Yes, the title of this post is deliberately ambiguous, somewhat pretentious and possible misleading. First of all, Paolo Rivera doesn’t actually have a radar sense, at least none that I know of (even though he does frequently use himself and various household object as reference material, as often seen in his always entertaining Wacky Reference Wednesdays series of posts). Joking aside, I’m obviously talking about Rivera’s rendering of Daredevil’s radar sense which has become the gold standard of the series’ third volume. But, I’m not really just talking about that either. To explain what the heck I’m getting at, I’ll refer you to this comment, that Daniel D left in response to my review of Daredevil #10:
“[...] there was one part of the issue which threw me a little: The part early on where Mole Man asks; can’t Daredevil see how ugly he is? Matt replies that no, he can’t. Yet we’re shown a panel of DD’s radar mapping the contours of Mole Man’s face, showing us that actually DD could ‘see’ how ugly Mole Man was.”
My response to Daniel was that I’d get back to this topic in a separate post, which pretty much brings us here. And this is also where we get into something of a philosophical domain that is, of course, not just limited to how Paolo Rivera draws the radar sense, but how it’s been done historically as well. However, while we’re on the topic, I realized that there are a couple of properties of the radar sense that I’ve never really touched on despite the fact that they are pretty central to the understanding of Matt’s “vision,” and despite the number of posts I’ve specifically devoted to the radar sense on this site already. For this, I also wanted to use a couple of panels from the current run on Daredevil, but I’ll return to that in the second half of this post.
Getting back on track (before I have everyone so confused that you guys are ready to head over to some other comics blog where things make sense), let’s look at Daniel’s comment quoted above. And, just so we’re all on the same page, below is the panel he’s referring to, from Daredevil #10.
The Mole Man dilemma
The question we need to ask ourselves here is what purpose the radar panel of Mole Man’s face serves in this story, and what it really says about Daredevil. I’d say that its main purpose is to remind the reader that Matt’s perspective is different from that of the average person; that his way of “seeing” is unlike our way of seeing. Whenever a non-radar panel is used in the comic, that represents the viewpoint of the majority (whether we’re talking about the reader or the average Marvel Universe inhabitant). When a radar panel is used, it reminds the reader of this other way of seeing, but it can’t fully recreate it in a way that perfectly mimics the real deal. The topographic wireframe rendition that Paolo Rivera introduced is a great model, but it’s really just that: a model.
What can be done on the page is not only limited by the fact that the artist is trying to transfer a three-dimensional, yet colorless, image to the two-dimensional page, but also by what the reader is able to comprehend. While the “silhouette interpretation” of the radar (see Frank Miller and others) has been much more common, Rivera is not the first Daredevil artist to attempt something a little more three-dimensional. Another example is Scott McDaniel, who provided the art seen in the panel below, from Daredevil #306 (Vol 1), written by D. G. Chichester. His approach is different from Rivera’s wireframe, but seems to try to capture some of the same aspects of the radar image. The only problem with it that it’s quite difficult to figure out what Matt is “seeing” in these instances.
I happen to like the exotic nature of McDaniel’s radar. The fact that it makes the reader work a little harder is a good way of underscoring the difference between Daredevil’s impressions and everyone else’s. However, Rivera’s wireframe is probably the better compromise. His radar images are clear enough to allow the reader to understand what Daredevil is seeing, while at the same time capturing the colorless and “depth-based” properties of the radar. This allows us to understand where the main differences between the two perspectives lie without slowing down the story.
However, if we require that readers be able to understand what it is Daredevil is looking at, that also means that Mole Man’s face (in this instance) be drawn in a way that makes him recognizable to us readers. My take on all of this is that in trying to balance the demands of drawing the radar as different with the need to create a recognizable image, the art may actually be exaggerating Daredevil’s ability to recognize both faces and certain other objects. Matt may not be lying at all when he tells Mole Man that he’s unable to see his face. However, the Mole Man panel highlights a conflict between the art and writing that has popped up from time to time for the book’s nearly five decades of publication.
Can Daredevil “see” faces?
My main reasons for arguing that Matt Murdock would have a problem with faces really stem from two sources. The first one is the writing, as handled by Mark Waid currently, and also by past writers. Looking only at what is said about the radar sense and what is expressed by the main character, without bringing the art into the picture, it is clear that the notion that Matt can’t see faces (at least not well enough to use as a basis for recognizing people) is much more widespread than the notion that he can. Even the most obvious of facial expressions, such as a smile, is more often referred to as something that can be heard, or otherwise inferred, than “seen” by means of the radar sense. Looking at what Mark Waid has had to say on the topic, it’s pretty clear that he imagines the finer details of the human face to be beyond Matt’s grasp.
Aside from what writers have had to say on the subject, it is also a well-known observation that being able to recognize faces is one of the first things to go when someone’s sight deteriorates. People whose vision is at or even below the 20/200 mark (the legal blindless limit, and the equivalent of having only one tenth of normal visual acuity) commonly have no problems with mobility and don’t need to use a white cane. Facial recognition, on the other hand, is an ability that starts to drop off as early as around the 20/30 – 20/40 mark. This is not surprising considering the number of people who have fully correctable vision but will attest to failing to recognize people when not wearing their glasses. If you consider how much the color of people’s eyes, skin, lips, hair, eyebrows etc help in recognizing people, that’s obviously another disadvantage that Matt would have.
