By Anna Peppard
Queerness is a natural bedfellow of comics, even ones, like superhero comics, that have spent much of their history being officially homophobic. Between 1954 and 1989, the Comics Code forbade non-heteronormative presentations of gender and sexuality, and Marvel comics spent most of the 80s under the supervision of editor-in-chief Jim Shooter, whose version of gay pride involved the infamous boast, “There are no gays in the Marvel universe.” And yet, from their inception, superhero comics have been many kinds of queer. Just ask Fredric Wetham and the framers of the original Comics Code, who were very hot and bothered about the fantasies Batman’s supposed homoerotic paradise and Wonder Woman’s suggestively sapphic one might be foisting on America’s impressionable youth.
Anti-comics crusaders of the 1950s often imagined youthful comics readers as sexual deviants in training, sweatily gripping flashlights under the covers to hungrily devour beautiful images of flamboyant outsiders tangling with other flamboyant outsiders, modelling dangerous rebellions against the strict social and sartorial rules of postwar American culture. But it wasn’t until the triumph of the direct market weakened the power of the Code that superhero comics began experimenting with being intentionally queer. An especially sexy example is Daredevil #266, “A Beer with the Devil,” written by Ann Nocenti and pencilled by John Romita Jr., originally published in May 1989.
This comic’s first kind of queerness is obvious. Daredevil #266 features two characters who usually present as male – the titular superhero and the satanic villain Mephisto – sharing an erotic kiss. It’s a bit of a cheat, because when the kiss occurs, Mephisto is visually coded as female. But it’s a cheat with a purpose; Mephisto’s presentational fluidity speaks to a larger project of subverting expectations that’s introduced on the first page and carefully developed throughout the issue.
The setting is Christmas Eve in New York, the way the city often was in comics, movies, and TV shows of the 80s—diverse and vibrant, but also on the perpetual precipice of chaos. Nocenti and Romita Jr. add complexity to this generic scene through a steady stream of unexpected juxtapositions. On the splash page that opens the issue, carollers at the Rockefeller Center skating rink sing “all is calm, all is bright” amid a crowded tableau rendered hectic by pelting snow, and ominous by the graphically oppressive weight of a pitch black sky and the outstretched arms and blank expression of the plaza’s famous statue of Prometheus, who’s both sheltering the crowd from the snow and seems ready to hurl it upon them, in wrath or, perhaps, boredom. In Greek mythology, Prometheus is a vigilante hero; he stole fire from the gods to give to mankind, founding human civilization. Presenting him this way – as threatening, or at least aloof and nebulous – signals the role Daredevil will play in this story, as a fallen hero who’s at once apart from and a part of the community he’s sworn to protect.
The following page continues these subversions. Childlike joy is sullied by greed; one child demands a “whole bag” of chestnuts, while another chants “Mine Mine Mine!” as he hefts an enormous present over his head. The heat of passion, meanwhile, is laced with chills; endearments exchanged between a warmly embracing couple overlap an image of a snowman outside a tenement, and are framed by a ragged figure huddled in an alley, thinking only of constant cold.
Nocenti’s introductory narration lends these subversions an erotic charge:
It fills the air, swells hearts, softens eyes, flushes cheeks. Love. As tangible and pervasive as the gentle snowfall. A love that sneaks in and surprises even the hardest hearts. Lips smile. Fingers entwine. Snow is on the ground, a song is in the air, God is in heaven.
In this narration, Nocenti interweaves prelapsarian innocence and mature sexuality; she could be describing spiritual passion, or something considerably fleshier. It’s up to the reader to untangle, or decide whether they want to. (For my part, I’m quite happy to linger in sensual slipperiness.) One thing is certain, though—this is a story about desire, and the many forms it can take, some of them unexpected, all of them enticing.
