AIDS in the End Zone

This new graphic novel for teens has a worthy goal but makes some troubling fumbles in its execution.

BY Jacob Anderson-Minshall

May 23 2013 7:00 AM ET

AIDS in the End Zone is a one-of-a-kind graphic novel. Written by “the young men at the South Carolina Department of Juvenile Justice in Columbia, South Carolina,” it has the lofty goal of teaching the state’s teens, especially African-American boys, about HIV and AIDS in an engaging format with language they’ll understand.

This is a timely effort, as the state of South Carolina currently ranks eighth in the nation for new AIDS cases and the city of Columbia is sixth in the nation among metropolitan areas. The book, published by the University of South Carolina, was funded in part by grants, and there will be a study to determine its success in educating teens about HIV.

Two University of South Carolina School of Library and Information Science professors spent six months working with 15- to 19-year-old boys in the justice system to create the 30-page novel’s storyline, characters, and dialogue. One of these professors, Karen Gavigan, has focused on how graphic novels can be used to improve literacy among adolescent males, while her coeditor, Kendra Albright, has studied communication strategies used in Ugandan AIDS prevention efforts. S.J. Petrulis illustrated the book with full-color, realistic drawings.

AIDS in the End Zone is commendable for its effort and for including members of its target audience in its creation, but it is still flawed, and any recommendation for its use has to include suggestions for mitigating a number of troubling elements. The creators deserve props for showing teens that heterosexual sex can transmit HIV while also mentioning that “sexual contact with women or men, homosexual or heterosexual including oral and anal sex” are also modes of transmission (and clarifying that kissing, toilet seats, and sharing drinks are not).
But you can’t talk about this graphic novel without addressing its problems.

First and foremost, the title AIDS in the End Zone is really a misnomer. None of the characters have or develop AIDS. It should be called HIV in the End Zone. Using “AIDS” instead of “HIV” may provide a catchier title and it may draw more readers to open the book; but it confuses the issue by confounding HIV with AIDS. This is particularly damaging in a product designed to educate teens on HIV and AIDS.

The booklet also contains a short glossary, which includes a definition of AIDS as “the disease you get when your immune system fails.”  his definition includes no indication of how HIV is related to AIDS; an odd omission, especially considering that one of the “Do You Know” sidebars that populate the book clearly states that AIDS occurs when “HIV destroys your immune system.”

The inside cover of AIDS in the End Zone provides a must-read key to the book’s characters. Rather than simply being there for review as in many graphic novels, here the key is essential reading (not to mention a shortcut to good storytelling) because it provides critical information about characters not revealed elsewhere in the book, including an introduction to a tiny red devil dressed entirely in white, who smokes and — while perched on other characters’ shoulders — tempts them to take stupid and/or morally reprehensible actions. The key describes the devil as “Id,” who “as the name suggests, is an ageless creature who always encourages the immediate gratification of all desires. Some consider Id to be the devil on your shoulder.”

The existence of the Id character in the story is problematic in itself, as it suggests that some external force or malevolent being leads the main characters astray, and thereby absolves the characters from responsibility for their own actions. But it also seems ridiculous that the editors chose to name the character “Id” and act as though their stated audience (urban teens) would be familiar with Sigmund Freud’s concept of the id. I can’t speak for all American teens, but as someone who foster parented 13- to 17-year-old boys in Portland, Ore., I can say that perhaps only one in 10 would be familiar with this Freudian structure of the psyche.

The plot of AIDS in the End Zone revolves around Marcus, a new student who sweeps in and snags the role of quarterback (not to mention the adoration of the high school’s girls) from former star Brad. Brad decides to get even by having Marcus sleep with Maria, who is HIV-positive.

Tags: Youth

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