an apt description for what Timmy is experiencing. This disorder afflicts those who have experienced a great trauma and develop a fixation on their experiences to such a degree that their ability to interface with their present lives is either damaged or destroyed altogether (“Black Hole” 3). In characterizing PTSD, van der Kolk states that

The core issue is the inability to integrate the reality of particular experiences, and the resulting repetitive replaying of the trauma in images, behaviors, feelings, physiological states and interpersonal relationships. Thus, in dealing with traumatized people, it is critical to examine where they have become ‘stuck’ and around which specific traumatic event(s) they have built their secondary psychic elaborations (“Black Hole” 7).

This “repetitive replaying” is central to PTSD. In his early writings on what would become known as PTSD, Freud observed that “dreams occurring in traumatic neuroses have the characteristic of repeatedly bringing the patient back into the situation of his accident” (13). Although Timmy does not replay the accident in exactly the terms in which it occurred, his need to return is key. The section on PTSD in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders supports the diagnosis of PTSD in this child. Timmy experienced a qualifying “traumatic event” and manifests the majority of accepted symptoms including “recurring and intrusive distressing recollections” of that event (DSM-IV 428). This view of trauma can be expanded by including the landmark work of Cathy Caruth. In her Unclaimed Experience, Caruth describes traumatic repetition as “the absolute inability of the mind to avoid an unpleasurable event that has not been given psychic meaning in any way. In trauma, that is, the outside has gone inside without any mediation” (59). Caruth’s description of trauma seems especially apt for Timmy’s situation, where his youth and the enormity of his own actions obviously prevent his mind from assimilating his experiences. Like other survivors of traumatic experiences, Timmy cannot derive any meaning from his experience. Faced with the impossibility of their memories, sufferers of trauma frequently develop these “traumatic repetitions” (Caruth 59).

In Timmy’s case, the traumatic experience has been compounded by recurring parental abuse, where he has been both physically and emotionally harassed by his father (Bendis and Mack 40-44). In his “The Complexity of Adaptation to Trauma,” van der Kolk identifies a stable parental relationship as being crucial for a child’s recovery (“Complexity” 185). Without the benefit of a healthy familial relationship, Timmy is totally unable to cope with his experiences and must retreat into the fantasy that we see on the page. Timmy’s use of fantasy is also consistent with Caruth’s view of traumatic adaptations. Caruth asserts that even when it is available, direct and archival evidence of traumatic events is often insufficient to capture the truth. Caruth suggests that fiction is frequently better able to convey the “historical specificity” of events (27). So, even as he retreats from his experiences, Timmy’s fantasy world may actually be more faithful to his experiences.

Bendis and Mack use comics to devise a visual vehicle for Timmy’s fictional coping strategy. Most comics, especially superhero comics, feature characters who are simple and iconic–both in behavior and in visual presentation. In Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud discusses the merits of comics’ iconic presentation. McCloud observes that when complex characters are abstracted into iconic forms they become reflections of the reader. By contrast, the reader perceives a photo-realist drawing as automatically being “other.” An iconic and “cartoony” drawing that presents only the most essential details of feature and mood mirrors the way people perceive themselves and invites the reader to inhabit the iconic abstraction and give it life. McCloud describes this process of entering the iconic drawing as “masking” (34). Thus, superhero comics provide Timmy with the perfect coping strategy–a kind of role-playing where the characters are simple enough for the damaged child to inhabit. As Dori Laub notes in her “Bearing Witness or the Vicissitudes of Learning,” the horror of memory is compelling “in its flagrant distortion and subversion of reality. Realizing its dimensions becomes a process that demands retreat” (76). The glossy mode of presentation that appears when Timmy narrates his own delusion is a perfect visual representation of the coping process happening in his own mind.3

Figure 1. Daredevil: Wake Up, Brian Michael Bendis, David Mack

Timmy lacks the adult ability to comprehend the fictions generated by his own memories. He cannot comb through his thoughts and verify the truth of his experience. In this way, Timmy’s fiction-centered coping mechanism keeps him away from his experiences as it protects him. Timmy also highlights some of the ways that adults and children deal differently with trauma. As we shall see, Ben (who is also traumatized) needs a different and ultimately more complex coping mechanism to deal with his own issues.

