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X-Men: Inferno – Daredevil (Review/Retrospective)

With our month looking at Avengers comics officially over, we thought it might be fun to dig into that other iconic Marvel property, the X-Men. Join us for a month of X-Men related reviews and discussion.

This weekend, we’re taking a look at one or two of the smaller Inferno crossovers. These issues are collected in the crossovers companion book.

From what little I’ve read of Ann Nocenti’s Daredevil, I really like it. My experience of her work on the title has been mainly limited to crossovers and tie-ins, but Nocenti has always managed to put her own spin on events – rather than feeling like a satellite title to Mutant Massacre or Fall of the Mutants, her connected issues felt like Daredevil stories staring at a world gone completely mad. It’s a subtle distinction, but one that too few authors remember in this era of event-driven comics. Inferno is no different, as Nocenti manages to take a massive and unfolding X-Men crossover and make it work for her own narrative and characters.

This city’s really going to hell…

It’s hard to imagine a situation where a writer on Daredevil in the eighties wasn’t going to feel trapped. After all, writer Frank Miller had redefined the character over his time on the main title, and had returned to write one of the most important and influential comic books ever written. I seriously believe that Miller’s Daredevil is a classic of the medium, and one that had a profound influence on the medium in the years that followed. Any writer working on the character would be caught between a rock and a hard place. Do they attempt to emulate his groundbreaking work, probably to an inferior standard, and get branded copycats? Or do they pull the comic in a different direction, though that means ignoring an approach that really worked?

Ann Nocenti, remarkably, does both and neither. She seems to grasp the essential ingredients of Miller’s run – including a more psychologically complex Matt Murdock and a decidedly cynical outlook – but doesn’t play them out against the same noir-ish backdrop. Instead, Nocenti takes those attributes Miller engrained into the character and instead plays them against a more clearly “superhero” backdrop. Miller’s run may have featured ninja assassins, sewer people and other touches, but it was firmly grounded in noir storytelling. Nocenti embraces the wider Marvel Universe and juxtaposes it against the unique Matt Murdock to create a fresh cocktail.

A bloody mess…

So, in Inferno, we see Matt going through one of the crises of confidence that Miller pretty much built into his character. He’s having a mini-freakout and a hallucination where he declares, melodramatically, that not only does he not wish to be Daredevil. He wishes that he were never born. “Why don’t you want to be born?” his version of Stick asks. “Bad, bad world out there,” Matt replies. “I’m just a little boy! I can’t… fight anymore!” In fairness, even Stick has enough of this self-doubt. He mocks Matt’s selfishness and the shallow justifications he offers, “You had a tragic, traumatized childhood, so now you have a right to collapse?”

Oh, did I mention that all of this is taking place while a rogue demon-possessed vacuum cleaner is strangling Matt? That is precisely what I meant about Nocenti integrating Miller’s take on the character with the bizarre wider world of comic books. She even ties in Born Again, as Karen Page is tempted to relapse into her heroin addiction, the addiction that led to Miller’s Born Again all those years ago. And, of course, she is tempted not by petty dealers or old friends, but by literal demons and monsters.

Needling her on…

In fact, Nocenti seems to validate Daredevil against this uniquely fantastical situation. Stick tries to motivate him to overcome his problems by embarking on a “hero’s journey”, perhaps even suggesting that he can transcend his mortal insecurities by becoming a real hero and slaying his dragon. “As long as you dwell in yourself, in your own petty problems,” Stick tells him in a moment of insight, “that’s all you’ll ever be, a small scared child! You’ve got to believe in something bigger than yourself!” And Nocenti, rather brilliantly, uses the somewhat contrived set-up of Inferno, with a demonic invasion of New York, to allow Matt to slay a literal dragon.

I’m generally skeptical of big events like Inferno or Acts of Vengeance because they typically derail the smaller titles sucked into their orbit. It’s a rare writer who can make that sort of event work for them, and Nocenti’s Daredevil is one such title. She never loses her characters in the midst of all this, and what the appearance of Hell on Earth must mean to people like Matt Murdock or Wilson Fisk. In one small vignette, the Kingpin contemplates the disaster. “But some small part of him, perhaps, expected a day of reckoning,” we’re told. The demons taunt him when he vainly declares his own authority and independence, “You’ve been working for us for a long time now. But you know that.”

Hell’s Kitchen… literally…

In fact, Nocenti even uses the event to seed later plot developments, like Matt’s trip to the countryside, which was a rather bold direction for the title. It seems that literally transforming New York into a sentient and sinister monster might have pushed Matt away just enough, and allowed him to try to break his own toxic habits. “Has this city gotten so hostile and insane it’s become literally uninhabitable?!” Black Widow muses at one point. When a possessed doctor is told he doesn’t look healthy, he responds, “Yes, well, I haven’t gotten out of the city in months.”

One victim of the demons, assaulted with the constant noise of the city and the theft of his property, laments, “That’s it. I been here twenty years. I can’t take it anymore. I’m gettin’ outta this stinkin’ city. I’m movin’ to the country.” During a confrontation, a sinister demon taunts Daredevil, “But this darn city, soon as you think you got it beat — it always turns around and beats you.” In a way, that perhaps illustrates the toxic relationship between Daredevil and Hell’s Kitchen, and his possessive nature of it. He seems to be a rare superhero aware that he can’t win in the long-run, that he can’t singlehandedly save Hell’s Kitchen. He can fight to keep it going and to prevent it becoming uninhabitable, but Murdock never seems to have any illusions about “fixing” it.

I’ll drink to that…

It is, I think, rather wonderful writing, transitioning Matt between the introverted and insecure protagonist that Miller defined and the wider Marvel Universe. Daredevil never seemed quite as small in the grand scheme of things as when Nocenti wrote him, and I think that provided some powerful existential fodder for the character. It’s not fair to compare Nocenti’s work to Miller’s, but I am immensely fond of both. I would certainly buy a nice hardcover collection of Nocenti’s Daredevil were one made available, in case anyone at Marvel reads this.

And, as usual, Nocenti is assisted by the wonderful John Romita Jr. His work with Nocenti on Daredevil is among my favourite work from the artist – if only because he manages to blend the grounded Matt Murdock so well with the fantastical constructs. There’s a lovely scene, as Matt hallucinates about Stick, where Romita illustrates Matt’s radar sense as a sort of sketchy picture. It works really well. His depiction of New York under siege is absolutely impressive, enhancing Nocenti’s admittedly purple prose. (“Is it possible, that man was just an experiment — that failed?”)

Stick with it…

I have a soft spot for Nocenti and Romita’s Daredevil, and I can’t believe that it isn’t more readily available. It’s not a truly classic comic, at least not that I’ve read, but it is smart and well-constructed, and does a wonderful job of following a defining run on the character.

In celebration of Inferno, we’ve taken a look at some of the more memorable tie-ins and crossovers:

2 Responses

  1. Yeah I really, really need to get these issues. I came in at the end of her run, with “Fall from Grace”, so I need to catch up. And yeah, Marvel REALLY needs to start putting her run out in trades if not an omnibus.

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