Reevaluating early Daredevil

Daredevil swings down and lands on a car in Daredevil #14, apparently guided more by its sound than its shape.

If you were thinking that I had gone back into hiding, I certainly wouldn’t hold it against you. It’s been over a month since my last post, and I’ve had my share of false starts over the past few years. However, I do have a few posts planned that I would like to get out there before too long, and I’m hoping to finish the year with a total of at least twenty for 2021.

For this post, I would like to talk about a rather surprising epiphany I’ve had over the summer, while working on my book. Or to be more specific, while rereading every single issue of Daredevil and taking detailed notes about how Matt Murdock’s senses are actually used. What I’ve discovered is that, contrary to the idea I’ve had that Daredevil’s senses have stabilized and gotten more “grounded” over time, a case could be made for a very different kind of evolution. Depending on what aspect of the character’s senses we’re talking about, Daredevil has actually been getting more powerful in at least some respects.

Considering that this is not my first time reading every issue of Daredevil (I have, in fact, read most runs many times), how could I have missed the things I’m now noticing? Where does my bias against the sensory portrayals of early, “pre-Miller” Daredevil come from? Well, I think it comes down to a few different factors:
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Have I been too hard on Stan Lee? On reading and sensing colors by touch

Matt reads braille at the library, in Daredevil #4 (1964), commenting that he could read print just as fast, by feeling the imprints

Some time ago, while doing research for my book, I came across a piece of information that took me by great surprise. In fact, to say that I was shocked by what I found would not be an overstatement. It lead me down a rabbit hole that kept getting deeper and wider. And weirder.

Just writing this post has taken me two weeks, which is just slightly longer than it’s going to take you to read it. That’s a mild exaggeration, you’re looking at ~25 minutes. So make a cup of tea or coffee, and get ready to get your physics on! If the thought of that scares you, get a stiff drink.

You see, I genuinely thought that Stan Lee’s characterization of Matt Murdock’s ability to read print was his own invention. That it was intended as an extension of reading braille, made possible by the fact that the printing technology of the 1960’s left behind letters that were ever so slightly raised above the texture of the paper on which they were printed. Even how it was described in the comics – see the word “imprint” in the featured image, from Daredevil #4 – suggested that this was the case. Framed this way, this seemed like a not entirely implausible superpower, even though I have frequently made fun of the supposed reading speed that Matt could achieve this way.

Little did I know that there had long been stories swirling around about people who could read regular printed text by touch. While “dermo-optical perception” is now considered to be a paranormal phenomenon that I suspect few people today have ever heard of, I was stunned to learn that it was actually taken seriously enough in decades past to be featured in mainstream publications, including this piece in the January 1963 issue of TIME magazine.[1]TIME Jan. 25, 1963, No. 4

Screen grab of a newspaper story, which reads: Seeing Fingertips. Soviet Psychiatrist Isaac Goldberg could well understand his colleagues’ doubts, but he insisted that he really did have an epileptic patient who could read ordinary print with her fingertips. To prove it, he had Rosa Kuleshova, 22, admitted to the Sverdlov Clinic for Nervous Disorders. There before a skeptical audience, Dr. Goldberg blindfolded Rosa and had the blindfold checked. Then Rosa opened a book at random, passed her fingertips of her right hand lightly over the page, and fluently read the text aloud. She did the same with a newspaper. Handed a snapshot, Rosa stroked the surface and said: What a cute little girl with a ribbon in her hair and her face tilted upward! Several members of Rosa’s family, in the Urals town of Nizhni Tagil (pop. 338,000) were blind, Dr. Goldberg explained. Rosa herself learned to read Braille as well as the printed word, and made no sharp distinction in her mind between the two kinds of reading. Her senses of touch and sight had become practically interchangeable. Had Rosa developed her Braille touch so highly that she could feel the shapes of characters in letterpress printing? With a sheet of glass over a printed page, Rosa could no longer read fine print, but she could still make out headline type in strong light. Rosa can also ‘feel’ colors. White, she says, is smooth; red is coarse-grained; and blue is wavy. Again determined to rule out a reaction to textures, the neurologists tested her with colored light. They shone a red light on a light green book, making ut look blue. Rosa called it blue. When the red light was switched off, and the green looked green again, the blindfolded Rosa expressed astonishment that the book could change color. Though Rosa’s brain-wave pattern changes when she is reading with her fingers, neurologists have not yet been able to find any connection between her strange faculty and her epilepsy. The Russian experts can only assume that Rosa Kuleshova has in her fingertips a network of fine nerve endings that are sensitive to light.

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References

Book excerpt: “Doctor Mid-Nite”

Dr. Mid-Nite perching on the top of a building, as seen in Secret Origins #20, by Roy Thomas and Mike Clark

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.

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Let’s talk about Daredevil’s “World On Fire”

A still frame showing the world on fire effect used on Marvel's Daredevil

I’ve decided to start this new chapter in the life of The Other Murdock Papers, by tackling a topic I’ve been meaning to address since 2015, when the first season of Marvel’s Daredevil came out. I’m talking about the short-lived special effect known as the “world on fire.”

The effect appeared for the first and last time in the fifth episode of the first season, which also carries its name: World On Fire. I’ve briefly talked about my issues with the world on fire in other contexts, most recently on the “exploring the senses” episode of the #TalkDaredevil podcast. However, I’ve never gone into detail about why I’m not a fan of this particular interpretation of Matt’s “pseudo-visual” abilities.

Don’t take it literally

And let’s start there, with the word “interpretation.” Because, I think it’s important to keep in mind that every single artistic take on Daredevil’s radar sense (and beyond) in every comic book, and live-action appearance have been attempts to translate Matt’s inner world into something that we can comprehend. The natural constraints of telling a story in two-dimensional color means that we can never get a real sense of what “seeing” in colorless three dimensions is really like.

