Written by Sam Hancock
Summer’s here and our multiplexes are besieged once again with superhero movies. It doesn’t matter who they battle, because nothing can stop our favourite heroes and heroines.
But without a proper super-villain, a superhero doesn’t have much purpose. The serious-minded Batman has the insanity of the Joker and the Riddler to keep him occupied. The invincible Superman has the ingenious Lex Luthor with whom he can match wits. Spiderman has Doc Octopus because… well, because they both take their cues from 8-legged critters.
Then there’s the Human Torch - a hero who can flame on like no one’s business. The Human Torch is a Marvel character whose first incarnation in 1939 was as a human-looking android, but was later reimagined by the legendary Stan Lee as part of the more renowned Fantastic Four. Lee’s Human Torch is Johnny Storm, a human-mutant who can control and absorb fire as his superpower.
Android or human-mutant, any do-gooder who uses fire as their superpower obviously needs to spar with a super-villain who can either dampen his flames or resist them somehow… If only there was some fire-resistant material that is evil in its own way… If only…
During the first golden age of comic books from the 1940s to 1960s, Asbestos Lady and Asbestos Man both used asbestos – often referred to as the “magic mineral” – to commit their crimes.
Asbestos had been around for a long time, but it only became a gold-mine for Canada when it was discovered in Quebec in the 1870s. Until later in the 20th century, little was known about the health dangers of asbestos.
Asbestos was used in everything from coffee pots to insulation to brake pads. It was affordable, it was durable, but most importantly, it was a great way to protect against fire and heat. However, even as early as the 1920s, there were rumblings that asbestos miners were getting sick from “dust disease of the lungs.” And yet, who was willing to give up such a lucrative industry that brought billions to Canada’s economy each year?
At the same time, as the true impact of asbestos was becoming more widely known, the first golden age of comics was on the rise. Heroes in capes with superhuman abilities were suddenly tackling the eras social and moral fights, from gender equality to nuclear war. Comic book artists used comics to reflect and comment on what was currently happening in society and the world at large.
Enter Marvel’s Asbestos Lady in 1947. Victoria Murdock was a self-described “criminal scientist” who designed suits made from asbestos to protect her and her gang of crooks when they set off large explosions and fires near banks that only her suited-up gang could get near, allowing them to rob banks freely. Wanting to further exploit the criminal possibilities of asbestos, her gang kidnapped Fred Raymond, a scientist with expertise in the material’s dangers. Refusing to help Asbestos Lady, Fred was ultimately rescued by the Human Torch.
Angered by her failure to turn the scientists into criminals like herself, she eventually had her revenge by killing Fred, thus becoming the Human Torch’s permanent nemesis. However, asbestos was her true nemesis and it was later revealed that she had gotten cancer from her prolonged exposure to asbestos.
Then in 1963, Marvel introduced Asbestos Man. Another criminal scientist, Professor Orson Kasloff was an unrepentant egomaniac who felt everyone should bow to his scientific genius. To show the underworld who was boss, he developed an arsenal of asbestos-laden garb and weaponry to battle Johnny Storm’s Torch.
Surprised and defeated by Asbestos Man on their first encounter, the Torch returned to turn up the heat with a fire so intense that Asbestos Man had to give up before he passed out from lack of oxygen. Although fire proofed, Asbestos Man proved all too immune to the Torch's heat and was easily defeated.
Ironically, years later, an older Asbestos Man shows up toting an oxygen tank to rob a store. He tells the cashier to ignore the tank, “I’m a cancer survivor.” But the cashier isn’t afraid of Asbestos Man or his tank, she’s terrified of his asbestos-lined suit. When the heroes finally show up, no one wants to touch Asbestos Man’s suit, and a hazmat team is finally called in to properly remediate the scene.
Asbestos Lady and Asbestos Man come from a time when the significant dangers associated with asbestos exposure weren’t as well known, and cover-ups were rampant. However, It’s a fitting end that both Asbestos Man and Asbestos Lady were done in by the same “magic material” that allowed them to live a life of crime. They ultimately ended up not only on the wrong side of the law, but also on the wrong side of science and history.