In essence, since it’s highly unlikely that Daredevil’s radar sense comes even close to normal visual acuity (see, for instance, the “radar” subheading in this post) and since we know for a fact that he can’t “see” in color, it seems reasonable to assume the fine details of the human face elude him. So, in response to Daniel, it seems that Daredevil wasn’t lying to Mole Man after all, despite what that panel would suggest.
Silhouettes versus 3-D
With Daniel’s comment dealt with to the best of my ability, I thought I’d take the opportunity to address a couple of other radar-related things that might provide some food for thought, the first being whether the three-dimensional take on the radar makes more sense than the silhouettes that have been a common artist’s choice historically. I would argue that both are equally valid, but at different ranges. I’ll get to why below this beautiful panel from Daredevil #1 (Vol 3), that actually shows Paolo Rivera drawing people as silhouettes (in order to emphasize their heart beats, I suspect).
Historically, the above take on the radar sense has been much more common, and is also seen in at least one scene from Marcos Martín’s issues. For close-ups, the wireframe approach which reveals more depth and follows the contours of objects more closely makes more sense to me given that whatever the radar sense really is, it relies on the relative distances between Daredevil and various points in space around him. This is key to understanding one of the main differences between normal vision and the radar sense: The first creates depth from two flat images (one presented to each eye), the other creates an image – or understanding, rather – from only relative depths.
However, at greater distances, the “shadow” cast by the reflection of some signal (sound, or something else) should appear relatively flatter. Think about it this way: If you take a large object, like a car, and imagine that you’re standing right in front of if (say 5 ft away), then the windshield will be approximately twice as far away from you as the bumper, making the relative distances of the two parts of the car large. The farther away from you the car is, however, the smaller the relative distance between the windshield and the bumper compared to the distance between yourself and either surface. If you’re relying on sound (whether ambient of self-produced), or some other kind of energy with a frequency pattern to it, you will eventually reach the point where you can’t resolve the difference between the signal that bounces back from the windshield and the one that bounces back from the bumper and your overall impression of the object will be dominated by the “silhouette” given by its two-dimensional form.
Of course, I have no idea of how Daredevil’s radar sense would work if he were a real person (who does?) so I don’t have the faintest clue at which point common everyday objects would start to appear flat to him, I’m just saying that they would appear flatter at greater distances. Then again, our own stereoscopic vision stops working when viewing objects at distances greater than 150-170 meters, at which point we start using only monocular cues (inferences that can be made about perspective and relative size in the absence of binocular vision) to understand depth. However, we can see all the way to the horizon, something Matt Murdock most certainly cannot, which brings us to the second thought experiment of this post.
The range of the radar sense
This name of this blog is a play on the title of Brian Bendis’s and Alex Maleev’s last story arc on Daredevil: The Murdock Papers. I think most people would agree that that arc was not Bendis’s best work on the title (for one, it had Elektra confessing to helping the Kingpin gather documents that didn’t actually exist…). It also introduced the questionable notion that S.H.I.E.L.D. has information about the range of Daredevil’s radar sense. I’m mentioning it here, however, because while I may have disagreed with much of what Bendis did in the senses department, there’s definitely a great deal of logic to the radar having a finite range. Again, this assumption holds regardless of what we imagine the radar to be.
I mentioned above that one big difference between the radar perspective and normal vision is how the former constructs image from depths while the latter constructs depth from images. Another key difference is the “light source” factor. Those of us who can see light rarely have to bring our own light source to the party. With indoor lighting and, more importantly for greater distances, that big yellow disk up in the sky that makes sure everything we need to see is clearly illuminated, we can see as far as we need to. Literally for miles.
The Daredevil experience is more like walking into a pitch black cave with a 360 degree headlight on your head. How far you can see depends on the intensity of the signal, of course. However, it’s not infinite. The inverse square law dictates that the intensity of an electromagnetic signal (such as light or radiowaves) emanating in all directions from a point source diminishes by a factor of four for each doubling of the distance from the source. If we’re talking about sound, the law dictates that the intensity is halved with each doubling of the distance from the source. So, whether Daredevil’s head actually emits some kind of sound or radiowave, the signal will die off pretty quickly. The situation is obviously similar if he relies on ambient sound (my own favorite interpretation).
This actually matches what we’ve seen in the daredevil comic pretty well, with many writers emphasizing that the radar allows Daredevil to get an idea of his immediate surroundings. The interpretation of “immediate” probably varies quite a bit by writer though. Either way, at greater distances, things won’t just appear flatter, but fainter as well. Eventually, no signal will bounce back and anything at the far end of the range will disappear into a void. For this reason, I’m a much bigger fan of how the “far away” is handled in the panel below on the left (nothing is bounced back from the “far away” position beyond the shooter) than the one on the right (where even distant skyscrapers are visible). Both are from Daredevil #1.
With the notion that Daredevil really can’t “see” very far, it’s really not so silly for him to be using that “If I could see what I was doing…” line. Jumping off the top of a skyscraper, it actually makes sense that he can’t perceive the street below.
So, there’s one more geek-out for you, all thanks to Daniel and his comment. So, thanks Daniel (and Paolo Rivera, of course) for inspiring this post!