Step aside Punisher.

Take a powder, Lobo.

The anti-hero of the moment is…


I can hear you objecting, but just hear me out here.

Cardiac in scrubs
(Courtesy of Marvel Comics)

Meet Elias

Elias Wirtham loved and admired his older brother Joshua. As a result, when Joshua died of a seemingly incurable disease Elias dedicated himself to becoming a doctor. In med school, he proved not only adept at wielding his intellect, but also his charisma. As a result, Dr. Wirtham soon found himself with a rapidly ascending biotech company.

Before long, he learned that another company had developed a drug that could cure the illness that took his brother’s life. Seeing an even more apt opportunity to honor Joshua, Elias wasted no time in acquiring the company.

The celebration quickly turned to tragedy, however, as Wirtham reviewed the records of the newly absorbed company. Not only was the drug not new, but Joshua was also still alive when it had been proven effective. Worse yet, the company had held back releasing the drug so that it could gain more substantial profits down the line. The company had chosen earnings over commitment to the human community, and Joshua and countless others paid the price.

Time to Get Radicalized

Unable to square this development with his previously held views of the world, Wirtham crackled with rage. Helping those in the present day with his brother’s disease was no longer enough. Random chance and the frailty of the human form were no longer the reason Joshua was six feet underground. The cause of his brother’s death now had a face—corporate greed—and Elias planned to punch it. Very hard. Literally.

However, even in his rage, Elias was no fool. He recognized that one man could not take down the late-stage capitalism of the pharmaceutical industry. He needed an angle, and he needed an edge.

So, like any genius in the Marvel Universe, he turned to technology to get what he needed.

Cardiac's Iconic Image
(Courtesy of Marvel Comics)

Inside Now Beats a Blue Heart

Offering up his very own body to science, Dr. Wirtham remade himself. Inserting a layer of subcutaneous Vibranium—the metal that helped Wakanda become the most technologically advanced society on Earth—helped to make him strong and resilient. Replacing his heart with a beta particle reactor allowed him to wield great energy bolts, focused through his staff. Then covering himself in his distinctive blue and white costume emboldened him to act above and beyond the laws of society.

Once there was idealistic Dr. Elias Wirtham, dedicated to reducing the pain of others who risk losing their loved ones too soon to disease. Now there was cynical Cardiac, looking to make the profiteers pay.

A Rapidly Expanding Mission

While Cardiac began his vigilante career explicitly focused on pharmaceutical corporations, he quickly found that the corruption that took lives did not stop with there. There were those trafficking in illegal drugs—like Sapirdyne Chemicals and Techtoy—who used their chemical know-how to addict and harm instead of heal and help. There were those who supposedly were developing life-saving devices—the airbags of James Kapostaz—who cut corners. Even people who provided the very staples of life—like builder Steven Polk—betrayed their duties with faulty materials. Cardiac sought to punish them all.

Once he widened his focus, Elias found himself unable to ignore less corporatized crime either. That meant tangling with the murderous duo Styx and Stone and targeting the child traffickers of Child, Inc. Soon, it even meant joining other costumed types in trying to stop a possessed Wolverine from raging through Manhattan or avenging the life of his college friend Kevin Trench aka Nightwatch.

Cardiac Triumphant
(Courtesy of Marvel Comics)

Returning to Medicine

Perhaps as his temper cooled, Wirtham found himself drawn back to the first profession he dedicated his life to, medicine. He opened Hospital for Emergency Aid and Recuperative Therapy (H.E.A.R.T.), a clinic intended to provide high-level expensive care to those most in need and least able to pay for it.

The clinic inspired Cardiac to act a bit like Robin Hood—stealing from rich hospitals and corporations to treat his patients. However, he otherwise seemed to suspend his costumed activities. Direct care, it appeared, had won out—momentarily—over vengeance as his means of trying to change the world.

Alas, the switch turned out to be all too short-lived as H.E.A.R.T. was destroyed during the so-called Goblin War. To date, Cardiac has not resurfaced.

