Aids: Grin And Bear It

"So what is this? A bunch of AIDS jokes? What's so damn funny about a pandemic devastating the world? Well, we have it and sometimes we find it amusing."

With that death-defiant credo, Tom Shearer and Beowulf Thorne launched Diseased Pariah News, an irreverent desk-top quarterly that claims to be the world's first and only humor magazine about AIDS. Just 30 pages long, the San Francisco-based periodical swiftly sold out its initial printing of 200 copies, requiring a run of 1,100 more. Issue number two, out last week, is selling well and has mail-order subscribers from as far off as Alabama. The instant success suggests the magazine is tapping into something AIDS patients have missed badly amid the grim facts of their illness.

If there is comedy to be wrenched from the jaws of the AIDS scourge, Shearer and Thorne seem eager to have the first laugh. The start-up issue carried a potluck mix of features that includes a worldly-wise advice column and an outrageous giveaway promo ("Hey kids! Want to win fabulous prizes? Just guess Tommy's December T-cell count"). Issue two has more of the same, but one headline captures the magazine's grinning-at-the-gallows tone: DARN, it reads, OUR CENTERFOLD IS SICK!

Shearer, a "retired" technical writer, is in fact hospitalized at the moment with a debilitating bacterial infection, the latest in his long bout with AIDS. He says the magazine's flippant name comes from a cartoon he saw after an airline had refused a seat to an AIDS patient. It showed a ticket clerk asking a customer, "And would you like the smoking, nonsmoking or diseased pariah section?" When he began work on the magazine a year ago, he recalls, all his HIV-negative friends were appalled, "but those who were HIV-positive thought: 'Wonderful!'"

Shearer's companion and copublisher Thorne, a 26-year-old graphic artist who is himself HIV-positive, says he sees the magazine as "being somewhere between Spy and Good Housekeeping." Most of all, the two seem determined to cast off the martyr image that AIDS patients bear. For Shearer, DPN's abrasive style sends a clear message to those who view infected people as "languishing saints" or "hug objects." Declares the opening statement: "Our editorial policy does not include the concept that AIDS is a Wonderful Learning Opportunity. We are just a couple-o-guys who ran into a Danger Penis and caught something we don't like very much. And we HATE teddy bears."

Even so, DPN is not all laughs. Reality stalks the comic-strip adventures of "Captain Condom," a kind of gay Superman who distributes condoms to the needy. "Strange," the captain muses over the death of yet another friend, "it seems a little less gut-wrenching every time. Am I losing my humanity as I lose my friends?"

Thorne says he will continue to publish the magazine whatever the outcome of his partner's illness. Writing from his hospital bed, Shearer himself seems undaunted: "I realized today that I am going to live to be 33, and 34 is not out of the question. 35? Who knows? When I was 27, I thought I'd be dead by now, and I sure ain't daid yet, buckaroo!" Shearer turned 33 last week.