We all know that some of the most interesting stories are stranger than fiction. The story that Joyce Brabner and Mark Zingarelli tell in Second Avenue Caper is one such story. It tells the improbable true-story of how a marijuana-dealing doctor in led to the importation of drugs to fight AIDS in the early 1980s. It’s a tale of nobility and sacrifice in the face of a terrible tragedy, of how a community rallied together to help save friends who were battling one of the most vicious scourges that had ever faced a frequently uncaring world. It’s also a story that involves drag queens, drug smugglers and tremendous amounts of drama.
It’s also an important story to tell.
The scourge of AIDS during the Reagan era is already drifting into deep, dark history but it’s vitally important to remember that a mere thirty years ago – within the lifespan of many people reading this review – AIDS was an epidemic, a terrible scourge that wiped out wide swaths of community in many areas of the country and the world. Rather than face the crisis, the Reagan administration put its head in the sand and ignored the crisis, even making it hard for families to import seemingly helpful drugs into our country.
Second Avenue Caper is the story of the men and women who followed their convictions and fought for their friends and fellow human beings, who risked their freedom and gave up tremendous amounts of their time, money, safety and health unflinchingly because it was the right thing to do. These people are true heroes, and Brabner and Zingarelli’s wonderful graphic novel shows that story.
This smart, unflinching and earnest piece of reportage is compelling in the way it presents its story. There’s an element of people sitting around a table sharing stories – in fact, this book uses that exact motif as a framing device – but Brabner is too sharp to allow the script to make her protagonists into heroes. She lived too many years with Harvey Pekar to manipulate history or storytelling in her writing Instead, stories are presented in a straightforward way, often with reactions conveyed by smartly drawn faces by Mark Zingarelli.
Zingarelli draws this book in a solid, thick-lined style that reminds a bit of Crumb in its solidness, crossed with Jacques Tardi’s fine line. Emphasis is on story over special effects, and most of Second Avenue Caper is drawn in variations on a four-panel grid, and frequently with a ground-level camera angle that always keeps the characters specifically in one specific space on the page. His art gives the book a solid sense of reality; things never even threaten to spin out of control into any aspect of fiction under his brush. Instead, everything feels thoroughly, tragically real.
This is an important book, but it’s also a good book that is smartly written and that tells its story without flinching. It’s funny and sad and makes me wish I could have helped myself in some way.