The blind superhero

May 3, 2008

The blind superhero

May 3, 2008

This is my second post on the appeal of Daredevil. See the end of the post for other entries in this series.

Daredevil may be the only superhero who is more famous for what he can’t do (see), than what he can do. The Wikipedia article on Daredevil states within the very first paragraph: “… and is notable as being among the few superheroes with a disability…” Before going on, I’d like to quote what Joe Quesada said in part 3 of the One More Day interviews on Comic Book Resources, and give my own comments below:

“Let’s look at Daredevil and let’s make this simple, because in the case of DD as a character, it is. Matt Murdock has an incredible past, a tragic yet uplifting one. “What makes DD different than any other hero, however, is that he’s handicapped. He has gone through all that he has gone through and he’s managed to triumph over all of it while being blind.This is the one thing that makes DD truly special and stand out. Now, what if we were to give Matt his eyesight back permanently in a way that would be difficult to retcon? Sure, DD would still be somewhat cool, but not nearly as interesting or different as he is being blind. Ultimately, I don’t think people would stick around to read the ongoing stories of a sighted Daredevil because giving him his sight back just makes him another grim and gritty hero with very little else to differentiate him.”

Aside from the fact that Joe Quesada brought this up to make a comparison between Daredevil’s blindness and Spider-man’s marriage(!), does he have a point? Is being blind what makes Daredevil unique and is it true that people wouldn’t stick around to read about him if he were sighted?

I’d be the first to admit that I find the basic premise of Daredevil to be incredibly appealing. It makes him exotic, and it adds a big touch of humanity. There’s also something inherently intriguing about a character who can dodge bullets but can’t read a text message on his cell phone (well, he could get some software that takes care of that, but you know what I mean). However, I think people who reduce the character to this one thing are missing a big part of the picture. They also overestimate the importance that most writers have given to Daredevil’s most famous quirk. It’s a great gimmick – I would even say that the book probably survived its first one hundred issues thanks to this gimmick – and it does make the character stand out. For the most part, however, it’s been treated as little more than just that – a gimmick.

People may pick up the book because they like the basic concept, but they probably find other reasons to stick around. With Matt Murdock being such a generally compelling character, and with all the excellent stories that have been told about him, there are plenty of other hooks to keep the the readers’ attention. For some of those who are picking up the book for the first time, the idea of the blind superhero is probably a big part of the appeal. For the fans of the book, this aspect probably ranges from “important” to “nearly irrelevant,” depending on who you ask (although I suspect even the latter group would be a little annoyed should he be given his sight back permanently).

Because, at the end of the day, Joe Quesada’s quote is also a bit disingenuous. He’s talking about Matt Murdock being successful in spite of his disability when we have never actually seen this issue dealt with in any significant way. In fact, it’s been reduced to such a non-issue that many fans question the very idea that Matt is even disabled. I would even go out on a limb here and say that the way Quesada (above) and Stan Lee talk about how “Daredevil is such a great hero because he’s handicapped,” goes against whatever policies have governed how the character has been portrayed for the last 40+ years. While many writers have made extensive metaphorical use of Daredevil’s blindness (evident in issues bearing such names as “The Blindness Men Wish For,” “Blind Spots, and “Blind Man’s Bluff”), any real consequences of not having normal vision have usually been denied. Perhaps to make the character live up to the old adage “my other senses more than compensate,” regardless of whether this assertion makes sense or not, or maybe because writers have found it too inconvenient to portray Matt’s actual limitations in any sort of realistic way. (For those who question my desire for realism in comics, I should also add that I find the fact that Wolverine can regenerate his body from a pile of bones to be somewhat annoying.)

The instances of writers having Matt in any way acknowledge that being blind might be something of an occasional nuisance (yes, even with his heightened senses and nifty radar) are few and far in between, but they do exist. Denny O’Neill had Matt express what could only be described as frustration on a couple of occasions when faced with situations where his senses weren’t enough. Gerry Conway shocked the socks off readers – as evidenced by the comments on the letters page – by introducing the idea that Matt actually misses his sight every once in a while (holy cow!).

