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We hear all about how Superman has "super vision," which apparently includes microscopic vision, long-distance vision, X-ray vision, etc. But can Superman see in the dark? That is to say, could he still see in a situation where there was zero light (or close enough to it)?

The reason I ask, by the way, is because I was reading old Superman comics at came across this page from the first meeting of Superman and Batman (a delightful issue, btw):

enter image description here

The implication is that Superman only notices that Bruce is changing into a Batman costume when a beam of light enters the cabin. Have their been any more recent examples about whether Superman can or can't see in these situations?

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    So two plain ole guys go into a ship's small cabin. Each one of them thinks they're going to somehow change into their costumed persona without the other guy noticing that their secret identity just "vanished"? This is some great writing here. – phantom42 Jan 8 '15 at 23:38
  • I think it's pretty clear from the angles in the second panel (Supes is looking straight ahead while Bats is to his left and slightly behind) that he's not looking at Bruce Wayne and so just doesn't see him change into Batman. – Patrick Wynne Jan 9 '15 at 0:04
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    Regardless of where they're looking, they're in the same room. Bruce and Clark go in, then a hero and a non-hero (or two heroes) come out. If either of them don't think that the other guy isn't going to figure out their secret identity, they're grade A morons. – phantom42 Jan 9 '15 at 3:19
  • A good explanation could be : Lois was burning outside and he loovved her, so he was more focused on rescuing her. She could die in explosion before he could be there, so he had to hurry. He was busy sneaking from the other he did not notice what the other was doing. And since Clark never in his wildest imagination suspected Bruce Wayne could see him in dark, he just didn't look at him. – user568109 Jan 9 '15 at 6:32
  • Notice that in the 3rd panel, Superman speaks after — possibly in reaction to — Batman. Of course it's not the best writing, but it's plausible that from time to time Superman keeps observations to himself until necessary. – Slipp D. Thompson Jan 9 '15 at 20:31
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Within the comics, it's clear that Superman can see both radio waves and infrared radiation.

By implication, he could easily see something happening in a pitch black room.

Radio Waves
enter image description here

Infrared
http://3.bp.blogspot.com/_Gd8NBIma-zo/TLyREFvrp_I/AAAAAAAAPAE/Td1NyNcn-1c/s1600/Superman703+-+newpower.jpg


Interestingly, Superman Magazine Editor Eddie Berganza seemed unaware of these powers when asked a question about Superman's ability to see in darkness;

Can Superman see in the dark? Does he have night vision and if so, when has he used it?

Eddie: Yes, the same way our pupils dilate, his do to a much greater extent. And he uses this when he's going somewhere very dark like the bottom of the ocean.

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  • Worth noting that the radio waves image is from a "pre-Crisis" story, "Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?" by Alan Moore, so a more recent example would be needed to say for sure that this ability survived in the new continuity DC established after Crisis on Infinite Earths, where Superman's powers were weakened somewhat. – Hypnosifl Jan 8 '15 at 23:52
  • @Hypnosifl - I'm willing to admit that the Editor of Superman Magazine may have slightly greater insight then me. Slightly. – Valorum Jan 8 '15 at 23:54
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    Found a recent comic showing Superman with the ability to see radio waves, see the panel from Adventures of Superman #41 here where he says "Your detonator emits a constant passive wireless radio pulse. I can see it." – Hypnosifl Jan 9 '15 at 0:03
  • Note that seeing by radio waves in a dark room would be somewhat limited. Radio waves with a long enough wavelength to penetrate the walls would only allow you to see large objects, not fine detail. (Some quick research suggests the smallest detail you could make out would be about 10cm.) – Harry Johnston Jan 9 '15 at 5:43
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Yes, Superman can see in the dark. But it might not have been the case during this early encounter. Neither Superman nor Batman know much about the other with this being their first real encounter in the early DC universe. More importantly, the editors and writers were still working out the character's developments.

  • In fact, this is the duo's first official meeting (Superman Vol. 1 #76, 1952) and they would not meet again for a number of years due to economic constraints of the industry.

enter image description here

  • It might have even been said at that particular time in Superman's character development he did not have any true night vision at all! Many times he was treated just like an ordinary man in terms of his senses and awareness.

  • Most of Superman's more advanced visual acuity (his microscopic and telescopic visions, for example) does not occur until after the Silver Age of comics in the later 1960s and early 70s, when Superman developed new powers weekly and became completely over powered by the end of the Silver Age.

