This week’s post is a part of SUPER BLOG TEAM-UP. SBTU is a loose affiliation of comics-related blogs that all simultaneously post on a theme and link to each other’s work a few times a year as a way to build awareness about other blogs and demonstrate a variety of perspectives on our favorite medium. This the fourth time Super Blog Team-Up has happened and the first time The Middle Spaces was invited to take part. I was honored to be asked, especially since I already follow a number of the blogs that participate and because I think the perspective of this blog is fairly different from the others. Nostalgia has its place, but we here at The Middle Spaces aim for critical nostalgia. Be sure to check at the end of the post for links to the other participating blogs.
The theme for SBTU #4 is the team-up itself. Most folks went the way of the unusual or “wacky” team-up, but rather than examine a wacky or uncommon one, I’ve chosen a fairly common team-up (Spider-Man and Daredevil) that upon further scrutiny plays out in an unusual way—it uses two superheroes frequently thought of as “street level” (a designation that stands in opposition to the global, the cosmic or the occult) in a way that comments on the narrative of street crime and the criminal in the United States, and highlights a conservative turn in the social fabric that arrived with the Reagan Era.
“The Death of Jean DeWolfe” is a 4-issue arc of Peter Parker the Spectacular Spider-Man from 1985, written by Peter David, with pencils by Rich Buckler. Despite its name, the actual death of no-nonsense female police captain Jean DeWolfe is beside the point, except that she serves as yet another example of the all-too-common “women in refrigerators” trope in comics. While her death gets the action started, the popular supporting character was offed mostly as a way to make Spider-Man particularly motivated to find her killer (as if he really needs an excuse, seeing as he is a superhero who has been known to spend time tracking down the killers of people he doesn’t even know). In addition, in case their professional relationship (established since her first appearance in Marvel Team-Up #48 from 1976) was insufficient to motivate him, during the course of his investigation Spider-Man finds a bunch of photos and news clippings featuring him in her apartment. Is she doing detective work, trying to figure out who Spider-Man might be? Is it a scrapbook of cases she worked with help from the superhero? No. She is a secret Spider-Man fan-girl who is crushing on the superhero, a point reinforced by the fact that she cut the Black Cat out of some of those pics, like a jealous teenage girl wanting to get rid of Kristen Stewart’s mug in order to better imagine herself next to Robert Pattinson. Spider-Man is suddenly all the more driven to find her killer, touched by her secret obsession. It is a disappointing end for an interesting character. David claims her death was editorially mandated by Jim Owsley, but whoever’s idea it was, it sucks.
The plot of “The Death of Jean DeWolfe” is not that important to my examination here either. You can read a fairly good overview of it here, but essentially it involves the hunt for a hyper-violent vigilante called “Sin-Eater” who runs around with a shotgun and a green ski-mask killing people he accuses of being “soft on crime”—a motivation that doesn’t even hold up considering that Jean DeWolfe was anything but soft on crime. Some years later another writer would ret-con a romance between DeWolfe and Stan Carter, the police detective who would turn out to be the Sin-Eater, as a way to retroactively give him a motivation, but as far as anyone knew in 1985 he was just an ex-SHIELD agent driven mad and given bursts of inhuman strength by the side effects of being the subject of an experimental PCP derivative to make super soldiers.
Damn, but do superhero comics get convoluted fast…and that is just the beginning—Peter David wrote a mess of a story. It might be considered a classic by many Spider-Man fans, but there is no arguing that David was an amateurish, if ambitious, writer at the time (this was only the second story he sold to Marvel). He threw in a mess of themes and characters in an attempt to create a sophisticated and dark Spider-Man story. And I will admit, at age 13-going-on-14, I was impressed. The grim and dark tone of the story appealed to my sense of what was adult and topical. The conflict between Spider-Man and Daredevil and their disagreement about the best way to deal with criminals was compelling at that age. I had never considered super-hero team-ups could work that way. In my experience up to that point, I knew of the common trope of superheroes mistakenly fighting before teaming up to tackle the real danger, or the occasional mind-control plot (as in their first meet-up back in 1964’s Amazing Spider-Man #16), but the idea that there could be an on-going conflict between two closely related heroes was new to me.
