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Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary

June 23rd, 2009 by | Tags: , , , , ,

I’m a little surprised at how much of my taste in comics has its origins in Daredevil. I got back into comics largely through buying copies of Frank Miller’s Daredevil Visionaries. I’d never read his run on Daredevil, and it was just what I needed to leapfrog onto the Bendis run, which led to other Marvel books, and so on. When I was a kid, Miller was my introduction to both grown-up comics and crime comics.

There’s another aspect to this that I haven’t talked about, before. Before I was introduced to Grant Morrison’s work, before I discovered Joe Casey, Ann Nocenti introduced me to weird comics in the pages of Daredevil. I didn’t have many issues of her run, but I had some of the ones with Typhoid Mary and a few seriously off-kilter tales.

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I’ve been re-reading Nocenti’s run on Daredevil, and it positively leans. Her run is as much about how Daredevil is an overly violent fascist and a failure of a hero as it is about swashbuckling and dating. Nocenti got right up in the face of what it meant to pull on tights and beat up a criminal and did a pretty good job of breaking it down into its component parts. She has Murdock struggle with the thought of solving problems with his fists, forcing him to look at the effect he has on his environment. She introduced the Fatboys, a gang of youths who alternate between assisting Daredevil and getting into trouble. They follow his example and sometimes they get hurt. Sometimes they hurt people.

What’s so amazing about Nocenti’s run is that she followed up Frank Miller and David Mazzuchelli’s Born Again, one of the top five best superhero stories. Picking up the reins after two masters of the game told an amazing story must’ve been daunting, but Nocenti handled it well. She picked up the storylines they left, continuing on with a law practice-less, but happy, Murdock.

Brubaker and Bendis’s Daredevil is inextricably linked to the Frank Miller version. They’re continuing on in the same kind of story that he started back in the day. Nocenti, though, swerved right out of the gate. Her Murdock flipflops from confident to troubled, wrestling with his demons with the help of his girlfriend.

Typhoid Mary, whose origin story is collected in Daredevil Legends Vol. 4: Typhoid Mary, has been one of my favorite villains since I was a kid. Obviously, I didn’t get the Madonna (Mary)/Whore (Typhoid) complex that helps define her character or the subtle (?) feminism that Nocenti slipped in. There was just something about her that was, and is, endlessly interesting to me. She wasn’t like Batman’s villains, who were just crazy for the sake of being crazy. She wasn’t like Spider-Man’s villains, either, who were concerned with wealth. I don’t know that I had the mental capacity as a kid to articulate why I enjoyed reading about her so much. Mary was just undeniable.

The best word for her, as near as I can tell, is “uncomfortable.” Lesser writers will treat her as a generic crazy chick, Poison Ivy Plus Catwoman Minus Clothes. Nocenti, though, used her like a scalpel. She wasn’t a Bad Girl, but she was a bad girl. Typhoid Mary was a lot of issues distilled into one creature– religion, sexism, feminism, violence, and morality collided in her. She’s genuinely damaged goods, and troubling.

Mary is the easiest thing to point to when describing Nocenti’s run on Daredevil, but it’s just a part of the whole. There was the nuclear holocaust-obsessed son of a supervillain, the trials of the Fatboys, and the Inferno crossover. It’s creepy, but not creepy like a horror comic or a T&A book. It’s a crawling creepy, a book that makes you feel uneasy. Heroes who are far from perfect and entirely too human, a city full of people who refuse to be categorized into neat little boxes, the way a homeless woman tries to tell her husband where her gift is before she’s murdered by a villain… “that’s not right” sums it up pretty well.

Nocenti’s one of my favorite writers. No wishy-washy “one of my favorite female writers” or “throwback writers” or whatever. Just straight up, real talk, “favorite writers.” She’s good at what she does, and well worth seeking out. She’s spent the past few years out of comics, including filming a documentary, but she’s got a story in Daredevil 500 this August, with art by David Aja.

