Online Magazine of the Visual Narrative - ISSN 1780-678X
A Renegade of Expression: David Wojnarowicz's Autofiction in Comics
Author: David A. Beronä
Abstract (E): This essay examines autofiction, as defined by Serge Doubrovsky, in the work of the celebrated American artist and writer David Wojnarowicz who collaborated with the artist James Romberger to create a graphic novel called Seven Miles a Second. I compare this comic book example of autofiction to Wojnarowicz’s autobiographical textual works and examine the differences between autofiction in a textual and a graphic format. Wojnarowicz’s life is examined with special focus on surrealism and queer theory.
Abstract (F): Cet article analyse la notion d’autofiction, telle qu’elle a été définie par Serge Doubrovsky, dans l’œuvre de l’artiste et auteur américain David Wojnarowicz, qui, en collaboration avec l’artiste James Romberger, a créé une bande dessinée intitulée Seven Miles a Second. L’auteur du présent article propose une analyse comparée de cette bande dessinée autofictionnelle et l’œuvre autobiographique/autofictionnelle de Wojnarowicz, afin d’examiner les différences entre l’autofiction textuelle et visuelle. Les différents récits de la vie de Wojnarowicz seront analysés en référence au surréalisme et la queer theory.
keywords: Doubrovsky, Wojnarowicz, autofiction, surrealism, queer theory
To cite this article:
Beronä, D. A.,A Renegade of Expression: David Wojnarowicz's Autofiction in Comics. Image [&] Narrative [e-journal], 22 (2008).
In this essay I examine Seven Miles a Second, an autofiction comic written by David Wojnarowicz during the last years before his AIDS-related death in 1992, with James Romberger (artist), and Marguerite Van Cook (colorist). The comic was not finished by the time of Wojnarowicz's death on July 22, 1992. Tom Rauffenbart, who was David's lover and executor of his estate, relates a story about the completion of the comic in his introductory memoir. "I forgot about the project completely. Then, one day, I got a call from a very agitated James. It seems that Marguerite had been working with a Tarot deck and claimed to have received a message through the cards that they were both sure was from David. I vividly remember James's words as he related David's words: 'FINISH THE FUCKING COMIC!'" This comic presents Wojnarowicz's childhood of prostitution and drugs, his adulthood living with AIDS, and his anger at the indifference of government and health agencies. (On the relation between the neglect of AIDS and the condemnation of homosexuality: see Rizk: 57-58)
I compare this comic format to Wojnarowicz's autobiographical work Close to the Knives and contrast the differences between autofiction in a strictly textual format and the comic, in an image and text display. Next, I argue the effectiveness of Romberger's pictorial imagery, incorporating many of Wojnarowicz's symbols and iconic language from his artwork and "using his expressive, roughly articulate line to convey the lurching emotion and turmoil of Wojnarowicz's life" (Reid: 104) with special focus on surrealism and his political agenda as related to queer theory. Within this graphic context, I argue that this autofictional comic offers an understanding of Wojnarowicz rather than offense.
David Wojnarowicz (1954-1992) was an American painter, photographer, sculptor, musician, filmmaker, actor, performer, installation artist, printmaker, street artist, and writer who ran away from an abusive home and spent his early life, hustling on the streets of New York. Wojnarowicz's early life on the streets of New York hinged on drugs, prostitution, and homelessness. In contrast to this lifestyle, his personal curiosity extended itself not only into the art galleries but also into literature. It must have seemed like a personal salvation to discover the writings of the French playwright Jean Genet and the French Symbolist poet Arthur Rimbaud, who expressed themselves openly in revolt against the traditional and bourgeois tastes and also sanctioned a homosexual lifestyle. Wojnarowicz's own autofiction reflect these famous writers' style of exposing their homosexual experiences without apology.