Considering the challenges various artistic takes on Daredevil’s “radar” sense come up against, a case could be made for never showing it at all. If we’re talking about the show, I would argue that such a choice would have been preferable to the world on fire effect. Especially since, from the way it’s described, you really do get the sense that we, the viewers, are meant to take this literally. I would love to know how an otherwise exceptionally ambitious creative team arrived at this particular choice.

However, I also truly believe there are good ways to portray Daredevil’s “radar,” as long as you still keep in mind that it can never be literally what Matt “sees.” In my opinion, the focus of any such attempt should be to not include any information that is strictly visual. Instead, creators should think long and hard about what features of the world that we typically access through vision, can in fact be accessed through our other senses. Those features should realistically be the only one Matt Murdock has any knowledge of.

Frame taken from the scene where Matt "looks" at Claire. Her iris and pupil are visible.

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On writing a book about Daredevil science

Sensory split screen, from Daredevil #25, art by Chris Samnee

As the old saying goes, one swallow does not a summer make. In this case, it means that if I write post about how I’m back and blogging again, I’d better follow that up with second post to show I mean business! For now, I wanted to get back to something I mentioned in my last post: The book!

I should probably make one thing clear up front. I don’t have a publisher for this book yet, nor have I even tried contacting anyone. It’s a bit too early for that, and the process at this point doesn’t really hinge on that next step. While self-publishing isn’t really optimal, I still know that – one way or another – I’ll get it out there. The big hurdle remains just getting it done. Here’s what that’s looked like thus far.

The research

The research portion is where I’ve spent most of my time because I’ve done so much reading over the years. Then again, so much of the stuff I’ve been reading are books and research papers that I would have devoured anyway out of sheer curiosity and interest. And, much of it has inspired various posts on this blog as well. This is why I’m so happy to have finally found the Scrivener software, because it allows you to import other files into the document you’re working on, and then attach notes to those documents and link the whole package to the relevant section. It sure helps when there’s a lot to keep track of.

I’ve drawn much of my inspiration from books, and I’m going to list the more accessible ones written for a lay audience as recommended reading for readers who wish to learn more. I’ve also, obviously, used a lot of original research. Aside from the peer-reviewed papers you find on Pubmed, I was able to track down the an original print version of Facial Vision or The Sense of Obstacles, by Samuel Perkins Hayes, from 1935. This is one of those sources that are often so quoted by other writers that it was driving me nuts to not be able to read it for myself. I was finally able to borrow a copy through a really complicated international inter-library loan from the University of Rochester library to the Stockholm City Library. I’m going to have to thank both of these institutions in my acknowledgments section. 😉

One thing that makes writing this book right now particularly exciting is the volume of research coming out on this very topic. Human echolocation has become a serious field of study in ways it wasn’t some 10-15 years ago. I think I once mentioned that one of the reasons “echolocation with super-hearing” has become my preferred take on the radar, not to mention the most naturalistic, has to do with the fact that so much new information has been revealed about this mode of perception that it just makes sense. While I obviously mention the more traditional take on the radar in the chapter that deals with these issues, I hope it’s not too much of a shock to anyone that if you’re trying to bridge the real world and the Marvel Universe, certain interpretations are bound to be more plausible than others. In fact, whenever you find the mainstream media report that some new discovery shows that people are capable of Daredevil-like abilities, the assumption is always that Daredevil’s spatial abilities are sound-based. Similarly, neither the 2003 Daredevil movie, nor the Netflix show, suggests that Matt actually has electromagnetic beams radiating from his head.

Structure and content

My current name for the first chapter is Literary Origins, and you might be surprised to learn that it is virtually devoid of hard science (at least if we limit the term to the natural sciences). Instead, it begins by covering the kinds of ideas and literary tropes that underpin Daredevil’s power set. It turns out that Daredevil is not quite as unique as we think he is. With this as a starting point, I go on to cover the adventures of other blind superheroes, including DC’s Doctor Mid-Nite. For a taste of what this sounds like, here’s a sample:

“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’re 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: Doctor Mid-Nite!

The lenses he creates are described as ‘infrared,’ which presumably means that they shield him from regular visible light, but let the 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. 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.”

Yeah, I had a lot of fun with that one. In terms of tone, I find that I’m never explicitly trying to to inject humor into my writing, but I’m not preventing myself from doing so either, when it seems appropriate. And, when discussing gold and silver age comics, it comes pretty naturally.

I’ve finished my first draft of chapter one, and am almost done with the second chapter, which currently bears the working title Radiation Will Not Give you Superpowers. As you might imagine, this one deals a lot with radiation – which won’t give you superpowers – and a discussion of what might (in theory). So, aside from radiation physics, there’s a lot of talk about genetics, and the cause and consequences of mutations. This is the chapter that has the least to do with Daredevil specifically, but I use a lot of examples from other Marvel comics, including the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, The Hulk, and the X-Men. Of course, I never miss an opportunity to make fun of Reed Richards:

When the Fantastic Four went into space, they were assaulted by cosmic rays, which was noticed by everyone onboard the ship by the sound generated by the ship’s sensors. When one of the crew of four exclaims “But I don’t feel anything!”, Reed Richards (presumably) replies: “Naturally! They’re only rays of light! You can’t feel ‘em… But they’ll affect you just the same!” Despite his scientific credentials, this panicked exchange shows that Dr. Richards had an outdated understanding of cosmic rays. And yes, it was outdated even back in 1961, when the issue in question first hit the stands.”

Here’s another sample from Chapter 2:

“If we widen the definition of ‘superpowered’ in this case to include anyone born with a relatively neutral, though striking, physical difference – as is the case for some of the more obscure mutants from the comics – then clearly there are real people who owe their physical difference to an alteration of a single gene. Have you heard stories of people born with a tail? It’s exceedingly rare, but it happens. The same goes for people with extra fingers or toes – or nipples, for that matter. When getting a back X-ray years ago, this writer was found to have a tiny vestigial ‘extra’ lumbar rib, also known as a ‘gorilla rib.’ They appear in about one percent of all people. I derive neither powers nor any ill effects from this innocuous bone growth, though I appreciate being reminded of my evolutionary past.”

