When I was told I’d contracted this virus it didn’t take me long to realize I’d contracted a diseased society as well.
– David Wojnarowicz
Seven miles a second is the speed which an object needs to achieve to break free of the Earth’s gravity. It’s also the title of artist David Wojnarowicz’s graphic novel published by Vertigo in 1996, four years after the artist’s death from AIDS. This was Wojnarowicz’s sole venture into the comics medium, which likely makes his name unfamiliar to most comics readers.
The idea for the project came about around 1988. It was conceived as collaboration with James Romberger, with David’s writing and Romberger’s art. Romberger and his wife, Marguerite Van Cook, the book’s colorist, were friends of David’s. The story was unfinished at the time of his death until, as the story goes, Marguerite Van Cook, James’ wife, while using a Tarot deck claimed to receive an emphatic message from David (“Finish the fucking comic!”).
My copy of SEVEN MILES was snatched up on Ebay a while back. Back in 1996 I recall looking at it in a comic shop, but decided it was too dangerous. I’d recently been diagnosed with full-blown AIDS, and life as I knew it was rapidly disintegrating. In order to keep what little amount of sanity was left I censored any mention of death.
In attempting to write about Wojnarowicz’s life as depicted in the graphic novel I’ve tried to buffer myself from being overly affected, but it’s useless. I’ve been drawn in and the artist’s words and art have led, are still leading me somewhere. My attention has been primarily focused on Wojnarowicz, and I’ve rather unintentionally neglected talking much about the art. Romberger’s style amply brings to life together the external nightmares, angst and inner turmoil of David’s life. Van Cook’s eclectic, often acid-like colors bring a coherent and surreal feel to the art and story.
You may ask what the motivation is to write about a little-known, out of print graphic novel that’s currently fetching six to eight times its cover price when I was hesitant even to read it initially? David’s story is part of our history and culture. It illustrates the human ability to persist, if not thrive at least creatively, despite adversity. It’s a personal snapshot documentary of the horrors of the first ten to twelve years of the AIDS crisis that shouldn’t be forgotten as more people are infected with HIV every year, and ads from Big Pharma are intentionally designed to appear as if living with a relentless virus is a breeze. It isn’t that HIV isn’t manageable. It can be. AIDS, or at the very least the treatment drugs, have been turned into a lucrative commodity, and so its visual representations are often propagandized to give the impression your life will like a sunny and happy day at the beach or park. Side-effects notwithstanding, drugs are wondrous, until people won’t be able to obtain them because the systems in place are overwhelmed or future funding is jeopardized.
And it’s very possible that personal guilt may be the impetus in writing. That would be another, less interesting story though.
It would be impossible to recount all the events of the artist’s brief 37-year life within its 64 pages. Instead it’s composed of excerpts, memories, nightmares and fantasies of his waking and dreaming worlds, insights, and invectives against social apathy and discrimination. I have tried to fill in the blanks with my admittedly limited knowledge where appropriate.
David was born in 1954 in Red Bank, New Jersey, not all that far from New York City where he would later live and briefly attend the High School for Performing Arts. The Wojnarowicz family was dysfunctional; his father was extremely violent and physically and sexually abusive to his son. Yielding to the pre-invented existence went against his very nature. As Thirst and Stray Dogs in the book show, David took to the streets of New York, accepting prostitution, drugs, uncertainty, humiliation, and indignation over the abusive reality of his home life.
The opening sequence Thirst illustrates an incident that happened in Times Square. This is not the sanitized Times Square that Rudy Giuliani had forcefully repackaged as safe for families that we know today. This is Times Square in the 1970s, a place for unseemly prostitution, where a twelve-year old David recounts frequently moving about to different spots to avoid attracting the attention of vice cops yet still hoping to find tricks like the seemingly innocuous balding, middle-aged businessman who propositions him.
