Sign Up   |   Help   |   Log In
Friday, March 23, 2018. New Comics were 2 days ago
The Pull List service will be ending soon. Click here for more information.
A Wrinkle in Time
By Karen Green
Friday December 5, 2008 11:00:00 am
Our columnists are independent writers who choose subjects and write without editorial input from comiXology. The opinions expressed are the columnist's, and do not represent the opinion of comiXology.
Back in the very early 1980s, when I was working as a bartender at the Grand Hyatt New York, we had our own version of those light bulb jokes:
Q: "How many straight New York waiters does it take to change a light bulb?"
A: "Both of them."
And we would all shriek with laughter.

But then Ramiro, one of my fellow bartenders, got sick with some strange, wasting disease that his doctors couldn't figure out. And he died.

And then a bunch of the rest of the people I worked with died. The amount of ignorance of what it all meant was staggering. When my friend Kenny first went into the hospital with pneumocystis pneumonia, the nurses were afraid to come into his room, and left his meals on the floor inside his door. This went on through pretty much the entire 1980s.

And that's how I learned about AIDS.

I think about those times a lot, still, and a stark reminder of them came across my desk recently. Our library received a gift of several boxes of comics that had been given to one of our faculty, who in turn donated them to our Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Just about the same time, I was contacted by a fangirl library-school student who was looking for a project to do with me; we hired her as a summer intern to catalog the gift (on which she did a great job, and now she's interning at Marvel: hi, Caitlin!).

Much of the gift was made up of one-off comics from the Bay Area in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, but mixed in were some graphic novels and comics compilations—i.e., books with ISBNs—and we pulled those out to add to the general collection. One of them was a 1988 book called Strip AIDS USA.

Just as the British led the way in 1984 with Band Aid and "Do They Know It's Christmas," inspiring our USA for Africa and "We are the World" in 1985, this book had begun with a 1987 collection called Strip AIDS done as a fund-raising project for London Lighthouse, a support center for people with HIV and AIDS.

The legendary underground comix artist Trina Robbins had seen the UK compilation at a comic-con in London, and she wanted to create an American version. Eventually, Robbins brought Robert Triptow and Bill Sienkiewicz in on the project as co-editors.

I haven't been able to get my hands on a copy of the UK original, so I have no idea who or how many people they included, but Strip AIDS USA lists over 120 creators on its opening page, from Will Eisner to Bob Burden to Spain to Harvey Pekar to Frank Miller to Los Bros Hernandez.

The comics in the collection fall into a few clear categories. There are comics that attack the people or institutions that helped foster ignorance about HIV and AIDS: Ronald Reagan, who dragged his feet on funding research; televangelists, who referred to AIDS as the Wrath of God, directed against what they considered the abomination of homosexuality; the Catholic Church, which discouraged life-saving condom use because of their position on birth control. There are didactic comics, trying to dispel myths such as the possibility of catching AIDS from a toilet seat or sharing a drinking glass. This Colleen Doran page sums up the frustration felt by those trying to educate a populace all too willing to believe the worst:

As Doran notes in the final panel, the exchange is an actual one, and representative of thousands of such conversations happening between officials, friends, and family members at the time.

There are also persuasive comics, which depict same-sex affection and/or intimacy, in an attempt to dispel people's fears and prejudices. And finally there are informational, PSA comics, which do everything up to and including using the contact info for testing or counseling services as a way of reaching people who might need or want help.

It's these last that I found the most moving. Many of them try to address the two extremes of people's reaction to the epidemic: the paranoia that inspired individuals to shut themselves off from all human contact, and an extraordinary fecklessness, leading to stupid risks and foolish choices. Sometimes, as in this Bill Sienkiewicz page of a modern Scylla and Charybdis (with the letter A transformed into the triangle symbol co-opted by the gay rights movement), the two extremes are placed side-by-side for contrast (see below).

