Welcome to Devil Talk, another entry in our ongoing, everlasting, I-can’t-believe-they’re-still-letting-me-do-this analysis of Marvel’s own Red Man, Daredevil. This week, we’re going to have another look at Ann Nocenti’s run on the comic. Last time, I mentioned that Nocenti’s run was notable as being an outlet for her own beliefs and political opinions, and I wanted to dig into that a little more. Nocenti has mentioned in interviews that she never expected to be writing Daredevil for long, but that liberated her to write about whatever she wanted. In fact, one fair criticism of Nocenti’s time on the comic is that it could be too political; sometimes politics and superhero comics don’t mix very well. However, awkwardly blending superheroes with politics is actually something of a Marvel tradition.
At the tail end of the 1960s, Marvel was determined to provide the hippest comics on the market. That meant following youth trends. The comic book audience was growing up; comics were being read by young kids, teenagers and college students alike. The problem is, selling comics is a business. Marvel had to find a way to appeal to the young, while not alienating and scandalising the more conservative audience. In other words, Marvel wanted to be subversive and progressive, but not too much. Since most of Marvel’s editorial were older white men, those first steps into political arenas were generally well-intentioned, but somewhat clumsy. Reading these old stories now can induce some eye-rolling and knowing laughs, but it’s amazing that some of the issues raised back then are still relevant.
By the 80s, then, politics in comics was nothing new. Nocenti took over the writing chores on Daredevil not long after Frank Miller had made his mark on the title. Miller was another one who infused politics into his comics, although his politics were, to put it kindly, increasingly more complicated than Nocenti’s liberalism. That’s not to say that Nocenti’s stories were simplistic. Far from it. Nocenti’s stories were always thoughtful, willing to examine all sides of the argument, and were generally rather playful with politics, rather than beating you over the head about them. Sometimes, the stories with the most political content are the ones that are still relevant all these years later.
I want to focus on one story in particular, The Caviar Killer, from DD #242 (1987) illustrated by Keith Pollard. In its opening scenes, a wealthy owner of a chemical plant is patronisingly extolling the virtues of trickle-down economics to the plant’s union leader, Joe. While the businessman – in his suit and tie – eats his lavish dinner, Joe is clearly disgusted by the opulence and waste, but tries to appeal to his boss to stop needless layoffs at the plant. However, the conversation gets heated, and in a fit of rage Joe chokes the businessman by forcing food down his throat. Stunned, Joe realises he’s crossed a line, and phones the police to turn himself in. When the cops only put him on hold, he phones the Daily Bugle, and gets through to the sleazy Simon La Grange, who smells a career-making story. With La Grange’s encouragement, Joe declares himself the Caviar Killer, and promises a killing spree unless the rich start giving their fair share of wealth to the poor.
Meanwhile, Daredevil is becoming increasingly aware of the power of the media, and how is image as a crimefighter is being distorted. When saving an old man from some muggers, DD is surprised to find that the old man is more scared of the guy in the devil suit than he is of the muggers. Karen Page also has cause for concern. She knows the media lies about Daredevil’s violent image, because she knows the real man too well, but she can feel how powerful the media can be in distorting things. “Your blindness saves you from being saturated by the media like the rest of us!”
The story of the Caviar Killer comes to a head when La Grange arranges a live TV interview with Joe. A gang of supporters has lined up behind them, sympathetic to the Caviar Killer’s cause. La Grange doesn’t care that rich people are being killed. He’s in this purely for the sake of his own career. Daredevil shows up to bring the Caviar Killer in, but the supporters try to beat DD up instead. Well aware of the cameras rolling, DD tries to stop things before the violence escalates, but he looks like a brutal thug while he’s doing it. Soon, Joe puts a stop to it all and turns himself in to the police, but the police arrest La Grange too, for aiding and abetting a murderer. Justice is served, but no one comes out of this story looking good. The images of Daredevil beating up working men has just been beamed across the city. Who has profited from all this?
It’s a quick story, but leaves us with plenty to think about. The businessman is vilified by being a caricature of conservative economics, but Joe, the working stiff, is no hero either. It’s clear who Nocenti is really being critical of; it’s media types like La Grange, and the lengths that the media will go to get a story. La Grange is another caricature of the cynical news-man. When the good Ben Urich confronts him, La Grange just says “What business do you think you’re in, Urich? Public Service? …News is a product like any other. We sell it, for the biggest profit possible.”
This comic was published over 25 years ago, but it still feels relevant. If anything, media saturation has only gotten worse. As far as blending politics and comics goes, the industry still struggles to be progressive and inclusive. It tries to follow youth trends, but never tries to lead the changes, just as it was in the 60s. The more things change, the more things stay the same.
Next time on Devil Talk: The Nineties! Yay!