At first, Wake Up appears to focus on Timmy’s battle with his past. But as the story progresses, we gradually realize that Ben carries at least as much emotional baggage. Early in the book, we learn that Ben was once the victim of a near-fatal stabbing at the hands of another costumed character (Bendis and Mack 17).4 Bendis and Mack present the stabbing as a recurring dream. The fact that this dream recurs, even though Ben’s assailant is dead, suggests that Ben himself suffers from PTSD. The DSM-IV specifically lists recurring dreams as a main symptom of the condition (428). Ben’s panicked awakening is also indicative of his traumatized state. Caruth states that while the dream is important, the awakening is also key. The dreamer is panicked on awakening not just because there has been a psychic brush with the old trauma, but also because he is again escaping danger. The shock comes from the realization that the dreamer has survived against huge odds. In this way, repetition is an “attempt to claim one’s own survival” (Caruth 64, italics hers).

Although the dreams alone are an indicator of PTSD, the ways in which Ben abstracts himself in relation to other characters reveal even more persuasive symptoms of the disorder. Ben does not use anything resembling Timmy’s “glossy” mode when he is narrating, but the malleable abstractions he goes through all provide details of his status as a traumatized person who tries (and largely fails) to cope with his own demons. Because of his traumatic past and current insecurities, Ben distorts his own self-image and places himself in what he believes is an appropriate relationship to those around him. While Ben is narrating, the abstracted art reveals the professional, familial and sexual inadequacies which frequently plague the survivors of trauma.

Traumatized people frequently suffer from an extreme lack of self-esteem. Van der Kolk states that those who have suffered trauma “tend to perceive themselves as being unlovable, despicable, and weak” (198). The way Ben abstracts his own image suggests that this lack of self-worth manifests largely in relation to the opposite sex. Every time Ben is confronted with an attractive woman,5 he quickly abstracts into an ephemeral and unattractive representation. Once Ben finds himself alone with Timmy’s mother, he is reduced to a monochrome line drawing. He appears rumpled and almost cubist in his presentation. Timmy’s mother on the other hand, is highly idealized and sexualized. She is dressed all in white and seems to glow. Her clothes are form-fitting and the angles of view from which she is presented emphasize her breasts. In one panel, she is briefly abstracted into a stained-glass window representation that draws a halo around her and suggests a Virgin Mary while Ben becomes progressively more haggard and disheveled-looking (Bendis and Mack 7).

Figure 2. Daredevil: Wake Up, Brian Michael Bendis, David Mack
Figure 3. Daredevil: Wake Up, Brian Michael Bendis, David Mack


Ben’s abstraction figures not only in scenes with Timmy’s mother. In fact, every time Ben is presented with a young woman, his form suggests ugliness and lack of personal force.

Shifts in visual style, however, offer ample evidence that this abstracted, haggard, and disheveled view is mainly self-flagellation. When Ben’s own narrative stays within a photo-realist style, he seems to be moderately young and well-kempt–a stark contrast to the way he appears when women are around. Even more interesting is what happens in the one instance when Ben and Timmy’s modes of discourse are in communication. On page 22, the panels alternate between Ben’s photo-real perspective and Timmy’s glossy view. In the one instance where Ben is captured within Timmy’s lens, he has an upright carriage, a strong jaw and a thick shock of blonde hair–a very heroic image. Timmy’s perception of Ben further proves that Ben’s own abstracted view of himself is unrealistic and largely a creation of his own mind.

