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

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, Tina Di Feliciantonio’s groundbreaking film Living With AIDS, 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. The early cultural criticism of Douglas Crimp around HIV/AIDS was invaluable.

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 fotonovela 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. I suppose they were perversely comforted by reinforcing the homophobic narrative that gay men somehow deserved to be infected. 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, what a nightmare.