The third chapter is tentatively named Hearing Spaces and, as the title suggests, deals with the science of echolocation, and how we’ve come to know what we now know about this topic. This one has very obvious ties to Daredevil specifically, and it’s been a lot of fun working on this stuff. I’ve spent 3,000 words alone just talking about the groundbreaking experiments at Cornell University which proved definitely that the “obstacle sense” of the blind was sound-based. Because they’re fun and interesting! Heck, even the team that conducted them were my kind of quirky:

“As luck would have it, their first study, conducted in 1940, was actually filmed and can (and should!) be viewed online. The footage doesn’t add much in terms of understanding the experiments, which are described in great detail in the final paper, but it does contain an opening scene of Dallenbach and his two graduate student collaborators Michael Supa and Milton Cotzin just standing around having a smoke. Why such a seemingly random scene would make it into the official record of this groundbreaking experiment is a mystery, but a rather amusing one, especially to modern audiences.”

I may have to split this chapter in two, depending on how many words I end up with. As you can tell, I still have quite a bit more to add to this one, specifically the part that covers how the radar sense is handled in the comics, and what we can tell from comic book lore about how Matt Murdock experiences this sense.

The next chapter, which I haven’t started writing yet, covers all other uses one might have for super-hearing and how this ability has been handled in the comic. I will argue that this is, by far, Daredevil’s most exaggerated sense, compared to what real life will allow, and explain how the laws of physics, more than the limits of biology, prevent much of what we see Daredevil do. This takes me to the next chapter, which deals with the sense of smell, under the working title The Forgotten Nose. In this case, I suggest that Matt’s sense of smell has actually been underused, and present some ideas of why this might be. Among them our own complicated relationship with this sense, which is at once both profoundly important to us and yet so very far from our conscious thoughts. This chapter brings more science. And Sigmund Freud!

For anyone who is interested in how all this ties in with children’s relationship with their own feces and ‘anal eroticism,’ I recommend a complete reading of the original text, but what matters for our purposes here is not so much man’s relationship with his genitalia, as Freud’s view of the sense of smell in the context of evolution and civilization. On this topic, his position is clear. Civilized adults clearly have little interest in the world of scent, and for good reason.

Of course, Freud’s lack of appreciation for the sense of smell may have been of a more personal nature. In What the Nose Knows, psychologist and scent specialist Avery Gilbert suggests that Freud himself likely had a reduced sense of smell, owing to his medical history which included a severe case of influenza, persistent nasal congestion, the cocaine he snorted to treat his migraine, the cigar smoking habit, and two rounds of surgery to his nasal cavity. It’s not difficult to imagine that he would be under the impression that the world of smell is one we are more intimately acquainted with as children, before moving on to bigger and better things, when this neatly parallels Freud’s personal experience.”

As you can see above, I’ve got a bit of writing done on the smell chapter. I have yet to start on the final four chapters I have planned. They are Touch to See, “My Senses Combine…”, The Missing Sense, and Being Matt Murdock. They will deal with touch, sensory integration/limits of attention, the case of Matt’s peculiar form of blindness, and finally a concluding chapter of how Matt fits into the world. At this point, I have a pretty good sense of what should go where.

Covering new ground

Considering everything I’ve written on the topic of Daredevil science on this blog, I might have been tempted to simply rehash some of the topics I’ve already written about. However, I really didn’t want to do that. Of course, the underlying topics are much the same in many cases, but I really wanted to approach all this from as fresh a perspective as possible, and write things from scratch. I’ve also learned a lot over the years, and now address some things a bit differently that I did the first time around.

Another big difference between the posts on this blog and the book is one I’ve already alluded to, and that’s the fact that I try to go into at least some depth explaining various scientific concepts. I’m also not holding back when it comes to my passion for the history of science, and where the ideas that have made it into the comics originally came from. Daredevil has evolved over time. So has our capacity for making sense of him, as new discoveries have been made in all fields, from basic genetics to the science of the senses. For instance, much of the groundbreaking work on the sense of smell dates back to early 1990’s, a relatively recent date.

Anyway, I’d be interested to hear what you have to say about what I’ve presented here. What are some questions you might have that you want me to answer in this book? Is there anything you want to make sure I adress? Let the rest of us know in the comment section!

Featured post image credit: Panels from Daredevil #25 (vol 3), by Mark Waid and Chris Samnee.

The silent ninja conundrum

Well, I could have saved this little detail for my big post about the tail end of Daredevil, season two. But, fearing that it would swell out of proportion in that context, I’m turning this into its own post. Besides, this way it also doubles as a Daredevil science post, and you guys know I can’t stay away from those!

So, what am I talking about here? Well, at the very beginning of episode eight, when Matt and Elektra are still checking out that mysterious hole in the ground, they’re surrounded by a band of ninjas. The thing with these ninjas is that they manage to elude Matt’s senses, presumably by moving so very quietly that only their weapons can be heard. There’s one (big) problem with this: It suggests that Matt can only detect objects that are themselves sources of sound which completely undercuts everything else he can do on this show. If Matt can’t detect silent objects, nothing he is able to do makes any kind of sense.

To be fair to the show’s creators, this notion that ninjas can mask themselves, to a degree at least, has some basis in Frank Miller’s Daredevil run. Though in the scene below, from Daredevil #174, by Frank Miller and Klaus Janson, Matt is able to detect the ninjas, by their heartbeats and silhouettes, but they are able to do a pretty good job of sneaking up on him before he notices.