His career was launched in the 1980's East Village art scene, due in large part to his relationship with photographer Peter Hujar (1935-87). Through Hujar's mentorship, Wojnarowicz was introduced to a rich art scene. Wojnarowicz's exhibited his unique artwork including paintings, sculpture, photographs, and collages in the East Village. Without academic training, his work reflected a distinct perspective of the city's sexual underground world. An early work, Arthur Rimbaud in New York, was a series of photographs of himself wearing a mask representing Rimbaud, against the background of the sordid backstreets of New York. The reactionary character of Rimbaud was a fitting personification for Wojnarowicz and lead to the conjecture of his own life being closely aligned with someone else. Wojnarowicz's work gained prominence during Hujar's illness with AIDS, which he would later die from. After Hujar's death, Wojnarowicz's own HIV-positive diagnosis empowered his artwork and brought it into a political sphere that was linked to the "queer theory," and defined Wojnarowicz as one of the premier artists who expressed his anger and perplexity living with AIDS in a culture of denial.
Seven Miles a Second is divided into three chapters—"Thirst," "Stray Dogs," and "Seven Miles a Second." Each chapter presents a snapshot of Wojnarowicz's life from boyhood, young adult, and an adult battling AIDS. There is no indication in this comic of Wojnarowicz's career and success as an artist, whose life experiences were transformed into his highly distinctive artwork. The fact that this information is suppressed from this comic highlights the focus of this autofiction—clearly on his life as a homosexual who felt marginalized and angry at the political indifference to the AIDS epidemic in America.
The nature of this autofiction is summarized by Carlo McCormick and ultimately defines the relevance of autofiction in the dissemination of this artist's crucial ideas.
It is not important whether Wojnarowicz experienced all the actual events that he portrays in his memoir Close to the Knives, and which are selectively depicted in this comic format. Unlike the strict observance of traditional autobiographies that relate only actual events in one's life, Wojnarowicz's life is a excellent representation of modern autobiography or autofiction—a term coined by the French writer Serge Doubrovsky.
This broader aspect of autofiction as defined by Doubrovsky allows Wojnarowicz to encapsulate a fictional side of his life that makes his own reality all the more believable not only to himself but to his readers and specifically to a contingent of the gay community—the hustlers—whose lives where always lived on the fringes of society and never considered worthy of a autobiography like those of the rich and famous. Ironically this later element was always the qualifier for autobiography, while autofiction specifically catered to those men and women whose lives were traditionally displayed only in fiction. In one sense, autofiction is a democratic medium that promotes the diversity of all men and women without exception. In the case of Wojnarowicz, whose voice would have been dismissed by traditional literary canons, autofiction allows not only for his voice to be heard but also identifies his place in history.
The boy in the first chapter and the young man in the second chapter are not addressed by name, making it arguable that these events are, as McCormick suggests, "an amalgamation of distilled episodes." Wojnarowicz is addressed by name—David—in the last chapter. The absence of naming himself elevates the experiences in the first two chapters by inviting readers to identify or compare with Wojnarowicz's experiences. It doesn't matter whether Wojnarowicz actually lived through the events in the first two chapters, what is important is that he experienced something similar and, even more importantly, these events are experienced by others. His voice becomes the voice of those who cannot express these personal events themselves. By providing his name, as well as his friend's name, Peter, in the last chapter, Wojnarowicz asserts his expressions of anger and his feelings of loss on a personal level. In this chapter we are encouraged to identify rather than compare because the character now is identified as the writer—David Wojnarowicz.
Readers familiar with Wojnarowicz appearance easily recognize his figure in the comic. Those who are not familiar with Wojnarowicz's appearance discover from a photograph in the comic's afterword the resemblance to the comic character. The use of image in the comic genre allows readers to clearly distinguish Wojnarowicz since the main character's features are easily identifiable as the boy, young man, and adult in each chapter. The first person narration, though, makes this an implicit real account of his life, even without any prior knowledge of Wojnarowicz physical features.
This comic represents a concise autofiction, bringing together personal experience in an all-purpose scenario pulled from many actual events. The fact that he boils down his years of hustling into this one episode provides a picture of Wojnarowicz caught up in the dreary replication of hustling and living on the streets.
Comics are important to Wojnarowicz, because "you can never depend on the mass media to reflect us or our needs or our states of mind; bottom line, with enough gestures we can deafen the satellites and lift the curtains surrounding the control room" (the "control room," is an obvious link to Dorothy pulling the curtains of deception around the Wizard in L Frank Baum's Wizard of Oz) In addition, much of his artwork has a comic display and a visual narrative. The comic is the ideal format to present his ideas and feelings to boys growing up reading comics like himself, looking for someone to identify with beyond the characters in mainstream comics. In this comic, he takes the conventional American comic format and presents his distinct autofiction.
