David Wojnarowicz’s Shocking, Amazing Comic Book

Reading between the lines.
March 1 2013 9:30 AM

Highbrow Trash

A harsh, politically aware comic from the late artist David Wojnarowicz returns.

(Continued from Page 1)

Confessional authenticity has, of course, been a popular mode for comics, and 7 Miles a Second could perhaps be compared in part to autobiographical sexual comics by folks like R. Crumb, Chester Brown, or David Heatley. One difference, perhaps, is the conscious use of porn tropes—the way Wojnarowicz and Romberger frame the sequence so it deliberately references peep-hole porno films of the What the Butler Saw variety. For many comics creators, confession's authenticity and individualism is a way to distance themselves from the pulpy genre hackery and corporate authorship of superhero comics. Wojnarowicz, Romberger, and Van Cook, on the other hand, seem to want to use the comics form to underline the confessional's inherent degradation. The page after the sex scene, for example, shows a reptilian monster looking through a porthole.

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Since we've just been looking through peepholes ourselves, the reference seems pointed, though pointed in what direction it's difficult to say. Is looking at the weird critter analogous to looking at the prostitute? Or is the demonic face in our position looking at us? Who is observed and from what cultural vantage? Are we the outsider looking in? Or the outsider being watched?

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The other way in which 7 Miles a Second breaks with most confessional comics—and, indeed, breaks with most art comics, period—is in its impassioned and unapologetic turn toward agitprop in the later part of the book. Here, as ever, Wojnarowicz's art was inextricably intertwined with his activism and his response to the AIDS crisis. That political response, as Christopher Reed notes in his 2011 monograph Art and Homosexuality, put Wojnarowicz in tension with the art establishment. A good part of that tension, Reed's book suggests, was rooted in the art world's commitment to the avant-garde ideal of art as individual vision, which asserts that "artistic identity is inborn in a manner more essential than sex or sexual identity." To the dealers and curators of Wojnarowicz's time, his use of art as AIDS activism was difficult to embrace or defend. Even now, some have trouble reconciling his art’s political dimension. When Wojnarowicz's video "Fire in the Belly" was attacked by Christian groups and removed from the Smithsonian, many defended the video as a personal expression of anger over AIDS. But, as Romberger wrote in a post on the site I edit, the piece was not just a personal expression—it was a deliberate, political attack on the Catholic Church and its role in the AIDS crisis.

Wojnarowicz, then, despite his lofty reputation, was and remains a controversial figure in the art world—someone who couldn't quite be fit into avant-garde ideology. What better way to short-circuit that ideology, therefore, than by using a non-avant-garde art form like comics?

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Toward the end of the book, as you can see above, Romberger moves away from a traditional comics format, instead juxtaposing large blocks of text (hand-lettered for this new edition) with single, vivid illustrations. Still, the imagery is recognizably drawn from comics: whether the gothic horror in the panel above or the adolescent power fantasy of the image below.

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Click to enlarge.

If Roy Lichtenstein took pulp comics into the gallery, ironizing and domesticating their tropes for an audience of connoisseurs, 7 Miles a Second inverts the process. The creators aren’t using high-art techniques to turn comics into art. Rather, they are using comics' resources—its connections to genre, its capacity for mass production, its history of collaboration—in order to create a space for the communal, politically engaged, tasteless, and passionate art that they care about.

Author David Wojnarowicz.
Author David Wojnarowicz

This re-release, then, is a bittersweet event. Despite their book's obvious ambition, Wojnarowicz, Romberger, and Van Cook did not really succeed in opening a way. Despite the ascendance of wonderful queer comics like Ariel Schrag's Likewise and Edie Fake's Gaylord Phoenix—and of Bechdel, whose Fun Home was an award-winning best-seller—7 Miles a Second still represents a road largely avoided. And comics' marginality to the world of high culture continues to be seen, for the most part, as a weakness to be negotiated and finessed rather than as an asset and a challenge. Still, even if 7 Miles a Second never went mainstream, this new edition remains a stirring reminder that everything pushed to the side isn't gone.

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7 Miles a Second by David Wojnarowicz, James Romberger, and Marguerite Van Cook. Fantagraphics.

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