Sunday, April 10, 2022

Finally, a superhero comic book about a plague outbreak: Re-reading "Contagion" in the time of Covid

Comic books, like all forms of entertainment, offer consumers escapism, so it is therefore perhaps not too terribly surprising that neither of the two big superhero universe fictional settings, DC Comics' DC Universe and Marvel Entertainment's Marvel Universe, have reflected the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic in their pages. People are living the pandemic in their every day lives, after all, does anyone really want to read about it in their superhero comics as well?

On the other hand, it's gone on long enough and been persistent enough that it's sort of odd that we never saw, say, civilian background characters in Amazing Spider-Man street scenes wearing masks, for example; the Marvel Universe is, after all, as a recent trade collection pointed out, supposed to be the world outside your window*. 

Interest in how superhero comics would portray the outbreak of a deadly disease is not what lead me to pickup Batman: Contagion, a 2016 collection of the 1996 crossover between the Batman family of books. Rather, I had come upon a complimentary collection of Batman: Cataclysm in my big, unwieldly, dust-covered To-Read pile, and I so enjoyed it that I sought out other, similar collection of late-'90s Batman epics. Still, it occurred to me "Contagion" is perhaps as close as we're going to get to pandemic-specific superhero comics, and, like 1995 film Outbreak or 2011's Contagion, it can be viewed in retrospect as a sort of fictive prediction for what might happen given an outbreak in a major city, and can now be sort of graded on its accuracy. 

The disease at the center of "Contagion" is a mutated strain of Ebola Gulf-A, referred to as "The Apocalypse Virus" or, colloquially, as "The Clench."

Early in the adventure, Batman infiltrates a military facility 50 miles from Gotham, dons a head-to-toe protective suit, and enters a cell where an infected general has isolated himself to await death. The military man gives a brief profile of the disease, one so dangerous he had the few samples they had destroyed:
Ebola Gulf-A...Incubation period, 48 hours. Flulike symptoms, when the virus spreads in airborne mucus. Blood leaks from the eyes.

Gulf-A dessicates the muscles, shrinking and deforming them...turning the victim into a gnarled, misshapen cripple. Eventually, the bones themselves splinter and break...under the incredible pressure.
A far nastier disease then the novel coronavirus currently circulating, then, in every respect. Because the disease mutates so fast, Batman is told, the U.S. government was never able to develop a cure for it. The only way to do so would be to find a survivor, and then use that survivor's blood to concoct a vaccine. 

This, then, gives our heroes something to do while they face the virus. The interesting aspect of the disease as a threat, from a super-comics standpoint, is that it's not a villain that can be confronted and defeated in the normal fashion. A disease is a faceless threat of the sort that's rather novel to the genre; DC's Batman writers would explore such threats later and to greater effect when Gotham City is struck by an earthquake in the aforementioned Cataclysm, leading to the year-long epic "No Man's Land." 

The Apocalypse Virus is concocted in a lab—so, either unlike COVID-19, or just like it, depending on whether you believe the conspiracy theories or not—by The Order of St. Dumas, a villainous organization in the background of the Batman comics for a few years in the '90s. A radical medieval Christian organization, their plan was to use it to purge the world of sinners and non-believers, i.e. anyone they didn't want to share the cure with, but one of their members jumped the gun, testing it in Scandinavia and then infecting an unwitting member on his way back go Gotham City, thus bringing one of the world's biggest (if fictional) cities to its knees with an incurable disease.

Batman sends Robin and Azrael to seek out the survivors of original outbreak,  a hunt Catwoman joins in, thanks to the reward being offered by wealthy infectees for a cure. Meanwhile, Batman joins Nightwing and Huntress in quelling a massive riot that broke out at Babylon Towers, an exclusive, fortress-like enclave for the city's ultra-rich that also happens to be ground-zero for the outbreak (As in Poe's "Masque of the Red Death," the city's princes sought to lock themselves in, safe from the plague, only to discover too late that it's locked in with them.)

Though the true threat, the disease, is not a villain that can be hunted down, punched out and tied to a lamppost for the police to collect, the writers—Chuck Dixon, Alan Grant and Doug Moench—have still managed to find reasons to keep the heroes running around and fighting. 

As the action reaches its climax, Robin Tim Drake is infected, and spends some time in a hospital bed within the bowels of the Batcave, dying...until a cure is miraculously found. The search for survivors ended up being a dead end—none of the three actually had the disease in the first place, they just miraculously managed to avoid catching it—but in the pages of an issue of Azrael, one of the supporting characters happens to find a cure for the disease in some books stolen from the Order off-panel (well, in a previous issue of Azrael not collected here, anyway), and simply faxes the formula for the cure to several institutions within Gotham. "One was Wayne Tech," Tim explains to a relived Nightwing, "Bruce cooked some up in the lab."

