By Adam Karenina Sherif

The face of Western comics is changing, but it’s been a long road and a journey that still has many hills to climb. Black characters are taking on more prominent roles in the panels we read, and more Black creators are shaping their stories behind the scenes. But what of the creatives who came before? This column traces the path of Black comics creativity throughout the decades, with each year focusing on a book that features a Black writer, artist, colourist, letterer, or editor. From underground comix through Black Panther and beyond, this series will reveal the evolution of diversity in the comics industry, and shed some light on the unsung Black heroes that have helped to shape it.

Content warning: mentions of drug abuse, fatphobia, racism, misogyny

Daredevil #246 by Christopher Priest and Tom Morgan is a fill-in issue, ten issues into Ann Nocenti’s unparalleled tenure on the book. John Romita Jr. had not yet arrived to form the duo that would go on to tell the tragedy of Typhoid Mary, but Nocenti was already on a total tear, blazing a trail with tidy single-issue stories that were building an expansive programme of thematic explorations: the conservatism and individualism of superheroes; the never-ending recourse to violence; and an address of contemporary social and political questions in the US and specifically New York City zeitgeist. In this issue, Priest deftly takes the reins to tell a story that fits perfectly within the tonality Nocenti had worked to establish – lending the complexity of authentic voice to a story which considers the Black civilian experience of superheroes in the city.

While Priest would eventually deliver a pivotal work with Marvel Knights: Black Panther, this issue of Daredevil actually finds him following on from a T’Challa cameo in the previous issue. In #245, Nocenti and artist Chuck Patton brought in Black Panther for a tale that explored cultural difference through the lens of Wheeler, a down-on-his-luck Wakandan ex-pat with a gambling addiction. In short, Daredevil and Black Panther have very different philosophies as far as helping this man to turn his life around. It’s a thoughtful, discursive issue which broadens the scope of Nocenti’s critique of normative values and the ways in which superheroes uphold a status quo.

With this fill-in issue, Priest and Morgan match the format, seamlessly telling a one-shot story which offers a meaningful thematic contribution to the wider series. And instead of centring the Wakandan gaze as it were – which is something external – Priest shows how the African-American civilian experience is something both alien and unintelligible to the white superhero. It’s an American conversation that Priest frames and allows to play out in this issue.

Daredevil #246 tells the story of a Black New York City cab driver who gets caught up in some superhero shenanigans when Daredevil steps into his cab, in hot pursuit of members of the Secret Committee that has a major hand in the city’s criminal operations. Driver Nigel Townes is in the middle of putting his life back together, as someone who has been previously incarcerated, when the man in red tights crashes into his world. 

Despite being a non-violent bystander, Townes finds himself treated with suspicion by the police, dragged into the succeeding court case and forced to testify against the criminal organisation. He is hounded by the press, and amidst the chaos his family leave him for a second time. And while he survives an assassination attempt by a Secret Committee mercenary and does indeed testify, the issue closes with this man’s life nevertheless in tatters.

Through the course of the issue, Daredevil struggles to pinpoint exactly why this man’s life is being ruined, desperate for a focal point at which he can direct his consistently self-righteous fury. The book’s opening captions prove particularly telling, as Daredevil laments that every day ‘some kid takes a hit off an illegal drug and ends up at the city morgue’, and every day ‘overweight men in designer Italian suits profit from the sale of those drugs’. While the fatphobia here marks a disappointingly stereotypical image of greed from Priest, this internal monologue also positions Daredevil as having some grasp of the scale and mechanisms of drug abuse and distribution. A little worryingly, he then positions himself as the individual, sole arbiter of justice: “I get the chance to do something about that”. 

When he takes on the Secret Committee’s henchmen, he goes further, affirming to himself that if he manages to take them down and can conclusively destroy this network of organised crime, “one less kid will die in a Hell’s Kitchen doorway. And that’s what I’m all about. I take care of those who can’t see to themselves”. Daredevil centres himself in the narrative, even though Priest’s story is going to centre someone else.