Re-reading it now, the most amateurish aspect to the story is how sloppily David curtails Spider-Man’s abilities to make sure that the non-superhuman Sin-Eater cannot be caught and to make the fights with Daredevil (as super-strength of any degree is not in his power set) more even. More than once, despite all his experience fighting bad guys, Spider-Man is so flustered he fights poorly. At another point both of his web-shooters happen to have been broken when he goes to web the Sin-Eater and halt his escape. Later, in the most ridiculous example of David not knowing how to best write the characters within their abilities, Spider-Man is so “emotionally worked up” while fighting Daredevil he collapses into unconsciousness like a child after a tantrum, giving ole hornhead a chance to escape. I guess, a generous reading would connect such a failure of Spider-Man to live up to his powers to the precedent set way back in Amazing Spider-Man Annual #1 (1967) when his powers seem to dry up when faced with the anxiety of facing the Sinister Six, but really that was the weakest part of that surprisingly weak issue, as well.
The mess of the Sin-Eater arc, however, emerges mostly from David’s attempt to squeeze in every possible reference and character he can in an attempt to explore the crime-ridden era. There is a sub-plot involving Ernie Popchik, a resident from Aunt May’s boarding house for the elderly. Outraged, that some random punks who robbed and beat him up were released on their own recognizance at the behest of star defense attorney Matt Murdock, he later shoots some teenagers on the train Bernie Goetz style. There is the death of Jean DeWolfe itself, which comes at the end of a two-page flashback of her whole life, and even a panel where Charles Bronson (of Death Wish film series fame) is depicted holding up a newspaper that reads, “Vigilante Strikes Again.” There is a Sin-Eater copycat who bursts into the Daily Bugle newsroom. And finally, there’s a recently arrived black clergyman from the Atlanta area, Reverend Jackson Tolliver, who makes frequent reference to the 1980 child-killings in that city and the failures of the police to do much when the victims of crimes are black. He is mostly depicted as a political rabble rouser—an Al Sharpton-type phony who lives for publicity and who in one panel is inexplicably depicted with a white blonde woman on his arm. The only role I really seem him playing in the narrative is to give J. Jonah Jameson a chance to accuse him of being racist. It is the classic attempt to make the activist who observes racial inequity seem like bad guy for pointing out the obvious ways that white supremacy works in our society. David goes so far as to make Tolliver apologize to Jameson for having “a chip on [his] shoulder.” This reference to race is particularly jarring because the story takes place in a Marvel Universe that never addresses the role of race in representations of criminality, where the problem of how superhero comics depict urban crime arises.
As I have obliquely suggested in past posts, superhero comics, and especially superhero comics of this era, inhabit this strange site where they most often visually represent criminals as white, but still use the coded language that suggests the equation of blackness to criminality. The first example in the “The Death of Jean DeWolfe” is probably the fact that while the rough youths that beat up Mr. Popchick are drawn to look like generic punks with cut-off sleeve vests, mohawks and bandannas, Peter Parker refers to them as “animals.” While this may be tenuous evidence, it is certain that bestial comparisons are a common form of racial encoding. Furthermore depicting them as some kind of punk rockers is an attempt to denote difference without resorting to the potentially offensive racial difference. The much more obvious example, however, is later, when Popchik shoots his would be muggers on the train. The scene is clearly meant to evoke Bernhard Goetz’s 1984 shooting of four black youths—to the degree where one of them very politely, if disingenuously, asks the man for money (echoing the claim by Goetz’s alleged would-be attackers that they were panhandling, not mugging). These three white shockingly flamboyant young men in tight pants and cut-off shirts are all white, and yet the real-life story the scene conjures is among the most racially charged in recent New York history. These punk rockers (or whatever they are supposed to be) become a way for superhero comics to attempt to remain relevant by addressing a contemporary issue—the problem of rampant crime in American urban centers in the 1980s—without becoming enmeshed in the mess of racial politics that comics have a notoriously awful track record in handling. I can understand Marvel Comics wanting to avoid the obvious reinforcement of some kind of essential black criminality, but through their whitewashing they nevertheless accomplish the same result through sleight-of-hand. Let us not forget that it was reported in New York Magazine that prior to the shooting Goetz made public comments along the lines of “The only way we’re going to clean up this street is to get rid of the spics and niggers,” and yet there were plenty in New York City who hailed him as a hero.
