When Darren Davis was first diagnosed with HIV in 1999, his biggest fear was becoming pigeonholed as “the HIV-positive person in comic books.”
The founder of Bluewater Productions, Davis is behind the celebrity-laden biographical comic series Fame, Female Force and 15 Minutes, which collectively have featured everyone from Anderson Cooper to Lady Gaga, Jackie Robinson, Michelle Obama, Ellen DeGeneres, Lou Ferrigno, and reality stars the Kardashians and Honey Boo Boo.
An avid comic book collector, Davis began his career working with E! Entertainment Television, then moved on to USA Networks and Lionsgate, before he was eventually recruited by DC Comics.
Shortly thereafter, he hired Marv Wolfman, “a top artist at the time and icon writer” to script his first comic book, 10th Muse, about a modern-day daughter of the Greek God Zeus. Originally released by Image Comics, 10th Muse, became the sixth highest selling comic book in November 2006.
“We are in some record book for it somewhere,” Davis brags. “I was hooked and started my own imprint.”
Davis launched Bluewater Productions in 2007, which today is the largest gay-owned publishing and production company specializing in comic books, graphic novels, and multimedia, and the only with an out-HIV-positive person at the helm. A year after founding the company, Davis saw a comic by another company that featured presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain. Since many of the fictional works Bluewater produces — including Isis and 10th Muse — are driven by strong female leads, Davis thought that creating a similar book around Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin would be a perfect fit.
When that comic took off, Bluewater began to produce more biographical titles, including Political Power, Fame, 15 Minutes and Orbit. (Of those, only the latter is focused on men.) The other comics Bluewater produces range from sci-fi to superheroes to Hollywood legends such as William Shatner, Roger Corman, Adam West, Julie Newmar, and Vincent Price. Davis has reimagined classic titles like Logan's Run and SE Hinton's Puppy Sister. But it is the female-centric bio titles that have moved him — and the company — out in the forefront of the industry.
“Our comic books are now taught in schools, which I love,” Davis says. “I have learned more about politics from doing these. I find them fascinating.”
Of course, not all of the biographical comics are entirely educational. “Sometimes we do ones just for fun,” Davis admits. “We did a Honey Boo Boo comic book and we found out she loved it.”
Davis says he’s just applying what he learned about the power of celebrities from his time in the entertainment industry.
“Bottom line, we have taken a lot of criticism for them," he says Bluewater’s biographical lines, which remain outnumbered by the publisher’s traditional titles. "But I am proud and stand by them. It is funny, because we still do 60% of our books that are fiction. We work with William Shatner, Julie Newmar, Adam West, S.E. Hinton — all on fiction books."
Davis met his partner Jason Schultz at a (non-comic book) trade show in Portland, Ore., in 2003 and the two hit it off immediately.
“I told him that night I was HIV-positive and he said ‘I like you better now.’ It was because I was so upfront and honest with him. He’s HIV-negative. Within six months, I was moved up to Bellingham, Washington, with him. I [had] never lived with anyone before.”
Four years into their relationship, the couple decided to make Bluewater a “family business.” Schultz took over the sales and administrative side of the business while Davis continued to focus on the creative aspects.
“I’m not the easiest person to work with,” Davis acknowledges. “I’m a workaholic and he has balance. So he pulls me away from my computer to go for a walk with the dogs or eat. There are the days I’m sure he wants to smother me with a pillow. It’s a challenge, because we’ll be in bed reading and I’ll say, ‘Remember to tweet something tomorrow.’ I haven’t gotten the balance thing down that he has.”
Six years later, the challenge facing the couple now is Schultz turning some of his attention elsewhere.
“I did just get notice from him that he will be going to cooking school at Le Cordon Bleu,” Davis says. “So we’ll be eating well. He has finally found his passion and I’ll be supporting him in this as he has done for me with mine.”
Davis admits that being gay (and HIV-positive) has sometimes been difficult in a field dominated by straight white guys.
“I’ve been called some pretty nasty things in the industry regarding my sexual [orientation]. One by a huge artist that I worked with. I was shocked. It was on the lines that I should get AIDS and die.”
Davis recalls when a friend of his avoided drinking from the same glass because he was worried about catching HIV.
“I am still shocked that people think they can get it from an iced tea,” Davis muses. “Tiny things like that hurt my feelings.”
But the worst response was from a now-former employer.
Davis was working in the advertising department for Wizard magazine when he was diagnosed with HIV. A few months later, Davis was struggling with the side effects of the medication which, he says, “made me sluggish.”
“I remember being at a trade show in August, faking it through the day. I was a zombie, but did my job. I [had] become friends with my supervisor, so I thought it was safe to tell him about the problem. He told me he wouldn’t say anything. Two days later, his boss fired me.”
Davis says the boss was always “a little homophobic” and he thinks the man was afraid he would catch HIV if they continued working together.
