Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Death Talks About Life

Comic books have an interesting history with the HIV/AIDS epidemic.  Some chose to introduce characters living with HIV, others had already existing characters become positive, and still others included PSA pages with information about safer sex and testing.  It was hit or miss whether or not the comics got their info right, but they certainly helped spread awareness, even if most were a little late to the game by the 90s. 

These works deserve a post to their own, but that post is not this one.  If you want to learn more now, check out Ben Bolling's (a UNC grad student. Go Heels) “The U.S. HIV/AIDS crisis and the negotiation of queer identity in superhero comics, or, is Northstar still a fairy?” in Comic Books and American Cultural History and Matthew McAllister's fairly comprehensive “Comic Books and AIDS" in the Journal of Popular Culture.  Full citations can be found on the Scholarly Works page.

For now, I just want to talk about the 1994 comic book insert, Death Talks about Life.

Included in the January 1994 issues of Sandman (#46), Hellblazer (#62), and Shade, The Changing Man (#32), Death Talks About Life is an HIV prevention PSA by Sandman creators Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean. 

Of all the mainstream comic book PSAs--and even most of the underground stuff--this 8-page wonder (counting front and back covers) is easily the most accurate and educational. Death, one of the seven Endless from Gaiman's Sandman universe, covers needle sharing and contact with semen/blood via anal/vaginal sex as means of transmission and debunks rumors that HIV can be spread via saliva or casual contact (and not-so-casual contact, short of actual penetration). She talks about and demonstrates proper condom usage, with help from John Constantine and a banana.

Importantly, Death emphasizes that HIV/AIDS is not a disease confined to only some parts of society.  At a time when AIDS was still thought of as a gay disease (along with the other H's: Haitians, Heroine-users, and Hemophiliacs), this was a big deal.

 It ended with this great, multinational list of resources to learn more and find testing locations.
At some point, Death Talks About Life was turned into a standalone pamphlet allegedly meant to be distributed at schools. I'm choosing to believe this story, because any school that would distribute this is doing things right and might have saved some lives.  DC/Vertigo certainly did the right thing when they published it, and it makes me proud to be a fan and customer.


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  2. Great article! I adapted Neil Gaiman's "Death Talks About Life" as a short video! Though you might enjoy!