By Jess Plummer
Daredevil #283 (August 1990) by Ann Nocenti and Mark Bagley isn’t really a Daredevil comic. It doesn’t feature his familiar NYC setting or any of his usual cast of characters, and the man himself is barely in it. Despite coming towards the end of Nocenti’s four and a half year run, it mostly ignores everything that’s gone before; Matt, on his way back home from a lengthy sojourn in upstate New York, starts the issue by abruptly walking away mid-sentence from the characters he’s been spending the past couple years with and we never see any of them again. And it eschews most of the motifs and tropes that readers have come to expect from Daredevil stories, and from Nocenti’s run in particular.
Well, except a general sense of frustrated despair. That’s pretty on-brand for Daredevil.
So whose story is it? Well, looking at the cover, if it’s not Daredevil’s, it’s gotta be Captain America’s. And as such, the concerns it raises are unsettlingly relevant today, even if the actual story itself, um…makes very little sense.
The issue begins in media res, with a man standing on the roof of a building, draped in an American flag, delivering a passionate speech about the American dream (that is confusingly rendered in narration boxes, giving the whole thing a slightly surreal feeling). He jumps—
—and we jump too, back in time to see both Daredevil and Captain America arriving coincidentally in the same small town in upstate New York. The emphasis is on Cap, who is characteristically struggling with the disconnect between America’s ideals and her reality. “Not again!” he cries when a news vendor offers him a free magazine (and throwing it at the poor guy, who was just trying to be nice—c’mon, Steve). “We broke international law invading Panama! Now we’re breaking the law again with this fabricated ‘drug war!’[…]Why can’t my country stand for something right for a change?! This so-called drug war just fuels the military defense budget, erodes civil liberties… We’re on the wrong side of every war!”
He cheers up when he reaches the town center to find Victor Cieszkowska, an immigrant from an unspecified part of “the Communist world” and the man from the opening pages. Victor is an inventor whose ideas come to him via lucid dreaming (sure), and he has built a flying car out of recycled garbage that runs on “harmonics.” “By using harmonic resonance, you can alter matter!” he declares. “Run on garbage, the harmonics will make the car rise!” The fact that this makes zero sense scientifically and very little grammatically doesn’t seem to matter: his car does in fact actually fly.
Daredevil (remember him?) follows the unusual sound of Victor’s car back to his house, because…well, because he does, I guess. Cap spots him and follows as well, also simply because. We don’t need reasons for our actions in Daredevil #283! We have unsubtle metaphors to yell about!
Despite their powers, Cap and Daredevil are apparently the slowest walkers in the state of New York, because Victor has time to have another lucid dream – and to receive, in rapid succession, threats from immigration, the IRS, and the FBI. Folks, I can’t get over this. Some of this issue’s playing with chronology is effective, like the opening, and some of it is just bonkers, and this is a perfect example of the latter: somehow the government has time to find out about the flying car, panic, and send Victor a threatening letter through the mail, all in the time it takes two superheroes to walk several blocks. Are they okay? Did they die?
Anyway, by the time our heroes finally arrive and run the FBI agent off, the news is already airing a story claiming that the car is a hoax, and that police are searching for Victor, presumably for breaking the well-known law against…lying about flying cars, I guess.
It’s blatantly clear that Victor’s being targeted by the government and its propaganda machinery because they’re threatened by his invention. “The auto-oil-military-industrial complex would never allow a non-polluting, cheap-fuel car to exist!” Cap declares. He and Daredevil discuss the myriad problems with America: the wealth gap, the racism, the gutting of social programs, the rampant capitalism. Cap raises the specter of the founding fathers’ ideals, and Daredevil comes right back with the genocide of Native Americans. In other words: America was never great.
Nora, Victor’s wife, informs the heroes that Victor is lucid dreaming again, and if the car is destroyed while he dreams, it can never be rebuilt, which is beautifully coherent as a metaphor and absolute nonsense as a plot device. Sure enough, the car is suddenly attacked by a group of mooks, presumably hired by the government. Our heroes try to stop them, but mostly seem to wind up throwing their opponents into the car, which… guys, sometimes it isn’t actually the thought that counts. “Look at the car! It’s ruined!” Steve shouts unnecessarily. “We didn’t protect the car!” No, boys. You didn’t.
Which brings us back to that opening image. In despair over the death of his dream, Victor climbs to the top of a building in the town center, draped in the American flag, while a horrified crowd watches. “This is what I think of you, America!” he declares, and jumps… and flies, because he built a jetpack at some point! Presumably also made of garbage! Hooray!
“That’s my Victor! He dreamed his dream again! He can fly! That’s the man I know and love!” Nora declares as the discarded flag flutters down into Steve’s arms. “And this – is the flag I know and love,” he says, and the issue ends.
For all that Nocenti’s run comes from the bleak Dark Age of comics and is generally pessimistic and cynical, Daredevil #283 is goofy as hell. The lucid dreaming, the car that runs on “harmonics,” Cap’s random bullying of an innocent newsvendor… they’re all very silly. The stakes are contrived, the jetpack is a clumsy deus ex machina, and every time I think of how long it apparently took Cap and Daredevil to walk across town I start laughing again.
But from an allegorical standpoint, Daredevil #283 is completely coherent. The true hero of the issue is not Daredevil or Captain America, but an immigrant who comes to America believing it to be a land of opportunity, and is targeted by a corporatized, warmongering government – but as long as he has faith in his dreams of what America could be, he can still fly. The sub-motifs are clear as well, particularly the sheer uselessness of the ostensible superheroes, who despite their best intentions are just as destructive to the magical flying garbage car as the nameless bad guys. This is a repeated theme in Nocenti’s Daredevil run: violence, no matter how it’s wielded, is never constructive.
Moreover, though the geopolitical background may have changed, the degree to which Cap and Daredevil’s political worries are still relevant 31 years later is both startling and depressing. In many cases, like the wealth gap, the issues have only grown more severe. I look at this despairing Captain America and I don’t want to tell him about the last five years.
Though I by and large prefer my Daredevil comics to be about Daredevil (that’s a lie; I prefer them to be about Foggy Nelson), there is a proud Marvel tradition of superheroes shouting about extremely unsubtle metaphors for social justice issues against laughably silly backdrops. In that light, Daredevil #283 stands in good company. May we all take its lessons to heart and pursue our magical garbage jetpack dreams, without waiting for someone else to save us.
Written by Ann Nocenti
Pencilled by Mark Bagley
Inked by Al Williamson and Tom Morgan
Coloured by Christie Scheele
Lettered by Clem Robins
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