Saturday, March 17, 2012

Why Did Cheryl Blossom Get Breast Cancer? // My Favorite Five Comic Book Illness Storylines

I read an interesting interview earlier this week between Comic Book Resources and Archie Comics co-CEO Jon Goldwater about the upcoming Life With Archie story arch involving Cheryl Blossom and her break cancer diagnosis. Goldwater talks about why Cheryl was chosen for this storyline:
Robot 6: First of all, why Cheryl Blossom? Is it because her identity is so tied up with her appearance?

Jon Goldwater: Well, Cheryl’s such a recognizable character—to fans and people only loosely familiar with Archie. We really wanted this story to resonate, so it had to be an important character that fans could connect with...

Robot 6: Miss Grundy died quietly of some vague disease—there wasn’t much detail of her diagnosis or treatment, and she sort of faded away. How will Cheryl’s experience be different? Will we see more of the day-to-day life of a cancer patient?

Jon Goldwater: You nailed it, actually. Ms. Grundy’s passing was sudden and while foreshadowed, not a central issue for the series. Cheryl’s illness is something that’s struck one of the gang, and it shows the others how precious life is.
Goldwater also revealed that Cheryl will reflect on the fact that her family is rich and does not need to worry about affording her medical treatment. It was also revealed that this particular storyline will be confined to the "Archie Married Betty" story line within Life With Archie.

The subject of Cheryl Blossom's breast cancer diagnosis got me thinking about other comic book story lines involving serious diseases. I'm not talking about imaginary stuff like the Legacy Virus or cannibalistic retro-viruses or zombie infections or magic curses or anything like that. I'm talking about creators using the medium of comic books to explore what happens when someone comes down with a real life illness like cancer or AIDS or whatever.

There are some really good story lines involving real life illnesses. Some end in tragedy. Others have happy endings. Tonight, we're going to explore my List of Favorite Five Comic Book Illness Storylines.

5. Northstar Adopts a Dying Baby with AIDS: Northstar is Marvel Comics' first gay character. He first appeared in the late 70s and his homosexuality was a huge open secret, but he actually didn't come out as gay until Alpha Flight #106 in the early 1990s. The story itself was pretty clunky as Northstar ended up screaming "I AM GAY!" to an angry World War II veteran whose favorite son had recently died of AIDS. It's actually not one of my favorite comic books. However, the part I do like is probably the least remembered aspect of that book. The fight between Northstar and Major Mapleleaf ended abruptly after they discovered an abandoned baby hidden away in a trashcan. They rushed the little girl to the hospital and discovered that she was dying of AIDS. Within panels, Northstar succeeded in adopting little Joanne Beaubier (His power is super-speed, don't forget). Joanne passed away shortly after the adoption. Northstar was inspired by her brief life and ended up publicly coming out as a gay man in a huge press conference.

It's unfortunate that Northstar's brief stint as a father is never, ever referenced by current Marvel Comics creators -- especially since she was such an important motivator for the advocate that he was to become. He will likely get married in a couple months to his boyfriend, Kyle. My hope is that they will light a candle at the wedding in memory of Jean-Paul's precious Joanne.

4. Diamond Lil's Breast Cancer Scare: Diamond Lil was a Canadian villain-turned-hero. Her power was her diamond-hard skin. She joined Alpha Flight and managed to save the world a time or two. Around Alpha Flight #95, Lil discovered a lump in her breast. Unfortunately, her super-power prevented physicians from treating her. They couldn't even perform a biopsy of the lump to confirm whether or not it was cancerous. Fortunately, about a year into this storyline, the team encountered an alien enemy that possessed weapons strong enough to cut Lil. She acquired one of the weapons and the were eventually able to perform the biopsy and learned that her lump was benign. I like how they took Diamond Lil's powers and essentially made them a curse by preventing her from seeking the medical treatment she needed to diagnose her breast lump. Fortunately, Lil eventually stumbled upon a solution. But imagine if she hadn't. That's pretty scary.

3. Tom Thumb Tries to Cure Cancer: Long ago, Marvel Comics created a team that's a clear homage to DC Comics' Justice League of America (Hyperion --> Superman; Power Princess --> Wonder Woman; Nighthawk --> Batman; etc...). The Squadron Supreme were an other-dimensional team of heroes. Because their world was outside of "mainstream" comics, Marvel eventually realized that they could do things with the Squadron that they could never do with their main teams like the Avengers or the X-Men. In a nutshell, a villainous menace took over their world and left it in shambles. Everything (government, security, commerce) was in complete and utter shambles. The Squadron Supreme struggled for a while to patch things up, but quickly realized that they had the ability to use their powers, advanced weapons, and brains to rebuild society into Utopia. The Squadron Supreme maxi-series was about the ethics of creating Utopia and how far do you go achieve that goal.