Figure 4. Daredevil: Wake Up, Brian Michael Bendis, David Mack

Ben’s lack of self esteem becomes even more pronounced in his professional life. Van der Kolk observes that traumatized people “often fail to maintain a personal sense of significance, competence and inner worth” (“Complexity” 197). These exact characteristics are present when Ben has a confrontation with his boss, newspaper publisher J. Jonah Jameson. Here, when Ben is being reprimanded for not covering his assignment, he displays an entirely new kind of abstraction. When Ben and Jonah begin their confrontation, Ben is already reduced to a line drawing (albeit a detailed and realistic one), while Jonah retains color. Ben slumps with elbows on knees, his chin in his hands, and slowly begins to fade. Far from looking ugly and scruffy as he has previously, Ben maintains his handsome features but the lines that make him up get progressively fainter–especially at the bottom of frames. Inside his silhouette, Ben loses detail. His clothes cease to have folds and his outline is instead filled with vague splatters of paint. As Jonah’s rant gathers speed, Ben actually begins to disintegrate and bits of his head drift off as if he were on fire or blowing away in the wind.

Figure 5. Daredevil: Wake Up, Brian Michael Bendis, David Mack

All this time, Jonah is somewhat abstracted, but he only grows in size and ferocity, with eyebrows that hook upward like horns and a cigar that blows clouds of smoke. By the end of the exchange, Ben hardly exists, highlighting the way his personal insecurity extends to his professional life (Bendis and Mack 10).

While looking at abstraction as it relates to Ben is useful, he is hardly the only character to be abstracted. When the narrative abstraction extends beyond Ben, it has the effect of foreshadowing important revelations and arranging characters into groups who share blame or are jointly exonerated. For the majority of Wake Up, Ben is the only character who is abstracted to a high degree. Other characters’ depictions shift somewhat, but typically in a manner opposed to Ben’s own abstraction. The places where other characters share Ben’s abstraction demonstrate important groupings of characters. First, we see Ben at dinner with his wife and son. Here, all three are equally abstracted in the same way–simple line drawings and exaggerated features. Ben’s wife is the only female character in the whole book who is not depicted as being beautiful and his son is drawn with a bulbous nose and improbably large lips (Bendis and Mack 15).

Figure 6. Daredevil: Wake Up, Brian Michael Bendis, David Mack

It seems likely that Ben’s family is abstracted because they are an extension of his own failures. His wife is unattractive compared to the women he sees every day, thus reflecting on Ben’s own worth as a man. Ben and his son cannot communicate (which the book demonstrates with various frames of the two staring mutely at each other and the message “no words” scrawled in the margin) and in this way, Ben’s family only reinforces his own lack of self-worth. Ben also shares abstraction with the police he interviews regarding Leapfrog’s disappearance–especially after the interview is over (Bendis and Mack 30-33).

Figure 7. Daredevil: Wake Up, Brian Michael Bendis, David Mack

This group abstraction makes no sense until one considers that the police are completely indifferent to Leapfrog’s disappearance. Because Timmy’s father is obviously central to his mental problems, the police’s indifference means that they are failing to help Timmy get better. Ben is also failing to do anything constructive for the child, so he and the police are implicated in the same ineffectual system and are abstracted together.

The only other group abstraction of note is a single frame on page 43 where Ben and Timmy share the same type of line-drawing abstraction that has characterized Ben throughout the book.

Figure 8. Daredevil: Wake Up, Brian Michael Bendis, David Mack

Initially the grouping is confusing, but it ends up foreshadowing an important revelation. When Ben and Timmy share abstraction, it occurs just after Ben has discovered Timmy’s abuse at the hands of his father. A few pages later, the authors reveal that Ben himself was abused as a child (Bendis and Mack 51). Now the grouping of the two characters makes sense–they are both abused children.

