It’s a scorcher in New York City. The blacktop shimmers and sticks as the sun beats down upon Spider-Man, the Avengers, the Fantastic Four and the X-Men as they defend the city against demonic forces intent on bringing hell to Earth. This is Inferno, the backdrop of 1989’s Daredevil #262, by untested Marvel editor Ann Nocenti and star-artist-on-the-rise John Romita Jr.
And on that sweltering hot day, Daredevil fights a vacuum cleaner. And he nearly loses. And it’s great.
It shouldn’t work. This should be an entry in some “Top 10 Silliest Fights In Marvel History” list. Yet, there’s a deadly seriousness to the issue that elevates a lowly household appliance into something transcendent. The reader is forced to sincerely confront the question: Who will win? Daredevil … or a demon-possessed vacuum cleaner?
One eternal question spans all of pop culture: “Who would win?” That’s why we’re dedicating an entire week to debates that have shaped comics, movies, TV, and games, for better and worse. Prepare yourself for Polygon’s Who Would Win Week..
At the time the book was published, Nocenti was a year into a run that was never meant to be. A Marvel editor best known for overseeing Chris Claremont’s epic tenure on Uncanny X-Men, she had jumped into the book as a fill-in writer and never really left, fitting herself into the enormous chair left by Frank Miller.
Nocenti, whose career at Marvel started by replying to an ad in The Village Voice that she’d mistaken for a job in writing smut, wasn’t a traditional fit for comics. Still, she became a quick advocate for the medium, saying, in one intervew, “I sincerely lied […] pretending I knew what a comic was. Once inside the citadel I was stunned by the incendiary energy […]. The whole thing seemed subversive. Why was all this psychedelic power crammed into such tiny, badly-printed packages?”
Her partner on the book, John Romita Jr., came from a more prestigious pedigree. His father-slash-namesake was a comics legend, the one time Art Director for Marvel, and Romita Jr. had already proven his prestige with storied runs on The Amazing Spider-Man & Uncanny X-Men. His intense linework fueled Nocenti’s creativity to boiling points of emotion.
The two took huge swings in the year running up to Daredevil #262. They tackled the first story featuring Kingpin since Miller’s fabled 1986 “Born Again” arc, often lauded as the greatest Marvel comic of all time. Nocenti and Romita created the now iconic Daredevil femme fatale Typhoid Mary. They broke Matt Murdock, body and mind, before Mary twisted the knife, crushing his heart and dropping his body off a bridge.
Daredevil #262 opens in the immediate aftermath. Left to die under a bridge, Daredevil faces his fiercest foe yet: A vacuum cleaner.
Let’s take a step back
The line wide Marvel event comic “Inferno” was born out of a conflux of simmering story beats, behind the scenes drama and the shifting market for comic books that resolved themselves in a crossover that spread through 14 series and 40 issues where hell literally breaks free on Manhattan. In the fiction of the Marvel Universe, it had virtually nothing to do with Daredevil. But editorially, Nocenti oversaw the X-Men line.
Given her close involvement in the arc — and the undeniable fact that no comics writer can resist word play — it made sense that Nocenti would want Daredevil to tie into an event where all sorts of hell beasts cause chaos. As the beasts in question aren’t from actual hell, but a more Tales From the Crypt-style nether dimension called Limbo, in most cases the carnage in Inferno ends up being a winking, B-Movie kind of horror.
But not in Daredevil #262. Here, a vacuum ominously creeps over to a bloodied and beaten man. The narration reassures us of what we know, as the art shows us the exact opposite. “A vacuum is an inanimate object. A dead thing. A vacuum can’t breathe or think. A vacuum has no will. […] A vacuum is a hunk of stupid metal. A vacuum can’t hurt you.” All this as the malicious machine mounts Matt Murdock, twisting techno-organic tendrils around his neck.
Beating the piss out of Matt Murdock
Beginning with Frank Miller’s shift from merely drawing Daredevil to drawing and helping plot it, beating the piss out of Matt Murdock has become the defining trait of a modern Daredevil story. In their run on the title, Brian Bendis and Alex Maleev beat the hero down, exposed his secret identity and closed their time on the book by sentencing Matt to prison. Ed Brubaker picked up where they left off, sending Murdock on an endless, downward spiral. Writer after writers have chipped away at the hero — a ruined romance here, a family betrayal there, more concussions that you can count.
But as the first consistent writer to follow Miller’s seminal run, it was Nocenti who elevated the crucifixion of Matt Murdock from a one-off quality to a fundamental theme of the character — the devout Catholic Matt Murdock’s own mortification of the flesh. He is a fallen, broken man, and he must face punishment. And in Daredevil #262, demonic vacuum cleaner or no demonic vacuum cleaner, Romita and Nocenti treat this moment with religious reverence. They’ve spent their entire time together tearing down Daredevil’s life. He’s not a superhero, he’s hardly a man, and in this fallen state even a household appliance is getting the best of him.
The night before his Crucifixion, praying in the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus cried “Abba, Father, all things are possible to thee; remove this cup from me; yet not what I will, but what thou wilt.” (Mark 14:36 RSV) In his own agony, beset by a vacuum, Daredevil cries out.
It’s a scene where Romita, inker Al Williamson and colorist Max Scheele stretch to their most impressionistic. Shapes and scratches and the idea of colors take the place of crisp art. Murdock bargains with the memory of his mentor and father-figure, Stick. He’s tired, his right leg broken, his body bruised, his will no longer present.
Like a child, Matt screams, “I’m dead, I wanna stay dead! […] I don’t wanna be born!” The vacuum creeps nearer with a sinister “Vrrrrrr.”
Against this vacuum, Daredevil is powerless. He knows this, Stick knows this, and most importantly, we the reader believe that the man without fear could fall here and now, to a vacuum. Inside his mind, Stick begs Matt to believe in a power greater than himself, maybe not God, but like that. The reason that Daredevil can defeat a vacuum cleaner isn’t that he is a trained brawler or that he can do tricks with a billy club or that a childhood accident that took his sight and replaced it with a sonar sense. Daredevil has the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. The Devil of Hell’s Kitchen has blind faith.
Tenacity is not a unique trait in heroes. We like a guy who can get beaten, and fall, and against all odds stand back up again. It’s why we root for Rocky to go the distance, or for Luigi to rescue his brother from the haunted mansion. Where Daredevil breaks the mold is that there is never any reason to believe he can do the things he does. The Man Without Fear can’t be driven by desire, but by faith. Faith in his friends, his God, his partners and his city. Even when he doubts, and he often does, he pushes through — and keeps the faith.
So Nocenti and Romita give Daredevil this moment of triumph. His faith that the world is not a cold, dead place gives him the strength to rip the vacuum’s cord from his neck. “I don’t care how cruel, how dark, how horrible – I want life! All of it!” he screams as he rends the very bag from its motor. “It’s dark, but it’s mine!”
Nocenti’s writing has never been subtle. She needs you to understand what she is saying: There is resiliency in the human spirit. Her Daredevil will go on to defeat Ultron with just a stick and stone. He’ll travel to the pit of Hell itself to battle the devil. He believes that he can overcome whatever impossible obstacle he faces, and so can we. It doesn’t matter if we’re facing a global pandemic or the shadow of war or a depression so deep that something as small as vacuuming seems insurmountable. We can overcome.