There are a few common misperceptions about Daredevil that tend to bother me. One is the idea some fans hold that he’s a “devout Catholic.” Outside of the movie and Kevin Smith’s brief run, Matt has never actually been portrayed as a regular church-goer. Sure, he was raised in an Irish Catholic environment, and he is religious, but devout? No.
Another myth is that he sleeps around a lot. This one has been repeated so many times that it’s become “true,” even though Matt hasn’t actually been with that many women. In fact, he’s the definition of a serial monogamist. People who are long-time readers of the comic will know this. People who are not, or who have read only certain runs might tend to buy into this myth because it’s been repeated often enough. It doesn’t help that some writers, like the above mentioned Kevin Smith, have added to and helped spread this myth. I also wonder how Matt manages to be both a “pussy hound” (pardon the NC-17 langauge), to borrow Smith’s words, and a devout Catholic at the same time.
The third “myth,” the one I’m addressing in this post, is the one that has been the most pervasive, in part because it has actively been added to by many – if not most – Daredevil writers, though they may not have done so knowingly. It’s the one that reinforces the belief that “Daredevil can ‘see’ better than any sighted man,” “his other senses more than compensate for his blindness,” “DD isn’t really blind/disabled/ handicapped/whatever,” and so on. Anyone who knows me, knows that this is one of my major pet peeves when it comes to people’s view of the character (I don’t particularly care whether anyone thinks it’s an important part of the character, it’s just that any version of the above makes me want to slam my head against my desk). Since I regularly search the Internet for any discussions related to Daredevil, using search engines like Boardreader.com, I can tell you that statements like those mentioned above actually do come up quite frequently. They bother me for the same reason it bothers me to watch the Jaywalking segment on the Tonight Show when some random idiot claims that the United States fought Great Britain in World War II and that the war took place in the 60’s. They bother me because this kind of flawed reasoning is uninformed and just plain uninsightful.
But if so many of the writers themselves are guilty of perpetuating this idea, what gives me the right to go against many of the greats who have worked on the book and call this a flat-out myth? Well, good ol’ common sense does. That’s all it takes really. Before letting this topic go, and getting it off my chest once and for all, I would like to take a thorough look at this issue and really get to the bottom of it. My belief is that the two main sources of “error” here are 1) a mistaken view of what a disability is and what it isn’t, and 2) the highly questionable notion that perceiving shapes equals good vision. Let’s take a look…
Myth: Disabilities are by their very nature obvious, highly damaging and necessarily impact every aspect of a person’s life.
Anyone who subscribes to this idea will take one quick look at Matt Murdock and all his extraordinary abilities and simply decide that he doesn’t fit their view of what a person with a disability looks like. The fact that he has actual superpowers (though I’ve noticed some fans are uncomfortable with this idea and prefer to just call them heightened senses) adds to make the whole idea of a “disabled superhero” seem like an impossible contradiction. His whole physiology actually makes him better at many things and gives him access to perceptions that lie far beyond that of the average human. How can someone who can double as a human lie detector and perceive an attack from every angle be disabled? Well, to answer this, let’s begin by sorting out the definitions…
The World Health Organization gives us one (there are several) definition for the related terms impairment, disability, and handicap. An impairment is basically an abnormality of some bodily structure or function. A disability might be said to be the consequences or physical manifestations of the impairment, and a handicap is the disadvantage that the person with the disability faces when the demands of the environment are at odds with said disability. For instance, an inability to walk is a disability that results from an impairment (let’s say a spinal cord injury) and which may or may not constitute a handicap at any given time. If there were no stairs in the world and all surfaces were completely flat, this kind of disability would rarely constitute a significant handicap. This is an important point to make, because the consequences of a disability can actually be very context-dependent, and may not be the least bit limiting in one situation while being much more so in some other situation. There are lots of examples of people with various disabilites who perform much better than the human norm in some areas where their specific disability is not a factor. Examples of this include Marla Runyan, legally blind U.S. olympian and long-distance runner who was once the highest ranked female marathon runner in the country, and Terrance Parkins, a South African deaf swimmer who won a silver medal at the 2000 Olympics.
The people mentioned above obviously don’t have any superpowers, but the point here is that a disability is not necessarily always either relevant or detrimental to the completion of a certain task. It depends entirely on the nature of the particular disability and on the situation. The fact that Daredevil has powers and abilities that allow him to fight with greater skill and accuracy than might be humanly possible, and to detect certain things that others cannot, does not actually make him “not disabled.” So long as his radar sense and other heightened senses do not fully replace all functions of normal vision, this will always be true. Which brings me to…
Myth: Having a radar sense and heightened senses of touch, smell, hearing and taste compensate completely for being totally blind.