The revelation of abuse also helps to illuminate Ben’s actions. Herman notes that traumatized people frequently reenact their trauma. Sometimes these reenactments are very overt, but “more commonly, traumatized people reenact some aspect of the trauma scene in disguised form, without realizing what they are doing” (40). Ben is not exactly reenacting his trauma, but he is continuously involving himself in a situation parallel to his own abusive childhood. Herman goes on to describe several instances where the reenactment comes at great peril to the victim–sometimes leading to new trauma (40-41). This tendency goes a long way towards explaining Ben’s determination to pursue his story, even when it endangers his job. Herman also notes that not all reenactments are dangerous and that there are positive and “socially useful” adaptations. The happy ending of the book leads one to believe that Ben’s reenactment is one of these positive ones. The last time Ben is pictured with Timmy’s nurse (while Timmy is reconciling with Daredevil), both Ben and the nurse share the same level and type of abstraction (black and white pencils, slightly iconic, but without distortion)–this time they are grouped together because they are part of the team that eventually was able to help the boy (Bendis and Mack 79). As in all other instances of the book, abstraction serves to show us important character traits and tie characters together through actions and experience.

II: Daredevil and the Orphan/Hero

Because this is, finally, a Daredevil comic, it makes sense to see how “the man without fear” fits into the analysis of trauma and narrative abstraction. Daredevil’s powers have some fascinating parallels to PTSD and I will begin by looking at the way his character intersects with the disorder. Then, because Daredevil does narrate a section of Wake Up, I must examine his visual narrative style, which is unique but strangely two-dimensional. Because analysis of narrative style has been so productive for exploring Timmy and Ben, it makes sense to use Daredevil’s style to look at his own traumatic past and current reaction to trauma. Daredevil emerges as the “orphan/hero,” a powerful archetype in American literature. Daredevil’s orphan/hero status is part of what allows him the freedom to be the hero, but it also leads to strong contradictions within his character. These contradictions span his personal and secret life and help to explain why Daredevil is a source of fear and confusion for some other characters. Through my exploration of Daredevil’s orphan/hero status and inherent contradictions, I will also draw some final conclusions about Ben and Timmy and their places in the story.

Daredevil is already unique for being a disabled superhero. And in fact, his disability forms the core of his powers. Daredevil’s other senses are heightened to the point where he is not even hampered by lack of vision–his perceptions are amplified so far that he actually perceives the world in infinitely greater depth and detail than any non-disabled person. Ben believes that Daredevil’s remaining senses are so powerful “that each of them seems like its own force of nature” (Bendis and Mack 8). What is amazing is that these powers echo some of the most common symptoms of PTSD. The DSM-IV lists hypervigilance–the tendency to maintain constant and acute awareness of surroundings–as a common element of the “increased arousal” common to sufferers (428). Van der Kolk lists “excessive interpersonal sensitivity” as an adaptation developed by people who suffered trauma as children. Van der Kolk observes that these people often “develop an uncanny ability to read the needs and feelings of others” (198 my italics). It must be noted that van der Kolk connects this ability with people who have been abused by their caregivers and we have no evidence that this is true of Daredevil. Nevertheless, the combination of these two symptoms makes a fascinating parallel with Daredevil’s powers. This parallel gets even stronger when one considers that Daredevil was a victim of extreme trauma (hit by a truck) while he was a child, and he has created a life where he constantly puts himself back into harm’s way, thus replicating his early trauma. McCloud makes the point that cartoon artwork (and by extension comics) have the ability to amplify through simplification (30). Seen in this light, we might see Daredevil himself as an iconic abstraction of adaptation to trauma.

But although this interpretation is a convincing way to look at Daredevil as an icon or archetype, it creates problems for looking at Daredevil as a character. For instance, when Daredevil narrates his own fight with Leapfrog, his narrative style seems stark and lacking in depth. All of his visuals are in red and black with solid lines and no shading (Bendis and Mack 71-73). The level of abstraction is constant and there is a total lack of the collage and marginalia that characterize Ben’s narration. What is strange about this narrative style is that Daredevil is supposed to perceive the world in nearly infinite detail and depth. Ben is clearly in awe when he reflects on Daredevil’s powers of perception: “I actually tried once blindfolding myself. Well, I didn’t ACTUALLY try it–but I thought about it. Just to see. Just to feel what Matt’s6 world feels like, but–but I realized that–that wouldn’t be his world at all. His world is so much more. It would have to be” (Bendis and Mack 64). And yet, when it comes time for him to narrate his battle with Leapfrog, Daredevil’s own visual style is bizarrely simplistic. It does not make much sense for a character with such legendary perception to have such a comparatively lifeless style of narration, and the contradiction demands exploration. One might make the point that since Daredevil is blind, the visual medium of comics is not equipped to represent his reality. But I don’t buy it. David Mack is a stunningly creative artist and it is his multi-faceted style that makes Wake Up such an effective representation of non-visual concepts like PTSD. If Daredevil’s narrative style is lacking in depth, it represents a conscious choice on the part of the artist–a choice that makes sense in light of Daredevil’s circumstances.

