Sunday, 27 April 2014

Daredevil, and points arising

I'd never heard of Daredevil until quite by chance I saw this page from a 1966 comic pasted up on a pub wall a few months back:

It's a page from an early Daredevil story, in which he is brought by gangsters to 'defend' a judge in a mock trial convened by The Owl, a vindictive mega-businessman with a crooked outlook on life, who decided to pursue a high-level career in crime. The Owl was jailed by the judge for his misdeeds. But he escaped, and is now exacting a sweet revenge - he hopes. At this point The Owl does not know that the blind attorney being led down the steps is in fact Daredevil, a super-hero, who will of course act to save the judge and confound The Owl. The first in a long series of repeated encounters over the years.

You can read all about Daredevil at, and about The Owl at

Now a couple of general points.

First, I am not a regular reader of comics, and never was, but I do think they are of huge cultural significance, and very influential. They are a very accessible form of commercial art with wide circulation and appeal.

Second, comic or satirical drawings have been around for a very long time. For instance, think of the political and social-comment drawings of Hogarth in the eighteenth century. We approach those on a somewhat more highbrow level than the modern comic, but the basic elements are all there: a strongly-drawn picture that contains recognisable characters; bubbles to show what the characters are saying as they leer, lust, fornicate, pontificate, threaten, or whatever; captions to explain the action further; subsidiary things going on in the picture that add subtlety and credibility; and a persuasive moral point driven home through the actions and attitude of hero (or anti-hero), his helpers, and his opponents. In Hogarth's day, the 'frame' would be large, one picture in itself, and lots would be happening in it at the same time. Nowadays, each frame is small, and deals with just a character or two, and one segment of the action - but then the story will be carried forward in a series of pictures that melt into each other.

Setting aside the story-lines, I was always chiefly fascinated by the power and economy of the drawing in modern comics of the type published by Marvel Comics and DC Comics. It was a deliberately simplified style, obviously, but at the same time it had to clearly convey the character's emotional state - not an easy thing to do - and, without being too fussy with the artwork, a character had to seem three-dimensional, believably muscular (muscles seem to be the convention for super-heroes!), and their movements - often sudden and swift and directional - had to be suggested solely through marks drawn on paper. All this calls for artistic skill of a high order. I recognised that, and admired it. The ability to convincingly depict 'solidity', 'movement' and a character's 'inner life' is surely one of those things that separates professionals from amateurs.

Then there are the captions and speech in the word-bubbles. Again, a terse, tightly-economic style is used, written usually in easy-to-read block capitals with important words in bold. Have you ever considered how well and efficiently the action is thrust forward by these verbal devices? And how the words in the boxes or bubbles integrate with the character-drawings, as part of the overall design for that frame?

The Wikipedia articles on the characters of Daredevil and The Owl reveal the effort and depth of thought that went into their creation - the Daredevil article particularly. If you wish to get an idea of the work involved then do study what is said. Nowadays the computer (see for instance is a fantastic help, and wasn't around when Daredevil was first launched in the 1960s, but pencil and inking skills are still vital at the concept stage, or when suggesting and drafting a story-line.

Back to Daredevil. I spoke of the care taken in his creation and development. He had to be given a background, and subtle elements in his character, motivation, and abilities as a super-hero. It was essential to round him out, make him believable, and make the reader want to follow his life as it changed through issue after issue.

The pre-eminent fact about him is that he is blind. He was blinded by exposure to radiation as a boy. But that affected his other senses, changing them for the better. He became incredibly aware of things around him, as if seeing a three-dimensional wrap-around monochrome mental image in fine detail. He could function as if normally sighted and more: he had a sixth-sense of another living person's presence. His hearing, taste, and smell were heightened to abnormally acute levels. He could tell for instance if a person were lying, because he could hear their heartbeat. His sense of touch was so good that he could 'read' a printed page by detecting the shape of each letter from the ink standing proud of the paper surface.

But then there were a few subtleties. He couldn't see colours. Smooth images like a glossy printed photograph were blank to him. It was possible to foil or even immobilise him with sensory overload, such as too much confusing sound. These limitations - fictional though they are - give Daredevil a 'credibility' lacking in the can-do-anything-effortlessly Superman, and other superheroes of that type. OK, Superman becomes pathetic and bedridden if his arch-enemy Lex Luthor tosses a small lump of Kryptonite at him. But that is such an unlikely and contrived way of slowing Superman down. I find the more comprehensible physical limitations imposed on Daredevil much more appealing.

Unfortunately, though, I rather think Daredevil would face certain difficulties in the world of 2014. He wouldn't be able to use his fingertips to 'read' a computer screen, nor 'see' what a mobile phone could tell him. In a screen-based universe the touch-dependant person loses out. (And that must apply to real blind people)

What about super-heroes in general? What is it all about?

It's an urban myth thing, of course, anybody can see that: another variation on the good versus bad theme. Impressionable youths and psychopaths apart, I don't think anyone really believes that super-heroes exist, or that anybody actually possesses super-powers. But what if it were true? Disney's The Incredibles was a very clever cartoon take on what might be the actual life of a family with a range of super-powers between them (see - and the problems that could arise in 'ordinary life' for such a family. The constant dilemma of who to help, just because you can. The irritations and disruptions you cause to the community from, say, constantly damaging the local infrastructure and keeping local taxes high. The problems that having a super-power can pose for children, not least the unwelcome sensation of feeling like a misfit. The disruption to normal home life, to such an extent that you want to forget that you are in any way special - and who you really are.

There are parallels here with any situation in which a person has a Secret Identity that must be kept hidden. Anyone who has tried to live one life, when deep down they are someone else and need to live another. Does that resonate with you?

And believe me, if stuck in that situation, no super power you might possess can possibly help. That's why Daredevil, and even the awesome-super-capable-from-any-angle Superman, both have a rough on-off love-life. Ha! Just the love-life? They had it easy.

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