“My lawyer wanted me to make a statement by suing… but I wasn’t ready to be known as the HIV-positive person in comic books. I was scared about the stigma in a male driven marketplace.”
“Am I still bitter about it?” Davis asks rhetorically. “Yes. Would I have done anything different? No. I needed time to process my diagnosis and a lawsuit was the last thing I needed.”
Instead, Davis channeled his frustration into a journal he began keeping after he was diagnosed.
“In those years of writing, I learned a lot about myself and who I became because of this disease,” he says. The entries would later be used to as the foundation for his passion project, Lost Raven.
At first, Davis admits, “I was so bitter and wished I had someone to talk to about it.”
Although he went to support groups, Davis was frustrated by the number of people there that talked about “how they were shocked they were still alive.” Most were dealing with survivor guilt and sharing stories about friends dying from AIDS.
“Don’t get me wrong,” Davis says. “I felt for them. But, being just diagnosed, the last thing I wanted to hear was talk about dying. I wanted to live! Each time I’d leave the support group I got more depressed and lonely.”
Being a comic book fan, Davis turned to the genre, looking anything about HIV-positive people. One of the few he found was 7 Miles a Second, the brutally frank autobiographical comic by gay artist David Wojnarowicz, which was published four years after his AIDS-related death in 1992, and illustrated by friends Marguerite Van Cook and James Romberger, both of whom are also artists living with HIV.
“7 Miles a Second and all the movies I’ve seen with HIV characters, most of them are dying or dealing with death,” Davis says.
Not finding what he was looking for, Davis set out to create it himself by creating Lost Raven.
“I wanted to tell the story from the perspective of people living with the disease. I made a point to make sure that the character [was] healthy living with it. In 12 years, I have never had a physical problem — so I wanted to show that person.”
In the comic, Zak Raven is shipwrecked on a deserted island and attacked by strange creatures.
“During the day he is running around fighting monsters and at night, he is writing about what it’s like to be HIV positive,” Davis explains. “He questions everything from having kids, relationships, to when it’s okay to tell people. These were the issues, I had a problem with…I took my raw journal entries and put them into an action/adventure story.”
Another issue Davis says he personally struggled with at that time was around his HIV medications. On one hand, he says, it “changed my life. I had a doctor who put me on the cocktail right away. It was, ‘Hit it hard, before there are any problems.’”
Davis brags, “My T-cells have been over 1,200 for 10 years. My doctor loves me: I do what I am supposed to do, I get a check-up every three months, and take my pills as directed.”
However, Davis says there are still “HIV days,” when he’s tired and sluggish. “So I crawl into bed and have my partner wait on me. The medication, even after 12 years, has huge effects on my system.”
But he insists, “Stress from work for me will be the death of me — not HIV. That is why I have distractions like my dogs and chickens — yes, pet chickens.”
The man behind the mini-empire says the success he’s had, both medically and with Bluewater Productions, is not due to luck or even pure talent but because he is “driven to make a difference in this world. If I can do it, there is no reason others can’t have the same success,” he insists. “I became a stronger person after my diagnosis. I learned that I wasn’t invulnerable. I learned to forgive the person that gave it to me.”
He's not shy discussing that transmission either. “We were in closed relationship and he was cheating on me," Davis says. "He found out he was HIV from sex and doing drugs and didn’t tell me for four months afterwards. I was naïve about drugs and HIV. Knowledge truly is power.”
Now, Davis wants to share that power with others. Lost Raven — won at least one best graphic novel of the year award and has been turned into a four-part comic book series — closes with a page of updated statistics and information about HIV. Even better, a portion of the proceeds from Lost Raven, which is drawn by Renato Arlem, Keu Cha, and Sean Murphy, are donated to Washington state’s Evergreen AIDS Foundation.
Next up from Bluewater? Plenty more celebrity-driven bio comics and, perhaps a testement to his desire to "make a difference in the HIV world," a biography on famed HIV-positive artist Keith Haring titled Milestones of Art: Keith Haring: Next Stop Art.
But don't think he's forgotten his first love: strong, female characters. The Female Force series has been used to talk about health issues as well (In Female Force: Carrie Fisher, the former Star Wars actress bravely shares her lifelong struggle with bipolar disorder while Grease star Olivia Newton-John uses her Female Force issue as a platform to discuss her fight against breast cancer). So there's hope that the series, which has capurtured the attention of The Today Show and Time Magazine, will keep doing the same. Next up, says Davis, are books on feminist icon Gloria Steinem, The Queen of England, Helen Gurley Brown, Melinda Gates, and Mary Pickford.
Lost Raven #1 can be ordered in print exclusively at Comic Flea Market or downloaded on Wowio, Comixology, DriveThru Comics, My Digital Comics, Iverse, PanelFly, iTunes, Kindle, Nook, Kobo and wherever eBooks are sold.