Let me put it as clearly as possible. The muggers in these Marvel Comics obsessed with urban crime of the 1980s may be drawn to appear white, but when the reader experiences a catharsis by reading about these street-level superheroes cleaning up the streets, what is being evoked is the narrative of black criminality echoed by white politicians and the media.
This notion is aided by the lack of nuance in comic book morality. The generic bad guys, from street muggers to super villain henchmen are just bad guys. They are people who have chosen to partake in criminal activity due to a moral failing. Period. While I am not arguing that people aren’t ultimately responsible for their choices, the reactionary basis for the superhero genre is that state power is insufficient to defend the populace against rampant crime. The failing of state power in this schema is not that state power fails to justly and fairly apply the law or to address the social and economic conditions that lead to crime (which for the most part is perpetrated by people in their own communities—both black and white), but not being tough enough on criminals. All the support Bernhard Goetz received after the shooting brings to light the conservative “tough on crime” turn in America. A turn undergirded in those years by the thinly-veiled racial politics of the Reagan Administration and its focus on “welfare queens” and the War on Drugs, even as the CIA was involved in cocaine-trafficking in Central America, smuggling it back into urban centers and fueling the depredations of the Crack Age. It’s as if Goetz were the living embodiment of that old joke that a Democrat is just a Republican that hasn’t been mugged yet.
And this finally brings us to the team-up of Spider-Man and Daredevil. It is actually not much of a team-up at first. The two never even cross paths in their superhero garb until the third issue. They meet as civilians in the first issue (#107), but this is the story that sets up their knowing each other’s secret identities, with Matt Murdock recognizing Peter Parker’s heartbeat as Spider-Man’s in the courtroom, but the latter not knowing that Daredevil and Murdock are one and the same until the end of the final issue of the arc (#110). What makes this team-up so unusual is that for over two and a half issues, Spider-Man is always one step behind Daredevil in investigating the Sin-Eater murders. When Spider-Man visits Kingpin to learn what he can from the underworld boss, he finds out Daredevil had already been there. When Daredevil goes to ask questions at a seedy bar patronized by shady characters in civilian guise knowing that as a superhero he is less likely to get information, he is interrupted by Spider-Man smashing through the window to intimidate and brutalize the patrons. Actually, throughout this story Spider-Man is a brutal and reactionary figure. He beats on muggers that surrender, humiliates a man in front of his young daughter, and argues vehemently against how “easy” the courts are on criminals, and has no respect for their rights. Peter David uses Spider-Man as the voice of the typical working class white American whose call for courts to be “tough on crime” resonates with a racial resentment. He has to be physically pulled off Sin-Eater by Daredevil when the killer is finally confronted to keep the friendly neighborhood Spider-Man from beating the man to death. This is a Spider-Man who is frighteningly a lot like the Doc Ock-possessed Superior Spider-Man I wrote about in August. Later, he even is willing to let an angry mob lynch the man, and only intervenes because Daredevil who is trying to protect him is overwhelmed and in danger of being badly beaten himself.
Daredevil’s coming to Sin-Eater’s defense is, of course, in line with Matt Murdock’s civilian job as a defense attorney. In those two final issues, David uses Daredevil to argue against Spider-Man’s vigilante tendencies and to make a connection between his disregard for due process and the Sin-Eater himself, whose crimes are extreme vigilante acts against those he deems sinners for their defense of criminals. The judge who is killed was the one who let Popchik’s attackers go on their own recognizance, and the priest who was killed was against the death penalty. He seeks to kill J. Jonah Jameson for his anti-Spider-Man editorials. Spider-Man’s argument against this comparison is essentially to say, “But I’m a good guy.”
