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The resurrection of David Wojnarowicz, via a recent biography, and now this collaborative comic of his work with James Romberger and Marguerite Van Cook, makes me wonder why it has taken us decades to pay tribute to forgotten saints, like him, whom we lost to AIDS, and the horrific pain, fear and ridicule they endured that made death easy by comparison. Perhaps thirty years and drug cocktails that have softened the diagnosis of the disease make it easier to face the nightmare that was AIDS, today. And collectively, our memory’s been worse: the Influenza Epidemic of 1916 was wiped from history books only to resurfaced one hundred years later, when once again flu threatens to threaten us.
People instinctively turn away from death, especially one that’s unstoppable; especially one that steals away the talented, the promising, the young. Maybe it’s an animal thing, paired with a human brain obsessed with immortality.
Much has been said about the generation of talent that was lost in the eighties when AIDS was untreatable. But what we lost was not just the progression of what that talent would have grown into, but as this bold comic attests, the specific, vitriolic, agitprop voice those artists created, to fight for their right for treatment, for human rights, and to voice the paths they traveled to death.
Two thirds of Wojnarowicz’s book (originally published by Vertigo Comic in 1996) is about his life as a kid, hustling the streets of New York City to survive (rent boy is just too cozy a term for what he went through). The other third howls at what it was like facing certain death from an untreatable “gay cancer.” These parts are glued together with Wojnarowicz’s dreams, which are sometimes nightmare reflections of his daymare life, other times a honeyed escape to a world of sweetness, nature, and relief beyond his waking grasp.
Van Cook’s coloring is uncomfortably brash, accurately capturing the acidic glare of neon and florescent signs on pale junkie skin at 2 AM with no sleep. The harsh coloring sets the scene for a Times Square of hustlers and desperate people, before Times Square reinvented itself as a big box shopping mall.
The colors aren’t the only thing askance with today’s sense of decorum and morality. Wojnarowicz’s survival as a street kid is dependent on the bucks middle-aged men pay him for blow jobs, sex, and company. If today’s readers are made uncomfortable by the harsh artwork, they’ll positively blanch at how oblivious society was then of the blatant pedophilia in its midst. Wojnarowicz’s purposeful exposure of one of his johns as a white, middle-class, hetero father foreshadows the abuse scandals the Boy Scouts and the Catholic Church have to reconcile today.
If the pedophile is the monster, it’s Wojnarowicz’s horrifically abusive parents that are the devil, exposing the ultimate horror: you need a license to drive a car, buy a gun, but anyone, even a sadistic maniac, can have a child. That a kid like Wojnarowicz was able to partially heal himself through his self-discovery of art is one of the strongest messages this book contains, especially for young readers.
While abhorring child abuse, modern readers aren’t much more comfortable recognizing the sexuality of kids. This is where Wojnarowicz’s writing is particularly brilliant, bringing readers right into the room where his teen self is manipulating a john for survival, coming of age into an adult world of sexuality while forced to fulfill his own needs for sex, comfort, love and a place to sleep, all at the same time. Romberger’s drawings aren’t always beautiful, but their gawky awkwardness mirrors the inept discomfort of Wojnarowicz’s adolescence.
For escape, Wojnarowicz turned to his dreams. Nightmares often parallel his life. But his dreams of escape are more telling. They are often about nature and being outdoors, away from city life. For him, nature was solace, but always slightly out of reach, never a promised constant.
Wojnarowicz’s tales of AIDS are the other dark bookend to the adolescent necessities of which he was denied. If ever someone deserved to grow up, deserved artistic recognition, deserved respite from hunger and homelessness, it was he. Instead AIDS, the U.S. government, and the hysteria the disease provoked guaranteed Wojnarowicz a untimely death.
Ultimately, the importance of his work is in how he shares his humanity, his rage and longings from that scary place. All alone, he leaves a voice for all of us, for when our diagnoses comes, for when we fall and can’t get up. Though unrecognized adequately in his lifetime for his art, though abandoned by family, society, and government, Wojnarowicz’s work was the one element that sustained him enough to know he mattered, and the thing that elevated him, both then and now, as a human being.
Wojnarowicz,’s work is important because even when labeled unsavable by parents, society, doctors—everyone—he made art. His art couldn’t rescue him from misery or from death. But art let him recognize for himself, who he was—and for us, by demanding we recognize who he was.
Wojnarowicz’s art is not supposed to look good over a sofa. His art is for when we all go into that dark cold night, for those times when our own voice raging is the only companion to our loneliness, for those times when fairness and life evaporate, and as truly starving artists, only art can save us.
7 Miles a Second
By David Wojnarowicz, James Romberger, and Marguerite Van Cook
Paperback, 9781606996140, 68 pp.