They duck inside a food court; it’s one method to stop vice cops who might be trailing. I wonder if this could be the same one on 42nd Street. Sitting at a table, the man rambles on about his adult son’s problems and his reluctance to get involved and otherwise self-absorbed and oblivious not only of the prostitute sitting a few tables away with her hands and arms bandaged and bleeding, lamenting about not wanting her children to see her like this, but also of young David whose gums are bleeding while he smokes a cigarette. Later in a room at the nearby “Lucky Motel”, David is persuaded to watch through a hole in a communal door while a man and woman have sex. Despite his hustling experiences, he’s not so jaded that his curiosity isn’t piqued. His inquisitiveness turns to revulsion when confronted by the fresh scars marking the woman’s stomach and the man’s complete emotional detachment from her pain, he simply looks at the time on his watch, perhaps to measure whether he got full value for his money. David recoils from the sight of her scars, saying he thinks he’s going to vomit. The businessman simply pays him an extra $20 and instructs him to forget about it. Money used as a bribe, a salve for conscience and lack of compassion, money affording the means to continue the businessman’s sexual forays while keeping the fragile lies of his public and family life intact. Like the scarred woman, David’s pain and humanity are unrecognized by the older man, a family man, someone who should be trustworthy and loving, as his own father should have been. These scarred women are omens of David’s future.
David’s life on the street is picked up in the Stray Dogs section with the retelling of a nightmare. A giant wasp looms over a large group of well-dressed, socially elite people sitting down at a dinner party. It lunges and David jumps into an abandoned car to hide just before everything shifts. Inside a neglected, but elegant building, perhaps an abandoned cathedral, the party guests are transformed into a crowd of filthy and undistinguished street people strewn about the car. A dangerous and handsome knave attracts David. They lift the car through a doorway and drive into a storm filled countryside where they embrace and kiss. David wakes from the dream; the surroundings as grim as those in the dream. The boy from the dream, Willy, sleeps behind him on a concrete stoop. Willy is his only friend and protector on the street. It’s been their only sleep in a days-long jag of drugs and no food, and David believes he may be hallucinating. Desperation leads them to a Salvation Army where a morally condescending officer gives them a voucher for two nights at a sleazy motel and meal tickets. The food is rotten, the motel bedding deplorable and infested. Another night on the streets is safer.
David wrote that Willy was in love with him. He didn’t feel the same for Willy, but there was a need for companionship, for someone else to undergo the same experiences. One night David slips away from Willy to hustle some money for food, despite knowing Willy would fly into a rage if he knew how the money was obtained. Despite David’s skeletal appearance, an older man takes David back to his hotel. He strips and his mind starts to cloud over from the drug he realized too late was slipped into his soda. The man ties David up, and while he abuses him throughout the night David dreams of being on a subway platform late at night. A strange man appears on the tracks to stop an oncoming train. The man turns into a black dog, fearful and looking for an escape as three cops emerge from nowhere. They fire their guns, mortally wounding the animal. Lying frightened on its side, it can’t react as one of the dream cops digs his hand into the gash, the look in the dog’s eyes changing from terror to ecstasy as it dies. It’s clear from the juxtaposition in the art of scenes from the dream and images of David’s unconscious body that he is the dying dog. He wakes alone at dawn, head pounding, and manages to untie the ropes. A mystery: the bed sheet stained with blood, but he isn’t bleeding.
The remainder of this chapter chronicles David and Willy’s spree of abandon. A failed attempt at robbery with stolen cleavers, a game of throwing wino bottles at one another from opposite sides of the street, a primal urge to shatter every piece of phone booth glass in a wide swath of Manhattan. One night desperate for sleep they show up at the door of a transgender man. David’s awakened by the man’s crying because there’s no money to continue the sexual transformation he’s begun; his boyfriend gone into hiding because of an accidental death in a botched robbery attempt to get money.
Wojnarowicz’s life as a hustler began at the age of nine and lasted till he was 17. Of this time he wrote: “…looking for the weight of some man to lie across me to replace the nonexistent hugs and kisses from my mom and dad.”
David left New York, probably alone. He traveled however he could and before the end of the 70s he’d been across the US, staying for a time in San Francisco. He managed to travel to Mexico and France, and worked in farming near the Canadian border before returning to New York some time in 1979.
