When Daredevil was unleashed upon the world in 1964, he was intended to be one of many street-level heroes defending New York City. The cover to his first issue even draws parallels with Marvel's flagship street fighter, Spiderman, as can be seen to the left here.
But even as the cover creates a direct parallel between Daredevil and Spiderman (both swing around to bop bad guys, both are destined for popularity, both cart around guilty consciences bigger than their barrel chests), the page still challenges you to guess what makes Daredevil different from every other superhero. If there are clues on this cover for an uninitiated reader, I can't find them. The only red flag I see is our hero wearing sunglasses while dressed as his alter ego -- though Matt Murdock's not introduced as Daredevil until you turn the issue's first pages, so you wouldn't find his glasses suspicious or indicative of anything here. You wouldn't even know he's Daredevil from looking at this cover, and that's an important spike for me.
Because Matt Murdock is blind. Daredevil is not, so far as the public knows. So, what makes Horn-Head a truly remarkable superhero is not his abilities -- it's a secret about disability that fuels interest in the character. And it's this secret that gifts his long-running comic a probably-unintentional passing narrative that creates problems in our current ADA world.
But let me back up. During the 1960s and 1970s, Marvel rose to prominence by tempering fantastic superheroics with readers' real-life concerns. Hence, Spiderman's struggle to make ends meet and save his aunt's house after the death of his bread-winning uncle; or, Bruce Banner's struggle to control his temper in order to live up to the responsibilities thrust on him by work and his girlfriend, both of which keep him from "Hulking out;" or, the Fantastic Four's efforts to stick together as a family when pressured by the world to jump head-first into adventure. Stan Lee's comics were meant to engage teenage readers who felt alienated by the adult world, and felt too grown up to believe a man could fly. Lee had basically been handed the creative control of Marvel in the 1950s, after DC had reinvented the superhero for the Atomic Age. He followed suit in the turbulent '60s, by addressing darker issues and grabbing an older audience for his books. Daredevil was the result of his experiments, as were the alcoholic Iron Man and the ever-persecuted X-Men.
Created by writer-editor Lee, artist Bill Everett, and designed in part by Jack Kirby, Daredevil's hook seemed to be his protectorship of gritty Hell's Kitchen, as well as his deeply rooted Catholicism. Daredevil's specific placement and heritage makes him a beat cop to me; he's a man with a mission for his people, and he'll be brutal if need be, holding tight to the righteousness of his blue-collar Irish background as he defends his turf. Add that outlook to the fact that he's never exclusively fought costumed supervillains (he also deals with poverty and other social problems), and you can see how Daredevil fits into Marvel's "real world/street level" mode.
But none of his nitty-gritty character motivations, or his real-life stakes, make Daredevil inherently special. What makes him special is that he's differently-abled. Lee announced as much on the cover by asking you to guess what makes him different from his cohorts. Bringing a blind superhero into the Marvel stable must have been an unique thing to do in the 1960s, when the rights of disabled individuals were not general concerns, as they have been (moreso, anyway) since the creation of the American With Disabilities Act in the 1990s. But what does it mean to make a blind man a superhero? How exactly will his stories be different, as the cover promised?
In the first issue of Daredevil, we learn his origin. As a child, he rescued an old blind man from being hit by a truck. But no good deed goes unpunished, right? That explains why a canister of some radioactive substance fell from the truck and blinded Matt for life. How that works, I can't even begin to guess -- what I can say, because the writers say it, is that Matt gained superpowers due to this radioactive exposure. (Because that happened a lot after the A-bomb got dropped.) His hearing, smell, and sense of touch all became more sensitive, and he also developed a radar of sorts -- a radar that made it possible for him to fight crime through a form of sight and feats of acrobatic daring-do.
I'll get to how his radar works in a moment. First: think about Matt's situation in another way. People often claim that when one of your senses is impaired, the others become stronger. Because he was blinded, Matt's other senses became heightened. Regardless of how irradiated his eyes became, if he hadn't been blinded in the first place, he wouldn't have become super-sensitive to anything. You need that tragedy in order to explain his powers. Without his blindness, Daredevil would not have superpowers. Because his blindness fueled his superpowers. In effect, his disability IS his superpower.
Maybe I'm thinking this way because I've been hard of hearing since birth, and a large part of my identity is defined by the secret positives surrounding a lack of something in my life. But I think Daredevil's first issue invites comparisons via the intense way Lee demands you guess at Matt's specialness. Certainly, the hero's remarkable abilities are tied distinctly to his lack of something. At his genesis, that must have seemed a new point of view for readers. Maybe it even alleviated some assumptions about what disabled people are capable of. Still, I would argue Daredevil is not a very good spokesman/role model for the sight-impaired. Largely because no one in his world thinks a blind man can be a crazy devil acrobat. So in his world, assumptions remain about blind people. And those assumptions actually HELP Matt Murdock continue his nighttime activities, while also masking his special disability.
