Psychotic Girlfriends, Mutated Chickens, and the Top 1%: A Retrospective of Ann Nocention’s Run on Daredevil

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No matter who writes him, Daredevil has always been a character who’s possessed a sense of moral superiority over everyone else.  Even when it’s clear to the reader that he’s in the wrong, Matt Murdock still believes that his actions ascribe to a greater moral good.  It’s for this reason that he exhumed Elektra’s corpse and later declared himself the kingpin of Hell’s Kitchen.  He doesn’t believe that he’s doing the right thing, rather he believes that the right thing is whatever it is he’s doing.  This is what makes Daredevil one of the more stubborn superheroes ever created; he’s so dependent on his own absolute sense of moral justice that it can sometimes blind him to greater truths.

When confronted by the realization that he’s not as morally upright as he thought he was, Matt Murdock felt the need to leave Hell’s Kitchen and venture around in the wastelands known as Upstate New York.  This was just one of the many controversial changes Ann Nocenti made during her divisive run as writer of Daredevil from 1986-1991 (Daredevil #236-291).  She definitely moved the character away from his roots, which is absolutely necessary in comics every once and a while, but often times too much criticism is directed towards Nocenti for shaking up the franchise in such a drastic way.  The biggest critique of hers is that most of her stories aren’t Daredevil stories, but rather stories that feature Daredevil.  While true, some of her stories actually succeed because of this fact.  If anyone could be portrayed as a Man with No Name, or a Mad Max, going from town to town helping strangers in need, it’s Matt Murdock.

The real issue with Ann Nocenti’s run on Daredevil is that she uses the title as a platform for her own political beliefs.  Way too many times it feels as though her own personal politics are the driving force behind the story.  Writers like Alan Moore and Chris Claremont have shown that comic books can be used as a form of political commentary, but unlike Nocenti, they do so without telling readers how they should think or what the “right” opinion is on an issue.

Many of her storylines are weighed down by the political heavy-handedness of her writing style to the point where it seems as though we’re actually reading The Nocenti Manifesto for a Utopian Society instead of a Daredevil comic book.  During her run, Nocenti has Daredevil take on polluting companies, shadow agents of the government, and farms raising genetically modified livestock.  Nocenti’s distrust of the government and fear of a nuclear holocaust run so deep that it becomes a paranoia that bludgeons her readers in an attempt to wake them up and force them to smell the uranium that their tax dollars are secretly enriching.

The problem though is that unless you’re a Captain Planet villain, no one of the planet is in support of things like nuclear waste or overtly totalitarian governments.  Through her writing, she tries to enforce her own beliefs on her readers.  The son of the villainous Bullet, is a needless and superfluous reminder that not only is mutually assured nuclear destruction a possibility, but according to Ann Nocenti, it’s eminent.  Before their defeat, too many villains launch soliloquies about the follies of authoritarian governments and political oppression that make them sound like drunk Shakespearian villains who can’t figure out what play they’re supposed to be in.  Towards the end of her run, she even focuses an entire story arc on the evils of processed food.  We get what you’re saying Ann—Nuclear bombs are bad; the government is not to be trusted; don’t eat at KFC; thievery and murder are ok as long as it’s against the wealthy and used as a means of wealth distribution.

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During her five year run on the title, it seemed that whenever Nocenti ran out of ideas, she would merely fall back on her personal politics and use these beliefs to formulate a plot that could espouse those opinions to her readers.  This became increasingly evident as the series went on.  After the excellent Typhoid Mary storyline ended, Nocenti reverted back to her heavy-handed style of writing, rife with the dogmatic overtones that dictated the first 25 issues that she had written.

Nocenti’s penultimate major story arc (issues 278-282) saw Daredevil and an intriguing mix of characters fall victim to Mephisto’s machinations.  In stereotypical fashion, Mephisto wants to corrupt a good man in Matt Murdock just for the sole reason that Mephisto is evil and because that’s what evil creatures do.  It’s never really clear what Mephisto’s end goal is or if the characters are in Upstate New York or Hell (even though there really isn’t much difference).

A story that’s centered around the temptations our heroes face should be centered around their own desires and character flaws.  However, Nocenti takes the time during this five issue arc to once again let her readers know that dictatorships are bad, rich people are hollow on the inside, and that nuclear war is catastrophic.  On three separate occasions Mephisto makes a point to monologue about the failures and evils of totalitarian governments to the point where he sounds like he’s only being used to speak the words in Nocenti’s head, a recurring technique in her run.

