Entertainment Recommendations to See Heroes Winning During Outbreaks
It’s no surprise that science fiction, drama, and horror have had diverse versions of what happens during an outbreak or pandemic. Some handle it as an action thriller. Some are horrifying. Some are all about beating the ticking the clock to save humanity. And then there are the stories about what happens in the aftermath when billions of people have been killed. This is by no means a fully comprehensive list. Knowing that “plague” and “apocalypse” can be interpreted subtly in a variety of ways leave plenty of room for alien invasions like District 9 and Independence Day; and the unexplained like the Mad Max franchise where something has happened to humanity and all the infrastructure that delivered resources.
My first recollection of an epidemic is the movie Outbreak with Renee Russo, Dustin Hoffman, and Morgan Freeman (1995). Prior to that in 1992’s Medicine Man, Sean Connery and Lorraine Bracco were white saviors in the rainforest finding a cure for a disease before deforestation wiped out the ecosystem. Not exactly a pandemic, but definitely tense in the pursuit to identify why one resource worked and another seemingly the same, did not.
Brandon Seifert recommended John Carpenter’s The Thing calling it, “one of the best pieces of outbreak fiction I’ve experienced.” He elaborated, “The thing that The Thing has that a lot of epidemic fiction doesn’t is the sense of paranoia and social isolation. As we’re experiencing right now, outbreaks are profoundly isolating — and people start being afraid of each other, because everyone around them becomes a potential ‘threat.'”
There are a lot of zombie and vampire movies to choose from. Not all are handled like pandemics. 28 Days Later was rapid with virtually no incubation period of the virus. For more humor, I prefer Shaun of the Dead. Did you watch the video of Simon Pegg and Nick Frost parodying their own movie to fit COVID-19? It’s perfect and uplifting.
My friends George O’Connor and Griffin Ess have an exceptionally cool comic titled Healed. It’s the exact opposite of a killer pandemic. It’s about all disease being healed and how that can crumble the economy and lives of people who make their living in the medical world. I loved interviewing George to talk about how so much of the economy and labor force of New Jersey is tied to pharmaceuticals and biotech.
Loosely related would be something like Man-Eaters where it’s not about a contagion, just stopping the cis-female body’s natural development of hormone cycles – by Chelsea Cain (w), Kate Niemczyk (a), Rachelle Rosenberg (c), Joe Caramagna (L). But authorities keep boys and girls segregated to the point of what water they’re allowed to drink. It’s because of a disease variation of toxoplasmosis which turns those with periods into “man-eating” panthers.
One of the best comics in recent history is The Wilds by Vita Ayala (w), Emily Pearson (a), Marissa Louise and Stelladia (colors), Jim Campbell (L) – focuses on humanity; the way the art shows the flowery-like contagion on people is so weird and creepy and perfect. There are specific stories where the artist changes so the credits list is even longer with art also by Jessi Jordan, Chris Shehan, Isaac Goodheart, and Phillip Sevy. It’s been praised by legendary comics professionals so I’m sure my tweets about it haven’t been seen much. Definitely consider the trade and maybe we’ll get to see more.
Sweet Tooth by Jeff Lemire was recommended to be added to this list from Rich Douek, another friend from Comics Experience. Rich said, “It’s about a plague that’s deadly to most humans but also causes them to give birth to animal hybrids. Finds a new way to break your heart with every arc… it’s very powerfully written.”
Y: The Last Man dealt with the aftermath of a pandemic. My friend Bunche was the original editor on the book which blows my mind. Brian K. Vaughn (w), artists: Pia Guerra, Goran Sudžuka, Paul Chadwick; Jose Marzan Jr. (inks), Pamela Rambo (colors), Clem Robins (L). It was a long series so I’m not how many other creators have been on the book. “Y” is Yorrick who appears to be the last man on Earth or at least in the United States. The world has to be run by women. Although, due to this, its making Yorrick the central/title character that irked me. A world run by women and because he’s unique, it’s named after him. The cast of 99% women do have their own important story arcs. I didn’t finish it, but read a few volumes. It also shows how once the authoritarian system breaks down, the survivors have to choose to either function within what remains or create their militias and independent societies. There’s a TV adaptation that has gone through a lot of turmoil before getting off the ground. The showrunner and even the lead have been changed so it still has not come out.
If you’ve seen the show Designated Survivor where someone blows up the Capitol while Congress is in session so the new leader of the country is the Secretary of Agriculture, Y: The Last Man has a similar outcome when it comes to who the hell will run the country when half the population died (and as we know that means way more than half of the population of elected officials). It seems the Ag Secretary is the last rung of the ladder so if no one is left, they get to be sworn into the office of the presidency.
The Walking Dead is the best known zombie apocalypse since Romero’s creations. The comic and the show focused on the aftermath and how humans had to return to tribal living. While they outrun the zombies, they end up colliding with other survivors. The named creators are usually Robert Kirkman, Tony Moore, and Charlie Adlard. There were other creators who drove this series to be such a fan-favorite and long independent, creator-owned run through Image Comics. Stefano Gaudiano, Rus Wooton, Cliff Rathburn. Personally, I only lasted about ten minutes into the TV adaptation because it grossed me out. I never even tried the comic for the same reason. It’s the combination of such extreme intensity that I stop breathing and broach panic with some gross parts that pushed me away. It’s popularity clearly shows a lot of people love that heart-freezing level of suspension.
Alexander Lidstrom recommended this free online web comic, Home Sweet Home. The virus in this case turns people into what they desire most. Of course it leads to killing.
