Subway Comics, Foto-Novelas, and a Plague: Remembering the Saga of Julio and Marisol

For more than 10 years starting in the late 1980s at Hunter College, I taught a course called HIV/AIDS in Media and Culture in Hunter College’s Department of Film and Media Studies.  Speakers included Maria Maggenti, one of the founders of ACT-UP and outstanding filmmaker, Bree Scott Harland of the PWA (People With AIDS) coalition, Rodger MacFarlane, the first paid executive director of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC), and Craig Davidson, one of the founders of GLAAD and its first Executive Director from 1987 – 1990. Students in the class were among those attending Craig’s memorial service at St. Peter’s Church on Lexington Ave. when he died of HIV-related symptoms.

We examined many of the first attempts to make sense of the plague in theater, talk television, film, art, and print and television news. Highlights included Terrence McNally’s brilliant television drama Andre’s Mother, Keith Haring’s posters for ACT-UP, and the early episodes of the Phil Donahue Show that gave activists like Larry Kramer, Peter Staley, Ann Northrup and others some of their earliest wide exposure on national television.

One day in 1990, taking the #6 train up to Hunter, I discovered that the New York City health department had begun to use comics, drawing on the foto-novela tradition, to deliver public health messages about safe sex, condoms and more.

Perhaps some of you recall the saga of Julio and Marisol, whose love life amidst a plague played out in the NYC subway system. Beyond the brilliant use of comics, the series was especially important given that it was accessible to Spanish speakers and that the risk to Marisol was dealt with so prominently.

Risk to Marisol? It’s hard to believe, but in the early days of the plague all sorts of self-appointed and media-anointed “experts” were appearing on television talk shows minimizing the risk of HIV to women. Even more problematic was the fact that these “experts” often included conventionally trained physicians and scientists who were making inferences from data that were both astoundingly wrong and incredibly dangerous.

Those who don’t know the story of Julio and Marisol might be interested in these articles. The whole campaign ended suddenly, about 5 years later, in a sad example of what can happen when commercial considerations come up against an urgent public health concern. The new MTA policy of allowing advertisers to buy every available slot in a single subway car largely eased them out.

Like most early HIV-AIDS culture, people of color were latecomers to the dominant media narrative. This negligent invisibility, grounded in racist notions of whose lives mattered the most, is also part of the context in which Julio and Marisol surfaced.

But before their story ended, Julio and Marisol served as frontline HIV-AIDS educators, and even – around the time the series was about to end in 1995 – confronted death without flinching.

Damn, those were nightmare years.


Mose Wright, 1890 – 1973. Never flinched, never hesitated.


This morning I was thinking about how quickly our culture anoints heroes. Some unspeakable act occurs and, in a desperate attempt to find a savior, heroes are selected and honored while the accused are demonized. In our infinite patience, we do this so quickly that medals are often presented before we even know exactly what the hero did.

Isn’t this backwards?

Doesn’t the magnitude of an act of courage only become clear with the passage of time, when we can look back and see the historical context in which an act was truly selfless? On the other hand, doesn’t time also occasionally reveal the self-interest and even selfishness that might have been the actual motive for an act initially hailed as courageous?

Here is my favorite scenario  for what makes a genuine hero:  A modest, decent person does something quintessentially selfless without regard for personal safety. Some people pay attention, but — for a whole host of reasons — the act takes place below the radar of public attention. Maybe the hero isn’t especially desirable. Maybe he or she is a member of a despised group. Or maybe the act itself is such a violation of current values that it is reviled rather than admired.

But then, as time passes, the magnitude of the act – the extent to which it fearlessly transcended the conventions of the moment — slowly becomes clear. And decades later we ask ourselves: How did anyone have the guts to do that?

And so I present my choice for a hero.

The 1955 murder of Emmett Till was a seminal moment in the history of the civil rights movement.Till was a 14 year-old African American from Chicago visiting his family in Mississippi. When he violated the unwritten laws of segregation by talking to a white woman, he was abducted and brutally murdered. Photographs of his open-coffin funeral, revealing an unspeakably savage beating, were widely circulated. Emmett’s mother Mamie became a passionate and eloquent voice for social justice.

My hero, though, is Mose Wright. Mr. Wright was Emmett’s uncle and a witness to the abduction. When two men were accused of the crime, Wright chose to be a witness at the trial and personally identified the two white defendants. At the time, observers at the trial could not recall another example of a black man testifying against a white defendant. Wright moved to Chicago, but once more – ignoring warnings that he would be killed –returned to testify against his nephew’s killers. He never flinched or hesitated.

There’s a lot more to the story. The defendants were acquitted, yet later admitted the killing to Look Magazine for $4000.

And even more, many year later.

Wright died at the age of 83 in 1973.

There is courage. There is heroism. There is selflessness. There is sacrifice. There is near-greatness. There is greatness.

And sometimes, there is a Mose Wright.

How the right film, or the right scene, can haunt us for a lifetime.

Yesterday, waiting in suburban New Jersey for a train,  I looked up and saw the scene below on the telephone wire looming right above the train platform. I knew that the birds would disperse as soon as the train arrived, and in fact the lights of the train were getting close. I quickly snapped this photo.

It’s not that I needed any proof of Alfred Hitchcock’s brilliance. But yet again I was reminded that — for me at least — there has never been a filmmaker who so skillfully and insidiously plays with my fears, anxieties, and obsessions, not to mention leaving  haunting, mental residue that lasts for decades.

It was Tuesday, September 19, 2017. And, just for a moment, I felt like I was living in the village of Bodega Bay, California depicted in Hitchcock’s The Birds

The Birds.