Created by: Frederik Peeters
Published by: Houghton Mifflin
ISBN: 061882099X (Amazon)
His eyes are huge. Tremendous balls of a beautiful fury of life. Vibrant with hope and wonder, completely without guile. They are set in his face like saucers from space. Only identifiable at all because they hover so serenely with no intentions toward darting or flight. He looks into you. And about you. And through you. He is amazing. And you have romanticized every bit of him. Even though his eyes, while lovely, are really just normal lovely child-eyes. You have turned him into a unicorn, a rarity, a celestial gift. Because he’s dying. Or if not dying then at least close to it. Or if not close, then at least he is in some sort of danger. He lives under threat. And I mean, as do we all, right? But maybe he’s more at risk than you or anyone else you know. Probably. Maybe. And your heart breaks.
It was 1983 when I first heard about AIDS. I was in fourth grade. It would be another couple years before I realized it was an actual thing and not just a playground game the children played to ostracize their fellows according to the arbitrary rules of the schoolyard—a kind of cooties for the Reagan era. It had something to do with being gay or being a homo, whatever that was. But by the sixth grade I knew everything that anyone knew about AIDS and HIV. I knew it several times over and so did my classmates. We had the privilege of a handful of mandatory school assemblies devoted to the subject. I only actually remember two assemblies through junior high: the drug one and the AIDS one. And we had those two assemblies at least five times each. Probably more actually. I was a sixth-grader who had never seen real drugs in real life and had no idea how one could obtain them, but I knew all about pot and ludes and angel dust and coke and heroin and acid and how, basically, if I took any one of them, I’d probably be swallowing a mug of Drain-O within three months. I also knew about condoms and monkeys and sailors and homosexuals and dentists and needles and toilet seats and oral sex even though it would be a millennia until I would see a real girl in real life for real naked.
It was a weird and awkward time. AIDS and drugs were all anyone ever talked about for a while. The Russians too, I guess. And then eventually, the LA gangs and their inevitable spread south. But for a while, it was AIDS and drugs. Then I was in high school and nobody talked about drugs anymore. Mostly because they were all procuring and consuming drugs, probably. (I still had no idea how one could obtain drugs.11I was so cool.) And then I was in high school and Magic Johnson happened and suddenly no one cared about AIDS anymore either. I’m sure it was still a thing. It had to be. I just hadn’t heard about it in forever. No matter, I knew everything about it. After all, I was in junior high once.
The fact is, I don’t believe I’ve ever known anyone with HIV. I’ve known people who’ve died, sure. Old age, cancers, hiking accidents, suicides, ODs, even spontaneous exsanguination. Nobody AIDS though. And Magic Johnson is still alive, so maybe it’s not hard to stay alive with HIV. But he’s rich. And who knows. Maybe that matters. And of course it’s possible that they just haven’t told me they’ve got it. Not for fear of judgment likely, but maybe more just for whatever the reason is that people don’t talk about the very serious things that exert a kind of rule over their lives. Awhile back, I was afraid I was going to lose a nut or two. I didn’t really talk about it. If you’re reading this, it’s likely the first time you’ve heard of it. Even if we’re best friends. And man, as I write this it’s becoming increasingly clear that I really don’t know anything about HIV.
And of course this is all a put-on. I was well aware exactly how much or little I know about HIV before sitting down to write. But there’s still a scent of honesty here because it’s the book we’re talking about that alerted me to my deficiency on the subject. Blue Pills, even apart from and above being a fantastic comic, dropped hammers into the ceiling of the greenhouse in which I kept and cultivated the entire treasure of my AIDS and HIV knowledge.
I didn’t know that Blue Pills was autobiographical when I began it. And now I’ve ruined you for having the same experience as me. I didn’t realize it until maybe two-thirds through. Then it clicked and the whole thing became amazing. That Frederik Peeters was writing this story and writing this story about himself and those he held dear staggered me.
Backing up slightly.
Fred meets Cati a few times over the years that comprise their young twenties. He’s a sometimes shy, sometimes exuberant, sometimes moody guy trying to figure out life. She’s young and free and, well, Fred really knows so little about her that he can’t really describe her with any accuracy but to say: “One: What kind of girl is this who allows herself to drink champagne in a swimming pool with a wet t-shirt, while managing to remain classy and in good taste? Two: Good God… what magnificent breasts!” After crossing paths several times, he runs into her at a party and they strike up a comfortable rhythm and remain together for the rest of the book. Despite Cati dropping the other shoe soon after the party.
It’s 1999. Cati is divorced with a child. And that’s not the shoe. The clunk or thud or whatever sound that echoes through the rest of Fred’s life (and a thud that Cati certainly heard years earlier) is that both Cati and her son are HIV-positive. And Fred—who knows about what I learned from a bunch of junior high assemblies in 1986—is so entranced, comfortable, and at home with Cati that he says with a kind of passive-aggressive eff-yoo at fate: “So what?” Sure he’s terrified and confused and has no idea the import of what he’s agreeing to,22Not really he doesn’t because, like, who could? but he knows he wants into this life that is Cati’s. He wants a piece and a part. And so they work at it and they make things work.
And all of that, the fact of the set up and the fact that they love each other dearly and the fact that there’s a sick kid in the picture and the fact that fifteen years later they’re all still alive and that Frederik and Cati have an HIV-free child33These last two things aren’t revealed within the book (as it was published in 2001) but through simple Googling. Still, this is one of those things I didn’t know about HIV that is unveiled through the course of the story: HIV can be manageable enough that a man can safely reproduce with a woman who is positive. Safely for both himself and for their child. That’s like a lightning bolt revelation to me—and one that I might have been aware of had I actually known anyone with HIV. isn’t really the point of the book. The plot elements merely build the foundation for the point of the book: the evolution of Fred’s thoughts on the whole situation.
What does it mean that every time you stick your penis into the person you love more than anything—an act you mean for pleasure and to give pleasure—you might be pulling the trigger on your own demise? What does it mean for the woman you’re with that every time you have sex, she might have accidentally killed you? What about this sweet little boy? How will he get through those awkward teen years? It’s hard enough to talk to girls you’re into when the culmination of your youthful horniness won’t kill them. And what if that kid doesn’t even survive to be a teenager? Nothing, after all, is certain. And the anger. At science, at fate, at friends, at society. At death. What do you do about the anger?
This is what Blue Pills is about. The stuff that often matters so much more than the summary of events that make up our lives (and deaths). And Peeters does a good job keeping this from feeling pedantic—even when by the end he’s strayed almost entirely into rumination. He keeps the book feeling real, feeling close, feeling intimate. And that’s why when we look into the kid’s bright wide eyes, we can’t help but romanticize. Because there’s magic there. A magic that Peeters, through art and through script, unveils. And Peeters could have done that thing that everybody does when telling a story about something tragic like HIV: he could have made it tragic. He could have pulled at hearts and strings. He could have cultivated pity and mournfulness in the reader, but that’s the last thing he wants. Blue Pills is not a sad story. And there’s magic in that too.
Good Ok Bad features reviews of comics, graphic novels, manga, et cetera using a rare and auspicious three-star rating system. Point systems are notoriously fiddly, so here it's been pared down to three simple possibilities:
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