As is often the case with such sprawling storylines—"Contagion" featured 11 official chapters running through issues of Azrael, Batman, Batman: Shadow of The Bat, Detective Comics, Catwoman, Robin, and an unofficial tie-in chapter in the anthology title The Batman Chronicles—the art styles range dramatically from story to story.

The participating issue of Batman, drawn by Kelley Jones and John Beatty, is perhaps the most dramatic, hell, melodramatic work in the book. It's the cover of that issue that graces the cover of the collection, in which batman stands atop a pile of corpses, held back by the Grim Reaper himself—that's not a Batman villain like The Reaper, by the way, but the symbol of death, appearing metaphorically (Graham Nolan would draw a Grim Reaper on the cover of  one of  his issues of Detective Comics, while Vince Giarrano would also draw the Grim Reaper in a splash page of one of his contributions). Jones also provided the trade dress on the covers of the individual issues, a border full of skulls and insects, presided over by the skeleton of a bat just above the word "Contagion."

Jones is an excellent Batman artist, his conception of the character an always posing, dramatic figure that hunches, lurks and gestures operatically, a living gargoyle haunting pages filled with settings that seem inspired by silent films and Golden Age Hollywood horror movies. Batman's Batcave is filled with tech that wouldn't seem out of place in a mad scientist laboratory, for example, save, perhaps, for the fact that it is a little more elaborate than what might be expected in a B-movie, and his Gotham features piles of bricks rising from the ground, serving as stages and platforms for the vigilantes to pose upon.

Despite what a tremendous Batman artist he is, he's not really a superhero artist, which makes this particular issue of interest because in addition to Batman, who is almost always all cape, cowl and hands when ones draws him, Jones is also tasked with drawing villain Poison Ivy (whose depiction a college-aged Caleb wrote a letter to the editor about, as it reflected what he was then learning in art class)  as well as heroes Azrael, Nightwing, Robin and Huntress, some of whom are well outside his usual, exaggerative sweet spot, with little or nothing to accentuate (the streamlined Nightwing is a particular challenge for Jones, it seems, as he has nothing but his musculature to exaggerate; Huntress, at least, has a cape, and gets a nice entrance image with her cape swirling about her; neither holds a candle to his Batman, though, who perches on a pile of bricks just as Huntress did and commands a crowd to disperse, his massive, wing-like cape devouring his perch and much of the setting.)

The collection also features a few issues drawn by Vince Giarrano, an artist whose style I've always thought of as "sarcastic '90s." I don't know how sarcastic Giarrano was being in his art, of course, but I always got the sense that he looked around what was popular at the time and said to himself, "Is this what people like? I can do this" and then proceeding to draw, say, a huge Batman with devil horn-like ears and a spreading cape full of jagged points and a Poison Ivy with claw-like hands and a body like a female silhouette on a mud flap. 

There's a lot of other great art in the book, though none with the same confrontational energy as Jones and Giarrano's. Graham Nolan draws the cleanest, most realistic chapter in his work on Detective Comics. Jim Balent lays out the pages of Catwoman, but Dick Giordano finishes them. Barry Kitson pencils the Azrael pages. The Robin issues are drawn in the familiar, manga-inspired lines of Mike Wieringo (inked by Stan Woch). There's also art by John McCrea**, Frank Fosco and Woch, and Matt Haley and Mike Sellers, all of whom contribute to the Batman Chronicles issue (Interesting also for its cover, which has Jones finishing a Balent piece, bringing Jones' intense, apocalyptic linework to the more realistic Balent figure-work). 

As for the story's relation to our current contagion, it's interesting how little it reflects it.

Despite learning in the earliest chapters that the disease is spread through airborne mucous, Batman and his fellows continue to wear their cowls and domino masks, none of which cover their nostrils or mouths. Huntress does adopt a plastic mask that covers her eyes, nose and mouth in the Batman Chronicles short story "Exposure," written by Christopher Priest and drawn by the previously mentioned Haley and Sellers team. She also worries after tears in her costume, which is sort of interesting given that this story arc features a new costume for her, one that covers her neck to toe; previous to this arc, she was wearing what amounted to a long-sleeved bathing suit with boots and a cape, with a plunging neckline and lots of exposed flesh. The new suit is definitely better protection against catching a virus—and against just about everything else.

Robin, who is infected, is spit on during the riot, and, it would seem, might have been spared infection had he worn a mask similar to Huntress'. There seems to be a feeling of inevitability to infection among the characters, which is, perhaps, to be expected given the severity of the disease. One can't social distance and fight crime at the same time, after all, but it is still striking that there are no attempts at using any sort of personal protective equipment beyond that one short Huntress story, which only serves to underscore that the other heroes aren't doing it too (Given how much comics creators like giving their characters new costumes, it would seem a perfect time to debut a new, contagion-fighting Batman with a full-face mask; Catwoman does debut a new, all-white winter camouflage costume in this very story, but never something suited to avoiding airborne disease).

