My grandfather died of cancer. At the age of twelve, I watched him suffer as he went through the chemotherapy, the radiation, and the drugs. By the time he died, he was a thin, pale, version of his former self. That had a huge effect on me as a child. He was my hero.
Alan Gates, the main character in BOOM! Studios’ four-part series Malignant Man, is not really hero material. Not in any sense of the word. He is an everyman, someone who blends into the background of life. To add insult to injury, he has three weeks to live; dying from a malignant brain tumor. Because he is dying and feels he has nothing to lose, Gates tries to stop a robbery. Unsuccessful, he is shot in the head. It’s the first heroic thing he’s done in his life and, as far as he knows, the last.
He is rushed to the hospital where the doctors who are trying to save his life discover that his tumor is more than just cancer. Before they can investigate further, Gates is whisked away by a strange woman named Sarah.
From here on out, Malignant Man turns into a cat and mouse chase involving two groups; one that seemingly wants to help him and one that really want to hurt him. The plot thickens with talk of aliens, orphans, science experiments, Area 51 and mysterious pasts.
Created by James Wan, the director and producer of Saw and written by Michael Alan Nelson, the scribe behind 28 Days Later, Malignant Man is the story a man who gets a second shot at life, whose misfortune turns out to be a strength, if he learns how to harness that power. From my description, this sounds like it’s a comic miniseries full of hope, full of inspirational messages about beating the odds, overcoming hardships, embracing your past, believing in yourself… blah, blah, blah. Luckily, it’s not. With Wan and Nelson involved, the prospect of a lot of carnage is realized with bloodshed abounding in various scenes and dismembered body parts flying here and there and a body count that rivals both creators’ films.
But, at its essence, Malignant Man is not a horror comic. Nor does it try to be. It’s a dark thriller that combines action, suspense and a bit of fun into a tale that ends up reminding me of a combination of The Matrix and Alien. On a superficial level, the comic delivers: Action, mystery, cliffhangers. The bad guy, (though he could have a cleverer nickname than Mr. Cancer, a variation of his actual name, Mr. Cancio) is evil and powerful. Piotr Kowalski’s art really conveys the terminal condition that Gates is in at the beginning of the story. He provides amply but not gratuitously the violence of the fights and the severing of body parts and the spilling of blood. It all works, save for a few moments of cliché.
However, admittedly, I was doomed to be disappointed. And it’s a disappointment of my own making. With memories of my grandfather and the horror, pain and sometimes, embarrassment he endured, I was hoping for something a bit deeper. I began reading this miniseries with him in mind. When I first heard about the premise, I expected a story that explores the reality of what disease can do to a person. I expected a metaphor for the psychological stages a person goes through when experiencing a terminal illness. Though it sort of touched on these things, it never really delved into them at all.
Cancer is a painful experience, not just for the person who has it. It devastates the whole family. Sure, bring on the action, bring on the violence. But, with a serious subject such as cancer, I was hoping for a bit more humanity and a lot less alien.
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