Interview with Paul Young
(December 2016)

Paul Young is an associate professor of film and media studies at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire. He is the author of FRANK MILLER'S DAREDEVIL AND THE ENDS OF HEROISM, a study of Miller's work on the title (but much more). Many thanks to him for this discussion!

Kuljit Mithra: Thanks for doing the interview. When the book was first announced, there was some confusion with many of the readers of my site as to what the book was about... some thought it was a new Miller book by Miller himself, and some thought it was an analysis of Miller's work... but after reading the book, I'm hesitant to say it's just an analysis. While you do a great job of detailing Miller's contributions to DAREDEVIL, I feel this is more of your personal journey of discovering Miller when you were a young comics fan, and ultimately how your views on him changed over the years. You agree with my assessment? What was your pitch when you decided to tackle this book?

Paul Young: You’re right—it’s certainly something other than a pure analysis. What I hoped to do was to analyze not only the run, but also my past as a kid who loved Miller’s DAREDEVIL and started looking at comics and literature in new ways due to my contact with it. I don’t think my experience was unique. Everybody reading superhero comics in the late seventies and early eighties had strong opinions about his work on DAREDEVIL, and it brought him from obscurity to superstardom in less than five years. There’s a lot to be learned from discussing comics as a certain kind of experience—a specific interface between the creator and the reader, and between the reader and the physical, social, mental, and emotional experiences that come with being a comics fan—that affects how they produce meaning for us. Back then, comic books were monthly pamphlets printed on terrible paper and filled with ads for Sea Monkeys and x-ray glasses, but also with letters pages that showed me that others had intense experiences of a series like DAREDEVIL, too. Long before the Internet, that was how you experienced comics fandom as a community if you came from a small town like I did. Even the waiting period between one issue and the next was an important part of the experience. The in-between time was when I talked with my brother about what might happen next, or drew my own comics in an attempt to capture something of what Miller was doing, or sent stamps to Bud Plant or Mile High Comics in exchange for a catalog that might lead us to back issues of DAREDEVIL or X-MEN that we missed, and so forth.

The cheapness of the printing and paper quality made it seem that comics belonged to kids, not adults—to us, and us alone. What adult would be caught dead flipping through such a cruddy looking thing? We knew it wasn’t crud, of course—it was gold, but gold that only kids could value. To appreciate those comics you had to have the time to give in to your imagination anytime you flipped through a comic book. And the best superhero comics took kids seriously. Miller took us seriously as an audience that might be looking for something different, something scary, something pessimistic and laconic and grim—nothing like the Spider-Man comics we were reading at the time.

To put it in a more succinct way, my task in writing the book was to show how Miller’s DAREDEVIL helped change the field of superhero comics via its popularity and the stardom Miller gained during that run. But I couldn’t just deal with it formally or visually or in terms of character development. I had to explain it through the fan’s childhood experience that made reading the run so intense for me. The only way I could do that, honestly, was by tapping my own experience pretty directly. There’s a lot of autobiographical material in the book, and I’m not sure how it’s going to fly with scholarly readers, or even with fellow fans for that matter, but it certainly felt like the only way I could do this kind of work and do it honestly. I hope the book will attract feedback about whether I got the experience of Miller’s work right, or whether I generalized too much based on my idiosyncratic experience. I was a Midwestern preacher’s kid who wanted desperately to be a cartoonist, a nerd who did most of his living inside his head but was also invested in drama and music and was insanely self-motivated to do well in school. What Miller did, artwise, plotwise, and otherwise-wise, was smart—smarter than I was, because I could never see the next twist or the next page layout coming. And I wanted to think I was smart, too, so I was intrigued by what this radical young creator was doing. I imputed a lot of intellectual agility to his scripts, to his line, to the way he broke down a single action into three or five or fifteen separate panels. I hope comics fans who were there in the early eighties will read my book and let me know how similar, or different, their experiences were.

