In the 1980s, superhero comics experienced a creative renaissance. Creators, who would go on to become legends of the industry, took the previously held idea of ‘the superhero’ and deconstructed its fantastic elements to reveal darker subtexts underneath. However, one name has been unjustly left off of the list of great ’80s comics: Ann Nocenti’s nearly uninterrupted 50+ issue run on DAREDEVIL. Nocenti approached the superhero deconstruction from a far more mature angle than many of her peers, crafting a story about cycles of violence, the impotence of a superhero who acts without compassion, and the manner in which the failings and short comings of superheroes perpetuate cycles of violence. The in-depth exploration of this theme cements why this series of comics deserves to be remembered in the canon of great graphic literature.

In the series, Nocenti’s scripts address the social justice issues of the time and confront the title character with these problems in literal and metaphorical forms, thus causing Daredevil, and his civilian identity Matt Murdock, to face internal conflicts and a series of villains allegorically representing the aspects of the world he can’t physically confront. Each aspect forces him to question whether or not the justice he carries out as a masked crime fighter actually solves any of the world’s problems. 

I. Sabertooth: The Urban Jungle

Ann Nocenti started the ball rolling when she laid out her thesis for the book in DAREDEVIL #238, with Sal Buscema and Steve Leialoha on art. This issue, a tie-in to the MUTANT MASSACRE story-line happening in the X-books at the same time, revolves around a teenage gang that happens to stumble across X-Men antagonist Sabertooth as he slumbers in the sewers.

Before Daredevil can lock horns with Sabertooth, he performs the typical crime fighter task of rescuing a man from a mugger. However, the victim of this crime gives a rather atypical response. Instead of gratitude, the victim chews Daredevil out and decries his help. He tells Daredevil that his store was destroyed in the battle with Nuke—from the climatic DAREDEVIL #233, for those of you playing at home—and he doesn’t want help from someone like Daredevil. He tells ol’ Horn Head, “Don’t you realize you attract more violence than you could ever stop?” (DAREDEVIL #233). In this confrontation, Nocenti is tackling head-on a problem that sometimes “breaks” the logic of superhero comics. Every superhero must face an equally powerful villain in destructive brawls that level buildings and leave innocent lives in literal and metaphorical ruin. If Daredevil’s job is to protect the innocent, then how responsible is he for the collateral damage caused around him? This premise, essentially the driving conceit of this year’s CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR, is a radical question for the superhero zeitgeist of the time and will be the primary question that Matt Murdock asks himself throughout the next 50 issues.

DAREDEVIL #238: The Devil and the Hero.    (Art: Sal Buscema, Steve Leialoha, and Max Scheele)

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First, Nocenti addresses this question by exploring the violent tendencies of the natural world. Sabertooth, a character rooted in animal imagery, lashes out at the teenage interlopers, as expected of a villain. As we watch Daredevil protect the gang of teens, interstitial panels show the reader the predator/prey dynamic of a house cat and a mouse. The cat belongs to a young boy named Butch who will become a frequent supporting player in this run. Butch’s father explains to him that the cat is “acting out old behavior patterns…he hungers for the hunt, but will never know why” (DAREDEVIL #233). Are our natural tendencies to resolve problems with violence an excuse for our actions? Nocenti doesn’t seem to think so. Even as Daredevil fends off Sabertooth and frees his captive, the captive says that Sabertooth was kind and gentle and never laid a hand on her. The violence may be natural within us, but we have the power to reject it if we chose to. This is the paradox that Daredevil must find a way to solve within his psyche: how can a man use violence to create peace? Can any superheroes truly bring about justice with their fists? As he tries to find the answer to this question, Daredevil will face some outlandish challenges this stylized version of New York City, one where violence is almost mandatory to survive. The powder keg of NYC circa 1988 acts as the ultimate crucible for Daredevil to test this newfound internal conflict, personified in the forms of the characters Rotgut and Bullet.

II. Rotgut and Bullet: New York in ’88

Ann Nocenti’s DAREDEVIL is a book that could only have been written in 1988. With murder rates reaching a record high, the New York that this version of Daredevil inhabits is a far cry from the gentrified tourist haven that exists today. John Romita Jr.’s arrival on the book brings sketchy, dynamic pencils, aided by Max Scheele’s colors that ooze the grime and grit of NYC during this decade. The city provided perfect inspiration for the full creative team to put Daredevil through figurative Hell. However, before those two arrive to provide the perfect visual synthesis to Nocenti’s scripts, Louis Williams crafts the seedy visuals of DAREDEVIL #239, bringing to life the character Rotgut.