Seven Miles a Second pulls its text predominately from Close to the Knives. What is the impact of having images beside the text rather than only text? One immediate consequence is that the character is displayed visually beside his first person narrative. More important, his words and images are presented in various visual displays of importance, which involve readers' sensibilities beyond the deciphering of purely textual code. The importance of images cannot be overemphasized, especially with Wojnarowicz's objective behind his autofiction.
The arrangement of words and images are presented on each page. Like a kaleidoscope, the narrative changes dramatically when turning every page, through the masterful design and page layout by Romberger.
The opening panels in "Thirst," become a remarkable point of identification and then departure for the majority of American readers—young, heterosexual males. "Thirst," begins with a splash page of Wojnarowicz -the boy innocently standing with his hands in his pockets, wearing a red t-shirt, jeans, and a pair of unlaced sneakers (Fig. 1).
Figure 1. Seven Miles a Second, text© 1996 by the Estate of David Wojnarowicz; illustratons ©1996 by James Romberger.
He stands alone on the sidewalk. As our visual point of focus moves away from the central character, a shabby homeless man walks down the sidewalk that is littered with trash and an empty whiskey bottle. The grey tones on the homeless man contrast with the colors on the page. His ghost-like appearance reflects the ease that the public overlooks the homeless. Wojnarowicz stands with his back to a storefront advertising water sports, and displaying swimsuits, bikinis and a life-size scuba diver who floats above the boy like a shark behind a glass tank. In a text block, the boy begins his story in the first person with a line we would not expect hearing from this innocent looking boy: "The worst thing about the wait between customers was having to move every five minutes so that the vice wouldn't get wise; and my little legs hurt." Without this text, the page displays a typical city street with a boy waiting, perhaps, for his mother or father to drive by in their car and take him home. However the text indicates an incongruity with the words, "vice" that indicates something illegal and the phrase, "my little legs hurt," which suggests a childish vulnerability. What is this innocent boy involved in that would evoke alarm from the vice?
In the next panel a quick close up of the mannequin diver is displayed followed by a panel of a stereotypical older man, balding, with glasses and wearing a business suit. Like the mannequin diver, the older man approaches the boy from behind. The visual comparison of the anonymous diver and the older man is immediate. With a quick exchange, it becomes clear that the boy is a hustler and the older man a "john." (a term used for men who pick up prostitutes)
As they walk away from the storefront, the street is expanded in the panel. The sex clubs, theaters and peep shows on 42nd Street are clearly identifiable. These initial pages and panels represent the early world of Wojnarowicz's art—the underground culture of male prostitution and the homeless. The boy does not say much. The older man talks and Wojnarowicz narrates his feelings to the reader before they finally settle on a room and what the older man wants. In this case, he wants Wojnarowicz to watch through a peep-hole as a "guy and a girl fuck." He recognizes the girl as a prostitute he has seen on the street and admits it was the first time "I'd seen how men's and women's bodies interact having only had sex with older men since I was nine." When the woman turns around, Wojnarowicz sees bleeding cuts on the prostitute's stomach and wonders, "how that guy could fuck that woman with those fresh wounds staring him in the face! Like he couldn't conceive of pain attached to the body he was fucking."
Wojnarowicz, like a fish in the sea, moves around this underworld of sexual need, filled with all kinds of people looking to satiate their "thirst" for desire and for taboo.
The necessity of keeping needs hidden, which are not accepted by the mainstream, creates conflict and heartlessness. Wojnarowicz portrays this underworld dramatically not only to pull away the curtain on this marginalized population but also to "provoke anger over brutality, degradation, exploitation, and oppression, and he decries the complicity of our social order in creating and perpetuating such conditions." (Kushner: xiii)
Coloring in this comic plays an important part in the storytelling. The street scenes are neon like the inside of a casino and goes well with the contrast of pleasure seeking and the harsh realities and dangers of hustling. A single color displays a visual contrast with the other multiple colors to bring immediate attention to certain characters and events. For example the grey tones of the homeless man (Fig. 1), as I mentioned above, suggest his alienation. Later when Wojnarowicz observes the sexual act between the man and the prostitute with knife wounds, described above, Wojnarowicz peers through a peephole as the older man sucks his penis. This sexual act is presented in grey tone in sharp contrast to the sexual act between the man and the woman, which is presented in a colorful and straightforward manner. Wojnarowicz's view of man and woman is from behind so is not aware of the fresh knife wounds on the woman's stomach until she turns around. The neon color of her wounds makes the heterosexual sexual act ghastly, which consequently causes Wojnarowicz to become sick to his stomach.