Furthermore, I feel Daredevil continually misses out on a positive opportunity to fix another, maybe less daunting problem. Check out what Daredevil's sight-radar looks like, as displayed in a 1960s issue of Daredevil:
Of course, stretching credibility is something comics always do. I mean, Peter Parker gets bit by a radioactive spider, and THAT gives him superpowers? (Meanwhile the FDA's warned against importing milk from Japan after its nuclear disaster.) I don't mean to be a fuddy-duddy taking extreme issue with fantasy powers, but Marvel's missing out by making Daredevil's radar something discernible, something translatable to the human eye. They don't let us into a blind man's world here' they impose our seeing world on him, and force Matt Murdock into a passing narrative not of his own making (his acting as a sighted superhero aside) -- a world where it's good he hides the benefits of his blindness, where being blind means you're not capable of accomplishing great feats or experiencing the world in your own unique way. All these backwards perceptions would provide great fodder for drama, but in all the Brian Michael Bendis, Ed Brubaker, and Kevin Smith trade paperbacks I've read, this stuff is never addressed! Matt seems to have no problem being judged for his disability, nor does he have any problem crafting dual "abled" and disabled identities. For a man who's been blind most of his life, he never seems to think about how it affects him, or how it gave him a weird special sight.
And sadly, Daredevil's radar hasn't changed from conventional sight in Daredevil's modern age. In fact, once Frank Miller reinvented the character during the 1980s, Daredevil's senses became heightened almost to the level of Superman's. He can hear sounds blocks away, he can gauge the time a person left a room based on the dispersion of their perfume. Sure, his radar can be messed with, but the strength of his senses allows him to touch-read the imprints of a pen on paper. So now the blind man doesn't even need braille -- effectively, he's no longer a blind man, if he can "see" well enough to read a note in the first place.
Artists have run with these heightened radar sensations. Alex Maleev, arguably the greatest contemporary Daredevil artist working today, completes an entirely silent issue in Daredevil volume 2, issue 28. Mostly he uses Matt's radar for detective work. But it is sight -- only sight -- like our sight. You can see his radar sense highlighted in panels outlined pink in this scan below:
One thing I can tell you ... Our hero masks his disability, and so it's hidden in the artwork as well. So the youth Lee meant to reach out to, people hungry for different struggles, people who wanted a voice to be given to the dis-empowered -- well, they got the same old, same old with Daredevil every time. He sees the world as we do, not as a blind man does. And as much as I love Daredevil's keystone Marvel character, I can't get behind his lack of progression since the 1960s. His blindness has no impact on his world, and that is not realistic. It makes me question the value of this character.
(Speaking of character, Matt's blindness has become a lame cover in recent years. Brian Michael Bendis used the excuse of blindness to protect Daredevil's secret identity several times during his "Out" storyline. Maybe it was supposed to be an ironic tactic, because we knew the truth about Matt and the public didn't, but Bendis had it both ways. He reinforced assumptions while claiming to tear them down.)
For a better take on how artists demonstrate a disabled person's outlook, check out David Mack's Daredevil: Parts of the Hole. In that story, Daredevil falls in love with a deaf woman, and Mack uses playfulness of line and bizarre set-ups of dialogue to show us how the deaf piece together the sentences strung around their bodies. All in all, it creates a powerful statement about body language, its importance in hearing-impaired culture, and how limiting it can be when you need to chase words coming across someone's lips, across a page:
Because frankly, in my mind, Daredevil is unremarkable. He becomes unremarkable when writers and artists don't engage with his disability head-on. That's sad, especially since Lee boldly challenged us to discern Daredevil's difference in his first appearance.
Daredevil #1: Bill Everrett, cover artist.
Older Daredevil Panel: David Michelinie, Writer; Frank Miller, Pencils; Klaus Jensen, Inker; Glynis Wein, Colorist; Joe Rosen, Letterer.
Echo panel: David Mack & Joe Quesada, Artists; Richard Isanove, Inker; Richard Starkings/Comicraft, Colorist; Jimmy Palmiotti, Letterer.
Modern Daredevil Panel: Brian Michael Bendis, Writer; Alex Maleev, Colorist/Inker; Matt Hollingsworth, Colorist.