Bloodshot: the Definitive Collection volume one from Valiant Comics with writer Duane Swierczynski, artists Manuel Garcia, Arturo Lozzi, Barry Kitson, Matthew Clark, Matt Ryan, Stefano Gaudiano, Mark Pennington, Clayton Crain, Chris Cross; colors by Ian Hannin, Moose Baumann, Brian Reber, Chris Sotomayer; lettering by Rob Steen and Dave Sharpe. At some point Matt Kindt takes over writing, but in volume one, it’s all Swierczynski and mainly Garcia and Lozzi on pencils from what I noticed.
In the first volume, there’s a nanotech self-replicating option which can snowball and consume anything made out of protein (ie, humans) and is called the Grey Goo — much like the Blob, I guess, only tiny robots. If the Grey Goo begins to form, it can destroy anything in its way and has been shown to wipe out entire cities which had to be buried to keep the secret.
Breathless from Black Mask Studios and created by Pat Shand and Renzo Rodriguez with colors by Mara Jayne Carpenter, and lettering by Jim Campbell ties together alien autopsies with an asthmatic lab assistant named Scout Turner. Not only do you see fights against monsters, but poor Scout is a freelance contractor working in big pharma which won’t provide her with health insurance to get the medicine she needs to breathe.
V-Wars (book, comics, and TV show) — I think does a brilliant job on the vampire legend making it a contagion released from the melting arctic ice. The book was created by author Jonathan Maberry. He pulled into several other authors to create a thick anthology. Then it moved to comics and then as a Netflix Original which was compelling as hell. The vampire virus doesn’t have a particularly long incubation period, but you do get to see characters struggle as they know they are changing. Plus there are different forms of the infection where people don’t necessarily turn completely monstrous.
Wanderers by Chuck Wendig. I gave a full review of this with some spoilers under folds to give proper content warnings on some of the subject matter.
Bon Alimagno recommended the Margaret Atwood trilogy, Oryx and Crake book one of the The MaddAddam Trilogy.
Michelle Kasten recommended the sci-fi novel Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. Plus one of the main characters is a comic book creator so we have some representation during this apocalypse where only 1% survives.
To a degree, The Handmaid’s Tale fits into a pandemic theme, where like Children of Men, their pandemic is infertility. Like Y: the Last Man, I found Children of Men’s focus on the only male character to be a sleight. The story would certainly have played out differently it had treated the one woman able to conceive and carry a baby the way the Terminator did with elevating Sarah Conner to savior status.
I want to include this input from Brandon Seifert about non-fiction books and their impact too. I’ve been reading science, philosophy, and mental health books and sometimes, it’s just so damn hard to get through them without feeling defeated.
As far as epidemic stories go, I find the scariest, most effecting ones tend to be non-fiction. The Hot Zone scared the crap out of me when I first read it, especially the early scene with a Marburg Virus-infected person on an airplane. (I’ve since read that The Hot Zone has a lot of exaggerations for effect and isn’t well-regarded in the medical field — so take the actual “factual” details with a grain of salt). Likewise, Richard Preston’s other book The Demon In The Freezer, about the eradication of smallpox, is utterly fascinating — though I don’t know if it’s more or less accurate than The Hot Zone. (I never finished Preston’s actual fiction pandemic book, The Cobra Event, but it’s supposed to be a classic of outbreak fiction/). — Brandon Seifert
Bon Alimagno mentioned a series I had never heard about called The Leftovers. The series involves what happens when 2% of the population disappears with no explanation. It aired on HBO, created by Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta. Alimagno assures me that the show ends on a hopeful note.
Alimagno described it as: “The figure is meant to be an allusion to the rapture and it just goes from there with how those ‘leftover’ react. The show then became a metaphor for what happens to societies in the wake of such widespread and sudden trauma, with close focus on two families. It’s by Damon Lindelof, so it feels like a bridge between his work on LOST and Watchmen, but it actually might be the best thing he’s ever done. The final episode especially is one of the best finales I’ve ever seen (and I’m not alone).”
Sadly, The Passage did not make it passed its first season. It had so much potential mainly because of the incredible cast and writing. The show starred Mark-Paul Gosselaar, Saniyya Sidney, and Jamie McShane. It was a show about vampires and medical testing that emphasized through the scientists that they were not allowed to call them vampires. Saniyya Sidney was a superstar. Her part was strong showing her independence with a mother who failed her and how she found fatherly love from this rogue special agent whom she endearingly calls, “Agent” rather than by name. IMDB describes it: “When a botched U.S. government experiment turns a group of death row inmates into highly infectious vampires, an orphan girl might be the only person able to stop the ensuing crisis.”
There are also shows which have had episodes of epidemics or lockdowns. Of course I’ll bring up Psych first with Season 4’s “Death is in the Air” episode about the fictitious Thornberg virus. In Season 1 of House, there’s a meningitis outbreak in the episode titled “Kids” where everyone on the staff is recruited to examine every single person locked inside the hospital. As a medical drama, House has more than one episode about contagions. There’s Legionnaire’s disease in another episode. There was also suspected smallpox in another episode. Brooklyn 99 had a lockdown episode where the precinct was faced with a potential anthrax release; and one of my favorite episodes is “9 Days” where Captain Holt and Jake get the mumps. Parks & Recreation had the emergency preparedness episode where Leslie and the team “get Jammed.”
Thanks to my colleagues at Comics Experience for their input in creating this list!