'Second Avenue Caper': a heartfelt graphic novel about AIDS in the early ’80s
Joyce Brabner and Mark Zingarelli offer a well-crafted social testament to how far we have come, even as the emotional content has worn off
December 21, 2014 12:00 AM
A self-portrait of Mark Zingarelli.
By Don Simpson
To a generation for whom AIDS is no longer a death sentence and an STD seems little more than a recreational nuisance, a graphic novel about a plague that ravaged the gay community in the ’80s and ’90s and the medical, political, and sexual ignorance that enabled it may come across as a public service announcement from the Dark Ages.
“SECOND AVENUE CAPER: WHEN GOODFELLAS, DIVAS, AND DEALERS PLOTTED AGAINST THE PLAGUE”
By Joyce Brabner and Mark Zingarelli Hill and Wang ($22)
But as the catastrophic loss of much of a generation’s creative artists, intellectuals, and activists, not to mention countless individual stories of tragedy and heroism, risk succumbing to cultural amnesia, “Second Avenue Caper: When Goodfellas, Divas, and Dealers Plotted Against the Plague” arrives a well-crafted social testament to how far we have all come, even as the political charge of its highly emotional content has worn off.
Joyce Brabner is perhaps best known for her authorial collaborations with husband Harvey Pekar (1939-2010), whose long-running comic book series, “American Splendor” (1976-2008) broke ground for self-published autobiography, and whose late-’80s antics on “Late Night With David Letterman” set another kind of standard for futile, self-destructive protest (his rants against NBC parent General Electric irked the host, bringing a successful string of appearances to a premature end).
Together, Mr. Pekar and Ms. Brabner’s “Our Cancer Year” (1994), illustrated by the masterful Frank Stack, set a high watermark in the confessional graphic memoir genre.
The 2003 film adaptation of “American Splendor,” starring Paul Giamatti as Harvey and Hope Davis as Joyce, transformed the couple into working-class intellectual icons. Ms. Brabner’s solo work has dealt with a variety of controversial issues including anti-war activism, flawed American foreign policy, and animal rights.
Here she is teamed with acclaimed Weirdo and New Yorker cartoonist-illustrator Mark Zingarelli, an Irwin resident whose ability to capture subtle facial expression and body language lends immediacy to the authentic period narrative.
Ms. Brabner accesses this now-receding era of rising terror through the recollections of friend and fellow Clevelander Raymond, who contributes to New York’s vibrant gay subculture as scripter of drag revues and is drafted into the fight against AIDS as a registered nurse.
At first completely in the dark about the “gay cancer” taking its toll on friends and lovers, Raymond and his cohorts enhance their Mexican marijuana pipeline into a conduit for Ribavirin, an experimental AIDS drug not sanctioned by the FDA in the U.S. but nonetheless desperately desired by sufferers.
Partnering with a sleazy doctor and his gangster associates, Raymond and company overcome their very real fear of arrest and imprisonment, donning innocuous vacation attire to smuggle the illegal drug into New York City in a modified Winnebago. Even as their methods become more sophisticated, their sketchy understanding of the growing epidemic becomes more complete.
When a study declares Ribavirin to be completely ineffective against AIDS, Raymond suffers a minor nervous breakdown. Ironically, his parallel marijuana business has been more beneficial to those afflicted as an appetite stimulant and pain reliever.
Raymond conveys his story to Ms. Brabner in a coffee shop some years later, from the perspective of creeping middle age, and long after too many friends and lovers have been lost. With the legalization of marijuana trending nationally currently, even the bravado of smuggling contraband seems diminished (still, “Raymond” reportedly became skittish at the last minute over statute-of-limitations concerns, necessitating certain last-minute alterations to the story).
But rather than supplying historical context, this “as told to” framing device simply intrudes on the main narrative, and Ms. Brabner, whom the back-flap bio asserts “is rather more lighthearted” than her neurotic film characterization, comes across as attempting to reposition herself as an amiable Mary Worth of contemporary social causes.
Key confrontational interventions such as Act Up and the Names Project (the so-called “AIDS quilt” so important in commemorating victims and normalizing gay identity in America) are mentioned without elaboration or even a suggested bibliography of further reading.
As an educational tool, these are lost opportunities in an otherwise informative and heartfelt graphic memoir.
Don Simpson, a cartoonist, holds a Ph.D. in art and architectural history from the University of Pittsburgh.
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