Women’s History Month: Ann Nocenti by Anna Peppard

Ann Nocenti arrived at Marvel Comics in 1982 through an ad in the Village Voice and, according to her, some creative embellishments of her comics expertise. Her first major writing assignment was a thankless one; she penned the final three issues of Spider-Woman, a series that had already been slated for cancellation, which concludes with the character not only dying, but being erased from existence. Her next projects were more generative. The limited series Beauty and the Beast (1984-85), pencilled by Don Perlin, was a high concept action-romance centering the unlikely love between the X-Men franchise characters Beast and Dazzler. And the miniseries Longshot (1985-86), pencilled by Art Adams, introduced several characters and concepts that have since become mainstays of the X-Men universe, including the title character and the supervillain Mojo, a literally spineless overlord from a world governed by what we now call reality television. Her longest writing gig was on Daredevil (1986-89), a title she took over from Frank Miller, and for which she was nominated for an Eisner. Throughout the 80s, she also worked as an editor at Marvel, on books such as The Defenders, The Incredible Hulk, New Mutants, and Uncanny X-Men, shepherding many now-legendary stories. Post-Marvel, she wrote a Kid Eternity series (1993-94) for DC/Vertigo, before largely stepping away from comics to focus on filmmaking and journalism. She returned in the 2010s to take on several regular writing assignments at DC, including tenures on Green Arrow (2012), Catwoman (2012), and Katana (2013). Her most recent comics project is the creator-owned The Seeds with artist David Aja, a story about an idealistic journalist in a dystopian future who uncovers a story that might forcast the last days of humanity, or a new beginning. There are also aliens, and romance, and did I mention it’s drawn by David Aja? It’s worth checking out.       

Those are the facts. But Nocenti’s influence is so much bigger than the titles of the comics she’s worked on, or the characters she’s created. I know this, because I’ve experienced it. Nocenti’s work fundamentally changed my understanding of one of my favourite genres, helping shape my desire to turn my passion into a career.  

I was at least half a dozen issues into Nocenti’s run on Daredevil when I finally read the credits and realized it was written by a woman. This was about fifteen years ago, when those comics were a little under twenty years old, and I was a little more than that. I wasn’t exactly new to comics. I’d already read hundreds of comics starring superheroes who’d become familiar enough to feel like old friends. But Nocenti’s Daredevil was still one of the first superhero comics I’d ever read that was written by a woman. I’m also pretty sure it was the first pre-twenty-first century superhero comic I’d read that was written by a woman, and I’m entirely sure it was the first comic I’d read from that period that was both written by a woman and starred an adult male superhero. Let alone my favorite male superhero—the one I was so madly in love with, I was in the habit of devoting entire weekends to making my way through his back catalog, which is what I was doing when I arrived at Nocenti’s comics.  

Daredevil #243, Ann Nocenti (writer) and Louis Williams (penciler), June 1987

When I saw Nocenti’s name, I had to put down the comic, get up, and walk to the next room to tell my then-boyfriend, needing outside confirmation of my “discovery.” Then, I went back to reading, except I couldn’t stop thinking about it—both the fact of the thing and my reaction to it, which helped me realize, for the first time, how devastatingly underrepresented I was in the genre I loved. On a practical level, I’d already known that; when I started buying weekly comics, Marvel was only publishing two comics starring female superheroes, both of which were written by men, neither of which I enjoyed enough to purchase. But I didn’t truly understand what that lack of representation meant. Nocenti’s presence meant a sea change in how I thought about myself in relation to superhero comics. It meant I didn’t have to be alone—that there was a history of other women loving Daredevil, not just in a romantic way, but on the level of story and psychology, and who cared about how his sexiness and maleness related to that larger story (and agreed these things are important to the larger story). It also meant I’d been lied to. I wasn’t yet studying superhero comics academically, but I had read a few books about the history of the genre. None of those books had mentioned Nocenti, or any other female creators. Even female characters got short shrift, mentioned in passing only to confirm superhero comics’ sexism and exclusive appeal to adolescent boys (or, adolescent-minded men). I’d accepted this history so completely, it didn’t even occur to me to look for women like Nocenti. That’s why it took me so long to notice her name; even though it was staring me in the face. It was, at first, invisible.

