Page 45 Review by Stephen
"Far too affecting to review with any clarity at all," I wrote in 2000 (neatly evading my responsibilities).
Or as Neil Gaiman puts it, "Should be made compulsory reading. It's moving, honest, funny and romantic."
Indeed had this appeared for the first time now rather than in 2000 we would have made it semi-compulsory reading by offering it as Page 45s Comicbook Of The Month because of the clarity of the storytelling and the story it told.
Commendably objective yet far from detached, this is Judd's candid account of his tragically short friendship with Pedro Zamora, the boy from Cuba who grasped life by the throat without ramming it down anyone else's, then died shortly after filming MTV's Real World in San Francisco. Determined to become a doctor following his mother's death from cancer, Pedro was his family's greatest hope - a real high flyer who discovered, aged 17, that he was HIV-positive and decided instead to do everything he could to prevent others suffering his fate. He came out in a lecture to his entire school, toured others round America, educating with humour and honesty, then finally decided to try to reach millions through the reality TV soap opera. He did a pretty good job, as does Winnick.
Vitally Judd reveals his own initial natural trepidation on first hearing there'd be a housemate with HIV, when AIDS to him in 1994 was one enormous, faceless horror story full of disease, death, misinformation and publicised panic. Page after page shows Judd attempting to reconcile his self-proclaimed liberal outlook with his genuine anxiety before entering the house: who will it be? It'd be just Judd's luck if it was his roommate. Until he finally meets Pedro, and he is Judd's roommate and then, in the space of just a couple of panels: click. Friends for life. And you can see why Zamora was such a great school educator: charming, witty, honest, self-deprecating, totally committed yet young - a living example that, should you be in his audience, it could easily happen to you.
Gaiman's right about it being funny as well. The two friends make perfect foils for each other's own brand of humour so that this comes off as a celebration, reliving the glorious highs of their teasing exchanges as well as the gradual blossoming of Judd's love for fellow housemate Pam, and Pedro's for Sean. But there again:
"The low points of living in the house were mostly about fear. Whereas most of us were concerned with being boring, Pedro was concerned with his goal. He wasn't just living in the house being filmed. He had an agenda, a purpose, a sense of responsibility. This is what a gay man of colour living with AIDS is like. Really like.
"He was living with AIDS. He wasn't sick. He could hold a job. He could fall in love. Be in a relationship. Do everything and anything anyone else could do. He wasn't going to be the "sickly AIDS boy" from MTV. He was going to show them that you could succeed and live with AIDS and HIV.
"But he wasn't. It was a lie. Pedro was sick."
Call me a wuss, but I can barely read any two pages of this book before my chest starts juddering but at this point, just over halfway through the book, my throat starts joining in. And I have just reread it again in order to attempt this second review because I truly fucked up nine years ago and failed to do this justice. It's such a riveting read that when first published it was snatched from one pair of hands by another all night and morning when I took it to a New Year's Eve party - and it was no dull party. It's also thoroughly accessible. Far from being egotistical, what Winick's doing here is twofold: to reprise Pedro's message, disseminating it to a different audience, and to selflessly pay tribute to the boy's own brilliance by bringing him alive on the page. I don't think anyone could do better by their friend.
Winnick's cartooning (it's easy to forget he was an artist after all these years writing superheroes for DC), influenced as it undoubtedly is by Todd McFarlane, works so much better as cartooning rather than superhero posturing, and yet its powerful enough that when Pedro's illness reaches the point where he can no longer communicate, you can see him absolutely heaving with a frustration that is painful to behold.
"He wanted to talk. It was bursting out of his eyes. "He's losing words," the doctor explained. The PML was affecting his ability to speak. He felt and understood everything going on... He just couldn't remember the words to describe them."