It’s been a while since I’ve had the time to write a longer “essay” type of post, but there have been a couple of ideas brewing in the back of my mind for a while. One struck me while I was going through older – Silver and Bronze Age – issues of Daredevil and has to do with the gradual process of Daredevil and Matt Murdock becoming “one,” and the maturation of the Matt Murdock identity from highly stereotypical to a complex character.
These days, Daredevil is all about Matt Murdock, whether he is in costume or not. Not only is the civilian side of Matt’s life featured fairly prominently in the Daredevil comic, he’s also a character whose emotions and personal struggles are so clearly present even while he’s in costume, that “Daredevil” is always simply Matt Murdock wearing his Daredevil costume and performing his Daredevil “duties.” When Matt is Daredevil, he assumes a particular persona, but he does not in any way become a different person.
I would argue that Matt and his alter ego Daredevil have merged so completely in the minds of most fans at this point, that it’s difficult to imagine things being any other way. Still, when you look at the early issues of Daredevil, you realize that there was a time when things were very different. In the beginning was Daredevil, and on the sixth day Stan Lee created Matt Murdock. Then he created Mike Murdock because he wasn’t sure who Matt Murdock really was.
Joking aside (that probably wasn’t exactly how it happened), it is difficult to look at the Mike Murdock era today and not get the sense that the identity crisis which played out on the page was also a reflection of the creators’ inability to fully make sense of their own creation. Who was the pretender? Was Daredevil role-playing as Matt, or was Matt playing dress-up as Daredevil? Even before “Mike” Murdock came on the scene to provide some contrast, Matt in his civilian guise always came across as extremely restrained, and careful not to step outside the box he’d built for himself. As such, he was a fairly dull person.
Recent events in Daredevil have raised other questions which also tie in to issues of identity or, more specifically, which aspects of himself Matt has been willing to show the world. Even before his outing in Daredevil #36 earlier this year, I know I wasn’t the only one to be slightly concerned about his lack of caution: Should he really be hanging from a rock climbing wall in the open like that? While history had lead us to a point where Matt Murdock would always be evident underneath the costume, were we finally looking at Matt Murdock getting ready to “come out” as Daredevil?
This was something I intended to get back to, in a separate post, before Mark Waid & Co. beat me to it with a definitive outing, but now I’m starting to think that maybe this was just the logical next step in finishing the process of Matt and Daredevil merging, in every respect. The current creative team have decided to kick things up a notch, and give Matt-as-Daredevil a much bigger stage. It is a real game changer for the character, and in many ways it’s a much bigger deal for Matt Murdock to be a public superhero than it is for Iron Man, the Fantastic Four and many others. I’ll get get back to that, but first let’s start at the very beginning.
“Daredevil is the real me!”
As mentioned already, early Matt Murdock was dull. Okay, so the things that happened when he was off the clock – or mysteriously disappearing from the office – were not so dull, but the Matt Murdock identity he deliberately crafted for himself certainly was. He was a young man who seemed to live the life of someone much older. A big part of the reason he would pass up social outings with Karen and Foggy was that he was busy being Daredevil, but there was more to it than that, which I suspect had a great deal to do with the era in which he was created.
The Matt Murdock of the 1960s, much more so than his modern incarnation, seemed to have internalized much of the stigma that came with blindness. When I look at old issues today, I tend to chuckle at Matt’s worries that Karen would reject him because he was blind, but mixed in with all the Silver Age drama is a hint of something more serious. In Daredevil #8, while working out in his private gym, he considers Karen’s suggestion that he undergo eye surgery:
”Suppose I do consent to the operation that Karen thinks I should have? What if I do regain my sight…? …But lose my extra-sensory powers in the process?!! It would mean the end of Daredevil as a force for justice! But it would be the only way I could dare try to make Karen my wife! For, I could never ask her to marry a sightless man!”
While the actual physical limitations of Matt’s blindness were downplayed in early Daredevil, the consequences of the stigma attached to blindness would affect Matt Murdock a great deal. Looking back at these early stories through fifty years of social progress, it is clear that the prevailing stereotypes surrounding blindness at the time – and to a lesser extent still today – were a major influence on the creation of both Daredevil as a concept, and on Matt Murdock’s early personality.
While those of us who love Daredevil can list a number of things which are unique about the character, things that have kept us coming back for years, it also has to be said that from a literary standpoint, Daredevil offered little that hadn’t been done before. The notion that blindness would allow someone do develop keener senses is old, and the cliché has been associated with a long list of literary characters.
Their senses had become marvellously acute; they could hear and judge the slightest gesture of a man a dozen paces away — could hear the very beating of his heart. Intonation had long replaced expression with them, and touches gesture, and their work with hoe and spade and fork was as free and confident as garden work can be. Their sense of smell was extraordinarily fine; they could distinguish individual differences as readily as a dog can, and they went about the tending of the llamas, who lived among the rocks above and came to the wall for food and shelter, with ease and confidence.
