Marvel Comics’ Contagion, a five-issue limited series from writer Ed Brisson (X-Force), finds some of New York City’s biggest street-level heroes facing down an ancient and seemingly unstoppable threat – a living fungus with the power to absorb superpowers and turn our heroes into mindless zombies.
Brisson has referred to Contagion as “a street-level horror event,” and he, and the comic’s rotating series of artists, certainly sell the fear. The book reads less like a traditional superhero story and more like something from George Romero or Lucio Fulci. Yancy Street has never felt so claustrophobic or dangerous.
The comparisons to zombies movies feel particularly apt, as Brisson claims to have “put an entire lifetime of rotting my brain with horror flicks to good use.” And, like every good horror flick, Contagion has some basis in reality. In this case, that reality is Ophiocordyceps unilateralis, otherwise known as the tropical fungus that turns ants into zombies.
The first issue of Contagion reveals that a deadly fungus has escaped from the mystical city of K’un-Lun and found its way into the subways that run beneath Yancy Street, home of the Fantastic Four. The fungus has taken (or manifested) a host – a being called the Urchin – a creature riddled with fungal boils, who exists only to infect others.
After two lives are claimed in K’un-Lun, Mole Man becomes the first to be infected in New York. Soon enough, the Urchin has spread its fungus, knocking out and absorbing the powers of the three FF members that aren’t made of rock.
The second issue finds Iron Fist on the case, calling in Luke Cage and Doctor Strange for assistance – but not before the Sorcerer Supreme tells the Avengers to sit tight at the North Pole, lest this zombie fungus monster end up with intellect of Tony Stark and the might of Thor, too.
Things... do not go as planned.
While the comic has not directly mentioned Ophiocordyceps unilateralis, the similarities are clear – there simply aren’t that many “zombie” fungi in the world, after all.
Discovered in 1859, O. unilateralis – thus far, anyway – only infects insects, and ants specifically; moreover, it seems to be relegated to tropical forest ecosystems. The fungus grows inside the infected ants, releasing chemicals that actually change their behavioral patterns.
These ants, no longer able to think for themselves, are forced to leave their tree-top colonies and move to the forest floors – areas that are warmer, more humid and more suitable for fungal growth. Even more horrifying, when the fungus is done with the ants, it has them latch onto a leaf vein with their mandibles and then just hang there until they starve to death.
That’s some serial killer stuff, right there... but it gets worse! The reproductive stage of the fungus involves “fruiting bodies” growing from the dead ant’s head, which then explode and release a cloud of spores, infecting even more hapless insects.
Scientists who study the parasitic fungi believe that it evolved the ability to control insects – much like the fungus in Contagion – way back in Earth’s ancient history, “even before the rise of the Himalayas.” Even less reassuringly, those same scientists aren’t totally clear on just how the fungus remote controls the brainwashed ants through the forest.
Swap in superheroes for ants and, well, you can only imagine the chaos. Fantasy can be scary, but basing it on something that is very real? That’s downright horrifying.
The first two issues of Contagion, written by Ed Brisson with art by Roge Antonio, Stephen Segovia, Mack Chater, Damian Couciero, and Adam Gorham, and covers by Juan Jose Ryp, are available now. Issue #3 is due out on October 16.