“I’ve enjoyed this life. It’s had its bad moments but it’s had far more good moments. I’m going to miss it.” –Captain Marvel, The Death of Captain Marvel
Superheroes spend their fictitious lives beating up bad guys. But there is a type of villain that no superhero, no matter how strong, determined or powerful can simply pound into submission. Or threaten. Or negotiate with.
That villain is cancer.
It cares not who you are, what your dreams are or how much good you’ve done on this earth. It just wants to f**king kill you. And often, to everyone’s sorrow, it gets what it wants.
If even some of the most powerful superheroes can’t defeat such an enemy, then what are we ordinary mortals supposed to do—those of us who either have cancer or are trying to help save the life of someone who does?
The truth is all superheroes who battled cancer were essentially in the same medical and existential conundrum that real people trying to fight cancer are in. They had no advantage. As already noted, they couldn’t defeat cancer by beating it up. Nor have scientific geniuses like Reed Richards, Hank McCoy or Tony Stark been able to come up with a miraculous cure to save their friends.
We, at least, have superheroes to inspire us. And in that respect perhaps we even have a slight advantage over our fictitious counterparts. In our darkest hours, when we feel like we cannot cope with what is being demanded of us, we can turn to these stories of heroes who were forced to face the greatest enemy of their lives—sometimes winning, sometimes losing, but always being a courageous example for those who need inspiration, and always being a testament to that greatest of all super powers:
Here, then, is a list of superheroes who have fought cancer. For all of you out there who are either fighting cancer or helping a loved one to fight it, this post is for you. May you recognize yourself for the hero you are, now and forever.
10. VENOM (EDDIE BROCK)
Although typically considered a villain due to his obsession with killing Spider-Man, Venom was an atypical case in that he (or “they”) had a moral code that forbid the harming of innocents. Because of this, when not driven so much by his quest to kill Spider-Man, Venom was at times like an anti-hero and even on occasion an all-out superhero, as in the 1994 limited series Venom: Lethal Protector, when he defended an underground community from a greedy urban developer. In Marvel Knights Spider-Man, Vol. 2: Venomous, Eddie Brock even tried to auction off the Venom symbiote and donate the money to charity as a way of atoning for his past deeds. His most heroic moment, though, came at his lowest moment as he was wasting away with cancer (which he had for a long time but which the symbiote once protected him from) in Sensational Spider-Man #38-39. As Eddie Brock showed us, no matter how sick you are, no matter how late it is, it’s never too late to do something heroic and redemptive.
Recommended: Sensational Spider-Man #38-39 (“The Last Temptation of Eddie Brock”)
Wong isn’t a superhero, you say? For shame. He is every bit the hero that Robin, Bucky and any other sidekick worth mentioning has ever been. Wong may not have any powers but he is a veritable master of martial arts, kind of like Doctor Strange’s very own Iron Fist. In Doctor Strange: Season One, he is more of an equal partner than a sidekick. And in The Oath, one of the best Doctor Strange stories in which it’s discovered that Wong has a brain tumor, there’s a goosebump inducing moment when Strange is forced to stop using magic and resort to hand to hand combat. Much to the surprise of his opponent, he takes on a deft martial arts stance and says, “In some respects, the man [Wong] you left to die downstairs is my servant. But in others, Wong is my master.”
Recommended: Doctor Strange: The Oath
8. SUPERMAN (ALL-STAR)
Despite all the praise heaped upon All-Star Superman, and despite even the fact that in general I am a fan of Grant Morrison, I do not think this is one of the better Superman books. It feels disjointed, rushed, and overly weird in a Morrison-esque way that at times feels like self-caricature. The premise at the book’s center—that Superman is dying of cancer—is an undeniably compelling one and is the kind of idea that alternate comic book universes were made to explore. Unfortunately, Morrison doesn’t plumb that premise nearly as deeply or as well as he could have and it largely gets wasted while the book devotes too much time to distracting side adventures involving Bizarro World, survivors from Krypton, and Supermen from the future. Having said that, there are moments of beauty that touch upon some of the fundamental things that make Superman tick, and why as a culture our love for him is so enduring. And seeing the Man of Steel race to complete as many acts of goodness as he can before his body gives in to his cancer is genuinely beautiful to witness. I just wish that could have been the focus of the book from beginning to end.
Recommended: All-Star Superman
Though a relatively minor character in the Marvel universe, I’ve always kept a little flame in my heart for Firestar, mostly because of one of my favorite cartoons as a kid was Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends. Maybe that’s why I find her fight with cancer to be one of the most moving ones on this list. In just four short issues, the 2009 limited series Marvel Divas convincingly takes us through a complete arc in which Firestar is diagnosed with cancer and then bravely fights it. Meanwhile her friends Hellcat, Black Cat and Captain Marvel (Monica Rambeau) try to support her and keep her morale up the best they can—all while fending off the son of Satan, Daimon, and helping Doctor Voodoo obtain a powerful occult relic. Firestar’s fear, confusion and attempts to look brave, if only on behalf of her friends, is surprisingly poignant for what could have easily just been a fluffy, Sex and the City-style miniseries about a short-lived, C-grade superhero team.
Recommended: Marvel Divas
6. THE QUESTION (VIC SAGE)
Renee Montoya’s desperate quest to save her cancer-ridden friend and mentor Vic “Charlie” Sage (aka The Question) in DC’s year-long weekly series 52 (2006) heartbreakingly evokes the same desperation felt by anyone trying to help saved a loved one from cancer. We may not end up dragging our brother/sister/mother/father/friend/lover on a sled through the wind-and-snow whipped mountains of Tibet, fighting tears and exhaustion, but the image of Montoya doing so is powerfully symbolic of how we would be willing to try and do anything if it means a chance at saving the one we love. And Montoya’s conviction that this could not possibly be happening because she needs needs NEEDS this person… it is devastating. And hits too close to home.
