In 1986, Daredevil was still enjoying a peak of popularity after a seminal and foundational run by Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli that had brought the book back from the brink of cancellation. This was followed by a period primarily written by the late, great Denny O’Neil that continued a harder, darker, and more sinister feel than it had ever experienced in its 22 years, one filled with organized crime, major character deaths, and ninjas (it had spawned, unofficially, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles).
The year began with Frank Miller’s brief return to the title, wherein he told what would become one of the most celebrated and influential Daredevil stories of all time, the brutal and character-defining Born Again. Matt Murdock was stripped of his comfortable life, his legal practice, and his civilian life.
The issues collected in Daredevil Epic Collection: It Comes With Claws are the issues directly following Born Again, and suffer the hard task of figuring out what to do with the character following such a major opus. It isn’t, at first, a task the book succeeded in completing; the first two issues seem to suffer from a major misunderstanding (by more classically-minded Marvelites Mark Gruenwald, Danny Fingeroth, and early creative force Steve Ditko) that perhaps the book might begin to transition back to DD’s more colorful, lighthearted swashbuckling roots. While understandably fill-in issues, they stumble by refusing to acknowledge or reflect upon the major events preceding them.
Luckily, incoming writer Ann Nocenti understood that a sea change had just occurred. Young, only nominally experienced, and free of the burdens of comics tradition, Nocenti seemed to understand—perhaps better than her older, male peers in the industry—that comics needed to interact more directly with the real world, to reflect the societal frustrations she herself was facing more directly.
With her first issue, #236, she jumps feet first into those concerns. Utilizing Barry Windsor-Smith (which she had learned imparted to a reader a sense of importance after editing the artist on Uncanny X-Men #186’s ‘Lifedeath’ two years earlier), Nocenti tells the story of a traumatized and neglected Vietnam vet. Rather than mirroring Born Again’s Nuke, she’s more interested in how the country failed the soldier, and how tragic the lingering trauma of war and violence truly is while also exploring how the ‘super’ in ‘super-soldier’ might fail an abandoned person in the Marvel Universe.
It’s a floating issue—Nocenti wouldn’t become the series regular for another two issues—but it’s perfectly illustrative of how perfect a voice she was for a post-Born Again Daredevil; experimental, proactive, no-nonsense. She even manages to illustrate the frustrations of being a woman in a men’s club in a couple of spectacular panels where Black Widow suffers the needling microaggressions of her mercenary peers—something undermined the very next issue by Steve Englehart making the character poutingly jealous of Daredevil’s girlfriend.
It’s a rather silly juxtaposition, but one that works as a remarkable illustration of the place Nocenti is coming from as she takes over the book, wrangling Daredevil from dudes who just want him to go on meaningless adventures with ninjas and Madcap and Klaw and setting him down into stories about trauma and the government’s failure to protect its soldiers from neglect and its people from corporate abuse and toxic poisoning. Daredevil goes up against killers targeting women and minorities, then turns around to address slumlords.
The volume ends with the introduction of John Romita, Jr. to the book, cementing the visual tone the book would carry throughout Nocenti’s run. In the book’s hallmark final issue, the book explores the horror that occurs on the streets during a super-powered event. In the Four Horsemen-tainted blackout surrounding Apocalypse’s attack on New York in Fall of the Mutants, Matt Murdock is forced to become the savior of Hell’s Kitchen as it reels in fear, leading civilians to a hospital in a darkness only he can navigate. Babies are thrown in dumpsters, women fearing the end of society overdose on painkillers, and a child dies in Daredevil’s arms before DD can admit his father-like role in their life. All of this in a pitch-black city rendered in JRJR’s distinctive, masterful style—cityscapes reduced to laddered lines, geometry hinted at but not defined.
It’s a major issue that, along with the rest of It Comes With the Claws, announced the incredible beginning of one of Daredevil’s most purposeful, powerful eras. It’s an important addition to the Daredevil Epic Collection and one that deserves to be on the shelf of anyone interested in the social relevance of superhero comics.
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