Along with fighting alien menaces and criminal masterminds, the "Green Arrow" comic book will now feature a sidekick engaged in a more personal struggle -- this one involving HIV.
It's the first major comic book to deal with HIV, and it brings a measure of hard-edged reality to the usually fanciful world of costumed crime fighters.
In the latest issue of "Green Arrow," set for publication Wednesday, a teenage runaway named Mia -- who has been in the care of the title hero for two years -- discovers that her time spent as a street-dweller and prostitute has resulted in her contracting the virus that causes AIDS.
Writer Judd Winick, who oversees the "Green Arrow" story line, sees it as a way to explore socially conscious themes while also giving the Mia character extra motivation to make a difference in the world.
"We've been hinting all along the way that she's interested in taking up the mantle, being a sidekick, getting out there in the streets and helping out," Winick said. "Green Arrow won't hear of it."
The news that she has HIV leads Mia to push Green Arrow even more. Fighting crime, Winick said, is what she wants to do with her life. "So he allows her to slap on a costume and become his sidekick, which has the silly name of Speedy," Winick said. "It's not as a death wish, but she can't fool around anymore. This isn't about an abbreviated life span. It is about life having focus," he added.
Speedy originally was a boy sidekick, but the character is now grown up and goes by the more mature name of Arsenal.
Winick may be known to some from his 1994 stint on MTV's roommate reality show "The Real World," on which he appeared with Pedro Zamora, who died that year after a public battle with AIDS.
That experience, along with other friends who have contracted the virus, made the Mia story line a personal one for the writer. He said he wanted to approach HIV from the point of view of other young people.
"Mia is coming to terms with it in the way most young people are. It isn't about death and dying. Young people, for good or for bad, are still pretty fearless. With drug combination therapy, people are living a very long time," Winick said. "She seems to be unafraid of death, she's mostly feeling like no one is ever going to love her. She's HIV-positive, and who's going to want to be with her now?"
Mia won't be lonely for long. As Speedy, she will later join Robin, Cyborg and Raven in "Teen Titans," DC Comics' popular youth hero series.
Although some may perceive the HIV story line as a downer, Winick said it's important for comics to address real-world matters.
"Comics have a long history of telling lessons," he said. "They tell stories through metaphor, but sometimes I feel we don't need the metaphor. Why should it be that Mia contracts some alien virus?"