From Chapter One
”The Literary Adventures of the Super-Blind”
Attentive readers – especially those of you with an intimate knowledge of the greater Marvel Universe – may have noticed the absence of a certain character from the preceding list of blind heroes and villains. He is a short, homely sort of guy who surrounds himself with monsters – most of his own making – and has made a home for himself far underground.
I am, of course, thinking of the Mole Man, also known as Harvey Rupert Elder, the first official villain of the Fantastic Four! There are a couple of things that make Mole Man particularly noteworthy, and relevant to the topic of this chapter. One is that Mole Man is the first Marvel character to possess a “radar sense,” and the only such character besides Daredevil. Mole Man made his debut in Fantastic Four #1, by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, which hit the stands in the fall of 1961 and thus predates Daredevil’s first appearance by over two years. With this timing of events, one can imagine that at least some of the thinking that went into the creation of Mole Man was repurposed for the creation of Daredevil.
According to his origin story, Harvey Rupert Elder was a man ostracized from his community on account of his hideous appearance. When he could stand this treatment no longer, he went in search of the center of the Earth. Yes, the literal center of the Earth. (As one does.) Finding, at last, a deep cavern on the aptly named Monster Isle, Elder fell to the bottom of the hole and, upon regaining consciousness, discovered that he had lost most of his sight. Being trapped underground, “like a human mole!” he took up the Mole Man moniker and “carved out an underground empire!” When he meets Reed Richard and Johnny Storm of the Fantastic Four, Mole Man describes his newfound abilities as follows:
“I conquered everything about me! I even learned to sense things in the dark – like a mole! Here, I’ll show you! Try to strike me with that pole! Try it, I say!! Hah! I sensed that blow coming! Nothing can take me by surprise! And, I have developed other senses too like those of the bat — I possess a natural radar sense… A warning system which enables me to evade whatever danger strikes at me! Compared to the Mole-Man, you are slow… clumsy!! Hah hah!!”
In his next appearance in Fantastic Four #22, Mole Man once again puts his abilities on display in a battle against the Thing where he turns the lights off to gain an advantage: “See how easily I can plunge my domain into darkness! […] You forgot that I can function in the dark due to my highly developed radar sense!” A note from the editor clarifies the situation for new readers at the bottom of the page: “Radar sense: Although his vision is weak, the Mole Man is able to sense things in the dark, as fully explained in F.F. #1.”1
The way Mole Man’s radar sense is described suggests that the term “radar” is either an outright misnomer – in that neither moles nor bats use actual radar to navigate – or used as a metaphor for a general ability to sense the spatial arrangement of objects without sight. In fact, it has long been a suspicion of mine that Daredevil’s radar sense was not originally meant to be understood literally either. A recent discovery, which I will return to in chapter nine, has further convinced me of the latter. For now, suffice it to say that navigation by echolocation and man-made sonar both rely on the detection of reflected sound. Radar, which accomplishes the same thing using electromagnetic waves, has no biological equivalent.
The second thing that makes Mole Man’s case particularly noteworthy is that he is not totally blind. This sets him apart from every other fictional character mentioned thus far. And, it is not a coincidence so much as part of a broader pattern. Fictional portrayals of total blindness are far more common than portrayals of people with less severe vision impairments. To again quote Bolt: “[T]he vast category into which most people with impaired vision fall is at best rendered temporary and at worst not represented at all.” M. Leona Godin makes a similar observation in There Plant Eyes: A Personal and Cultural History of Blindness:
“Blindness and sight – as well as their analogs darkness and light – constitute, in the Western imagination, a fundamental dichotomy, but that has not been my experience and it is not the experience of most blind people, a very small percentage of whom were born with absolutely no sight.”
The Mole Man character is, in effect, more of an outlier than he should be. In reality, the absence (or near-absence) of any light perception is far less common than milder forms of vision impairment, and low vision more broadly.
