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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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.

On being a Daredevil fan, 600 issues later

Daredevil just passed the 600 issues mark. Meanwhile, this site (very quitely) celebrated its 10th anniversary a little while back. The very first posts, three of them, went up in December of 2007. In March of 2008, I posted the next batch of posts and this site slowly started taking off. Well, in terms of readers anyway. I’ve never made any money off of this site, nor did I ever intend to. Anyway, I’m glad that I was able to get enough content up in the first eight years of blogging that there’s still been a lot for new visitors to discover during the last couple of years when I’ve been largely inactive.

This doesn’t mean that my life has been lacking in Daredevil. Just last week, I was invited back on the Fantasticast – for the sixth time! – to discuss an isssue of Marvel Two-in-One featuring Matt Murdock. As always, I had a great time recording with Steve and Andrew (listen to the end result here). If you have even the slightest interest in the Fantastic Four, I think you’ll find their podcast difficult to beat. It covers every FF appearance, in chronological order! I also co-authored a chapter for an upcoming Daredevil anthology, edited by Travis Langley. Daredevil Psychology: The Devil You Know will be released in June.

As many of you know, I’m also working on my own book, a little bit at a time. Things have been getting much more manageable since I finally spent the money on the Scrivener software, on the recommendation of the always helpful Antony Johnston. When you have a lot of sources to keep track of, with notes attached, it really helps. I’m also finding myself working on several chapters in parallel, which works fine when each chapter is really its own independent essay, and Scrivener also allows you to do just that quite easily.

Some time very soon, I’ll post a little bit about my work on this book. I’d be very interested to hear what people might best respond to in terms of content. Thus far, I’ve tried writing about the things I want to write about, based on the things I find interesting. That means that there’s quite a bit of science in there. And, time spent on explaining scientific concepts is obviously time not spent listing tidbits from the comics. These chapters become more and more focused on Daredevil as we move along from the core concepts to the specific concepts that are most relevant to Matt’s world, but there’s still a lot of ground to cover that I find difficult to skip because I really want people to understand why I arrive at my own particular interpretation of what makes sense for this character. What I’ve tried to do is use other Marvel characters as examples when Daredevil hasn’t been a good fit, and I hope that keeps people interested. Anyway, I’ll get back to that in my next post.

Matt explains his radar sense, from Daredevil #1

If you’ve read this far and are starting to wonder when I’m going to get to Daredevil #600, here’s a big plot twist for you: I haven’t read it yet. Nor have I read the ten or so issues leading up to it, though I have the whole pile of issues waiting for me in the next room. I felt kind of bad having to confess to this when I went on the Fantasticast podcast, and I feel even worse confessing to it here. Especially after that rather suggestive post title. But, the fact of the matter is that Daredevil has six hundred issues to his name, and I’m still a fan. And I guess that’s what I wanted to talk about.

A couple of years ago, just after season two of the Netflix show came out, I remember mentioning on Twitter that, one of these days, I should write a post about the emotional ups and downs I’ve felt experienced as a Daredevil fan. Because it’s been really rough emotionally at times. Probably ridiculously so, considering that we’re talking about a comic book superhero, and not anything that really matters that much in the real world. But what makes Daredevil so unusual in my own life is that I’m not naturally a “fannish” person. Don’t get me wrong. I have passions and interests, but they hardly ever revolve around famous people or properties. There are actors and musicians I appreciate more than others, but I never had a single poster of any of them growing up. Nor have I ever collected anything, or followed a particular sports team (and I actually quite like sports). There have been TV shows and movies that I’ve loved, of course, but never to the point I’ve seen in people who identify strongly with a particular fandom. When I fell head over heals for Daredevil, more than a decade ago, it was quite unexpected. And I’ve never felt that way for anything else since.

The problem with being attached to anything the way I’ve been attached to Daredevil, is that you tend to become a bit possessive of “your” character, and your own interpretation of him. The farther back in time I’ve followed Daredevil, the less important it’s been for me that the character on the page adhere to my own standards of what is both “reasonable” and more or less in character. That’s why Daredevil landing a spaceship in the middle of Central Park – guided by the absence of heartbeats! – is just funny to me, while seeing him read a computer screen by touch thirty years later is not. Not only is it not funny; when I first read that issue, I was devastated. The same goes for certain other events in the history of the comic that are not at all restricted to Matt’s senses, but have to do with his portrayal in general. There have been those runs when I’ve just not been able to relate to Matt at all, and there have been others where he’s come very close to the Matt Murdock that’s in my head, one that I’ve come to form a close relationship with despite the fact that I’m certainly not delusional and well aware that he’s a fictional being.