Rotgut acts as a sensory contrast to Daredevil. While the heightened senses of Matt Murdock help him to see the beauty in the objects around him, Rotgut only sees the disease and filth of city life. Acting as a conduit for city living paranoia, Rotgut wages a one-man war on the city that he believes is slowly killing him and everyone around him with dirty pipes, unclean air, and environmental pollution. Each of Rotgut’s fears carry with them some legitimacy. The news is filled with horror stories about the unsanitary, sometimes deadly, world of man-made industry, making Rotgut the personification of an ecological problem that Daredevil can’t solve by whacking it with a billy-club. As cities like New York crumble ecologically, they lose value in the eyes of corporations and the government, causing them to fall deeper into poverty and driving people to crime. In this world, how can Daredevil be a crime fighter if he can’t stop the causes of crime in the first place? In this story, Nocenti paints the violent method of superhero crime fighting as being as sensible as trying to mop the ocean. 

Rogut’s fears drive him to want to cleanse the world, making him, in his own mind, a hero. He tells Daredevil “we’re both the same—heroes fighting a disease” (DAREDEVIL #240). It’s a classic villain trope, the “we’re not so different you and I” speech, but when the villain delivering the speech is severely mentally ill, it makes you question the stability and wisdom of the hero’s mission.

DAREDEVIL #240: Rotgut faces the perils of urban pollution. (Art: Louis Williams, Al Williamson, and Geof Isherwood)

Daredevil wins in the end, but he, like Rotgut to his victims, is still imposing his sense of morality on someone else. He tells Rotgut that “the cure must be better than the disease” (DAREDEVIL #240), but when the cure is enacting more violence on people who don’t have full control of their mental faculties, is Daredevil, and by extension other masked vigilantes, truly the better “cure”? Daredevil defeated Rotgut, as his moral judgement told him to, but still had not fixed any of the issues that create the Rotguts of the world.

The end of this issue is the first display of Nocenti’s other major motif in her run: the effects of violent actions on impressionable children. When Rotgut poisons the water, Daredevil sends a group of children to warn the residents of the building not to drink it. One boy encounters a resident who immediately lashes out at the boy for disturbing him. The boy allows the resident to drink the water and refuses to warn him. Later, the final page reveals the boy standing beside the gurney where the dead, poisoned resident is laid out. This chilling final panel displays another person choosing to impose their moral will over another, just as Daredevil and all vigilantes do. By only having heroes that enact vengeance and punishment, then children will continue the cycle of malfunctioning justice perpetuated by Daredevil’s method of crime fighting.

It’s the impressionable youth that Nocenti portrays as suffering the most due to the actions of those who are supposed to keep the world safe. In issue #250, the character of Lance is introduced. In his first appearance, the boy is sitting alone in a classroom after being terrified by a video about the power of the nuclear bomb. The devastating effects of this weapon leave Lance nearly catatonic, and after this initial appearance, he is often seen preparing for the inevitable (to him) nuclear war that is rapidly approaching.

Lance’s father is a mercenary for hire named Bullet, who is currently helping the Kelco Company to cover up the ecological disasters that led to the blinding of a young boy swimming in a pond. Much like Lance, the boy, Tyrone, is a victim of the carelessness for the planet. Nocenti equates pollution and nuclear holocaust as equally destructive forces that harm the planet and the future generations who will live on it. Tyrone, and people like him, suffer because of the law’s fallibility when it gives a free pass to those with the deepest wallets.

DAREDEVIL #251: The beauty of justice. (Art: John Romita Jr., Al Williamson, and Max Scheele)

As his civilian persona, Matt Murdock reflects on how being a lawyer helps him to believe in the concept of the law, but his vigilante persona makes him “feel that belief cracking” (DAREDEVIL #251). This self-doubt is a manifestation of Daredevil’s Sisyphean task to stop crime. Daredevil stops a criminal, but then the criminal can be quickly released because of corruption in the system. The constant catch-and-release with no real progress applies further pressure to Daredevil’s moral resolve.

Bullet, acting as an agent of unscrupulous corporations, is a perfect example of those imperfections in the law. Bullet maintains no moral code and simply acts as the person with the money dictates. Following their brutal brawl, Bullet peacefully allows the cops to take him away, telling them to put the destruction “on my tab” (DAREDEVIL #251) in a flagrant mockery of all that Daredevil holds sacred. This action finally pushes those cracks in his beliefs to their breaking point.