NInjas come to Matt's apartment. He barely notices them in time. As seen in Daredevil #174 (vol 1), by Frank Miller and Klaus Janson

By the way, this kind of “radar as afterthought,” is interesting in itself because it highlights the differences between Matt and the average person when it comes to parsing and analyzing a scene. It’s not as if he’s walking into a lit room, it’s more like he’s hearing or smelling something first, which draws his attention to that spot, and then he picks up the shape. In working on my book (a constant work in progress…), I’ve taken to jokingly calling this phenomenon, quite common throughout most of the comic’s history, “conspicuously absent radar.”

You see plenty of hints in this direction in the Netflix show too, such as Matt failing to detect Elektra in his apartment until she brings out the weaponry, presumably because he’s not actively attending to her location, and is thus not actually “seeing her.” You might argue, and I would agree, that he should have at least picked up her scent though. (Heartbeats, on the other hand, seem to be something he actively has to choose to listen for, which actually kind of makes sense given how faint this sound would be compared to the ambient sound level in pretty much any room.) A similar thing happens in episode seven, when Karen comes over to Matt’s apartment to work on the Castle case, and Elektra hides out for at least a little while without being detected.

Getting back to my point though, when Matt does detect the shape of that someone – or something – whether right away, or after a bit of active exploration, his ability to do so must rest on an ability to detect silent objects. In the Netflix show, the 2003 Daredevil movie, Miller and Romita Jr.’s The Man Without Fear, and the Bendis/Maleev run, the explanation for how he does this boils down to his four remaining senses. In most other sources, the radar sense is described as separate from his other senses. For our purposes here, they’re pretty much analogous in that what Matt uses to “see” are echoes bouncing off of silent objects, whether we’re talking about sound echoes or an electromagnetic signal. So long as the bodies of these ninjas introduced in episode eight have solid form, they should have about the same ability to mask themselves to Matt Murdock as a lamp post would. Which is to say, none at all.

Matt and Elektra fighting ninjas, as seen in Marvel's Daredevil season two, episode eight.

As any regular reader will know, I’m usually more prone to complain when I feel that Daredevil’s senses are taken too far, usually because something happens that I feel fails a basic “lock and key” test. If Matt’s senses, as described, are the key, this key should not be able to open metaphorical locks that are obviously a poor match for that particular key. It’s not usually the senses themselves that I find problematic or “too unrealistic” (because they would be, Daredevil is a comic book superhero), it’s the application of them to situations that seem contrived that’s the main issue. Any fan today (and I suspect even back in 1964) would find the scene from Daredevil #2, when our yellow-costumed hero manages to land a space ship in Central Park, guided by the absence of heartbeats, to be patently absurd. And for good reason. The explanation given for how Daredevil does any of the things he’s supposed to be doing is nonsensical. This spaceship scene is, of course, a very extreme case of what I’m talking about, but subtler versions of the same phenomenon are common, and tends to leave me, at least, with that same uncomfortable feeling you get from a glaring plot hole.

When we learn that Matt cannot detect ninjas because they are essentially too quiet, this opens up a sensory plot hole the size of that pit he and Elektra are exploring. It gets even worse in later episodes, when Matt learns alternative ways of detecting them through a different sound source (breath), but is still somehow able to detect – through one or several walls, mind you – what weapons (presumably silent objects) they’re carrying. This suggests that he can echolocate the presence of a silent object through at least one wall, but can’t do the same to find a human body right in front of him. What the h*** kind of “key” is this? Clearly, hearing the sounds actually generated by the bodies of his adversaries, and the sounds of their weapons gliding through the air is helpful to Matt, but this information can not be the only one available to him. If he can’t also use echoes, the entire underlying concept of how the character is supposed to work implodes.

From reading this post, you might think that this was a big issue for me in terms of my enjoyment of season two. It really wasn’t, although, as you can tell, I found it to be incredibly silly. I often suspect that in dealing with Daredevil, people assume that there’s no real way for his powers to make sense anyway, so there’s no point in trying. That, I find disappointing. Of course there is. For nearly every scene I’ve had issues with during the two seasons of Daredevil, I’m pretty sure you could easily make those issues disappear with relatively minor changes to Daredevil’s methodology in each of those scenes, and have things appear more consistent across episodes.

As for reviewers (I’ve seen a couple), who liked this revelation specifically because it shows Daredevil having an interesting weakness, I can definitely see where they’re coming from. I just think it’s preferable to showcase those “weaknesses” that actually make sense (and can be easily read between the lines), than come up with new ones that don’t. There are plenty of things Matt Murdock is effectively blind too, ninjas just shouldn’t be one of them. As the Swedish saying goes, you shouldn’t cross the bridge to fetch water. In other words, keep it simple. 😉

Why Matt Murdock can tell if someone is attractive, and it’s not even that weird

Matt and Claire have an intimate conversation, as seen in the fifth episode of Marvel's Daredevil on Netflix

My muses are being a bit uncooperative these days, but the only way to get them to start talking again is to soldier on without them for a bit, so here’s a brief post I kind of wanted to get out of the way. And hey, it even counts as a Daredevil science post!

The joke between Matt and Foggy about how Matt can always spot an attractive woman is one that the characters return more than once during the show. And, it’s also brought up in episode nine – Nelson vs. Murdock – where it’s clear that Foggy feels betrayed by the fact that Matt could tell when someone was attractive all along.

Here’s the thing though: Given Matt’s heightened senses, being able to judge a woman’s attractiveness (or a man’s for that matter) is a fairly modest ability. Much of what he’s probably doing, hardly even requires any heightened senses. Here’s how it all probably works.

No, Matt obviously doesn’t “see” an attractive woman the way Foggy does

Before moving on, let’s first establish that Matt Murdock doesn’t really “see” faces other than in the vaguest sense of the word. This is true of the comics, and it clearly appears to be true of the Netflix show as well. I wasn’t particularly happy with the “world on fire” effect, but it at least doesn’t overstate Matt’s ability to “see” anything in great detail.