The National Guard is called in, by the governor of whatever state Gotham is in (New Jersey, I think, officially), but they are there to seal off the city, enforcing a stricter quarantine than any seen in the real world during the coronavirus, with no one getting in or out of the city. One exception? Refrigerated trucks come in near the end of the story; they're needed to store the bodies piling up, one of the apocalyptic details that we did see in the COVID-19 outbreak, as such trucks were needed in the real Gotham City of New York City at one, early point in the outbreak.

The end of the plague came about awfully quickly, far quicker than our own, as hospitals got the cure faxed to them and, in one case, hand-delivered by a blockade-breaking Azrael. And then the hospitals just went ahead and manufactured and distributed it ASAP, without any sort of testing period and certainly none of the vaccine hestitancy or outright resistance we saw in the real world.*** 

Oddly enough, once "Contagion" proper has ended, the collection just keeps going. The storyline did continue, as I recall, but not until after taking a bit of a break, and then picking up in the sequel crossover storyline, "Legacy."

 At first the collection's post-"Contagion" continuation might seem somewhat natural, as the final issue of the crossover Robin #28 ends with a cliffhanger, complete with a "To Be Continued" box, albeit a minor cliffhanger: Tim's girlfriend Ariana has just dyed her hair blonde.

So the collection includes the next two issues of Robin, in which the title character contends with Maxie Zeus. And then there's a three-issue story arc from Batman by the Moench/Jones/Beatty creative team, "The Deadman Connection," in which Batman and guest-star Deadman follow a trail of stolen Incan treasures and ghost-possession to South America. And then there's a three-issue Batman: Shadow of The Bat arc by Alan Grant, Dave Taylor and an assortment of guest-artists, the storyline that intoduced villain Narcosis and kicked off in SOTB #50.**** 

None of these stories have anything at all to do with "Contagion", and it is thus weird to see them here. Not that they are unwelcome, of course. All are good stories with their own virtues—I'm particularly fond of the Batman story, as Jones work on that series remains as remarkable today as it was in the mid-1990s—it's just strange to see them here. 

*The exception that proves the rule, however, is Zeb Wells and Gurihiru's 2020 Heroes At Home one-shot, a collection of short, funny strips in which various Marvel heroes must deal with the new realities of the COVID-19 pandemic, ranging from amusing themselves while stuck indoors, to trying to get a piece of cake while social distancing, to dealing with a shortage of toilet paper. 
This is, I believe, the only comic book in which I have seen any heroes wearing cloth masks to protect themselves from contracting the coronavirus. I reviewed the book upon its initial release here

**That McCrea-drawn story is, of course, "Hitman" and it is written by Garth Ennis. It serves as a sort of unofficial zero issue to their Hitman monthly, bridging the character's appearances in The Demon and his own new title. I'm not sure if it was collected in the most recent round of Hitman trades or not, but one would certainly hope so, as it is a direct lead-in, mentioning the plot of Hitman's first arc and Batman's desire to capture Tommy Monaghan no matter what. He is, of course, distracted by the plague to devote his full attention to that task at the end of this story. 

At this point, Ennis was still writing Monaghan more as a super-powered hitman than just a regular old hitman, so he uses his mind-reading abilities and X-ray vision to great effect, with a pretty fantastic introduction of Batman to the scene. I'd scan it if I could, but the trade I'm working from is too thick to allow for decent scans. 

***I find myself curious what the notoriously conservative Dixon thinks about the aspects of the pandemic that have become political—masking, vaccine, mandates—given how apolitical "The Clench" and its fighting was in the pages of the comic book he wrote some 15  years ago, and what so many of his fellow conservatives think of those elements of our current pandemic.  

****I mentioned this story briefly in my post about Pagan, as she has a cameo appearance in it.


collectededitions said...

The inclusion of the non-Contagion stories within the recent expanded edition of Contagion was, I think, to make the space between the Contagion and the also recent expanded Legacy collections relatively seamless. Given all the expanded Batman collections in the last decade or so, plus the Caped Crusader and Dark Knight Detective books we’ve been enjoying, it’s possible with few gaps to read almost every issue of Batman and Detective, if not also most of the ancillary titles, straight through in collected form from Crisis to No Man’s Land.

J. Bencomo said...

The Contagion virus is SO lethal that it's hard to see how anyone would think in-universe that it would make a good biological weapon, surely it would just end up killing its designers as well.