Review by Frank Plowright
7 Miles a Second is an unflinching portrait of hustling in New York during the 1970s, what was necessary to fund even the most basic hand to mouth existence, the dangers of doing so, and the eventual consequences. It’s all the more harrowing for being David Wojnarowicz’s autobiography, written as knew he was dying from AIDS. It’s not intended as pleasant reading, and not for the faint hearted, as Wojnarowicz is harder on himself than any judgemental bigot could be, and his is far from the only tragic existence.
He notes being nine during his first sexual encounter with another man, and although it’s late in coming, curious readers finally learn in passing what would prompt anyone to start picking up much older men in Times Square. As with so much of 7 Miles a Second, it prompts outrage and hatred toward abusers and hypocrites. The title refers to the speed required to escape Earth’s gravity, used by Wojnarowicz as a benchmark for the pace of other events.
Dreams and hallucinogenic experiences are important to Wojnorwicz, brief escapes from the horrors of his life, often of the tranquillity of nature, the polar opposite of his fearful urban existence. They serve as the transition from the past to the present of the early 1990s for the final third of the memoir when the impact of AIDS is taking its toll. By this time instead of drifting, Wojnarowicz is engulfed by impotent rage at both his own condition and the homophobic attitudes of society toward the causes. While AIDS still hasn’t been cured, modern treatments can prolong life further and far more comfortably than in the 1990s, and there can be a tendency to dismiss its effects. No-one who reads the final portion of the memoir will be able to do so again, irrespective of medical progress.
7 Miles a Second is an unfocussed memoir, providing a challenge for any artist to adapt it effectively, but James Romberger matches the intensity of the narrative with nods to Wojnarowicz’s own style, creating both nightmarish visions and intensely detailed scenes. For much of the book Marguerite Van Cook’s colouring seems extremely poor, until it drops into place that the bright miasma is supposed to convey the disorientation of Wojnarowicz’s life. It’s perhaps a step too far in verisimilitude as without consideration it does Van Cook’s own artistic reputation no favours. The contrast of the later pages where life has of necessity slowed down underlines the deliberate nature of the messy looking earlier work.
It’s an achievement for a graphic novel ahead of its time to still shock and force thought on republication almost twenty years later. 7 Miles a Second has lost none of its original power, and cuts through a desensitised and uncaring era. An original edition was published by Vertigo in 1996, quite the strange departure for their list at the time, but both the 2013 Fantagraphics edition and the 2018 Grove Press edition restore the colouring as originally intended.