THE DAREDEVIL COMPANION
The Ann Nocenti Issues
This section contains reviews of issues written by Ann Nocenti.
Daredevil #255: "Temptation!"; 23 pages
Matt, through his ‘ghost lawyering,' argues against Kelco Industries on the grounds that it is of ‘Immoral Character.' While he seems to be making leeway both with the court and with Foggy Nelson, who is acting as opposing counsel, the Kingpin is determined to make sure the verdict favors his company. Meanwhile, Typhoid Mary is using both herself and Tyrone to advance her own plan to break Matt's heart...and his spirit.
This is the middle chapter of the three parter that formally introduced Typhoid Mary into the Marvel Universe. It is also the middle chapter of the climax to the story involving little Tyrone being blinded by the Kingpin's chemical plant. Never let it be said that Ann Nocenti wanted to keep things simple.
I've never quite understood why many people hold Typhoid Mary up to be Ann Nocenti's masterpiece. Unlike Bullet, who actually managed to fuse Nocenti's concern for political issues with a government conspiracy framework that made them work, Typhoid always struck me as a mish-mash of disparate elements she threw together because she desperately wanted to use Elektra, and Elektra was off-limits. Nocenti villains always have too little metaphorical flesh on their bones or too much--Typhoid is certainly in the latter category. She's displays multiple personality disorder at birth (which is pretty amazing, considering all sufferers of MPD have to have a psychotic break to generate these disparate personalities; the implication here is that birth itself was enough of a trauma to get little Mary to create an alternate identity), she runs a continual fever, she's a pyrokinetic, she's a telekinetic, she has certain psychocoercive powers that are never explained.... and she's a ninja chick! She throws so much emphasis on her abilities that she never quite comes alive as a character, which makes this major storyline she's the impetuous for fall apart relatively quickly.
That doesn't stop Nocenti, who automatically assumes we love this character as much as Marvel did (and Marvel must have, judging from the very visible in-house ads for this storyline that ran line-wide), which means what should be the crux of this story--namely the legal battle between Matt and his former partner, Foggy Nelson, over Kelco Industries. Although, judging from how ineptly Nocenti handles the courtroom scene, maybe we should be grateful for the gratuitous fight scene which has DD and Typhoid literally rolling around in garbage while Matt screams out lines like “You REPULSE Me” and debates Nietzsche with his new foe.
I suppose I can't delay talking about that courtroom scene much more, can I?
One of my biggest complaints about Nocenti's writing is that people simply don't talk like they do in her stories. These characters don't so much converse as orate, spewing position papers at each other as if that's the way the world works. One would think that the courtroom would be the one place where this quirk would actually work for Nocenti instead of hinder her.
No such luck. The trial that takes up the middle part of the story is based on the idea that companies are like people, and must behave in a ‘morally sound' manner--something Kelco did not in dumping the toxic waste that blinded Tyrone. Now this actually was used in a couple of trials during the 80's and 90's as an argument, so that is juuuust about plausible. What's not plausible is the ludicrous way in which Nocenti has the trail conducted. In her hands, Matt's 'ghost lawyer is glib, clever and insightful while Foggy is...well, Foggy is incompetent. What's particularly amusing is that neither Matt, a criminal lawyer, or Foggy, who has always been portrayed as practicing business law, should not be taking part in a civil case like this. It's a silly sequence full of the worst kind of howlers, and at best needed serious editing to make it seem even vaguely within the realms of reality. And couple this with the laughable dream sequence Matt experiences at the book's open, and you have an amazingly low low point in the book's run.
So you're probably wondering why “Temptation” gets only a purple, and not a brown, rating. Well, that's because even among all the crap Nocenti shovels into this story (and that's not even touching upon the way Tyrone is being used as a prop, especially in the scene where he's left wandering Matt's apartment, whining all the while, while Matt and Mary swap spit), there's a nugget of real value.
But nugget of real value aside, this is the story I point to when people want me to justify my contention that Nocenti's run was terrible--because no matter how you cut it, this isn't a story, it's a position paper that's as dry to read as it must have been in Nocenti's college civics class.
Daredevil #260: "Vital Signs"; 38 pages
During an anti-nuclear rally, Typhoid Mary sends a coterie of Daredevil's most recent enemies to take him apart. And the scary thing is, she succeeds....
All my critiques of Ann Nocenti's hectoring, soap box style aside, I have to admit to loving this issue. Part of it is because the story almost reads like ‘Nocenti's Greatest Hits,' as every one of her additions to DD's rogues gallery shows up, beats on Matt and heads off. Part of it is because, unlike with many of Nocenti's scripts, it moves at a very brisk clip even with all the usual Nocenti soap boxing. Part of it is how the issue is a tremendous showcase for John Romita Jr's storytelling skills.