A glaring flaw of Nocenti’s run on Daredevil is that, with the sole expection of Typhoid Mary, she doesn’t add depth or intrigue to the villains that she wrote.  Kingpin and Mephisto haunt our hero and do evil things for no other reason than…well they’re evil and the things that they do are things evil people do.  Yet, all the while they launch into diatribes commenting that their wickedness is only able to flourish because there are no good people to challenge them.  In speeches made by these two villains in particular, it almost sounds like they want to be defeated.  Even when Daredevil encounters another classic villain, Ultron, the Marvel equivalent of The Terminator, Ultron is too busy spouting philosophical nonsense about the meaning of life; which is kinda pointless, what with him being a robot and all.  Does anyone really want to see Ultron have a nervous breakdown?  Instead of letting the villains write themselves, they become nothing more than puppets in the hands of Ann Nocenti.

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Even Bullseye isn’t spared the puppet treatment, as he’s is rendered into a social reformer by Ann Nocenti.  Here is the deadliest assassin the Marvel Universe, and now he’s concerned with the wealth disparity in America?  What?  Why?  Bullseye likes money and homicide; that’s why he charges a lot of money to kill people.  With all the money he’s made; Bullseye is most likely in the top 1%.  So of all the crimes that he could possible commit to ruin Daredevil’s reputation, he resorts to robbing the rich and throwing their money away into the streets.  Good job Bullseye.

New villains like Rotgut, the Wild Boys, and Bushwacker are all mono-dimensional characters with no charisma or intrigue, while other new baddies like Ammo and Bullet foster plenty of interest but wind up being nothing more than a gang leader and a negligent father.  The problem with many of the villains Nocenti used is that she tried to make them representation of social and political issues, much in the same way that Captain Planet did.  In a way, the villains become dehumanized, only representing larger social issues instead of acting like people.  On at least three separate occasions Daredevil had to stop a rogue government agent, or a mercenary from covering up a government scheme.  None of these new villains live and breath in the same way that Typhoid Mary does.

It’s during her final arc (issues 284-290) where the title devolves into nothing more than a piece of solipsistic scriptures for all of Nocenti’s social reforms.  Somehow Daredevil gets amnesia from his run in with Mephisto (even though he was absolutely fine immediately after their fight) while an old villain seeks to sully Daredevil’s good name by impersonating him and committing crimes as old hornhead.  Being that this is written by Ann Nocenti, “Daredevil” decides to only commit crimes against the wealthy, while the real Matt Murdock is rendered homeless, relying on robbing who else, but the very wealthy, in order to get by.  This “Daredevil” steals not only money and jewels from the wealthy elite, but also their trophy wives.

Meanwhile, Matt Murdock is taken in by another street urchin who teaches him the ropes of surviving on the streets.  She turns him into a self-proclaimed Robin Hood who only steals from “people who have too much”, but in an act of compassion, only steals “enough so that it won’t be noticed”.  Because theft is how America should articulate wealth distribution after all.

Even though the movement came about 20 years too late, it’s clear that Nocenti supports the 99%, so much so that she believes crimes should be committed against the wealthy just for the fact that they have money.  She takes Daredevil, a wealthy lawyer, and has him steal from people just because someone tells him it’s the right thing to do.  The biggest problem with her final arc however is that she believes that everyone else shares her beliefs.  Once the Daredevil imposter starts to steal from the rich, his popularity goes through the roof and support for him infects the city faster than a case of bedbugs.  No one cared when Daredevil was beating up muggers and rapists, but the minute he starts robbing the rich he becomes lauded as a modern day Robin Hood, someone with noble goals for the good of his fellow man.  The story arc operates under the assumption that this is what people want, a vigilante stealing from people and raining down their money on us regular schmucks.

For however many problems there were during her run on Daredevil, Ann Nocenti was still able to cultivate a fair amount of success.  You have to give her credit for trying to shake up the character and the title.  Even if the design was flawed, the intent is to be admired.  She expanded reader’s perception of what could be featured in a Daredevil comic and pushed the boundaries for what the title had to offer.  It was a gutsy move to take Daredevil out of Hell’s Kitchen, as was expanding his supporting cast to include inhumans, PETA rejects, and a genetically modified wonder-babe.  Having Matt Murdock run a free legal clinic was also a perfect way for Nocenti to get him involved in social issues that were important to her as it presented a Matt Murdock who was able to help is community in ways that Daredevil never could.  Nocenti wanted to shake up the title and give it a breath of fresh air which she actually wound up doing with the introduction of Typhoid Mary.