This point is further underscored by such things as Matt asking Claire “You’re looking at me like I’m crazy, right?” when he tries to get off her couch in episode two. He can obviously detect larger movements like a nod or a turn of the head in some direction, but the more minute details of a person’s face – including facial expressions – elude him.

The world on fire effect, from episode five of Marvel's Daredevil on Netflix

What about someone’s general body shape? This is obviously something he should be able to gauge pretty easily in his own peculiar way of seeing without really seeing. On the other hand, features like body weight and general fitness level is something ordinary blind people without heightened senses could also pick up on. The weight of someone’s step and their overall movement patterns and breathing can be heard or, in the case of the former, felt through vibrations in the floor.

Other cues that signal attractiveness

Even though Daredevil probably can’t get much information about facial expressions, he has other ways of knowing how and when people react to something. Relevant for our purposes here is his ability to detect changes in Foggy. If a woman comes into a room and Foggy finds her attractive, Matt could easily tell from Foggy’s heartbeat picking up, or his scent changing in some perceptible way. Even without heightened senses, he could probably also pick up on a certain nervousness in his friend’s voice or just his general behavior. It’s really not rocket science.

Physical attractiveness is also most likely correlated with certain behaviors on behalf of the attractive person in question. While there are obviously traditionally attractive people with low self-esteem, just as there are people who carry themselves with confidence despite not quite living up to our current standards of beauty, I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that people who are generally perceived as attractive are, on average, probably more likely to act the part. Add to this the notion that confidence in itself makes people more attractive, and general behavior becomes an important proxy for attractiveness.

“Maybe I just like the sound of your voice”

The above is a direct quote from the scene in episode four where Matt swings by Claire’s apartment to have his wounds tended to. Voices are obviously a big thing to Matt, and they also happen to be a good indicator of – you guessed it – physical attractiveness. Yes, it actually turns out that people who are judged to be physically attractive are also more likely to have voices that are judged to be attractive (and you don’t even need heightened senses for this one). To quote the abstract of one study (emphasis mine):

“We investigated the relation between visual and vocal attractiveness in women as judged by men. We recorded 34 women speaking four vowels and measured the peak frequency, the first five harmonic frequencies, the first five formant frequencies and formant dispersion. The women were also photographed (head shot), several body measures were taken and their ages were recorded. The voices were played to male judges who were asked to assess the women’s age and vocal attractiveness from the recording. The men were then asked to assess the attractiveness of the photographs. Men were in strong agreement on which was an attractive voice and face; and women with attractive faces had attractive voices.

–Sarah A. Collins & Caroline Missing (2003). Vocal and visual attractiveness are related in women. Animal Behaviour, 65, 997–1004.

The nose knows

Physical attractiveness is not only correlated with voice attractiveness, but scent as well. Here’s a quote from abstract of another research paper (again, emphasis mine):

“We compared ratings of body odour, attractiveness, and measurements of facial and body asymmetry of 16 male and 19 female subjects. Subjects wore a T-shirt for three consecutive nights under controlled conditions. Opposite-sex raters judged the odour of the T-shirts and another group evaluated portraits of the subjects for attractiveness. […] The results showed a significant positive correlation between facial attractiveness and sexiness of body odour for female subjects. We found positive relationships between body odour and attractiveness and negative ones between smell and body asymmetry for males only if female odour raters were in the most fertile phase of their menstrual cycle.

–A Rikowski and K Grammer (1999). Human body odour, symmetry and attractiveness. Proc Biol Sci. 266(1422), 869–874.

Matt’s sense of smell is woefully underrepresented in the comics, and I would argue that this goes for this show as well. But “realistically,” scent would probably be a major turn-on for a young man with a greatly enhanced sense of smell, and the sexiness of that scent apparently correlates with visual judgements of attractiveness.

Conclusion

So, in a nutshell, it is not at all strange that Matt would be able to judge physical attractiveness based on hearing, smell, people’s behaviors and whatever he can gather about someone’s overall body shape through his pseudo-visual abilities (which are probably mostly based on hearing in this show, but wouldn’t consciously register as sound). Even without his heightened senses, he wouldn’t be clueless about these things.

Does he “see” what Foggy sees? No, clearly not, but they can still find the same women attractive. They just arrive at their judgements by different means.

Countdown to Marvel’s Daredevil: Blindness and heightened senses

Well, if you’ve been coming around these parts for a while, you’re probably not surprised to see me put up a “Daredevil science” post, looking specifically at what we can expect from the Netflix series. If you’re new to this site, as many of you are these days (welcome!), look under the “science” label in the menu if any of this whets your appetite for more.

Before we go on, though, I should point out that I’m basing much of my speculation on things we’ve seen in the trailers, and other clips, as well as what I’ve been able to glean from some of the reviews I gathered up the courage to actually look at. So, if you’re avoiding all spoilers, wait to read this until after you’ve watched the show

In terms of exposure, the upcoming Netflix series is the biggest thing to happen to Daredevil since his first live action outing in 2003. And while I will gladly defend that movie’s redeeming qualities – there were some – I think we’re all collectively hoping for this new opportunity to translate into the best thing to happen to Daredevil since his creation, more than fifty years ago.

One thing I wonder about, though, is what a wider viewing audience with little prior knowledge of Daredevil will make of this character. I’m referring specifically to some of the core characteristics that have always confounded non-fans. The concept of a blind superhero is not easy to wrap one’s head around.

For this post, I will adress both parts of the equation, i.e. the blindness and the heightened senses. To figure out how Daredevil works as both a superhero and a – yes, legitimately – blind person, you need to look at the totality of it all. To start with, I’ll share my thoughts on what I expect from this series in terms of the handling of Matt’s blindness. After that, I’ll move on to what we can probably expect when it comes to the more fantastical elements of Daredevil.