The problem with being too invested in a character is that, like with any relationship, you risk being hurt. And, when you have a property like Daredevil that is continually being recreated and reimagined, not only by creators, but by fans as well, yours is not the only version of the character. The “risk” of others having a different idea about this character than you do is very real. Which is fine, really. But if your devotion to a character (and for me, this blog is obviously a manifestation of my personal devotion) is the same thing that causes you to actually, you know, feel things that might put you off, you have a bit of a problem.

Daredevil's costume. Image from the trailer for The Defender.

What I’ve been struggling with over the last couple of years has been that balance between caring enough and caring too much. And, in many ways, my “crisis of faith” has been brought about by the Netflix show, which debuted exactly three years ago today. Which is ironic considering that 1) I think it’s extremely well-made, not to mention well-acted, and 2) it actually generally does a very good job of hitting many of the notes I care most about. Yes, the tail end of season two was painful as hell to watch if you’re someone who cares about Matt’s relationships with people other than Elektra, but overall, I think it’s a good take on the character. Considering all the ways a live action show about Daredevil could have played out, the Netflix version really does a good job overall.

However, when you take a property like Daredevil from the comicverse, where he is being read by roughly 30,000 people in the U.S., and probably twice that worldwide (though I must admit that I don’t have the most recent numbers), to a platform where he is being watched by millions, that sense of the here and now being more important than that which is obscure and in the past is magnified. For most people, the Netflix show inevitably represents the dominant take on the character, the one that people will be most familiar with. This has had the effect that anything short of perfection, as measured by my own and very personal standard, has had a completely blown-out-of-proportion effect on me.

With season one, in particular, I got over whatever these minor transgressions were. And, I got over them pretty quickly. With season two it was tougher, even though I think that season two was actually better in many ways. When it comes to The Defenders, I prefer not to think about it, though the things I didn’t like about the show generally had little to do with the portrayal of Matt/Daredevil specifically. Either way, it’s been hard for me to look at Netflix Daredevil as just another iteration of the character, the way I’ve been able to do with runs of the comic.

So, even when the Netflix take on the character actually gets most things right in my book, I’ve sort of let that get in the way of my “inner” Matt and allowed minor details to dictate how I should feel. Add to this the disappointing last few issues of the Waid/Samnee run (I still rank the first 80 percent of it among my favorite runs), and the complete lack of emotional connection I’ve felt with the Soule run, and it’s been pretty much inevitable that, as soon as I allowed myself to back away and take a break, other things would come along in my life and fill the void to the extent that it takes a conscious effort to carve out the time it takes to blog on a somewhat regular basis. And, in order to do that, a certain amount – the right amount – of passion is required.

I don’t know if it’s because spring is in the air (really, Swedish winters are no joke), but something has changed over the last few weeks that really makes me long for a return. One way I can tell is that I even feel like writing fan fiction again, something I haven’t really done in the last six years or so. Yes, at one point in time, when I had a substantially lighter work load, I actually wrote tons of it. I’ve never advertised it much here because it felt like I’d be exposing more of myself than I felt comfortable with at the time. This is something different than being able to work on my (science) book, which doesn’t require as much of an emotional investment as an intellectual one.

Daredevil jumps over a statue in Daredevil #26, by Stan Lee with art by Gene Colan

By this time next week, I may very well have caught up on my reading of the Soule run, which I hope I’ll be able to approach a little differently than I have thus far. I’m also looking forward to writing a follow-up post to last year’s “hit” post “The 50+ ways in which Marvel’s Daredevil reminds you that Matt is blind (for real)” which only listed examples from season one. I’ve had several people ask me to cover season two and Defenders as well. Another thing on my to do list is writing about season two of Jessica Jones, as underwhelming as it was. Because I’ve missed this. I’ve missed writing. I’ve even missed writing in English specifically (not something I do on a daily basis, outside of Twitter). And, as much as this post may seem like a meandering mess, just stringing this many words together feels like real progress.

Thanks for reading and an even bigger thank you to all of you who have reached out with words of encouragement. Let’s get this show back on the road.

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.

