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On Queering Galas, Art, And Comics

Earlier this year many nerds were buzzing with excitement over the news of the Hellfire Gala event across a number of X-Men titles and it was especially the take on mutant high couture that captured much of the attention. Rightly so as the idea itself and visually incorporating the designs into the comics advanced the Krakoa as paradise status quo and celebrated the mutant as outsider/ queer metaphor.

The idea of a mutant gala recalls both the House balls held by queer people, especially people of color, in cities like New York and Chicago during the “pansy craze” of the 1920s and 1930s as well as high society events like the recent Met Gala where the event’s theme was “American Independence”. Andrew Bolton, curator of the Met’s Costume Institute told Vogue he thought the time was right to reexamine American identity through recent social justice movements.  Certainly many of the creations generated buzzworthy excitement and it’s Schitt’s Creek actor Dan Levy’s outfit that caught my attention. Drawing attention is certainly the intent of designer Jonathan Anderson and Levy, from the shapes of two men kissing, the puffy sleeves, a global map print superimposed on the fabric embroidered with sequins, down to the black boots festooned with roses. At first quick glance seeing Levy’s choice made me smile for what initially took as whimsical. With a second look though I started to realize that what I was looking at was inspired by art work by the late artist David Wojnarowicz (1954 – 1992).

The title of Wojnarowicz’s painting in question is “Fuck You Faggot Fucker” which the artist appropriated after finding a homophobic cartoon using the phrase. Having a raging alcoholic father who beat David and his siblings as well as being forced during his teen years to work as a Times Square street hustler led Wojnarowicz to develop a defiant, no nonsense philosophy that gave as good as it got. During the first decade of the AIDS pandemic Wojnarowicz and other people with HIV/AIDS and the gay community in general faced an onslaught of hate and discrimination from conservative politicians, particularly Jesse Helms , and the Moral Majority’s Jerry Falwell. Rather than focusing on the anger and hate which were the catalysts for the work and with permission from the artist’s estate, Anderson and Levy wanted to acknowledge the challenges the artist faced while also celebrating queer love and visibility and I believe resilience.

As for the comics connection…

Wojnarowicz graduated from New York City’s High School of Music and Art. It’s conceivable that as a teen Wojnarowicz was exposed to comics through the high school since students in previous decades included Mad Magazine contibutors Al Jaffee, Will Elder, Harvey Kurtzman, and Al Feldstein and comic book artists John Severin, Ross Andru and Mike Esposito.

However, there is a concrete connection. In 1984 artists James Romberger and Marguerite Van Cook opened their Ground Zero gallery which exhibited installation, performance, and multimedia work. Wojnarowicz and his work came to their attention. According to Romberger in an Art Forum interview, teen-aged David created a number of comics inspired by undergound comix and a few years later cut up and collaged Archie comics to create a new story with the Riverdale gang doing drugs and murdering Mr Weatherbee.

The trio began talking about collaborating on a comic sometime in 1985 and the following year met about using the comics medium to tell his life story. Romberger relates the collaboration began with Wojnarowicz giving him a stack of paper with monologues and descriptions of experiences and dreams from earlier in his life for Romberger’s input on what parts would work visually and then outlining a rough narrative structure around his childhood, teen years, and then his adult life. Romberger began drawing but progress was slow and all their lives were full of other obligations. Wojnarowicz would not learn of his HIV diagnosis till the spring of 1988, several months after the death of his lover, photographer Peter Hujar. Work slowly continued to progress when it halted in 1991 with Wojnarowicz devoting time to what would become his final works amid problems with the National Endowment for the Arts and a lawsuit against the American Family Association’s unauthorized usage of portions of his art which had been taken out of context and violated his rights under the New York Artists’ Authorship Rights Act.

Romberger and Van Cook finished working on the project while mourning David’s death. 7 Miles A Second was published by DC Comics under its Vertigo imprint headed by Karen Berger. In 2013 Fantagraphics published a new edition in an oversized bandes dessinées format.

Many of my fellow comics nerds talk now and then about comics which have an emotional impact for them. 7 Miles A Second with its ability to evoke Wojnarowicz’s life and the hypocrisy and hateful rhetoric of the early AIDS pandemic is the story that always delivers the hardest gut punch. Reading 7 Miles — even thinking of it and Wojnariwicz’s life over the past couple days in trying to write this — stirs up all kinds of emotions and memories of friends and all of the people of a generation whose lives ended tragically and far too soon.

Pardon for the abrupt end.

Read the complete Art Forum interview with Romberger and Van Cook here

Interested in Wojnarowicz’s art? You can start here.

September 16, 2021
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