Learn from the Scarlet Spider — Think Uveitis


Ben Reilly — The Scarlet Spider. Well-intentioned but flawed.

Marvel’s Scarlet Spider is an interesting narrative experiment on the nature of soul. Ben Reilly is a clone of the original Peter Parker who shares the physical traits of the famous webslinger. Through vaguely-described “arcane magic”, he even gets an imprint of Parker’s memories.

Clone Wars: The Scarlet Spider fighting with Spider-Man. Source: Marvel Comics

However, as he does not share the many responsibilities of his more famous clone, Ben Reilly struggles with true purpose in life. Possessing the same intelligence and inquisitive mind as Peter Parker, his desire to discover and experiment leads him to make some bad choices, which have led him to die and be resurrected more times than is habitual for a Marvel Comics character.

As a result, Ben has flirted the line between heroism and villainy, seemingly resolved to entropy as an antihero. Even when he wants to do the right thing, his virtuous intentions backfire. In a recent storyline (written by Peter David, pencilled by Will Sliney and coloured by Rachelle Rosenberg) during which demons take over Las Vegas, Ben makes an assumption we can all be guilty of when seeing red eyes:

“Is this creature possessed by some sort of satanic entity?”

Ben Reilly: The Scarlet Spider. Issue 16 (David, Sliney, Rosenberg)

Ben has been very presumptuous here. In a Las Vegas which is arguably more satanically inclined that usual, he has naturally assumed that anyone with red eyes is a demon.

He hits this man with the force of his radioactively enhanced jab, and wasn’t prepared for what came next…

Jimmy’s family are angry and upset with the Scarlet Spider

“But… he has red eyes”. Ben struggles when explaining his actions to Jimmy’s wife and daughter. It dawns on him that he has jumped to conclusions.

Jimmy’s wife explains that he has Uveitis, and has clearly read the patient information leaflet “It’s an inflammation of the middle layer of the eye!” The episode finishes with Ben receiving a well-deserved kick in the shin from Jimmy’s young daughter.

Learn from the Scarlet Spider. Think Uveitis

Whether you are the well-intentioned but haphazard clone of a popular superhero or not, it’s always worth thinking about Uveitis as a cause of red eye. Uveitis literally means inflammation of the uvea — the middle layers of the eye and can have a huge number of causes including trauma, various infections and autoimmune diseases (where the body attacks itself). In many cases, no cause is ever found.

Uveitis can have different patterns — it can come and go with no problems in between, or can flare up many times and cause a lot of discomfort and anxiety for the sufferer. Jimmy may well have had a number of flares before, and his current treatment could be anything from steroid eyedrops to tablets or injections, all with the aim of reducing the inflammation in the eye.

Jimmy lives in the United States of America, where an estimated 300,000 people are affected by Uveitis each year. In many cases, anterior uveitis may be misdiagnosed as a bacterial conjunctivitis, which has a different treatment of antibiotic drops or ointment.

Jimmy has both red eyes

In this panel, Jimmy appears to have acute anterior uveitis — the form which affects the front of the eye, either the iris (iritis) or the ciliary body (iridocyclitis). Together with a red eye, he may well be suffering from symptoms such as blurred vision and light sensitivity(photophobia). The latter can be very hard for Uveitis sufferers to deal with, and even more so considering the fluorescent lighting which adorns the City of Lights. Jimmy is wearing polarized sunglasses to help him manage as he navigates the Vegas strip:

Given that his eyes are so red, Jimmy is likely to have only recently had a flare of his disease, and may have only just started treatment. Both eyes are red rather than just one, which makes it more likely that he has an underlying “systemic disease” disease. In addition, the whole of his eyes are red, which isn’t a typical pattern seen in anterior uveitis where the classic appearance of redness is immediately surrounding the iris:

Classic “Ciliary Flush” image of Iritis with redness surrounding the iris where the cornea and sclera meet, an area called the “limbus”.

However, there are other causes why his eye might be red whilst he is being treated for Uveitis, which might include:

  1. Episcleritis/Anterior Scleritis — He may have these conditions as a co-diagnosis (alongside his Uveitis). These diseases reflect inflammation of blood vessels in different layers of the white of the eye, and can be associated with an underlying disease. Jimmy might have Lupus, Inflammatory Bowel Disease or a number of other full-body disease which can be linked to different problems in the eye.
  2. Glaucoma — Jimmy may have uveitic glaucoma , raised pressure in the eye caused by inflammation (from uveitis) obstructing and damaging the structures in the eye which allow for outflow of the aqueous humour. the sudden eye pressure rise would cause red However, Jimmy would likely feel very sick and in too much pain to verbally joust with our friendly neighbourhood spider clone.
  3. Allergy — If Jimmy has been taking eye drops for his Uveitis, they may contain a preservative which he is allergic to. I hope that his Ophthalmologist switches him to a preservative-free formula.

One can only hope that Ben Reilly, our Scarlet Spider, learns from this lesson and doesn’t make presumptions about peoples’ eyes, even in the context of a satanic takeover of Sin City.

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Comics and Caius

Iron Man and Dr Doom reminisce in Tree Court, Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge

Victor Von Doom bantering with Tony Stark in Tree Court, Gonville and Caius, Cambridge England. From Invincible Iron Man 13 (Marvel, 2016)

In fiction, Billionaire playboy industrialists are wont to lose sight of both their past and their future, with potentially devastating consequences. When Tony Stark, the Invincible Iron Man, is teleported (against his will) by reformed marvel villain Victor Von Doom, he finds himself standing in the Tree Court of Gonville and Caius College Cambridge.

Tree Court. CREDIT: Gonville and Caius College website

The former Caian then engages on a voyage of discovery from a past forgotten, dressed very casually as the sharply-attired Victor Von Doom (experimenting in heroism as the Infamous Iron Man) prompts a realignment of Tony’s moral compass.