When you go back to the basics, that is the actual comic itself and sources like the Marvel Universe Handbook, Daredevil’s powers, while somewhat sketchy, are pretty basic: four senses heightened far beyond the human norm, except for sight, and a radar sense. The story on the radar sense has always been that it gives Daredevil a 360 degree three-dimensional “view” of his surroundings. So that’s pretty much like seeing, only better, right? Uhm, not exactly…
I buy that the radar gives him an edge in combat. In fact, I’ve always found Daredevil to be a higly believable superhero. However, none of his senses come even close to compensating for Matt’s most obvious (and not so minor) disability, which is the fact that he’s 100% color blind. He gets a three-dimensional view of his surroundings, but that’s all he gets. What I mean by that is that he misses everything that is rendered exclusively in two dimensions. Everything color-coded, everything written, everything displayed on a screen, and everything light-based.
For those who would shrug this off as being merely an issue of esthetics, I would suggest the following experiment: The next time you go to the store, imagine that everything is the same color and watch the incidental visual information that most of us take for granted disappear. That includes every single sign, all of those “2 for 1” deals they have advertised, the newspaper headlines, the names of every single product on every shelf. It’s all shapes. Of course, fell free to add in sounds and scents. Pretending you’re Matt Murdock for a second, you can most likely identify each section of the supermarket by scent and, to a certain degree, by shape. The cereal isle, for instance, is full of generic shapes that might smell different when you get close enough – though keep in mind that scents always blend together – and you can touch the box to read it. But, you cannot visually scan for anything. For the average person, it would take mere seconds to pick out the cheapest brand on the shelf. If your only means of doing this is by touch, it will take you a whole lot longer and since most pricing information is hidden under a thick layer of plastic, it might even be impossible. Well, unless you have one of those universal bar code scanners. I’m not saying that this is necessarily a big deal, but it is clearly an inconvenience.
At this point, someone might say that a highly acute sense of smell compensates when it comes to shopping for food, but let’s take this experiment to another location. Let’s go to the book store or the computer store. Say you’re shopping for a new ethernet cable for your modem. You enter the store and all you get is various shapes, the smell of plastic and signs you can’t read. Okay, well let’s say you walk through each aisle until you find the area where all of the cords and cables are kept (and these types of packages tend to have distinctive shapes, so I’ll buy that). Now what? Well, what kind of cable do you want? How long should it be? What brand? What other specific information are you not seeing? Go ahead and touch each label, and that will give you the information you need. However, if you could easily read things without touching them you would probably approach this task by quickly scanning the supply, identifying first where the ethernet cables are (and not the firewire, phone or USB cables…) and then quickly narrow down your selection from there to first brand and then length. This would take a fraction of the time it would take if you had to do it by touch. The “can only read what you’re physically touching” issue becomes even more of a problem in a bookstore, where not even the shapes are distinctive…
…which brings me to reading generally. If you can read everything (printed) by touch, then quickly searching for written information should be a snap, right? That’s another no. What do you do when you read the paper? Do you start in one corner and then read the whole thing until you’re finished. If you’re like me, you open it up, look at the page for a couple of seconds at the most and decide if there’s anything you want to read. Heck, it may even be covered by one big fat ad. So, you flip the page if there’s nothing on it that interests you. Because the advantage of vision over touch here is enormous. Vision lets you take in all that information in no time because you can process so much simultaneously. This issue becomes even more obvious if you imagine that you’re looking something up in the phone book. Visual scanning is insanely fast compared to having to stop to touch the page.
These are just a handful of examples that all illustrate my main point, which is that vision consists of much more than only detecting shapes, and that an inability to perceive two-dimensional visual information should justifiably be considered a disability, regardless of what other abilities a person might have. So, when Matt opened up to Elektra and told her about his powers, adding “my other senses more than compensate,” I wonder if he felt the same way an hour later sitting in class in front of a black board he couldn’t read.
It is interesting to note that the writers who have gone the farthest in really trying to describe Daredevil’s enhanced senses are the ones who have been the best at reminding the reader that the hero is also blind. I don’t think this is a coincidence. When you really try to get inside his head, you realize the immense powers of his world. You also quickly realize the limitations. Yes, oftentimes Daredevil’s senses do more than compensate for his blindness, sometimes going far beyond the human norm. But to suggest that they always compensate is a logical fallacy of major proportions. And, if you ask me, doing so even cheapens the character. It allows Marvel to have their disability cake and eat it too. They can milk the “Daredevil is special because he’s handicapped” premise for all they’re worth, but as long as they refuse to actually touch it with a ten-foot pole, it all sounds a little hollow to me.
I touched on some of these points in a previous post as well, but part of the reason for bringing them up again here, aside from getting this out of my system once and for all, was some of the answers I got when I asked comic readers who are not fans of the character what they didn’t like about him. I will get back to all the answers I got in a later post (this was on Newsarama and Comic Book Resources, by the way), but at least two or three people pointed to some version of “you can’t even tell he’s blind” as one of the reasons they found Daredevil to be less interesting than his basic premise would suggest. I thought that was interesting, but I wasn’t surprised. I’ve stated before that I think this is a weakness in how the character has been portrayed, and I know I’m not the only one. Fortunately, Brubaker has, in my opinion, performed the best of any writer ever in this department, and I believe that we will see a more nuanced and modern take on Daredevil’s abilities in the years to come.