Author: Reginald Wiebe & Dorothy Woodman
Publish Date: November 16, 2023
Publisher: University of Alberta Press
Catalog ID: ISBN: 978-1-77212-711-9
by Matt Peters
Mixing text with sequential art has been a proven formula for making medical storytelling more accessible, relatable, and engaging to a lot of readers. The combination of written and visual expression has helped comics and graphic novels capture the emotional substance of a host of health experiences, including chronic pain, diabetes, depression, and neurodiversity.
The writers and artists tackling those topics have often been outsiders to the superhero genre, working with smaller presses to publish one-shot graphic memoirs and other non-fiction. Their works are rooted in the real world instead of the sci-fi and fantasy universes where vigilantes and villains abound. To be sure, though, there is a significant body of comics and graphic novels where medical musings and superhero action coexist.
A new book by Reginald Wiebe and Dorothy Woodman explores part of that intersection, namely some of Marvel’s narrative journeys into the subject of cancer. Their book, The Cancer Plot: Terminal Immortality in Marvel’s Moral Universe, is a work of literary analysis informed by an extensive historical survey of Marvel’s cancer-related storytelling. Through decades of Marvel’s publishing, Wiebe and Woodman found, there were more than 70 characters in Marvel’s main canon (not counting alternate universes or timelines) who have experienced some form of cancer.
It should come as no surprise that Marvel has broached the subject of cancer multiple times. Early in its history, Marvel’s writers and editors knew that even within the panoply of flamboyant costumes and larger-than-life battles, readers would be drawn to stories that offered depictions of relatable personal struggles and commentary on real-world issues. While DC Comics (which Marvel nicknamed its “Distinguished Competitor”) kept to a largely escapist tone, Marvel noticeably diverged from that in the 1960s, giving readers a Spider-Man who had trouble paying rent and an X-Men ensemble whose fight for mutant equality mirrored the civil rights movement (to give just two examples).
At the same time, those 70 characters who have experienced cancer should be put in perspective. Marvel’s total character count is in the tens of thousands. In some respects, that makes Marvel’s forays into graphic oncology relatively modest, but Wiebe and Woodman argue that cancer has nonetheless had “far-reaching effects in the Marvel Universe … [often raising] … the emotional stakes for the superheroes who fear the loss of their loved ones” (page xxi). When the superheroes themselves are diagnosed with cancer, or when villains face that diagnosis, they must come to terms with their limits and face moral questions from a new perspective.
Whether the sum of 70 is seen as modest or mighty, those characters had to be put into a genre that offers some affordances, constraints, and everything in between. Wiebe and Woodman explore many of those considerations throughout their text. They spend a good deal of time commenting on the overused and ableist trope that associates disfigured and deglamorized bodies with villainy (think Crossbones or Kingpin)—and, conversely, physically fit and hyper-gendered bodies with heroism (think Shuri or Shang-Chi). Within that trope, conflict, struggle, and victory play out in the interactions between separate and distinct bodies, with clear (though problematic) indicators of which bodies we should root for. That doesn’t always lend itself well to stories of single bodies that become the sites of a faceless disease. Furthermore, the superhero genre often depicts heroism as a selfless battle against an external threat, rather than an effort at self-preservation when faced with an internal or embodied threat.
That trope—pitting the good-looking do-gooder against the physically disfigured foe—resonates all too well with the social stigma so often faced by people experiencing disease or disability, first from the condition itself and then, if the condition worsens, when they’re perceived as giving up or giving in.
Health and virtue are conflated in these constructs. Normative and idealized bodies are associated with discipline and determination, while deglamorized bodies are associated with deviance or the disruption of social standards. Cancer, then, becomes tricky territory—a narrative space where ableism could be reinforced or subverted, depending on the creative choices.
Writers and artists at Marvel have often been acutely aware of the company’s problematic character portrayals and plot devices, especially from its legacy lore. As such, its writers and editors have often embraced retcons, reboots, and other techniques to revise histories or course-correct in the present. It’s why Luke Cage eventually lost his caricatured patois and why Captain America’s midcentury McCarthyism was later attributed to a substitute Super Soldier named William Burnside. It’s perhaps, too, why Marvel has introduced several superheroes with some form of disability—Echo, Forge, and Karma among them. However, those characters’ stories seem to largely serve as counternarratives, attenuating the dominant narratives about power and morality without fully upending them.
To its credit, Marvel has at least gotten more creative with its counternarratives. Some of the company’s cancer stories have engaged with the social and cultural context of disease and disability in more complex and nuanced ways, and Wiebe and Woodman use their book to showcase some examples. Among them is the storyline that finds Jane Foster, the on-and-off romantic interest of Thor, undergoing chemotherapy after being diagnosed with breast cancer.