Many people are familiar with the term legal blindness, which is used in the United States for tax purposes and to determine eligibility for certain services. To be considered legally blind, a person will either have a best-corrected visual acuity of less than 20/200 or a field of vision restricted to less than 20 degrees. The legally blind constitute around one-third of the total number of people with low vision in the United States, with low vision defined as having a best-corrected visual acuity of 20/40.2 Among the legally blind, a sizable majority have at least some useful vision. Relatively few share Matt Murdock’s condition of having no light perception at all.3
In this sense, most depictions of blindness in fiction are not only a poor representation of the lives of actual blind people but collectively serve to give the general public a very skewed sense of the phenomenon of vision impairment more broadly. With this in mind, it is not surprising if the average person, with little personal experience of vision impairment, is prone to thinking of total blindness and normal vision as sharply defined binary categories. In this simplified view, one is either totally blind or fully sighted.
I would argue that this particular fallacy is likely one of the factors that makes Daredevil’s sensory world, with its patchwork of enhancements and deficits, so challenging for readers and creators alike to fully wrap their heads around. Blindness is also something we tend to associate with certain practices and paraphernalia, such as reading braille and using a white cane or a guide dog. If we are to assume that Matt Murdock uses these only to maintain a secret identity, then readers can be forgiven for raising the question of whether he is blind at all. I will give the real and imagined implications of Daredevil’s blindness a thorough examination near the end of the book.
From Chapter Three
”Body, Meet World”
Since Daredevil is a blind superhero, we probably don’t expect his creators to get the very act of seeing wrong. And yet, this sometimes happens in surprising ways. One fundamental misunderstanding of the science that bears mentioning in the context of eyes and optics appeared in a few places in the first season of the Daredevil television show and has occasionally been hinted at in the comics as well. I am talking about the notion that Matt can sense sources of heat remotely, and do so in ways that suggest that these impressions can make a kind of image.
The first thing to keep in mind here is that the human skin works nothing like the film of a camera, and does not have any special ability to detect photons the way the retina does. This is true whether we are talking about visible light or the longer-wavelength infrared radiation which emanates from all objects in proportion to their temperature (a topic for chapter eight). The latter can be made visible to us by special cameras or goggles that translate these wavelengths into something we can see, but the emphasis here is on “see.” As you will recall from our brief look at thermosensation, photosensitivity to infrared light is not the process by which the skin detects changes in temperature. Both infrared and visible light can obviously warm the skin, but this sensation is relayed by the various temperature-gated receptor proteins, not by photoreceptors.
However, even if we were to go along with the idea that Matt’s skin functions like a large retina that can detect infrared radiation, he would not be able to form an image this way. Instead, his skin would be like one giant thermosensitive eyespot. He might be able to tell the relative location of a particularly warm (or, in this context “bright”) object, just the way all of us can, but his skin cannot form an image any more than a retina on your cheek can. In fact, the few animals in nature that can use thermosensation to detect the precise location of nearby prey, which include a family of snakes called pit vipers, are only able to do so by combining traditional thermosensation with specialized organs. What do these “pit” organs do? As it turns out, they form a cavity – not unlike a pinhole camera – to make a crude image!
To suggest that young Matt can detect that a woman passing by has skin that is “too hot,” as in a scene from episode seven of the first season, is no less of a stretch than to suggest that he can literally see with his skin. I doubt that the show’s writers had any real sense that this is what they were doing, but it underscores how difficult it can be for creators of every era to fully divorce themselves from the logic of vision.
From Chapter Six
”A Sense of Space”
For me, perhaps the most interesting detail from the experiments at Cornell, and certainly from the perspective of trying to make sense of Daredevil, is the case of Edward Smallwood who participated in the first study. Smallwood insisted, quite vehemently, that his ability to detect objects was not based on sound, and that sounds were actually a hindrance. Only in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary did he change his mind.
This also means that Smallwood, while obviously relying on sound without being aware of it, didn’t actively attempt to make any of his own sounds, such as by clicking his tongue or snapping his fingers, in the course of his daily life. Obviously, his own footsteps would have provided guidance, but it also seems reasonable to assume that he must have been well tuned in to the ambient sounds around him.
