Daredevil versus the common cold

Daredevil swings and misses, punching a wall, as seen in the 2007 Daredevil annual

I’m just getting back on my feet after being knocked down by a nasty bug that had me do nothing but lie in bed for four days. It may be the case that I’m ill in more ways than one though, because at the height of my fever, I was thinking: “Hey, I should write a post on Matt Murdock battling a cold!” While I assure you that I do have interests other than Daredevil (quite a few of them too), I clearly spend way too much time thinking about the Man Without Fear.

While the timing was the result of the circumstances described above, the original idea for this post is not new. Because, according to the one instance I can think of that depicts Matt having a cold in the comics, it really messes up his senses, and that alone makes it worthy a brief mention. Below are some panels from the 2007 Daredevil Annual, by Ed Brubaker, Ande Parks and Leandro Fernandez, in which Matt being sick with the flu is a major plot point. Have a look at these, and let’s reconvene at end. 😉

Daredevil has the flu, Daredevil Annual (2007)
Daredevil complains about radar congestion, Daredevil Annual (2007)
Daredevil swings and misses, punching a wall, as seen in the 2007 Daredevil annual
Daredevil complains about his hearing, as seen in the 2007 Daredevil annual
Panel from the Daredevil Annual (2007), by Ed Brubaker, Ande Parks and Leandro Fernandez
Daredevil's radar fails him, as seen in the 2007 Daredevil annual

So, Daredevil complains of radar congestion (!) and diminshed hearing because of the flu. Anyone who has ever had a cold (and that would be everyone) can empathize with Daredevil in this situation. Being sick doesn’t just drain us of energy – the kind you need to successfully survive a fist fight – but gives rise to that distinctive stuffy feeling.

The reason we can’t smell normally when we have a cold is that the increased build-up of mucus in the nasal cavity prevents odor molecules from reaching the odor receptors and signaling their presence to the brain. This would affect someone like Matt Murdock the same as anyone else. He would likely still be more sensitive to scents than someone without a heightened sense of smell that also has the flu (my thinking being that he either has more sensitive receptors or more of them), but the effects of a cold can be pretty dramatic, as we all know.

What about hearing? Well, a bad cold or flu causes swelling around the eustachian tubes which connect the middle ear to the nasal cavity. This disturbs the air pressure in the ear and dampens the movements of the tympanic membrane and the ossicles which relay sound to the inner ear. Simply put, when you notice your hearing worsening during a cold, you’re experiencing the equivalent of a temporary conductive hearing loss. Faint sounds become harder to hear.

Given the ways real life colds affects the senses (I almost didn’t eat for four days because my sense of smell was so bad everything tasted like sawdust), it makes senses that Daredevil – who probably needs that extra edge more than the rest of us – would be wise to stay off the streets. Exactly how a cold would affect the radar sense, however, depends on our understanding of what the radar sense is. If it is indeed a separate sense, anything goes. Nothing in the real world has anything to offer when it comes to understanding how a completely novel sense is affected by the common cold. If the radar sense is based on hearing and/or a more advanced combination of senses then it’s easy to imagine why a cold would constitute a minor disaster.

The cold scenario also reminds us that throughout Daredevil history, Daredevil’s power set has been written as relatively fragile. Matt’s senses – or his ability to use them to their full extent – have been shown to be affected by everything from excessive noise and strong odors to fatigue and blood loss. An infection clearly fits this overall picture, with the added bonus of making sense in terms of the specific symptoms.

Faking it with Matt Murdock

Matt goes to visit Chuckie, in Daredevil #191 by Frank MIller, quoted above

A very important part of the superhero sub-genre is the division between the costumed persona and his or her civilian alter ego. The superhero business often takes place behind a mask to protect the hero’s anonymity and, when out of costume, said hero often has to go to great lengths or develop elaborate schemes to protect his secret. This will often entail lying to friends and family, something which, in turn, tends to cause a great deal of anguish for our self-appointed crime fighters.

All of this is true of Matt Murdock as well. However, in the case of Daredevil, there’s an additional layer of deceit at play that I must admit bothered me occasionally when I was new to the character. Some of you may have thought about this as well while others will certainly think I’m over-analyzing things, but I think it’s clear to most people that Matt has to go to much greater lengths to conceal his powers than someone like Peter Parker.

To take the example of Spider-Man, we can be relatively sure that he considers just walking down the street like any non-powered person to be just as natural as hanging from a wall. He’s not denying his true nature simply by not displaying a skill given to him by his powers. In the case of Matt Murdock, it’s very different. In order to keep his powers (and his secret life) hidden from others he has to act, move and do things in ways that will at times be just as bad as telling an outright lie. He has to pretend to be a non-powered blind person when he’s really not. Whereas Peter Parker can hide his powers passively, Matt Murdock has to do so actively.