A world of touch and motion

Matt asks to have a large robot described to him, in Daredevil #5

I’m going to state right off the bat that, as I’m sitting down to write this, I don’t have a proper title yet for this post. Which is rare for me, since I usually have an idea for the main theme of every post (even when it’s not just as straight-forward as “Review of…”) and always type in the title before I do anything else. If you’re reading this, I obviously must have settled on something eventually, but suffice it to say that things might get a little philosophical – more so than scientific, thought there is a little of that too – and I’m just hoping I can string this line of reasoning together. And then give my thinking-out-loud-in-writing an appropriate name. Randomness ahead; you’ve been warned!

Let’s start at the top. Or rather, the starting point of this particular line of though: Matt’s new public life. One thing I wanted to return to after my Daredevil #4 review (before I found myself drowning in work) were some of the consequences of Matt’s recent decision to come out of the superhero closet, once and for all. In Daredevil #4, we saw Matt and Kirsten draw stares from curious onlookers on their date, and Matt was even asked by two teenage girls if they could take a picture with him. On the next page, he has his picture taken by a paparazzo. Instant fame is an obvious consequence of the new status quo (even though Matt Murdock would have been a reasonably well-known local celebrity in his own right for years, back in New York), and in the scene below, you can almost hear the gears turning in his head as he wraps his brain around the demands of the Instagram era while trying to be a good sport.

Matt poses for a wefie, in Daredevil #4 by Mark Waid and Chris Samnee

There are things that are more threatening than teenage girls and ending up in the gossip columns, however, and we get a riveting taste of that in Daredevil #5. And of course, the threat to the hero himself and the people in his life (because supervillains are generally insane and incredibly vindictive by design) is the most obvious consequence at the top of everyone’s list when a superhero exposes himself. It’s the main reason these characters bother to keep a secret identity in the first place.

With Matt Murdock/Daredevil there are other interesting things that are exposed, which I touched on in this recent post, namely: With the final decisive outing, his peculiar physiology also becomes common knowledge. At least to a certain extent. While his medical history may be floating around (though not likely as a matter of public record), I doubt he’s ever had an audiogram made describing the extent of his super-hearing, and – apologies to Brian Michael Bendis – the notion that someone, unbeknownst to Matt, has measured the extent of his radar sense seems a little flaky. What is known, however, is that the famous protector of Hell’s Kitchen is indeed blind, and that he has a set of other abilities that allows him to be a superhero.

This makes Daredevil more vulnerable (see Daredevil #6!), but it also raises potential questions about Matt Murdock. One thing I was curious about was whether Matt would continue to use a white cane, even after people know that he clearly has other means of sensing his surroundings. Six issues into volume four, and a move across the country, and it’s clear that he has no intention of giving it up. I have no way of knowing if this was ever even a consideration, and thus not something anyone on the creative team actively made a decision on, but in my book, keeping things the way they are makes perfect sense. Both in terms of pure character recognizability and for in-story reasons. Here’s why:

  1. Matt and his cane go together like Daredevil and his billy club

    Okay, so the cane is his billy club (I’ll return to that below), but that’s not really what I mean. The cane – along with the dark glasses, the head of red hair and a nice-looking business suit – is what makes Matt Murdock recognizable as Matt Murdock to someone who might pull a random issue of a Marvel comic off the rack and flip through it. It also reminds potential new readers who may know very little about the character, or even the Marvel Universe in general, that this is a blind character. While the heightened remaining senses complicate matters, this is no less true than it was before Matt’s courtroom confession. And, since people in general seem to have a hard time making sense of even real life people who fall in between categories (i.e. are hard of hearing or have low vision, as opposed to being totally deaf or blind), keeping the cane in the comic may be necessary to get the whole “blind superhero” point across.

  2. The cane is a billy club in disguise

    The most obvious in-story reason for Matt being so attached to his cane is that it’s obviously also his billy club in disguise. And since he could be called upon to perform his Daredevil duties at any time (and in fact appears to always wear his costume underneath his civilian clothes), the billy club needs to come along for the ride. On the other hand, he could easily keep it concealed and strapped to his body the way he does in costume. One has to wonder what the police might think of his carrying a bludgeoning tool around (though I suppose there are no laws against it), but it’s hard to argue with his right to carry a white cane. In many states, it is illegal for someone who doesn’t have a visual impairment to carry a white cane (though if you own one for the sole reason of cosplaying as Matt Murdock, you don’t have to worry), but Matt certainly has every right to it.

