As stories go, I love a good epidemic. When I go back to rewatch an old Star Trek or Stargate episode, I always gravitated to the ‘medical mysteries’, those stories where some virus or infection would break out and infect the major characters and there was always a race against time to find a cure before passing the point of no return.
As a series, their stories had to fill the confines of just an hour. Soap operas and comic books could spread the story out over many months, giving them that extra edge of building suspense or the emotional impact of the characters who could perish. Soaps and comics have a long history of being subject to various viruses, be they completely fictitious creations or something very real, taken from current events. The soaps had a variety of stories involving AIDS, encephalitis, the superflu and in one disturbing Guiding Light storyline, ‘the Dreaming Death’, where the virus caused its victims to actually dream themselves to death.
In comic books, diseases took on a more fantastical quality, not so much like ‘the Dreaming Death’ but something more exclusive to the characters and the world in which they existed. In a couple of titles, the scope of the epidemic encompassed the entire series, such as the Walking Dead and Y : the Last Man. For my comparison, I want to focus on how comic books that weren’t primarily about disease treated it as a storyline.
The X-men had a couple of epidemics that shook the stability of the team, the ‘techno-organic’ virus and its related descendant, ‘the Legacy’ virus. The techno-organic virus had infected the infant, Nathan Summers and resulted in him being transported to the future to ensure his survival. This was how baby Nathan became the time-travelling mutant, Cable. Honestly, it was an obvious plot device. Babies don’t have much story potential in comics except by drawing on the emotions of the parents, in this case, Cyclops and Jean Grey (taking over for her deceased clone Madelyne Pryor). The disease gave them a way to draw out the drama of losing a child and at the same time losing the weight of writing a baby into the story. And lo and behold, we have a convincing origin story for Cable. I think I was surprised when I found out that he was Nathan Summers.
Years later, a similar disease struck the mutant population, the Legacy virus. Specifically targeting mutants, this virus first claimed the life of Illyana Rasputin, sister of Piotr Rasputin aka Colossus. This virus changed so rapidly, a vaccine had become nearly impossible to create. I remember feeling that the story became tired very quickly. Everything was affected by the Legacy virus and it transformed how everone lived. Nothing could be done and everyone seemed hopelessly useless. By the time Colossus sacrificed his life so that a cure could be synthesized, I almost didn’t care anymore.
Besides, no one ever dies forever in comics. Both Colossus and his sister Illyana returned to the story years later. I guess that’s why comics really couldn’t do the epidemic story justice. There has to be a true sense of sacrifice and loss. Somewhere along the line, the comics lost that. I don’t think the soaps did. My favorite story about disease happened on One Life to Live, where Viki’s daughter, Megan suffered and died from lupus, a very real disease which is widely misunderstood. Until I had seen it on that soap, I had never heard of that disease before. Not to say that it did the best job in educating me about it but at the very least, I became aware as I tuned in every day to watch the emotional scenes of her suffering and the love she had for those she left behind. Losing Megan was a loss that I could feel. Losing Colossus had a lot less impact.
So in this respect, I think the soaps are doing it right. Next time, I hope to talk about how soap operas and comic books deal with starting over. The reboot, the great do-over.