Karen walks Matt to court, from Daredevil #4, by Stan Lee and Joe Orlando
Panel from Daredevil #4, by Stan Lee and Joe Orlando

Whether or not you’ve given this much thought in the past, I think we all can agree that it doesn’t exactly do much to paint Matt as a sincere person. You could argue that he’s deceiving people around him for a higher cause, but how far can you really take that idea? In Matt’s case, it’s also the case that he would have had to lie for years before even coming up with the idea to put his abilities to use. Is doing what Matt does really acceptable from a moral standpoint?

Shortly after I started thinking about this issue (troubled as I was by the fact that I really wanted to like this character for whom living a lie came so easily), I came to the conclusion that arguments can be made for why Matt’s behavior is justified, and I’ve been able to enjoy my Daredevil without worrying about this pesky little detail ever since.

The right to privacy

First of all, before even getting to the part about what Matt has to do to hide his powers, let’s look at this from a broader perspective. Should you be obligated to tell people around you that you have supernatural abilities? Or, to compare this to something we might find in the real world: Should you have to tell people that you’ve been trained to kill someone with a single stroke by a secret government agency and that your whole body could technically be considered a deadly weapon? Well, so long as you don’t intend to use this knowledge to kill your next-door neighbor, it really is nobody’s business but your own.

Most would agree that people do have a right to privacy, and there are few things more private than a person’s own body. Only when, say, a disease you carry represents a serious public health hazard do other people’s rights take precedence over your right to not disclose this information. You don’t have to carry a sign around your neck alerting everyone to the sexually transmitted disease you picked up the month before, but you’re strongly urged (or possibly even required) to reveal this information to those you risk passing it on to.

While Matt is a skilled fighter, he’s not required to make this public knowledge, nor is he obligated to share with total strangers that he has the ability to hear people’s heartbeats or smell what they had for dinner last night. Judging but what we can piece together from canon, he apparently made the decision early on to not share these special abilities with other people. Why? Well, one guess could be that he might have feared further poking and prodding by doctors, in which case laying low, even around his father, would have made a lot of sense.

Between a rock and a hard place

If you’re Matt Murdock and you know that you have been endowed with certain abilites that lie outside normal human capacity, but which you’ve chosen to conceal, there are really only two options available to you. You can either pretend that you don’t have them, or you can try to use these abilities to pass yourself off as a sighted person without powers. Why? Because the reality is that Matt represents such an odd mix of enhancements and deficits that the true nature of his physique would be revealed if he were to come clean with exactly what he can and can’t do. He simply can’t act, react and behave in the way that would be most natural to him without disclosing his special abilities, which we’ve already decided that he’s not morally obligated to do, and which he obviously doesn’t feel comfortable doing.

When it comes to deciding to either pretend he doesn’t have powers or to pass for non-powered but sighted, it’s interesting to note that since first donning the Daredevil costume, Matt seems to have compromised by creating two ways of being. In the world where Daredevil operates, it’s possible for him to act as if he were sighted since his lack of vision is rarely a problem when he’s going about the predominantly physical task of policing the underworld.

In Matt Murdock’s world however – both that of the young boy and the grown man – doing so would be nearly impossible (and not only because everyone would obviously know about his accident). Despite his heightened senses, the idea that Matt could have made it through high school, college and law school, followed by his professional career, while pretending to be able to see things he clearly cannot, is simply too far-fetched. Not only would he be doing himself a disservice academically, people would easily be able to tell that something was off. And, he would have to subject himself to unnecessary stress, being constantly in the dark (literally and metaphorically) about what information he might be missing. As Frank Miller puts it in Daredevil #191:

“The secret identity can be a relief, Bullseye. When I’m Murdock, I don’t have to use my amplified senses to pretend I’m not blind.”

Matt goes to visit Chuckie in Daredevil #191 by Frank Miller, quoted above

As Daredevil, faking sightedness is fully attainable and a logical decision. In the more (visually) complex world that exists away from the dark alleyways of Hell’s Kitchen, such as decision risks putting Matt at a serious disadvantage, though I’d argue that it couldn’t be done at all, at least not consistently for any real amount of time. After all, it’s easier to pretend that you know less than you do, than it is to try to fake knowing more and risk coming off as a fool.

A matter of degree

So if concealing his heightened senses is a valid personal choice and the only way to do this in a wide range of situations is to simply act as if he doesn’t have them, then just how much would he have to supress his natural instincts?

