Friday, December 23, 2005

On Christmas: An Atheist Reads Daredevil #253

Daredevil #253 was the first Daredevil comic I ever bought. It was just around Christmas, 1987, and I was 15 years old.

I bought it at a little comic store in Winnipeg that was originally called The Club Bookstore but by that time had changed its name to the flashier, geekier Nexus. It was a cozy store that occupied the main floor of a old house on Corydon Avenue that had been converted to retail space. You climbed a set of concrete stairs up to an old-fashioned wood and glass door to get in. The half of the store nearest to the door was devoted to used books. Paperbacks mostly. Then, on the left, there was a small section of bins that housed a meager selection of back-issues and second-hand girlie magazines in sealed plastic bags. Along the wall to the right stretched the rack of new comics, and at the back, beside the cash, the store opened up into a small room lined by shelves of comics that were no longer new, but not quite old enough to be consigned to the purgatory of the storage bins. It was cramped. It smelled of cigarettes. It had a dirty, threadbare carpet. The posters on what little wall space there was were battered, ripped, and sloppily tacked up. I didn’t entirely trust the owner, who was always putting comics in my box that I hadn’t ordered and didn’t really want. It was one of my favorite places to be.

Daredevil #253 was still on the new comics shelf and I must have had a bit of extra money that week. I must have been feeling sentimental about the holidays too because I can’t imagine what would have compelled me to pick that particular issue off the rack if not the cover copy announcing: “Merry Christmas Daredevil.”

As soon as I opened it, I knew I was going to buy it. I had always liked John Romita Jr.’s art on Uncanny X-Men, but it was even better here, inked by Al Williamson. The first page of this issue was a splendid burst of light and grit. I still marvel at the effect of the artists’ choice not to ink the light coming off the headlights and the street lamps in the background. This is what a street at night lit up by Christmas lights looks like—everything glitters and everything seems to be in motion. It’s beautiful and disorienting all at once. The opening pages depicting Hell’s Kitchen on Christmas Eve captured something real about the season. It epitomized Marvel at its grungy, luminous best. I was hooked.

The Christmas story in this issue is fairly standard morality-tale stuff: A pair of thugs are terrorizing the downtrodden citizens of Hell’s Kitchen and Daredevil steps in to teach them a hard-knocks lesson in Christmas spirit.

The real lesson, though, is learned by pint-sized skater-boy “Eightball,” who idolizes the thuggish “Wildboys” until Daredevil inspires him with the Biblical saying about “bread cast on the waters”: “If you spend your days giving to people whenever you can, some of that goodness may float back your way just when you need it most.”

The promise of the saying is confirmed for Daredevil himself when the stolen goods he rounds up from the thieves to return to the stores are donated by the storeowners to Daredevil to distribute as he sees fit. As Matt Murdock, he wraps them up and gives them out to his makeshift “family”: “The abused. The forlorn. The lovelorn. Junkies. Homeless kids. Bums. Runaways. Rebels. Outcasts”—the people that the Kingpin will later in this issue call “humanity’s dregs.” Meanwhile, “Eightball” gives his prized skateboard to Marla, a skater-girl he’s been teasing and taunting throughout the issue. As a counterpoint to this narrative, we are treated intermittently to an amusing set of scenes in which a Scrooge-like Kingpin has his criminal schemes stymied by Christmas and plots to make his revenge on Daredevil complete.

It’s a simple story, elegantly told. The writer of this issue, Ann Nocenti, went on to pen some of the most bizarre, experimental, and thrilling Daredevil stories I’ve ever read and this Christmas story has signs of all the attention to detail, theme, and tone that would distinguish her subsequent work on the title. (Nocenti’s tenure on this title is inevitably but unjustly overshadowed by Miller’s legendary run; it’s a real shame that her and Romita Jr.’s outstanding Daredevil work has yet to be collected.)

The principle fun of the issue is its playing of Daredevil as the Santa Claus of Hell’s Kitchen, and Nocenti has a great time with this conceit—a variation on the oft-rehearsed “guardian devil” theme. “Eightball” worries that Daredevil can see what he’s thinking and, like Santa, “knows when [he’s] been bad.” Matt Murdoch literally plays Santa at the end of the story to the homeless people and friends gathered at the Legal Aid office. Etc.

The inevitable religious subtext of the Santa Claus conceit is present in the story as well, but minimally. If you blink, you’ll miss the panel on page on page 13 where Daredevil crouches beside a stone crèche in the church awaiting the bad guys and announcing his role as “Santa,” just before beating up the Wildboys to a festive greeting of “Merry Christmas, scum.” I missed it at the time anyway, and that’s one of the reasons I like this type of story so much. Despite the biblical quotation and the baby Jesus, the story is more about community than about the religious meaning of the holiday. Despite its explicit religious subtext, it still verges on secular myth: Daredevil’s actions may literally be inspired by Christian morality, but the story does not feel like a Biblical parable. Not to a big fat atheist like me, anyway.

Maybe I’m just being willful, but what I take away from Daredevil #253 is a specific situation and a specific resolution, with an emphasis on the ethical value of Christian morality in situations where—significantly—its ethical content is largely separate from the context of organized religion. The real “church” of Daredevil #253 is Matt Murdoch’s Legal Aid office—an interesting substitution implying the replacement of sacred law by human law, transcendental (religious) ethics by more provisional, human choices. The story’s emphasis on Daredevil as Santa rather than as Jesus has a similar implication. What we read in these types of substitutions, I think, are not allegories but real secularizing transformations of the religious underpinnings of Christmas. That’s what I read, anyway, and it’s why I am able to enjoy Christian “allegory” (like Daredevil or Lord of the Rings or even Narnia) despite my discomfort with the premise upon which such narratives are based. Simply put: I don’t read these stories as allegories of an already existing master-story but as the parables of some new secular religion whose sacred book is constantly expanding and changing. This is a mode of reading that skates on the “surface” of superhero narratives and finds their meaning there, instead of plunging into the allegory they project “below.”

Beyond the innate pleasures of Daredevil #253 and beyond its secularizing of religious material, there’s a more personal reason that I love reading this comic during the holidays. Christmas is usually seen as a communal affair, and Nocenti's story certainly riffs on this perennial theme. But Christmas is not without its moments of privacy, secrecy, and stillness also. Leaving aside the issue of comercialism, the buying of gifts can be a splendid solitary pleasure, no matter how many encounters and exchanges one has during that process. And insofar as it brings us to reflect on what life means to us, who we love, and why we’re here, this time of year is filled with moments of quiet and solitude—or should be. When I look at the lights that seem to glow on that opening page of Daredevil #253, I am reminded of that feeling I had, standing in that cozy, wonderful, hole-in-the-wall comic store in Winnipeg, the snow on my boots melting in the warmth of the heated shop. It was a feeling of happiness and security and reflection. And it would not be an exaggeration to say that it is the kind of feeling one might have when entering a church on Christmas. We all have our sacred texts and our sacred spaces, even us Christmas-loving atheists.

Yeah, I guess I’m feeling sentimental tonight. But hey. It’s that time of year. Merry Christmas Daredevil. Happy Hanukah. Peace on Earth.



Keystone said...

Wow. Thanks for the trip down memory lane Jim! I too have very fond memories of Club Book Store/Nexus. And reading this post convinced me to pick up Daredevil #253 this morning at Red River Books, another Winnipeg landmark.

Jim Roeg said...

So cool! I hope you enjoyed the comic, A. I'm so glad that Red River Books is still around--so many of the old great Winnipeg book and comic stores are gone now. Before becoming a regular at the Club Book Store, the big excitement for me was taking the Corydon bus downtown and going to Bookfair--this was back when it was across Portage from Eaton's (or what used to be Eatons--*sob!*). There was another comic store on Portage Ave. too around that time. It was between Eaton's and the Bay, sold lots of music, was much grungier, and had a very high counter near the door. I was always a little scared of that store--I had to dare myself to go in... Red River Books had that scary/exciting quality as well when I was very little. I hope the owners haven't cleaned it up too much--the organizational disaster inside has always been part of RRB's charm!

Hate Filled Poster said...

I really need to get my comics in order so I can check and see if I have that issue. I think I have all of that run so I should, but I'm not sure. Good stuff Jim, glad to see you back blogging.

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