Monday, March 29, 2010

Everything I need to know I learned from Daredevil comics ...

I finally got to take a break this weekend after posting that plushie pattern, and I spent it on a comic book binge. I was running through my DVD collection while I stitched the Backpack Coyote together, and happened across my all-time favorite movie from when I was twelve. Laugh away—it was Trial of the Incredible Hulk, and at the time it was the only live-action movie about my very favorite superhero. If you ask me, it still is. The Ben Affleck travesty does not count.

I first got into Daredevil around the time I first got into comics. My very first comic books came from a dollar box at the back of a used bookshop (which, incidentally, is why Rae’s secret origin involves one). I would buy as many as I could afford and smuggle them home under my windbreaker so my mom wouldn’t know her honor-roll student had regressed to reading stuff with pictures. At first I bought mostly heroes I knew from cartoons—Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, Batman, and the like. But Daredevil was the one that stuck.

I ignored the yellowed comics with the guy in the red devil suit until I saw an episode of the Fantastic Four cartoon where they lost their powers and, in some kind of weird lateral-thinking fit, decided that the best guy to help them was a blind lawyer named Matt Murdock. What was he going to do, sue Dr. Doom? Murdock, of course, turned out to be the superhero Daredevil, blinded in an accident but blessed with superhumanly acute senses. (The ninja skills he actually went out and earned.) Daredevil secretly infiltrated the Baxter Building after it was captured by Dr. Doom, and the FF eventually got their powers back thanks to his dogged efforts.

Two elements of that story struck chords in me. The first, and most obviously fascinating, was that Daredevil was blind … and I had a morbid terror of going blind myself. I was born with pretty bad eyesight, and it only got worse as I grew. Most children try to break or hide their first pair of eyeglasses, unwilling to deal with the discomfort and embarrassment; my mother tells me that at age four, I refused to take mine off—I just ran around staring at leaves on trees and birds in the sky for the first time in my life. My vision got worse year by year, requiring ever-stronger prescriptions, and right around the time I hit puberty the deterioration accelerated so fast that the eye doctor could no longer hide his dismay. I would not admit it to my parents, but by age twelve, I was secretly afraid that I would soon go blind. Imagine telling a twelve-year-old bibliophile that she would have to learn to read all over again. I tried to learn Braille, and failed miserably. I dreaded having to survive as a blind girl.

But when I bought a couple of Daredevil’s comics, I discovered that he didn’t just survive being blind. He thrived on it. His stories, I discovered, were a paradox—intensely visual tales about someone who could not perceive the bright colors and splashy compositions around him. Writers made up for that by filling dialogue and captions with references to sounds, smells, textures and tastes—details that were missing from most comic books, and that made Daredevil’s adventures all the richer as readers experienced his world as he did. And even though his hypersenses were at least as much a curse as a blessing (bad guys could effectively paralyze him with an air horn), he found ways to work with that, taking advantage of the secrets he overheard and the scents he could follow and finding workarounds for things like not being able to read computer screens or street signs (he can read print only if he touches it).

The other piece of the cartoon Daredevil that stuck with me was that he was completely outclassed by Dr. Doom. Sure enough, his adventures in the comics were usually street-level tales, pitting him against low-power bad guys and assorted crimelords. Yet he was willing to take on Dr. Doom, supervillain extraordinaire, and get beaten and electrocuted, all for the sake of four powers snobs who seemed to think he was pretty much a nutbar. He set his mind to something, and he worked at it until he succeeded, in spite or maybe because of the staggering odds against him. I could respect that.

So I devoured Daredevil’s adventures wherever I could find them. When the bookshop ran out of Daredevil comics, I used the yellow pages (remember those?) to find a local comic-book store and rode my bike for miles to feed my addiction. I read random back issues by Stan Lee, Gerry Conway, Frank Miller, and Ann Nocenti. I argued continuity with older geeks, most of whom were shocked to see a ponytailed sixth-grader lovingly tucking comics from the 25-cent bin into a cardboard box in her backpack. And as I read, I learned.

Daredevil could read normal print by feeling the raised surface of ink on paper with his hypersensitive fingertips. I tried a few experiments with Magic Marker, found that the idea worked in principle, and began stretching my other senses as far as they would go. I couldn’t hear heartbeats, but I learned to recognize people by their footfalls and the sound of their breathing. I couldn’t track people by scent, but I quickly learned to tell my classmates apart by the smells of their skin, their lunches, and their deodorants. I didn’t have Daredevil’s radar, but a few blindfold experiments taught me that air moved differently around objects than it did through open space, and at age 13 I startled a teacher by walking blindfolded through a jumble of desks and chairs without tripping once. (It really screwed up his object lesson.) I discovered I had an auditory memory—an unpredictable but startling ability to remember random sounds with near-perfect accuracy, which really came in handy when I accidentally memorized most of a history lecture and used the information to ace the test without studying. On a school camping trip, I found I moved faster along a dark trail when I turned off my flashlight, and could not only hear the class bully coming but bluff my way past him by pretending to have a weapon ready in the dark. I found that I could get by without using my eyes—and that there were distinct advantages to not having to depend on them.

