FARAI CHIDEYA, host:
Superheroes come in all forms. Some are supersized, muscular and green. Others dress like a bat. But now, some are battling a life threatening virus, AIDS. Illustrator Robert Walker created the comic book superheroes called "O+ Men." Robert is here now to tell us about his imaginative attempt to raise AIDS awareness through comic books. Welcome, Robert.
Mr. ROBERT WALKER (Creator, Illustrator, comic book "O+ Men"): Hey. Hi. How's it going?
CHIDEYA: This is really a fascinating take on the whole genre of comic books which have been popular for decades. You know, if you count far back enough to the cave paintings, probably millennia. But, you know, this is the story of a group of people with HIV and the experimental AIDS antidote gives them superpowers unexpectedly. And the kind of plot line that you're talking about is also unexpected. So why did you choose it?
Mr. WALKER: Well, I chose it because I thought that there should be more of a push of AIDS awareness in our community because there's a growing influx, growing population of people being infected, more at an alarming rate than it has been in history. Amongst those that are the highest is amongst young people, from the ages of 16 to about 23 or 26. So I thought - and through my experience growing up, I've had experience with people being infected and dying around me from the disease, so I felt it very important to use my talents to try to advocate AIDS awareness for - to help the society itself.
CHIDEYA: Now, let me describe a couple of images here. I mean, you could probably do a much better job than I could. These are not - you know, there's a lot of wonderful, educational comic books that are very, I would say, PG or PG-13, but here you have, at the start, you have one of your superheroes comparing being a superhero to having AIDS, in the sense that both were life events that were completely unexpected. And, you know, the power of this superhero, there's no question from looking at it. That this is not, you know, this is not just a little cuddly superhero, this is a butt-kicking superhero. You also have scenes further on where you see characters, two male characters, in bed with each other. You see people making out in a club. You talk about the ways that people got the disease, and you depict them. Who's your audience for this, given that some of your content is mature?
Mr. WALKER: I would say from the ages of 12, when they start puberty, on up. I wouldn't give it to a toddler or anyone, you know, pre-schooler, but, I guess, starting age of teenage years on up because those are the people that are susceptible to the disease if they're sexually active. And So I am very direct when I do a comic book about HIV and AIDS. I wanted to be very direct and very - not cutting around the corners and be very right at focus of what AIDS is, how do you get it, and how can you prevent it, you know, how you can deal with it if you have it.
CHIDEYA: How do you plan on distributing this so it reaches people who may love comic books, but other people who may be non-traditional members of your audience?
Mr. WALKER: Well, I want to try to get in Barnes & Nobles and put like a collection of books together, like a collection of issues, and do like more of a - almost like a novel of a comic book novel, like a graphic novel. Like ink six issues and maybe distribute them in Barnes & Nobles. And just, also, just really put it into places as maybe try to get them into educational programs in school. Maybe, hopefully, incorporate them in classes such as sexual behavior study classes or whatever they may have in schools.
CHIDEYA: And, you know, in the book, or in the comic, you already have a comic, and then you have additional resources. Why did you - clearly, it must be something that you felt was important to put additional resources that were not related to the comic, but related to the AIDS issue at hand.
Mr. WALKER: Well, I thought, if I'm going to tackle the issue of AIDS and HIV in a comic book, I also wanted to give resources for the reader, if I'm going for HIV-AIDS awareness, to have the tools to be aware. So I have a lot of contributors who - especially one, his name is Dr. Howard Grossens (ph), he's an M.D. HIV specialist. And I correspond with him a lot, and he also volunteers his writing or his thoughts or his services to me to lend himself to the book to give like real solid education or knowledge that he has to put into the book so people can have knowledge about it as well that read it.
And I thought, you know, the main important thing is a lot of people that need to - they need to do is to get tested, because a lot of people don't know that they are infected and that's how it spreads. So that was another thing that I put - another segment that I put in the comic book, which is hotlines and services which I have listed, about two pages, and it'll be in each and every issue to where you can get - find out where you can get free rapid testing or where you can find out where you can get support groups or hotlines about HIV. So...
CHIDEYA: Your new book, "O+ Men," the next comic in the series is slated to come out next month. So, what can we look forward to?
Mr. WALKER: The new issue that's coming out is even more of an in-depth look about HIV and AIDS and the superheroes themselves. I wanted to show the superheroes in a good light, but I also didn't want to show HIV and AIDS and glamorize it and say, oh, if I'm a superhero, I could have AIDS and be, like, fine.
So what I did was incorporate the superhero, but have them have HIV in real life situations, if the person were to have it. So they would have the same illnesses, the same sicknesses, and even some of the characters may die from AIDS or something like that.
So, the book really shows you - I have in one scene where you see one of the characters is about to have sexual relations with a woman, and he - I show a condom. I talk about...
CHIDEYA: Robert, I'm sorry. We have to wrap it up here. There's so much to talk about...
Mr. WALKER: I'm sorry for that.
CHIDEYA: but thank you so much.
Mr. WALKER: Oh, thank you.
CHIDEYA: Robert Walker is the creator and illustrator of the "O+ Men" series about HIV-positive superheroes, and he joined us from our NPR studios in New York City.
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