Daredevil suffers from a specific trauma: he is an orphan. In “Blind Daring: Visions and Re-vision of Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrranus in Frank Miller’s Daredevil: Born Again,” Tim Blackmore provides the most vital details of Daredevil’s background:

Matt Murdock, son of an aging, failing heavyweight boxer, Battling Murdock, is commanded by his father to succeed in some profession (other than boxing), which Matt does. His frustration with his bookish life leads him to begin a sort of Charles Atlas course of ‘self-improvement.’ Ironically, the boy is rendered sightless by a radioactive substance when he saves a blind man from being hit by a truckÉThe “devil” is created when Battling Murdock refuses to throw a fight and is killed. Young Matt (studying to become a defense lawyer) tracks down the killers and brings them to justice. Murdock becomes the best defense lawyer in New York while at night he prosecutes in the streets of his home–Hell’s Kitchen. (136).

Daredevil is a hero born at least partially from the fact that he is an orphan, directed by his father into a respectable and professional life, but unable to evade his father’s legacy as a fighter and a man of integrity. Wake Up makes explicit connections between the orphan and the hero through a conversation that Ben has with Peter Parker, a photographer at the Daily Bugle:

Ben: This other story I’m working on. Peter: The Leapfrog thing? Ben: Yeah. Peter: They find him? Ben: No, but that’s not the thing of it. He has this kid. Peter: A little Leapfrog? Ben: This kid–face of an angel–and ever since his dad up and disappeared he’s–he’s, I don’t knowÉ Peter: He’s not talking. Ben: No, he is, but I don’t know what about. Something about Daredevil and–I don’t know. Well, nothing you need to know about. Nothing you can do. Just something I have to figure out. Peter: Yeah well, that’s–you know I’m an orphan. Ben: No, I didn’t know that. Is thatÉ? Peter: Yeah, I was real little when it happened. But my aunt and uncle raised me. And when I was a youngsterÉThis thief–just some piece of garbage–he killed my uncle and–wellÉI’m just saying that kind of stuff can be really hard on a kid. (Bendis and Mack 14)

This scene is extremely powerful because the reader knows that Peter Parker is actually Spider-Man, one of the most enduringly popular characters in American comics history, and an orphan. By giving Peter this one brief appearance just to talk about this one specific thing, Bendis and Mack connect heroes and orphans within Wake Up.

Far from being a phenomenon unique to comics, the orphan/hero has a long tradition in both American and British prose fiction.7 In “The Literary Orphan as National Hero: Huck and Pip,” Hana Wirth-Nesher explores the orphan/hero through the fiction of Twain and Dickens, and her conclusions allow us greater access to Daredevil. Wirth-Nesher notes that for both Twain’s Huckleberry Finn and Dickens’ Pip, similar circumstances “function in such a way as to give the two youthful protagonists goals and quests that are deeply embedded in their national consciousness: Pip wants to be a gentleman and Huck wants to break away from civilization all together and light out for the territory” (260). Similarly, Daredevil embodies the American dream of self-made destiny and standing up to the oppressive or chaotic forces that the government is unable or unwilling to handle. Wirth-Nesher takes her theories beyond Huck and Pip, linking the orphan/hero to Jay Gatsby, the Lone Ranger and Humphrey Bogart. She states that “Orphanhood in America is a clean slate, self-reliance, and often enchanted solitude that veers dangerously close to real loneliness” (261). Operating largely on his own and with only two people in the world who know his secret,8 Daredevil lives in this “enchanted solitude”–a separate space where he can accomplish what needs to get done. But this separate space is bereft of the checks and balances of normal society; because he is both alone and very unique, he has no community of peers to establish social norms and react to his behavior. Other characters may see some of the contradictions that Daredevil embodies, but they are not his equals and are frequently frightened of him.