Mithra: I had to laugh at some of the common things we've experienced, namely creating our own comics based on Miller's work when we were younger. Your comics look better than mine... I had one called "Ninja Warrior" and I basically copied an issue panel by panel. I think you're about 5 years older than me, and I only started collecting DD monthly with issue #219 (coincidentally where Miller came back to do a special issue with John Buscema). My introduction to Daredevil was through a reprint book with Wally Wood stories, so I didn't even know who this Frank Miller guy was when I bought it. What was that like, picking up the Miller/Janson run each month as those issues came out?

Young: Oh, man…it was thrilling, the best thing happening to me at a time when the thought of enduring another junior high gym class filled me with dread. Gym class belonged to the fascistic gym teacher and the athletic kids who treated me like garbage because I was so uncoordinated. But reading DAREDEVIL gave me access to another world, not just a world of superhero fantasy but a shared world of fandom and opinion and engagement with what was on the page and why a creator like Miller was doing things that way. Early on, I picked up DAREDEVIL because got interested in the covers of a few McKenzie-Miller-Janson issues, #163 through #165, and then DAREDEVIL #170, where Miller introduced the Kingpin to Daredevil’s world for the first time. Then when my brother and I started subscribing to the series we collected through Lone Star Comics in Texas, we read the customer letters in the Lone Star monthly bulletin and got intrigued by the enthusiasm about Miller’s turn as writer-artist. So we started buying it regularly just a few issues before DAREDEVIL #181, as Miller was building up to the death of Elektra. During that time, after a long period of preferring John Romita Sr.’s clean and beautiful work on SPIDER-MAN to Steve Ditko’s, I was just beginning to appreciate Ditko’s art for its grotesque aspects, and Miller caught my eye in part because of that new interest in Ditko. But I also just loved how messy Miller’s Daredevil looked. Everything was so loosely rendered. Klaus Janson put crosshatching everywhere. Sometimes the images were so rushed-looking or misshapen or misproportioned that it made me wrinkle my nose or laugh out loud. But the liberties he took with the material world intrigued me, too. How did this guy get in the front door at Marvel if he drew background figures that crudely, or made somebody’s hand a tenth of the size of somebody else’s head?

At the same time, though, without being able to put it into words, I dimly understood that Miller and Janson weren’t bad artists. They weren’t making errors. They just used an approach to cartooning that I didn’t understand, and no matter how little it looked like John Byrne and Terry Austin’s X-MEN—one of the slickest books around, and my gold standard for comics art at the time—DAREDEVIL represented an internally consistent approach to caricaturing reality. It completely changed the way I looked at cartooning.

Mithra: One thing I really enjoyed about your book was the focus on Miller's artwork, good and bad, like his panel layouts, his exaggerations with body proportions, and his homages to Will Eisner and others. You also stress the importance of the "writer/artist" during this period in Marvel's history, and how it broke free from the "Marvel Method" of producing comics. I've seen other books analyze Miller's stories and writing... why did you want to focus on his art instead?

Young: To be frank, I find a lot of comics criticism disappointing because it focuses on character and plot and archetypes and cultural implications to the exclusion of discussing the art. Don’t get me wrong—my book is invested in all of those things as well. It’s just that if you don’t talk about the art—if you don’t try to learn something about the functions of layout choices, visual style, approaches to the human figure, uses of color, placement of word balloons even—then what’s the point of discussing comics as a unique medium?

I have taught university film and media studies for more than twenty years, and for nearly that many years I have urged my students to approach film in terms of the choices that filmmakers make. And those choices are by definition based on the technology and other means at their disposal. A film is not a novel. When you make a film, of course you use storytelling devices that novels use, but instead of figurative language you have a camera that is capable of framing things in certain ways and leaving other things out completely. Instead of back-and-forth quotations for dialogue, as in a novel or short story, you have shot/reverse shot editing—but you don’t have to use it, or you could use it in different ways, like changing the rhythm of the cuts, depending on what you want the visual style to convey. In film, you don’t have the same license to offer verbal descriptions of characters that written fiction gives you; you have to describe them in terms of their actions. But you can also dress them and light them in ways that communicate more about the characters’ natures than dialogue or action can do by themselves.