The images in this comic are generally displayed in isolated panels against a white background that also accentuates the alienation of the characters. This floating effect of characters and events extends even further as characters stretch outside the borders of panels—creating a nebulous environment. In addition, the shards of panels that are scrambled diagonally on the pages heighten the action between Wojnarowicz's nightmares and his reality, which at times is even more terrifying than his dreams (Fig. 2).
Figure 2. Seven Miles a Second, text© 1996 by the Estate of David Wojnarowicz; illustratons ©1996 by James Romberger.
Romberger's visual images in this comic, which are lacking in the memoir, present an in-your-face directness that reflected Wojnarowicz's personal, artistic nature. The medium of the comic book itself was a viable spin-off of the East Village art scene where the delivery of artistic content spread across every existing means.
The images in his numerous dream sequences reflect Wojnarowicz's extensive use of surrealistic elements in his artwork. In this comic, his reality of hustling on the streets becomes the backdrop to his animated dreams. Wojnarowicz not only lives as an outsider in the real world but lives isolated in a dream world being played out behind his emaciated body. This becomes more apparent in the chapter, "Stray Dogs," in which his inner and outer worlds are initiated by lack of food and sleep.
His dreams express more about his own state. It is sometimes only in his dreams that hope for salvation is possible as seen in the dream sequence in a mansion. From sleeping in a hallway with a pile of homeless men, he dreams of being in a mansion with bright yellow sunlight streaming through large cathedral windows. The text reads:
Some of the more provocative imagery in this comic is taken from the last three pages in the essay, "Do Not Doubt the Dangerousness of the 12-inch Politician," (i.e. the size of the politician when he appears on the television screen) from Close to the Knives. The text is presented almost in its entirety in the comic on four pages and shows the distinction between the memoir and the comic. The content, in this case, is enormously important to Wojnarowicz. In Close to the Knives, this text is displayed in bold type. In the comic, the text on the first two pages dominates the page space. There are no panels or text balloons—only text and images of David in bed, reaching through the TV (Fig. 3), and rotting in bed with a skeletal bleached form of an elephant.
Figure 3. Seven Miles a Second, text© 1996 by the Estate of David Wojnarowicz; illustratons ©1996 by James Romberger.
No other pages in this comic are so static with a bold demarcation between image and text and yet so vibrant within a visual and word recognition context. The power of the images in the comic is easily acknowledged. In this example, the images accentuate the content in the comic whereas in the memoir, Wojnarowicz has to strengthen the content of his text with bold type.
The last two pages of this four page spread with enveloping text is a double page, with his figure in a rage smashing St. Patrick's cathedral.
Another intriguing surreal display that is reminiscent of the poetics of the French poet Comte de Lautréamont's and his work, Les Chants de Maldoror as well as the "everyman" metaphor of the American poet Walt Whitman is a two page spread that reads:
In this sequence, Wojnarowicz presents not only striking and disturbing imagery also the expression of his feelings. The phrase "I am consumed by the emptiness lying beneath each and every action I witness of others and myself" not only portrays his deeply human nature but allows identification with this man on a spiritual plane.
The more dramatic overlap of the real and the surreal is during a sequence of Wojnarowicz driving in his car and the breakup of reality into dream. In a simple statement, Wojnarowicz spells out the core to our shared humanity and the need to find serenity.
One cannot have a discourse about queer theory without recognizing Wojnarowicz's role as a political activist who displayed his anger and disgust over the marginalization of homosexuals during the AIDS epidemic. Queer theory was a term coined by the critical theorist Teresa de Lauretis in 1991 who hoped to "recast or reinvent the terms of our sexualities, to construct another discursive horizon, another way of thinking the sexual." (de Lauretis: iv) The term "queer" within queer theory has many connotations.