Wake Up is filled with a pervasive sense of fear where the hero is concerned. There are many possible explanations. Obviously, the man dresses up like Satan and is able to hear and sense things that other people would rather keep hidden. But Ben at least knows Daredevil and knows the man behind the mask, and even Ben is frightened. Late in the book, when Ben finally catches up to Daredevil, his first view of the man is full of fear:

You tell yourself there’s no reason to be scared. That’s Matt in the costume. Matt Murdock. Your friend. Under the little red horns is sandy red hair. The little boy who was blinded by an accident that replaced his sight with other senses so acute, so powerful, that I can’t even comprehend what dimensions his world is in. Matt, the lawyer. Matt, with the soul of a masterless samurai. Tell yourself again, Matt is your friend. Matt has saved your life and trusts you with his secrets. But Matt is Daredevil, the man without fear. I’m Ben Urich, investigative reporter for the Daily Bugle, and I can’t help it. I can’t help it if I can’t help it. Every time I see Daredevil–Matt in his costume–I almost wet my pants. (Bendis and Mack 69)

Ben’s terror is evident, but within his frightened ramblings are the reasons for his fear. Ben says that Daredevil is the man without fear and that he is also Matt Murdock. The mind refuses to grasp how he could be both.

Daredevil embodies contradictions that are simply irrational. A man without fear is a man without sense. But far more importantly, Matt Murdock is both a vigilante and a defense attorney. These two things do not go together. Ben recognizes the incongruity:

Matt is a lawyer, yes, and a damn fine one. The kind of lawyer that gives the bad ones a bad name. But when Matt fights–when he fights the good fight–well he could be doing it on either side of the fence. And sure–he tells everyone he is in court, knee deep in a case, but really–it’s probably just a cover story. I never asked him–but I always wonder–how he does it. How he draws the line in his head between the Law and his–his what? His own brand of justice. I don’t know what the other super heroes in this city do for a living–what their day job is–and I probably don’t want to know–but I bet the farm it’s nothing with the pure dichotomy of Matt’s day job. Law. Justice. When does he know–when do you know which is the best side to be on, Matt? And how many times is he right? And what happens when he isn’t? (34).

As articulately as Ben’s words outline the dilemma, it is the artwork of his abstracted and collaged narration that really drives the problem home. Ben’s musings are written over a splash page that features a black-and-white portrait of Matt Murdock with a superimposed color drawing of Daredevil in mid-air. The splash is laid out over torn bits of what looks like a textbook describing the branches of American government and the principle of checks and balances, which is particularly strong commentary on the fact that the solitary hero has no such balances in either the personal or legal sense. The splash also contains a sketch of a brain surrounded by red words that read: “Right Brain, Left Brain, Law, Mask, Vigilante.” The upper-right corner of the page contains words that include “Blind, Secret Identity, Father, Fighter, Boxer, Dead” and a line-drawing of a set of scales. At the bottom-left of the page there is a fragment of a dictionary page with the word “justice” outlined in frantic red marks and a smaller scrap of another dictionary page where only one word is visible: “kaleidoscope.” The kaleidoscope is perhaps the most appropriate for Daredevil’s situation. Operating both outside and within the law, and largely removed from human society, Daredevil’s position changes radically depending on how one shifts the lens. He is either a man who works from both sides to ensure the greatest possible justice, or a maniac who cannot see the impossibility of his own life. Daredevil himself almost admits the contradiction. When Ben asks him why he fled after Leapfrog’s sudden disappearance, Daredevil responds “It just complicates things for them [the police] if someone in costume was there. Legally, it gets kind of iffy” (76). Even Daredevil does not seem to grasp the full implications of what he is saying and this is the exactly the problem. As Blackmore notes, the attorney/vigilante has always been an issue with the character. So much so that Frank Miller, who wrote the series in the 1980s, went so far as to have Murdock disbarred so as to correct what he saw as a “design flaw” in the character (155). But anyone reading Wake Up gets no hint of any uncertainty on Daredevil’s part. Despite the massive contradictions embodied in his character, Daredevil sees things in disturbingly simple terms, especially when he narrates.

