On writing a book about Daredevil science

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.

Christine Hanefalk

Christine Hanefalk

Based in Stockholm, Sweden, Christine is a die-hard Daredevil fan who launched The Other Murdock Papers in 2007 to share her passion for Matt Murdock and his friends with other fans.

12 comments

  1. Regardless of when it comes out, I’ll be picking up a copy of this!

    Will there be a Preface or maybe even another chapter where you talk about your personal relationship/history with the character? I just think your passion for this character is one of the best parts of the blog (along with the research, the clarity of the writing, and all the other good bits).

    So excited to read it.

  2. You were very.. very.. VERY missed, Mi’Lady.. I concurr with above comment in that I can’t really express how ecstatic I became when realizing that I’d found someone just as if not more passionate about Big Red as was I..

    Glad to have you here again.. But also MAD you were in limbo so, so, eh, SO!.. No matter, so was I.

    (Big Red?.. Secretariate = 2 1/2Xs the heart mass of a good thoroughbred, and all 3 of his triple crown wins (and multiple other records) have been computer reanalyzed and concluded to still stand to this very day.. Just another No1, like our Mr. Murdock)

    You hit a nerve with Hooty.. Doctor MidNite couldn’t hold his own title, but that just show’s how difficult the scripting was, and how charming his concept.. And hey!.. IF you’re unaware.. You may wish to look a bit further back, and check The Black Bat, who debuted app. the same time, about month after, Batman, but actually has older roots in pulp.. But he WAS a prosecuting attorney who had acid thrown in eyes by a criminal mobster in court.. Depression and blindness.. But was then convinced by the daughter a grateful client/surgeon to an experiment to restore somethings with a bonus

    I can wait for you to get your book the way you want it to be.. because I am blown away with the way you organize my jumbled thoughtrain, but.. GOTTA have it when you do it.. Good to at least hear your witty humor again.. Hope it’s for (quite) a while

  3. Sounds like it’ll be a really fascinating read. My partner often refers to me as ‘The Snoz’ (as a reference to a character from Adult Swim/ Robot Chicken’s wonderful (IMO) sketch ‘Daredevil ‘N’ Friends) because of my (apparently) abnormally acute sense of smell. I too always feel that Daredevil’s sense of smell is drastically understated and underused- and particularly the trouble he’d presumably have with it, as far as being revolted by certain smells or overwhelmed by others. Another thing I always find rather hard to reconcile, is his fighting style being so boxing/ punch-orientated, when that would undoubtedly impact heavily on his ability to use his hands for more delicate things- and his hands would be even more crucial as tools to understanding of the environment than with a sighted person, superpowers notwithstanding. With the Netflix show I find myself wincing every time Matt lands a particularly brutal blow and comes away with bleeding knuckles and mangled fingers because- hey, Braille/ everything else. Look after your hands, Matt!!

  4. Looking forward to the day the book is published and available! Your dissertations on the blog about the science of echolocation and the fallacies of the assumptions about Matt’s powers have been fascinating to read, so I expect the book will be as entertaining and educational. Best of luck getting to the finish line!

  5. Great to see you back and blogging. Looking forward to the book. Always love you insights.

  6. This already sounds fascinating and I’m looking forward to more. As someone with sound/touch/etc synaesthesia (and a devout Catholic mother), I’m always interested when writers discourse the science/biology side of DD’s ‘gifts’.

  7. As someone who became a fan from the Netflix show, your blog was one of the first that I came to in my research for better understanding Matt’s powers–particularly the at-the-time unclear “radar” sense–and your comprehensive examination based in real-world science, with all the more specific implications that come along with hypersenses (some of which I wouldn’t have considered), has been a great supplement to my own understanding and appreciation for the character. I also was encouraged to start reading the comics, something I’d been hesitant to because of the overwhelming nature of it.

    Anyway, that’s my long-winded way of saying that it’s great to see you posting again! And the book sounds fantastic, I’ll definitely be picking one up when it becomes available.

  8. Interesting.. Born into one of the “mother language” cultures, I can’t help but stop to analyze the frequent appearance of the angicized version of a word and to compare it with the root form.. Van’s use of synaesthesia is a wonderfully curious example, being that when sans the syn:>,, (αίσθημα).. it would primarily be used in referrence to one of the physical senses, whereas with (συναίσθημα), we’d initially use it to express a type of inner feeling, an emotion.. a reversal in a way, although the root can in it’s 2nd, 3rd definitions be far more interchangeable.
    It would entail quite the hunt but, since most are aware that a good understanding of linguistics can solve many equations, perhaps some more light could be shed on the matter. That is if others find examples such as the prefix syn=combined and the root’s meanings as tantalizing in regards to our interest.. But how?.. Hmm.. Perhaps somebodies, with a measure of pull, could get Chris in contact with Naom Chomsky to present and entice him with the strange case of Dr. Devil and Mr. Matt.. Hey! and especially with her unique upcoming book.. Wow, what if we could sway him? I think he’d grant a preface at least.
    Or maybe not.. such.. a good idea.. in that it may risk Van getting a knock on her door, and suddenly find herself the subject of intense medical research.. Oh well, just a thought.. in hopes that it may assist the project. No sweat, where there’s a will there’s a way.

  9. If you’re not limiting your “Literary Origins” chapter to the comics or characters with superpowers, you might be interested in the series of mystery novels featuring blind detective Duncan MacLain, by Baynard Kendrick (if you’re not already familiar with them). The first book was published in the 1930s, the last in the early 1960s. MacLain has some exceptional (you might even say over-the-top) abilities, such as the ability to shoot a gun accurately, all attributed to rigorous training. He also makes good use of his senses; one of the books is even titled, “The Odor of Violets.” And there is some interesting assistive technology, appropriate to the time period.

  10. I hadn’t stumbled on Baynard.. and there are a quite a few, 14(?), Maclain mystery novels (plus two ’40s films!).. This should make for a revealing time contrast.. Hey, thanks for sharing that Martha

  11. Just in case you don’t know “Sight unseen” by Georgina Kleege yet, I am sure you will like it.

  12. Georgina’s book seem’s to have very good reviews all around.. Very interested in reading her perspective, as having read that she begin’s with “Writing this book made me blind.”.. Thank’s for the tip Nora, sound’s very enlightening

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