Wojnarowicz certainly falls into the later role as an outlaw and certainly, unapologetically presents readers with a different way of "thinking the sexual." But, in the wake of the AIDS epidemic, Wojnarowicz rose as an educator, which was also an important element in the discourse on queer theory. We have seen examples of his outlaw behavior in the previous sections. However, Seven Miles a Second also provides examples of Wojnarowicz in his role as an AIDS educator and challenges traditional ideas about what is "queer." (see McCormick: 61-62)
There is a strong, metaphorical sequence from Seven Miles a Second that involves Wojnarowicz and his friend Peter that reflects the softer side of Wojnarowicz, who was known for his renegade in-your-face condemnation of the "one tribe nation" (religious, heterosexual, white middle class culture) portrayed, for example, in his legendary performances in Rosa van Praunheim's video Silence = Death where he shakes with anger during his proclamation against the "one-tribe nation," which turned its back on the AIDS epidemic.
In Close to the Knives, this sequence reads:
The four-panel display of this interaction in the comic clearly suggests the similarities between Frankenstein the monster and their friends dying of AIDS. Frankenstein's hands reach out toward Wojnarowicz in the upper left hand corner of the first panel in a beseeching gesture. He picks up the model from the table. As he holds the monster in his hands, he seems to be addressing it. (Fig. 4)
Figure 4. Seven Miles a Second, text© 1996 by the Estate of David Wojnarowicz; illustratons ©1996 by James Romberger.
Like Frankenstein, perhaps their friends can "come back from the edge of death." The hopeful thought, though, is quickly extinguished in the next panel when he accidentally pops off the monster's head. here is a sense of caring that comes across in the comic that is not evident in the text alone. The gentleness with which Wojnarowicz holds the model while talking with his friend shows a concern for his gay friends—regarded as monsters by the general public. There is also a god-like inference arguably based on the size of Wojnarowicz compared to the model of Frankenstein.
Wojnarowicz's message comes from a belief that silence corrodes our personal freedom and ultimately destroys any compassion. This is the core belief that supports his artwork and autofiction, especially in this comic. The following passage not only defines his mission but encourages us to raise our own voices and break the code of silence in our own lives.
Is there empathy with Wojnarowicz? Is that his intention? Or is his intention to disgust or shock traditional sensibilities like the photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe. I believe Wojnarowicz's work, especially in Seven Miles a Second, deliberately heightened the public's sensibilities to the AIDS crisis and legitimized homosexuality.
Perhaps no other scene in Seven Miles a Second uses queer theory to unify all readers regardless of their sexuality than in witnessing the death of a loved one (Fig. 5, note the picture blocks inside the large panel, which reflect Wojnarowicz's style of collage he used in his artwork.).
Figure 5. Seven Miles a Second, text© 1996 by the Estate of David Wojnarowicz; illustratons ©1996 by James Romberger.
Finally, the remarkable similarity between Wojnarowicz's thought prior to his death and the fictional character of J.S. Salinger's Holden Caulfield is apparent in the final passages of Seven Miles a Second, confirming the heighten awareness of our own deaths and, ultimately, of the value that we place on our individual lives, regardless of our sexual orientation. Holden Caulfield remarks early in Salinger's book, "It was that kind of a crazy afternoon, terrifically cold, and no sun out or anything, and you felt like you were disappearing every time you crossed a road." (Salinger: 8) Wojnarowicz ponders:
Here, something beyond anger and information is disseminated—a point of identification based on our individual fears, doubts, desires, and insecurities. Wojnarowicz's ability to communicate these unifying ideas dissolves the "one-tribe nation," model and replaces it with accepted families of diversity. What better purpose is served through autofiction?
David A. Beronä is a historian of woodcut novels and wordless comics and the author of Wordless Books: The Original Graphic Novels (2008). He has published and presented papers widely on wordless books and is on the editorial board of the International Journal of Comic Art. He is also the director of Lamson Library at Plymouth State University, New Hampshire, and a visiting faculty member at the Center for Cartoon Studies, White River Junction, Vermont.
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