If for nothing else, the creation of Typhoid Mary almost makes the political overtones and preaching nature of Nocenti’s run worthwhile.  Typhoid Mary is Nocenti’s greatest creation, a character who no one else can write half as well as her creator.  Nocenti was at her best whenever Typhoid Mary was tearing Matt Murdock’s life apart, but unfortunately, the character only appears in one story arc, across a scant handful of issues.  She makes her presence felt however, as she dismantles Matt Murdock’s life, while subsequently kicking Daredevil’s ass every time they lock horns.  These issues however, are amongst the very best Daredevil issues created because of how charismatic and intriguing of a character Typhoid Mary is.  Daredevil #260 is a must-read classic for any Daredevil fan.  It’s right up there with Daredevil #181 or Daredevil #232 as one of the greatest issues of Daredevil ever written.

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With Typhoid Mary, Ann Nocenti sought to explore the two stereotypical roles that women play in comics.  On the one hand was the sweet, innocent, and weak-willed Mary; on the other hand, there was her alter-ego, the hyper-aggressive, violently sexual dominatrix from Hell known as Typhoid Mary.  Nocenti wanted to exaggerate and oversimplify the limited dichotomy that female comic book characters occupied by presenting both extremes through one woman.  It’s clear that Typhoid Mary is a study on gender roles in comics, but because this comment on society isn’t as forcefully imposed on readers as some of Nocenti’s more overt political preaching, Typhoid Mary becomes the single greatest addition to Daredevil’s supporting cast since Elektra.

Although she crafted a very interesting argument about feminism and the women’s rights movement in an uncharacteristically unbiased way during a later story arc, that sort of social commentary takes a back seat to the plot which involves Daredevil assisting someone whom he blatantly labels a “terrorist” in blowing up her father’s mutated chicken farm despite it being a legal operation.  Nocenti confronts an extremely liberal woman named Brandy, with a woman created by men in a lab who has a Stepford Wives mentality of cooking, cleaning, and doting on men.  The former is trying to force her own beliefs of feminism and what makes a woman a “real woman” on the latter, despite the fact that the lab created woman, named Number 9, is happy just the way she is.  Nocenti poses the question of whether feminism is practice in which feminists ascribe to a set of external ideas and practices, or whether feminism is an internal opinion allowing each and every woman the right to do with their lives as they please.  If Nocenti portrayed these kinds of social and political issues with less bias and more open-mindedness like she did with the idea of feminism and what exactly constitutes it, her run would have been much more successful.

It’s during the second half of her run that Nocenti also fundamentally alters the Daredevil’s status quo in a unique and surprisingly fresh way.  She moved the character to Upstate New York, a very controversial move that somehow seemed very organic to the story she was crafting.  She also completely dismantled his supporting cast by getting rid of Karen Page, the Fatboys, Foggy Nelson, and Black Widow and replacing them with the likes of Brandy, her father Skip, Number 9-the genetically “perfect” woman, and the inhumans Karnak and Gorgon.  This motley crew of characters who, under normal circumstances would never be in such close proximity, creates an interesting dynamic that leads to further conflicts and personality clashes that had never been seen in the pages of Daredevil before or after.

Even the free legal clinic that Matt and Karen Page established was an interesting idea.  It showed that Matt Murdock could help his community without being Daredevil; that Matt Murdock himself could help his fellow man.  Through his legal clinic, he wasn’t using his knowledge of the law to make money for himself, he was using the law to improve the lives of his neighbors.  Unfortunately though, the legal clinic and Daredevil’s new supporting cast didn’t last as long as they should have as the status quo, despite there being a wealth of material to draw from.

Nocenti’s run on Daredevil isn’t bad; it really isn’t.  If you want to see what a bad Daredevil comic is like ready any issue of Daredevil between 1992-1998; those are some baaaaaaaaad comic books.  Her run is marred by the fact that she let her own viewpoints dictate the stories she wrote; almost as if she was going to tell the same story regardless of whatever character she was writing at the time.  Especially with her last major story arc, Nocenti’s run is characterized by a tendency to hammer the story and characters around a particular opinion that she wanted to propagate.  Whenever this trend was present, her stories sunk because of the excessive weight of her political and social commentary.  Instead of merely presenting a controversial topic to her readers, Nocenti either told readers what to believe, or created one-dimensional villains more suitable for Captain Planet.