Not incorporated in SEVEN MILES is David’s art making. It began in 1972 when a friend gave him a stolen camera. He pocketed film from drugstores so he could photograph despite having no money to develop the film. This unknown number of film rolls were stored in bus-station lockers, and then lost to David, likely destroyed rather than developed by a curious person. A super-8 movie camera, making a short film titled Heroin and a 35mm camera became his methods of making art. His fascination with scandalous 19th century French poet Arthur Rimbaud became the theme for his first serious photos, “Arthur Rimbaud in New York”. Around this time, David and Peter Hujar met. Twenty years his senior, Hujar was an established, sought after photographer, and the two men became lovers. As far as I can tell they never collaborated though David probably came to the attention of the New York art circle sooner than he might have otherwise.
Wojnarowicz had solo art exhibitions in the early 80s and his first major exhibit in 1985 at the Institute of Contemporary Art at Philadelphia’s University of Pennsylvania. New York’s Whitney Museum invited David to participate in its 1987 and 1991 Biennials, considered one of the premier American art shows with considerable trend-setting influence. David’s art up to this point could be characterized as either filled with sensual abandon or despair, showing an affinity for the works of favorite writers and social outlaws Arthur Rimbaud and Jean Genet.
David became one of, if not the first American artist to address the AIDS crisis as the consequence of Hujar dying in 1987 and his own diagnosis the same year. His work, which he now referred to as post diagnostic art, was transformed into scathing and outraged commentaries against an indifferent government and the self righteous. The artist flung the accusation that people were dying “slow and vicious and unnecessary deaths because fags and dykes and junkies are expendable in this country”. It was true. Statistics show there were 24,842 reported deaths from AIDS by the end of 1986. The mortality rate might have been lower if President Ronald Reagan had adequately funded medical research in the beginning, but he ignored even addressing the health matter with the American public for a number of years. Gay men had had enough, and ACT UP was created as a response in March 1987 thanks in part to a speech by Larry Kramer. ACT UP became a forum for Wojnarowicz. Wojnarowicz became the focus of controversy over an NEA grant for the catalogue to a 1988 show at Artists’ Space in New York, in which he attacked the Catholic Church for its position on homosexuality. The artist successfully sued American Family Association director Donald Wildmon in 1990 for libel and copyright infringement. Wildmon appropriated images from one of Wojnarowicz’s works, hoping to incite Congress against future funding of the National Endowment of the Arts with a pamphlet about the Tongues of Flame exhibit that the NEA partially underwrote.
SEVEN MILES’ final chapter covers the last years of David’s life in a somewhat non-linear, compressed fashion. It begins with what must seem like a surreal conversation today between David and a friend. It was no less surreal at the time no matter how many times it occurred for people. They’re seated at a table in David and Peter’s apartment. Inwardly, David confesses that sometimes hours pass by without about “this disease”, though the Pentamidine treatments and AZT side effects (increased mental activity for David) come around to remind him.
The mention here of Pentamidine is a subtle indication of how greatly HIV treatment has changed. Aerosol treatments were a standard part of care, the means to prevent PCP (pneumocystis carinii pneumonia), a once too common opportunistic infection, and cause of death. From my limited experience with the drug, I can tell you it has a very unpleasant taste, how you might imagine gasoline tastes.
“There are no more people in their 30s. We’re all dying out,” the friend says. He’s afraid another friend suddenly and mysteriously blinded will die soon (CMV is well known today). It was a common lament in the 1980s. “You know, he can still rally back. Maybe. I mean, people do come back from the edge of death,” David replies. “Well, he lost thirty pounds in a few weeks.”
Cut to David waking up nauseated late at night. Some healthcare official calmly voices his hatred from the television set who calmly states: If I had a dollar to spend for health care I’d rather spend it on a baby or innocent person with some defect or illness not of their own responsibility, not some person with AIDS. In the next panel David does something with which everyone can relate. His arm magically reaches into the TV screen and rips the man’s face in half. Comments like these weren’t uncommon, as the non-stop text on these two pages and the next attest. A Texas politician once remarked, “If you want to stop AIDS shoot the queers. “His press secretary would claim it was only a joke that was made, thinking the microphone had been turned off. Christians outside St. Patrick’s Cathedral shout out to people during Gay Pride: “You won’t be here next year! You’ll get AIDS and die!” Others declared AIDS to be God’s judgement.
