Book excerpt: “The In-Betweeners”

Once again, here is an excerpt from my book, which I’ve been working on pretty diligently over the last two-three months. I’m having so much fun with it! Just like my first excerpt, this one is also from the first chapter and looks at the case of Mole-Man and why characters with partial sight are so rare in fiction. My next post will focus on something else entirely, and be a review of sorts of what I consider to be one of the strangest issues of Daredevil ever published: Daredevil #162!

Attentive readers – especially those of you with a knowledge of the Marvel Universe exceeding my own – may have noticed the absence of a certain character from the preceeding list of blind heroes and villains. He is a short, homely sort of guy who surrounds himself with monsters – most of his own making – and has made a home for himself far under ground. I am, of course, thinking of the Mole Man, also known as Harvey Rupert Elder, the first official villain of the Fantastic Four!

There are a couple of things that make Mole Man particularly noteworthy, and relevant to the the topic of this chapter. The first is that Mole Man is the first Marvel character to possess a “radar sense,” and the only such character besides Daredevil. Mole Man made his debut in Fantastic Four #1, which hit the stands in the fall of 1961, and thus predates Daredevil’s first appearance by over two years. With this timing of events, one can imagine that at least some of the thinking that went into the creation of Mole Man was repurposed for the creation of Daredevil.

According to his origin story, Harvey Rupert Elder was a man ostracized from his community on account of his hideous appearance. When he could stand this treatment no longer, he went in search of the center of the Earth. Yes, the literal center of the Earth. As one does. Finding at last a deep cavern on the aptly named Monster Isle, Elder fell to the bottom of the hole, and, upon regaining consciousness, discovered that he had lost most of his sight. Being trapped underground, “like a human mole!” he took up the Mole Man moniker and “carved out an underground empire!” When he meets Reed Richard and Johnny Storm of the Fantastic Four, Mole Man describes his newfound abilities as follows:

“I conquered everything about me! I even learned to sense things in the dark – like a mole! Here, I’ll show you! Try to strike me with that pole! Try it, I say!! Hah! I sensed that blow coming! Nothing can take me by surprise! And, I have developed other senses too like those of the bat — I possess a natural radar sense… A warning system which enables me to evade whatever danger strikes at me! Compared to the Mole-Man, you are slow… clumsy!! Hah hah!!”

In his next appearance in Fantastic Four #22, Mole Man once again puts his abilities on display in a battle against the Thing where he turns the lights off to gain an advantage: “See how easily I can plunge my domain into darkness! […] You forgot that I can function in the dark due to my highly developed radar sense!” A note from the editor clarifies the situation for new readers at the bottom of the page: “Radar sense: Although his vision is weak, the Mole Man is able to sense things in the dark, as fully explained in F.F. #1.”

The way Mole Man’s radar sense is described suggests that the term “radar” is either an outright misnomer – in that neither moles nor bats use actual radar to navigate – or used as a metaphor for a general ability to sense the spatial arrangement of objects without sight. In fact, it has long been a suspicion of mine that Daredevil’s radar sense was not originally meant to be understood literally either, but was simply the metaphorical label for the comic book-style exaggeration of the natural phenomenon that allows some blind people to sense the presence of objects and surfaces. The case of Mole Man lends further support to this hypothesis. Navigation by echolocation and man-made sonar both rely on the detection of reflected sound. Radar, which accomplishes the same thing using (electromagnetic) radiowaves, has no biological equivalent.

Aside from the similarities between Mole Man’s and Daredevil’s senses, the second thing that makes Mole Man’s case particularly noteworthy is that he is not totally blind. This sets him apart from every other fictional character mentioned thus far. And, it is not a coincidence so much as part of a broader pattern.

Let us take the example of one paper that looked at portrayals of the blind in twelve movies produced from the 1960s onward, including the 2003 movie Daredevil.[1]Badia Corbella, M. and Sánchez-Guijo Acevedo, F. (2010) “The Representation of People with Visual Impairment in Films,” Journal of Medicine and Movies, 6(2), pp. 69–77. With the sole exception of Dancer in the Dark (2000), the remaining eleven movies examined featured characters that appear to be totally blind, or at least nearly so. This would not be a surprise if the authors actively sought to exclude movies that dealt with milder forms of vision impairment, which does not seem to be the case. And, it is not as if there exists a proportionally much larger catalogue of books and movies featuring the partially sighted for them to overlook. To quote Bolt, from the paper we looked at earlier: “[T]he vast category into which most people with impaired vision fall is at best rendered temporary and at worst not represented at all.” The Mole Man character is, in effect, more of an outlier than he should be.

In reality, total or near-total blindness is much less common than milder forms of vision impairment, and low vision more broadly. Many people are familiar with the term legal blindness, which is used in the United States for tax purposes and to determine eligibility for certain services. To be considered legally blind, a person will either have a best corrected vision of less than 20/200 or a field of vision restricted to less than 20 degrees. The legally blind constitute around one third of the total number of people with low vision in the United States, with low vision defined as having a best corrected visual acuity of 20/40.[2]Varma, Rohit et al. “Visual Impairment and Blindness in Adults in the United States: Demographic and Geographic Variations From 2015 to 2050.” JAMA ophthalmology vol. 134,7 (2016): 802-9. … Continue reading Among the legally blind, a sizeable majority have at least some useful vision. Relatively few share Matt Murdock’s condition of having no light perception at all.

In this sense, most depictions of blindness in fiction are not only a poor representation of the lives of actual blind people, but collectively serve to give the general public a very skewed sense of the broader phenomenon of vision impairment. With this in mind, it is not surprising if the average person, with little personal experience of vision impairment, is prone to thinking of total blindness and normal vision as sharply defined binary categories. In this simplified view, one is either totally blind, or fully sighted.

I would argue that this particular fallacy is likely one of the factors that make Daredevil’s sensory world, with its patchwork of enhancements and deficits, so challenging for readers and creators alike to fully wrap their heads around.

The featured image is from Daredevil #9 (vol 3), with art by Paolo Rivera.

References

References
1 Badia Corbella, M. and Sánchez-Guijo Acevedo, F. (2010) “The Representation of People with Visual Impairment in Films,” Journal of Medicine and Movies, 6(2), pp. 69–77.
2 Varma, Rohit et al. “Visual Impairment and Blindness in Adults in the United States: Demographic and Geographic Variations From 2015 to 2050.” JAMA ophthalmology vol. 134,7 (2016): 802-9. doi:10.1001/jamaophthalmol.2016.1284.

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