Here’s at least one problem with HIV, Dear Reader, one that’s rarely considered—the disease’s psychosocial shrapnel.
There’s a human cost, the cost of healthcare, the cost to economy through a depleted labor-force, the emotional cost. But there’s also and often unmeasured, un-measurable psychosocial cost paid by a generation, my generation as the Who would say. Ours is a generation who saw the pure excesses of earlier days, of the 70s and the early/mid 80s. And in just a few short years, we’d be ready, we’d be rearing to go, excited about painting our own towns our own shades of red. But of course that unique sense of self-annihilation that’s achieved through sexual excess never came for us.
By the mid-90s already, HIV was something of a permanent social condition. Was a cure off the cards? At least at that time, the answer seemed, “Yeah, maybe, for now I guess.” And the health implications also had a diffuse and often unnoticed psychosocial impact. What became of the generation who saw the sexual excesses of just days prior? That same generation that stood in line to enact hedonistic excesses of their own, but, due to shifting landscape, found that they couldn’t without evoking dire consequences?
What would you become, what could you possibly become, if you were a member of an actual doomed generation? If the world you would be an adult in was actually more dangerous, and allowed for smaller doses of essential liberty? 1980 was the Year of the Monkey, and any born in that year or slightly earlier, would know firsthand of the possibility for hedonistic excess. Because the fallout of such excess was plain to see, almost everywhere at once. By the next Year of the Monkey, 1992, the possibility of hedonistic excess on the scale of that of previous generations was simply unthinkable. HIV couldn’t be dealt with, couldn’t be negotiated with, couldn’t be reconciled, and above all, couldn’t be fixed. But it could be evaded. So the psychosocial outlook for an entire generation amended itself, almost overnight.
If you’re a Metal Monkey, if you’re born in 1980 or earlier, you’ll understand this intuitively. If you’re the next Monkey down the line, a Water Monkey, you’re out of luck. You’ll have no idea what it feels like to stand at the gates of adulthood, at the gates of Rock n Roll Paradise and see them slammed shut just before you can enter. If you’re a Water Monkey, you’d already have been born into a world that’s safer, smaller.
Writer Monty Nero’s genius, and it really is unmitigated genius, is to marry this intractable psychosocial impasse, the doom of a generation living in a smaller, safer, uglier world, with the discourse of psychological self-mastery that comes with the superhero genre. As the recent Iron Man Three has demonstrated (as have countless other great books over the years), the superhero genre works because we animate ourselves into the role of the superhero. However inconceivable, it is at least slightly conceivable (slightly, slightly) that we can at least at some future point be like whichever hero we’re reading about and admire.
The superhero genre allows us to imagine ourselves into being something better. But what if all the anger and the eloquence and the simple bleeding out into fear of the Doomed Generation becomes invested with the promise of the superhero genre? Nero has some thoughts on this, and he lays them out in Death Sentence.
The idea itself deserves credit. The sheer audaciousness of bringing together in a single cultural mashup, the upward trending genre of superheroes with the dystopian-infused “We saw Paradise man, but the club was already full,” of living in a post-HIV social reality is rarely seen in any genre. For Nero just to have reached this point, just the act of considering each of these separate social narratives through the lens of the other, announces him as a singular artist, with a contribution worthy of ongoing critical examination.
But it’s not only a question of having the insight to marry together these two seemingly mutually-exclusive genre—it’s also a question of the execution of the narrative. And again, Nero steps up to the plate in a major way. What would the ordinary, normal world of everyday people look like, if a Doomed Generation were suddenly endowed with superpowers and a life expectancy of no longer than six months? Maybe it would look a lot like Big Government enacting measures to limit personal liberty. (Pick a copy of Death Sentence #1 this September and read for yourself how artfully Nero arcs and wends from HIV-but-with-superpowers to questions of the state in relation to the self).
Here’s the pitch then, Dear Reader. If you’re a Metal Monkey, and the appearance of HIV damaged your sense of future, Death Sentence will read like all your favorite episodes of Doctor Who, like every emotion you’ve never realized you’ve had. But if you’re not, if you’ve been born into a world that’s already been rendered safer and smaller, and just a tiny bit uglier, then Death Sentence will read like only the best parts of Watchmen—a social analysis that exceeds the medium of comics, easily the equal of Dostoyevsky or Dickens.