Brought together in this story, Spider-Man and Daredevil demonstrate a hegemonic framework for understanding urban crime. They are the range of dominant cultural/political context for understanding “normal” (i.e. non-super-powered) crime in their comic book universe, as such reflect an acceptable range in our own world. Spider-Man is the violent reactionary; the working class type who wants cops to be tough on crime because he buys into a narrative of crime that divorces criminal acts from social and economic contexts, turning a blind eye to how that increasingly strident position can turn against him. In his role as superhero vigilante, Spider-Man toughens up his own approach. Daredevil, on the other hand, represent the bourgeoisie white liberal who believes in the system, and feels that everyone should get their fair day in court. The story even ends on that note, with Matt Murdock offering to find help for Mr. Popchik, who like Bernhard Goetz turns himself in, but faces criminal charges for shooting those kids on the train. As Murdock says to Aunt May, “I’d like to prove to your nephew here that the system works.”
And yet, Murdock’s need to go out at night in a horned cowl and red tights and beat on people in Hell’s Kitchen with a billy club is evidence that the system doesn’t work through his frequent violations of it, both inside and outside of the courtroom. He enacts the alternative to not submitting to sanctioned and organized state violence—implicitly sanctioned individual violence by members of the dominant culture. These two-sides, presented as if both are reasonable responses to the admittedly very high crime rate of 1980s New York City do not represent the breadth of perspectives on the issue. There is no suggestion here that the system does not work not only for the myriad ways that its legal protections are not applied fairly, but because of the social conditions that lead to the concentration of crime in marginalized and heavily policed communities. We are nearly 30 years on from “The Death of Jean DeWolfe” story, but Ferguson, Missouri, for example, is evidence that despite the national drop in crime rates, “the system” that Matt Murdock puts so much faith in does not work—or perhaps works too well when viewed as purposefully designed towards the goal of mass incarceration. To a kid reading that comic in 1985, or even an adult reading it now with nostalgic eyes, the story seems edgy for its willingness to present “both sides” and put these heroes in tension, but the very idea that there are “two sides’ is a lie—there are no sides, just a swarm. One of the most frequent truisms my students regurgitate into their essays and class comments is how “there are two sides to every story.” The notion of “two sides” is a framework that says you may only legitimately imagine the world between these poles, anything beyond is insanity, impractical, unimaginable.
At least in the current Daredevil series he struggles against the Sons of the Serpent, a white supremacist group that has deeply infiltrated and controls the justice system in New York. Yet even that is misleading, for while it may suggest injustice through a fictional cultish organization, in reality there is no need for the dominant culture to even believe it is participating in such a cult in order to be complicit in it. This series of events leads to the outing of Daredevil’s identity and his (well-deserved) disbarment in New York state, so I appreciate Mark Waid’s exploration of the problems inherent to Murdock’s dual role, yet Daredevil remaining “the hero” underscores the exceptionalism under which the superhero operates, the very premise of the character remains problematic.
Returning to “The Death of Jean DeWolfe,” it may be possible that Peter David’s inclusion of the Reverend Jackson Tolliver character serves to highlight the dissonance between the white-washed representation of urban crime in comics and the reality of the time. I mean, it certainly seems strange that for the first three issues of the arc Tolliver is making a stink about the treatment of black people when there are no black people whatsoever in the story aside from him, the priest that Sin-Eater kills, and the always respectable editor-in-chief of the Daily Bugle, Robbie Robertson (Tolliver does not appear in the fourth issue), but looked at in combination with his representation as a publicity-hound, all this does it reinforce the idea that activists and those concerned with social justice are just “seeing things as racial” when they really aren’t—conveniently ignoring the fact that what he says about police, the justice system and the criminalization of blackness are 100% true.
I also want to add, that as I look over this story-arc and what I have written, I may have been too quick in dismissing the role of Jean DeWolfe in this story named for her. As I have tried to argue about the absence of black criminals commenting on the fraught nature of the discussion of urban crime, so too does the absence of DeWolfe in the story of her death suggest something about who gets to determine what is important in this framework and how it will be important. In other words, there is a paternalism at work that not only resounds in how the white characters get to decide how the idea of criminal justice is framed, but the kinds of violations that represent the worst kinds of crime—those against women—not because of the victims themselves as people, but in their relationships to men.
