In general, comics are most successful in presenting themselves as art when they embrace sobriety and control. Art Spiegelman's Holocaust narrative Maus wends its way through small black and white panels, the repetitive insistence of its Jews-as-mice conceit only serving to emphasize its distance from whimsy. Chris Ware's Jimmy Corrigan follows its protagonist through meticulously bleak boxes, the flat colors and preternaturally perfect lines charting an emotional trauma defined through calibrated absence. And Alison Bechdel's Fun Home uses resolutely sober cartooning to illustrate a memoir of closeted repression. It's almost as if comics are so outré to literary readers that they can't bear much more weirdness. If a comic is going to speak to high art, it needs to keep the volume down.
One look at the cover of 7 Miles a Second and you know that keeping the volume down is not on the agenda.
Ladies and gentlemen, I give you weirdly gaudy man with plant leg running over an apocalyptic bioindustrial cliff, with horror skeleton and self-immolation insets just in case you were afraid that things had gotten too tasteful. It's art!
7 Miles a Second is in some ways more firmly fixed in the visual art canon than are Maus or Jimmy Corrigan or Fun Home. The comic—now being reissued by Fantagraphics—was written by legendary art star David Wojnarowicz, with illustrations by his friends James Romberger and Marguerite Van Cook (both of whom occasionally write for my blog). The book was published by DC Comics' Vertigo imprint in 1996, four years after Wojnarowicz's death from AIDS.
It's a little bizarre to think that a comic about gay hustling and AIDS was put out by a mainstream superhero publisher in the mid-1990s, even on its “mature readers” imprint. And yet, as that cover suggests, the disjunction is also oddly right. 7 Miles a Second is in part a memoir of Wojnarowicz's experiences as a street hustler, in part a series of surreal set pieces, in part a rant against Reagan-era homophobia and indifference to the AIDS epidemic. It is exploitive and hyperbolic. The lowbrow trashiness of comics is, as it turns out, a perfect fit for the highbrow trashiness of the ‘80s New York arts scene the comic depicts.
In the image above, for example, unapologetically pulp sci-fi/horror imagery is juxtaposed with oversaturated colors and a semioblivious upper-crust milieu—as if decadent comics are crawling with an ominous preposterousness across the averted faces of decadent gallery-goers. The glowing diagonal image of the shirtless Wojnarowicz that dominates the page reads in part as trashy eroticized pulp—and in part as art-world eroticized male nude. Romberger's bric-a-brac layout and uncomfortably shifting perspective present the encounter between margins and center as a disturbing fever dream of antagonism, repulsion, disorientation, and lust.
That feared and desired encounter is in part the collision of comics and art—but it's also, and emphatically, the intermingling of queer and straight. Comics, then, for Wojnarowicz, Romberger, and Van Cook, become queerness. At the beginning of the book, for example, Wojnarowicz describes looking for tricks as a pre-teen hustler.
Marguerite Van Cook's watercolors (reshot from the original art for the reissue) are stunningly gaudy. The store-window display of the diver in the background and the liquid greens turn the city street into an oversaturated, sickly underwater fantasia. The lurid medium of comics compliments the lurid content of queerness.
After Wojnarowicz picks up a customer, the two men get a room next to a female prostitute. There's a hole in the wall, and the man gives David a blow job while the boy watches the woman and her john.
The tawdry coup de grâce is delivered when the female prostitute turns around, revealing that her torso is covered with ragged scars. "It had me in awe of the taboo," Wojnarowicz writes, "them unaware of us watching." The "us," of course, is not just Wojnarowicz and his customer, but the reader as well. The comics form makes everything hypervisible—hetero-sex and homo-sex side-by-side and one on top of the other; the wounds impossibly bright and available to be observed not just for an instant, but forever.