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What’s become incredibly eerie in the 25 years since she left Daredevil is how relevant many of the social issues explored by Nocenti have become.  Income inequality, environmental issues, women’s rights and racial violence are still pressing issues in American society that have only grown over the past two and a half decades.  The issues that are now gaining the most traction in the news were all subjects covered by Nocenti while she was forging Daredevil into a crusader for social justice.  This was a Daredevil who blew up a chicken farm growing genetically engineered animals for human consumption; this was also the same Daredevil who robbed from people who were “too rich”, and the same Daredevil who was distrustful of the conservative government that sought to stymie and control the innocent people of Hell’s Kitchen.  Despite being written 25-30 years ago, Nocenti’s run on Daredevil still holds cultural and social significance today, because of the fact that the controversial issues that America faces today, were all topics explored by Nocenti back in the 80s and 90s.  Regardless of however much she tried to enforce her own beliefs onto the characters and readers, when it came to the issues tackled within the pages of Daredevil, Ann Nocenti was way ahead of her time.

As crazy as it sounds though, for all my gripes with Nocenti’s run on Daredevil, if someone asked me if I would recommend it, my answer would be “yes”.  It’s an incredibly distinctive and unconventional take on the character that no one has replicated since.  Ann Nocenti’s Daredevil is completely unique to Ann Nocenti, a claim that not many writers can boast.  Most subsequent writers have tried to follow the Frank Miller or Brian Bendis iteration of Daredevil, and for readers who have exhausted that supply of material or merely want another take on the man without fear, the best place to start would be at the beginning on Nocenti’s run with Daredevil #236.  At the very least, she offered a different take on Daredevil, and that has to count for something.  Is Ann Nocenti’s Daredevil essential reading?  No, it isn’t; but it’s far from trivial.

 

Below is a brief guide to Nocenti’s entire run broken up by issue:

 

236: Black Widow and Daredevil team up to take down a superhuman agent of the government who’s gone rogue.  In the very first issue of her run, Nocenti’s distrust of the government is in full effect.

 

238: A crossover with The Mutant Massacre in name only, Daredevil goes up against Sabretooth.  It doesn’t fit into the timeline or continuity established in Uncanny X-Men #212-213 so it leaves readers wondering when exactly during the massacre did this take place.

 

239-240: A germaphobe decides to poison the drinking water in his apartment and it’s up to Daredevil and the Fatboys, a local youth gang, to stop him.

 

241: A tightrope walker tries to upstage Daredevil.  And somehow one of the Fatboys climbs to the top of the Chrysler Building and hangs out with Daredevil.

 

242: A blue collar worker goes on a killing spree, targeting the wealthy elite.  The first of many “Rich people are bad” stories.  Nocenti tries to justify his actions by indicating that his socio-economic situation drove him to crime.  As we’ll see in later acts Nocenti portrays most of society as condoning his murderous acts since they’re carried out against the wealthy.

 

243-244: Daredevil vs. Voodoo!

 

245: Daredevil and Black Panther team up to save a Wakandan subject from his falling back into dangerous habits.

 

247: Black Widow enlists DD’s help in taking out another super human government stooge.  The only difference this time is that they fight crocodiles too.

 

248-249: At the behest of Karen Page, Matt Murdock opens up a free legal clinic, while at the same time, Daredevil and Wolverine “team up” to stop Bushwacker, another government super agent gone rogue, who is now killing young mutant artists for some reason that’s never revealed.

 

250-251: It’s at this point during her run where Nocenti really finds her voice on the title, despite using Daredevil as a vehicle of political expressionism.  Matt Murdock helps a young boy seek justice after he is blinded by radioactive waste found in the water.  Meanwhile, DD goes to investigate the company responsible, only to confront Bullet, a mercenary hired by the government to cover-up the incident and to frame the leaders of an environmentalist movement.

 

252: One of the best issues of Nocenti’s run.  Thinking the end of the world is at hand (brought about by a supposed nuclear holocaust no less), the citizens of Hell’s Kitchen riot and descend into anarchy.  It’s up to DD and New York’s finest to restore law and order and save Hell’s Kitchen from Ammo and his gang of post-apocalyptic BDSM pirates.

 

253: It’s Christmas in New York city and Matt Murdock and Kingpin spend the holiday in very different fashion.  It’s a nice, light issue that serves as a moment of levity before the introduction of Typhoid Mary.  The only problem though is that Kingpin sounds like a mix between the Grinch and Ebenezer Scrooge.

 

254-256, 259-260: The best story arc of Ann Nocenti’s run sees the introduction of Typhoid Mary into both Matt Murdock’s and Daredevil’s lives.  One of the best DD stories ever written, it involves Typhoid Mary systemically breaking Daredevil and Matt Murdock down by turning his emotions against him.  Daredevil #260 in particular is a classic as Typhoid Mary and her gang lays the smack down on Daredevil’s candy butt in a beat down like no other he’s received.

