Today, Dec 1, is World AIDS Day, and in today’s musings I’m going to do two things I thought I’d never do: say nice things about DC Comics, and say nice things about President George W. Bush.
But my dislike for DC is nowhere near my general distaste for Bush, so let me begin there. On World AIDS Day it is time to remember those we know who live with HIV/AIDS or have died from the tragedy that is AIDS—an important distinction since HIV is no longer a death sentence if you can get access to the life-extending medication.
But I don’t have a close personal friend or relative who is HIV positive or that I have lost to AIDS, but I feel like I do thanks to the world of comics.
Of those living with HIV or who have died from AIDS, the latter category includes Jim Wilson, a longtime friend of Bruce Banner and nephew of The Falcon, who died in Hulk #420 (Dec 1994). Wilson is attacked by an angry mob protesting an HIV positive boy being ordered to be able to attend school, and his injuries are so severe (and that he had been covering for his poor condition to begin with) that he dies from complications of pneumonia. Wilson pleads with Banner to use some of his blood to cure him, but Banner is afraid of creating another monster and refuses. In 1994, AIDS was a death sentence.
Amazingly, also in 1994, we were introduced to comics airtist/writer Judd Winick on MTV’s the Real World. At the time, I though judd was cool but kind of boring (still do) and spent less time dealing with Puck and Pedro and more time thinking how cute Cory and Rachel were. But Pedro’s death from AIDS inspired Winick’s graphic novel Pedro and Me, one of Winick’s most award-winning books.
It’s also hard to think about AIDS in the 90s without thinking of its fictional counterpart in comics: the Legacy Virus. While an interesting plot device in the mid-to-late 90s, the Legacy Virus eventually transformed into a metaphor for AIDS. And when one of my favorite X-men, Colossus, sacrificed himself in order to provide a cure for the world, I wept.
This was AIDS in the 90s. A lot of heartache. A lot of death. HIV was a death sentence, and we desperately needed a cure, one which would likely require sacrifice in the meantime.
But in the last decade we saw the rise of something completely different. Anti-retroviral drugs now meant that HIV could be controlled and corralled, so you could live with HIV, not die from AIDS.
Kevin Smith’s Green Arrow books took a big risk when he introduced a new Speedy, a new sidekick: but this one was a girl, and a former prostitute. Mia Dearden was also HIV positive. And she could kick ass as well as anyone, not only playing sidekick to Green Arrow but also as a member of Teen Titans.
You might have also seen Mia in a few of last season’s Smallville episodes. Although it’s funny to think of a hero having a sidekick when he’s only like 21 and she’s 17. That’s barely sidekick. But hot and kicking lots of ass regardless.
So way to be for DC comics of actually doing things that are interesting, socially relevant, and give me further emotional attachment to your properties. See, I can say nice things about DC!!!
The point is, though all of this, I feel like I have friends who deal with issues of HIV and AIDS. It’s obviously not the same heartache to actually lose a family member or friend or lover as it was to lose Colossus to the Legacy Virus. There’s no patch on the AIDS quilt for him, nor should there be.
But this is the essence of what the artform of comics ought to be: to provide some pathos, some moral context, to introduce you to the unfamiliar and to understand the universal in all of us.
As for the real world, there’s work to be done. Antiretroviral drugs are lifesavers if they can be distributed. Great strides were made in dealing with the plague of AIDS in Africa, and much of the credit should go to someone I am loathe to give credit to: George W Bush. In an op-ed in the Washington Post he writes:
I firmly believe it has served American interests to help prevent the collapse of portions of the African continent. But this effort has done something more: It has demonstrated American character and beliefs. America is a certain kind of country, dedicated to the inherent and equal dignity of human lives. It is this ideal - rooted in faith and our founding - that gives purpose to our power. When we have a chance to do the right thing, we take it.
Steve Rogers couldn’t have said it better himself.
So while I think it’s probably not appropriate to “celebrate” World AIDS Day, I hope we can all reflect on how comics have increased our awareness, and celebrate characters like Speedy who live with HIV rather than die from AIDS.
There are a few other HIV positive characters from comics, tv, movies, and so forth. Wikipedia has a good list I can recommend.
And because I don't want to leave you too depressed, here is something to cheer you up: Conan O'Brien and the Walker: Texas Ranger lever's single greatest scene ever: