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Ann Nocenti’s ‘Daredevil’: An Appreciation [Girl Week]

For the vast majority of comic writers in the late 1980s, following Frank Miller on “Daredevil” was the kind of thing you’d want to do if you were arrogant, delusional, suicidal or all three. Ann Nocenti — one of the first really notable female writers in superhero comics — was none of the above. Rather, she was a relative comics newcomer who, in her own words, “lied [her] way past the shooter at the door, pretending [she] knew what a comic was.”

If she didn’t know then, it certainly didn’t take her long to learn: after editing a particularly creatively and commercially successful period for the X-Men franchise, she took the Impossible Job (apparently replacing the originally scheduled Steve Englehart) with the most healthy attitude imaginable: “I just assumed everyone would hate everything I did and they’d throw my ass right off the book, so that mindset actually liberated me to do whatever I wanted and have fun for the short party I thought it would be.”

What followed was an original take on a familiar character, creatively invigorated much like her predecessor Frank Miller was, but in a remarkably different way. Like its central character, Nocenti was unafraid. From her relatively unique perspective of being a woman in a male-dominated industry who came to love the medium and characters far later in life than her contemporaries, she was able to contribute to the medium in a unique way, providing a fresh eagerness for the superhero team-up (Nocenti used guest stars, crossovers and the general landscape of the Marvel Universe to move Daredevil into a lot of unfamiliar territory) and willingness to tackle mature, and at many times controversial, subject matter.

A clearly personal work, Nocenti used the book as a platform for her political and social beliefs, engaging comics as subversive, populist and, at times, psychedelic. She took on patriotism with her first issue, #236, in which a rogue supersoldier tries to come to terms with life after war. She took on feminist identity with the fractured, deconstructed character/villain/tragedy of Typhoid Mary; Reagan’s trickle-down economics policy got it a few issues later in #242, “The Caviar Killer.”

Throughout Nocenti’s run, and especially in the Rotgut arc, one of the major themes she keeps hitting on is that “Daredevil” represents the necessity to take risks in life and go outside of your comfort zone – she takes the dare-devil concept, and the “man without fear” reputation, quite literally, painting Murdock as a guy who’s constantly pushing himself into new areas and situations.

It’s shocking to me, from the vantage point of only having read snippets of Miller’s run and then from Kevin Smith’s run on, that Daredevil ever really used to be this happy-go-lucky. However, in these issues, he’s basically the most outgoing superhero since Spider-Man, hanging out with street gangs and making friends with junkies, straying outside of his usual social sphere. I haven’t read Born Again (I know, I know – sacrilege) but it’s evident that Matt’s new status quo as a diner owner is him consciously choosing to take risks in his life, largely to maintain his own sanity.

That said, perhaps much of Murdock’s outgoing personality comes from Nocenti’s view of his faith – it’s only slightly touched on, but the scene where Daredevil surveys New York with his radar vision and reflects on the beauty of creation, and therefore the necessity of a creator, really places a lot of his later compassionate actions into perspective. Nocenti’s “Daredevil” deals with religion in an intelligent and mature fashion — not dismissive, but using it as a necessary moral compass in Matt’s life, one that leads to the incredible sense of love he has for his community. Her Murdock is Daredevil as social worker, with sweet-ass ninja kicks (and skateboard kickflips!).

On the topic of Nocenti’s sense of social justice and how it pervades Murdock’s behavior, it’s amazing to me that the recent Captain America controversy was such a big deal – I guess people take Captain America more seriously than Daredevil – because this book is so liberal the red ink was probably extracted from a bleeding heart. She’s got absolutely no compunctions about her politics, nor about squeezing story points out of them, and thankfully Marvel cheerfully let her write an incredibly progressive and socially conscious superhero story that slammed everything from blind patriotism and the war on drugs to trickle-down economics.

“Daredevil” is absolutely a product of its time, of late-period Cold War paranoia and a country in love with Ronald Reagan, but its morality, humanity and righteous passion are timeless. As a result, the book is infectious – she clearly gave a shit about these stories, and that feeling carries on to the reader. Agree or disagree with her politics, Nocenti has an intelligent and unique authorial voice that wasn’t present in a lot of the superhero books of the time period.

None of this, of course, is calling Nocenti perfect – many early bits of her run, much like a lot of the bleeding-edge comics of the time, are wordy as all hell, with some incredibly labored metaphors. She almost gives Moore’s “Swamp Thing” a run for its money in the Mutant Massacre tie-in issue (#238), as not only is Sabretooth’s similarity to a domesticated housecat communicated in excruciating panel-by-panel detail, but every sleek physical movement is accompanied by a single-metaphor caption box (“He lands, sliding in as if into the game-winning run at home plate”).

It’s a habit that quickly falls to the wayside, but even at the end of her run it’s still in incredibly stark contrast to the minimalist, art-heavy approach she brought to “3 Jacks”, one that probably wouldn’t work without David Aja’s impeccable storytelling skills (or another artist of his caliber). I have absolutely no idea if Nocenti’s been keeping up with the medium between her time at Marvel Comics and teaching film in Haiti, but “3 Jacks” certainly reads like it, incorporating a great deal of the “show, don’t tell” approach that’s evolved since she was actively writing comics – or perhaps it’s just influenced by her time doing more direct visual storytelling with movies.

So why is Nocenti’s “Daredevil” so important? I think it’s worthwhile to communicate why having writers like Nocenti around is essential to the survival, and quality, of big two superhero comics. The DC and Marvel Universes are ultimately the result of creative collaboration, and while incredibly talented writers are at the helm of both companies, for the most part they’re all white dudes. And that, inevitably, affects the output: it’s a universe and vision crafted almost entirely from that perspective. This isn’t anyone’s fault, or a result of a lack of empathy, or of attempting not to identify with the Other; it’s just a fact.

As our society gets increasingly more diverse, the universes have to catch up, and while Bendis’s love and promotion of Spider-Woman and Luke Cage try to broaden the diversity of major-name characters, there won’t be a real proportional representation until we see broadening in the diversity of major-name writers. And while chart-topping artists like Ivan Reis and Olivier Coipel might be Hispanic and black respectively, you still don’t see too many female names on primary storytelling duty on the art side. Ann Nocenti’s “Daredevil” was a badass run on an A-list character that played by Marvel’s rules, pushed the character forward, and told a great story propelled by an impassioned creator. I know it’s not as easy as “more like this please, but” – as far as I’m concerned, that’s the goal.

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