Recommended: 52 Omnibus
5. THOR (JANE FOSTER)
Typically when Marvel changes the gender or race of an iconic character it always enflames the online culture wars. At one end are those who celebrate the move and, at the other end, those who decry it as political correctness. I generally stand somewhere in between in which I believe there does need to be more diversity in comics, but I judge each instance separately. If the story is good then all is good. If the story feels unnatural or awkward, then I will judge the switch as a failure (I’d rather have more original characters filling the need for diversity anyway). Initially, with Marvel’s move of making Thor a woman, I did not find the story that explains the change to be a convincing one (in Jason Aaron and Russell Dauterman’s 2014 run of Thor). But I was eventually won over by the continuation of that story in The Mighty Thor (2015), also by Aaron and Dauterman. It had to do with the symbolic beauty of a human being whose body is being torn apart by both cancer and chemotherapy who nevertheless, when she becomes Thor, is for a brief moment truly mighty and powerful. That is after all the symbolic premise upon which this very website, Pop Mythology, was created. Through our mythical heroes, we ourselves become heroes.
Recommended: The Mighty Thor, Vol. 1: Thunder in Her Veins
Of all the superheroes who have had cancer, Deadpool is the only other character besides Flux (elsewhere on this list) whose origin story itself is due to cancer. Because of this he is particularly symbolic of the ways in which getting hit with something as emotionally crippling as a cancer diagnosis, either in yourself or in someone you love, can force you to reach deep within and become stronger than you ever believed you could be. His brand of irreverent humor, even in the face of life-threatening illness, is also something that can inspire people to use humor as one way of coping. Unfortunately, I am not aware of any single comic book storyline that presents Deadpool’s complete origin, from beginning to end, in a coherent form. All the comics I do know of that deal with his origin only offer snippets here and there. I thought the 2016 movie, however, did a marvelous job of portraying a complete origin for the beloved Merc With the Mouth (That Never Shuts Up. Even When He Has Cancer).
Recommended: Deadpool (the movie)
3. JOHN CONSTANTINE
Before Vertigo became an imprint exclusively for creator-owned titles (much like Image Comics ) and completely separate from the DC universe, it used to be the place for characters who were part of the DC universe but a little too edgy for the mainstream. These included characters like Swamp Thing, Animal Man, Doom Patrol and John Constantine (who now stars in his own mainstream DC comic). The Constantine I speak of here is the one from the original Vertigo imprint, and as such “Dangerous Habits,” the story recommended here, is hands down the bleakest on this list. Despite hating himself and his life, when Constantine comes down with cancer his will to survive drives him to desperate means as he plays the most dangerous game he’s every played with the forces of evil. This book is drenched in palpable dread and despair, and for this reason I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it for those who are already struggling with these feelings due to illness. Nevertheless, there are rays of light that pierce the darkness and if you’re willing to stare into the abyss it is a powerfully cathartic story.
Recommended: Hellblazer: Dangerous Habits
Chances are you’ve never heard of Flux and that’s partly what makes his story so touching. He is the invisible, unknown, Everyman hero—what Spider-Man originally represented, though of course Spidey’s now on the level of a god in terms of cultural recognition. 1 Month 2 Live is a largely forgotten (undeservedly) 5-issue limited series in which each issue was written by a different writer (except issues #1 and #5, both written by Rick Remender). When Dennis Sykes is diagnosed with cancer and given just a month to live he suddenly realizes—like the old man in Akira Kurosawa’s masterful Ikiru—that he has essentially wasted his entire life and resolves to do something that matters in that one month. The writing in the first few issues is a bit shaky and uneven, but the last two issues alone make it more than worth the admission fee. And if by the very end you’re not struggling to hold back the water in your eyes, then leave a comment here telling me what an idiot I am. 1 Month 2 Live guest stars Spider-Man, Wolverine, the Avengers and the Fantastic Four, though the real star of the story is truly Flux.
Recommended: 1 Month 2 Live
1. CAPTAIN MARVEL
Though I grew up reading comics in the 80s, I have some trouble when I go back and read works from that era. Aspects of the writing and certain genre conventions that are no longer commonly used come across as too silly. I understand and respect why those conventions were used back then; I just don’t particularly enjoy them now as an older reader. There are, of course, many notable exceptions, one of them being The Death of Captain Marvel. Despite the fact that I was never even a Captain Marvel fan, this is one of my absolute favorite works from the early 80s. It has aged well and manages the impressive feat, for a comic from this era, of being sophisticated enough to move adult readers while also captivating younger ones with all the usual superhero elements. Beyond that, it is genuinely a solemn and dignified portrait of how all of Captain Marvel’s might, and even the combined intellect of Marvel’s greatest genius characters, could not save him from the dreaded foe that is cancer. Even Thanos, in a key scene, adds a touch of poetic poignancy. Adding to the book’s gravity is the fact that Captain Marvel was never resurrected, making him one of the rare major characters who stayed dead and thus underlining the terrible sense of cancer’s finality.
Setting an example for never giving up, Captain Marvel rages, rages against the dying of the light until the very end. But when the end finally becomes inevitable he accepts his fate with dignity and grace, blessed to be surrounded by friends and loved ones.
Recommended: The Death of Captain Marvel
And finally, if I could sum up all my feelings about cancer not with words but with an image, it would be this wonderful t-shirt design by designer Bryan Kemkau. Consider buying one to show your support for all the real-life superheroes out there fighting cancer.