Pulp and Dagger

Graphic Novel Review


Daredevil Legends: Typhoid Mary

2003 - available in soft cover

Written by Ann Nocenti. Pencils by John Romita, Jr. Inks by Al Williamson.
Colours: Max Scheele, Janet Jackson, Greg Wright. Letters: Joe Rosen. Editor: Ralph Macchio.

Reprinting: Daredevil (1st Marvel series) #254-257, 259-263 (1988-1989)

210 pages

Published by Marvel Comics

Cover price: $19.99 USA / $32.00 CDN.

Though comic book superhero Daredevil was spawned in the same creative explosion that birthed Spider-Man, The Hulk, The Fantastic Four and The X-Men, it probably took the recently released Daredevil big budget motion picture to make him a name recognized by the mainstream. A blind lawyer named Matt Murdock by day, he's a superhero whose hyper-senses mean no one realizes he's blind.

As a superhero, DD always ran the danger of being a second stringer. Even his arch foe, the Kingpin, is a hand-me-down -- he was originally a Spider-Man villain. Originally a wisecracking hero, but always with one foot in the streets, Daredevil's creative renaissance came about when writer-artist Frank Miller took over the character in the 1980s, emphasizing him as a figure rooted in the mean streets of New York, tackling mobsters (albeit with occasional super-villains, the Supernatural, and ninjas) and adding a dollop of Catholic guilt to his psyche.

This story arc, Daredevil: Typhoid Mary, introduces "Typhoid Mary" -- who suffers from Disassociative Personality Disorder (split personality to you and me). As "Typhoid", she's a psychopath with low-level psychokinetic abilities, but as "Mary", she's a sweet innocent. Which makes her the perfect instrument for the Kingpin to employ to destroy Daredevil -- Mary can seduce him, Typhoid can shatter him. While all this is unfolding, there are other plots, like a three-part story as Daredevil, in alter ego of Matt Murdock, fights a civil case against a corporate polluter (owned by the Kingpin), tackles the Punisher, kiddie pornographers, and more. Plus superheroes like the Black Widow and the Human Torch guest star.

This collection is somewhat unsatisfying...but also impressively ambitious. Writer Ann Nocenti presents a saga whose themes and emotional complexity rivals another Daredevil saga, the classic Born Again. What works is that she lets the crime-action scenes share equal time with the human drama. Many modern comics writers, while thinking they're "sophisticated", are too wrapped up in the iconism of their costumed crusaders -- treating those crusaders as superheroes, rather than people. But Nocenti's saga, written back in the 1980s, avoids that (for the most part). The romantic entanglements, though motivated by the superhero-villain conflicts, are still rooted in a kitchen sink reality. In one sequence, Daredevil contemplates marching in an anti-Nuclear march -- not everything he says and does is motivated by the fact that he's a superhero. There's a strong human drama/soap opera-y feel to the proceedings, reminding us that Daredevil is, fundamentally, a human being in a suit.

And a flawed human.

Daredevil, intentionally, isn't always the most sympathetic of characters -- brooding and self-absorbed, and overly self-righteous, one character charges that he "wields his 'morality' like a club". And yet, one can't fault that his failings are motivated by good intentions. However, the story hinges on him cheating on his girl friend, Karen Page, with the seemingly innocent Mary -- which is the Kingpin's plan: to corrupt Daredevil.

Nocenti works in the various characters, crafting a complex romantic conflict involving, not just Daredevil, Karen, and Mary (who is Typhoid) but even the Kingpin gets entangled as he becomes infatuated with Typhoid.

Nocenti's dialogue can be clunkily heavy-handed as characters think lines like "The entanglements and waste of America's legal system just contribute to the inertia of lies..." It may not be the most realistic dialogue, but that can actually work in its favour. When Daredevil broods about "moral criminals" as opposed to legal ones, you know we're getting into heady areas. The book is full of digressions and passages that are so thick with implied meaning that you can reach a point where you're unsure what Nocenti's point is...but you're pretty sure she has a point. The term "bully" echoes again and again in the comic, applied to heroes and villains and even society itself as a recurring motif.