Yet when we first meet Daredevil, alone and despondently nursing a beer at a bar filled with other lonely hearts and misfits, he’s not enticed by much of anything. This initial image of Daredevil is jarring precisely because it’s Daredevil—because Matt Murdock is sitting at a bar in his superhero identity, rather than his civilian one. In the wake of a series of encounters with the villain Typhoid Mary that left him physically and psychologically scarred and cost him his relationship with long-time paramour Karen Page, Matt has retreated into the stoicism and supposed simplicity of being Daredevil full-time. This image is also jarring because Daredevil is visibly injured. His jaw, his only bare skin, is wrapped in bandages, an unusual sign of vulnerability within a genre that generally privileges impossibly impenetrable bodies. Notably, the bandages are under Daredevil’s mask rather than over it, suggesting the depth of his wounds and the ultimate futility of using his costume to hide them.
Unsurprisingly, being Daredevil full-time isn’t as simple as Matt wants it to be. In short order, two patrons accost him, each of them performing gendered clichés. First, a white-haired woman in pancake makeup plays the role of the aging beauty queen, describing a clearly imaginary “gentleman caller” while asking for reassurance that she’s “still beautiful” (a question she subsequently poses to several other men in the bar). Next, a glasses-wearing, scruffy beard-sporting “average Joe” tells Daredevil a grossly misogynistic story about his life’s greatest triumph, which involves humiliating his wife into speechlessness before walking out on her for good.
The gender and sexual identity of the next patron who interacts with Daredevil is significantly less certain. Our first view of this character, as a dark silhouette sporting a trench coat, combat boots, and a mess of curly hair, is deliberately ambiguous. So is their face when they claim the stool next to Daredevil’s, positioned authoritatively in the foreground. The character’s deep red lipstick suggests one possibility, while their thick eyebrows, square jaw, and un-delicate nose suggest others. Obviously, none of these features are unusual for women in the real world, straight, queer, or otherwise; but they read as unusual within a genre that customarily hyper-feminizes female characters.
The dialogue amplifies this visual ambiguity, with the average Joe who had occupied the seat next to Daredevil calling the character “buddy,” a handle customarily applied to men; the same character later explicitly describes the character as a “guy.” Yet on the next page, and throughout the ambiguous stranger’s attempted seduction of Daredevil, they assume a more stereotypically feminine appearance; when Daredevil is in the foreground, angled toward the stranger, their eyebrows get thinner, their eyelashes get longer and darker, their nose gets daintier, and their dusty pink eyeshadow becomes more prominent. There are also multiple panels in which the stranger’s head is cropped out of the frame along with Daredevil’s, suggesting sensual attractions that are more than skin-deep.
Daredevil, of course, can’t see these transformations; he’s been blind since childhood, when he was bathed in radioactive chemicals as a consequence of saving a man’s life. Historically, Daredevil’s disability has often been mobilized in problematic ways. It’s easy for the character to fall into “Magical Disabled Person” tropes, informed by the myth that blindness enhances other senses (or insight), and ableist expectations that people with disabilities can – and should – overcome their difference through supreme effort. Here, though, Daredevil’s blindness furthers the ambiguity of the scene. On the one hand, Daredevil’s blindness seems to afford him a measure of protection against the stranger’s mysterious power. The mere sight of the stranger makes the average Joe and another bigoted man turn ghostly pale, with the bigot seemingly seeing his greatest fear – a caricature of a menacing Black “thug” (his words, not mine).
In contrast, until the moment he kisses the stranger, Daredevil is calm to the point of apathy, living up to his reputation as “The Man Without Fear.” On the other hand, Daredevil is disadvantaged by his inability to see the danger at hand; a man is stabbed and killed when he finally succumbs to the stranger’s seduction. Yet I’m personally most interested in the way Daredevil’s unique perception of the world highlights the subjectiveness of gendered appearances and attractions. After the stranger is revealed as Mephisto, it remains unclear whether Daredevil imagined the usually male-presenting demon as a woman because he was attracted to him, or whether he was attracted to him because he presented himself as a certain type of woman.
This isn’t a wholly positive representation of queerness. The Mephisto revelation can’t help but associate queerness with trickery, evil, and a fall into sin, tapping into tropes with long histories and real-world consequences. One of these consequences is the “gay panic defense,” a legal strategy wherein the assault and murder of LGBTQ+ people is blamed on temporary insanity provoked by unwanted – and implicitly deceptive – same-sex advances. The racial politics are also worth questioning; this story sacrifices a Black man to inspire pathos and teach a white hero and a presumed majority white audience a lesson.
