Many people know that David Wojnarowicz was an excellent artist, but fewer probably know that he was also an excellent writer. Consider this passage from his graphic novel 7 Miles a Second:
When I’m pressing my foot to the accelerator of the car and there is that sensation of being just on the edge of going airborne drifting fast and soundless on a narrow strip of asphalt that ribbons into the further distance between the black hills I feel for a second that I can outrace my own being I can outrun my own existence the terrible weight and responsibility of my own body but it’s not true.
Those unpunctuated sentences are thrilling and crushing. They barrel forwards, capturing not only the image Wojnarowicz is creating, but its feeling. And then they stop, having run head-first into reality: “but it’s not true.”
They also encapsulate the primary concern of Wojnarowicz in this book, and we can guess, by extension, throughout his life — “the terrible weight and responsibility of my own body.” 7 Miles a Second, originally put out by DC Comics in 1996 and recently republished by Fantagraphics Books, is a memoir comprised of personal stories mixed with dreams, hallucinatory images, and social commentary. Nearly all of those center on Wojnarowicz’s incredibly weighty relationship with his own body — a body that he sold for money so he could survive; a body that was abused by those to whom he rented it; a body that was infected with HIV, that dragged him down with its virus. “I can’t abstract my own dying any longer,” he writes on the second-to-last page. That must be among the most poignant expressions of the reality of illness ever written.
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Memoirs today are everywhere. If you’ve undergone something terrible, there exists a vast market awaiting your contribution. We want to read about your trials and tribulations. The banalization of suffering has come.
But memoirs, by and large, are not about failure. Cancer survivors write memoirs; those who die of cancer generally do not. That’s what makes Wojnarowicz’s writing, from 1992, the year of his death, so remarkable. It’s of a piece with Harold Brodkey’s equally penetrating narration of his own death, also from AIDS, This Wild Darkness. Wojnarowicz and Brodkey didn’t win the great game of life; they lost bitterly. To hear about those losses firsthand, to watch them unfold in words that essentially position us as front-row spectators, is devastating.
To be clear, and fair, 7 Miles a Second isn’t only about death. But it is filled with mostly painful experiences: Wojnarowicz drugged and abused by a man who’s paid to sleep with him; Wojnarowicz and a friend nearly mugging a homeless man because they’re desperate for money; Wojnarowicz watching his friends die around him of AIDS. The weightiness of life is inescapable, nor is it meant to be, although it’s mollified somewhat by the artist’s dreams and visions — hazy, sometimes abstract passages that jumble natural images with surreal hallucinations, political rage, and poetry:
It sparks in the inversion of wind then flowers out momentarily in black petals of smoke and light. Vibrating in the mist that exudes from its center a huge fat clockwork of civilization the whole onward crush of the world as we know it all the walking swastikas yap-yapping cartoon video death language a malfunctioning cannonball filled with bone and gristle and knives and bullets and gears and pistons and lightning, spewing language and motions and shit and entrails in its wake.
The darkness is also lightened by the artwork in the book, images by James Romberger and watercolors by Marguerita Van Cook. Their brilliantly and loosely colored panels — which isn’t quite the right word anyway, because nearly every spread deviates from the typical grid-like comic book format — don’t quite illustrate the text; they accompany it, much like Eric Drooker’s animations published with the rerelease of Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl.”
Sometimes Romberger and Van Cook turn Wojnarowicz’s frenetic visions into explosive surrealist creations; other times, they hew more closely to the words, images colored with paint that seems to stain the page like bodily fluids. Given that Wojnarowicz was himself a visual artist, as well as a brilliant writer, Romberger and Van Cook’s seems like it must have been an impossible task. Yet they pull it off, their art simultaneously imaginative enough to meet the writing at its fever pitch and practical enough to complement rather than compete. One of the most haunting spreads features blocks of text that get progressively longer and angrier while three panels show Wojnarowicz lying in bed, watching TV and transforming into a rotting corpse, the skeleton of an extinct animal watching over him. That animal skeleton recurs later, in a two-page image that seems to harness all of the energy of Wojnarowicz’s writing, its unstoppable former motion, into a techno-apocalyptic cityscape.
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If there’s another theme in 7 Miles a Second, one that counteracts the weight of the body, it must be motion. Evident in both the form and content of the text, motion offers the promise of escape. Even the title contains it, and Wojnarowicz explains in the epigraph:
The minimum speed required to break through the Earth’s gravitational pull is seven miles a second. Since economic conditions prevent us from gaining access to rockets or spaceships we would have to learn to run awfully fast to achieve escape from where we are all heading …
Those lines strike me as eerily prescient and eternally potent. None of us can outrun our fate, Wojnarowicz included, but thankfully, that didn’t stop him from trying.
7 Miles a Second is available from Fantagraphics Books and other online sellers.