Daredevil #255, Ann Nocenti (writer) and John Romita Jr. (penciler), June 1988

It can be dangerous to read too much into a work of art based on a creator’s gender. Gender can mean many different things to many different people, and so can stories, especially ones, like mainstream superhero comics, that are rarely the product of a single vision. And yet, after my “discovery” of Nocenti’s gender, a lot of things in her stories did feel like they made a different kind of sense. One of Nocenti’s first story arcs on Daredevil involves Karen Page struggling with the violence her long-time paramour Matt Murdock dishes out while in his crimson devil suit, and her role in perpetuating that violence through the simple act of loving him. Karen wonders how the same hands that touch her so tenderly can be capable of dealing such pain, and whether desiring Matt’s touch makes her a hypocrite or a masochist. Once you know the writer is a woman, the story’s not just about Karen; it’s also about Nocenti, and me, and so many other women trying to negotiate our place within a genre that’s rarely addressed our subjectivity, or even genuinely tried. Karen is, in effect, asking whether it’s possible to be a woman and a feminist and still love a genre that’s historically (even famously) sexist. Nocenti routinely surrounds Daredevil with complex female characters working through similar issues. Brandy Ash, an animal rights activist, explores the meaning of female empowerment through a fraught friendship with Number Nine, a onetime cheerleader genetically altered into a “perfect” physical specimen. And then there’s Typhoid Mary, a villain named after a woman who was blamed for a plague, whose multiple personalities embody various female stereotypes (and defied them).

Beauty and the Beast #3, Ann Nocenti (writer) and Don Perlin (penciler), April 1985

In the years since I first read Nocenti’s Daredevil, superhero comics have grown and changed. The industry is still nowhere near as inclusive as I’d like it to be, but there’s never been more female characters I’m interested in reading about, or more women and non-binary creators working within it. I’ve changed, too. Fifteen years ago, I was a data entry clerk at a financial services company; now, I’m a PhD graduate who studies, teaches, and writes about issues of representation in comics. Yet many of Nocenti’s older stories remain tender favorites, in part because of how excitingly strange they feel compared to other 1980s superhero comics, which were doing many interesting things, yet continued to privilege male perspectives. Take Beauty and the Beast, which tells an utterly ridiculous story about a sad disco queen falling in love with a shaggy blue monster against the backdrop of an illegal mutant gladiatorial ring run by the pretender son of Doctor Doom, but does it with such genuine feeling and deep understanding of the many ways the mutant metaphor can resonate with outsiderness, it’s impossible not to love. Beauty and the Beast is an utterly zany “weird pairing” fanfiction in which the lead characters hash out their different differences in bedrooms, boudoirs, and strolls along the beach that actually, somehow, got published as a real Marvel comic at a time when the gritty realism of Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns was all the rage. Basically: it’s the comic I was born to write, except I can’t, because Nocenti already did it, much better than I ever could.

Nocenti’s most influential superhero comic may be Longshot, a series so stuffed with ideas, virtually every subsequent X-Men writer has toyed with some part of it. Mojoworld offers opportunities to tell postmodern comedy stories about stories (and faith, and heroism, and media)—what superhero scribe doesn’t want to play in that sandbox? For me, though, what’s most special about Longshot is the character of Ricochet Rita, a reckless yet sage and experienced stuntwoman whose appearance is modelled after Nocenti, and who suffers terribly at the hands of Mojo and his six-armed accomplice Spiral (who is really a version of Rita from the future!) after becoming involved with the series’ charmingly naïve and devastatingly handsome title character, yet ultimately regrets nothing. Rita spends the series willfully ricocheting from chaos to calm and back into chaos, finally emerging from a trauma-induced coma to accompany Longshot to his homeworld, to aid his rebellion against Mojo’s directorial dictatorship. Some might see Longshot as a “Mary Sue” story; the series does, after all, involve a hyper-capable self-insert OC running away with the handsome prince. I’d love Longshot even it was a simple Mary Sue tale; girls and women deserve at least one silly fantasy, given the overwhelming volume of silly fantasies aimed at boys. But Longshot’s romance is far from simple. Rita is deeply imperfect, and so is Longshot. Each character also challenges gender norms, Rita through her independence and unapologetic physicality, Longshot through his frequently remarked upon feminine beauty and defining emotionalism. There are also, once again, metatextual meanings. I read Rita’s reckless, romantic choice to follow Longshot—a character empowered by belief in his own righteous purpose—as like Nocenti’s choice to love the superhero genre. The superhero genre is, like Longshot, a beautiful and sneakily complicated fantasy that, when properly motivated, can do tremendous good. In Longshot, this involves rebelling against the tyranny of genre, embodied by the relentlessly ego and ratings-driven Mojo. This rebellion is never-ending; subsequent stories detail Rita being imprisoned, mind-wiped, and transformed into Spiral. Yet her choice to follow Longshot still matters, as does the nature of her continued agency; as Spiral, Rita can weave magic portals that allow her to travel anywhere and anywhen, forever conjuring freedom.