The Country of the Blind, by H. G. Wells (1904)
Alongside the “positive” stereotypes of blindness, there are negative stereotypes. Unlike Daredevil who is based entirely on the positive, the public persona of Matt Murdock received more of a mixed bag. On the one hand, he is presented as disciplined and studious, on the other there is something almost apologetic about him. An air of “Oh, don’t mind little old me!” He’s careful, something of a recluse and, despite Karen’s longing, appears to be virtually asexual.
We all know the real Matt isn’t like that. Matt himself knows he’s not like that, and in the first few years of publication, there is often resentment about having to “be” (the public) Matt Murdock. In the panel below, from Daredevil #25, by Stan Lee and Gene Colan, Matt seems almost angry:
“Meanwhile, I felt like I was suffocating in that business suit of mine! I’d have jumped out of my skin if I had to wait any longer to get into my working clothes! I never realized Daredevil was so much a part of me! It’s like DD is my real identity — and I’m just play-acting as Matt Murdock!”
While trying to figure out creators’ intentions nearly five decades after the fact is somewhat risky business, it seems to me that it was probably a conscious choice to distance the private (known to readers) Matt Murdock from the public persona. It was important to point out the fact that he was “no ordinary blind man,” not only by highlighting the Daredevil identity, but also by rejecting the public Matt Murdock. If I may be provocative for a moment, my guess it that it was important to emphasize that he was not one of “those people.” He was not truly one of the afflicted, but one of the gifted.
Creators have continued to actively try to distance Matt Murdock from “ordinary blind people” at regular intervals over the years, and I would argue that this is a practice that didn’t stop completely until the last fifteen years or so. I should maybe clarify that I’m not talking simply about reminding people that Matt Murdock has abilities that makes blindness less problematic for him than for others who are (totally) blind – and makes it possible for him to be Daredevil – or that hiding these abilities requires its fair share of pretense. What I’m talking about goes beyond that and boils down to a form of complex that Matt Murdock seemed to have.
You notice it in cases where Matt, in his private thoughts, boasts about how he can read faster with his fingertips than any sighted man every could (because being better than sighted people at everything is apparently important, whether it makes sense or not) or when he simply lets the readers know what simpletons the people around him are to not even realize his spectacular potential. “If only they knew that a blind man could do X, Y, and Z more capably than any sighted man!” It’s the kind of thing you roll your eyes at.
And yet, along with pitching Daredevil as a respectable superhero to potential newcomers, it also serves the purpose of reminding them that (public) Matt is nothing like (private) Matt. In essence, the pretense itself becomes the character’s biggest burden. It is his perceived limitations that bother him, because the real ones are virtually non-existent in early Daredevil. Being forced by circumstance into play-acting as Matt Murdock was his true handicap.
The emergence of Matt Murdock
As mentioned, this rather annoying habit of overcompensating didn’t fade away overnight, though it was much more common in the first few years of publication, but at least Matt Murdock’s personality seemed to stabilize over time. While he couldn’t stop pretending not to have his powers, he at least allowed himself to stop pretending to be a more boring version of himself. It is hard to pinpoint exactly when this happened, but I do think the Mike Murdock era was oddly therapeutic in this sense. Stan Lee and Gene Colan had broadened the personality palette, if you will, and Matt was a more interesting character in his own right after the Mike Murdock era than he had been previously.
Another key moment came when Matt started “coming out” to people around him. Foggy was kept in the dark for over three decades of real time, but Karen learned about Daredevil fairly early, in Daredevil #57. This naturally released him from his enforced duality, at least around the people who knew. This translated into Matt getting more screen time as his genuine self out of costume, and in conversations with others besides the readers.
During the San Francisco years with the Black Widow, the lines between Matt and Daredevil start to blur even more. Natasha, “roommate” and partner in crime, obviously knows who he is, and the dynamics between them seem unrelated to whether either one of them is wearing a costume. In fact, they take their bickering and relationship woes with them out on the streets, just as they “talk shop” around the house.
Perhaps the most pivotal story arc in the merging of Matt and Daredevil, in my mind, is Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli’s Born Again. This story is remarkable for many reasons, and not only because of its many literary and artistic qualities. First of all, Matt spends very little time in costume. Secondly, the story revolves around the destruction of Matt Murdock’s personal life by a villain who has learned his secret. Think about that for a moment. Arguably the most definitive Daredevil story of all time, isn’t actually about “Daredevil.” It’s about Matt Murdock. And I think many readers would agree with me that the very fact that so much of the focus rests on Matt Murdock is what makes it such a strong Daredevil story.
