Monday, July 7, 2008

A Question About Speedy

You may have forgotten (because I recently did) that Mia Dearden, also known as Green Arrow’s sidekick Speedy, is HIV positive. I bring it up that way because something that anyone who knows anything about the real-life disease would expect it to be a life-altering change, however it has been hardly more than a background detail since Mia made the announcement in Green Arrow #33 (December 2004). Since then the fact that Mia is HIV positive has come up a few times in Green Arrow and never in any significant way.

In a 2004 interview with CBR, then-and-now Green Arrow writer Judd Winick stated:
“The point of this character is she's living with HIV, as many people do. There are people who have been living for 20 years through combination drug therapy and live relatively unencumbered lives. Some people are on the combination drug therapy and it's an enormous hassle and there are tons of side effects and terribly uncomfortable. It runs the gamut. This character is not about Mia dying of AIDS, it's about how she'll be living with HIV as many, many people do.”
I am all for social issues worked into comics – certainly it has worked in the past – as long as they are done organically and do not feel shoehorned in. While Winick is not particularly known for subtlety, I applaud him for not handling Mia in a particularly heavy-handed, preachy manner. But I do question why Winick made Mia HIV positive character when the revelation has since served no storyline or educational value to the title.

If the goal of including an HIV positive character in a superhero comic book series is education, I would argue that the twenty-thirty something audience of readers all lived through the mid-to-late nineties when AIDS awareness was at its peak in the public consciousness. I also highly doubt most children who read comics are reading Green Arrow, which is not code-approved and is often as sex-obsessed as Winick’s typical work (case in point: after writer Brad Meltzer had Ollie readying an engagement ring for Black Canary in issue #21, Winick had him fooling around with Black Lightning’s niece in issue #28). So the whole idea behind “using” Mia’s condition to educate young readers sort of goes the window when it is not marketed or written as a book for young readers. And even though part of the “Mia has HIV” fallout even involved her joining the Teen Titans (which is a code-approved book that probably has a number of young readers), her tenure in the Titans lasted less than a year (Teen Titans #21-31) and did not involve any sort of attempt to educate the reader. During that time Teen Titans writer Geoff Johns was busy doing the two things he does best: build up to an event and make dead characters somewhat less confusing. I guess there was not enough time for education.

I forgot that James "My Fables Covers are Works of Beauty" Jean did covers for Green Arrow.

If we are to take Winick’s words at face value – that Mia’s condition is just about how she will be living, not dying – I suppose she is like Garrett Miller. Don’t remember him? He was the wheelchair-bound Ghostbuster on Extreme Ghostbusters, a cartoon series sequel to the classic 1980s original. But that was about it – from what I understand, nothing much was made to make him into an interesting, three dimensional character except for the fact that he was in a wheelchair. Because the series did not end up lasting beyond the first season, Garrett Miller became a wasted opportunity of tokenism: an overly politically correct symbol who in a way was all the more insulting because he existed for no other reason than to be politically correct.

I think Speedy can be a character a bit more complex than this.

My point is that being an active superhero who happens to be HIV positive is something that makes Mia Dearden a unique character. While I am glad that Winick has not made her HIV status the primary focus of the title, completely ignoring what makes each superhero unique is what dooms a character to the Z-list and squanders any potential that character has. There is a balance somewhere between unnecessary heavy-handed preaching and unnecessary political correctness for the sake of political correctness.
For example, being a vegetarian is one of many unique traits that makes Animal Man a complex character, but nobody really thinks of Animal Man as the "vegetarian superhero" and you don't see him as the official mascot of PETA. Winick has not even come close to that balance in the fifty-plus issues that he has written since Mia’s revelation. She's neither a blatant symbol nor a complex character. She's just sort of... there. And that's a place she shouldn't be.

Personally, I would just hate for it to turn out that Mia’s condition really served as nothing more than a goodwill publicity stunt. She can be so much more than that and I would like to believe that Speedy’s unique story was going somewhere and that she is intended to be something greater than another Garrett Miller.

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