  3. Matt complains about having his cane taken from him at the Owl's mansion, as seen in Daredevil #3
    From Daredevil #3, by Mark Waid and Chris Samnee

  4. A white cane has uses besides mobility

    A person obviously doesn’t have to be totally blind to use a white cane, and there are points to using a cane aside from making sure the user doesn’t step into a manhole or get himself in serious trouble. Canes used by blind people have a particular look to them for a reason, and that is to signal to other people that the person carrying them has limited (or no) vision. White cane users have the right of way in traffic situations, for instance. And, in the case of someone like Matt, it probably takes a lot of explaining out of situations like asking the person next to him at a bus stop which particular bus is approaching, or stopping someone on the street to double-check an unfamiliar address (to name just a couple of situations that his heightened senses don’t really cover). Even with Matt’s recent fame, far from everyone would know who he is. You will always find plenty of people who can’t identify a photo of the president. Or Lindsey Lohan.

    Another thing that would actually be useful to the normally crowd-averse Daredevil is that people tend to step to the side if they spot someone with a a white cane. Being able to clear a path to give himself some space during rush hour is something I’d imagine would make it easier for him to concentrate on other things happening around him, and not feel like he’s drowning in heartbeats or offensive body odors. And who really wants to drown in offensive body odors?

  5. For when the radar gets a little sketchy

    There has been no dearth of situations that have been known to mess with Matt’s senses, the radar sense in particular, over the last fifty years. I already mentioned crowds, and another well-known complications writers like to throw at Daredevil is excessive noise. Then there’s pain, the common cold, and a long list of other major and minor threats to Matt’s ability to use his senses fully.

    Interestingly, except for big battle scenes like the one we saw Daredevil engage in – and complain about – in Daredevil #6, it almost seems easier for Matt to avoid general commotion in his Daredevil guise. After all, he prefers to operate at night, away from the streets and when he’s up against a dozen goons, he at least knows they’re all bad guys, and doesn’t have to make an extra effort distinguishing one from the other. Allowing for the highly probable scenario that occasional disorientation or general radar crap-out is as much a part of civilian Matt Murdock’s life, the cane might actually be legitimately useful every now and then.

    I’m not suggesting he can’t safely walk past an active construction site in pouring rain, but I don’t think it’s a stretch to imagine that doing so might require an extra dose of concentration that he would rather spend elsewhere. In fact, one nice thing about the cane generally is that it might allow a more sensible allocation of attention. Maybe he’s concentrating very closely on someone suspicious behind him, and not having to “look” where he’s going actually makes that easier.

    Just because the radar is 360 degrees doesn’t mean that he can actively and fully attend to every location in space at the same time, because that’s not how the human brain works (something Waid & Co. actually touch on in the scene below). Imagine that you’re walking while checking your phone a little too closely at the same time. In this case the cane would be Matt’s equivalent of having a little signal that goes off when you’re about to step off a curb that you missed because you were paying too much attention to your Twitter feed. Or something like that. 😉

  6. From Daredevil #3, by Mark Waid and Chris Samnee

  7. As a poking device

    This will bring me back to a more fundamental point about Matt Murdock’s sensory world that I wanted to make (this list is by no means the main feature of this post, I warned you it would be a meandering mess). Anyway, in Daredevil #5, when the upgraded Leap-Frog suddenly pops out of the water, Matt calls out to Foggy to “Be my eyes!” This might strike some readers as weird. After all, Matt “saw” this one coming before Foggy did, before the big robot had even surfaced, and we would expect him to have a pretty good sense of the massive thing in front of him. Or would he?

    Matt asks to have a large robot described to him, in Daredevil #5
    From Daredevil #5, by Mark Waid and Chris Samnee

    One thing that the creators manage to capture here is that Matt may not be spectacular at actually recognizing what he’s “seeing” when that something is either completely novel or has an ambiguous shape. I’ll get back to the details when I’m done with this list; for now, let’s just agree that the world is full of ambiguous shapes. Matt doesn’t have access to any real color or texture information and the radar sense does not have the same ability to discern fine detail as vision does, even when controlling for the absence of color vision. This would logically drive Matt to rely on touch more than the average person in order to learn more about an object. In this kind of scenario, the white cane can be an extension of the hand. Not necessary to avoid random object on the street, but possibly helpful in learning at least something more about it.

