It wouldn’t be out of order to consider 1995 to be the year of the virus. In the real world, there was an outbreak of Ebola in the Congo which claimed 224 lives. The event permeated the 24/7 news cycle for several months, the horror of human bodies bleeding uncontrollably from every orifice was inescapable.
In Hollywood two movies, 12 Monkeys and Outbreak, were released within months of each other and dealt with the subject of viral outbreaks. All these events would plant a germ of inspiration into the minds of comic book writers, and in 1996 we would see the result take shape in a Batman story called “Contagion.”
The 1990s could be considered a banner decade for Batman. After the successes of the movie franchise and the animated series, the Dark Knight was more popular than he’d ever been. Ironically, the only medium suffering in the World of Batman at that time were the comics themselves.
The turnaround began in 1992 when, emboldened by The Death of Superman, Batman’s writers came up with Knightfall. It was an epic story about the fall of Batman after a brutal attack that resulted in him being replaced by an anti-hero that crossed moral lines, forcing Bruce Wayne to find a way to regain the mantle. That decade would be bookended by another epic in 1999’s No Man’s Land. This tale showed Gotham City in ruins after a major earthquake. These were the tales of Batman and his cast struggling to survive and pull Gotham back from the edge of the abyss.
Both stories are well-loved Batman lore. But sandwiched between these stories was one that took the idea on Edgar Allen Poe’s Masque of the Red Death and turned up the volume. It would debut a villain unique in Batman canon that would be one of the most horrible and sadistic threats in the history of Gotham, a weaponized form of Ebola virus that would become better known as the Clench.
The Clench wasn’t the first virus in comics or even the first in the 1990s. The X-Men came out with a microscopic threat to mutant kind in 1993 called the Legacy Virus. This affliction was created to target those with the X-gene and resulted in the deaths of quite a few known characters like Magik. (But as it happens in super-hero books, most of dead characters come back.)
But the Clench was unique in its portrayal. It began with flu-like symptoms and proceeded to painfully twist the body and cause blood to leak out of the eye sockets. The writing team came up with one of the most horrific and excruciatingly painful ways to die. (Although, they would have benefited from having a medical consultant on call since I’m positive that bones can’t “break under the weight of desiccated flesh.”)
The story also reintroduced the Order of St. Dumas, who had become a presence in the Bat-books not unlike the recent Court of Owls. Their biggest claim to Bat-fame was the introduction of the character Azrael, who would replace Bruce Wayne as Batman in the Knightfall saga. This extreme religious order unleashed the Clench on Gotham City through an unwitting accomplice.
Alongside Bruce Wayne and Tim Drake, we learn of this rampaging Clench’s ability to devastate whole populations. It had the Dark Knight and his cast of characters trying in vain to stop the virus from spreading at home while trying to track down a cure. The good guys had an army to stand against this apocalypse virus and found themselves outgunned.
While this is more a plot driven story, and the cast reacts to the oncoming events of the story much of the time, there are some character moments. One of the more unexpected protagonists in this story is Catwoman. In 2018, Selina Kyle tends to be more of an anti-hero, but in 1996 she was still very much the cat burglar she had been when she made her first appearance in the 1940s. “Contagion” was the first time we would see a more heroic side of Selina. Though driven by a profit motive at first, she would, by the end of the story, be literally jumping into the fire to make sure a cure gets to the infected.
If there’s one plotline that really brought it closer to home for the Bat-Family it would be the infection of Robin. There’s certainly a sense of dread and worry as Tim Drake fights for his life. In comics no one really dies, but this was just a few years after Jason Todd’s death at the hands of the Joker. Just because Robin was a main character doesn’t mean he was safe, and the possibility that the beloved Tim Drake could die in one of the most gruesome ways possible must have been in the back of readers’ minds.
The art works well, for the most part. Most of the book has a clean line style, almost cartoony in some cases. This works very well in creating a contrast to the twisted contortions the Clench puts its victims through. There’s only one section, written by Doug Moench and drawn by Kelley Jones, that doesn’t quite fit well in my opinion. Their style was more gothic in tone, and when you see depictions of the bodies of the plague victims it tends to blend into the background. When one is trying to draw something as horrible as a human body succumbing to a horrible disease the one thing that shouldn’t happen is that disease not being at the forefront.
All that being said, is “Contagion” a good story? Yes, it a story definitely worth your time and money. It belongs on the shelf in between Knightfall and No Man’s Land. While it doesn’t measure up to those two stories, in spite of having all the necessary ingredients, it’s still a thrilling enough story that Bat fans would enjoy.