By looking at Daredevil’s many contradictions and the terror which he inspires in other characters, we can fully understand Daredevil’s narrative style. While Ben’s narration is enriched by his own doubts and the various thoughts that always swirl in his mind, Daredevil seems to have no such issues. Ben can articulate Daredevil’s paradoxical nature by allowing in all viewpoints and fragments of meaning, but Daredevil lacks the ability to see himself in such depth, and his narrative style proves it. Daredevil is a nearly prescient being who feels the world around him in exquisite detail, but cannot see the irrationality of his own life–which is what terrifies Ben. The most powerful man Ben knows is frighteningly short on self-awareness. And, despite his detailed perception, Daredevil somehow manages to miss some of the most important pieces of practical information. When Ben tells him that Timmy is Leapfrog’s son, Daredevil can only respond with a dumbstruck “oh” (76). The man who knows so much does not know what is arguably the most important detail of the whole story. Daredevil is certainly the hero of this series, but perhaps he is not the hero of this particular book.

Since Wake Up is a story where there is little action and no real fighting to be done, I would argue that it is the man with the information who is the hero. In this light, it seems that Ben and Timmy are the real heroes. Ben is the hero of the work not just because he affects the final resolution of the story but because he has the traits most valued by this fictional world. Daredevil has no powers beyond his heightened senses–he is something of a hero of information rather than power. This makes knowledge and perception the privileged powers in the book. As we can see from their different narrative styles, Daredevil may sense the physical world, but Ben sees the people in all of their details and hues. Like Daredevil, Ben is also a product of trauma and thus is also heir to the heightened personal sensitivity that traumatized people often have.

Since the discussion of the traumatized orphan/hero has been such fertile ground, I cannot conclude without seeing how Timmy (who is another traumatized orphan) fits into this framework. When Timmy electrocutes Leapfrog, he not only kills his father, he also sets in motion a chain of events that will land his mother in jail for child abuse. Timmy orphans himself, which frees him even as it traps him in catatonia. In her discussion of Twain and Dickens, Wirth-Nesher notes, “Pip and Huck are both initiated into their new lives by violating one of their society’s precepts and, in doing so, acting morally without being aware of it” (262). In all likelihood, Timmy did not stop to consider the morality of his actions, but he did step in to save someone in need. Just as Huck is ready to go to hell for saving Jim from slavery, Timmy shoulders the consequences for his actions. Wirth-Nesher’s analysis continues: “Pip and Huck commit crimes in the eyes of society and in their own eyes for the sake of two victims, whose response to their sympathetic actions is to adopt them as spiritual sons” (264). Wirth-Nesher insists that this spiritual adoption is important for the orphan/hero and it is easy to see how Tommy is “adopted” by Daredevil when the hero removes his mask and allows Timmy into the small family of people who know his face (Bendis and Mack 89).

If Daredevil’s unmasking is not enough to convince us of this spiritual adoption, we can again turn to the book’s artwork. Throughout the book, Timmy seems to be afraid of his father’s return. Pages 23 and 24 of Wake Up are dominated by a huge splash of the Fury (Timmy’s delusional self) confronting a gigantic green monster who we can only imagine is his version of Leapfrog. But there’s one interesting detail about this monster: one of his eyes is red and out of all the horns that cover his back, two are red while the rest are green. The two red horns and red eye come together as a sort of vague face on the monster’s right shoulder–a face which belongs to Daredevil. The book makes several mentions of Daredevil’s horns, and the color red as always associated with him. Timmy is actually envisioning an amalgam of his two fathers–the biological and the adopted. Timmy has no fear of a resurrected father; he fears to look at the way in which he blatantly divorced himself from his father and selected Daredevil as his “spiritual father.”