In the years following Born Again, Matt spends a lot of time in a sort of limbo. It takes a long time for him to return to practicing law, and for much of the beginning of Ann Nocenti’s run, he lives with Karen and works as a short-order cook (while passing for sighted, incidentally). “Public” Matt Murdock, the lawyer, goes on a long hiatus. Things get even more extreme when he fakes his own death during D.G. Chichester’s run and lives under the alias Jack Batlin.
When “Matt Murdock, blind lawyer” finally returns, it is after Foggy Nelson has learned the truth, and the sphere in which Matt is free to be himself, and feel equally at home in all of his different guises, has expanded considerably. It makes sense that this sphere would continue to expand over time, and during Brian Michael Bendis and Alex Maleev’s run, Matt is pushed in a direction where his secrets are exposed and the lines are blurred even further.
Before philosophizing about what being a public superhero might entail for Matt – and Daredevil – going forward, I want to point out one scene which speaks to the brilliance of the current run in being able to create a more complete modern incarnation of Matt Murdock by subtly addressing past events. This has been done in many different ways, but the most relevant for my purpose here is the exchange between Matt and Foggy, as seen in Daredevil #23.
What is so clever about Matt commenting on his past secrecy is that it is relevant and interesting to new readers while also providing a perspective on Matt’s past behaviors in a way that people who are familiar with all or most of Daredevil’s history can appreciate.
Through modern eyes, it is easy to interpret Matt’s early boasting as a defence mechanism against feelings of inferiority, and do a sort of mental retcon when reading the early issues. Waid et al help us do just that by addressing Matt’s relationship with secrecy. In the case of Daredevil, there’s an additional layer of deceit at play in that Matt actively has to hide his powers in a way that Peter Parker doesn’t (something I’ve addressed before). The kind of exploration – or is that explanation? – of the character that we’re treated to here helps put all of this in context. Without defending Matt’s history of keeping important secrets from his loved ones, Waid introduces a different way of looking at it, by recasting it as a coping mechanism.
The public superhero
Having helped us make more sense than before of Matt’s early double life, the current creative team is perfectly suited for the task of completing the path Matt Murdock has been on for the last fifty years. While definitively outing Matt Murdock is a risky move, it has so far – three issues into volume 4 – worked out quite well. We have already seen the storytelling potential that comes from allowing Matt Murdock to do detective work as himself, rather than just in the guise of Daredevil.
However, given Daredevil’s unique nature as a character, there are certain issues that are raised by his outing that are less of a concern for other heroes. The first that comes to mind is that he is a low-powered hero, with no special armor to protect him, and no team to back him up. At best, he can reach the Avengers in an emergency, but the utility of that lifeline is limited. This means that known enemies are a more serious threat than in the past. The only mitigating circumstance here is that his identity was already known to some (such as the Kingpin), or at least strongly suspected. That makes the step of going public a smaller one, but the situation it creates is still riskier than being able to hide behind the wall of plausible deniability. There is also the added complication of having specific weaknesses you may not want your enemies knowing about, such as being a sense short and being overly sensitive to non-visual sensory input.
The second thing that sets Matt apart from other superheroes is the thing that explains why “coming out” would be desirable, even to the point of off-setting the risks in wall. In fact, looking at Matt dangling from that rock climbing wall earlier in this post, and his increasingly reckless behavior over the course of Waid’s run, you’d think a big part of him wanted to be found out.
The way I see it, this brings us back to where Daredevil started and his resentment at having to play the role of “non-powered blind person”. This kind of play-acting goes both ways though, as Matt himself noted in his conversation with Bullseye in Daredevil #191 (by Frank Miller): “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.” Outside of his circle of close confidantes who knew his secret, Matt has always had to deny some aspect of his physiology; either his powers as Matt Murdock, or his blindness as Daredevil. Swinging between the extremes of restraint on the one hand or strain on the other, there has never been much room for him to physically be at his most comfortable, in a place where he doesn’t have to pretend to sense less or see more than he does.
The term “passing” was first used to describe the phenomenon of people with mixed (generally African/European) ancestry being able to “pass for” white. It has since been expanded to include a long list of other group identities where someone might try to pass as belonging to a different group, and I think it is a pretty good description of Matt’s predicament throughout Daredevil history. Passing is usually done in an effort to conceal some aspect of yourself, and it’s easy to see why it might be psychologically and emotionally demanding.
Given the current creative team’s track record of spot-on characterization, I’m looking forward to seeing them explore the personal ramifications of the new status quo, in addition to the changes in Daredevil’s external universe and the new kinds of physical threats that it brings. Matt Murdock and Daredevil are now fully one single entity. Let’s find out who that makes him.