Authenticity can't be faked; appropriated, impersonated, sure. Not faked.
Skeletal from speed, alive (but barely), David and another boy he says he needs, but doesn't love, Willy, score passes from the Salvation Army for a couple of days in welfare hotel. The door to their room has been sawn off, two feet at the top, two feet at the bottom, "So the security can evict you easy," says Willy. David's thoughts turn inwards: "Also means any creep can crawl into room when you're lost in dreams." The bed looks like maggoty meat, worse. David and Willy ditch the room and decide to sleep on the street. "Better," thinks David.
Autobiography and memoir cast about in the ephemeral and require small things (details) to spark. Memories and the act of remembering translate (exchange) the short-lived into tangible bits for final preservation in the amber of conversations, books, art; these sub-atomic specifics make memories believable, real. Why would an author take time to invent something so unimaginative, so specific as a sawn-off door unless it's to bulwark veracity? 7 Miles a Second attests to the authentic and tells a story of a genuine character, a real man, David Wojnarowicz — an exemplar of what it is to live, to suffer, to be lonely, to be human, to want to escape, to be unapologetic and to be pissed off about all of it.
David Wojnarowicz died of AIDS-related complications in 1992. He was thirty-seven. 7 Miles a Second tells stories from Wojnarowicz's life as a prostitute, homeless person, AIDS patient, artist and most of all, human being. Originally published by DC's Vertigo Comics in 1996 — my mind boggles at the thought of 7 Miles a Second and what would be the top-selling book at DC that month, DC Versus Marvel Comics, side-by-side on a Diamond order sheet — 7 Miles a Second has been republished (seventeen years later) by Fantagraphics as its creators intended, oversized and with the original watercolors by Marguerite Van Cook intact that were changed for the Vertigo release. Yes, 7 Miles a Second is Wojnarowicz's words and his world, but very much the creation of artist James Romberger and colorist Van Cook.
Pause. Sometime in the 1980s, Romberger shows his work to Jack Kirby at a convention. Kirby looks at Romberger's work and says, "Kid, you're one of the best. But put your work in galleries. Don't do comics. Comics will break your heart." Now there's an epigraph or an epitaph. 7 Miles a Second is a graphic novel in plainest sense. The narrative compels even though it's less like a comic book and more like an illustrated manuscript, almost, and yet it is very much a comic book. Like a great piece of music, a painting, sculpture, poem, 7 Miles a Second is an artistic statement that stirs emotions, comic book as art gallery fugitive.
Like Kirby (and Wojnarowicz), details imbue Romberger's art: freak show posters of two-headed men and a roach yoked to a cart hang on the walls of a pool hall gone-to-seed, a display window stuffed with sporting goods shows a mannequin scuba-diving, swim trunks, a tennis racket, books, watches, sunglasses, more; a nightmare train its head a mammoth spews televisions, shit, entrails and thorns; a car dashboard so suffuse with demons, dinosaurs, monsters, bones and other road stuffs it appears like a hallucination; all of these parts and pieces mesmerize, endow stillness, and create a desire to look and to look again, rewarded indolence.
When Wojnarowicz isn't trying to plain survive, he is, as he says at the hotel, "lost in dreams." As the tether to reality goes slack, Romberger gets to interpret Wojnarowicz's inner-world. In dreams, Romberger's panels splinter, he suspends the sleeper, foregrounds him in white space outside of the jutting frames. Inside, a giant wasp crashes a dinner party, a man morphs into a dog before being gunned down, and an idealized Wojnarowicz goes Godzilla on a church. 7 Miles a Second becomes Romberger's master class on what one can do with a comic book.
With such imagined images it's unimaginable to picture these pictures without Van Cook's watercolors. She possesses a cinematographer's eye, the appearance of effortless skill that only comes from years of practice, of dedication to craft. Her work conveys a specific (that word again) moment in time or of a place. Singular shades and tones that exist in wide desert places or are long gone from pulsating stars that were Manhattan's Forty-Second Street in the early 1970's — "each little gesture in the movement of the planet in its canyons and arroyos" as Wojnarowicz puts it.
Van Cook finds the colors of memory, hers, mine, and yours. In one of Wojnarowicz's many efforts to seek safety (to escape), he recalls a time he and Willey chanced upon a derelict school bus. Willey boosts David through a window as he tries to slip inside to rest, to sleep, to dream. David quickly learns he's not welcome. The bus's tenet punches David in the face. The puncher shouts: "Ya ain't gonna take over my bus. I was here first ya sonsabitches!" The yellow Van Cook uses for the school bus, an electric banana peel day-glow yellow, the kind of yellow that's not natural and is no longer used on school buses — a memory color, a shade of the past — Van Cook pulls that color from the collective unconscious.
7 Miles a Second burrows deep; Wojnarowicz's words, Romberger's cartooning and Van Cook's colors adhere. There's a meditative quality to this book. The words, images and colors stay with the reader and
crop up unbidden — it's the power of art to engender memories (actions), a requirement to consider a new way of understanding, a different translation.
In the last section of the book, "7 Miles A Second," David sits at his kitchen table. He smokes a cigarette and muses about his condition, his disease. Romberger makes it all look so real, so exact, the way the curtains are pulled back, the short distance between the stove to the chair to the table. Van Cook colors the room with a dolorous grey on the inside while muddy oranges and yellows creep up the walls of the buildings across the street — sadness over the inevitable. This image operates as a metaphor for the book; the reader becomes an understudy for Wojnarowicz. 7 Miles a Second is the kind of art one sits with, muses on, inhabits. A memoir tells who, what, where, when and how, the reader determines the why. This book transports and takes the reader places she or he has never been — or maybe has (?), places not on the map where one doesn't want to go, but must, if only as a tourist. In some ways, it's a kind of Baedeker, a guidebook that demonstrates resilience as much as direction, a kind of Battle of Algiers for those on the margins, but, really, for all of us.
Seven miles a second equates escape velocity, how fast one must go to shed gravity on a drive to the infinite. The cornerstone of comic books is escape; the ability to be faster than, more powerful than, to leap higher than. 7 Miles a Second achieves all of these things. Wojnarowicz rails against strictures, gatekeepers and forces that try to hold him in place. An escapist like Wojnarowicz knows it's not what one escapes from that is important, it's where one escapes to that makes the difference.
For more about 7 Miles a Second, read Keith Silva's interview with James Romberger and Marguerite Van Cook.
Keith Silva had no idea who David Wojnarowicz was before this project. Mr. Silva is better — perhaps wiser — for the experience. Follow @keithpmsilva on Twitter and read Interested in Sophisticated Fun?