If you’ve ever followed the adventures of Marvelman or Cliff Secord aka Rocketeer, then you may be familiar with Eclipse Enterprises, the American comic book publisher. Founded in 1977, Eclipse produced many successful titles including one of the first modern graphic novels, Sabre, created especially for the comic book market. Despite this, the company folded in the mid-nineties (reportedly due to huge losses of stock in a flood and quite a bit of poor financial management.) A lesser-known fact about Eclipse is that they produced non-sporting, non-fiction trading cards addressing significant political events in American history, such as the assassination of John F. Kennedy and political corruption in New York City, including one 1989 set called Rotten to the Core: The Best and Worst of New York City’s Politics (which happens to include the first collectible trading card to feature Donald Trump.) Another theme Eclipse addressed was HIV and AIDS.
The aim of the cards was to raise awareness and provide information about people and services, as well as facts about living with the disease. Many of the cards feature famous personalities who lived and sometimes died with AIDS – Freddie Mercury being one of the better-known stories – and people who were involved in campaigning and charity work, such as Princess Diana and Elizabeth Taylor.
Made in 1993, one foil-wrapped pack contained 12 cards and came with a condom. 110 cards made up the entire set and you could buy a turquoise vinyl ring binder and plastic pocket sheets to keep your collection safe. One card had a checklist so you could tick off all 110 as you got them. No shinies I’m afraid, Pokémon fans. Or Black Lotus alpha editions. But they do hold a huge amount of information.
With artwork on the front and around 300 words on the back, the cards are detailed. Most are dedicated to people with AIDS: Rudi Gernreich, fashion designer and gay activist who designed the ‘monokini’ in 1964; Hill Street Blues actor Larry Riley; and artist Keith Haring, famous for his bold murals and a legacy rooted in gay rights and AIDS activism. Other categories include ‘Medical Facts’, giving practical advice about getting tested and the spread of HIV; ‘AIDS and society’ which includes information about governmental, religious and legal responses to AIDS; ‘the fight against AIDS’ where famous activists, doctors and lawyers feature (as well as one card with AIDS hotline numbers); ‘AIDS affects the world’ with cards dedicated to Africa, Europe and Latin America; and finally ‘Other sexually transmitted diseases’ with information about syphilis and gonorrhoea.
Whilst most cards are dedicated to men, thirteen women feature among the 110 cards, and one card is titled “Women and AIDS”. The card dedicated to Republican spokeswoman Mary Fisher reads “White, female, upper-class, heterosexual, Mary Fisher does not present the stereotyped face of a person with AIDS”. Fisher continues her work as a high-profile AIDS activist today. Sadly, many of the stories featured on the cards highlight the fear of AIDS and shame in talking openly about an HIV diagnosis. Larry Riley claimed his dramatic weight loss was due to kidney problems and philosopher Michel Foucault’s 1984 obituaries made no mention of HIV or AIDS. It wasn’t until two years later that it was publicly announced that Foucault’s death was AIDS related.
Interestingly for us at the Royal College of Nursing, one card features “Jane Doe’”, a New York nurse. She was infected with HIV in 1988 during a scuffle with a prisoner who had been admitted to hospital. After being accidentally jabbed with a hypodermic syringe containing the patient’s blood, she contracted AIDS. With a prognosis of five years to live, the nurse sued the state for compensation. It was a high-profile case, and she was known as “Jane Doe” to ensure her privacy. She was granted $5.4 million, which the card states was “probably the largest award given in the United States for a person’s becoming infected with HIV”.
The cards feature in our current exhibition at the Royal College of Nursing Library and Heritage Centre, which explores the role of nursing in pandemics, from the Spanish flu to today. Displayed alongside the cards are a 1988 anti-AIDS medical kit, loaned to us by the British Red Cross Museum and Archive, a copy of a 1987 Sunday Times supplement from our own collection titled “This issue is about AIDS. It is also about you”, and Madonna’s Like a Prayer cassette tape, which includes “Fact about AIDS” in the paper sleeve.
The display highlights a small sample of just how HIV and AIDS were communicated to the public and the variety of methods used to heighten awareness. Producing a set of collectible cards around the subject was one of the more unique ways of doing this, while at the same time raising money for charity, with 15% of proceeds going to the American charity Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. More than twenty years on, the cards help us remember the too many stories of personal struggle and the power of collective activism in the fight to end the stigma surrounding AIDS.
With a background in arts and museums, Frances Reed currently coordinates the public exhibitions and events programme at the Royal College of Nursing Library and Heritage Centre. When not curating exhibitions on the history of nursing, Frances can be found obsessively drawing, climbing up a wall or playing flamenco guitar very badly.