Later that night, Murdock learns that with one phone call Bullet was immediately released from prison. The red tape of the law causes Murdock to explode and denounce the system that he previously defended. After an entire issue of a bloody fight scene, the audience sees the pointless nature of violence in a superhero comic. If a criminal has the right connections, they will walk away from any accusations. Problems like systemic corruption can’t be punched away, so what is a crime fighter like Daredevil supposed to do? Violence alone cannot solve a problem, so a new method must be found.

With the corruption of bureaucracy hanging over him, Murdock is unable to find solace in either of his identities, forcing him to confront his inadequacies as both lawyer and crime fighter. With the hero at his lowest point, Nocenti introduces into the story her most long-lasting contribution to the Daredevil mythos. A character who, like Daredevil, is built on dualities and contradictions: Typhoid Mary.

CLICK: The Devil is in the details. Click here for the details on Marvel’s new DAREDEVIL series!

III. Typhoid Mary: Love is a Battlefield

With the spectre of the Cold War looming over America, Daredevil finds himself in his own arms race against the growing threat of the Kingpin. After realizing the devastating events of BORN AGAIN were not enough to destroy Murdock’s resolve, Wilson Fisk, the Kingpin, decides the only way to truly destroy his enemy is through his heart. Enter: Typhoid Mary. Mary makes her first appearance in the book slowly picking apart the New York City criminal underworld, bringing her to the attention of the Kingpin of Crime. Mary is a telepathic mutant with dissociative identity disorder. Her condition creates the Mary personality, timid and kind, and her Typhoid Mary personality, violent and angry. Nocenti’s narration in the opening splash page of DAREDEVIL #254 seems to allude to the history of Mary Mallon, the source of Typhoid Mary’s namesake who carried typhoid fever and infected dozens of people without showing any symptoms herself: “Invisible poisons. They walk among us. Poison lives. All it touches…dies. Poison doesn’t know it’s poison. It simply does what it has to do to survive.” (DAREDEVIL #254)

DAREDEVIL #256: Ol’ Hornhead meets his match in Typhoid Mary. (Art: John Romita Jr., Al Williamson, and Max Scheele)

That “poison” can easily be seen as the poison of violent instinct, the very thing that hinders Daredevil from delivering true, fair justice. Typhoid Mary takes pleasure and joy in causing pain, and this kind of sadism is what Nocenti fears lurks within our super heroes as well. If that violence does live within our heroes, what kind of impact will this have on the children who idolize them? Before Typhoid Mary enters Daredevil’s life, this question is explored in DAREDEVIL #252, an issue that cements Ann Nocenti’s expertise at writing crossover tie-in issues that also explore the book’s themes.

With the chaos of the FALL OF THE MUTANTS event raging in the skies of New York, the average citizens assume that the Cold War has finally thawed. As the people around him panic, Matt Murdock takes control, bringing a level of peace and calm to the terror. Meanwhile, a man calling himself Ammo exploits the anarchy to declare himself the new ruler of this world without law and civilization. Proclaiming that only the strong will survive, he gathers an army, many of whom are young adults, to establish a new rule in the metropolis. Once again, those who suffer are the younger generations who are used as pawns in violent games. One child, Cain, becomes a part of the mass hysteria, causing Daredevil to turn from him in disgust. After being rebuked by his hero, Cain becomes determined to redeem himself by fighting back against the riots. Ironically, Cain’s untimely death comes from wanting to prove his worth to Daredevil. In seeking validation from violent authority figures, Cain can only find death, and while he dies receiving Daredevil’s absolution, he still loses his life because of the schemes of larger powers that ignore the repercussions of their actions. Daredevil defeats the villain, but fails to protect the innocent.

DAREDEVIL #252: Cain’s sacrifice reinforces Daredevil’s failures. (Art: John Romita Jr., Al Williamson, and Max Scheele)