Importantly, though, the argument about family, work, and responsibility that leads to the man’s death is not racially coded in any heavy-handed way; this is a largely universal conflict (though erasing cultural specificity can be another political problem). And it isn’t Mephisto’s gender or sexual ambiguity that initially causes Daredevil to reject him, knocking him off his stool in a fit of righteous anger; it’s other incongruities related to age, place, and speech patterns that make Daredevil realize he’s being manipulated. When the average Joe accuses Daredevil of failing to stop the stabbing because he was “too busy swapping germs with that guy,” Daredevil expresses mild surprise, rather than disgust. I read his real sin as apathy, not desire; though his failure is linked to gender and sexual deviance, it’s arguably more directly linked to his retreat into masculine stoicism.
This story also suggests queer possibilities that extend beyond the fact of Daredevil and Mephisto’s kiss. This kiss isn’t just a kiss; it’s the climax of a larger illustration of the complexity of all gender and sexual identities. As Mephisto informs Daredevil, he has no singular shape: “Male, female, beast, whatever. Things are never what they seem.” Some of us experience gender and sexuality identity as fluidly as Mephisto does; others experience these things as firm, important truths; others land somewhere in between. Yet most of us have experienced having our personal truth misperceived; our gender and sexual identities often depend, in part, on how we’re interpreted by others. Daredevil’s identity is similarly contextual. In seeking purity, he only succeeds in emphasizing his own inherent ambiguity. Daredevil is a cultivated identity distilled into a costume a person wears, much like the shifting shapes Mephisto uses to either disguise his true shapelessness or display his true multiplicity.
That’s powerful, but it’s also dangerous. Daredevil’s crimson second-skin, perfectly streamlined except for the whimsical embellishment of those adorable devil horns, might mean one thing in the context of a superhero battle, and another thing when he’s sitting at a bar surrounded by gendered clichés and tempted by gender fluid demons. Here, Daredevil is either wearing an out-of-season Halloween costume or fetish gear that evokes another type of bar. In any case, he is, like Mephisto, and like any other hero or villain whose unique or multiple names, bodies, faces, or ways of being chafe against societal norms, definitely different, and definitely strange – in other words, definitely some kind of queer.
It also matters that there’s no retreat into purity at the end of the issue, no reassertion of the categorical boundaries the comic began troubling on page one. The issue concludes with Daredevil falling upwards, from an approximation of hell down to Earth, specifically, an alley, where he’s once again greeted by the aging starlet and the average Joe, who invite him to the soup kitchen for Christmas dinner. No one is punished, but no one is forgiven, either. Everyone simply is. These characters are united not in sameness of being or purpose, but just because they are, like everyone, more complicated than they might at first appear. We’re left wondering who had a beer with whom, which of them was a devil, and what being a devil means. But then, this is typical of devils, who are often tricksters; by rejecting paradise and tempting change, devil figures routinely challenge simple truths, and compel others to do the same.
Nocenti’s superhero comics often exploit cliché and iconicity to tell stories that feel like parables without being didactic. Daredevil #266 is a perfect example. This comic’s final subversive act is the way it lands, like Daredevil, on solid ground that’s anything but. Daredevil’s tiny smile in the final panel is, at best, a brief and tenuous respite, a fleeting moment of calm and bright before we and Daredevil barrel onward into the next cluster of conflicts, brave, and hopeful, if not entirely fearless.
Writer: Ann Nocenti
Artist/Co-Plotter: John Romita Jr.
Inker: Al Williamson
Colourist: Gregory Wright
Letterer: Joe Rosen
Anna is a writer, talker, and PhD-haver. She’s published widely on representations of race, gender, and sexuality within a variety of popular media genres and forms, including action-adventure television, superhero comics, professional wrestling, and sports culture. She’s the editor of the anthology Supersex: Sexuality, Fantasy, and the Superhero and co-hosts the podcasts Three Panel Contrast (a monthly discussion of comics classics) and The Oh Gosh, Oh Golly, Oh Wow! Podcast (a weekly, issue-by-issue re-read of Marvel’s classic Excalibur series).
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