Welcome back to my ongoing series My 90s Life, where I read and review comic books from the 1990s. Most of the books I feature in this column are books that I actually read or at least were interested in reading during my middle school through early college years.
I am broadening my horizons by checking out some books I may have missed, but that’s not the case for this article. Today, I’m tackling a much beloved book from my youth, Daredevil: Fall From Grace.
Fall From Grace was originally published in serialized form in Daredevil (vol.1, 1) #319-325, from August 1993 through February 1994. I have a great amount of history and nostalgia for this particular story arc. I’m a huge Daredevil fan, and my love of the character started with Fall From Grace. Daredevil #319, the prologue issue, is one of the few comic books from that period that I can specifically recall picking up.
By the summer of ‘93, I was already thoroughly entrenched as a Marvel Zombie. There wasn’t a title that I wouldn’t check out, no bottom to my shame, as evidenced by my un-ironic Marvel purchases Nomad, Super Pro, and Slapstick. I was officially Marvel-curious, if that could even be a thing. I read the good stuff too, but my life as a serial contrarian is well documented. The rabble-rousers, the misfits, and the D-listers (or below) have always appealed more to me than the tentpole successes. Not that Daredevil is a D-lister, but he certainly wasn’t Spider-Man or one of the 18,246 X-Men properties that were on the stands during the 90s. I knew of him, sure, but I had never bought or read a single issue up to that point.
But there it was, issue #319, just sitting there on the shelf at that random comic shop in Myrtle Beach, SC, where my family was vacationing. It was either July or early August, and being obsessed with comics, my brother and I naturally had managed to pester our parents enough to take us to a comic book shop. That stark white cover from Scott McDaniel, featuring a tiny Daredevil leaping off a skyscraper practically smacked me in the face. The issue wasn’t polybagged or foil covered (but oddly enough, issue #321 would feature a glow in the dark cover as the second part of Fall From Grace, which is weird). The cover art sold me. I didn’t know who or what I was going to be reading, but something told me that I would enjoy it.
I wasn’t wrong. I must have read that comic twenty times or more on that vacation. I remember begging my parents to go back to the shop so I could troll the quarter bins for more back issues. Fall From Grace was the first Daredevil story I read, and it certainly was not the last. To date, I have three long full boxes of Daredevil comics, and a few ancillary small boxes with comics of Daredevil-related characters like Elektra, Black Widow, the Marvel Knights, Defender, and various other miniseries and one-shots.
Yet, I haven’t read Fall From Grace since the probably ‘98 or ‘99. It holds such great significance for my Daredevil collection, but I haven’t really bothered to reread it in two decades. Once I made up my mind that I was returning to my 90s reviews from last summer, Fall From Grace immediately flew to the top of the list of potential candidates. However, anyone who read my articles from last summer knows that nostalgia for a story and actual enjoyment of reading it today are two very different beasts. It was with a sense of trepidation that I approached rereading Fall From Grace, especially since the consensus around the story is that it’s kind of clunky. Would it hold up to my fondness from youth? Read on!
Stories Meet Art, Art Meet… Uh, What Just Happened?
On some level, writer D.G. Chichester and artist Scott McDaniel should be commended on their story making process with Fall From Grace. In a time period where both often get dumbed down to their crudest elements, Chichester was at least attempting to do something novel with his story and McDaniel’s art took on an experimental edge that consciously or unconsciously played with Frank Miller’s style (though, considering Miller’s history with the character, it’s most likely intentional). Fall From Grace is not a boring story. It is, however, a confusing one for many, many reasons.
Here’s an understatement for you: there’s an awful lot going on in Fall From Grace. At its core, it is about various parties trying to get their hands on the last dose of a mysterious, failed military virus called About Face, which can completely change the very nature of your being if consumed. Change how? Basically in any way your heart and/or mind desires. You simply need to chug it Surge soda style (90s cross-referencing bonus points!) and presto! You are a different person. Or demon. Or assassin ninja. Or alien symbiote. Or vampire. Those aren’t examples I made up on the fly. Those are examples of the types of individuals in this story arc looking for this virus. See, I told you there was a lot going on in Fall From Grace.
I found myself several times having to go back not just pages, but entire issues to see if I missed something. I don’t recall having to do this back in the 90s. Maybe I was more willing to go with the flow in my youth, but as a busy adult that is exhausted by the end of the day from work and taking care of a child, my brain is a little fried by the time I get to read any comic books in the evening.
For instance, when Morbius the Living Vampire shows up towards the end of the seven-issue arc, I immediately had to jump back through the previous couple of issues to make sure I didn’t miss him cropping up in the corner of a panel or to see if I somehow skipped a page. I hadn’t. Morbius just shows up. Blam. And he’s fighting some ninjas that Daredevil is fighting. Ninjas he wasn’t technically fighting at the end of the previous issue. They are fighting now. Deal with, chump!
Not only is there the main virus story going on in the arc, but there are several subplots going as well. I mean, that should be a surprise given that part of the fun of any Marvel title is the melodrama of the supporting cast. In Fall From Grace, extra subplots aren’t a bonus. There’s Ben Urich gets his computer hacked by an intern, who then exposes Matt Murdock as Daredevil. There’s also the story of rogue Shield Agent John Garrett, who is freed and then his memories are used to create a clone of Elektra called Erynys. Oh, and then there’s the drama surrounding Matt’s ongoing life negotiating Daredevil while trying to preserve his work relationship with Foggy Nelson and his on-and-off-but-not-really-off-sort-of relationship with Karen Page. One more: Elektra is coming back too. Okay, for real, last one: a bajillion Marvel characters make cameos, each with their own superfluous reasons for showing up (more on that below). I’m sure that something is being left out in that list, but I can’t be bothered to add something else. Fall From Grace is a story that literally has demons, ninjas, vampires, and virtually anything else one could throw at a plotline, adding in all these extra elements interrupts the flow of an already bonkers saga.