Legitimately blind

The notion that Matt Murdock’s blindness is somehow not “real” is very common among fans and non-fans alike. There have even been writers who clearly subscribe to some version of this idea (this panel, by Ann Nocenti and John Romita Jr, from Daredevil #250, is a clear example of what I mean). I have stubbornly and vocally opposed this (mis)understanding of Matt Murdock’s unique physiology since I first came into contact with the character, and longtime readers of The Other Murdock Papers may be excused for being tired of my rants at this point. For the benefit of people new to this site and/or Daredevil, I will rehash some of my arguments here:

  • Visual impairment is not an all or nothing phenomenon

    Matt Murdock is a totally blind person who, thanks to his heightened senses, is able to function – to a great degree – as if he were not totally blind. This is absolutely, and undeniably true. From this follows that he, in order to hide his heightened senses, has to put on a bit of a show. He rarely, if ever, has any need for a white cane (the exceptions to the rule might be if his other senses are temporarily impaired for some reason). So, he has to actively pretend to need a white cane. There’s no denying that there’s a certain amount of pretense that goes into protecting the Daredevil identity.

    Where people tend to go astray, is in assuming that Daredevil’s ability to fight bad guys – and avoid out of place furniture – makes him into a close enough approximation of someone who is sighted, that his blindness is little more than a technicality. This is probably due in part to the way people associate blindness with certain blindness-related paraphernalia (such as white canes, guide dogs, braille etc) that if the need for such paraphernalia is lifted, one goes on to place Daredevil, in this case, into the sighted category.

    In reality, most people with visual impairments, spanning from milder cases of low vision and well into the legal blindness category, can see. They just don’t see very well, their visual function existing on a continuum from nearly normal vision to very little vision at all. There are clearly people who see nothing at all, or can only distinguish light from dark, but this is actually less common than I think most people assume. There are plenty of legally blind people who don’t need to use a white cane, particularly in well-lit areas, and most (legally) blind people don’t know braille, relying instead on other tools for reading print.

    In essence, not really needing a white cane, and – at least in the comics – being able to read print if needed does not make Matt Murdock fully sighted. Rather than thinking of him as a functionally sighted person who is pretending to be totally blind, it would be more accurate to think of him as someone with perhaps roughly 20/400 visual acuity, no sense of color – but hey, a 360 degree “visual” field and probably really good depth perception! – pretending to be totally blind.

  • People are generally not very good at understanding their own sensory experience

    Tying into the points I made above about people not considering the vast territory between totally blind and fully sighted, is another thing people tend to be partially unaware of: their own sensory experience. This is not only evident in the research that, over the last fifteen years or so, has shown how easy it can be to fool human attention (remember that experiment where people miss someone crossing a basketball court in a gorilla costume?), but in understanding how it is we do the things we do.

    When it comes to thinking about Daredevil, I think that many people tend to underestimate what their sense of sight really does for them, and how it provides a wide array of different kinds of information. It’s common to hear people remark that “Oh, Daredevil can “see” everything except screens and pictures,” and then conclude that this is somehow a minor point. The only problem is that this logic disregards the fact that a huge amount of the information we process through our sense of sight is, in fact, “pictorial” in nature.

    Matt Murdock’s inability to see, in any kind of traditional fashion, wouldn’t just trip him up if someone shows him a photograph or if he sits down in front of a television or computer screen, it completely cancels out any and all surface information that most of us take for granted to the point where we don’t even realize it’s a thing. What advantage over any other “regular” totally blind person would young Matt have in front of a school black board? How would he, at a glance, go into a store and know as easily as the rest of us who is a member of the sales staff, as opposed to a fellow customer? How would he know exactly where to go in a visually complex and unfamiliar environment? True, he wouldn’t run the risk of bumping into anything, but that’s not the same as having access to all the same information as the average person.

  • The consequences of even real-life disabilities depend on situation and context

    This brings me to my last point on this particular topic, which is that Matt Murdock, just like any real life person with a disability (or, for that matter, any person with particular strengths or weaknesses, which includes all of us) would be much more affected by his blindness in some situations than in others. There are tasks that he can perform better than most anyone, whether blind or sighted, thanks to his heightened senses and training. There are other tasks that could be performed at the same level as a sighted person, and yet others that are made more difficult by not having “full” vision. Then there are those situations which his heightened senses can’t cover at all. Using a white cane is part of “the act,” using a braille watch, assistive computer technology, or various special gadgets isn’t. This is all part of the complexity of the character and shouldn’t be something to shy away from.

As for what we can expect from the Netflix series, I’m actually not that concerned. I think that the show’s creators and actor Charlie Cox have probably found a good balance between Daredevil’s extraordinary powers, and his “blind spot,” so to speak.

For one, you get the distinct impression that everyone involved in this project has thought about absolutely everything. Secondly, it’s a show that is specifically aiming to make things as grounded and “realistic” as possible (more on that in the next section of this post), and having Matt appear inexplicably capable in ways that are not supported by his particular combination of blindness and heightened senses, is not going to be helpful in achieving that end result.

It also appears, from watching the trailers, that even the Daredevil fight scenes are choreographed in such a way that it quickly becomes clear that Daredevil operates a little differently. This is not to the character’s disadvantage, of course. Out in the field, he really is in his perfect element. This is where having a good general sense of awareness of your surroundings and being nearly immune to sneak attacks outweighs not being able to “see” things in color or great detail. It also looks like Daredevil will make at least occasional use of the classic comic book tactic of killing the lights and fighting his enemies in the dark, where he, unlike his foes, will remain unaffected.