Unfortunately, this spiritual adoption provides even more reason for Timmy to be traumatized. For Caruth, trauma is partially an “enigma of survival” (58). In this case, the enigma comes not simply from the fact that Timmy survived a dangerous situation, but that he survived by subverting the “natural” child/parent relationship and killing his own father. This fact probably compounds one of the main features of trauma. As Laub makes clear, victims of trauma often secretly believe that they deserve their traumatic experiences (82). This belief frequently increases the tendency to remain silent about the traumatic experience. In Timmy’s case, the belief that he deserved his experiences is quite plausible, given that he has inverted the typical parental role. Caruth also notes that trauma represents not simply a threat that the mind could not take in, but one which could not be assimilated quickly enough (62). So, Timmy fails to recognize the threat his unstable and abusive father poses, but more importantly, he fails to understand the threat of his own destructive capability until he kills his own father. The danger Timmy poses to his own family seems to be the final fact that his mind cannot assimilate. But by the end of the book, Daredevil’s unmasking and Timmy’s new-found role with Ben’s family suggest that he has finally been able to assimilate his traumatic experiences.

Despite his psychological wounds, Timmy has frees himself from his old life and gives himself the freedom to act, just as all orphan/heroes do. After all, he is the one who saves Daredevil. Ben notes how special this makes Timmy when he writes:

I care about a remarkable little boy named Timmy. And what makes him so remarkable to me? When faced with no other choice, Timmy rose up and faced his mortal fear head on. He did this and he came out the other side to tell about it. And although I’ve met a lot of different types in my time, I can honestly say I don’t know a lot of people who can claim such a task. (91)

This is the final triumph of Wake Up. Not only have Bendis and Mack created a work which allows the reader to see the contradictions of the superhero, they have taken the little, comic book-reading boy and allowed him to be the hero for a change.


[1] Daredevil is a long-running (although only moderately popular) title in the Marvel stable of superhero comics. Blinded by a childhood accident which also heightened his other senses to a super-human degree, Daredevil is notable as being perhaps the only disabled superhero in mainstream comics.
[2] Wake Up is a non-paginated work. Because the book is over ninety pages long, page numbers have been counted from the beginning of the work to aid in approximate location of important sections.
[3] See Bendis and Mack 1-3 and 22-24 for all occurrences of the “glossy” mode.
[4] See Bendis and Mack 35, 46, 53 and 62 for further references to the stabbing.
[5] Wake Up has a curious lack of women who are not attractive–a trend in comics art that is especially common in superhero books.
[6] Daredevil’s real name is Matt Murdock.
[7] Incidentally, both Superman and Batman are also orphans. Together with Spider-Man, they are probably the most visible superheroes in popular culture and they all grew up without their biological parents.
[8] These two people are Ben and Karen Page, who is Murdock’s lover (Blackmore 136).

Works Cited

American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association, 1994.

Bendis, Brian Michael and David Mack. Daredevil: Wake Up. New York: Marvel, 2001.

Caruth, Cathy. Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins U P, 1996.

Freud, Sigmund. “Beyond the Pleasure Principal.” The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Ed. James Strachey. London: Hogarth, 1955.

Herman, Judith Lewis. Trauma and Recovery. New York: Harper Collins, 1992.

Laub, Dori. “An Event Without a Witness.” Testimony. Ed. Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub. New York: Routledge, 1992

McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics. New York: Harper Collins, 1994.

van der Kolk, Bessel. “The Complexity of Adaptation to Trauma.” Traumatic Stress. Ed. Bessel van der Kolk. New York: Guilford, 1994.

van der Kolk, Bessel and Alexander C. McFarlane. “The Black Hole of Trauma.” Traumatic Stress. Ed. Bessel van der Kolk. New York: Guilford, 1994.

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