For all the impressive acrobatics at work throughout the second season of Netflix & Marvel’s Daredevil – and there are many, from a one-shot scene that serves as a satisfactory sequel to the first season’s hallway fight, to engaging character perspectives and arcs – one of the most impressive is the deft adaptation of traditional comic narrative structures to the small screen. Mild spoilers for the second season of Daredevil begin after the jump.
Narrative in Comics: Arcs & Issues
When following a regular comic series from issue to issue, the structure is often dependent on three separate but integrated narratives in motion. In many of the most deftly executed serials, these two narratives are related a meaningful and organic manner.
The primary narrative in play is overarching story for the entire serial. In its most general terms, this describes the general plot of a series – for example, Spider-Man’s primary narrative might be described as “After gaining superpowers, Peter Parker attempts to fight crime in New York City.”
The next narrative level is perhaps the most difficult to classify, as its delineation can sometimes be nebulous at best. There is often a secondary level of narrative, which describes ongoing plot or character concerns that last for considerable stretches of the narrative, but does not necessarily rise to the intrinsic primary narrative. The divisions between these secondary narratives within the primary narrative may be incredibly well defined, as well a certain comic series is divided into volumes. However, the secondary narrative may also shift unannounced, and without a clear numerical demarcation – for example, a new writer might take over for the title, shifting the secondary narrative’s focus while leaving the locus of the primary narrative intact.
Deadpool offers an excellent example of this secondary narrative delineation. As different authors took over writing for the character as his eponymous title was launched and re-launched, the series acquires different flavors and styles as the secondary narrative shifts, while the primary narrative following the merc with the mouth remains largely intact. Deadpool’s first ongoing series, written by Joe Kelly, featured a large cast of supporting characters and a plot that put Deadpool at the center of a cosmic conspiracy in order to parody the anti-heroic comics of the 1990’s. When Kelly left the series and Christopher Priest took over writing duties, he quickly realigned the flavor of the series, taking it far away from the convoluted ongoing cosmic prophecy plot, as well as recasting the entirety of Deadpool’s supporting cast. However, despite these alterations to the secondary narrative, the primary narrative – here, let’s say “the ongoing misadventures of Deadpool” – is preserved.
The third narrative level is divided on an issue-by-issue scale, but often includes multi-parters. On an issue-by-issue basis, comic narratives are often subdivided into multi-part arcs that extend over several issues. These multi-issue arcs give readers smaller, more contained chunks of story within the secondary narrative, ideally offering closure and development within the secondary and primary narratives. Typically, these multi-issue arcs are clearly demarcated by numbers that follow the title rather than the issue – as in “Part 1 of 4.” These multi-issue arcs typically last anywhere from two to five issues, but they may last longer – however, exceptionally long arcs run the risk of intimidating or alienating less zealous readers. In addition to these multi-issue arcs, an ongoing comic series will sometimes run stories that are entirely self-contained within a single issue. These standalone issues can serve as a buffer between multi-issue arcs, or be dropped in between arcs to compensate for delays.
Adapting Comic Structure for the Small Screen
Daredevil’s second season deftly adapts these three comic narrative levels for a new medium, but applying the three levels of comic narrative described above to the streaming model of television.
The primary level of Daredevil’s narrative has been well established by the stellar first season. Matt Murdock, a blind attorney by day, applies his superhuman senses to a career as a violent vigilante at night, all the while subjecting himself to incredible levels of Catholic guilt. The second season continues the primary narrative, although a certain element is slightly toned down.
The secondary narrative is where Daredevil’s second season begins to shift, which makes sense given the implementation of a different show runner. While most of the surviving supporting cast remains intact – a relief, since its good to see the rest of the characters receive some solid development – certain thematic elements, particularly Murdock’s Catholicism, were relegated from thematic focal points to a more sub-textual status, while other elements, such as the undercurrent of Eastern mysticism, are more foregrounded during the second season. This shift in the secondary focus echoes one that might occur when an ongoing comic series passes from one author to another, or when a series is re-launched in a new volume.
The issue-by-issue narrative becomes the episode-by-episode narrative for the streaming series. Although the episodes are not given numerical parts to divide them from one another, clear multi-episode arcs form the structure of Daredevil’s second season:
Episodes one through four tell the story of Frank Castle. Episodes five through eight tell the story of the trial of Frank Castle, and introduce Elektra. Episodes eight and nine form a smaller narrative following the Kingpin. And the season concludes with three episodes about the shadowy mystic organization introduced in the first season, the Hand.
The benefits of adapting a season of streaming television using the structure of an ongoing comic series are clear. For one, it allows a streaming series adapted from a superhero book to retain much of the flavor of its source material. When reading an ongoing superhero story, you are likely to find multi-issue stories – it’s a distinct structural characteristic of the serial. A similar structure here will remind comic readers of their beloved source material while new inductees will be able to experience the characteristic structure for what may be the first time. In addition, the multi-episode arc lends itself exceptionally well to the burgeoning medium of streaming serial: by offering four episode chunks, Netflix allows its viewers a more sensible (but still decadent) alternative to “bingeing” an entire series at once.
By successfully adapting one of the distinct characters of comic serial storytelling – the three narrative levels that define an ongoing comic series – Daredevil’s second season not only pays homage to its source material, it applies one of comic storytelling’s unique characteristics to the on-screen world.
Next up: Want to get lost in a good book? Jasper Fforde’s singular Thursday Next series proves the literary canon can be just as fun and geeky as any other fictional extended universe.