If Daredevil is unable to protect the innocent, how is he any better than the criminals he fights? Typhoid Mary directly challenges Daredevil with this question in their early confrontations. As Matt Murdock is being seduced by Mary’s gentle side, Typhoid Mary questions why he doesn’t kill criminals. She explains in issue #255 that the city praises her whenever she takes a life, so why doesn’t Daredevil do the same? As a vigilante, he is also a criminal in the eyes of the law, so can he really claim to uphold the law if he breaks it to do so? From Typhoid Mary’s perspective, she and Daredevil exist outside the law, and with their superiority, they cast judgement on those whom they deem unworthy. It’s hard to ignore the accusation this puts upon all costumed heroes. Every vigilante exists within this paradox of being both defender and prosecutor. She tells Daredevil “we’re beyond good and evil,” alluding to Nietzsche’s book of the same title that criticizes society’s moral constructions. To refute her argument, Daredevil draws the connection from Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil  and the“Übermensch” concept to Adolf Hitler to illustrate the dangers in her philosophy. Ironically and unfortunately, when translated to English, “Übermensch” is the name of the original superhero: Superman. While Superman and his creators obviously stand in complete opposition to the ethos of the Nazis, there is still a fine line between a superhero and a dictator because both figures enforce their own sense of justice upon the populace.

LISTEN: Check out our podcast discussion of Daredevil with Marvel.com’s Tim Stevens

Does this mean that Nocenti believes all costumed heroes are secretly fascist? Not exactly. While Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s creation may share a name with Nietzsche’s conceit, these two creators took the “Übermensch” idea in the complete opposite direction. Superman is a character who simply tries to do the right thing to protect people; this pure morality is what sets him apart, rather than a feeling of superiority. As the first costumed crime fighter in comics, Superman set the standard for every character to come. However, as the genre grew, violence began to play a larger role in the conflicts of these stories.

In a response to this pattern, it seems as if the entire run of Daredevil up to this point has been a complete incineration of the costumed hero concept, but in DAREDEVIL #260 we experience a paradigm shift. The story climaxes with Typhoid Mary forcing Daredevil to fight through a gauntlet of the enemies he has made over the previous two dozen issues. Typhoid Mary has others fight Daredevil because she begins to realize that she has fallen in love with him. It is for this reason that she chooses not to fight and does not deliver a guaranteed killing stroke to Daredevil.

DAREDEVIL #260: Love stinks. (Art: John Romita Jr., Al Williamson, and Max Scheele)

This scene can be read as a mirror for Nocenti’s feelings on how we treat superhero characters. Sure, we love them, but there are disturbing violent undertones to them that have developed over their long histories. We have to “kill” our icons so they can be reborn into the heroes we need them to be. There is one quality that every costumed vigilante must have, the quality that keeps them from becoming the fascist “Übermensch” and instead makes them the selfless Superman: empathy.

IV. Bullseye: Empathy for the Devil

Following his defeat at the hands of Typhoid Mary, Daredevil undergoes a self-imposed exile into upstate New York that culminates in a journey to the underworld to take on Mephisto, the Marvel Universe equivalent of Satan. Daredevil must literally purge himself of his sins within Hell itself in order to return as a blank slate to his city. In this shattered state of mind, Daredevil wanders New York, encountering and being beaten by regular goons. Each encounter brings with it flashbacks and reminders of his past mistakes. He declared that the idea of Daredevil was “a deluded hypocritical phony” (DAREDEVIL #284) and he can no longer live with the constant contradictions of his existence. He chooses to stop fighting in the middle of a brawl in the hope of stopping the endless cycle of violence. However, simply avoiding the fight is not sufficient to find peace. A denial of violence cannot purge violence from the world. He is promptly beaten and knocked out by the mob, leaving him with severe amnesia. Daredevil is approached by a man in black who takes his mask. Daredevil, believing his name to be Jack, lets the man take the mask, declaring himself to be sick of fighting and having no idea who Daredevil is in the first place. That man in black? Bullseye.

The amnesiac Daredevil immediately takes on the name Jack, the name of his father, without hesitation. Battlin’ Jack Murdock wanted his son Matt to avoid the life of violence he had chosen for himself and dedicate himself to academia. By taking on his father’s name, Murdock rededicates himself to his father’s hopes and dreams for a peaceful future. Ironically it was a rejection of violence that caused Daredevil to lose all of his memories in the first place, and in taking his father’s name, he also steps into the boxing ring, becoming his own father. He is unable to find peace regardless of whether or not he takes the path of pacifism or aggression.

