Christmas with the Devil

Christmas is not exactly my favorite time of year.  First of all, like Ben Grimm and Kitty Pryde, I happen to be Jewish.  Second, I look at how ridiculously commercialized the holiday has become, and I cannot help but wonder what Jesus would think in regards to the conspicuous consumerism being conducted in his name.  Third, it is one of those times of year when people feel obligated to be happy & joyous, because that is the image popular culture projects, and so they believe that there is something lacking in or wrong with their lives because they are plagued by myriad problems.

And then I was reminded of Daredevil #266, published by Marvel Comics back in 1989.  It’s definitely one of my all time favorite issues of that series.  Yesterday Ann Nocenti had posted about it on her Facebook page, revealing of this story:

“Reality was the inspiration.  I’d screwed up my life so bad I had nowhere to go on X-Mas, so stopped in a pub and had a memorable day with strangers.”

Daredevil 266 cover signed

“A Beer with the Devil” was written by Nocenti, co-plotted & penciled by John Romita Jr, and inked by Al Williamson.  It’s Christmas Eve, and Daredevil is in bad shape.  For the hero of Hell’s Kitchen, it’s the end of what’s been a horrific year.  After the devastating events of the classic “Born Again” storyline, Matt Murdock had been attempting to rebuild his shattered life.  His efforts were thwarted by Typhoid Mary, the femme fatale assassin in the employ of the Kingpin.  Typhoid orchestrated a campaign to attack Daredevil mentally, physically, and emotionally.  Barely surviving this brutal gauntlet, Daredevil then experienced the horrors of “Inferno” as the demons of Limbo assaulted Manhattan.  Now the shell-shocked, scarred vigilante sits in a bar, nursing a beer.  He is surrounded by other social outcasts who also have nowhere else to go on the holidays.

In the midst of this, a beautiful but enigmatic woman approaches Daredevil.  She starts to talk to him, telling a tale about betraying her husband.  The red-haired woman begins posing hypothetical questions, such as which is worse, stealing one dollar or one million, and then asking Daredevil if he believes he has made a difference as a hero.  Stating that “it’s too late for the world, the apple’s rotten, there’s no going back,” the strange woman seduces Daredevil, kissing him passionately.

Daredevil 266 pg 11

And while all this is going on, two brothers, Hector and Hugo, are drunkenly arguing.  Their squabble ends horribly, as Hector takes a broken bottle and stabs his brother in the stomach, killing him.  Daredevil realizes there is something wrong and violently punches the mystery woman away, and turns around to find a murder has taken place right under his nose, one he could easily have prevented if he had not been enthralled.

Daredevil turns back to the woman, whose shape shifts & changes, revealing her true form: the demon lord Mephisto.  The ruler of the underworld seizes the crimefighter, taunting and mocking him, throwing back in his face his actions as both Daredevil and Matt Murdock.  Mephisto appears to grow to immense size, and the bar is consumed by flames before the building comes crumbling down.  Claiming that Daredevil is powerless against evil, the devil finally vanishes, leaving Daredevil to plummet down to the street.

When Daredevil finally comes to in the snow, everything is back to normal, with no sign of any carnage or destruction.  Two concerned strangers from the bar help DD to his feet.  They ask if he wants to come with them to the soup kitchen for Christmas dinner, and he accepts.

Daredevil 266 pg 24

I can certainly relate to “A Beer with the Devil.”  There have been holidays past where I’ve found myself perched on a bar stool, drink in hand, ruminating on my solitude and unhappiness, wondering where my life went wrong, attempting to find solace among strangers.  As I said before, I think a lot of people feel that way around this time of year.

Nocenti’s writing on this issue is amazing.  She introduces the odd, colorful bar customers, effectively fleshing them out within just a few panels, given glimpses of entire lives lived outside the pages of this story.  They feel very authentic, just like the types of people you’d see if you walked into some hole-in-the-wall drinking establishment in Manhattan.  I’ve met quite a few characters like these during my bar-crawling days.

Mephisto is an interesting character to utilize.  As a Satanic figure, he is the exact opposite of the Messiah, the being whose birth Christmas is supposed to celebrate.  The lord of the damned would want to slander and blaspheme this most holy of occasions, to subvert the message of peace and hope.  Targeting Daredevil, tempting him, making him feel ineffectual, corrupting a noble soul who has already been through so much pain & suffering in order to finally tip him over the edge, is a very Biblical action.

And then, at the very end, Nocenti offers up a moment of hope.  A small gesture of human kindness, strangers extending a helping hand… that is the true spirit of the holiday.  It is a message all too often lost in the rush to buy the most presents or put up the most decorations.  Reflecting on that final page, I thought about my own present circumstances.  I have a lot of personal problems, along with many accompanying fears.  I have no idea what 2014 is going to bring for me.  But at least I know that this holiday season I’m not going to be alone.  I have my girlfriend.  Yeah, things are certainly not perfect between the two of us.  But when is any relationship ever without problems?  At least we have each other, which is much better than sitting on that lonely bar stool.

Daredevil 266 pg 30

The artwork on Daredevil #266 is wonderful.  John Romita Jr is one of those artists who always turn in very solid, professional work.  He isn’t especially flashy, but he gets the job done, effectively tells a story and establishes a real sense of atmosphere.  I think he is a rather underrated penciler.  “A Beer with the Devil” is one of the best efforts of his career, as he draws the mundane and the metaphysical side-by-side.  Romita’s redesign of Mephisto is amazingly horrific.

I’m a huge fan of Al Williamson, who was himself an amazing penciler.  Williamson specialized in sci-fi and space opera, memorably illustrating Weird Science, Flash Gordon, and Star Wars.  I wonder how he felt about inking Romita’s pencils for these grim, philosophical tales of gritty urban crime and, later on, the surreal journey that Nocenti took DD on when she sent him into Hell itself for a confrontation with Mephisto and his son Blackheart (see Daredevil #s 270 and 278-282 for that mind-blowing odyssey).  Whatever the case, Williamson was a great fit for Romita’s pencils, and the two of them were the perfect art team for Nocenti’s thought-provoking writing on the series.

At first glance, Daredevil #266 probably seems a very bizarre story to look at to celebrate the holiday season.  But actually it is a very appropriate, genuine piece of writing.  Rather than putting on a façade of joy and frivolity, “A Beer with the Devil” acknowledges that, yes, the world is deeply messed up, there is more than enough evil & hypocrisy to go around, and life just isn’t fair.  But, as the ending demonstrates, by offering a little bit of kindness and selflessness towards others, perhaps you can help make things just a tiny bit better, one day at a time.  And that might just be a sentiment Jesus would agree with.

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