Wacky power #11 – Reading computer screens… by touch

by | Jun 19, 2008 | Commentary, Humor, Wacky Powers | 4 comments

Since this one came up in the comments section of a previous post, and I’ve been thinking of posting it for a while, I decided to just get to it. Sadly, this one isn’t from the Silver Age, but from the early 90’s when Daredevil scribe D.G. Chichester decided to give Matt something of a power boost, and a pretty big one at that. I’ve read in some interview that Chichester was into computers and technology (I’ll try to look for the source when I have the time). What a bummer for him that he was working on a book featuring a character who can’t realistically – and I’m already allowing for a more liberal use of the word “realism” – access content displayed on a screen by ordinary means. What does he do about it? He makes up a new power for Daredevil.

Why am I calling it a new power? Well, every single time Daredevil has read print in the comic, it has always been based on the idea that he can discriminate the difference in texture between the imprint of the ink on the page and the paper it is printed on and use this ability to discern the features of the text. This is relatively believable in that even a living breathing human in our own reality can actually feel the ink imprint in a regular newspaper (try it if you don’t believe me). The difference between us mere mortals and Matt Murdock is that his sense of touch is heightened to levels where the resolution of his fingertips is much higher than ours. That’s key here, because heightened means heightened and not fundamentally altered. Let’s have a look at the first panel from issue #298 (art by Lee Weeks)…

After breaking into the S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters, Matt sits down at the computer and gets to work.

“Characters crawl across the screen, warm phosphors under my fingers writing out an indictment.”

Okay, so we’re dealing with “heat reading” here. I buy the increased sensitivity to variations in heat, but sadly for Chichester, this is simply impossible. I know what some might be thinking, it’s a comic book, right? Well, yes it is. On the other hand, Daredevil’s senses – when written well – don’t so much violate the laws of physics as the “laws” of biology. In fact, the whole premise of the character’s powers is that they are just heightened senses. Incredibly heightened, sure, but not enough to perceive something which simply isn’t there. This actually violates the laws of physics, because heat (and we can only assume the differences in heat on the screen are infinitesimal, if they exist at all) simply doesn’t behave that way. Light travels in nice little bundles, heat does not. Its pattern breaks down almost immediately. Besides, this is simply lazy writing. Wouldn’t it have been much cooler to see Matt use his head and just press the PrtSc button?

The computer-reading nonsense continues in ways that are even worse in issue #303, (art by M.C. Wyman) as seen below…

At his office, Matt complains about having to use screen reader software when it would be so much faster to read the screen by touch.Not only is Matt able to read the screen by touch, he can do so quickly and apparently prefers it to screenreading software. Now, what signal is Chichester trying to send here? He may not consciously be trying to say anything, but the message seems to be: any instance of the main character having to do something the “blind way” for reasons other than pretense are obviously bad and unworthy of a superhero. And this is from a guy who, on the whole, wrote Daredevil’s senses beautifully.

Another reason not to indiscriminately increase a character’s powers without thinking first is that you remove a source of weakness that might serve as a plot point later on to get the character into trouble, which is why the below panel, from issue #306, (art by Scott McDaniel) suddenly makes very little sense…

Daredevil breaks into a building only to find a computerized information kiosk.

“Information kiosk touch screen – warm phosphors under my hand. Colorful graphics to people with eyes that work… meaningless swirls to me. I grope in my darkness, tapping hard against every corner of the glass, hoping for the whirring hiss of a printer I’m finally rewarded with.”

Wait a minute now… Weren’t those meaningless swirls a source of high-resolution information just three issues earlier? I’d say that writers are better off sticking to the rules of the game in the first place so they don’t have to backtrack later on when the new power comes to bite them in the rear end. As for the computer situation, this already wacky ability seemed to fade away and was gone by the mid-90’s to be replaced with seemingly nothing at all. The current incarnation of the character appears to not use computers, which is a little odd, to say the least. We’ll see if Brubaker can deliver on that one somewhere down the line.


  1. lilacsigil

    I can’t remember where I read it – on the manwithoutfear site maybe – but old green-screen computers did indeed have a noticeable difference in temperature where there were pixels. But by the mid-90s, this ability would indeed be useless, as everyone upgraded to better screens. Though, if Matt ever needed to break into one place where I temped in 1998, he’d be all set up!

    So, it’s not entirely wrong, just not possible on type of screen shown in the panel.

  2. Rob Close

    good explanation – i’m just left reeling from his description of “warm phosphors” – one day he’s solid with them, next day not – lazy writers hurt us all.

  3. Christine

    Hey guys! It’s interesting to hear that the screen really would get noticeably warmer in the areas of the screen that are lit up. Thanks for the info!

    I do not stand totally corrected, however. 😉 The problem is still that the heat (being a low-entropy or highly disorganized form of energy) would disperse in the glass rapidly enough for the heat imprint to be a heat smear by the time it reaches the other side of the glass. That’s what I meant about the pattern breaking down.

    Either way, as long as we never see this one back, I’m happy. 🙂

  4. Bee Clayton

    I just finished reading Last Rites (very, very interesting sequel to Born Again) where I ran across your first example here in this article.

    What I find odd is the next panel(s) in this sequence has Matt printing out this information.

    So why go through the trouble of ‘reading’ computer screens at all when he could simply print out the information in question and ‘read’ the printout instead??


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