Book excerpt: “Doctor Mid-Nite”

As promised, I will occasionally be posting excerpts from my book. The first chapter is tentatively titled “Literary Origins” and discusses the way blindness has been conceived in myth and fiction throughout human history. Of course, there is a particular focus on the surprisingly common practice of ascribing special abilities to the blind. One part of the chapter deals with other blind superheroes, and below you’ll find what I have to say about Dr. Mid-Nite. I have written one previous post about this DC Comics character, but the longer treatment you find here is more in-depth. It has the added bonus of mentioning infrared light, which also ties in nicely with my last post.

Matt Murdock is not the only blind character with enhanced abilities, even in his own comic book. And, while Daredevil is by far the best-known blind superhero today, particularly after the success of his recent television show, he is not he the only one to fit that description. Nor was he the first. That distinct honor goes to the DC Comics character Dr. Mid-Nite who was created in 1941.

The original Dr. Mid-Nite, known in his civilian life as Charles McNider, made his first appearance in All-American Comics #25, written by Charles Reizenstein with art by Stanley Josephs Aschmeier.

At the beginning of his origin story, McNider is introduced as a physician and researcher. Within the first couple of pages, he is called on by the police to treat a mob informant who has been badly injured. While McNider is treating him, a gangster affiliated with the local mob boss appears, throws a grenade through the window, killing the man Dr. McNider had just miraculously saved, and permanently blinding the doctor himself.

Dr. McNider takes the dramatic event in stride. He decides to continue his research, with the help of his assistant Myra Mason, and to try a new career as a writer of detective stories inspired by true events.

Some time later, an owl crashes through his window during a thunderstorm, lands on his lap and accidentally loosens the bandages around his eyes. McNider now makes the startling discovery that he can see in the dark – which he somewhat perplexingly still recognizes as such – but is blind again when the lights are turned on. The creators provide an interesting explanation for how this can be:

”Explanation of Dr. McNider’s strange phenomenon! Everyone knows an owl can see only at night… The iris of its eye cannot close off light to the proper degree and so the owl is blinded by daylight… The accident made Dr. McNider’s eyes the same as the owl’s… he can see in the dark – but light blinds him!!”

In reality, this delightful explanation is complete nonsense, and the supposed ”everyone” mentioned above is sadly mistaken. Most owl species are nocturnal, and have evolved an impressive visual system that can support such a lifestyle, but they are not blind during the day. In fact, none of the animals known for their ability to see well in low light conditions – which famously includes cats – can see anything in complete darkness. Their ability to see in low light conditions stems from the well-developed capacity to make good use of what little light there is.

Blissfully unaware of the logical challenges to his new abilities, McNider decides to keep the owl as a pet – naming it Hooty – and later takes it with him while fighting crime. But we are getting ahead of ourselves here. First, our hero needs to devise a costume and a set of goggles that will allow him to see during the day. Oh, and come up with a fantastic new name for his crime-fighting alter ego: Dr. Mid-Nite!

The lenses he creates are described as ”infrared,” which presumably means that they shield him from visible light, but let the longer wavelength infrared rays through. The idea seems to be that owls can see infrared light, and that because Doctor Mid-Nite now has eyes that work like those of an owl, he can too. Before we completely laugh this off, it was actually believed at one point that at least certain owl species could see in infrared, though this idea was put to rest in a scientific research paper that came out just one year before All-American Comics #25.[1]The Sensibility of the Nocturnal Long-Eared Owl in the Spectrum, Selig Hecht and Maurice Henri Pirenne, The Journal of General Physiology, July 20, 1940 We can hardly hold it against his creators that Doctor Mid-Nite was based on a flawed understanding of owls that was apparently common at the time.

They also have the crafty Dr. McNider devise so-called “blackout bombs” to use as a weapon. These explosives work by producing a thick, black smoke that only Doctor Mid-Nite is able to see through. At first, this idea may seem a bit strange. How is the darkness resulting from a light source being obscured by dark smoke and soot – we sadly do not have the recipe for McNider’s bombs – fundamentally the same as the absence of a visible light source? Well, fortunately for our inventor, infrared light is, in fact, more easily transmitted by smoke than visible light is, and if we accept that seeing in infrared is the key to his ability to see in the dark, this might actually work. Go figure.

The featured image comes from Secret Origins #20, written by Roy Thomas with pencils by Mike Clark.

References

References
1 The Sensibility of the Nocturnal Long-Eared Owl in the Spectrum, Selig Hecht and Maurice Henri Pirenne, The Journal of General Physiology, July 20, 1940

One Reply to “Book excerpt: “Doctor Mid-Nite””

  1. How fun! I look forward to seeing more about your book.

    I have one or two Doctor Mid-Nite issues, mainly out of curiosity since I wondered how he compared to Daredevil. Never was interested in diving deeper.

    There was also a more recent character along similar lines called Black Bat. It was a little dark for me though. (Pun not intended but I’ll take credit for it anyway.)

    Daredevil is still my favorite.

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