For the most part, the ’90s were a rough decade for Daredevil. After Frank Miller and John Romita, Jr.’s Daredevil: The Man Without Fear gave Matt Murdock the definitive retelling of his origin and the end of writer Ann Nocenti’s prolific, acclaimed run on the main Daredevil series, the book never reached the level of critical acclaim or sales success during Miller or Nocenti’s tenures writing adventures for the Man Without Fear.
After years of inconsistent tone and a revolving door of creators, the series was canceled with Daredevil #380 in 1998, concluding the original volume that had been in steady publication since Stan Lee and Bill Everett created the hero in 1964. However, it was relaunched with a new ongoing series the following month by fan-favorite filmmaker Kevin Smith and superstar artist Joe Quesada as the flagship title of the Marvel Knights publishing imprint, which Quesada and Jimmy Palmiotti oversaw as editors. While it effectively restored the luster that had been lost to the character in the preceding years, the Daredevil relaunch set the tone for the entire Marvel Knights line, directly inspired subsequent depictions of the character in film and television and set the template for how to relaunch a Marvel character.
The relaunched title’s inaugural storyline “Guardian Devil” covered its first eight issues, with Smith and Quesada bringing back the character to its gritty, noir-tinged roots that Miller had introduced decades earlier. Smith also played up Matt Murdock’s Catholic background, based on his own religious upbringing, as Murdock struggled with enormous guilt when faced with a literal crisis of faith as an infant that was rumored to be the Antichrist was left at his doorstep. Meanwhile, Murdock’s relationship with longtime paramour Karen Page hits a considerable rough patch before the couple is menaced by a resurgent Bullseye returning to Hell’s Kitchen to settle his longstanding grudge with the superhero.
Well received fans and critics alike, the Marvel Knights flourished and grew with other street-level Marvel superheroes starring in their own respective series. Smith and Quesada were succeeded by similarly acclaimed creative teams on the title, including David Mack, Brian Michael Bendis, Alex Maleev and Ed Brubaker, who each left their own indelible stamp on the character while maintaining Smith and Quesada’s noir storytelling sensibilities. Elements of “Guardian Devil” would continue to resonate for the character for years to follow, including the murder of Karen and Murdock’s perpetually tortured outlook.
These tonal sensibilities and Quesada’s haunting imagery would influence the 2003 film that starred Ben Affleck as the superhero, with Smith himself appearing in a brief cameo role. From Daredevil’s cinematic entrance gripping a stone crucifix atop a rooftop in Hell’s Kitchen to his showdown with Bullseye in a church, there are visible allusions to the 1998 comic book story throughout the film. The Netflix Daredevil series would similarly include its own tonal and visual nods to the award-winning Marvel Knights series, culminating in its own take on Daredevil’s showdown with Bullseye in a cathedral during its third and final season.
As the cornerstone of the Marvel Knights line, Daredevil helped Marvel Comics find its direction creatively after the company filed for bankruptcy in the ’90s. The “Guardian Devil” storyline set the precedent for how to successfully relaunch Marvel characters who have faded from prominence. With Smith at the arguable height of his visibility within Hollywood, his role in relaunching the title helped bring a new amount of prominence and respect to the comic book industry while subsequent creative teams cut their teeth crafting Daredevil stories before moving on to take on even higher profile titles set in the Marvel Universe. Kevin Smith and Joe Quesada brought the Man Without Fear back to the gritty world that many readers like him best, with the character rarely looking back. And Smith and Quesada teasing a possible sequel to “Guardian Devil,” perhaps the creative team can catch lightning in a bottle twice.
After years of decline, Daredevil was established as one of Marvel's greatest heroes by Kevin Smith, Joe Quesada and Jimmy Palmiotti's Marvel Knights.