There are also scenes like the one between Matt and Claire Temple, where he wakes up in her apartment. Their dialogue goes as follows:

“Where am I?”
“You’re in my apartment.”
“Who are you?”
“I’m the lucky girl who pulled you out of the garbage.”
[At this point, Matt desperately feels for his mask]
“Have you seen my face?”
“Yeah.”
“Great.”
“Your outfit kind of sucks by the way.”
“Yeah, it’s a work in progress.”

This scene, to me, clearly – yet subtly – communicates a difference between how Matt behaves in this situation and what one would expect from a sighted vigilante. Under the circumstances, it would make more sense to start by asking Claire who she is, rather than where he is. If Daredevil could see, he would be able to size up the room in great detail within a fraction of a second. He would also realize the futility of asking his rescuer whether she’s seen his face. Granted, Matt is probably pretty out of it in this scene, but his sensory make-up is obviously intended to affect his behavior in this unfamiliar setting.

It is also clear that placing the character of Daredevil in a live action setting, running for twelve hours or more, puts a higher demand on these creators’ ability to think about the minutiae of Matt’s entire range of everyday activities, than what is usually the case in the comics. A comic book is 22 pages of story, made up of static images, with very little time to spend on things besides advancing the plot and throwing the superhero into action. The time that passes in between panels, and issues, is part of the “yada yada” that the reader simply has to infer. With the page constraints, there is precious little space to devote to scenes of Matt Murdock simply going about his day. The “cost” of including such moments drops dramatically when you move the story to a live action format, but at the same time, this forces the actor, writers, and directors etc to actually think about what that would look like, making it much harder to simply use the character’s powers as some mystery deus ex machina.

While the use of assistive and adaptive technology in the Daredevil comic has increased in frequency over the years, and in this regard I can’t praise current writer Mark Waid enough, it’s still a rare sight. I expect to see more of this in this show for the simple reason that it would be a natural component of building a more realistic world around Matt Murdock.

Legitimately “super”

What about that important other part of the equation, the sensory enhancements that make it possible for Matt Murdock, blind lawyer by day, to also be Daredevil, vigilante by night? Well, I expect to see a different take on this than what we’re used to. I get the sense, and there are indications of this from reading some of the reviews, that Daredevil will not possess a separate radar sense in this show. This may be a controversial move to some, but this too is an area where there is plenty of reason to update the original understanding of Daredevil’s senses.

It is also not a completely novel move. The 2003 movie strongly suggested that we view Matt’s hearing as the primary source of his pseudo-visual perceptions. The two runs of the comic that has greatly influenced this show – Frank Miller’s The Man Without Fear, and Brian Bendis’ run – also downplay the existence of anything outside of the ordinary set of human senses. No mystery waves emanating from Matt’s brain, just dramatically heightened senses of hearing, smell touch and taste. In reality, this would mean that the “radar sense” is essentially a highly refined ability to echolocate, honed through practice and experience, and elevated by Matt’s sense of hearing being both more sensitive and covering a greater range of sound frequencies.

Over the years, I’ve gradually come to favor this understanding of the “radar” sense. First of all, I find I more natural, and consequently more elegant. I look at it as applying the thinking behind Occam’s razor to the notion of superpowers, in that a character’s powers should never be more complicated or less “realistic” than what are strictly needed to explain the effects of those powers. If “echolocation on steroids” is sufficient to explain Daredevil’s knack for fighting crime, then it’s unnecessary to complicate things further.

So the question is: Would echolocation be sufficient? First of all, some suspension of disbelief is always going to be necessary. Even characters with no powers at all do things in the comics and in the Marvel movies that defy all logic. The very idea of a blind man developing heightened senses and fighting crime is a bit silly. At the same time, the last few years have seen quite a bit of research on the existence of echolocation in real-life blind humans. People who are expert echolocators really do display some pretty jaw-dropping abilities, and are able to discern relatively small objects. While these people tend to use active echolocation, i.e. making a sound and listening for the echoes, there is also evidence to suggest that blind people passively make use of inter-aural differences in the ambient sound field to gauge their distance relative to nearby walls.

The point is that the sense of hearing can be used to derive spatial information from the environment, and the mechanism behind this is, in my mind, enough to base a superpower on. Add to this Matt Murdock’s ability to literally hear the locations of people around him, even when they are not moving, from the sounds their bodies make naturally, and it’s easy to see why he’s impossible to hide from.

What of Matt’s other senses? Well, the sense of taste was always more of a parlor trick than a useful skill – and our actual sense of taste is closely tied to our sense of smell anyway – so I think we can safely ignore that. That leaves smell and touch.

I’ll be interested to see what they make of Daredevil’s famous nose. Smell was underutilized for decades until Frank Miller came along, and it tends to be one of those senses that are often ignored. A heightened sense of smell could be incredibly useful to a blind character, so I’d be very surprised if we don’t see this put to good use, the main challenge being communicating what Matt is smelling in a way that doesn’t require too much exposition.

When it comes to his sense of touch, I expect this to be referenced as well. It wouldn’t surprise me though, to see Matt’s long-established ability to read print done away with. First of all, it has the disadvantage of being based on printing techniques that are less common today than they were in 1964. Secondly, to people who are new to the character, and aren’t used to this somewhat flaky idea, it risks being one of those things that take away from the (relative) realism of the show. A heightened sense of touch can be imagined in ways that have a direct impact on Matt’s fighting ability, in the form of proprioception – i.e. the “inner” sense of touch that informs body awareness – but I find it hard to believe that the creators of this show find Matt’s ability to read print important enough to hang on to. There’s no shame in using braille, and this shouldn’t be an issue in 2015

Well, if you’ve made it to the end of this post, feel free to comment, if only to let me know that you made it to the very end. Thoughts – and questions! – are always welcome.

Wacky Power #24 – Another case of flight radar

Welcome back to another installment in the Wacky Powers series in which we look at Daredevil doing truly strange things. Once again, we’ll be looking at a case of Daredevil using his radar sense as bona fide flight radar. Thankfully, we haven’t seen much of this strange power for the last forty years, but it kept rearing its strange and ugly head from time to time, during the first ten.