One way in which the artwork complements this thread particularly effectively is through the choice to depict Daredevil only in costume in this issue. Matt Murdock is not seen, and the result is the highlighting of how the figure of the superhero is actually vaguely inappropriate in this story, insofar as it relates to Nigel Townes. Daredevil’s ridiculous full tights and trenchcoat combo is a completely comical look, and possibly a reflection of how wildly out of touch he really is.

What this issue spotlights with alarming clarity is that although Daredevil can orient himself towards the head of the drug supply chain, his individualistic approach and philosophy leave him totally unable to grasp the systemic in any kind of meaningful fashion. Daredevil doesn’t know that racism is a thing.

En route to protect Nigel Townes against the hired gun named Chance, Daredevil muses to himself: “I wonder about the way Nigel’s life is coming apart. I wonder whose fault it is. I wonder if the accident that robbed me of my sight, while giving me these special abilities, was a blessing or a curse”. To see this kind of insistent narrative re-centring that is such a hallmark of whiteness captured so succinctly is truly remarkable. It’s a subtle, biting insight from Priest. Daredevil turns away from the topic because he is self-obsessed, because he cannot face the reality of it, and because this is what white people do.

In fact, Daredevil doesn’t even perform a very simple act of solidarity when he has the opportunity. In a brilliant storytelling ellipsis, the narrative jumps from the conclusion of the chase and fight scene straight to Townes being questioned at the police station – in handcuffs of course, despite being there as a witness. The reader can only infer that Daredevil, who is now seen outside slyly listening in through the window, opted not to linger at the scene long enough to stick up for Townes or attempt to prevent his detention. It’s a striking distinction that Daredevil protects Townes from a mercenary, but not from the police.

At the story’s close when the mercenary Chance flees (having spared Townes’ life in the end), Daredevil finds himself frustrated once more: “I need someone to blame for the mess Nigel’s life has become”. The implication is not so much that Daredevil himself is to blame here, rather that the collateral damage of superhero drama does not affect all bystanders equally because society is not equal. Ultimately this is beyond Daredevil’s comprehension, and he really doesn’t get any further with it. Instead, he’s left with questions that challenge his conceptualisation of justice and his own self-ascribed role as superhero. That Priest leaves this tension unresolved is a strong, uncompromised choice.

On the other side of all this is Nigel Townes’ experience. If Daredevil’s arc is one of frustration, Townes’ is one of everyday heartbreak. As the story proceeds, he endures typical news coverage that delights in his criminal record, various cops who belittle him, a run-in with some racists at a truck stop diner, the hounding of his family by reporters, as well as the assassination attempt. Eventually, he testifies against the Secret Committee before leaving the city to see if he can find his family.

There’s a chosen optimism to the character at first, making these events even more painful to witness. Reflecting on his past incarceration, he acknowledges, “I messed up. Man’s gotta take responsibility for his own goof-ups, right? Stuff doesn’t happen to you by accident, right?” The uncertainty in his expression, framing those statements as questions, almost feels like Townes is either looking for affirmation or perhaps for someone to say that actually it’s not all his fault. But Daredevil, who’s running an internal monologue in the backseat, is tuning him out: “It takes all my concentration to listen beyond the cabbie’s chatter. But I can do that.”

What’s most interesting and moving about Townes’ portrait is that, while he doesn’t necessarily have a systemic view or the precise language to articulate it, he knows what’s happening on an intrinsic level. When bullets spray the cab in the opening fight scene, Townes falls to his knees and cries, “I can’t believe this!! Now there’ll be cops crawling all over this place – everything goes down the tubes”. Despite not getting involved in the violence, he knows that the arrival of the police spells bad news for him as a Black man.

