From Radium Girl
Superhero origin stories often arise out of some form of trauma. Bruce Wayne became Batman as a result of seeing his parents murdered in front of him when he was a child. Kal-El’s own parents sent him to Earth from Krypton in advance of the whole damn planet dying; before becoming Superman, Kal-El had a double anguish to contend with, being both an orphan and a refugee.
Both those stories are fictional reworkings of classical myth archetypes. But the Golden Age of comics in the 1930s arose largely out of real-world events to which their creators were responding. Captain America was specifically created in reaction to the spread of fascism in Europe. The creators, Jack Kirby and Joe Simon, along with contemporaries like Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, Max Gaines, and Stan Lee, were Jews concerned with the spectres of pogroms and forced displacement before and during the Second World War. The global Jewish experience of the ‘30s and ‘40s helped inform numerous comics artists who broke new ground by creating some of the century’s most iconic figures.
Toronto writer Sofi Papamarko follows in the Golden Age tradition but focuses on a little-known period in early 20th century history during which scores of women were made sick through exposure to a product called Undark – a glow-in-the-dark paint used on watches and clock faces and containing radium. The factory women who applied the paint to the timepieces were paid a commission on each completed piece, encouraging them to work faster. At the same time, the work was so precise that the brushes they used needed to be fine-tipped; they achieved this by licking the bristles before applying the paint to the watch face.
The women were not apprised of the properties of radium (Marie Curie, who discovered the element, herself died from aplastic anemia attributed to radium poisoning), many women would apply the glowing material directly to their lips, eyelids, fingernails, or skin. According to Britannica online:
[T]he painters ingested the radioactive substance as part of their job. … When they asked about radium’s safety, they were assured by their managers they had nothing to worry about.
Of course, that wasn’t true. Radium can be extremely dangerous, especially with repeated exposure. Marie Curie suffered radiation burns while handling it, and she eventually died from radiation exposure. Other researchers also perished.
The so-called Radium Girls, factory workers who experienced all manner of horrific sickness as a result of their ongoing exposure to the radioactive chemical, were the subject of Undark: An Oratorio, a 2012 book of poetry by Sandy Pool, and Cyrielle Evans and Kate Moore’s 2017 nonfiction book Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women. Papamarko’s story is a kind of wish-fulfillment fantasy about a radium factory worker who watches her colleagues get horribly sick while she herself grows stronger and more powerful.
“Radium Girl” is narrated in the first person by Elda, one of the “ghost girls” who work as painters diligently applying Undark to the faces and hands of watches for wealthy consumers. “It shines in the dark and so do we,” Elda says of the deadly product she is charged with using. “Whenever I slip into bed next to my sister in our quiet, darkened room, my fingertips and lips glow green. No matter how much I wash or scrub, it’s always there.”
Utterly innocent of the dangers, the factory workers attend the home of their coworker Imogen on her wedding day, where they paint her with Undark, so that at her wedding everyone says she is “luminous.” The bride’s unnatural glow takes its toll and soon she is losing her teeth (one of the most common early effects of radium poisoning) and dropping weight so that she goes from “a fleshy Irish Venus to a withered spindle” confined to a hospital bed.
Though the women Elda works with continue to get sick and a young doctor visiting their workplace reacts with horror when he witnesses Elda put the radium spattered brush to her tongue, the factory manager continues to espouse the complete safety of the material. “As we all well know, radium is completely safe,“ the plant manager, cutely named Mr. Weevil, tells Elda. “Not only that, it is a potent cure-all. It’s in all the papers! Perpetual sunshine, they’re calling it. And it’s all natural! Our paint certainly contains nothing that would make anyone ill. If anything, the radium contained therein makes people stronger and healthier.”
Much fiction – and certainly most superhero stories – begins with an author asking, “What if?” In Papamarko’s case, the question is, “What if Mr. Weevil were right in Elda’s case?” That is, what if a product that proved fatal to a staggering number of women were actually able to do the opposite in a single instance, with radium exposure giving a story’s protagonist strength and reflexes and speed? After claiming to feel no adverse effects from her exposure – as the other women grow pale and gaunt, Elda claims to have “never felt better” – she takes out a group of louts who are harassing her and a coworker on the street. “It’s like everything dissolved into a gold and green halo of light,” is how she explains the sensation that comes over her. When her coworker claims that what she did was “superhuman,” Elda responds with astonishment: “I feel strong. I feel proud. I feel remarkably alive.”
But that is not all. “My body does not belong to me,” Elda thinks in the heat of battle. Even as she becomes exponentially more powerful, there is the sense that Elda is not in control. She has surrendered a part of herself to the effects of the radiation she has been absorbing in her rote job at the factory. When, at the story’s end, she adopts the name Radium Girl and says, ”I have become pure light,” there is a kind of triumphalism attached to the notion that she’s beaten the odds, and she avers that “Undark has enveloped me like a lover.” In Elda, Papamarko offers a fantastical vindication for all the women – poor and unskilled – who were exploited for easy labour that cost many of them their health and even their lives.
There is an ironic distance between the story’s last line – “I have become pure light” – and its first. “Radium Girl“ opens with the sentence, “On her wedding day, Imogen glowed.” The sentiment sounds pretty, until the reader understands why she is glowing and what the cost will be. Elda/Radium Girl has turned history on its head; like so many superhero stories, this one imagines a better outcome than the one the real world provides.