From thwarting plans to take over the world to foiling vengeful assassinations, superheroes are no strangers to tackling seemingly impossible tasks. One tights-wearing protector of peace, however, is facing a serious challenge that's yet to be defeated in either the real world or the fantasy realm: HIV and AIDS.
In the new issue of DC Comics' "Green Arrow," the eventual sidekick to the titular hero reveals that she is HIV positive. The revelation is made in the final panel of issue #43, which hit streets Wednesday, when Mia, a.k.a. Speedy, tells archer extraordinaire Green Arrow that she tested positive for HIV.
In 1992 indie comics publisher Image introduced ShadowHawk as the first superhero to have AIDS (he was injected with a syringe that contained the virus), but Speedy is the first mainstream hero to be diagnosed with the disease. When HIV and AIDS have been addressed in the mass-market comics, it's mostly involved secondary characters. The Incredible Hulk introduced an HIV-positive character in 1988, and in 1996 Superman discovered an orphan whose parents had died of AIDS.
"Green Arrow is a very mainstream character," explained Judd Winick, the former "Real World San Francisco" star who's written the "Green Arrow" title for the past two years. "He's a guy in tights, who was part of the Justice League, who shoots arrows. He's a superhero. It's very clear-cut. And Speedy is his sidekick. Batman is to Robin as Green Arrow is to Speedy. And Speedy is a young woman, who not only can kick butt and shoot arrows, but she also happens to be HIV-positive."
The story of Speedy is especially poignant given that Winick knows all too well what it's like to live with HIV and AIDS. A decade ago, his friend and fellow "Real World" star Pedro Zamora lost his fight with AIDS, but not before he'd brought viewers closer to the disease and spent his post-show years spreading awareness and education.
"Pedro's story and Mia's story definitely overlap," Winick said. "Mia also tested positive as a very young person, the exact same age: 17. In the first issue [of this storyline], she finds out that she's HIV-positive. In the next issue, she comes to terms with it. And in the third issue, she comes out in front of her entire school, just like Pedro did. As an 18-year-old high school senior, Pedro got up in front of his whole school and gave them a lecture. He told them he was HIV-positive, told them how he contracted it, how he was living with it, and how this could happen to them. And that was the beginning of his life as an educator. Mia does the same thing.
"I was telling someone else about this recently," Winick continued, "and they said, 'Wow, that's really brave of her. Wouldn't it be crazy if someone did that in real life?' And I was like, 'Yeah, someone did.' "
Mia, a teenage prostitute and intravenous drug user, was introduced three years ago when film director and comic-book freak Kevin Smith ("Chasing Amy," "Clerks") brought the Green Arrow character literally back from the dead.
Comics have a long history of confronting social issues, though often they're addressed indirectly. The X-Men's take on racism, for example, uses mutants as a minority, though the discrimination and prejudices that go on in that fantasy world seem all too familiar in this one. For this particular topic, however, Winick thought it best to be as clear as possible.
"A lot of times comics are done through lots of metaphor," he explained. "Something might happen to an alien race, for example. Instead of dealing with issues of racism or gender or sexuality or drugs or even war [in our world], we have it happen in Superman's world. There would some alien virus. Or a war over there might seem reminiscent of the Middle East crisis. That gets old sometimes. ... Now and then there gets to be real-world issues that we should deal with straight-on.
"Young people, and old, should talk openly about HIV," he added, "and at the very least, I hope this opens some form of dialogue. Whether that's on the Internet or amongst themselves, with their family, what have you. AIDS is an epidemic that is still affecting us. Starting that dialog by having a comic-book character be HIV-positive is a lot better than having an actual person be HIV-positive."