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‘Asbestos Lady’ and ‘Asbestos Man’ — villains from the Marvel Comics in the ’40s and ’60s, nemeses of the ‘Human Torch’ – a superhero who controls fire, were both significant characters in 20th Century asbestos awareness. At the time the substance was disclosed as hazardous to human health, yet was still globally used in manufacturing and construction industries because of its affordability and durability.

As the public became more aware of its harmful effect, not just its properties, comics started to represent asbestos as a miracle material – but with negative or toxic side-effects, which Marvel’s villains used as a shield or a weapon.

‘Asbestos Lady’, was one such villain and was recently ranked as one of the ‘5 Most Pointless Marvel Villains.’ Her unusual character however, was far from pointless in regards to the awareness of asbestos in popular culture.

Victoria Murdock aka ‘Asbestos Lady’ was a genius scientist who utilised asbestos and its many properties to lead a life of crime, creating asbestos-lined net armour, a flamethrower and guns loaded with asbestos bullets.

‘Asbestos Lady’ eventually becomes a victim of her own inventions and developed mesothelioma at the age of 45, presumably due to her long-term exposure to asbestos.

So, what inspired Marvel to produce the ‘Asbestos Lady’ character?

Years before Marvel introduced ‘Asbestos Lady’, Turner & Newall Limited, an asbestos manufacturing giant, used a Greek goddess-like figure holding a shield and protecting civilization from the elements, and called her ‘Lady Asbestos’.

In the decades following that publication the public opinion of asbestos moved from positive to negative. Propaganda had stopped working as the public developed an understanding of how harmful asbestos properties were on human health. This is why Marvel’s Asbestos Lady was created as a villain and not a super-hero.

Marvel’s work around asbestos didn’t stop there and in the 1963 issue of ‘Strange Tales’ the comics giant introduced another asbestos based villain – ‘Asbestos Man’. Following the first documented cases of mesothelioma, Marvel created ‘Asbestos Man’ as an elderly sufferer of this condition, who had to carry an oxygen tank with him at all times.

As ‘Asbestos Man’ attempts to rob a shop, he tells the cashier “Please ignore my oxygen tank,” “I’m a cancer survivor.” The cashier doesn’t fear him but is frightened by his suit made of asbestos. Ironically, when the heroes show up, even they refuse to touch his asbestos suit.

Both villains were captured at a time when asbestos was still globally used in products like cigarettes and novelty Christmas snow. Although these characters will likely never feature in a Hollywood blockbuster, their stories are far from pointless.


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