What makes Smallwood even more interesting though, is how exceptionally good he was at detecting the obstacles in the experiment. He not only vastly outperformed the sighted subjects, but he also crushed his blind “opponent” Michael Supa, making the difference in performance between the two much larger than the difference between Supa and the sighted subjects. This was particularly evident in terms of the measure of “first perception,” i.e. the distance at which the obstacle could first be detected. In fact, the experimenters initially seemed to have quite a bit of trouble even finding a distance from the obstacle where Smallwood couldn’t immediately detect it:
“[Edward Smallwood] possessed a very keen ‘sense of obstacles.’ The average distance of his ‘first perceptions’ is 18.04 +/- 6.69 ft. This value does not, however, represent his true ability. Both the average and [mean variance] are artifacts of the experimental conditions. He always perceived the wall immediately upon being led to the starting-points at 6, 12, and 18 ft, and in most trials at 24 ft. […] When his results were computed from trials starting at points beyond 24 ft., i.e. at 30 and 36 ft., the average of his ‘first perceptions’ was 25.62 +/- 3.56 ft. These values represent a truer picture of his ability to perceive obstacles at a distance than those given in Table I.”
Smallwood’s ability to detect a wall at the end of a hallway from a distance of around twenty-six feet (or just under eight meters) can be compared to Supa’s ability to do the same, which hovered at around six feet (or just under two meters). This amounts to a stunning four-fold difference. While Smallwood’s ability to detect the wall diminished when he approached it on socked feet – quite the opposite of what he himself had predicted – he was still able to do so at an impressive distance of just under eighteen feet on average, compared to Supa’s three to four feet.
This striking difference in performance persisted throughout the study, even when the wall was replaced with the relatively smaller masonite board, and the various starting positions were randomized. For anyone concerned that Smallwood might be reporting false positives, there were tests for that too. None of the subjects reported detecting the presence of an obstacle when there was none.
We can safely assume that Edward Smallwood did not possess any heightened senses or superpowers, although in an interesting twist that should delight Daredevil fans, he did actually go on to become a lawyer, and even practiced law in New York City for a time.
What exactly distinguished Smallwood from Supa, whose performance would be matched in short order by the two sighted rookies, is impossible for us to know, though if you will allow me to speculate it may be as simple as the two men having happened upon different strategies during their acquisition of this skill, in terms of which aspects of the echo sound their brains are most attentive to. Perhaps Edward Smallwood’s brain had stumbled upon some less obvious, but ultimately more useful, feature of how the sound changes when reflected off an object. Or perhaps his brain was paying attention to the exact same things as Supa’s brain, but was able to process the signal more efficiently and reliably?
From Chapter Eleven
”There Is Something It Is Like To Radar Sense”
On the topic of not showing Daredevil’s perspective, we should also note that many of Daredevil’s writers have had an oddly impersonal approach to relaying Matt’s experiences with the radar sense, as if there were nothing at all it is like to radar-sense. Take, for instance, the following examples from two issues written by Marv Wolfman, with art by Bob Brown and Klaus Janson.
In Daredevil #132, Daredevil fights Bullseye at the circus and thinks to himself, “Infallible aim is right… only my radar senses help me dodge his missiles. A normal man could never hope to calculate their trajectory in time — let alone move fast enough to avoid them” What is happening here is that Daredevil appears to be performing some kind of data processing in order to evade the objects Bullseye is peppering him with. But ask yourself this: If someone throws a ball in your direction, and you prepare to catch it, would any of it involve you doing math in your head? Probably not. Instead, you have a perception of the ball’s “ball-ness” along with its location and movement, and that is what you are conscious of. Your brain is performing all kinds of processing to allow you to do this, but you’re not typically conscious of what is happening under the hood so to speak.
A few issues earlier, in Daredevil #128, when our hero is out looking for the Death-Stalker, he notes that “[…] since my radar-sense can’t seem to spot Stalky anywhere in this park — I can concentrate on finding out who this guy is.” This too is a pattern we have seen often over the years, where the radar seems to be at once a fairly long-range general-purpose sensor, and something rather impersonal. As if this were a device he might carry in his pocket or a process that runs in the background, as opposed to a true form of perception.
Neither of these scenes really point to anything that is unique to, or even typical of, this particular run, but they are good examples of a handling of the radar sense that has been quite common generally. While Daredevil may, on rare occasions, treat his other senses this way as well – mentioning that his hearing is detecting something – this is not how any real person talks about what they see, hear, or smell. With the radar sense, this impersonal portrayal is everywhere. It spots something for him, tracks something, picks up on some movement, or informs him of something pertinent.
