Comic Conventions: A Visual Narrative of Health Information

The Progressive Influence of Comics on Health Information

The AIDS Quilt has a panel which depicts an important Doonesbury character, Andy Lippincott. Lippincott was one of the first representatives in popular culture of a character living with this disease. Later representations include The O+ Men, and general health education comics. Through research comparing the effectiveness of standard information booklets and health education comics, many heath providers agree that comics play an important role connecting with a wide range of patients, contributing to a sense of closure and acceptance for their condition, and can assist with important decision making regarding the next steps to take, especially for patients who are underrepresented and less educated about their condition.

Lippincott’s memorization in the AIDS Quilt proves that his appearance in the comic strip, Doonesbury, had a progressive impact on multiple communities. Lippinocott was a white homosexual man, yet his presence was able to connected to an extensive audience. While many subgroups did not have a voice during the peak of the AIDS epidemic, fictional characters and their creators took upon themselves the role of representing all marginalized communities and attempted to lift them out of the disease that they struggle with.

First I will discuss Andy Lippincott’s Aids Quilt panel and describe important aspects displayed on it. Then I will present statistics from the Center of Disease Control to address the misrepresentations of certain communities regarding AIDS epidemic outreach efforts and discuss how the CDC utilizes health comics to provide necessary information to those communities. After this issue is addressed, I will explain the universal positive impact that health comics have. Lastly, I will discuss present day AIDS health education efforts that will conclude health information via comic strips have made a difference in the lives of many people surrounded by AIDS.

Who is Andy Lippincott?

Peeking out as just a sliver from all four corners of the panel is a black fabric background. There is a rather large fluffy light pink thought cloud that takes up the majority of the space provided on the panel. The name “Andy Lippincott” appears in the center of the thought cloud in capitalized black block letters. Above the name in an italicized black font is “in loving memory…” and below the name, the same font reads “community leader, conservationist, author, Olympic medalist, and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize!” To the farthest right side of the thought cloud is an image of a cartoon man from above the knee up. He has black hair and a white complexion. He is wearing a white button up shirt with a tan colored cardigan over it and has black slacks on as well. His nose is a very prominent feature and he has both hands tucked away in his pockets. He seems to be a bit slouched over but maintains a small yet friendly grin. This is Andy Lippincott. Right below Lippincott are the dates of his life, 1945-1990, in the same bold black font as his name.

The second panel found underneath the first one has a sky blue background and has a series of cut-out comic strips pasted on white fabric. There are 20 of these white fabrics that border around a black rectangular center that restates “Andy Lippincott”. His birth year and death year are centered underneath his name along with the same quote “In loving memory of Andy Lippincott, community leader, conservationist, author, Olympic medalist, and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize” placed under the years.

These two different panels are sewn on to a lavender cloth. This block differs from other blocks that make up the AIDS Memorial Quilt because other blocks contain eight panels yet this one only contains two horizontal panels which are spread out on a block. Both these panels were created by G. Scott Austen, Marceo Miranda and Juan-Carlos Castano. This block was given to the Names Foundation but the author wanted it to remain separate from the AIDS quilt since Andy was a fictional character that symbolized a life infected with AIDS in gay community.

Andy Lippincott is one of the first gay public characters in the media along with being one of the only fictional characters feature on an AIDS Memorial Quilt. He made is first appearance January 1976 in the Doonesbury comic strip and came out as a gay character. He then reappeared in 1982 and in 1989 he was diagnosed with AIDS. Throughout the years he struggled with the disease and eventually died from the it. Garry Trudeau is an American cartoonist and the creator of the Doonesbury comic strips. Trudeau became the first comic strip artist ever to be awarded a Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartooning in 1975. (Krier)

Gary Trudeau:

Gary Trudeau Reflects on 40 Years of Drawing Doonesbury:

Comic strips from Doonesbury: Andy Lippincott comes out as gay

Source: Down with Tyranny, When Joanie met Andy

Trudeau sheds light on taboo subjects by utilizing his humor, artistic abilities, and his voice as a person growing up in his generation. Trudeau used his satiric comics to mock government and health officials who stereotyped homosexuals. By stating that Lippincott was an Olympic medalist, Noble Peace Price winner, etc., Trudeau was trying to diminish the perception that homosexuals were inadequate in society. The significance of including Andy’s character in this comic strip was to help bring the AIDS/HIV crisis into popular culture and spread awareness to all communities.