And it's these that capture best the spirit of the time. No one knew for sure what was happening. Misinformation about AIDS was as prevalent in the ‘80s as information about terrorist threats was after September 11. The sky was definitely falling, but there was a lot of debate as to whether to respond like Chicken Little or Foxy Loxy.

What makes Strip AIDS USA such an important acquisition for an academic library, however, isn't merely the content. Nor the juxtaposition of, say, a traditional giant such as Will Eisner next to a relative newcomer such as Bob Burden (a juxtaposition I used in this slide from my MLA talk last month). Nor the range of artists included. What makes it important is the very fact of it: an artefact of social history unlike any other.

There are comics and graphic novels that deal with HIV and AIDS. Frederik Peeters' Blue Pills: A Positive Love Story, for example, looks at the often tricky negotiations of a relationship between an HIV- man and his HIV+ girlfriend (who also has an HIV+ son). The girlfriend's diagnosis comes much later than the first, raging outbreak of the 1980s, however, at a time when such a diagnosis led to a managed pharmaceutical solution rather than the morgue (as long as you're not living in the Third World, that is). Blue Pills is about living with HIV; Strip AIDS USA is about trying not to die from it. I'm not claiming one is more important than the other—just that the latter is telling a different story, and it's not a story told in many comics.

The Library of Congress Subject Heading assigned to Strip AIDS USA is "AIDS (Disease)—Comic books, strips, etc." (For those scoring at home, the heading for Blue Pills is "HIV-positive persons—Comic books, strips, etc.") I was curious to see what else shared this specific heading, so I went to WorldCat, which combines the library catalogs of 25,000 research and public libraries, and searched on that same subject heading for the decade of the 1980s.

What I found was entirely of the informational category: comics published by local health departments, task forces for AIDS awareness, or African public service organizations, using the graphic medium in hopes of attracting interest and attention. Works like these are not unlike the compelling "Decision" series that ran in the New York City subways from 1989 through the early 1990s, in which Latin lovers Julio and Marisol must deal with losing relatives in AIDS-related deaths as well as cultural imperatives against safe sex habits (man, I wish someone would put those strips up on the web; I was addicted to them).

Only Strip AIDS USA and its British progenitor, however, from what I've found, featured professional comics artists writing about the experience of dealing with the epidemic—unless you can count the 1987 comic, AIDS is Looking for You, created by conservative Christian artist Dick Hafer (also responsible for the breathtakingly homophobic Homosexuality: legitimate, alternate death-style from a year earlier). But let's just say he wasn't coming from quite the same positive place.

The Strip AIDS books are time capsules, testaments from the past, re-creating a time and place that many have forgotten. For scholars of social history, looking at contemporaneous reactions to the AIDS epidemic, or trends in health policy, or the history of the gay rights movement, these books serve as important primary source documents. The very fact of them is as important as their content.

There are similar responses to more recent tragic events. I'm thinking of works like DC's early 9/11: Artists Respond, which is filled with moving and valedictory pieces, as well as memoirs and reactive pieces such as Art Spiegelman's 2004 In the Shadow of No Towers, Henrik Rehr's 2005 Tribeca Sunset, and this past year's American Widow, in which the artist Choi gives form to Alissa Torres' own story of loss.

The attacks of 9/11, however, were a (literally) explosive one-time event, and while these stories convey the tremendous visceral experience of living through that day, or losing friends and loved ones, and of the emotional toll of recovery— briefly and hauntingly captured in Dean Haspiel's Street Code webcomic episode "Doored" (sadly, unlinkable directly, but at pages 23-36 here)—they deal primarily with aftermath. In 1987 and 1988, in the midst of the AIDS epidemic, there was no aftermath; there was only math: 100,000 Americans reported infected by 1989, and no cure in sight.

Books like the Strip AIDS compilations represent postcards from the front lines of a war that once seemed to have no end. They document a time of fear and hope and solidarity, in the words and art of that time, and they still have a lot to say.

