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Graphic Novel Tackles H.I.V./AIDS in the South

13 Mar

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Young men in a state prison for juveniles and professors of library science from the University of South Carolina have joined forces to fight AIDS with a graphic novel.

The work — brief enough to be considered a comic book, but not comic — is called “AIDS in the End Zone.” The drawings were by a professional illustrator, but the plotline and the dialogue were written by incarcerated youths, ages 15 to 19.

One character, Brad Timmerman, a spoiled, rich teenager, loses his starting quarterback spot on the Marina High football team to a newcomer, Marcus Johnson, and conspires to get revenge by pressuring a gorgeous party girl, Maria, to seduce Marcus. Brad knows Maria is infected with H.I.V. and blackmails her into sleeping with Marcus by threatening to expose her. The story does not end happily for anyone — although it does show that, thanks to antiretroviral drugs, life can go on.

AIDS is a big problem in South Carolina. Columbia, the capital, was ranked sixth in the nation in 2010 in AIDS cases per capita — higher than Washington, New York or San Francisco. Young black Southern men who have sex with men are the nation’s highest-risk group.

Libraries need an easy-to-read book explaining AIDS to the young, said Kendra Albright and Karen Gavigan, the professors who guided the project. “What can two middle-aged white women tell African-American teenagers?” Dr. Albright asked rhetorically.

Some aspects of the novel have been questioned at academic conferences, she said. It has no mention of gay sex or prison sex, even though those both are greater H.I.V. risk factors than the teenage heterosexual sex that the novel portrays.

“We want to go into school libraries,” Dr. Albright said. “If we came in with stories about homosexuality in the South, I don’t know that we’d be accepted.

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