What makes the scene below, from Daredevil #85, particularly hilarious is that it’s clear that the actual pilots of the Boeing 747 that provides the stage for this issue, by Gerry Conway and Gene Colan, are clearly within visual range of where they decide to land. Daredevil asks them to take the plane lower so that his radar sense can do its magic, but that would also allow for them to get the plane down safely just by looking at the terrain. In essence, they should be looking out the window, not at Daredevil while acting completely helpless. Also, what the hell is Daredevil doing trying to tamper with the equipment?

Daredevil assists in landing a Boeing 747, in Daredevil #85 by Gerry Conway and Gene Colan

For me, there are two major problems with the suggestion that Daredevil’s radar sense could act as flight radar. The biggest one has to do with the science of it (or lack thereof), which I’ll return to below. But, just as importantly, every time Daredevil is called on to do something this extreme, it also introduces some major inconsistencies into how the character normally behaves.

Even in early Daredevil, the radar sense is very rarely used to detect anything that is very far away, say farther away than a city block. On the contrary, there is a strong sense that it has a limited range, and the Marvel Universe Handbook states explicitly:

“Its resolution is not very fine, probably on the order of several feet at a distance of one hundred feet. By repositioning his head and adding input from his other senses, Daredevil is able to resolve the image of an average flagpole (three inch cylinder) at a distance of over 80 feet.”

While there is good reason to take most of what’s written in the MUH with a grain of salt (I have no idea whether creators are in any way required to abide by it – I suspect not – and it also contains highly questionable information pertaining to how the senses work in real life), it at least gives us some idea of what Marvel considers reasonable.

The biggest problem is that, provided that we assume Daredevil has an actual radar sense (rather than a metaphorical one), he has to generate his own signal. Regardless of whether this is some kind of high-pitched sound (i.e. sonar) or radiowaves, the intensity of the signal fades pretty quickly, in accordance with the inverse square law. This means that, in order to reach very far, the signal has to be strong. This in turn requires a lot of energy. Even if we imagined that the radar sense had the output equivalent to a 40 W light bulb, that would require almost 1000 kcal per day of just to fuel the radar. Which doesn’t sound too unreasonable. It’s probably a great way to lose weight, but it’s just not something that you could use to land a jet. 😉

You might argue that it’s superhero comics, so anything goes. But I don’t think even comic book publishers and creators agree with that, or else they wouldn’t feel compelled to try to explain how it is that certain characters can fly (such as by suggesting a mystical external power source). The explanations are always bogus of course, but there always needs to be at least an attempt at addressing the issue to allow readers to suspend their disbelief.

And, characters need to abide by the rules that have been laid out for them, or else the illusion that these stories make sense start to break down. If Matt Murdock started sticking to walls for no reason, and Peter Parker woke up on morning and started hearing heartbeats, readers would like to know why. And, given the usual parameters of Daredevil’s power set, we really shouldn’t expect him to be able to land airplanes. That’s just wacky.

Wacky Power #23 – Flying a plane. Again

Considering Daredevil’s blindness, the number of times he’s found himself flying some kind of aircraft is pretty astounding. And to be clear, any number higher than zero would count as astounding. In this series, I’ve already covered his landing a rocket (in Daredevil #2, possibly the most craptastic issue of Daredevil ever released), and the time he flew the Avengers’ Quinjet (in Daredevil #100).

You might also remember the time Matt staged his own death by having a dummy version of himself “die” in a plane crash, in Daredevil #54. The latter has been touched on in two posts already (Weird moments in Daredevil history and DD (Driving Dangerously)) and entails Matt driving himself to an airfield and then flying off with the dummy in tow. Pretty crazy stuff.

But wait! There’s more! In Daredevil #24 (all of these examples are from volume 1, of course…), by Stan Lee and Gene Colan, Daredevil takes to the skies once more. At the beginning of the issue, Daredevil finds himself in an unknown location somewhere in Europe, having been transported there by the Masked Marauder last issue, in the middle of a fight with the Gladiator. After beating up some bad guys who were waving guns in his face, he finds himself in the place depicted in the first panel below.

Daredevil comes across a plane, from Daredevil #24 by Stan Lee and Gene Colan

What is interesting here is that Daredevil is displaying a behavior that I, for my own “studies” have come to refer to as CAR, i.e. “Conspicuously Absent Radar.” My definition of CAR is a scene where Daredevil will refer only to sensory information that is auditory, olfactory or tactile in nature, despite being pretty close to the object of interest. This panel is an obvious example. Daredevil appears to be clearly sensing an opening, but he does not appear to be sensing – by radar – the shape or presence of the airplane and its lone crew member, at least not initially, but is instead paying attention only to smell and sound, and putting two and two together.

What could be going on here, is that the plane and the figure on the beach are outside of the range of his radar sense. This makes a great deal of sense since Daredevil’s radar sense appears to be understood by most writers as limited in range (which makes physical sense as well). However, the part that makes this “absent radar” particularly conspicuous is what happens on the very same page.

Daredevil takes off in a plane, as seen in Daredevil #24 by Stan Lee and Gene Colan

Suddenly, his radar is honest to goodness flight radar. We are also meant to believe that Matt knows what direction England is. Again, he doesn’t actually know where he is. Stan Lee seems to be anticipating that fans will have a hard time buying this:

“To save you the trouble of writing scathing letters to us, we’ll explain here and now how the sightless D.D. can pilot a plane! He feels the vibrations of the needles and dials within the instrument panel, and his own natural radar sense takes care of the rest!”
…Sly Ol’ Stan!

I hate to tell you this, “Sly Ol’ Stan,” but that makes absolutely no sense at all. I say it’s wacky! 😉