As I mentioned before, Jean DeWolfe’s professional connection to Spider-Man is deemed insufficient for this story and so it is juiced up with the suggestion of a more personal desire for Spider-Man, as to make her death seem all the more tragic. It is not the loss of Jean herself that becomes central, but the loss of some future deeper connection to the male protector, who having failed at protecting, becomes the instrument of justice. Similarly, the cliffhanger between issues #109 and #110 (the 3rd and 4th issues of the arc) hinges on the possibility of Sin-Eater having killed Betty Brant. Marla Madison (J. Jonah’s wife) is also in peril. Issue #110 opens with Peter Parker/Spider-Man rushing to the scene of Sin-Eater’s attack but replaying his relationship with Betty in his head. We the loyal reader of two decades of Spider-Man (at that point) are reminded why Betty is important through her importance to the story of Peter Parker. She is able to fight off Sin-Eater long enough for Spider-Man to arrive, but once he does she only serves to react voicelessly to Spider-Man’s brutality. She is just an instrument of the plot, not a character.
Later, Betty is interviewed by a TV journalist in order to set up the portion of the plot where the news gets out that Sin-Eater is a cop and a mob forms to dish out vigilante justice and make up for the apparent shortfall of state power. They are meant to demonstrate the potential dangers of the vigilante superhero in their attempt to do what Daredevil kept Spider-Man from doing. This mob forms without even knowing that it is likely that Sin-Eater will get off with an insanity plea and not do any jail time due to his having been the subject of SHIELD experiments—something the cops express will underscore their ostensible impotence even more (even as it suggests that people that suffer from mental illness are somehow “getting away with something”). As such, Daredevil’s trust in the system is put on shaky ground and the reader is left to wonder, who is right between these poles of street level heroes? The answer must be “somewhere in the middle,” without considering that hegemony controls where the goalposts go. It is a theme notable in a run of Spider-Man comics of the era, including the introduction of the anti-heroes Cloak & Dagger, who track down and kill those responsible for making and selling the drugs that killed dozens of runaways like them, the “Gang War” arc that also features a conflict between Spidey and Daredevil about how to handle the criminal underworld, and multiple appearances of the Punisher, Spider-Man occupying whatever necessary moral position to maintain the status quo.
Ultimately, these four issues of Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man are not “All-New All-Daring,” as their covers claim, but rather they reinforce how the mainstream is so limited as to partition reality into a box—to call it “real” and still ignore the obvious. It is the manipulation of a cognitive dissonance. “We allude to the real as to give our stories gravity, but when challenged on the implications of that ‘realness’ we can still claim it is a made up story.” Here is the great trick: the allusion to the grim and gritty aspects of life—the stuff that supposedly lends these comics a sense of “reality”—to create a race-neutral fantasy that allows narratives of crime to appear politically neutral. The story remains “balanced.” They have told “both sides.” We, the readers, can work it out to reach a safe conclusion from there. Meanwhile, the discourse shifts right, increasingly perniciousness, so that even ostensibly liberal figures whether they are fictional like Daredevil or historical like Bill Clinton, are mere stand-ins for a “moderate” stance that is anything but. . . Consider the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, signed into law by Clinton (dubbed by the overly-credulous as “our first Black president”), which enacted policies built on Reagan Era narratives of criminality that not only over-incarcerate black and brown citizens, but make sure it is as difficult as possible to work towards rehabilitation or foster prevention. By its very nature, a frame not only encloses what is included, it chooses what to exclude in its representation, and as such can claim ignorance of how addressing what is in the frame affects what only appears to be absent.
1. Super-Hero Satellite: Super Man and The Masters Of the Universe
2. LongBox GraveYard: Thing / Thing
3. Superior Spider-talk: Spider-Man and the Coming of Razorback!?
4. The Daily Rios: New Teen Titans/DNAgents
5. Chasing Amazing: Spider-man/Spider-man 2099 Across the Spider-Verse
6. Vic Sage/Retroist: Doctor Doom/Doctor Strange
7. Fantastiverse: Superman/Spider-Man
8. Mystery V-Log: The Avengers #1
9. In My Not So Humble Opinion: Conan /Solomon Kane
10. The Unspoken Decade: Punisher/Archie!!
11. Flodos Page: Green Lantern and the Little Green Man
12. Between The Pages: World’s Finest Couple: Lois Lane and Bruce Wayne
13. Bronze Age Babies: When Friends Like These ARE Your Enemies
Note: These blogs update at different times, so if you click on one of these links and they lead to a 404 error or an un-updated site, try again in a few hours.