Typhoid Mary as written by Ann Nocenti may be the most important character in all of modern comics: more than anything created by Stan Lee, Bob Kane, or Siegel & Shuster. The reason being that — as different and important as all those characters became — they were all cut from the same cloth (re: Caucasian Cisgender Male). Mary is different, and it is through that difference that Nocenti highlights the problems with the male- gaze driven power fantasies and toxic masculinity in the comics industry in general.
Mary first shows up preventing a mugging before blatantly sexually assaulting the mugger. This is juxtaposed with mounting trash from a garbage strike that’s meant to be an indicator of where this story is going and how it will end, but for those who aren’t fans of subtleties: the very next scene shows the thug being taken sexual advantage of by Mary atop the bodies of those she’s killed, despite his visible discomfort. He stammers, and says “You’re treating me like you’re the man, and I’m just some girl,” to which she responds “I’m going to take you.”
This is, by no means, a subtle introduction. Nocenti is showing Mary to have all of the most negative, toxic, horrid masculine characteristics. In giving a role like this to Mary, it holds up a mirror to the reader and asks: “Why are you not okay with this but you’re okay when James Bond or X or Y does it?”
A Touch of Typhoid takes place on the heels of Born Again, and to my mind Nocenti does not get enough credit for what she did with the character. This is a deconstruction the way deconstruction just wasn’t done at the time. In Born Again Miller took everything from Daredevil: his law firm, his home, everything… but left him Karen Page. In A Touch of Typhoid, Nocenti furthers that by having the Kingpin attack Matt’s romantic life using Mary as well: but not by sending her as an assassin, but by having her seduce Matt Murdock.
There’s no mind control at play here. There’s no love-spell or hypnosis. Kingpin sends an attractive woman to seduce Murdock and break the only good thing in his life — his relationship to Karen Page — and he does sleep with her. At one point it’s heavily implied he sleeps with her while there’s an unknowing blind boy in the room.
In case it’s not clear: this is a novel where nobody has a healthy sex life. Foggy’s girlfriend states that he’s “like a child” and Murdock’s inner monologue states that he finds Mary is also childlike, and that that is part of what attracts him to her.
This book is a constant struggle for sexual dominance, with Mary’s two personas (Typhoid and Mary) alternating between the “Madonna” and “Whore” archetypes of Western literature: one acting demure to the Murdock persona and the other playing the dominatrix to Daredevil. The Kingpin even enters the sexual triangle at one point, announcing that he will “show you who’s boss” to Mary in the same issue that she says a similar line to her own sexual assault victim. The implication here is clear: this is a deeply uncomfortable story about characters caught in a web of sexual violence and dysfunction, and how it ends up ripping at all of them.
And then they all go to hell.
In possibly the most brilliant multi-comic crossover ever, Nocenti crosses over with the Inferno arc from X-Men: Inferno when a portal to hell opens and demons flood New York, but uses it as a metaphor for the personal hell they’ve gone through. Mary takes Daredevil apart: crushing him emotionally, then teaming up with some of his most powerful enemies and defeating his physically, leaving him for dead. While he is unconscious Inferno happens, and he wakes to literal hell on Earth: with Karen leaving after learning of his affair, and demons running rampant in New York.
Daredevil Epic Collection: A Touch of Typhoid by Ann Nocenti
A stunning exploration of fear, sex, and gender roles in this early 80s superhero comic.
I feel like I’m going to have to write more about this book. It is dense with theme, yes is quickly read and enjoyable. Nocenti was the perfect first-lady of superhero comics, and its very rare that any writer has topped her since.