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Comic book warns of AIDS dangers

Donnie Young wanders the streets of West Baltimore, talking to drug users and ex-users, spreading the word about IV drug use and AIDS.

He carries a small stack of comic books, which he presses upon anyone who will read one.

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"You seen my book?" he asks a man in his late 20s, handing him a copy.

Young moves on to other men standing around the Eutaw Street entrance of the Lexington Market. The man in his 20s is still leaning against the wall, reading.

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"That's good," he says when he finishes. "I like that."

* For Donnie Young, Baltimore native, former intravenous drug user, ex-con and comic book publisher, reaching addicts and black youths has become a personal crusade.

For the past five years, Young, 45, has devoted most of his time to a grass roots effort to warn black youths, particularly IV drug users, about the dangers of contracting the human immunodeficiency virus by sharing needles and having sex without using condoms.

His weapon in the war against the fatal acquired immune deficiency syndrome is the comic book, an explicit, streetwise story with a message that hits hard. The story's central character, Johnny, dies of AIDS by page four.

Young, who wrote the comic book with his friend Charles Johnson, decided to publish it because he believed "traditional" methods of educating black youths weren't working.

"We were tired of seeing our friends die," he said. "I've been a pallbearer at least eight times in five years."

Johnson, who illustrated the book and created the story line, did not live to see it published. Also an IV drug user -- who met Young while both were serving time -- Johnson tested positive for HIV in late 1988. He died four months later.

"We were both IV drug users," said Young, who was a user for more than 25 years. He's been drug-free for almost six years, he said, and when last tested, was not HIV-positive.

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After printing 10,000 copies of the comic book in November, using donations from friends and acquaintances, Young has launched a marketing campaign with the help of two friends, Baltimore residents Otis Knight and Sharon Williams.

Within the past few weeks, Heart of the City Inc. -- the fledgling organization promoting the book -- has gotten a few small orders, from groups like Baltimore's Partnership for Drug-Free Neighborhoods. Heart of the City is pursuing governmental agencies, AIDS organizations, condom companies and even pro basketball teams as potential sponsors of the comic book.

Until now, however, Young's primary method of distribution has been walking the streets, giving the books away and asking people to pass them on when they're finished.

Young believes his message will hit home because he knows the target audience intimately.

When he first met Johnson at the Maryland Correctional Institution in Hagerstown, Young was serving three years for auto theft. His drug use and criminal activity continued after he was released, resulting in another year served for larceny in 1967 and finally seven years served from 1974 to 1981 for armed robbery and drug convictions, according to court records.

After his release, he tired to turn his life around, but failed.

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"I went back to drugs. I went back to that life," he said. "But then, on my 40th birthday, someone gave me a birthday party. I thought, if someone cares about me this much, if they think that much of me, next year, I'll be drug free and I'll give myself a $$ party."

With the help of his longtime companion, Phyllis Poore -- with whom he has a child -- his church and his dedication to help others, he has managed to stay drug free, he said.

He mourns the loss of his friend Charles Johnson, whom he considered a "creative genius."

"Charles put everything into this project," said Young. "In a lot of ways, this could be his story."

Illustrations in the comic book are of street scenes in Baltimore, and there are passages about getting into a "shooting gallery" -- a place to inject drugs -- showing addicts sharing needles and shooting drugs into their necks.

"I know where a gallery is," says one of Johnny's friends, after persuading him to get high.

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"You know, it's 2 bucks a head," says a man at the door. "I think I've got some tools that y'all can share. Somebody used them and left them here."

Four years ago, when Young and Johnson created the first prototype of the book, they sought financial backing from the Baltimore City Health Department and got a $7,000 grant to produce 5,000 copies.

At that time, Young said, "the material [the department] was distributing was a pamphlet about two girls, white characters, you know, like Veronica and Archie. They were more like preppie, middle-classcharacters.

"We thought that wouldn't interest black readers," he added. "We thought we could do something more interesting, more captivating."

Richard W. Dunning, director of planning for preventive medicine, who worked on the project, thought the comic book was a great idea but was disappointed with the final product.

"The problems our staff had with it were not corrected, and we were not willing to use it as it was," he said. "But the idea of a comic book is a good one. There's nothing wrong with the approach."

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Dunning said staff members who reviewed the book had problems with typographical errors and thought certain aspects of the story "did not ring true" with the black community.

But Paul Kelly, a Baltimore-AIDS education consultant, disagrees.

"I think the product has great potential and will capture the attention of the kids," said Kelly, a black man and former IV drug user who tested HIV-positive two years ago.

And Kelly thinks Young turned the typos into a plus by adding a contest on the back page. Every six months, readers who identify the most mistakes will receive a $1,000 U.S. Savings Bond, encouraging people to read the book at least twice.

Kelly's objections involved the specificity of language, primarily using the terms "HIV" and "AIDS" interchangeably.

"I would encourage him to go back and talk to a few more people" about the difference between being HIV-positive and having full-blown AIDS, he said.

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Other experts in AIDS education said the comic book approach might be effective with groups such as IV drug users.

"This type of educational brochure can be effective for several reasons," said Robert N. Kohmescher, a spokesman for AIDS education at the federal Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta. "It's dramatic, it captures readers' attention by telling a story and it conveys facts without sounding like something written in biology class."

Irwin Rothenberg, administrator of education for Health Education Resource Organization -- an AIDS education and service organization serving Baltimore -- said he has other comic books about AIDS but this is the first with a real story line.

Young created the non-profit Heart of the City Inc. more than a decade ago. Although it now serves primarily as the distribution vehicle for the comic book, titled "Tragedy of Errors, High-Risk Behavior and AIDS," Young envisions the organization as one day becoming a multifaceted youth program for Baltimore. He has already organized several youth activities through the Heart of the City organization.

To date, Young hasn't made any money on the comic book venture. He survives, he said, because Poore, his loyal companion of 24 years, supports his goals.

"I have a good woman," said Young, a trim man who appears to have weathered years of drug abuse and prison well. "She works two jobs so I can pursue my dream."

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Young hopes eventually to draw a salary from the sale of comic books and other products, such as Heart of the City T-shirts. The comic book has been translated into Spanish, and Young plans sequels as well, focusing on other characters introduced in the first book.

Regardless of minor criticisms from health officials or AIDS educators, response to the comic book on the street recently was unanimous.

"Anyone who's been through that life will recognize it well," said Melvin Washington, a former IV drug user of 20 years, while standing outside the Lexington Market.


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