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Comic Book Hero
"It's only the beginning," Campbell called out to her. "Only the beginning."
The story of Matt Murdock has always been especially meaningful to Campbell. Both came into the world in 1964, and both were raised in the tough streets of the inner city -- Campbell, in Baltimore's East Side, and Murdock in New York City's Hell's Kitchen. Both, too, came from a broken home. Campbell was raised primarily by his mother, after his father moved out, and Murdock by his father, a boxer known in the ring as "Battling Jack," after they were abandoned by Matt's mother. Unlike Campbell, however, Murdock wasn't born with vision problems; he became blind after saving a man from an oncoming truck that was carrying radioactive materials. As the truck swerved, the chemicals spilled and splashed over the teenage Murdock's eyes, erasing his sight forever. His saving grace was that all his other senses become intensely heightened.
Matt went on to study at Columbia University law school. But before he could complete his degree, his father was killed by the mob for refusing to throw a fight. Matt came to believe that the law was too feeble to stop ruthless criminals. He made a costume of his father's boxing robe and armed himself with two fighting batons. Employing his masterful martial arts skills, combined with extraordinary touch, hearing and radar sense, he became Daredevil and vowed to battle the city's underworld by any means necessary.
"That was me," Campbell said of the famed Marvel superhero. "Daredevil was me."
It was a clear spring morning, and Campbell had just come up from working in the basement of the townhouse in Abingdon, northeast of Baltimore, that he and Sharon share with their sons Nicholas, 7, and Jason, 10. His drafting table is off to the side of the large room that serves as equal parts play space for the boys and office for Campbell. In the closet, file cabinets house the nearly 5,000 comics he has amassed. On one side of the room are the boys' toys and action figures, and on his side are two shelves that hold at least 100 of his action figures -- some still in their original package and strictly off-limits to the boys.
On weekday afternoons, Campbell reaches for his sunglasses (the sun hurts his eyes) and his cane for the one-block trip to the school bus stop to greet the boys. In between comic book work, he cleans the house and prepares dinner -- surprising tasks for a man with Campbell's vision, but no more surprising than the recent drubbing he gave his family in his first foray at mini golf.
Campbell was born with retinoschisis, a genetic condition that causes progressive vision loss due to retinal degeneration. From a young age he liked reading comic books -- often ones his mother bought for herself and passed along to him. Discovering Daredevil was a revelation. "I mean, I saw Superman, I saw Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, Wonder Woman and stuff, but I had never seen a blind superhero before."
Daredevil was more than a fantasy figure for Campbell; he was instructive. Campbell focused on Daredevil's super-hearing abilities. (For example, Daredevil can tell when someone is lying to him because he can hear the person's heartbeat escalate.) "If you really, really concentrate, you can hear a lot of stuff," Campbell said. "That fascinated me." He paused and took in the relative stillness all around. "I can hear everything in this house. I hear the washing machine, I hear the TV playing, you know. I hear the birds outside. I hear everything."
As a boy, Campbell wore exceptionally thick eyeglasses, so thick, he said, that when playing hide-and-seek, sometimes his protruding lenses gave him away. The glasses also masked a difficult secret. Because he wore such thick lenses, he said, teachers assumed, wrongly, that his vision was adequately corrected. In the early years of elementary school, he and his twin sister, Renee, were in the same classes. She discreetly copied work written on the blackboard for him because he couldn't see that far. But the school eventually separated the two, which Campbell says "made it worse for me because I had nobody to help me."
When Campbell failed the third grade, school officials came to understand the extent of his problem, and they urged his mother, who worked as a custodian for 40 years, to enroll the boy in the Maryland School for the Blind. She refused. She didn't believe it would prepare him for the challenge of living in the world of the seeing.
"You don't let no one walk over you," she told Campbell. She encouraged him to always give his best effort, to not worry about failure.