AIDS has been in the public eye for over three decades now. As understanding of the disease has grown and treatments have become more advanced, the stigma and fear associated with being HIV-positive has decreased, though they have not vanished altogether. Tom Bouden’s Positive offers hope for those living with or affected by HIV. It also serves as a powerful acknowledgment that in spite of all society’s supportive changes, managing HIV, emotionally and physically, is no walk in the park.
Positive begins by introducing us to Sarah and Tim, as Sarah is about to uncover her HIV diagnosis. She’s been feeling sick for a while, but wouldn’t have guessed that HIV had anything to do with it. She doesn’t know from whom she contracted it, and the comic doesn’t explore this — she’s too busy dealing with her imminent mortality, hurrying to write her will, planning to quit her job, and so forth. As she realizes the extent of treatment possibilities, and feels the strength of her partner’s support, life begins to look a bit brighter. But when drug cocktails start, so do their side effects — she’s constantly nauseous, dizzy, and tired. Much of the book focuses on how hard it is to find the right treatment, and how the side effects often need to be treated by more drugs. Managing HIV appears to be exhausting, tedious, and tenuous, but in Sarah’s case, it works out for the best.
The story also focuses on how an HIV diagnosis affects one’s view of their community. Sarah and Tim’s relationship is rock-solid, and his support of her and his concerns about his own status (he’s HIV-negative, but understandably nervous to get tested) are moving and well-written. Questions about their continued sex life (and it does continue successfully) are addressed with visual and verbal directness. Sarah’s relationship with her long-suffering, crabby mother, and her choice to not disclose her status to a woman so wrapped up in her own problems, is a great example of how not everyone will understand or sympathize with the illness. Finally, Sarah’s friendship with an African woman at the HIV clinic with a story far different and more difficult than her own, is a subtle reminder of how far the world has yet to go in preventing and treating HIV and AIDS.
At about 45 pages, this short comic is far from perfect. The story structure feels a bit like a pamphlet that would be handed to you at the doctor’s office. It’s purposefully universal and general — it doesn’t scratch far below the emotional surface, as Blue Pills, another AIDS-focused graphic novel does, nor does it focus on gay issues surrounding HIV. This is an interesting choice, given that the majority of Bouden’s work has been explicitly gay-themed. But, it’s earnest and straightforward, with bubbly, Tintin-esque illustrations, and just enough of a twist at the end to leave you feeling positive.