At the Perspectives on Graphic Medicine panel discussion, I presented some preliminary research I’ve been doing on the visual culture of the early years of the AIDS epidemic, exploring how the HIV positive body is reproduced and represented in ephemera and popular culture. In my talk, I introduced Captain Condom, a serial comic that appeared in AIDS zine Diseased Pariah News from 1990-1999.
People living with AIDS resisted images of the dying body – typified by journalism student Therese Frare’s 1990 photo of gay activist David Kirby on his deathbed, surrounded by his grieving family – as the sole representation of themselves and their community. Zines – DIY, self-published and -circulated works – were one medium among many that the community used to assert a different image of themselves. Diseased Pariah News, a zine published in San Francisco from 1990 to 1999, sought to “bring some much-needed levity to the experience of HIV infection,” and also to reclaim the HIV positive body as an object of desire. To this end, DPN included the serial comic Captain Condom, along with centerfolds of HIV-positive men, meme-like slogans and images, recipes to help readers “Get Fat, Don’t Die,” and porn reviews that rated videos on how well they integrated condom use.
Captain Condom follows the adventures of Clay Carpenter, an HIV-positive man who finds himself transformed into a safer sex superhero. The comic was written and illustrated by graphic designer Beowulf Thorne, using then-cutting edge desktop publishing software like QuarkXPress and early Adobe products for both the zine’s layout and to design Captain Condom, making this one of the earliest computer designed and lettered comics (though he eschews Comic Sans for his work, favoring an all-caps Helvetica).
Captain Condom draws equally on both classic superhero comics and queer graphic erotica like Tom of Finland for its aesthetic. Complete with origin story and villains, CC uses the tropes of the superhero comic to expose issues like internalized homophobia, violence against people with AIDS, and lack of care for PWAs in prison. But the comic also explores eroticism and intimacy between people with AIDS, emphasizing the need for community and friendship for survival. Mixing scathing black humor with moments of sexiness and intimacy, the comic is trailblazing in more ways than one.
In particular, condom use during sex between men is depicted explicitly but not exploitatively in Captain Condom. Clay and his friend and sometime lover John naturalize and eroticize condom use in their encounter which includes comics representations of Clay putting a condom on John with his mouth and anal sex. The comic balances the eroticism with candid representations of the physical and emotional side-effects of early AIDS medications, and images of intimacy and mutual support between people with AIDS.
These brief, episodic comics continued throughout the 11-issue run of Diseased Pariah News. Thorne died of AIDS on May 8, 1999 at the age of 34, leaving behind a legacy of dark humor, desktop publishing innovation, and a comic that was an early intervention in reclaiming representations of the AIDS body from the collective obsessions with blame and stigma that typified the early years of the epidemic.
You can find Issues 1-8 digitized by the New York Public Library online at the Diseased Pariah News Archive.
This research was conducted during an invited Summer Residency at the Queer Zine Archive Project in 2017, supported by a Small Grant from the UNT Office of Research & Innovation with matching funds from the UNT Libraries.
Don’t forget to check out the US National Library of Medicine exhibit Graphic Medicine: Ill-Conceived and Well-Drawn! on display on the second floor of Willis Library through March 10.