To his credit as well, Townes moves through – and past – a resentment towards Daredevil. Before the police arrive, he asks the superhero directly: “You got any idea what you’ve done to my life – ?!” And when he considers taking off instead of testifying, he snaps, “I gotta see if I can put my life back together after this mess you’ve made – !” Fitting the story’s title, and as Daredevil grows more desperate to identify one, Townes positions Daredevil as the ‘Bad Guy’ in his story. But despite the lack of any real apology, he eventually walks this back at the end of the issue: “Maybe I was too hard on the guy. He was only doing what he thought was right. The life he leads must really cost him sometimes”. 

It’s a depth of sentiment that Daredevil doesn’t quite match, and the forgiveness he finds also suggests that Townes knows there’s something bigger at work affecting his life – even if he still can’t name it.

Curiously, it’s actually Chance The Mercenary that comes closest to a clear view of the situation. The character is obsessed with probability, even to the point of borrowing Two-Face’s famous decision-making coin flip. But when he goes after Townes a second time, he can’t bring himself to end the man’s life as he realises “Nigel has beaten the odds”. Again Priest doesn’t give him the explicit language for it, but Chance seems to have some idea of the long odds of surviving in the US as a Black man.

Priest is the first African-American writer and the first African-American editor in mainstream comics. Although well-known to some, he remains a serially under-valued creator despite having been in comics since 1978, with his first editorial gig on Marvel’s Crazy Magazine. Considering the relative, vaguely unhealthy hero worship that is so characteristic of the industry, Priest is generally denied the stature and standing afforded to his white peers. On the question of these legacy-obsessed publishers routinely failing to acknowledge him, Priest writes, “I haven’t figured out if the companies think I’m arrogant in making the claim, or if they’re embarrassed to have been in business nearly fifty years before allowing a black man a seat in their front office”.

My own relationship with Priest’s work is one of ongoing exploration and permanent re-appraisal. As well as being ‘pioneering’, quietly influential, and a multi-disciplinary creator whose work extends outside of comics, Priest is multi-faceted and at times full of almost confounding contradictions. That he should be better acknowledged is no question – his record is a reminder that the comics ‘canon’ is a constructed nonsense. So while I care about this kind of redress (truly I have to), what I’m especially interested in is how much farther I can get in understanding all the multitudes of Priest’s creative consciousness and in assessing his work critically – which is to say seriously and honestly.

The last time I put pen to paper on Priest, I failed to remark on the recurring attitudes towards women, usually Black women, that crop up in his work. In this case, in the opening cab scene Townes mentions reconciling with his wife Deedra and makes a derisive comment about her appearance. The intention here might be to make Townes ‘relatable’ to an assumed audience that shares this kind of superficiality and misogynist attitude, but it alienates in greater measure. More damningly too, there’s no speaking role for a woman anywhere in this issue. It feels important to acknowledge that, at this moment in his career, Priest’s efforts to illuminate the realities of race and racism are not matched by a commitment to even depict women in a New York City story.

Priest imbues Daredevil #246 with an experience that challenges the superhero’s understanding of justice and his role in it, and ultimately resists presenting quick fixes or simple answers. Daredevil is shown as understanding the structures of organised crime, but not the structures of American society. Priest also commits to a kind of ‘show don’t tell’ by presenting a story where the hand of systemic racism is decisively present and yet never explicitly named. It’s thoughtful, effective, and appropriate given the insidiousness and plausible deniability that often accompanies racism in its numerous forms. 

And just as Nocenti asked a range of probing questions about superheroes in her wider run, in this fill-in issue Priest asks what happens if we take the time to follow the story of what happens to the life of a bystander to all this superhero stuff, and what happens if that bystander is a Black man.

 

Daredevil #246 “Bad Guy”
Written by Jim Owsley
Pencilled by Tom Morgan
Inked by Tony DeZuniga
Coloured by Max Scheele
Lettered by Joe Rosen
Published in 1987

 

Adam Karenina Sherif is a musician, critic and historian who has written for publications including, most prominently, The Beat. You can find his Bandcamp page here, and follow him on Twitter here!