In comics, you have two-page spreads covered with multiple images of the same characters doing things over a span of time that could run anywhere from a few seconds to thousands of years—and yet those images are all there, visible to the reader simultaneously, and you can do things with that. You can draw comparisons between characters by framing them similarly or posing them the same ways across separate panels. You can shrink the panels incrementally so that the frame seems to close in on a character as she realizes something that makes her world smaller. You can compose individual panels and simultaneously compose sequences of panels, pages of them, and use those compositions to generate a sense of fate and dread, or possibility, or a character’s hidden agenda. Think about how Gibbons and Moore use nine-panel grids throughout WATCHMEN. Choosing to do that places some big limits on what can be done with a page, but that choice also offers the chance to experiment with symmetry and representations of time in ways that other layouts would not, and Gibbons and Moore took advantage of that opportunity from start to finish. I don’t mean to belabor the point, but the lack of discussion of such things in popular writing about comics just drives me nuts. There’s great scholarly writing about comics that engages these issues in important and creative ways, but other scholarly writing and a whole lot of journalistic criticism just doesn’t confront comics as a visual medium at all beyond issues like costume design or landscapes. If I was going to write about a run of DAREDEVIL that flipped me out primarily because of the art and how it told Miller’s stories, there was no way I could let myself fixate on the characters or story events as though they were abstract elements that could have appeared in any medium. Miller combined a great deal of his own experience reading a wide variety of comics and cartoonists that most people his age, or my age, knew or cared nothing about, and I wanted to pay tribute to his interest in tapping into those visual possibilities. Even more, I wanted to put into words my own visual impressions of that DAREDEVIL run at the time. I had never tried before to put those impressions into words. This was my chance to give it a shot.

Mithra: As you mention in the book, DD was only published bi-monthly back then and was in serious danger of getting cancelled. Let me ask you a What If question... what if Miller never came to the title? Do you think DAREDEVIL would have been cancelled, and if not, what kind of book do you think DD would be?

Young: Boy, that’s worth speculating about, isn’t it? My guess is that it would have been canceled and Daredevil would have been made an Avenger, or more likely a Defender, since the Defenders was Marvel’s misfit group at the time. Funny that the Daredevil from the Netflix TV series just happens to be joining the Defenders! Because DD was a second-tier or even third-tier character as far as sales were concerned, if Miller the rookie hadn’t gotten the assignment it would have gone to some other rookie or second-tier workhorse artist who wouldn’t have gotten fascinated by the character the way Miller did. I think the William Johnson issues of DAREDEVIL that Denny O’Neil wrote after first Miller and then Janson left the book—those issues offer us a glimpse of what DAREDEVIL might have become without Miller. Wooden-looking figures going through plot maneuvers that were supposed to be interesting in their own right, like DD going to Japan or fighting Bullseye again after he gets an adamantium-plated skeleton, but with no feel or passion for the character to push things along.

Here’s the difference between that workhorse approach to a character and what Miller did with Matt Murdock. Miller decided that the central paradox of Matt’s character was that he was an attorney, a law-abiding do-gooder by day and costumed adventurer by night, but he was also someone who could not allow himself to recognize that being a vigilante was spitting in the eye of the justice system. In interviews at the time, Miller said his goal was to take this swashbuckling character and put him into situation after situation in which he couldn’t be a swashbuckler. He took the fact of Matt Murdock’s blindness and made it into a metaphor for Murdock’s character flaw—that he could sense the world around him and maneuver through it better than anyone, but he could not see himself for the conflicted figure he really was. That premise leads to some scary moments in the run, like the run-up to Elektra’s “resurrection” in #190 when Matt effectively blackmails Heather Glenn into marrying him by exploiting her business’s financial and legal crisis. He makes her feel completely helpless without him and his legal expertise, and he lords it over her. And Miller makes it very clear that everyone around Matt understands this, and makes certain that we understand how aggressive and controlling Matt is being. But he also makes it clear that Matt doesn’t have a clue how badly he’s behaving. He had failed to reform Elektra, and now he was forcing Heather to behave the way he wanted her to as if to make up for that failure with the first love of his life. This characterization makes for a flawed character that intrigues us in a way that Peter Parker’s silver-age neuroses could never do. We didn’t really get that kind of warts-and-all examination of Matt Murdock again until the Brian Bendis/Alex Maleev years of the series, and I still think Miller did it better. Certainly he did it first.