Anti-Heroes Reflect Our Times

When Punisher began to capture the imagination and gain popularity, he was a one-man army facing down crime in NYC. While the City was already on the upswing from its near warzone existence of the late ’60s through the mid-’80s, it was still the image most had of New York City.

Meanwhile, many Americans had come to view the legal system with suspicion, feeling it was not hard enough on criminals. Popular culture portrayed cops as having their hands tied by too many rules and regulations. Defense lawyers were rich, arrogant, and willing to exploit every angle to get their clients off, not giving a damn about the morality of it.

Again, while the pendulum was already swinging away from a liberal approach to criminal justice, the belief persisted. It mainly took hold as politicians of all stripes stoked it to pin their opponents as soft on crime.

In this way, the embracing of Castle was a response to fear of urban crime coupled with frustration with the legal system. He did not play by the rules, and he cared more about “pure” justice then adhering to legal regulations.

Juggling Bullets
(Courtesy of Marvel Comics)

The Crime Wave Recedes

Today, despite what you might have heard, America is experiencing some of lowest rates of violent crime in its history. The Big Apple, in particular, is a stunningly safe place to live these days. Despite its population, relatively small square mileage, and historical reputation as the most dangerous and damaged city in the U.S., the City has dramatically reduced its crime rates.

A legacy of conservative legislation of judicial decision paired with the tragedy of September 11th has further altered the landscape. Overcharging, a seemingly increasingly permissive attitude towards suspect shootings, and a widened scope to search-and-seizure laws have all reduced the rights of the accused.

Punisher is, to turn a phrase, out of date.

An Anti-Hero For Today’s Concerns

On the other hand, consider what we are up against as a country. Health care costs are massive and growing. Companies continue to embrace health plans with higher deductibles, fewer services, or higher employee costs. Republicans have spent years fighting to end a health care program that increased the availability of insurance for people. CHIP has not been reauthorized, leaving nearly 36 million children in danger of losing health insurance.

On the pharmaceutical tip, we have seen the prices of insulin and EpiPens skyrocket even as both have long since recouped their development costs. So-called Pharma Bro Martin Shkreli snapped up the manufacturing license for Daraprim and immediately increased the value by 56 fold. More galling, the only thing that got him to stop strutting about it on social media was going to jail. Just last month, Pfizer discontinued their attempts to develop medications to combat Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, triggering massive layoffs.

Cardiac was ahead of his time in the late 80’s. Health insurance was viewed with far less skepticism and distaste. We were more likely to believe in the possibility that corporations were balancing their profits against doing good. Today? Not so much. Cardiac was made for today.

Cardiac cropped
(Courtesy of Marvel Comics)

The Case for Cardiac

His mission—to punish those who ignore humanity in search of the almighty dollar—resonates with nearly everyone. While there may be significant divides about the how of it, almost every American agrees health care costs too much. While some might believe in the invisible hand of the market, most Americans reacted to Shkreli’s heartless choices with revulsion. Who wouldn’t experience a visceral thrill at seeing Cardiac cuff such a figure?

Add in that Elias Wirtham is African American, a population traditionally tremendously underserved by the medical community at large, and it becomes all the more satisfying. Who doesn’t want Wirtham to get in the collective face of American obstetricians who treat pregnant black women differently than pregnant white women, leading to a higher rate of death in the former? Who wouldn’t cheer for Elias to take down the for-profit hospital industry that has stripped rural areas of full-service facilities?

Closing Argument

I know, in practice and appearance, Cardiac is a bit of a candy-colored joke. Clad in bright blue and white, he was never convincingly portrayed as a threat. Further, he was introduced during a time when Marvel was rolling out unmemorable heroes and villains with surprising regularity. But consider how strongly comics fans have embraced a gun-toting, space-faring not-a-raccoon in the past decade. Or fell in love with a dancing tree creature who just repeats one phrase over and over.

Comics characters are always just one great story, one zeitgeist moment, from breaking out. This moment, here and now, could not be more ready for Cardiac. Let’s unleash the beta particle semi-baddie on the corporate world—and the comics pages—shall we?

One Comment

  1. […] time to time, I like to go back in the proverbial vaults and take a look at underused or underrated characters. I enjoy identifying characters that I think […]


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