Karen Green is Columbia University's Ancient/Medieval Studies Librarian and Graphic Novel selector.

Comic Adventures in Academia is © Karen Green, 2010

Related Items



klg19 (1 year ago)
Thanks for the kind words, Beth! I would definitely like to get the citations for the scholarly work on this collection--I'll find you on FB.
eirwenes (1 year ago)
Eloquent and moving and sensitive, Karen. What painful days those were. I'll never forget the grief, trying to come to terms with a horrible "slaughter of the innocents", a weird time when our loved ones began to fall to a confluence of moral and natural evil. You are making me relive it, which I think is a very great compliment to your writing. There is still no aftermath. This "pro-life" culture doesn't seem to know how to value precious life. Well, I can't go there. I know that I recently (in the last 2 years) read some excellent scholarly work on "Strip AIDS USA," and if you're interested in learning more, contact me directly. Now I must go say some prayers. Beth
klg19 (1 year ago)
Marie, thanks for the Bookfinder tip! I'll go check this out. I would LOVE to add the UK version to our collection!
Michele and Jason--yes, it was a bizarre time to live through (but a worse time not to live). There was a fabulous kind of gallows humor, an extraordinary amount of bravery and love and solidarity, and a sickening amount of hate. Reading this collection really brought back those memories with such power.
gajderowhat (1 year ago)
This is amazing, Karen. The first few paragraphs are really gut-wrenching for me. I honestly don't think I've ever known anyone who's told me that sort of story before. I've heard that story, because there are a lot of people who were affected by AIDS that way back before anyone knew what was going on, but it really changes the way the story touches you when you realize a person you know watched that happen. It's strange how stories told us by eye-witnesses mean so much more than stories told at second-hand or through more distancing media. So thank you sincerely for that.
I can't wait to read Strip Aids USA. I love the Hernandezeseses and several of the other creators you mention, and the Colleen Doran page you've put up is wonderful. It looks like a great read and a powerful reminder of a time that must have been strange and frightening.
That Hafer guy sounds like a piece of work. Imagine creating something with the specific intent of persecuting a particular group. Horrible.
CMX_USER_4320 (1 year ago)
I think I saw a couple of the English book available on Bookfinder. com. Sounds like a terrific anthology!
mlamorte (1 year ago)
This is great! After reading "And the Band Played On", which was recommended to me by my girly doctor back in the day, I can't help but feel differently about what happened then, and what is still happening now. I'll have to see if I can check out some of the items you mentioned here.

Would you like to comment?

Join comiXology for a free account, or Login if you are already a member.

Latest Articles

  • Convergence – 7 months ago
  • Stitches in Time – 9 months ago
  • We Were Too Young, And So We Drowned – 9 months ago
  • Best of Enemies: A History of US And Middle East Relations Part One 1783-1953 – 11 months ago
  • A Conversation about Freedom – 1 year ago
  • Kurt Busiek, Astro City and the White Man's Burden – 1 year ago
  • The Fifty Greatest Pop Songs About Comics, Part II – 1 year ago
  • Talkin' Comics Up In Morningside Heights – 1 year ago
  • The Fifty Greatest Pop Songs About Comics – 1 year ago
  • Can't Forget Those Things I Saw – 1 year ago

Latest Podcasts

  • Robolove – 1 year ago
  • Sam Humphries – 1 year ago
  • Slottie Ramos – 1 year ago
  • Chris Metzen & Flint Dille - Autocracy! – 1 year ago
  • The 1st Annual Comixologist Choice Awards! – 1 year ago
  • Mustaches – 1 year ago
  • Adorbs. – 1 year ago
  • Twitter of DOOM – 1 year ago
  • 20 Minutes w/ Jake and Slim – 1 year ago
  • i, Podcast: Tales From the Top Shelf – 1 year ago
About Us  |  FAQ  |  Copyright Notices  |  Privacy Policy  |  Terms of Use  |  iPhone  |  Podcast  |  Retailers  |  Contact Us