Let's cover a few things in the proper order:

  • Darkness is relative. What most people consider darkness is still filled with electromagnetic radiation detectable by most modern depictions of Superman's superior visual prowess.

enter image description here

  • In a room without visible light, normal humans would be blind, but to Superman, the room is still bathed in a variety of electromagnetic energies he can detect. Visible light is only a tiny part of the entire spectrum of energy available to his senses.

  • Superman's normal light awareness is superior to a normal human, giving him the ability to see more in far less light. The average low-light situation would be similar to the visual acuity of a cat before adding any of his additional energy-based powers.

  • To truly stump Superman's vision and create an area of TRUE darkness, you would have to be able to block all forms of electromagnetic radiation from the environment.

His main visual sense depictions include infrared detection, active or passive.

  • His vision allows him to engage in active infrared detection to detect heat emissions of infrared light given off by living beings or thermal imaging differences in background temperatures of different materials.

  • Even if you could put Superman in an environment completely free of any form of external electromagnetic radiation, he could emit heat vision at a level low enough to heat his environment and then use it to see by!

His second go to in night time environments if heat isn't available for tracking is to simply increase his visual acuity along the UV part of the spectrum.

  • Superman is capable of using ambient UV radiation (starlight, for example) if he is outdoors or in an environment capable of receiving sufficient background UV light, or artificial UV light emitters.

    • To blind him along the UV spectrum, you would also have to block the ultraviolet light found in our atmosphere from the sun and stars.

    • Both forms of electromagnetic radiation are invisible to human eyes but are well within Superman's ability to detect.

Superman's visual senses are so acute he can span and discern unique frequencies along the entirety of the electromagnetic spectrum. He can isolate individual frequencies and track them to their source either by ear or by sight.

Yes, in most modern depictions of Superman, he can control his visual acuity well enough to follow a radio wave to its source! From Adventures of Superman #41.

enter image description here

Superman's first visual power (X-ray vision) predates the above meeting of Superman and Batman by at least a decade.

  • Superman's X-ray Vision has never been clearly explained but likely does not include the emission and detection of X-rays because of the inherent danger to living things.

  • The most likely theory indicates he is able to detect and see concentrations of background radiations as they strike other objects. Anything he can't see through is likely to be lead, dense or radiation-resistant. X-Ray vision was first used by Superman in Action Comics #11 (April 1939), where it was called "Superman's X-ray eyesight.

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  • Given that Neutron radiation and Gamma rays can travel (easily) through lead, how come Supes can't see through it? – Valorum Jan 9 '15 at 1:02
  • It does not mean he emits neutron or gamma radiation. He may only be able to detect energies as high as X-rays. He may be aware of the higher energies but unable to utilize their properties. – Thaddeus Howze Jan 9 '15 at 1:06
  • Super-vision aside, how good an image of his surroundings does Superman get from his super-hearing? – user14111 Jan 9 '15 at 1:19
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    It varies from writer to writer and era to era. In some eras his hearing was capable of working like echolocation giving him some sense of his surroundings. It was even depicted in the Animated Adventures when he lost his sight fighting a villain and he used echolocation to figure out where the villain was and delivered a surprise smackdown. – Thaddeus Howze Jan 9 '15 at 1:22
  • On the section about infrared detection, you say "if heat isn't available for tracking" he'd need starlight, but in real-world physics all Earth objects emit infrared at night even if they aren't warm by human standards, since objects at all temperatures emit thermal radiation with a spectrum close to blackbody radiation, and the calculator here shows that even at 200 Kelvin (about -100 Fahrenheit) the peak blackbody wavelength (14490 nanometers) would be in the infrared range. – Hypnosifl Jan 9 '15 at 1:52
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While it's not clearly stated as such in the comics, one strong possibility would be that Superman can see using any of his super-visions (X-Ray vision, etc.) only when he choose to. This must be a voluntary act from him and therefore, requires that he would have first to suspect that Bruce Wayne is Batman or someone else worth of a closer look.

Otherwise, he would have to use any and all of his super-visions any time and all the times; clearly something that might not be desirable.

Also, without even considering the possibility that he could see or not in the dark, his X-Ray vision should have been sufficient for him to see that Bruce Wayne is wearing his Batman costume under his other clothes. Furthermore, the same capability should be enough for him to see that Batman is Bruce Wayne by looking underneath Batman's costume.

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