March is “Women in Comics Month” and incidentally, Netflix just released a new trailer for its upcoming Daredevil series. What better way to tie the two events together than with a short retrospective on Ann Nocenti’s criminally underrated run on the Daredevil comic.
Everybody has their favorite version of Marvel’s Daredevil. For some, it’s all about the original swashbuckler reintroduced by writer Mark Waid in recent years to much critical and fan acclaim. For others, Daredevil is the tragic, tortured hero and master martial artist popularized by artist-writer Frank Miller (this version also seems to be the basis of the character in the upcoming Netflix-exclusive Daredevil series). And then there are those who favor the Machiavellian strategist written by Ed Brubaker or Brian Michael Bendis’ deconstructed superhero quasi-celebrity. I grew up reading Ann Nocenti’s Daredevil run (a stretch that ran from late summer of 1986 to early 1991), and I continue to have a soft spot for her version of the character—the sensitive, grounded, and community-oriented protector of Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood.
There is something absolutely contradictory—ludicrous, even—about Daredevil, even more so than your usual costumed do-gooder. The idea of a lawyer who moonlights as a vigilante just sounds self-defeating on a basic level. In the hands of a sufficiently skilled writer, however, that dissonance can be a source of narrative tension and a starting point for meaningful character exploration: What kind of man would go so far as to maintain a double life where he devotes himself to the principles of a society of laws by day while also fighting crime without legal remit by night? While Daredevil’s civilian alter-ego Matt Murdock was disbarred from practicing law for most of Nocenti’s run (part of the status quo she inherited from the Frank Miller-penned “Born Again” story arc), this conundrum still informed the ethics of her Daredevil.
Nocenti’s rationale for Daredevil’s dual, paradoxical nature hinged on practicality: The best way for the superhero to gain the trust of the marginalized Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood he called home was to operate on the very edge of the law as a self-appointed guardian and mediator. Yes, doing so in a red bodysuit and a horned cowl is all sorts of silly (Daredevil is a superhero comic, after all), but the basic premise is sound. In the absence of an effective central authority, the choice is a feasible (if not exactly ideal or efficient) approach to enforcing civil order in a small population. Her Daredevil was about protecting the lives of those who—by choice or by unfortunate circumstance, for good and for ill—were beyond the effective reach of the legal apparatus, so it stood to reason that he would take extra-legal measures to serve them. In some cases, this required the superhero to turn the proverbial blind eye to petty crimes.
Nocenti’s incorporation of the gray morality of the real world into the morally simplistic world of superhero comics could be occasionally problematic—clunkers included issue #242 (“The Caviar Killer”) and the Punisher and Wolverine cross-over issues. As former Daredevil artist David Mazzucchelli once noted, “[when] a [superhero] depiction veers towards realism, each new detail releases a torrent of questions that exposes the absurdity at the heart of the genre.” It is to Nocenti’s ultimate credit, then, that this was the exception rather than the rule during her tenure. Her Daredevil was unlike any other superhero comic I had read to that point, and it fundamentally changed and heightened my expectations for the genre moving forward.
Ann Nocenti’s Daredevil: Personal Favorites
Below is my list of favorite stories from Nocenti’s stint on Daredevil. Unlike the Frank Miller, Ed Brubaker, Brian Michael Bendis, and Mark Waid-penned Daredevil comics, Nocenti’s complete run (Daredevil #236, 238–245, 247–257, 259–291) isn’t currently available in trade paperback or hardcover collections as far as I am aware, although portions of it are collected in the Daredevil Legends, Vol. 4: Typhoid Mary and Daredevil: Lone Stranger trade paperbacks. Readers interested in a complete collection of her Daredevil work will have to fill in some pretty significant gaps with back issues.
Daredevil #291 (“All the News that Fits”)
Nocenti’s final full-length issue on Daredevil (she came back to contribute a short story in issue #500) is also one of her most powerful. She does a masterful job of resetting the status quo for Dan Chichester, her replacement as the title’s writer, without throwing out the gains in Daredevil’s character development introduced over the course of her four-and-a-half years on the series. She gives recurring small-time costumed villain Bullet a human dimension, providing readers another peek into his home life and his relationship with his young son.
The main plot revolves around Daredevil looking for evidence to expose the Kingpin’s latest real estate scheme, but the co-star of this issue is Ben Urich, Daily Bugle reporter and Daredevil confidante. Urich’s subplot involves his investigative article on how tobacco companies are getting around the TV advertising ban by sponsoring motorsport teams. Urich is worried that publisher J. Jonah Jamison might not approve his article for print, given the fact that tobacco companies also advertise in the Daily Bugle‘s magazine supplement. In the end, despite pressure form the advertisers, Jamison publishes the article, but it’s a pyrrhic victory for Urich: The version of the article that sees print is so heavily edited that it is reduced to just another sports news item.
Daredevil, accompanied by Gorgon and Karnak of the Inhumans. Number Nine (a genetically modified and brainwashed ex-cheerleader Daredevil recently rescued from captivity), and animal rights activist Brandy Ash journey to Hell to rescue Black Bolt’s son from the clutches of the demon Mephisto. A wildly imaginative tale that occasionally veers into the metaphysical, brilliantly illustrated by John Romita Jr. and Al Williamson.
Daredevil #254–257, #259–263; collected in Daredevil Legends, Vol. 4: Typhoid Mary
The year-long “Typhoid Mary” story-arc is Nocenti’s signature contribution to the Daredevil canon. A layered, character-driven, action-packed (and sexy) extended storyline that introduced readers to the tragic Typhoid Mary, a supervillain caught in the grip of mental illness and an all-consuming obsession with Daredevil. This was what Nocenti had to say about the creation of the character in a 2013 interview with Comic Book Resources:
Anything I threw at [Daredevil artist John Romita, Jr.], he made it amazing. We did this story where we went to Hell, we met Mephisto, we created Blackheart; so much comes out of the artist and writer talking together. I think Typhoid Mary’s visual was based on a girl he was seeing!
John Romita, Jr. is such a nice man, his parents are so awesome. He was able to get a female character that is a virgin and a slut and a feminist and not a feminist. I just decided to make her all the different stereotypes of women in one woman. I really just made her a triple stereotype! John just went to town with her, and as soon as I got the first image of Typhoid Mary, I said, ‘This is going to work.’ He got her. He got the need for her.
Daredevil #240 (“The Face You Deserve”)
The second half of a two-part story featuring Daredevil going up against the paranoid, hypochondriac serial killer Rotgut, this was my very first Daredevil comic. Even though I was still in the process of learning English at that stage—I was nine or ten years old when I first read it—I had no trouble getting caught up in the story’s events despite not having read the prior issue. Also worth noting was how Nocenti made the comic’s version of Hell’s Kitchen feel like a living, breathing place—a character in itself, really—that existed as more than a playground for Daredevil’s superheroics. Check out the pages from the comic reproduced below, where Nocenti introduces one of Rotgut’s victims:
Even in that short sequence, we get to feel emotionally invested in the victim. She isn’t just a plot device, she’s a character in her own right, with her own life and mundane aspirations. Her death, a minor event in the greater scheme of the comic, actually means something to the reader.
Daredevil #270 (“Blackheart!”), collected in Daredevil: Lone Stranger
Nocenti mixes superheroes with gothic horror in an issue that features the first appearance of Mephisto’s spawn, the demon Blackheart. Spider-man also guest stars in this unusual, one-and-done genre-bender of a tale.