But there are technical lapses and confusing bits. Mary is supposed to be an innocent dupe, genuinely falling for Matt Murdock, but sometimes she seems directed by Typhoid's personality. And people fall for each other a mite easily (though, to be fair, Typhoid is supposed to have an almost preternatural allure for men). At another point, Daredevil suspects Typhoid will do some jury tampering for the Kingpin...when he shouldn't know there's any connection between the two! And a sidekick of Typhoid's disappears from the story part way through.

This collection builds to a sequence where Hell itself erupts on the streets of New York. It's one of those awkward "company crossovers" where a comics writer is required to connect their story to something happening in all the other comics (in this case, an X-Men storyline that was collected in the TPB X-Men: Inferno). Yet Nocenti almost makes it work, as if the eruption of Hell really is the culmination of her saga's themes -- the inevitable end result of a city miredd in corruption and cruelty, where people are already being betrayed by, essentially, their inner demons. The implicit becomes explicit as the collection reaches a thematic climax.

Yet for all its ambition, on a more literal level this collection resolves unsurely. Though this storyline does have a resolution of sorts, the whole Typhoid Mary thing seems to dangle a bit and the book ends with New York still in the grip of the Inferno plot.

I'm often critical when TPB collections don't really resolve satisfactorily. Yet I'm more forgiving here. Maybe it's because this journey has its own rewards, however unsatisfying the end. Because there are stories within the overall arc that resolve, one can enjoy them for themselves. And maybe it's because I knew the Inferno stuff, at least, wouldn't be resolved in -- or even involve -- Daredevil anyway (it was an X-Men plotline). Even if they had collected the next few issues of Daredevil, it would've ended just as unsatisfactorily. Besides, we all know everything will get back to normal, right?

The saga is dark and almost overly downbeat at times -- as mentioned, New York becoming Hell on earth actually seems like a logical expression of Nocenti's themes. This is a Daredevil saga so, as has become almost tradition, you know sooner or later he's going to be put through the physical wringer. But, at other times, Nocenti goes for a lighter touch. After many issues of DD seemingly smothered in an almost Nietszchean fatalism, suddenly there's a sequence where he reverts to his old, wisecracking self. And an issue featuring Johnny Storm (of the Fantastic Four) is also amusing...though a touch long for what it is.

A sequence where a disoriented DD's hyper-senses start misfiring is superbly effective, reminding the reader how thin the barrier is between Daredevil, superhero, and Daredevil, blind man. In fact, the concept of the sightless DD being fooled by a split personality is intriguing in its own right since it wouldn't have worked for, say, Spider-Man, or Captain America, because they'd instantly recognize her as the same person. The use of supporting characters is also interesting -- like DD employing street ragamuffins as informants, evoking Sherlock Holmes' Baker Street Irregulars. And Nocenti utilizes the lawyer aspect better than many Daredevil scribes. This isn't about a superhero who moonlights as a lawyer simply to give him an alter ego...the trial really is the most important thing in Matt Murdock's life while it transpires.

Artist John Romita Jr. has become a genuine fan favourite, though I've had mixed feelings about him. Son of Silver Age Marvel Comics legend, John Romita, junior started out with a fairly clunky, unremarkable style, and in recent years has moved toward a loose, sketchy style. But this middle period work is actually pretty good, with some nicely realized figure work and action scenes, and a nice eye for telling the story through the panel composition. Yet his facial work can be inexpressive. Ironically, he seems more comfortable with exaggerated faces, milking more emotional nuance from the overweight Kingpin's impossibly broad features than he does from Daredevil. He also has a tendency to draw Mary in a way that, frankly, makes her appear even more sinister than Typhoid, which kind of hurts the point of the saga.

Admittedly a flawed work that seems to juggle more themes than it can comfortably handle, building to an inconclusive end. Despite all that, Daredevil: Typhoid Mary remains an intriguing, ambitious, frequently absorbing read. Balancing pluses and minuses...the pluses come out on top.

Reviewed by D.K. Latta

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