The most obvious example of Matt going out of his way to not reveal his secret is, of course, his use of a white cane. In fact, aside from not being able to drive (which is much less of a deal in a place like New York City than it would be in most other places in America), his level of mobility is not at all affected by his blindness. On the contrary, the 360 degrees nature of the radar sense combined with his level of physical fitness makes him much better able to navigate even extreme physical environments than any average human. Based on comic book history, the only things known to affect this ability are very noisy or otherwise chaotic environments as well as physical injury and disease (you might remember scenes like the one below from the 2007 Daredevil Annual, by Ed Brubaker, Ande Parks and Leandro Fernandez, in which Matt suffered from a bad case of the flu).

Panel from the Daredevil Annual (2007), by Ed Brubaker, Ande Parks and Leandro Fernandez

So, if Matt’s walking to work near a busy construction site the morning after having had his head banged against a brick wall, he might feel some comfort in having the extra protection, but this is certainly the exception rather than the norm. For most intents and purposes, the cane is a prop.

Having said that, there is no reason for this part of the Murdock charade to take on “magooesque” proportions it often did during the early years. More often than not, he’s playing the part of a skilled non-powered blind person in environments with which he would be intimately familiar – such as the areas in and around his home, the office and the court house etc. People would expect him to be able get around easily, and no Academy Award-level acting performance would be needed to convince anyone that he’s anything other than ordinary. The simple mechanics of moving the cane back and forth would be so well-rehearsed that he wouldn’t consciously have to think about it. It’s all an act, but probably not one that is particularly challenging to pull off.

When it comes to other things, the lines between necessity, preference and pretense start to blur. As current Daredevil artist Paolo Rivera put it in an interview he and Mark Waid did with CBR:

“Vision is such an important part of human life that it dominates every aspect of how we conduct ourselves, from the tilt of a neck to the arrangement of furniture. When I draw either Matt or Daredevil, I want his distinctive “point of view” to be apparent merely from his body language. On one level, Matt’s blindness is an act — an interesting aspect of his personality by itself — but on another level, he really should conduct himself differently than any other superhero.”

This is spot on. While conducting himself like a non-powered blind person wouldn’t come completely naturally to Matt, neither would acting just like his sighted peers, whether within or outside the “superhero community.” Humans, like all primates, are highly visually oriented. Relative to most other mammals, vision is the most acute of our senses and it accounts for the vast majority of our sensory input. In this sense, Daredevil is a completely different animal.

Panel from Daredevil #301, by D.G. Chichester and M.C. Wyman
Panel from Daredevil #301, by D.G. Chichester and M.C. Wyman

“My head swivels up at the voice, partly for appearances, partly reflex from when I could still see.”

Despite the assertion by many fans and creators alike that “Daredevil can see better than all of us,” for this to be even remotely true, we’d have to completely redefine the meaning of the word. Without color vision and consequently without any sense of fine detail, the pseudo-vision provided by the radar sense would still be Matt’s weakest sense, especially when you take into consideration his others senses being dramatically heightened. For instance, Matt would exhibit a much greater than average need (and desire) to touch things, a fact that is quite often on display in the Daredevil comic. The same thing goes for an increased reliance on scent and sound, and for this reason Matt probably would go about doing a long list of things about the same as any other blind person; the main difference being that he would be much better at it.

In closing

Like I said at the start of this post, I doubt that most fans have given this issue as much thought as I did when I first made my acquaintance with the character (I think the mere existence of this website is a sure sign I spend way too much time thinking about all things Daredevil). Nor do I suspect that the extent of Matt’s deceit is as disturbing to most fans as it was to me. For those of you who have spent any amount of time thinking about this, I’d love to hear what you have to say about this issue.

If being a lying super-powered bastard is comparable to illegal parking, then doing what Peter Parker does is like lingering a bit too long in a drop off zone. In Matt’s case it’s more like parking in the handicapped spot, something that is just… well, it’s much, much worse. However, I’ve found that the more you really think about it, the more you come to realize that while we don’t have to forgive Matt for coming up with an imaginary twin, faking his own death or being something of a jerk a lot of the time, we can forgive him for not telling the world the whole truth about what he can do.

Matt’s decision to pass himself off as a non-powered blind person is not so much a lie as an exaggeration, one he engages in because his only other choice, if he wants to keep key aspects of his physiology private, is to attempt the vastly more challenging task of denying his blindness. I guess when it comes down to it, this omission of the truth is hardly the most unsightly skeleton in his closet. 😉

Update: Regarding the white cane, see also: