American Culture Studies Ph.D. Dissertations


Representations of HIV/AIDS in Popular American Comic Books, 1981-1996

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)


American Culture Studies

First Advisor

Jeffrey Allan Brown

Second Advisor

William Oliver Albertini

Third Advisor

Timothy Messer-Kruse

Fourth Advisor

Michael Decker


From 1981-1996, the United States experienced an epidemic of human immunodeficiency virus/acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (HIV/AIDS) that held profound implications for issues ranging from civil rights, public education, and sexual mores, to government accountability, public health, and expressions of heterosexism. Popular comic books that broached the subject of HIV/AIDS during the U.S. epidemic elucidate how America’s discourse on the disease evolved in an era when elected officials, religious leaders, legal professionals, medical specialists, and average citizens all struggled to negotiate their way through a period of national crisis. The manner whereby comic book authors, illustrators, and publishers engaged the topic of HIV/AIDS changed over time but, because comic books are an item of popular culture primarily produced for a heterosexual male audience, such changes habitually mirrored the evolution of the nation’s mainstream, heteronormative debates regarding the epidemic and its sociocultural and political implications. Through studying depictions of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in popular comic books, alterations in the heterocentric, national discourse emerge revealing how homophobic dismissals of the “gay plague” in the early 1980s gave way to heterosexual panic in the mid-1980s, followed by the epidemic’s reinterpretation as a national tragedy in the late-1980s. Ultimately, this study uncovers how, in the early 1990s, HIV/AIDS awareness became a national cause celebre and a fad effectively commoditized by the economic forces of American popular culture until its novelty waned when the epidemic phase of the U.S. HIV/AIDS crisis drew to a close in the mid-1990s. Throughout, representations of HIV/AIDS in popular American comic books show how comic book creators sought to elevate their medium beyond the confines of its perceived juvenile trappings by exploring topical and controversial material that would appeal to the expanding market of adult buyers that blossomed from the early 1980s until the comic book industry imploded circa 1994. In utilizing a matter of major sociocultural and political significance to achieve artistic and commercial aims, this study demonstrates how the business dictates of the comic book industry, principally the need to attract and retain readers, drove the medium’s creative considerations of the HIV/AIDS epidemic.