And then there was that slogan. “Daredevil—The Man Without Fear!” He wasn’t totally fearless, of course, but seeing the embodiment of my phobia jumping off rooftops and hurling himself into battle with opponents far stronger and better-armed than he (including the Hulk!) did wonders for my own self-confidence. With Daredevil in my head, quietly analyzing or puckishly cracking wise, I could face down classroom bullies and menacing teachers and grouchy comic-book geeks and everyone who said I was good for nothing but doing their homework for them. It gave me ideas.

Six months after I discovered the character, I was writing my own stories about him. Eighteen months after that, I was creating my own fictional universe, so rich in sounds and tastes and textures and smells that my English teachers thought I was some kind of prodigy. My world was chock-full of heroes who were outmatched and outclassed, regularly beaten physically and spiritually but always able to pick themselves up and keep going, against all odds. Mere mortals surrounded by people with powers. Kids in a superhero culture run by adults. Losers and failures and has-beens and never-weres who nevertheless came through, by hook or by crook, to save the day.

When the series went online, I started getting fan letters. I was giving other kids ideas, too.

One of the first graphic novels I bought was Frank Miller’s Man Without Fear limited series, which retold Daredevil’s origin in vivid sensory detail and included Miller’s later contributions, like Matt’s ninja training and his affair with the assassin Elektra. And because I was the kind of kid who read everything (remember, any chance to read with my eyes could be my last), I read Miller’s introduction. While I actively dislike a lot of Miller’s pompous recent work, that intro stayed with me. Miller pointed out that Daredevil, on paper, should have been a bad guy. He was the product of a broken home, bullied and abused as a child, raised in poverty by a washed-up mob thug, and then blinded in a horrific accident. He was smart, a gifted fighter, and he had a nasty temper—someone you would expect to see turn bad, and someone you would dread fighting when he did.

“He’s got every excuse in the world,” Miller wrote. “And within him are the makings. But Matt Murdock is no villain, and no victim … He may never join the holy order his teacher hinted at. But he will do the best he can, this hero. He’ll fight the bullies till the day he dies.”

I loved that.

My vision has mostly stabilized now; I can see fairly well within a foot or so of my eyes, and with newer corrective lenses I can see better than most people with normal sight. I never did learn Braille, but I took up martial arts, where everyone has to come within arm’s or leg’s reach, and found I was good at it, especially when I had to counter my opponent without looking. Rae fights bullies, and stands up to people who can vaporize her, and speaks truth to power. Trevor goes into battle armed with his wits and a rock, and runs across rooftops by night. When I’m doing my job right, the world of Masks sings with the sweet stink of a horse’s breath, the scrape of asphalt against steel and skin, and the lonesome song of a coyote in the distant hills.

And almost every time I hand my manuscript to a new reader, the first few comments I get back include something to the effect of, “Wow, your writing is so visual--it’s like I can see everything that’s happening!”

I never tell them why that makes me smile.


  1. This is brilliant! Daredevil and Cap have always been my first and greatest favorites, as well. And this is an amazing story! Well worth you're writing it. Thank you so much!

    (also, I agree with your feelings about the direction Miller's writing seems to have gone.)

  2. You're welcome! I hope Rae and Trevor eventually inspire at least one kid the way Daredevil inspired me.

    Miller's always been a bit pompous, but lately he seems just MEAN, doesn't he? It seems like he doesn't like writing superheroes anymore, which makes me wonder why he's doing it. Oh, wait, probably because he's trying to live down "The Spirit".

    Yes, there are a few Daredevil writers I'd like to slap. But I am also ridiculously glad that I got the chance to meet Gene Colan at Comic-Con last summer and tell him how much his work meant to me. So it evens out, somehow.

  3. I'm sure you made his con by telling him that. :-)

    As for Miller, I think he started dark and cynical...and, unfortunately, has been applauded for nearly every step he's taken further down that road. Not that it's bad writing, but I'm not sure EVERYTHING needs to be a master-class on deconstructionism.

  4. I do think I made his afternoon, at least. The first time I came by his table, he was away, and the woman minding the place (I think it was his wife, Adrienne) asked me to come back because he didn't have many female fans and he'd be especially happy to meet me. I did, and he was. He was quite a gentleman, too--a really sweet guy. I walked away from the encounter, turned to my friend, and said, "Okay, we can go home now. My day is complete."