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Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Daredevil: The Best Disabled Character in Comics?

If judging which Marvel character was best based on the aggregate quality of their stories, most comic readers would probably say " Daredevil. " Thanks to a long and surprisingly consistent run of landmark stories, the horn-headed hero has gotten as close to becoming a great literary figure as any costumed crime fighter can become. Thanks to the works of creators like Miller, Mazuchelli, Sienkiewicz, Bendis, Maleev, Brubaker, Lark, Romita Jr., and others, Daredevil's developed a reputation for being the one Marvel franchise where writers don't hold back and the status quo isn't immediately reset. ( It's also developed the reputation of being an extremely depressing read due to the constant torment creators put Daredevil through, the comic book equivalent of Metal Gear Solid ).

He's also blind. Sure, the radioactive waste that robbed Matt Murdoch of his sight also enhanced his other senses a hundredfold, but he's robbed of the perception of sight, alienating him from most of the world. The fact that he can echolocate like a bat makes his experience isolated even from other blind people. And that's it for his superhuman powers-- the rest is just martial arts skill and back-breaking physical training. He's not particularly prominent in the Marvel Universe, rarely venturing beyond New York; a passage in Mark Millar's Wolverine even had the character mocking Daredevil, for being the pathetic crippled superhero the others joke about, while bemoaning the fact that Matt gets much more tail than the squat Canadian mutant. Yet this hasn't stopped him from being an engaging character for the audience.

So do I think Daredevil is one of the best disabled characters in comics, if not fiction in general? The answer is another question....

When was the last time you thought of Daredevil as blind?

Maybe you didn't forget that Matt can't see, but if you've been reading regularly, it probably wasn't the first thing you thought of about him. His handicap is only one part of his history, and doesn't begin to summarize the whole character. Being blind ( albeit superhumanly ) just informs the rest of his experience. Matt lost his sight as a preteen, well after his mother abandoned him and his failure of a father. His father did unethical mob enforcement jobs before Matt's accident, and Matt's handicap didn't dominate the dynamic ( re: no Jenny McCarthy " parent martyrs themselves for crippled child " claptrap ). Matt's accident was what led him to be trained by the blind sensei Stick, but he had pent-up aggression early on. And in his superhero identity, while it's apparent to people who look closely that Matt's devil mask is a blindfold, criminals don't think of him as a blind man overcoming adversity. They see him as the terrifying figure clubbing them into unconsciousness.

The major aspect of Matt's life where disability informs people about his experience is his civilian identity as a lawyer-- though he's one of the finest attorneys in New York, it does seem like part of that is the appeal of his hard-luck story. But ever since Frank Miller took over the character, Matt's life has become so complicated that the woes of his handicap are peripheral to his other problems. He's lost nearly a dozen girlfriends to murder and/or the trauma of being associated with him. He's had his career ruined by crooks who got ahold of his dual identity many times, to the point where it's public suspicion that Matt and Daredevil are the same guy. He faces some of the most outright monstrous, depraved villains in Marvel's history. And his " jurisdiction " is Hell's Kitchen, a run-down neighborhood that refuses to become safe no matter how many criminals he beats up, and a place largely ignored by other heroes. His actions, understandably, show an unstable nature only a nudge and a slap away from a complete breakdown.

The current storyline " Shadowland " has Matt Murdoch finally going through that breakdown and becoming an outright villain. He's stopped having a civilian identity, and runs a ninja clan that's turned Hell's Kitchen into a police state. The first issue of the story had Matt sic a dozen ninjas on his arch-nemesis Bullseye, to distract him so Matt could brutally and finally kill the bastard. And you'll note that in all of this the words " blind ", " disabled ", " handicapped ", and " crippled " don't even come up. Matt's arc as a fallen hero isn't contained by those labels, just informed.

That's how you represent disability in fictional characters. You make sure they have characters beyond their handicap. And anyone who argues that you can't say that of Daredevil simply hasn't been paying attention.


  1. Great analysis Nitz, but I wanted to add a couple of points of my own:

    -It's worth noting that Matt Murdock is also a very smart man, especially when it comes to his heroics. When most people think of intelligence in comic books, they usually tend to think of scientific smarts, particularly since half the characters Stan Lee created in his various Marvle comics were scientific geniuses of one type or another.

    The catch with Matt Murdock is that he's not a scientific genius, but he is an excellent lawyer, and you generally have to be pretty freaking smart to become a skilled attorney. More than that, his intelligence is showcased when he has to fight supervillains that outclass him in terms of power.

    Guys like Thor or the Hulk can match enemies like Mister Hyde or the Absorbing Man blow for blow, but Daredevil does't have that luxury. Hence why he needs to use his powers in much more creative ways, like using his senses to find pressure points on Mister Hyde that he can hit to disable the monster, or when he used his radar sense to pinpoint the flaws in the Absorbing Man's diamond form and chip away at them with a pistol until the Absorbing Man literally fell to pieces.

    And then there was the time he was fighting Hellspawn, a murderous Minotaur-like duplicate of himself who was invisible to his radar sense. DD eventually managed to splatter some of his blood onto Hellspawn, and was able to use his sense of smell to pinpoint where the blood was-it appeared to him that the blood was just floating in midair, but he was able to use that to fight back and win.

    -The other point you make about developing the characters beyond just the one aspect of their character is well-taken. I don't know whether I really have the right to make this type of critique, given that I'm not gay myself, but it seems like most of the gay characters I've seen in the media typically have their sexuality as their defining trait. Same thing with minority characters, particularly when writers attempt to replicate the culture without being familiar with it themselves beyond the stereotypes.

    Hence we've got the problem of how precisely to depict something like this, particularly if the writer is not a part of that group themselves. If a black character is never shown in any situation that their ethnicity informs to at least some extent, what would be the point of making them that race to begin with?

    I could be wrong on this, but it almost seems like a Catch-22. Either you never touch on these things with minority characters, and then some critics complain that these traits are almost throwaway characteristics and aren't an accurate reflection of life, or you make those minority traits their sole distinguishing characteristic and you get critics complaining about your replicating stereotypes.

    In Ultimate Spider-Woman, for instance, I've tried to allude to some of these issues without beating the audience over the head with them. The current issue I'm working on and should have done this weekend involves Mary Jane Watson dealing with what could almost be sexual harassment at the hands of fashon mogul Roderick Kingsley, but she forces herself to take the work anyway because she badly needs the money. Even today, it wouldn't surprise me at all if women still force themselves to put up with this crap because they need the job.


  2. Thanks for the comment, Jared! I'll get back to Ultimate Sleepwalker soon; I've been really busy ( as seen also by my lack of blogging ).

    I don't think it's unfair to say that most gay characters in fiction are defined by their sexuality-- the problem is that the specific sexuality/gender is reduced to characterization stereotypes. A gay character who is a man and loves men in and of himself isn't a stereotype. A gay character who is a fashion designer, likes bright campy colors, speaks with a lisp, and hounds every man he sees ( regardless of the other party's orientation or personality ) is a stereotype.

    The goal should be either to A.) play against type, or B.) develop every other aspect of the character's life enough that even when they fall into the stereotypes, they're still believable.