Mithra: When I first started my site in 1996, I would constantly be asked by DD fans if Miller would ever return to do one last story. Now, no one seems to bring it up, like they've given up, or, based on his current work, they don't want him back. I don't want to spoil too much of your book related to this, but would you still want to see a new Miller Daredevil story?

Young: The hardest part of the book for me was figuring out how to come to terms with Miller’s work after SIN CITY. What happened to the thoughtful, politically adventurous Miller, the writer-artist of the DAREDEVIL years, after 9/11? Sure, you hear a lot of lip service about how fascistic his approach to superheroes “always” was, and writers go back to BATMAN: THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS and even DAREDEVIL to show us how right they are about that assessment, but I don’t think that the Islamophobia of HOLY TERROR and the utter, hateful ruthlessness of its “hero” the Fixer are natural outgrowths of what Miller was doing with superheroes in the 1980s. Back then, he leaned conservative, sure, but he was fascinated by positions and opinions that he didn’t share, and he explored them. He may not have agreed with Murdock/Daredevil’s liberal stance on crime and criminal rehabilitation, for example, but he tried his best to see the justice system and criminality from that perspective and write that perspective honestly, not dismissively. I think something cracked in Miller after 9/11. My gut feeling is that he looked at the destruction of the World Trade Center as the ultimate act of random street crime, but this time it was done with purpose and ideology fueling it, and it was unimaginably destructive, and he began thinking of global politics as a giant Us-versus-Them game that wasn’t so different from Daredevil’s hatred of Bullseye and the anarchy he represents. And that’s the world as he represents it in HOLY TERROR.

All that said, I don’t know what we would get if Miller decided to return to Daredevil. I’m not all that sure I want to know. I think his BORN AGAIN arc with David Mazzucchelli, which happened a few years after Miller left the book the first time, gives us a taste of what we would have to expect. There Murdock is stripped down to his essentials and has no time or patience to listen to his conscience—he just has to kick some ass, because the stakes are crystal clear and so is the moral geography of his situation. The difference between Matt’s lack of conscience regarding Heather in the earlier run and his lack of second-guessing himself in BORN AGAIN is that in the former case, Miller is not on Matt’s side, but in the latter case, he is. In BORN AGAIN, Miller wrote a Daredevil who shucked the attorney side of his identity—or rather, Kingpin shucked it for him—and just became Daredevil, and that meant that the moral world of Matt Murdock got a whole lot simpler. That characterization feels more like how Miller characterized Batman in THE DARK KNIGHT, and it even calls to mind the Old West dynamic of SIN CITY and HOLY TERROR. I have yet to read a single page of DK III: THE MASTER RACE, which Miller is co-writing and even drawing right now, at least some of the back-up stories. DK III began after my book went to press, or I’d have read it by now and tried to use it to think through your question in print. Maybe I’ll still do that—write a follow-up essay about DK III and how Miller’s path led him from DAREDEVIL to that. But let’s see if anybody cares about the ENDS OF HEROISM book first.

Mithra: And last questions... are there any other comic creators you want to write about? Which creators rank high in importance to you? Do you still read DAREDEVIL? Thanks again for the interview!

Young: My pleasure—it’s nice to be asked. At this point I’m moving back into cinema studies, writing about stardom and war and allegory in Hollywood films of the teens, but I want to write about comics again. I certainly love teaching this material, particularly comics storytelling and the cultural-historical implications of superheroes. Maybe I’ll stick to just teaching comics until I come up with another topic that compels me to write the way Miller’s DAREDEVIL did. That might take a while. 

(c) 2016 Kuljit Mithra & Paul Young
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