This makes the radar sense sound either like a smartphone app (“my GPS is telling me to take the next exit!”) or something vaguely like the spider sense, alerting Daredevil to whatever the other senses fail to catch.
Another common take on the radar experience that is somewhat related to this impersonal way of sensing is when it is portrayed as the active piecing together of a scene. Rather than performing calculations and making impersonal deductions, these scenes see him visualizing what is happening around him. If there exists a raw sensation of radar-sensing, it is one that is amplified or embellished by Matt’s imagination, according to this account.
For instance, Daredevil #147 by Jim Shooter and Gil Kane, has a caption that reads, “A man who can only visualize the drama below in his mind’s eye from vague radar-image silhouettes he senses, and the intricate landscape of sounds he hears…”
There are two other scenes, both written by Brian Michael Bendis, that come to my mind as particularly striking in this regard. One is from Daredevil #47 (1998), with art by Alex Maleev, which sees Matt meet with (his future wife) Milla in his office. The second is from a very similar sequence in Ultimate Marvel Team-Up #7 (2001), with art by Bill Sienkiewicz.1 Looking at the first example, we see a sequence of four panels of Milla’s face – the first almost completely drowned in red – this run’s color of choice for indicating Daredevil’s perspective – and the last rendered in typical non-radar fashion. The full visual transformation is accompanied by Matt’s thoughts:
“Jasmine. She’s killing me with jasmine. (In a good way.) How do girls know how to smell just right? The strawberry in her hair. The jasmine on her skin. The vanilla on her feet. She’s got it all on just right. I know there’s more to a woman than smell. I know. But with my unique perspective, my view of the world through blind eyes and enhanced senses… smell is a big, big part of it. Even her heartbeat is elegant. She’s nervous — embarrassed but her posture doesn’t give her away. She’s a blind woman — so posture isn’t something practiced — it’s something inherent. I let my radar fill in the blanks. So I can ‘see’ what my other senses can’t give me. I feel her form. Her silky, shiny hair. Her precious, pale skin.”
There is a lot going on here. Worth noting is that the last couple of items listed are things that no version of the radar sense should be able to provide. Neither the shine in Milla’s hair nor her skin tone, make sense in the realm of the non-visual. In general though, it is the idea of “filling in” that interests me here.
There undeniably exists a gap between typical human vision and what any version of Daredevil’s senses could possibly convey. I don’t find it strange that Matt might, on occasion, try to paint himself a more visual scene of something in his head, given that he was once sighted. But the idea that imagination or deductive reasoning could come close to the “real” picture, in order to effectively bridge the gap between him and a sighted individual’s impression of the same scene, doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.
Some have argued that conscious experience, including vision, might be thought of as a form of controlled hallucination.2 However, what separates the “hallucination” of real perceptions from the unwanted and often frightening version we associate with some forms of mental illness is that the former is maintained and reigned in by the continuous sensory information that calibrates it. In Matt’s case, there is no sensory data available to calibrate his imagined internal visual world beyond what his other senses provide, and he has no way to check it against external realities. This clearly separates scenes playing out in the “mind’s eye,” from the constraints of real sensation.
The outside world is in many ways a construct. Not so much a social one as a biological one created by the brain and nervous system. We have touched on this before; the quality of an object that designates it as “red” is real to the extent that this quality exists independently of a viewer. The redness of red, however, is a product of the mind. Our senses have been shaped by their ability to improve our odds of survival in the world. Their utility rests on there being predictable relationships between external objects and events and how our brains perceive them. But a radar sense experience that has to be imagined or actively conjured into being by the perceiver, and cannot be checked against external stimuli, is not a true sensory experience.
In contrast with both the reading of the radar as an impersonal alert tool or an actively assembled inner vision, I would argue very strongly that there is absolutely something it is like to radar-sense, whether we can fully imagine it or not. And, if we are allowed to borrow some insights from the sensory substitution field, I would peg the radar as an ability – or experience – that allows for the external localization of perceived physical objects in space. When Daredevil senses the shape of things around him, this is not his drawing intellectual conclusions, but a result of something with the same immediacy and “realness” as other sensory experiences.