    He could even pair it with his sense of hearing. A light tap against a big garbage can, and he might learn whether it’s empty or not. The pavement changing texture (though this can also to some extent be felt underfoot), might be an interesting piece of sensory information to associate with a particular location. It would be like just another device for gathering information that might otherwise, literally, be out of reach. Is this information strictly necessary then? Probably not. But for a character who is all about attention to detail, and being in tune with his surroundings, one can at least see the psychological satisfaction this might bring to someone so naturally meticulous.

What this sort of brings me to are some related general thoughts on the key differences between how Daredevil experiences the world and how (most of) the rest of us do. This is something I’ve tackled in a myriad ways since I started this blog, and I’ll try not to cover too much ground that’s already been covered. It’s just that I obviously spend a disproportionate amount of time thinking about Daredevil’s senses and, hey, where else would I share these thoughts? 😉

As evidenced by that scene from Daredevil #5 I’ve already mentioned, one thing Matt is likely to fail miserably at is to size things up with a “glance,” they way sighted people do. Note, I didn’t say size up situations. That’s something our hero is obviously quite adept at, often noticing things beyond the realm of the average senses (although this too would depend on the circumstances). When I say things, I mean just that: static objects.

The way we humans have built the world around us caters perfectly to the way our senses work. We, along with our closest primate relatives, have better color vision than most other mammals (we are “trichromatic” rather than “dichromatic”), and we see in fine detail. Our visual acuity doesn’t rival that of birds of prey, but is far better than that of a cat or a dog. We also have a massive amount of neural real estate devoted to vision, which the visual areas of the brain accounting for around 30 percent of the cortex. And this is where it all happens. To quote a 1993 Discovery article on visual perception (emphasis mine):

“Vision, of course, is more than recording what meets the eye: it’s the ability to understand, almost instantaneously, what we see. And that happens in the brain. The brain, explains neurobiologist Semir Zeki of the University of London, has to actively construct or invent our visual world. Confronted with an overwhelming barrage of visual information, it must sort out relevant features and make snap judgments about what they mean. It has to guess at the true nature of reality by interpreting a series of clues written in visual shorthand; these clues help distinguish near from far, objects from background, motion in the outside world from motion created by the turn of the head.”

It naturally follows that removing a number of features of all the objects around us, leaving only shape (and possibly some sense of differences in density), would greatly interfere with this ability to make snap judgements about unfamiliar objects, or objects that cannot be discerned based on shape alone. Daredevil obviously has access to sound and scent information (and touch, if he’s in a position to touch the object), but not all objects can easily be identified by sound and scent alone. And, to make a sound, an object has to be in motion.

Before you start thinking that I’m suggesting that Daredevil makes for a pretty crappy superhero, I can assure you that’s not the case. Quite the contrary. As is so very typical of this unique character, what he lacks in one domain, may exist in abundance in another. The way I see it, it makes sense that Matt would be highly sensitive to the motion of objects. Vibrating objects make sound, but objects moving across a scene may also stand out more clearly to him. Research on visual processing has arrived at fairly well-established hypothesis that the brain deals with “what” and “where” information separately, along different processing streams (this logic may apply to other senses as well).

Since the radar sense, whatever it is, functions in ways that are analogous, at least in some respects, to vision, it makes sense that the Matt’s brain would handle this information as “vision-like” (and hey, he’s a fictional character, so we’re free to speculate), and process much of it in visual areas of the brain. While the “what” areas of Matt’s brain have relatively less to work with than in the average person, the areas which handle “where” information might be able to become more prominent. It’s easy to see why quick reflexes combined with being especially attuned to even slightly movement anywhere in an over-sized “visual” field would be extremely useful for someone whose hobby is fighting supervillains.

The very fact that Daredevil notices signals that few other people are quite so attuned to is really a huge strength when you think about it. It’s a little like being a southpaw boxer (and hey, he’s that too) except no one he fights has ever fought someone quite like him. He might be missing the obvious, the things that are right in front of him – and that might come at a high prize – but when no one knows to take care to eliminate the signals he is most attuned to, that’s a huge ace up his sleeve. Or at least it was, until he gave it away by coming clean…

That’s it for this long train of thought. Thanks for riding along! I’m just surprised I ended up reasonably close to where I started. 😉

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.