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No Comic Relief: Asbestos is a Killer
With so many children and adults stuck at home as families strive to obey social distancing rules and shield themselves from harm during the Covid-19 pandemic, many are turning to an old entertainment standby — comic books – for light reading and stress relief. Amazingly, several comic-book series from the mid-1900s featured a handful of villains and superheroes who utilized the mineral asbestos in their storylines.
Asbestos would not seem an appropriate subject for amusement. Those who have been diagnosed with the deadly asbestos cancer mesothelioma, or know someone who has, are likely well aware of what a devastating menace asbestos was to generations of Americans who developed horrific lung diseases as a result of breathing microscopic asbestos fibers at the workplace or in their homes.
Once touted as a miracle fiber, asbestos was widely incorporated into industrial, commercial and residential building products and automotive parts from the 1890s to the 1980s. The mineral was valued for its imperviousness to fire, caustic substances, and even sound. Asbestos was inexpensive to harvest from the earth, easy to fabricate into products, and extremely popular.
It was also deadly. Several thousand men and women still lose their lives each year from diseases incurred by exposure to toxic asbestos fibers. There is no question that asbestos was a blight on mankind for almost a century. That’s not amusing at all, so why would anyone use asbestos as fodder for comic book stories? Yet that’s exactly what the comics strove to do some eighty years ago.
Here is a look at some comic book characters who employed asbestos to their advantage in the middle of the twentieth century:
The Human Torch:
A mutation caused by exposure to cosmic rays while aboard a spacecraft, this Marvel Comics creation updated by Stan Lee in 1961 formed the youngest founding member of the Fantastic Four. The fictional sixteen-year-old, Johnny Storm, was converted by intergalactic radiation into a super being with amazing powers over fire. Johnny developed the ability to transform himself into a flaming human with a capacity for flight and the ability to project flame, resist extreme heat and absorb heat-based energy.
Dubbing himself “The Human Torch”, the make-believe Storm was still enrolled in high school when the series began, and even attended college for a time, where he developed a knack for racing, designing and working on suped-up cars as an auto-mechanic. Through his comic book adventures over many years, the superhero Storm also spent time as a Hollywood actor and as a firefighter, all vocations, interestingly, which in real life exposed their subjects to asbestos.
While early versions of the Human Torch and Asbestos Lady date back to the 1940s, Marvel Comics re-introduced voluptuous Victoria Murdock in the 1960s as a gifted but criminal scientist who developed a flameproof asbestos costume consisting of a green miniskirt and purple cape. Outfitting her henchmen with asbestos-lined clothing to protect them from flame, Murdock evolved into Asbestos Lady.
Wielding a flamethrower and guns which shot asbestos bullets, Asbestos Lady set fires to hold back the police while she and her team robbed banks in a misguided quest to take over the world. She was chief nemesis of the fiery Human Torch, the intended target of her asbestos bullets.
As Marvel Comics told the story, Asbestos Lady eventually heard about several advancements in “asbestos science” being developed by a fictional scientist named Fred Raymond. Murdock wanted these new developments for herself and plotted to kill the entire Raymond family in a train wreck, which succeeded but for the Raymond’s little boy, Thomas, who was strangely immune to the fiery crash. The young Raymond eventually joined the circus as a flame swallower and grew up to be the Human Torch’s sidekick, Toro.
Asbestos Lady, for all her flame-resistant powers, didn’t live to reap any rewards from her life of crime. After a lifetime of exposure to the toxic fiber, the Marvel Comics storyline saw Victoria Murdock develop cancer in 1990. Asbestos Lady succumbed to the dreaded asbestos disease, mesothelioma, at the age of 45.
“Dr. Orson Karloff”, a 1963 creation of Stan Lee and Dick Ayers for Marvel Comics, was known as the “world’s foremost analytical chemist.” Karloff reportedly invented a formula capable of melting metals, which he decided would be a useful tool for robbing banks. He was not very successful as a bank-robber, though, and decided instead to hone his powers into an ability to resist fire.
Calling himself Asbestos Man, Karloff eventually challenged the Human Torch to a showdown, which he won, utilizing a special suit he had fabricated from iron, calcium and chrysotile asbestos fiber. Like Asbestos Lady, the plotline eventually revealed that Asbestos Man had developed cancer. He lived out his remaining days tethered to an oxygen tank.