David’s rage against what he called the twelve inch politician on the TV fuels the fantasy further. In a double paged spread a giant David looms over St. Patrick’s Cathedral follows, fists pummeling and feet stomping the building to the pavement, lashing out at the place from which Cardinal O’Connor spews his bigotry. Many people must have had similar dreams about the Cardinal. O’Connor was an outspoken critic of gay rights and vocal advocate of sexual abstinence, who did his utmost to prevent safe sex education from reaching people in need.
There’s the horrible realization during a hospital visit to see a friend (is this the same friend from the chapter’s beginning?) that David is also confronting his own death. “I’m a prisoner of language that doesn’t have a letter or a sign or a gesture that approximates what I’m sensing. I’m still fighting the urge to throw up. I realize I’m only nauseated by own mortality.” His friend resembles the skeletal figures from death camps documented in photos and films. Too sick to move, so sick he sees double.
Such cruel circumstances instigate a road trip into the Black Hills, hoping to have a reason or desire to continue living overcome him. A father and young son at a random gas station stop reminds him of the singular time his own father didn’t beat him. Longing does return if only momentarily as David lives out in his imagination a primal sexual encounter with the insensitive father. Then it’s pushing the car’s accelerator, racing across flat and straight stretches of asphalt, yearning to go fast enough to somehow leave behind his body.
David returns to New York. Overwhelmed by AIDS, Peter Hujar dies on November 26th, 1987. In the following two-page spread Romberger illustrates an achingly beautiful elegy. “When I put my hands on your body on your flesh I feel the history of that body, not just the beginning of its forming in that distant lake but all the way beyond its ending…”
The closing few pages illustrate the painful isolation of AIDS brought in its then unrelenting course. David is in the same apartment where light once streamed in through the tall windows when there was life still ahead. Here it’s the darkness of night held off by a few interior lights. Physical pain is a constant feeling for David now. He’s begun to separate himself from his world. Friends have become incapable or afraid of recognizing David’s suffering, of accepting his approaching death that they resort to simple platitudes. Was it to appease guilt because they had limits to their compassion or was it as David mused that people simply can’t grasp suffering? There is no dignity in David’s plight, thinking one’s death has been hastened by the willful negligence of the morally pious because your life threatened to shatter the illusions of the “one tribe nation’s pre-invented existence.”
SEVEN MILES closes with an image of David’s empty apartment on East 12th seen from across the street and these words:
“I can’t abstract my own dying any longer. I am a strange to others and to myself and I refuse to pretend that I am familiar or that I have a history attached to my heels. I am glass clear empty glass. I see the world spinning behind and through me. I am a stranger and I am moving. I am moving on two legs soon to on all fours. I am no longer animal vegetable or mineral. I am no longer made of circuits or disks. I am no longer coded or deciphered. I am all emptiness and futility. I am an empty stranger, a carbon copy of my form. I can no longer find what I am looking for outside of myself. It doesn’t exist out there. Maybe it’s only here inside my head. But my head is glass and my eyes have stopped being cameras, the tape has run out and no gesture can touch me. I’ve been dropped into all this from another world and I can’t speak your language any longer. See the signs I try to make with my hands and fingers, See the vague movements of my lips among the sheets. I’m a blank spot I’m a dark smudge in the air that dissipates without notice. I’m a broken window. I am a glass human. I am a glass human disappearing in rain. I am standing among all of you waving my invisible arms and hands. I am shouting my invisible words. I am getting so weary. I am growing tired. I am waving to you from here. I am crawling around looking for the aperture of complete and final emptiness. I am screaming but it comes out like pieces of clear ice. I am signaling that the volume of all this is too high. I am waving. I am waving my hands. I am disappearing. I am disappearing but not fast enough.”
David died on July 22nd, 1992.
Quoted text is copyright The Estate of David Wojnarowicz. All rights reserved.
Art from SEVEN MILES A SECOND is copyright James Romberger. All rights reserved.
Interview by David Dashiel
GLBTQ article on the artist
Audio file of Wojnarowicz reading Fever
Queer Arts article
“Close to the Knives – A Memoir of Disintegration”David Wojnarowicz, Vintage Books 1991
“Brushfires in the Landscape”