“I was in my secret identity — as Matt Murdock, first class attorney — when I met Chuckie. 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.”

And, in Roulette (#191), by Frank Miller, Daredevil tells Bullseye “I was in my secret identity — as Matt Murdock, first class attorney — when I met Chuckie. 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.” This, for me, is a much more mature handling of this aspect of the character than Stan Lee’s Matt, who would drop such lines as “I can color-coordinate my wardrobe better than any sighted man!” on every page. Okay, I made that last one up, but there was a definite pattern going on. My question for Stan would be: if the hero’s blindness must be rendered completely irrelevant at all cost, what was the point of making him blind in the first place?

I once read a comment on a message board by a poster who said that the biggest problem with Daredevil as a character was that his powers were so good it was almost as if he could see, making his blindness irrelevant. I would say that the flaw he’s pointing to has less to do with Daredevil’s powers – as long as they aren’t pumped up to ridiculous extremes – but to the failure on behalf of some writers to realize or acknowledge that they don’t actually fully replace normal human vision. But I agree with this poster to the extent that I would have like to see a more realistic handling of this aspect of the character. That doesn’t mean what some people might think it means. I’m not talking about swapping the superheroics for a deep look at the “plight” of the blind. In fact, there’s not a single one of all the great stories told about this character that couldn’t have been told while being as respectful of Daredevil’s disability as of his “super-abilities.” The kind of difference I would have liked to see would have been a subtle one, but it would have made the character even more compelling, as I see it.

Needless to say, I find Daredevil’s blindness to be a big part of his appeal for me – regardless of how it is actually portrayed. Even more so when combined with his other senses. It’s like he lives in his own separate world that is at once both bigger and smaller – both “better” and “worse”- than everyone else’s. There are lots of experiences that he can’t fully share with other people, and at the same time he has access to other things that the average person can’t even imagine. It’s just interesting stuff.

Would I keep reading the book if Matt got his sight back? Yes, I would. That’s not to say that Quesada doesn’t at least have one point. While being blind isn’t really what Daredevil is all about, it certainly adds to what makes him unique.

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  1. lilacsigil

    I think that Stan Lee did tend to have all his characters talk a lot about what they could do better (or at least differently) than everyone else, but Matt going on and on about things he could do “better than a sighted man” could also be read as a rather adolescent defiance of the way he is seen by the world. He is refusing to be defined by his blindness and concentrating on the “super” part of superhero. Later, he’s less anxious to prove himself and can be blind, super and a hero without having to choose one identity over another.

  2. Christine

    Excellent point! 😉 Maybe that’s how Stan likes to look at it in retrospect… The way it came across was more that Matt seemed to have some serious self-esteem issues.

  3. Le

    Ok, so updating years after the event, but hey…
    Very interesting stuff.. I do think that some of the earlier portrayals of Matt have that typical comic-book Superhero ‘bravado’ about them- almost like he’s trying to convince *himself* that he’s not missing out!
    I think that on the whole writers- especially in the older comics- have woefully brushed this aspect of DD under the carpet- as if it was a rather distasteful reality that they’d rather ignore for convenience-sake, which to me defeats the point and misses a lot of potentially interesting plots. I reckon that this would be somewhat different if more (some!!??) DD writers were women, because I think that it’s kind of typical of many male writers to try to underplay or ignore vulnerability, while women seem to appreciate this more as it adds nuance and complexity. Just my thought…
    For me, what I like best about DD is his ‘otherness’. Yeah, all Superheroes are ‘other’ because of their powers, and the heightened responsibility this brings, but for Matt it’s doubled. He’s really a very isolated person- in both his worlds. Partly because of his strong moral feelings/ religion, and also because of his lone-wolf/ secretive nature. His blindness isolates him in everyday life- no matter how enhanced his senses… even in the series there’s a fair amount of banter and interaction that excludes him, and he nearly always seems to be just slightly outside the joke. That’s why his interaction with Electra, and also Claire to some extent is such a relief- he’s so much lighter when he’s not hiding half of himself, and it’s really only with Electra that he really lets down the defence- they have a sibling thing going on- which to me makes rather more sense than being lovers. Just sayin’ 😉


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