DAREDEVIL #287: The son becomes the father. (Art: Lee Weeks, Al Williamson, and Max Scheele)

CLICK: Want more DAREDEVIL analysis? Check out COLOR THEORY AND DAREDEVIL

As discussed in the Typhoid Mary arc, the lines between hero and villain are blurred when the hero operates outside of the parameters of the law. This duality of opposites is explored further when Bullseye begins committing acts of larceny while wearing a Daredevil costume. In spite of his many attempts to sully his archenemy’s good name, the people of New York refuse to completely give up on Hell’s Kitchen’s defender.  Due to his vigilante behaviors, people, including Ben Urich, assume that Daredevil must have a good reason for his new illegal activities. Because he has never fully obeyed the law to begin with, the people have no trouble giving him the benefit of the doubt, declaring him a modern-day Robin Hood. Infuriated by this reaction, Bullseye is reinvigorated in his mission to obliterate his enemy’s reputation.

DAREDEVIL #287: A villain in hero’s clothing, Bullseye plots to destroy Daredevil’s image. (Art: Lee Weeks, Al Williamson, and Max Scheele)

During his time as Jack, Daredevil befriends an African-American judge and his son. Through these two men, Daredevil is reminded of the imperfections in the justice system. The judge reminds him that the law will often allow criminals to slip through loopholes to freedom, while the son reminds him of the racial biases that lurk in society’s subconscious. When the judge is gunned down by a gang who he put in prison in the first place, Daredevil is reminded of the words his mentor, Stick, who once told him to be humane when fighting an enemy, another contradiction in Daredevil’s existence. While this seems like an illogical juxtaposition to this concept, Nocenti actually manages to strike at the core of what makes superheroes work. This moment provides a deeper look into Nocenti’s true beliefs of how a superhero character “fails.” The moment that joy is taken in as an act of violence, that masked crime fighter fails in their mission. When Siegel and Schuster created Superman, they created a character who would fight against the immoral, but did so to protect the innocent, not out of a need to establish dominance. A character who only enacts violence without trying to understand and empathize is nothing but a bully. Ultimately, both the masked crime fighter and the comic book reading audience fails whenever it takes joy in seeing a character beaten to a pulp. This is the lesson Daredevil must learn before he can defeat Bullseye in the ultimate act of fighting with compassion.

Throughout the run, Daredevil has been running away from his mistakes and conflicts. He rarely takes responsibility for the disasters he leaves behind in his wake. It is in this final confrontation with Bullseye that he faces his internal flaws head-on. With Bullseye wearing his costume, Daredevil decides to use his enemy’s tactics against him. Murdock dons the Bullseye costume and attacks his hated enemy, which goes so far as to confuse Bullseye about his true identity. When Murdock tips over the edge of a rooftop, he tells the impostor Daredevil that he can’t allow him to die because Daredevil is a “good man.” In this moment, Bullseye shows compassion and pulls his hated enemy to safety. This is the first, and quite possibly the last, moment of pure heroism ever performed by the Bullseye character. The two men have inhabited each other’s identities, and by doing so, they have found deeper understanding of their own flaws. This the fighting with compassion Stick referred to: recognizing your enemy’s humanity, not simply seeing them as a target.

The fight continues and the identities of Daredevil and Bullseye begin to blur as both men vanish into a twister of fists and blood. Finally, Matt Murdock, the one true Daredevil, is left standing over his beaten enemy. “We both turned out to be the same man, didn’t we?” he asks of his unconscious foe (DAREDEVIL #290). This statement shows that empathy is the true endpoint to violence. Daredevil can only defeat Bullseye by recognizing himself in his archenemy. Both men have based their lives around hurting others and deciding, according to their ethos, who deserves to be a victim of their brutality. While violence had to be used, Daredevil did so with an understanding that he is no more righteous than the man he fought. He didn’t do it for his own enjoyment, but because it had to be done.

DAREDEVIL #290: Hero and Villain, more alike than they want to believe. (Art: Kieron Dwyer, Fred Fredricks, Steve Buccellato)

As with all superhero comics, the conclusion of Nocenti’s DAREDEVIL run brings the story back to the typical status quo. However, her meditation on violence in superhero comics is one that still resonates in superhero conversations today, especially as they are adapted to new forms of media. This message of humanism in the story’s conclusion is profoundly important in a medium that’s most popular output usually solves its conflicts through knock-down, drag-out brawls. It also reinforces why Ann Nocenti’s run on Daredevil deserves to be spoken in the same breath as books like WATCHMEN and THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS. The superhero is the ultimate form of escapist pop art; while Daredevil and his colorful compatriots can’t punch away the impossible problems of our world, Nocenti reminds us of the moral code that they, and by extension the comic book audience, should always strive to follow.  A masked vigilante fails when they don’t recognize the hollow victory that comes with selfish violence and deny the basic empathy that we should show for enemy and ally alike.

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