Several of the 900 newspapers that contained the Doonesbury comic strip refused to publish strips regarding Andy’s character due to controversy surrounding Lippincott’s character and AIDS/HIV. After the death of Andy, anti-AIDS organizations praised Trudeau’s social awareness. (Hull)

The creators of Andy Lippincott’s AIDS quilt panel used the comics that are bordering the black rectangle as timeline for the progression of Andy’s disease and in many ways it represents the progression of AIDS affecting  communities. On May 24 1990, the very last comic with Andy includes his death “quietly in his bed, the window open to a sunny day and a coveted C.D. of the Beach Boy’s ‘Wouldn’t It be Nice’ playing”.

Andy Lippincott’s Death

The Beach Boys – Wouldn’t It Be Nice

Community Outreach

According to the Center of Disease Control, many communities, especially women and minority groups, where strongly affected by the AIDS crisis yet were underrepresented with education outreach efforts. For many years, HIV/AIDS research pertaining to women and minorities was not funded by the government because it was though to be only a homosexual, white male disease. (KFF)

The CDC states that while HIV diagnoses among women have declined drastically in recent years, over 7,000 women received an HIV diagnosis in 2015. Compared to other races and ethnicities, African American women are disproportionately affected by HIV.  60% of women living with diagnosed HIV at the end of 2014 were African American, followed by 17% Hispanic and 17% white. Shockingly out of women living with HIV, 11% do not know that they are infected. (CDC)

The CDC addresses the prevention challenges stating that minority communities, such as Hispanic/Latino and African Americans face a greater risk of HIV infection with each new sexual encounter. Also women who have been sexually abused “may be more likely than women who have not to engage in sexual risk behaviors like exchanging sex for drugs, having multiple sex partners, or having sex without a condom”. (CDC) For poorer communities, many people might not get the necessary sex education in school or in healthcare settings needed to understand and prevent the transmission of HIV. Health comics can help mend the disconnect and can provide essential HIV/AIDS information.

By working with state and local partners throughout the United States, the CDC identifies and implements cost effective interventions in populations that are most affected by HIV. Examples would be the funding of health departments and community-based organizations, such as awarding $330 million each year to certain health departments to prioritize HIV prevention strategies.(CDC) The CDC has also promoted the Act Against AIDS campaign, which includes some general health comic information about AIDS transmission and prevention. By utilizing easy to understand comics such as the one below, many people, no matter their age, reading level, or language, can comprehend the message the comic provides.

Example of CDC Health Information Comic

Source: CDC, HIV Diagnoses in the United States for the Most-Affected Sub-populations, 2015


Health Comics

The presence of AIDS in a comic page sends a message: The epidemic has become a mainstream concern. Controversy is beneficial if it sheds light on a topic that remains in the dark to many individuals.

Understanding the educational messages within popular culture is vital for intervening in the AIDS crisis. (McAllister) Health comics tie together popular culture and health promotions to exemplify the importance of awareness for the AIDS epidemic. HIV/AIDS scholar, Simon Watney, states “Fighting AIDS is not just a medical struggle, it involves our understanding of the words and images which load the virus down with such a dismal cargo of appalling connotations”. (McAllister)

Artwork in the form of comics are universal and powerful. Any Lippincott’s story in the comic strip Doonesbury was powerful enough that the creators of his AIDS Memorial Quilt were touched by his presence within the comic strip and wanted to memorialize him even though they did not personally suffer from AIDS.

Comic books take on a new role as AIDS educators because of their potential to for dealing with social issues and utilizing these comics as a medium to deal with AIDS works in three ways: (1) the creation of a new comic book specifically designed to educate about AIDS; (2) integration of fictional people living with AIDS to establish story lines and characters; (3) the donation of profits made from the sale of AIDS related comic art to the AIDS cause. (McAllister)

AIDS News. Leonard Rifas and the People of Color Against AIDS Network, Seattle, WA. 1988

Source: Comic Strip of the Day

Comic books serve as effective health education tools but have the potential to do so much more than just convey factual information to a patient. They provide support for patients while they deal with the social and psychological aspect of their condition. These educational comics cover a wide range of illnesses from AIDS and sexual health to tuberculosis to diabetes type 1 and 2 to many more diseases. Not only do they raise awareness, prepare patients, and assist with critical decision making, but these comics also increase acceptance the condition and the is a better understanding of how it occurred and how it can be prevented. (McNicol)

Health related comics have a multitude of advantages over patient information leaflets because the offer a companionship when patients are affected by the negative feelings toward their condition. (McNicol) Leaflets or reading information from websites can be hard to comprehend and can leave patients feeling isolated.

Comics are a very non-threatening medium to display information and universalize the illness experience, yet one major down side to the effectiveness of these health comics is that it all depends on if the readers want to take the information provided through this medium seriously. (Carson) Most of these comics are made for low literacy patients, a younger demographic, and non-native speakers. (Carson) While these “dumbed-down” comics might seem childish, they are vital for bringing awareness to minority groups because they are universally understood.

Photo of an AIDS/HIV health education comic:

AIDS Today

It has become increasingly necessary to recognize and embrace multi-modal texts and to encourage multi-literacy competencies needed to deal with them. (Stuart) AIDS comics are just beginning to progress. Host of National Public Radio, Farai Chideya, and creator and illustrator of “O+ Men“, Mr. Robert Walker, discuss what it really means to be a superhero during a 2008 interview. Chideya states that superheros can come in all forms, shapes, and sizes, but now some are battling with a life threatening virus, AIDS. Not only has Robert created a new super character but he also created an imaginative attempt to raise AIDS/HIV awareness and education through comic books. (NPR)

O+ Men is a story of a group of people with HIV who take an experimental AIDS antidote which unexpectedly gives them superpowers. (NPR) Walker states that this idea came about because he believed there should be a greater push of AIDS awareness in minority communities where there is a growing influx of people being affected at alarming rates. He also expressed how he is very direct with his descriptions and images in his comic and tries not to sugar coat anything because in order to prevent a disease, you need to understand how it works and how to deal with it.

Walker hopes that his comics could one day be distributed in Barnes and Noble or even get them into sexual education programs in schools. In order to make use of his comics as a reliable resource for readers, Walker has contributors such as Dr. Howard Grossens, M.D. HIV specialist that corresponds with him to to give important insight regarding AIDS that Walker can then portray into his comics. (NPR)

Goth is a character from Walker’s comic The O+ Men:

While efforts for awareness, such as The O+ Men, are being created, a 22 year analysis shows that overall the media coverage of AIDS/HIV has decreased in the U.S. but the focus has shifted to AIDS as an increasing global epidemic.

Media coverage increased during 1980’s, peaking in 1987 and then slowly declined through the 2000’s. This decline in media coverage in the U.S. increased attention to world populations. Over this time, HIV in the media focused transitioned to government funding/financing for HIV/AIDS. (KFF) This study also finds a decreasing number of stories in the media with a consumer education component.

National surveys of the public have indicated a lack of knowledge about HIV transmission among minorities in the United States due to the decline of AIDS in the media. (KFF) Based off of this information, the Kaiser Family Foundation raises the question: “to what extent does the media have a responsibility to educate the public, as opposed to focusing only on reporting the news?”

While medical progress has been made to treat people affected with AIDS/HIV, there is no known cure yet. As long as AIDS is still prevalent in the United States, educational efforts should be kept in place especially for those communities that do not have direct access to health information in sexual education or healthcare settings.


Source CDC: link to AIDS and HIV Timeline throughout History

Source link to an article, Impact on Racial and Ethnic Minorities

Works Cited

  1. Stevens, Robin Stanback. “AIDS in Black & White: The Influence of News Coverage of HIV/AIDS on HIV/AIDS Testing among African Americans and White Americans, 1993–2007.” Ph.D., University of Pennsylvania, 2009.
  2. McAllister, Matthew P. “Comic Books and AIDS.” Journal of Popular Culture 26, no. 2 (Fall 1992): 1–24.
  3. Carson, Evelyn D. “The Importance of Relational Communication for Effecting Social Change in HIV/AIDS Prevention Messages: A Content Analysis of HIV/AIDS Public Service Announcements.” Ph.D., Ohio University, 2010.
  4. Krier, Beth Ann. “Healing Laughter: [Home Edition].” Los Angeles Times (Pre-1997 Fulltext); Los Angeles, Calif. November 4, 1991, sec. View; PART-E; View Desk.
  5. Hull, Anne V. “Powerful Images // Trudeau Takes up a Sensitive Issue: [CITY Edition].” Petersburg Times; St. Petersburg, Fla. March 31, 1989, sec. FLORIDIAN.
  6. McNicol, Sarah. “Humanising Illness: Presenting Health Information in Educational Comics.” Medical Humanities 40, no. 1 (June 1, 2014): 49–55.
  7. Stuart, Jean. “Media Matters: Producing a Culture of Compassion in the Age of AIDS: [2].” English Quarterly; Toronto 36, no. 2 (2004): 3–5.
  8. “Comic Book Superheroes Battling AIDS : NPR.” Accessed November 2, 2017.
  9. “Women | Gender | HIV by Group | HIV/AIDS | CDC.” Accessed November 2, 2017.
  10. Feb 27, and 2004. “AIDS at 21: Media Coverage of the HIV Epidemic.” The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation (blog), February 27, 2004.

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