Added to the charitably swamped story is the nature of the story and art. The coloring and inking of McDaniel’s art is almost always too dark. I get that the creative team was going for a gritty and grim vibe, but they may have gone too far. Rereading Fall From Grace reminds me of Mark Waid’s famous quote from several years ago bemoaning the fact that one about needed to pour a stiff drink everytime they read a Daredevil comic book. The writing is vast. Even for the wordier comics of yesteryear, Fall From Grace is verbose. The writing mixes in overwrought descriptions, purple prose, and downright chatty heroes and villains. The average word count on each page easily exceeds the norm for the era.
The artwork doesn’t fare much better. McDaniel’s art is too awash in shadows and bleakness that it can be difficult telling characters apart. Because McDaniel is experimenting with art style, there are numerous examples of odd yoga poses and impossibly contortionist twists that made me, like reading the comic itself, have to look at art several times to get what the human/ninja/demon/vampire body was doing at that moment. There are also the natural comparisons that can be made to Miller’s artwork at the time, with his The Man Without Fear miniseries being published essentially at the same time as Fall From Grace. Artists could do worse than ape their style from Miller, but as mentioned above, the inking and coloring leads to more confusion than not.
Guest Stars Are But A d100 Roll Away
The early 1990s Marvel landscape is awash with guest appearances by other characters. In a shared universe like the Marvel Universe, guest appearances can be a special way to tie titles into the larger tapestry of the company’s mythos. It gives fans of one character a chance to see their favorite character play nice (or not!) with other heroes and villains from different properties. The glass guest stars of the 1990s were Spider-Man, Ghost Rider, Punisher, and Wolverine. Throw a stone at a dollar bin today and one would have a pretty darn good chance of hitting some forgotten 90s crossover featuring one of those four characters. Given that they were so ubiquitous for the time, it’s surprising that out the slew of Marvel characters that show up Fall From Grace, none of those four are actually the cameo guests!
Don’t get me wrong. I love a good, entertaining crossover or guest spot. That’s what makes Fall From Grace such a frustrating reading experience for me today. None of the guest stars in Fall From Grace really need to be there. Their appearances throughout the story serve only to act as speed bumps to the main story being told. The fact that their presence doesn’t move the dial forward at all is one of the most puzzling elements to Modern Brandon.
It really does feel like D. G. Chichester must have rolled several times on a d100 chart of potential guest stars. Who did he get in his numerous rolls? Nick Fury! Silver Sable! Venom! Morbius! J. Jonah Jameson! Some d-lister named Siege! That John Garrett dude from Shield! That’s quite a bench of, um, players. Seriously, with Wolverine literally slicing his way through every major, middle road, and minor title Marvel was publishing in 1993, why couldn’t he be used? Was he too busy? Did his schedules overlap or conflict with some goofball cameo in, I don’t know, the Northeast Avengers? But no, team Daredevil gets a dude named Siege and Morbius. Take it to the House (of ideas), team!
I think part of the reason why I enjoyed Fall From Grace so much as young man was the fact that there were so many mighty Marvel faces. I might bemoan the fact today that too many early 90s titles had a glut of guest stars, but 1993 me thought it was super cool to read a book featuring faces from around the Marvel Universe. I would check out practically anything if it had a Punisher, Spider-Man, X-Men, or Ghost Rider appearance. It didn’t take much to earn my dollar when it came to crossover books in the 90s. I have always loved the interplay between characters.
But the interplay between Daredevil and the heroes/antiheroes that join him in Fall From Grace are so blatantly superficial and shoehorned into the story that it was hard for me to keep or stay interested. As with the Morbius description above, there are plenty of times throughout the seven issues that I asked myself, “Why are they even here?” Venom wants the About Face virus because it’s going to ‘roid him up to beat Spider-Man. Silver Sable wants it because she’s got to eat and pay bills. Morbius wants it to cure his vampire a**. Nick Fury wants it to… I don’t know, it’s Fury. The list goes on and on. Modern Brandon would have been glad if one of these folks showed up, saw a crowded room, and did their own about face out the door. I mean, Silver Sable basically does this, but she should have taken a few more characters with her, and not before her S&M Wild Pack member got schooled by Daredevil.
Having read all of the above, one might assume that I did not enjoy my return to the pages of Fall From Grace. Well, yes and no.
I can say with great confidence that I have read better Daredevil stories since 1993. Daredevil has been especially blessed with great creative teams producing highly entertaining, if not classic, stories since the 1998 Kevin Smith and Joe Quesada Marvel Knights reboot. I’m not sure a character from the Big Two can lay claim to having such a blessed run of amazingly talented creators over the last two decades. The Bendis and Waid runs alone rival some of the best Frank Miller Daredevil stories. Fall From Grace was my first Daredevil comic, but it’s far from the best.
Yet, I did kind of enjoy reading it. For all of its faults, there was a manic insanity to rereading this title that I didn’t have, or maybe just don’t recall having, from my youth. Fall From Grace is an undeniably clunky and imperfect reading experience. As flawed as it is, there was something there that sparked my love for the character all those years ago. It is still there, somewhere under the EXTREME new armored costume and the hokey ending where Daredevil fakes his own death. I shook my head at the logical and illogical leaps the story and art took throughout the book, but it was fun to finally go back to this series.
I’m not done with Daredevil this year. I’m going to read more Daredevil in this very column. I promise reviews of Man Without Fear, more armored Daredevil, and some 90s Elektra down the road. Tune in next time where I tackle the indie “gem” Araknis!