 

*****Spoiler Alert*****

 

She throws him off a bridge…it’s pretty awesome.

 

*****End Spoiler*****

 

257: Inspired by true events and taking a break from the Typhoid Mary arc, Daredevil and Punisher hunt down a killer putting cyanide in Aspirin pills.  It’s a pretty run-of-the-mill Punisher/Daredevil – Justice/Vengeance dichotomy that’s been the status quo for these two characters since their first interaction.

 

261-262: Karen Page enlists the help of the Human Torch and Black Widow to scour the streets of New York city looking for the nearly dead Daredevil.  At the same time, demons begin to invade New York as part of the Inferno crossover.

 

263, 265: Inferno crossover that sees Daredevil fight a slew of demons while also struggling to even stay alive.  A pretty pointless crossover, as it adds nothing to either the Inferno story or the Daredevil title.  It’s like the worst version of DOOM imaginable.  He beats up some monsters, moves to a new area and then beats up some more monsters.

 

264: A one-shot issue that takes place before Inferno and the appearance of Typhoid Mary, that’s nothing more than useless filler drivel.  The worst issue of Daredevil written by Ann Nocenti features a mix-up that leaves a gang with a crack baby and a homeless man with a bomb in a bag.  An absolutely waste of space that’s better left unread.

 

266: Entitled “A Beer with the Devil”, this issue is a bit of a letdown.  Instead of actually chilling with Mephisto, Daredevil just sits somberly listening to a disguised Mephisto prattle on about God knows what.  Why is Mephisto so interested in Daredevil all of the sudden?  And I’m pretty sure Mephisto tries to seduce Daredevil too. Nocenti really tries to give Mephisto a classical and sophisticated voice, but he just winds up sounding like a homeless person who thinks they’re Napoleon reincarnated.

 

267: After his recent bout with Typhoid Mary and the demons from Limbo, Daredevil decided to leave the city and heads for Upstate New York.  But before that he goes, he give Bullet a big piece of his mind.  Why DD only targets Bullet instead of…oh say…Typhoid Mary is beyond me.

 

268: Nocenti offers her take on the Man with No Name motif and in Matt Murdock’s first adventure in Upstate New York, he helps the owner of a bed and breakfast escape from under the thumb of his sinister brother.  Oh and Daredevil hangs a guy too.  Literally.

 

269: Another gratuitous crossover with the X-Men world to boost sales.  Daredevil vs. 1/3 of Freedom Force.

 

270: The first appearance of Blackheart who’s a mute for some reason.  Daredevil and Spider-Man team up to fight this creature who is literally made of evil.  The origin of Blackheart is really interesting, but the character gets boring real quick.

 

271-274: Daredevil helps an environmental (friendly) terrorist blow up her father’s mutated (but legal) chicken farm.  During this time DD sees his supporting cast grow to include Inhumans, a genetically “perfected” woman, this pro-environmental terrorist and her father.  It’s actually a really interesting setup that should have been the status quo for much longer than it was.

 

275-276: Tangential Acts of Vengeance crossover.  Daredevil and co. vs. an existential Ultron.  Daredevil wins by knocking off Ultron’s ADAMANTIUM head with a STICK.  Like Mephisto, Ultron’s musing on humanity lead him to the exact same conclusion—Humans are near perfect beings with unlimited potential for good if only we could overcome our lust for power and destruction.  Another example of Nocenti both using the title as a vehicle for her own politics, and assuming that everyone else shares her opinions.

 

277: Matt Murdock: Marriage Counselor.

 

278-282: Daredevil and co. vs. Mephisto and Blackheart.  Definitely the biggest letdown of Nocenti’s run as it had the most potential.  Instead, readers are handheld through Mephisto’s realm, rife with ironic yet uninspired torments for our heroes.  For someone who’s supposed to be the embodiment of evil in the Marvel Universe, Mephisto somehow supplies the heroes with everything they’ll need to defeat him.  Except that Deus ex Machina appearance by the Silver Surfer, which literally comes out of nowhere.

 

283: Another filler issue where Captain America and Daredevil team up to save some inventor who sucks at inventing things.

 

284-290: Somehow Daredevil winds up getting amnesia and becomes a drifter who starts to relive the life of Jack Murdock.  Meanwhile, a familiar foe dresses up as Daredevil and commits crimes as the man without fear.  Can Matt Murdock save both of his identities from the machinations of two of his worst enemies?

 

291: Nocenti ends her run on Daredevil with another rematch with Bullet for God only knows what reason.




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