Von Doom, himself expelled from State University in New York for performing unethical experiments, gives Stark a comprehensive tour around Cambridge. The industrialist returns to the MRC Laboratory where he had his first taste of research and academia prior to inheriting his father’s weapons-manufacturing business. He is in a contemplative mood throughout.

Stark is not alone. We all go through moments in life when we have to find ourselves again. Perhaps, whilst breathing in the pungent Wisteria flowers adorning the Tutorial Office of Caius, Tony reminisced about an age of innocence, before he had to make difficult decisions with world-changing implications.

The Tutorial Office covered in Wisteria

What is it about this quaint section of Gonville and Caius’ Tree Court which lends itself to a representation in the comics medium? It lacks the iconic postcard-selling grandeur King’s College Chapel or Trinity College’s Grand Court. This is a unique, Cinderella tower-like corner which can easily be missed when visiting Tree Court, famed primarily for the succession of unique hornbeams lining its avenue.

Hornbeams in Tree Court. CREDIT: Gonville and Caius College website

Perhaps, this specific corner of Tree Court simply evokes mystical connotations which are suitable for the illustrated word, and are a fitting place for Von Doom and Stark to do a tête-à-tête, and remember bygone times.

Whilst attending Caius, one wonders if Tony Stark spent any time talking to Professor Sir Stephen Hawking, who was based in Gonville and Caius for many decades and sadly passed away recently. Certainly, Professor Hawking’s advice about the nature of wormholes might have helped Stark in the first Avengers movie, which does not elaborate on how he managed to survive his experience.

A portrait of Professor Sir Stephen Hawking in the Dining Hall of Gonville and Caius College. CREDIT: University of Cambridge website

It is not only Marvel Comics which has set scenes in the Tree Court. The genre-breaking japanese manga “Pluto” also appears to use this corner in its story.

Tree Court, sans Wisteria. CREDIT: Pluto: Urasawa x Tezuka

Despite being a story about androids, Pluto is arguably the most human of Japanese master storyteller Naoki Urasawa’s manga masterpieces, as he simultaneously builds upon and subverts Osamu Tezuka’s classic Astro Boy. Does this scene pay homage to famous Caians such as nuclear physicist and discoverer of the neutron Sir James Chadwick, Professor Sir Stephen Hawking or John Venn. Who knows?

Tree Court, circa 1870, CREDIT: Kimberly Blaker, New Boston Fine and Rare Books

Long may comics continue to include this mysterious corner in their illustrations.

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Unfollow – A comic book series for our times that you need to read.

Unfollow is a new comic series from DC’s Vertigo imprint, written by Rob Williams and illustrated by Michael Dowling.  11 issues in, so far it’s a game-changer.

The story starts with a social media tycoon with a terminal illness leaving his  $18,000,000,000 fortune to be split between 140 lucky people (i.e. the maximum number of characters for a tweet). These folk find that they have suddenly got an app called 140 on their smartphones.  However, there is a forewarning: Should one of the winners die then the relative amount received by the remainder goes up. At first the 140 people all seem to have been chosen at random, but it become clear that at least some of them were pre-selected. It sounds like an experiment to observe and judge human nature. But the dying billionaire knows exactly what he is unleashing….

So far, so Battle Royale/Hunger Games. But what makes this series special is characterisation. The cast are unique and complex, and even within the first 11 issues our impressions of their respective moral compasses flips back and forth. As in real life, there are sometimes blacks and whites, but more often than not there are conflicting shades of grey.

The closest character to an everyday protagonist is Dave, a black man from St.Louis who was involved in the 2014 Ferguson protests and struggles between getting by and keeping his sister safe.  He is fallible and makes mistakes, but seems the most intrinsically likeable character.

Rubinstein is the most fascinating from a visceral perspective. As the sharp-suited “number two” of the terminally ill billionaire Ferrell, his job seems to be to gather and monitor the 140, and he appears to be clinical in his efficiency. However he is also a psychopath who seems to be getting more and more consumed by a mask persona which leads him to do bad things. Which one is in control?

Courtney, we think at first as a Paris Hilton-esque airhead. Early on she uses young Dave on a flight for a mile-high quickie, which simultaneously excites and disgusts him. But we discover that she is not only cynical but revolted by wealth and we suspect, by herself. From our initial superficial dislike of her, we now feel much more sympathetic.

The strength of the research for this series is manifest in Ravan. A British-Iranian reporter who is both one of the 140 and tasked to film proceedings by Ferrell and Rubinstein. It is unique to have an iranian-origin character, let alone one from the overseas diaspora. Yet her character doesn’t seem tokenistic in any way. She just seems like a badass, and it makes you think “fair play to the writer for fleshing out a unique character from a complicated society where women achieve a much higher level of education than men and but have been oppressed over  last few decades”.  She gets the attention of Deacon, a second-amendment hillbilly who hears voices and who turns up to the party with a truck-load of guns, falling in love with her too.  Once again, our first impressions about him are challenged.

Williams does an exemplary job developing quite a big group of characters, though perhaps the weakest character in the ensemble is Akira – a zany Japanese artist and cult leader who wrote a book which paralleled the events of the series. Meta. The idea is good, unfortunately the character himself is rather annoying.

The art from Dowling is also very good, with the complexity of the characters’ emotions conveyed very clearly.   His backgrounds are beautiful and the colour palette draws you into the world that he and Williams have created.

It is still “early days” in this series but even despite its outlandish plot and characters, there feels an eerily powerful grounding in the real world.  The unique narrative has grabbed my attention in a way that very few other series have – Personally “Y:The Last Man”, “The Walking Dead” and “Chew” have done the same.

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