Spider-Woman #50, Ann Nocenti (writer) and Brian Postman (penciler), June 1983

Even the Nocenti-penned comics I don’t adore have stayed with me. Take that Spider-Woman conclusion. Spider-Woman #50 is painful, especially if you’ve read the whole series, which I had. Jessica Drew suffered terribly over the course of this series, made worse by gender-based isolation; originally, her spider pheromones attracted men and repulsed women, making female friendships impossible. And even when Jessica did succeed in finding female allies, they were often revealed as evil; her therapist is really the supervillain Nekra, and her mother is Viper, the leader of Hydra (sort of—it’s complicated). There are attempts, in Spider-Woman #50, to emphasize the importance of female community. The issue opens with Jessica being comforted after a bad dream by her friend and roommate Lindsay McCabe. And Jessica escapes a prison constructed by the Locksmith with the aid of former antagonists Tigra and Gypsy Moth. Jessica also secures a major triumph, time travelling in astral form to defeat long-time adversary Morgana le Fay. But when Jessica gets back to the 20th century, she finds her physical body dead; her spirit can’t return. She asks a final boon of the sorcerer Magnus, that her dearly won friends won’t suffer in the wake of her death. Magnus fulfills this wish by erasing Jessica from existence. Jessica bows her head in grave acknowledgment before a final page where she smiles at the reader and declares, “Life is good and then you die. I can accept that.” It’s a deeply tragic ending, that reads like an apology for Spider-Woman’s entire existence; all her adventures are rendered non-canonical, and readers are assured she’s gone forever, never to trouble them again with her presumptuous heroism. And yet, this issue also cemented my love for Jessica Drew. I will always fight for her, in part because of how bravely she fought and faced death, and because I sympathize with her desire, however flawed, to save her friends from pain.

I met Nocenti once, several years ago, at an academic conference in Brooklyn I attended in part because she was delivering the keynote. There was, fortuitously, a slide featuring Mojo on the projector screen when she appeared in the doorway during my presentation. I’m sure I stumbled over my words when I saw her; I’ve never been closer to being part of the Marvel universe than when Ricochet Rita wandered into my classroom. Later, after her keynote, I introduced myself, in a nervous hurry to get my words out, determined not to spoil a perfect story about my journey from being a comics fan seeing Nocenti’s name in a comic to being a comics scholar seeing her face-to-face. To my surprise, Nocenti also seemed nervous. She referenced my slide of Mojo and apologized for sexism in her comics, saying something about it being a different time. I don’t precisely remember my reply, but I am sure it sucked. I probably staggered through a rote, teacherly response about representation being complicated, before reassuring her I loved her work, and wasn’t targeting it in my talk. That’s all true, but what I really meant was—I love Nocenti’s comics not because they’re fully formed feminist manifestos, but rather because they highlight those complexities of representation. Her comics show someone working through difficult issues in ways that aren’t always perfect, but are always honest. It takes tremendous courage to do that, especially in places and times where you’ve got every reason to be less adventurous—like when you’re one of the only women writing stories about men in tights for a publisher that’s heavily invested in selling those stories to people of the male persuasion, maintaining the myth that comics are, and always have been, an exclusive “boys’ club.”

Like Ricochet Rita looking at Longshot, I look at Nocenti’s work and see dreams for myself—like the dream of being a hero not in spite of the fact I don’t always have everything figured out, but because of it. You need reckless romanticism to make exclusionary storyworlds bigger, better, and freer for everyone, against all the odds.   

In case I didn’t say it properly when I met her, I’m saying it now—thank you, Annie, for everything.

(Editor’s Note: For more writing on Ann Nocenti’s Daredevil by Anna, check out her Shelfdust piece here!)

Anna F. Peppard 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).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s