But one of the things I like the most is how it shows how smart a villain Typhoid Mary could have been. Unlike the mess that was her initial storyline, this plan is downright smart. Typhoid carefully determines the line-up in which the bad guys beat on Matt--beginning with Bullit (arguably the most super-powerful of the Nocenti bad guys to this point), then following with Bushwacker and his multitude of weapons, then Ammo (not super-powered, but a skilled military fighter) before finishing up with the Wildboyz. The idea of two goofs like the Wildboyz getting the final licks in on Daredevil and coming this close to killing him before Typhoid intervenes comes off like the ultimate humiliation.
Even taking away the Big Action Scene away, Nocenti managed some excellent touch. The opening sequence, with Matt commenting on the groceries Karen has brought in shows once again that she understood their relationship as well as any writer, and she creates a nice tension by contrasting the mayhem with Matt's sincere desire to march in the peace parade. The moment where a bruised and torn-up Daredevil emerges from one of his fights pleading for the right to march while the horrified marchers point out that he's one of the reasons they're fighting is powerful...and is further mollified by the brief moment of kindness from a stranger immediately afterwards.
But even with all the things that elevate this above the usual Nocenti nonsense (and to be fair, the subplot about the anti-peace march resolves in a real Nocenti-level groaner--namely, with the peace marchers and the veterans parade colliding in a riot), this issue wouldn't be the classic I claim it to be without the contribution of John Romita Jr. Even moreso than in his other work of the period, Romita choreographs the issue beautifully. It would be so easy for the running fight scenes to be confusing, but Romita manages to convey the energy and impact of every blow. And it's really amazing how he manages to capture each villain's uniqueness in the opening splash that accompanies each fight (I particularly like how, when we get to Typhoid toward the very end, she's not in an action pose, but at rest with her katana pointed at Wildboy Jet's throat....which speaks volumes for how controlled and contained her own resentment towards Matt has become). This is a high point in Romita Jr.'s career at a time, and even if you dislike Nocenti's work as much as I do you need to take a look at it.
“Vital Signs” is perhaps the best example of how good Nocenti could have been; Hell, she manages to get in her soap boxing in a way that doesn't interfere with the story. She won't get close to this point again until we get into the ‘fantasy land' period where Matt gets involved with genetic engineering and Inhumans and a trip to Hell. But for that one oversized issue, she becomes the world-beater writer that she always wanted to be.
Daredevil #275: "False Man"; 22 pages
While Daredevil prepares to leave Brandy, Skip and Number Nine, Dr. Doom unleashes his Act of Vengeance on the Man Without Fear: Ultron-13, the latest version of the killer android with the personalities of all previous Ultrons. Things do get complicated, however, when the perfection-obsessed android falls for Number Nine. Meanwhile, Inhumans Gorgon and Karnak continue to search for Black Bolt's son, and end up involved.
Ahhhhh, the Acts of Vengeance. For those of you who may not remember, "Acts of Vengeance" was the last of the major line-wide crossovers Marvel pulled in the 80's. Masterminded by John Byrne, who had just taken over both Avengers books, it was built on the DC-esque idea of the major villains of the Marvel Universe getting together and deciding to sic bad guys on the heroes they hadn't fought before. The story got muddled rather quickly and involved some stretching on some characters' parts to find unconventional villains for them to face (the idea of Dr. Doom facing off with the Punisher still makes me laugh)--resulting in future line-wide crossovers being confined to the annuals before they faded out completely.
Now, one would think that Ann Nocenti, a writer who was more interested in philosophy and politics than she was super-heroics, would strain under the strictures of Acts of Vengeance. Luckily for the editors, Nocenti chose to use the requirements of the crossover to launch what she called "an excursion into fantasy land," and tackled the assignment with her all-too-little-seen sense of humor...which results in a story that is intentionally silly, and loads of fun.
As you'll discover as we explore more of Nocenti's output, I've always felt she excels when she uses humor and satire to get her points across--and, as with most of the Number Nine saga, she finds a lot of satirical potential in the characters. And surprisingly, a lot of that potential lies in the bad guy Nocenti chooses to make DD's opponent for the duration of the AoV: Ultron, an indestructible android devoted to the eradication of organic life. Obviously, Nocenti was very aware of the wild difference in power levels (which might explain the presence of the Inhumans in this part of the story when they don't become significant until the next story) but figures out a logical reason why Ultron is chosen to be the enemy (namely, Doom feels that having DD smoked by a robot will put the Kingpin in his place) and then start logically extrapolating the most ridiculous--but totally in character--emotional change in him: namely, here's this robot dedicated to perfection who falls to pieces upon meeting Number Nine, who was artificially created to be a guy's idea of feminine perfection. And it's obvious that she has a great grasp of Ultron right from the start, with a skillfully crafted sequence that contrasts Doom's assumptions about the robot with the robot's actual intentions.
