Sign up for our free newsletter

Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.

Writing metaphorically about AIDS has often meant assembling armies of assassins and grim reapers: Randy Shilts’ classic history of the epidemic, And the Band Played On, opens with a section titled “Behold, a Pale Horse,” a reference to death’s steed in Revelation. In his graphic memoir, Blue Pills, Frederik Peeters’ symbol for infection is somewhat more benign. “You have as much chance of catching AIDS as you have of running into a white rhinoceros on your way out!” a laughing doctor tells Peeters. Two panels later Peeters draws a rhino in the room, joining him and his HIV-positive girlfriend, Cati; the animal is a threat, yes, but it’s rendered as ridiculously huge and unmoving, shadowed by the doctor’s snickering. Blue Pills, first published in Europe in 2001, isn’t exactly a comic memoir, but its hand-wringing has almost nothing to do with mortality—the story is more about living with HIV than dying from it. Frederik and Cati are a smart and artsy pair (they see an Atom Egoyan film on their first date), but they’re both deeply aware that neither of them is anybody’s idea of a great catch—he’s a struggling artist, she and her kid are seropositive, and what kind of romance can you generate with that much baggage? A fairly deep and affecting one, it turns out, even if that rhino has a way of trailing Frederik during his walks around town. That you can be even slightly funny about AIDS these days speaks to the improved treatment options for the virus—the book’s title refers to the drug regimen that Cati and her son are on. But Peeters is less interested in practical matters of T-cell counts than with the existential predicaments inherent to his new household. How sexually open can he be with Cati? How much of a disciplinarian is he permitted to be with her child? How much can he voice his ongoing fears of infection without threatening to wreck the relationship? It’s difficult to write clearly about this stuff, let alone draw, but Peeters can playfully imagine these abstractions visually. When Cati first tells him she’s HIV-positive, a host of words swim out of his head: “flight,” “rejection,” “pity,” “punishment.” And when Frederik starts wrestling seriously with HIV’s impact on his relationship with Cati—“What role does the illness play in our love? Do we owe it something?” he asks—he plants himself atop a woolly mammoth, as handy a representation of extinction and enormity as a writer can come by. Peeters’ line—thick, brushlike, a little wobbly—echoes the emotional uncertainty of the world he’s living in. Frederik and Cati perpetually look ready to collapse to the floor like a pile of coats, and Cati’s preschool-aged boy is a toothy, wide-eyed, slightly alien creature, a puzzle for his new father figure to solve. Not every representation is so clever—when Frederik and Cati resume their sex life, they’re drawn literally shedding their straitjackets. But even at its clunkiest, Blue Pills sleekly merges intellect, affection, and fearlessness—as Peeters’ own story proves, a combination that’s never easily achieved.