One of the Squadron members was a diminutive scientific genius named Tom Thumb. Early into the maxi-series, he learned that another Squadron member, Nuke, was inadvertently leaking enough radiation to give others cancer. Nuke begged Tom Thumb to devote his intelligence to curing cancer before his parents died. During the course of his investigation of Nuke's powers, Thumb realized that he himself contracted cancer due to exposure to Nuke's radiation. Thumb was then visited by a villain from the distant future, Scarlet Centurion. The Centurion would give him the cure for cancer if Thumb would expose Squadron leader, Hyperion, to a kryptonite-like poison. Thumb, though tempted, refused the Centurion's offer and decided to throw himself into a modern-day search for cancer. Thumb ultimately proved incapable of coming up with a cure and decided to violate his own personal ethics by time-traveling to the future and stealing the medicinal cancer cure. Upon returning home, Thumb discovered that the Centurion's cure was ineffective for treating care in modern-day humanity. He found himself a broken man, unable to use his super-intelligence to beat cancer and mad at himself for succumbing to theft. Shortly after his journey into the future, Tom Thumb lost the battle with the cancer that polluted his body.

I enjoyed the Squadron Supreme maxi-series' attempt to demonstrate the logical descent from good intentions into murky rationalizations that pretty much everyone on this team experienced. Taking Tom Thumb's personal storyline for an example, how far would you be willing to go if you could cure cancer? Would it be worth curing cancer if it only cost the price of one man? Would you be willing to steal for the cure? And if you can justify murder and/or theft in this instance, why not in other instances? That ethic back-and-forth is why I loved this series.

2. D.P.7's Glitter Gets Conned by her HIV-Positive Husband: Back in the mid-80s, Marvel Comics tried a new experiment called the New Universe. It was a new series of original comic book centered around a central theme: The New Universe is the world outside your window. At least it was until the White Event. One day, the planet was bathed in white light for a few moments. After that, a small number of people began developing powers. No alien visitors. No extra-dimensional invaders. No ghosts. No returning from the dead. People within the comic books aged in real times. The New Universe told the stories of small number of newly-powered people who are struggling to figure out what's going on with them. My favorite title was called D.P.7, by the late great Mark Gruenwald and the not-late, but still great Paul Ryan. It involved a group of seven super-powered misfits who escaped from a Wisconsin-based sanatorium. D.P.7 wasn't afraid to explore controversial issues like racism and the draft (after Pittsburgh gets blown up by an irresponsible paranormal powder keg).

Anyway, one of the group's members was a housewife named Stephanie Harrington (eventually AKA Glitter). She could promote healing energy boosts in others. Her husband freaked out when she began glowing and had her committed to the Clinic. Later on in the series, he begged for reconciliation and asked her to return home to live with him and their children. She forgave him and returned home only to find out later the secret reason he really wanted to reconcile. Chuck had been sleeping around while his wife was away and now he was sick from AIDS. He hoped that exposure to his wife's energy would eventually cure him. His illness was eventually revealed and Stephanie was pissed.

I think this was the first time I'd ever seen AIDS referenced in a comic book. I appreciated at the time the message that AIDS isn't a "gay disease". I appreciated the ethical issues addressed by Chuck's illness. I mean, if you found out that you had a terminal disease and the wife that you'd abandoned possibly possessed the ability to cure you, what would you do? And if the husband who abandoned you and then reconciled with later revealed a darker reason for taking you back, what would you do? Gruenwald could have gone with a safe AIDS story, but he didn't. And my 17-year-old mind appreciated his efforts.

1. Sydney Krukowski Survives Breast Cancer: I'm a huge fan of Alison Bechdel's non-defunct comic strip, Dykes to Watch Out For. For 25 years, DTWOF shared stories about the lives of a diverse group of women and men. Most of the characters were lesbians or bi-women. The central character, Mo, dated Dr. Sydney Krukowski for most of the final years of the strip. They were an odd pair. Mo was a politically motivate lesbian feminist who wasn't afraid to share her mind (and her gripes) with anyone around her. Sydney was a materialistic academic whose politics often fell far right of Mo's. But their relationship worked for them.

One fateful night, Sydney received news that forever changed her life. She learned from her doctor that she'd been diagnosed with breast cancer. What followed is something I've rarely experienced since. Bechdel took Sydney through a drawn-out journey of breast cancer recovery, including not only the surgery and follow-up treatment, but also the emotional ups and downs that come up with it. Sydney went through periods of isolating from others who hadn't experienced what she was experiencing. She developed a major infatuation with her radiation technician. She ended up having an affair with a colleague (another breast cancer survivor) while away at an academic conference. I'm not saying that Sydney's journey is entirely typical of other womens' experiences with breast cancer. But I am saying that cancer is scary and it can be very messy -- for the cancer survivor herself and for those around her.

So those are my Favorite Five Comic Book Illness Storylines. What's your favorite storyline? Have you read something that really tugged at your heart-strings? I'd love to hear about it in the comments section!

No comments: