Adam Polaski

A Look Back at Pedro & Me: Illustrating the AIDS Struggle

Filed By Adam Polaski | December 10, 2011 2:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Entertainment, Gay Icons and History
Tags: graphic nonfiction, HIV/AIDS, Judd Winick, Pedro & Me, Pedro Zamora, The Real World

PedroandMe.jpgIn 1994, back when the reality television genre was still doing interesting and productive things, MTV's The Real World introduced Pedro Zamora, a 22-year-old Cuban immigrant who was openly gay, living with AIDS, and working as an HIV/AIDS educator. Pedro was the first prominent openly gay person with AIDS in U.S. popular culture, and he brought national attention to the struggle.

Throughout each of San Francisco's twenty 30-minute episodes, viewers fell in love with Pedro Zamora. They were able to connect with him, attempt to understand his struggle, and see a more relatable depiction of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Pedro died the day after the last episode of The Real World: San Francisco aired. But in spite of his death, he left behind a new generation of people more willing to speak about HIV/AIDS issues and not be scared away because of their lack of familiarity with the disease.

Still, just because MTV viewers got to see some of Pedro's struggle played out on The Real World, that didn't mean that they could grasp the full depth of his story. The series briefly discussed Pedro's childhood, how he contracted HIV/AIDS, and how he deals with it on a day-to-day basis, but it tended to skirt over some of the less attractive details: the night sweats, the lack of immunities, the shingles, and the complexities of the poz dating world.

Enter Judd Winick, who adapted Pedro's story into a graphic novel, released in 2000. I wrote a few months ago about needing to pick a work of graphic nonfiction to analyze and study for my Graphic Nonfiction class, and I ultimately decided on Judd's retelling of Pedro's struggle.

Judd, a self-described "bed-wetting liberal" and cartoonist was one of Pedro's best friends on their season of The Real World. He took the most sincere interest in Pedro's lecture circuit work and, despite coming from very different backgrounds, the men connected and became close friends. When Pedro fell severely ill in August of 1994, Judd decided to take over for Pedro. Judd spoke at schools and community centers, sharing information about safe sex, the dangers of unprotected sex, and the struggles associated with living with HIV or AIDS. After Pedro's death, Judd continued the HIV/AIDS education lecture circuit for about a year before moving on and revisiting his intended career path: comics. He landed a syndicated cartooning gig and experienced mild success.

By 1998, however, Judd couldn't resist the nagging urge to document the story of his friendship with Pedro Zamora and continue focusing on HIV/AIDS education.

In The Advocate, he wrote about his decision to start compiling a graphic novel about himself, Pedro, and where their lives intersected. He wrote: "It didn't feel like I was accomplishing anything. It wasn't the story I wanted to tell. So I began to write about the two of us. I wrote about myself, warts and all, not as the completely open-minded liberal I tried to be on television. I wrote about Pedro's dealing with being gay and with learning that he was HIV-positive. I wrote about our friendship, and I described the journey we all took together through his illness and his death."

The book would become Pedro & Me: Friendship, Loss, and What I Learned, a 180-page black-and-white story.

Pedro_Zamora.jpegPedro's story is one that could be told with pure text. But Judd's decision to use the genre of graphic nonfiction to tell this story makes all the differences. We can always read about the complications associated with HIV/AIDS. But how often do we see images of these complications? Some of the pictures of Pedro with shingles are incredibly jarring. Toward the end of the book, his body is so gaunt and hollow that his former self is difficult to recognize. These images force people to connect with the material -- to see the pain, to dislike the pain, and perhaps care enough to find a way to end the pain.

Beyond this, however, I'm not sure if we would ever have been exposed to this story in particular were it not in graphic comic form. Judd is not a prose writer or an essayist. He is a cartoonist. This is how he tells stories. His exclusive perspective would have no other outlet were it not for this comic book.

In Judd's work since Pedro & Me, we continue to see how Pedro has left his mark. In July 2001, Judd, now working on The Green Lantern, helped to foster the storyline of Terry, a gay boy who is beaten up because of his sexuality. In 2003, he began working on The Green Arrow and in December 2004, he helped to introduce Mia, a teen runaway with HIV. Judd's socially conscious comic-ing, even in the superhero genre, is an interesting development that shows where his graphic nonfiction work is merging with his graphic fiction. It's nice to see that the passion evident in Pedro & Me hasn't gone away.

It's especially fulfilling to see Judd's continued, passive activism because of how integral Pedro and Pedro & Me was to his progression as a cartoonist and a storyteller. After all, even though Judd helped to highlight HIV/AIDS issues with his story of Pedro, Pedro's story helped Judd's personal and professional development, too.

"Pedro helped me find my voice," Judd said in the piece he wrote for The Advocate. "The first story you tell has to be a personal one, and he gave that to me. He really did."

Has anyone else read Pedro & Me, which has now been out for over ten years? What do you think about it?

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