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.