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SUPERHERO – SUPERVILLIAN: Asbestos in Comicbooks
The mineral known as asbestos would not seem an appropriate subject for humor. If you have been diagnosed with the deadly asbestos cancer mesothelioma or know someone who has, then you know what an evil scourge on humanity the menace of asbestos has been to generations of Americans and others all over the world.
What is asbestos you ask? Prized for its imperviousness to fire, heat and even sound, as well as its strong resistance to solvents and other acids, the fibrous mineral was inexpensive to harvest from the earth, easy to fabricate into products, and very popular.
It was also deadly. While harmless as a solid substance, when airborne the microscopic asbestos fibers are easily inhaled or ingested by anyone who disturbs the material by chopping, sawing, sanding, grinding, cutting, breaking or drilling it. Once inside the body, the tiny barb-tipped strands can become imbedded in the lungs or peritoneal tissue where they fester for years, creating scar tissue which eventually impedes the ability to breathe and can develop into asbestosis, cancerous tumors and fatal mesothelioma.
In 2014, the World Health Organization (WHO) documented more than 100,000 deaths from asbestos exposure in the workplace annually, and that’s not counting another several thousand who die each year from being exposed to asbestos in the home. There is no question that asbestos has been a worldwide blight on mankind. Not funny at all. So how could anyone make light of it?
By 1964 more than 700 articles had been published in medical literature worldwide detailing asbestos exposure and its associated health risks. Yet, if you were a kid growing up in the 1960s, you probably remember sneaking under the covers with a flashlight after bedtime so you could get in one more chapter of your favorite comic book before falling asleep. Most comic books featured less than savory superheroes and more than a few very unsavory villains. There were several whose powers were derived from fire. Believe it or not, there was even a superhero who derived his power from asbestos, as well as an evil villainess who protected herself from capture by wearing a suit of asbestos fabric. Here is a look at an asbestos-powered superhero and his evil, similarly asbestos-clad nemeses.
The Human Torch
A mutation caused by exposure to cosmic rays while aboard a spacecraft with his older sister, 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 of fire. Johnny developed the ability to transform himself into a flaming human with the power of 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 souped-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 fire, 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 their 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 all but for the Raymonds’ little boy, Thomas, who was amazingly 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, Marvel Comics had Victoria Murdock contract cancer in 1990. Asbestos Lady succumbed to the dreaded asbestos disease, mesothelioma, at the age of 45.
Other Comic Book Characters with a Fire Theme
A creation of Marv Wolfman and George Pérez in 1981, DC Comics superhero Starfire, a member of the “Teen Titans”, derived the power to radiate fire from her fingertips using solar energy, and in 2013 was voted among the top 25 superheroes in comics.
Wildfire, an invention of Robert Turner and Jim Mooney for Quality Comics in 1941, was revitalized by DC Comics in the 1950s as a romantic interest of Boy Robin, Batman’s sidekick. As an infant, “Carol Vance” had been orphaned in a huge forest fire from which she was rescued by a god of fire who imbued her with his power to create and control flame. Adopted by wealthy “John Martin” and his family, the teenaged superheroine grew up to use her powers to fight crime.
Asbestos Man: “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 useful in robbing banks. He was not very good at it, though, and eventually honed his powers into the ability to resist fire. Calling himself Asbestos Man, Karloff 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 storyline eventually revealed that Asbestos Man had developed cancer and lived out his remaining days with the use of an oxygen tank.