June 12, 2013
Comic books are often the place where people find stories that relate to their "outsider" status. LGBT people have often found parallels to their own experiences in this rich storytelling medium. And comic books have often responded with storylines that play up those connections -- it's a matter of life imitating art imitating life.
When HIV came along and began to ravage gay communities, many comic book creators struggled with how to present the epidemic. For some characters, the parallels between living a secret life as a "mutant" and having HIV in the real world became fertile ground for plot growth. Some storylines deal with HIV directly (and portrayals are not always well informed or empowering), while others weave abstract scenarios that are clearly informed by HIV. Here, we've compiled some of the most prominent HIV-related stories in mainstream comic books.
Mia Dearden is the second DC Comics character to act as Speedy, the sidekick for the Green Arrow. A former sex worker on the streets of Star City, she was saved from her pimp by Green Arrow; became his ward and, eventually, the new Speedy. When Arrow learns of her HIV status, he actually wants to force her to stop fighting crime due to her diagnosis, but she persuades him otherwise.
After years of service with Arrow, Arrow suggests Speedy should join the Teen Titans (a younger group of heroes who fight crime together led by Batman sidekick Robin). She is nervous about revealing her status to the fellow heroes.
In other media besides comic books, Mia was a recurring character on the comics-based television drama Smallville, though her HIV-positive status was never mentioned. In the current TV series Arrow, Mia is not a character, though a character named Thea Dearden Queen has been introduced whom Arrow has nicknamed "Speedy." There has been no mention of HIV there, either.
Judd Winick is a comic book writer and artist. Many may know him from his stint on MTV's The Real World: San Francisco where he was a housemate and close friend to Latino HIV-positive activist Pedro Zamora. Inspired by his relationship with Zamora, Winick has brought many LGBT and HIV issues into the comic book universe.
Winick wrote the graphic novel Pedro and Me: Friendship, Loss, and What I Learned about his relationship with Zamora, which earned him his first GLAAD award and was praised by the likes of Neil Gaiman and Armistead Maupin. Winick wrote the Green Lantern's assistant Terry Berg to be openly gay -- and more controversially, the subject of a gay bashing. After Winick left Green Lantern, he began writing for Green Arrow and was responsible for revealing that Green Arrow's 17-year-old ward, Mia Dearden, was HIV positive. Winick was interviewed on CNN for making Speedy the most prominent HIV-positive superhero.
Featured in Marvel Comics, the Legacy Virus was a biological weapon engineered and released by the madman Stryfe for the purpose of killing all mutants. The "plague" -- as it was called -- lasted for years and killed many mutants. The virus was cured when Colossus -- a mutant who is almost invincible when a thick, silver metal covers his skin -- sacrificed himself so that the "cure" to the Legacy Virus could go airborne.
Symptoms of the Legacy Virus included purple lesions, coughing, fever, sweats, swollen glands, cardiac arrest and uncontrollable mutant abilities. Mutant abilities aside, many of the symptoms were eerily similar to those experienced by people living with HIV/AIDS. Given mutants' "outcast" status in the comic book universe, many saw the Legacy Virus storyline as a metaphor for HIV/AIDS in the LGBT community.
Extraño/Gregorio de la Vega
Looking down the (short) list of gay superheroes, you will see a lot of Caucasian characters -- and a lot of them did not come out until the 1990s, 2000s, or 2010s. However, DC Comics did have a (horribly stereotyped) gay Latino superhero in the 1980s who was named Extraño -- which literally means strange -- his real name was Gregorio de la Vega. Extraño is a master sorcerer from Peru who, when introduced, was an effeminate man who wore loose, colorful clothing and was lively and jovial. He usually referred to himself as "Auntie," and often acted as a parent-like figure to other people on his superhero team, the New Guardians.
Here's where things get even a little weirder. Extraño was not handled well by DC, and many have since tried to talk about his history. People have tried to explain what happened to him, and some gay geeks have tried to resurrect his legacy. Extraño never came out, but he utilized a lot of slang terms, spoke in over-the-top sexual innuendo and embodied a lot of other stereotypes. It was later revealed that Extraño was HIV positive after being attacked by an "AIDS vampire" that was called ... wait for it ... "Hemo-Goblin." Though he came out as HIV positive, it was unclear whether he was previously positive or actually infected by the AIDS vampire.
Not every depiction of HIV in comics is affirming. In fact, some appear to reinforce stigma and hinder progressive thinking about HIV. In the 1980s, when the first HIV-positive superhero, Extraño, made his appearance, a backstory as needed for how he became HIV positive.
Enter the "Hemo-Goblin." Created by a white supremacist villain, the Hemo-Goblin is an "AIDS vampire" that was meant to infect all people of color with AIDS. He was ultimately defeated by the New Guardians, but not without first infecting Extraño.
Of course, "AIDS vampire" is a metaphor for the way many people in the '80s viewed gay men: as mindless beings whose urges led to the spread of HIV through fluid exchange. This was not the most compassionate depiction of the HIV epidemic to come out of the comic book universe.
James Wilson, an ally of the Hulk and the nephew of the Falcon, is among the foremost African-American superheroes and "the protector of Harlem." Wilson, being HIV positive, often had to deal with harassment and stereotyping from homophobes and bigots. Though it was never explained how he became HIV positive, he was heterosexual and it was hinted that he got it through a blood transfusion.
Soon after his AIDS diagnosis, Wilson asks the Hulk for a blood transfusion, as the Hulk's blood is known to be resistant to HIV. Hulk does not want to create another Hulk-like monster, and denies Wilson the transfusion. Before he dies, Wilson admits that it would not have been a good idea. Jim finds his calling by founding a Los Angeles clinic that cares for patients dying from AIDS. After he dies, Bruce Banner (The Hulk) donates enough money to keep Jim's clinic running for the next decade.
Though only a superhero in the fictional world of the TV drama Queer as Folk, Captain Astro does represent many feelings around gay identity and geek identity for the male characters on the show. Captain Astro was the superhero that helped lead characters Brian Kinney and Michael Novotny discover their sexuality as youngsters, and become best friends in the process.
On the topic of Captain Astro and comic books, lead character Michael Novotny says: "I think we, gay boys, learn important lessons from comic books. One, there are a lot of villains out there so you better learn some secret powers. Two, if you have a good body, you can wear tight clothes and three, it's always good to be part of a dynamic duo."
Captain Astro dies of an "intergalactic disease" that has no known cure. There are a lot of other ways the comic book universe penetrates Queer as Folk: Michael's HIV-positive professor boyfriend, Ben Bruckner, studies comic books and teaches them -- especially the queer readings behind them -- in his university courses.
Considered the first openly gay superhero, Northstar (Jean-Paul Beaubier) is pretty famous in the comic world. Less known is his adopted daughter, Joanne Beaubier. Knocked into an alley during a fight, he hears a baby crying. He rushes the baby to the hospital and finds out she is HIV positive -- and has an AIDS diagnosis. Once the media heard that Northstar had found an HIV-positive infant, the country began to worry about the girl, except for the villain Major Mapleleaf.
Major Mapleleaf attempted to kill Joanne, and Northstar thwarted his plan. When Jean-Paul made it back to the hospital, Joanne died in his arms. After the incident, Northstar openly admitted his homosexuality to the media to help open dialogue on AIDS and other important issues.
Daniel Geller/The Reaver
Daniel Geller goes by the name "the Reaver" and is a villain from DC Comics' The Spectre, which was out in the early 1990s. After becoming HIV positive through sex with a woman, Geller goes on a killing spree killing -- you guessed it -- HIV-positive women. He calls them "diseased bitches."
He eventually kills the woman from whom he contracted HIV -- Amy Beitermann -- after cornering her in an alley. While Amy lies dying and covered in her own blood, her friend Nate Kane is scared to touch her because of her HIV-positive status. The only person willing to touch Amy is Madame Xanadu, a sorceress who has magical protection from HIV.
No, the Flash is not HIV positive. But, that doesn't mean he can't be schooled on HIV by one of his very closest friends. When discussing his sex life with a gay friend, his friend brings up the idea that the Flash should use condoms, but the Flash thinks that using a condom every time you have sex is only for gay men.
The Flash also happened to be the star of one of DC Comics' PSAs (there was also a Green Lantern PSA), where he helps two gay men who are literally being chased, mob style, by a group of people who accuse them of spreading AIDS. The Flash comes in to drop some knowledge on them.