Tim Peters and Co., 1996
At the Fourth Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections in Washington, Peter Piot reminded us of the still-volatile and dynamic nature of the HIV pandemic and its impact on young adults with these data: Every day, 8500 people in the world are infected with HIV. One thousand of these are newborns. Of the remaining 7500, 40 percent are women, and 50 percent are adolescents and young adults. In the United States, one quarter of all new AIDS cases are in adolescents and young adults.1 Too often, the new face of AIDS is a teenager.
Captain Bio is produced by Tim Peters and Co. under the Biocomics trademark. It is a glossy 20-page superhero comic with brilliant graphics. Due to a natural accident with lightning, Captain Bio's "bio-meter" enables him to enter the human body. When his alter ego, Dr. Mark Phillips, encounters a person with AIDS, he leaps to action to battle monstrous HIV particles. The first eight pages provide an action-packed account of HIV maiming the "white blood cells" and accurately portray the body's helplessness against this adversary. Along with the standard written explanation, this creates a two-dimensional approach which is easy to understand.
In the second half, Dr. Phillips realizes "the horrible human toll HIV will exact in the years to come," and pledges to battle HIV in the future. After an odd and unexplained lapse of many years, Dr. Phillips again diagnoses HIV in a young woman who was unaware of her risk from a single past sexual encounter, and the prevention messages begin. The comic ends with Dr. Phillips and Beth participating in an AIDS awareness forum in a high school gymnasium. The messages are clear and simple: Unprotected sex and needle sharing are the most common modes of HIV transmission, and casual contact does not spread HIV. These messages are summarized on the back cover, and, for those seeking more information, an Internet address is given (http://www.biocomics.com).
One strength of Captain Bio is that it delivers its message in a novel medium. The same facts that we have read in books and pamphlets and that we've seen and heard in videos at school are covered in a unique way. Who is the intended target audience for this comic? Captain Bio could provide a solid core of information for middle-schoolers, ie, ages 11 to 13, and for older elementary school kids aged 8 to 10. It might also reinforce general HIV knowledge among high school-age youth. In a waiting room, library, or many other places with idle teens, Captain Bio would attract attention.
One major problem with the information is the absence of the "C-word", i.e., condom. On the back cover, the list of ways to "protect yourself from HIV!" includes this message: "If you are sexually active, make sure you're always protected!" While the meaning here was clear to us, why is it not presented straightforwardly? Young people need to hear the word and understand that the use of the condom is potentially lifesaving. Elsewhere the comic appropriately endorses abstinence, but to omit condoms is a serious mistake which compromises an otherwise well-balanced attempt to convey HIV risk-reduction information in an accessible format. Moreover, young people need to understand that there are right and wrong methods of condom use: Never use condoms twice; never use them with petroleum-based lubricants (e.g., Vaseline); use domestic brands, which are superior to imports; use latex, which is superior to animal skin; and use them throughout intercourse, not just prior to ejaculation. To the unknowing, these guidelines are not obvious.
From reading this comic one learns that in 1997 there is no such thing as "casual" sex, as each encounter can prove deadly. Most importantly, readers learn that they can take action to protect themselves from HIV. There is also a message of hope and optimism: HIV moves very slowly, and there are an ever-increasing number of drugs that prolong life. These are our final questions: Was Captain Bio field tested? Does Biocomics have data from focus groups and surveys to show the book's efficacy in real terms of behavior change and knowledge improvement? This is the most urgent challenge to Captain Bio and all of us. We need to study the outcomes of HIV prevention efforts, and spend our time and limited money on strategies that are proven to work.
Benjamin Sherer is a senior at Evanston Township High School, Evanston, Illinois. Renslow Sherer, MD, is director of the Cook County HIV Primary Care Center in Chicago, Illinois.