I think that, paradoxically, for all of Nocenti's protests about being dumped in 'fantasy land,' being allowed to be ridiculous freed her up to get her points across much better. Even the usual political/philosophical soliloquy that marred other issues in her run works here; a two page long ramble in which Daredevil ruminates on skulls, wanting to be alone and which of the female characters is better actually has the resonance Nocenti expected--partially due to Romita Jr.'s layouts, but partially because the absurdity of the situation makes Matt seem...less whiney.
It's sort of sad that Nocenti didn't want to visit 'fantasy land' more often in this series. Romita Jr., as we've discovered in the years since, has a talent for making the strangest things seem stylish and believable, and by using the strangeness in the story to draw her issues into sharper relief, Nocenti is able to create a great issue out of a silly crossover.
Daredevil #291: "All The News That Fits"; 22 pages
Now with his memory restored, Daredevil seeks to put his life back in order and restore his reputation on the streets of Hell's Kitchen--something that requires him to once more mix it up with the man called Bullet.
Here were are at Ann Nocenti's final issue, a little over four years after she started--although her tenure is a little longer once you incorporate her fill-in work. It was the longest tenure of any writer until Brian Michael Bendis showed up after the Marvel Knight reboot, and her final work is...well, a little garbled. Unlike Miller, who took a number of issues to resolve everything he had up in the air when it was time to go, it appear that Nocenti found herself flatfooted and scrambled to get everything tied up in a neat package in one issue...and it doesn't quite work. The script touches on many subjects--the way big tobacco uses sports sponsorships to sidestep government regulations, the needs of journalists to serve the public good as opposed to the needs of newspapers to turn a profit, the rights of tenants versus the rights of property owners, in addition to such past Nocenti bugaboos like the fear of nuclear war, female body image and institutional corruption--without focusing on any single one, leading to a scattershot feel to the whole thing. And because of that scattershot feel, some nice touches (like how it's lost on Ben Urich that he's condemning big tobacco while allowing it to slowly kill him) are lost.
The oddest thing about the script, however, is the way Nocenti puts into motion a plotline that she must've known she couldn't follow-up on--namely the decision of the Kingpin to create his own media outlet. This becomes a minor focal point of Chichester's early run and becomes a major one during the Kesel and Kelly periods. One wonders if Nocenti was asked to put something in about this, or if her departure wasn't by her own choice (which wouldn't be surprising, since we're entering that era at Marvel where editors started exerting more and more influence on the stories that made print).
Surprisingly, Nocenti chooses to spend some time focusing on Bullet in this final issue (I would have expected her to focus on Typhoid or Bushwacker, who seemed to be far more successful in capturing the public's imagination). Of all of the Nocenti villains, Bullet has always been my favorite, not the least because John Romita Jr. portrays him as Dennis Franz with super-powers. Here, though, Bullet comes off, well, pathetic. Nocenti shows us a Bullet who's being stuck with his son by an ex-wife who's more concerned about her 'hot date,' who is depicted as doing simple strong-arm jobs for the Kingpin and who, when he's fighting Daredevil, is perpetually out of breath (DD even ridicules him for being fatter!). It's a very odd version of the character. One of the charms of Bullet in the early Nocenti stories was the contrast between how in control he was in the field with how little control he had over his relationship with his son; by making him a schlub who Daredevil beats in less than a page, that contrast is gone.
I am hard usually on Nocenti, who always seemed to think it was okay to write unnatural dialogue as long as there was something important to be said, but I have to say that here there are some nice moments. She manages to be one of the very few writers who get the idea that J. Jonah Jameson is an exceptional newspaper editor who believes in being a good journalist and handles the dilemma he finds himself put in well. The moments with Foggy do make him out to be a bit of a clot, but they're also touching in their way. The ending, in particular, with Matt returning to his best friend's side, is wonderful (pity it will be repeated several times as future writers end their tenure. The issue overall is free of that 'polemic as dialogue' situation that mars the bulk of Nocenti's work, and I suspect that if it wasn't for the fragmented nature of the narrative, this issue would have rated higher.
...especially with the pencils of Lee Weeks on display. I have praised Weeks elsewhere, and will praise him in the future, but what this story really drives home is how amazing his faces are. This is, after all, a story with minimal heroing carried almost completely by its dialogue scenes, and Week's people are so expressive that you know exactly what's going on, at some points even without reading the text. I truly wish Weeks could've stayed on beyond his short time with Chichester; I can just imagine what he could have done with Kesel's more upbeat stuff.
"All The News That Fits" is a weird, muted coda to one of the most controversial periods in this book's history. And while it may not be the best Ann Nocenti has to offer, it's certainly worth perusing.