Steven Heller | Essays

Comic Bacteria

A wall in my third-grade classroom routinely displayed public health pamphlets and posters — some were nightmarishly frightening specters that left mental scars on impressionable little me and contributed to lifelong hypochondria.

I recall the “Crusade Against TB” was symbolized by hooded demons or eerie skeletons but there was also a curiously comic character from the less shocking pamphlet titled Huber the Tuber: Story of Tuberculosis. Conceived, drawn and written in 1942 by Dr. Harry Wilmer for the National Tuberculosis Association, he also created Corky the Killer, a Story of Syphilis (American Social Hygiene Association).

Huber, comically guides the reader through otherwise serious information while Corky is what Time magazine called “a slightly bawdy blend of fact & fancy that seeks by cartoons and comic-strip dialogue to tell about the syphilis spirochete and how it works.”

Visually expressing complex information in reductive ways was not unique to Dr. Wilmer. In the twenties, Fritz Kahn’s diagramatic cross-section of a human male showed his insides resembling a factory buzzing with homunculi, or little people, who ran all the organs, muscles and reflexes. Kahn’s was rooted in science while the advertising industry created its share of symbolic trade characters that sold products through anthropomorphic imagery.

Creating comic avatars that stand in for disease, like Nasty von Sputum, Rusty the Bloodyvitch and Huey the Long Tuber, could be repulsive but Wilmer’s characterizations and accompanying text effectively taught users how tubercle bacilli is transmitted. The endpapers of Huber, showing “The Promised Land O’ Lung,” actually explains how TB prevention works.

In Dr. Wilmer’s Corky the Killer, the villain is a nasty spirochete 1/3000th of an inch tall, with a corkscrew body, a nose like a golf tee and spindly legs. The leader of “syphilitic saboteurs,” he is Mayor of Chancretown, whose anthem is “Down by the Old Blood Stream.” When antisyphilitic "magic bullets" are fired Corky makes a mad dash through the body and latches on to the first blood cell that floats by. Soon he finds his fellow saboteurs creating skin eruptions. Corky is finally arrested and tried. Loosing his case he is sent to the Soap and Water Chamber of Torture, where he is scrubbed to death. In this happy ending, Dr. Wilmer thwarts the foe with just a little practical hygiene. 

Posted in: Illustration

Comments [3]

Looking like funny, but it is the fact. You have explained more with images. I am a healthcare professional having a master of public health from Florida Memorial University. It is our responsibility to take classes on health awareness for people and to keep them healthy as well. These comic pictures explain how our health will get affected by deceases. I really appreciate for the post by which you have let every reader to make aware of their health conditions. Ask any doubts regarding health issues.
Ebony Starling

Steven heller comic bacteria you are Amazing, Kind, Smart, Talented and Funny guy i really love ur comics n stuff. dissertation writing experts in uk
Rochelle Ceira

I was very encouraged to find this site. I am sure to all the commenters here! It's always nice when you can not only be informed, but also entertained! I'm sure you had fun writing this article.
Taposy Rabeya

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