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