30 May 2010

When Robin Might Have Had AIDS

Mary Borsellino, co-founder of the Girl-Wonder.org website and author of Girl and Boy Robins, interviewed Judd Winick for Sequential Tart this week. The occasion was the release of the Batman: Under the Hood animated feature that Winick scripted, based on his comics storyline depicting the second Jason Todd’s return from the dead.

Borsellino wrote:

Deciding to put my disturbingly encyclopedic knowledge of all things Jason Todd to good use, I ask Winick if he’s ever heard about a storyline that was planned but never done, wherein Jason’s death would have been from AIDS.

“I think it was a stunning, unbelievable thing. In the time of fears and epidemic, to have had a superhero have it, I was stunned and proud to hear about that. But they were not able to do it. I always forget to ask Denny [O’Neil] about that, about what happened.”
Winick speaks from his present perspective, having become friends with AIDS educator Pedro Zamora on The Real World and writing Pedro and Me (2000), the most influential treatment of AIDS in the comics format (and also, I’ve argued, a milestone in the acceptance of graphic novels in American libraries).

However, the idea that Borsellino spoke of appears to have had a less noble beginning. Back in 2003, former Batman scripter Jim Starlin had this to say to Adelaide Comics:
I always thought that the whole idea of a kid side-kick was sheer insanity. So when I started writing Batman [in 1987], I immediately started lobbying to kill off Robin. At one point DC had this AIDS book they wanted to do. They sent around memos to everybody saying “What character do you think we should, you know, have him get AIDS and do this dramatic thing” and they never ended up doing this project. I kept sending them things saying “Oh, do Robin! Do Robin!” [laughs] And Denny O’Neil said “We can’t kill Robin off”.
Starlin eventually got to depict Jason Todd’s death in a different way. Such a slapdash way, in fact, that I’m pleased DC didn’t take up his idea for a storyline about Robin contracting HIV, which was clearly not motivated by a wish to educate the public or to explore the character. In fact, I doubt the company seriously considered his suggestion.

In 1987, American popular culture was just waking up to the reality of AIDS. That year brought ACT UP, the AIDS Memorial Quilt, and Randy Shilts’s And the Band Played On. Children like Ryan White and the Ray brothers were being kept from school even though experts said ordinary contact with HIV-positive people posed no unusual health risks.

In that environment, progressive executives at DC Comics might well have discussed how to use the company’s conduit to readers in their teens and twenties to spread useful information, as it had tried a few years before with the very special issues of New Teen Titans. But the corporation would surely have balked at linking one of its oldest and most valuable trademarks to the still-dreaded disease.

In 1988 DC Comics published stories about gay and HIV-positive characters in New Guardians, Swamp Thing, and Hellraiser, a title from its more mature Vertigo imprint. But those characters were new creations, and they weren’t teenagers.

In the early 1990s the company addressed AIDS in all its magazines by featuring its heroes in a series of one-page public-service advertisements. Some of those ads were nearly explicit about the fallacies behind gay-bashing mobs or assuming “nice women” couldn’t be infected.

But the popular new Robin, Tim Drake, was seen as a character for younger teens. The ad that featured him was therefore especially circumspect about AIDS. It offered reassurance that “casual contact” was safe, advice to learn more, and complete silence on how HIV is transmitted. Ironically, Tim complains, “Nobody tells us. It’s like adults think we can’t handle it or something.”(Remember when getting some facts meant leaving the supercomputer?)

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