Good on her and good on Marvel for seeking her out. I’d like to see more work out of her in the future. I miss her voice in comics. Marvel should reprint more of her Daredevil. She did something special, and I think she’s been unfairly overshadowed by Miller’s run. Both are classic for different reasons.

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11 comments to “Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary”

  1. Those Daredevil Legends books are amazing:
    Vol. 1 Daredevil: Yellow
    Vol. 2 Born Again
    Vol. 3 The Man Without Fear
    Vol. 4 Typhoid Mary

    You know it’s good when my least favorite is Man Without Fear.

    Anyway, I agree, Nocenti’s run is great. I’ve been finding them in 50 cent bins too.

    Any other specific issues you’d suggest?


  2. Word. Nocenti/JR Jr. on DD was the run that got me into comics.


  3. I haven’t thought about the Nocenti run or Typhoid Mary in years, but I can still remember how … unsettling the character was under Nocenti. I think the best contrast to your Bad Girl/bad girl thing is Elektra in “Man Without Fear.” That’s where Miller rewrote Elektra to make her crazy and haunted by powerful forces from day one, which completely undermines, if not obviates, the central Matt/Elektra tragedy in her original appearance. Frank made Elektra disturbingly crazy in a sexually charged way, but it was ultimately there as a thrill for the (presumed hetero male) audience. “Man, IMAGINE what she’d be like in the sack, huh?” (Pretty much where Miller’s going with every female character he’s touched since.) Mary wasn’t meant to titillate in that way, that Harley/Ivy/Hellfire Club way. With Mary, you thanked god you weren’t ever going to meet her.

    Whereas Chris Claremont sold (sells) BDSM imagery as a fairly sanitized naughty thrill, Mary was about the kind of “dark side” you should maybe seek counseling about (whoa, scalpels). Hollywood kink versus really-fucked-up-European-directors-you-can’t-find-at-no-Blockbuster kink.

    (Gonna go back and reread this stuff soon … there was that painted miniseries, too … and will be totally embarrassed if this is all in my semi-disturbed head rather than on the page.)


  4. “she’s got a story in Daredevil 500 this August, with art by David Aja.”

    Great news. Too bad they couldn’t get David Mazzucchelli out of retirement for #500 :(


  5. @Nathan: Mazzucchelli actually is just about to release Asterios Polyp, a complete graphic novel, in two weeks!


  6. @david brothers: I’m quite pleased.

    Still though, my first exposure to his artwork was in Born Again. Would have loved it to see him do at least 2 pages. but anyways Asterios Polyp looks good.


  7. I’ve got the “Longshot” trade Nocenti did. Cool, crazy stuff…


  8. […] • Came back to the room and chatted with David Brothers, my roommate, about the con and a range of topics that included Ann Nocenti’s Daredevil. […]


  9. I actually got interested in her work on Daredevil when I was searching for John Romita Jr’s early work; when I got to actually read the comics I really liked them. Typhoid Mary is a great character, creepy, unsettling, complex, I liked that she was another troubled woman in Daredevil’s life like Elektra but she was so different than her and that made the plot much more interesting. I’d like to find more of Nocenti’s run on Daredevil but so fat I was only able to get the Typhoid Mary TPB from Marvel Legends.


  10. […] Robin City of Dreams (New York, New York) September 21st, 2009 by david brothers I’ve yakked about Ann Nocenti’s run on Daredevil before, but honestly, it was really great and underrated comics. The message that violence is not the […]


  11. Ann Nocenti is as you say a great writer, has a unique style, and views that make you question the reality you face, the only comic i remember that did that for me on that level of intensiy was The Question by O Neil and Cowan. On to Typhoid Mary, she was a very complex character, with her multiple personality, and what makes it even more confusing is that Matt loved the Mary persona of her, as for Typhid Mary I guess both sides of her personality loved Matt Murdock / Daredevil, that is why in issue 260 Thyphoid cries after throwing DD of a tall bridge. She loved and hated him. When she left back in 291 there was no explanation, my guess is that Marvel fired her for being too liberal, commie , take your pick. And Typhoid MAry was slaugthered by the incapable hands of DG Chichester.