Although Foster is a human whose mortality is now underscored by the effects of her treatment—including hair loss and a thinning frame—she earns the respect of the ancient Asgardian Odin and becomes the new bearer of Mjölnir, the magical hammer long possessed by Thor. The legendary hammer had served Thor as a bludgeon, a projectile weapon, and a tool for summoning lightning.
Foster’s ascendancy is a character arc that Wiebe and Woodman call “a complex representation of breast cancer’s pink ribbon culture and its characterization of cancer survivors as ‘pink warriors’” (page 120). Foster doesn’t become worthy of Mjölnir or find acceptance in Asgard because of her strength of will during treatment—or, conversely, because she elicits sympathy during her decline. Her story doesn’t follow either trajectory—or any simple trajectory, for that matter.
As Foster rises to become a key figure in Asgard, Mjölnir empowers her with magic while simultaneously draining her of the ordinary human resilience she needs to recover from treatment and regain her strength. She wields Mjölnir and becomes more expert in its handling, even as the effects of cancer and chemotherapy take their toll and she loses control of her health. Through that dichotomy, she avoids easy categorization as either an inspirational figure or a martyr to a tragic disease.
Wiebe and Woodman turn to Deadpool to further unpack our popular conceptions of both health and heroism. Deadpool is an ex-soldier who signed up for an underground medical experiment after he was diagnosed with cancer. His experimental treatments were both a runaway success and a punch-in-the-gut failure at the same time. They gave him superhuman healing, but that healing factor spilled over to his cancer cells, making both him and his tumors nearly invincible. He is thus a perpetual cancer sufferer whose cancer never overtakes him.
The Cancer Plot deconstructs Deadpool as a flagrant subversion of the ideals that are expected of both patients and superheroes. While Foster’s character arc uses nuance to interrogate the social construction of illness, Deadpool’s story uses sarcasm and acerbic wit. The character draws no moral lessons from his disease or survivorship. He finds no new value in life’s small joys and no new reverence for life itself. He has no greater purpose than a reckless career as a mercenary. To clear any doubt that he might have a more philosophical inner life, he’s one of the few Marvel characters who breaks the fourth wall—but he mostly just does it to tell jokes.
A more serious cancer narrative is contained in the pages of Marvel’s first graphic novel, The Death of Captain Marvel—published in 1982—which Wiebe and Woodman picked for another one of their case studies. Unlike Jane Foster or Deadpool, Captain Marvel is the center of a more linear story about cancer, one that follows a predictable journey from diagnosis to demise.
The character whose death was chronicled in that graphic novel was not Carol Danvers, the Captain Marvel popularized in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Instead, it was Mar-Vell, one of several other characters who have claimed the name Captain Marvel over the years. Mar-Vell was an extraterrestrial soldier whose exile on Earth led to a growing affinity for humankind, as well as growing alliances with the Avengers and other superheroes.
Throughout the 1970s, Mar-Vell’s run as Captain Marvel suffered from lukewarm reception by readers. That prompted Marvel’s editor-in-chief at the time, Jim Shooter, to decide it was time for a final farewell. He gave veteran writer Jim Starlin the assignment to write a story in which Mar-Vell dies. It was a pragmatic decision for Shooter, but for Starlin, it took on a deeper significance.
Starlin crafted a story in which Mar-Vell develops cancer after his exposure to nerve gas. Starlin, who had lost his own father to cancer, was able to give Mar-Vell’s final story an unusual amount of emotional weight. Though the character had underwhelmed Marvel’s fan base in the past, Starlin’s graphic novel was both a critical and commercial success.
Wiebe and Woodman credit the story for its subversion of the usual logic of the superhero genre, since Mar-Vell’s death was not his defeat but an event with “generative power” (page 80), inspiring survivors to carry on his work. As Mar-Vell died, he was surrounded by a Who’s Who of Marvel luminaries, including Spider-Man, Doctor Strange, Hulk, and Ghost Rider. He also lives on in some genetically engineered offspring, thanks to some DNA that some of his costumed colleagues once harvested.
Through those case studies and others—as well as their broader observations about the Marvel universe and the superhero genre—Wiebe and Woodman give readers much to contemplate. They acknowledge that Marvel can be “simultaneously self-serious and unserious” (page 195) when broaching weighty topics. Nonetheless, they approach their analyses of Marvel’s cancer narratives with the kind of scholarly consideration that’s normally reserved for literary fiction. They explore the social meaning of health and sickness both in the stories themselves and the world at large, revealing that behind the masks and alter egos, many of Marvel’s characters can tell us a lot about ourselves. The result should convince more than a few readers that we should leave plenty of room for superhumans in the medical humanities.
Matt Peters is a project manager and communications coordinator at Health Sciences Design, an interdisciplinary health innovation program at the University of Arizona. He is a longtime Marvel fan whose interest in comics and health communication drew him to the graphic medicine community.