Chuck Dixon, Graham Nolan and Alan Grant thought up Batman: Contagion as a horror tale, but did so by invoking numerous stereotypes about societies, races and disease.

An unknown virus. A pandemic. Social inequality. Orphaned children. Ghettos and lawlessness. Overworked health services. A desperate quest for a vaccine/antidote. 

No, this is not the description of Covid-19, but a prophetic fictional text: Batman: Contagion, serialized in 1996 and published in a collected edition later. Written by acclaimed writers such as Alan Grant, Chuck Dixon and others, Contagion is a dystopian text (which Batman text isn’t?) that speaks of the imminent destruction of Gotham that even Batman cannot stop, as he admits on several occasions. 

A variant of Ebola stalks Gotham. It causes people to die horribly, bleeding from their eyes, their muscles contorted (hence the disease is nicknamed ‘Clench’) and spreads at superspeed. The virus also mutates too fast for the laboratories to work on an antidote or vaccine. The death toll mounts as Batman and his cohort of superheroes – Catwoman, Azrael, NightWing, Robin race against time to track the virus’ origins and any possible survivor from whose blood they could synthesise a vaccine.

Intercontinental origins

The virus, we are informed, originated in the laboratory of a cult, ‘The Order of St Dumas’, in Africa. It then crosses national borders, and the Order first tests it on a small village in Greenland, and everyone except three die. The three unaffected due to their natural immunity are a white man, a Chinese man, and an Inuit woman. Here Contagion also recalls the sole survivor of the malaria epidemic in a small Egyptian village in Amitav Ghosh’s The Calcutta Chromosome (1995), where too, there is a search for the one/s who survived the plague.

But this intercontinental mobility of the virus is less significant than its origins. 

Locating the origins of the virus in a secret, cultic laboratory in Africa reinforces the stereotype of evil emerging from a region outside of Euro-Americana. It reinscribes the xenophobia and the racism where evil always originates elsewhere, preferably in Africa, and quietly erases the history of biowarfare materials stockpiled in the European and American arsenal. 

The binary of West versus East is reinforced when the text declares that the antidote itself ‘is based on a science largely forgotten by modern men’. Asia and Africa are of course ancient but also primitive cultures, and primitivism threatens the modern/Western world. The members of the cult also read texts in an obscure cipher that only about ‘three dozen people on the planet’ can read, again emphasizing secrecy and antiquity (Contagion: Azrael).

When the fascination with Chinese wet markets and their dietary habits propelled xenophobic discourses about Covid-19, the context of Contagion repeated itself. It also generated the stigmatization of particular groups. Covid-19, said the conspiracy theorists, symbolized the Chinese/Asian attempt to ruin the world economy so that ‘they’ could take over. As the critic Priscilla Wald, the author of Contagious: Cultures, Carriers, and the Outbreak Narrative, puts it:

Outbreaks of infectious disease in impoverished areas in the North are characteristically seen as the indication and result of ‘‘third-worldification.”

Conspiracy theorists ranted about this new ‘Asian threat’. So the pandemic is always from ‘out there’, and any history of biological weaponry manufactured in the US or Europe is irrelevant. In other words, it is safer if the US holds biological or nuclear weapons: in anyone else’s hands, particularly in African or Asian, they are a threat to the planet. 

Apocalyptic language

The doom-sayers loved Covid-19. It was the plague from hell. It was divine retribution for the sins of humanity. The apocalyptic tone is perhaps the easiest to adopt when it comes to devastating pandemics or disasters.

The Order of St Dumas terms their ‘invention’, the virus, a ‘sin cleanser’, signalling the religious overtones of the plague to be visited upon the world. The first novella in the Contagion series is in fact titled ‘The Apocalypse Plague’. By invoking the apocalyptic tone, the foundation of the modern world is shaken.

In this case, both the Ebola and the Covid-19, with their difficult-to-prove origins in human laboratories, are agents of an apocalypse of the very kind that humans have been battling: viruses and Nature’s pathogens. That is, the product of human bioengineering wrecking the world is the ironic twist of human science’s attempts to prevent precisely such diseases and plagues.

Both Contagion and Covid-19 discourses’ use of the apocalyptic language of annihilation injects a quasi-mystical and religious element into a very old human struggle: against pathogens and diseases. That is, the language of the apocalypse presumes an agency – the virus – that is outside of human control and power, and which works on principles that we can only guess at. The absence of knowledge about the virus which becomes central to Contagion disables the medical-scientific community too.

The apocalypse is rendered across popular media, scriptural traditions and writings in terms of the virus’ effects on the human form. The transformation of the human body into a leaky, twisted monstrous in Contagion – drawn with particularly horrifying aesthetics in the text – but also in the artistic depictions of Covid-19 in the work of Sue Coe and other artists, the photographs of distressed patients all inscribe the apocalypse in pure corporeal terms.

The apocalypse, apparently, can only be conceived of in terms of corporeal disintegration, contrasted with the perfectly sculpted body of Poison Ivy and the superheroes in the Contagion.

An epidemic of inequality

Babylon Towers’ millionaires dismiss their servants and hole up inside so as to prevent being infected in Contagion They announce rewards for anyone who can bring them a cure or a vaccine, hoping to monopolize the cure if there is one. Babylon Towers, with its own air, water and electrical supply is described as a ‘fortress’, an ‘island where those who can afford it can go from the cradle to the grave without even once having to step outside’ (Contagion: The Apocalypse Plague).

Contagion’s Babylon Towers anticipates the politics of lockdowns and quarantines in our time. Film stars, industrialists and the wealthy retreated to their farmhouses, even sealing off entire villages, or living on yachts for their families and retinues of servants, even as the ordinary people struggled for supplies

Anarchy prevails in the streets of Gotham as the law collapses, the medical services are overwhelmed (Contagion: Tears of Blood) and people die in the streets, reminiscent of depictions of the Black Death in mediaeval and Early Modern Europe. Economic disparity is vividly captured throughout Contagion as the working classes are dismissed from jobs, and the rich party at the end-times. In this too Contagion anticipates the epidemic of inequality that emerges when a virus hits town.

The absence of welfare nets hit the coloured people and the Native Americans in their reservations in the US, the migrant workers in India and the old everywhere during Covid-19, as numerous reports documented. Other works also captured the ethnic and racial inequalities exacerbated due to the pandemic (see, for example, works in the volume, Covid Chronicles)

Chuck Dixon, Graham Nolan, Alan Grant thought up Contagion as a horror tale, but did so by invoking numerous stereotypes about societies, races and disease. That the text looks forward to the menace and mess of Covid-19 suggests, following Oscar Wilde, that life imitates art.

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Pramod K Nayar teaches at the Department of English, University of Hyderabad. An acclaimed cultural critic and commentator, he is the author of acclaimed works such as Packaging Life: Cultures of the Everyday and The Indian Graphic Novel: Nation, history and critique.

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