Writer: Joyce Brabner
Artist: Mark Zingarelli
Publisher: Hill & Wang
Release Date: November 18, 2014
The early 1980s feel a lot farther removed from the present than they actually are. Technology and social change have made a few decades feel much longer, and if you grew up in that time, it really seems like history by now. Joyce Brabner and Mark Zingarelli approach the era not through nostalgia, but through the clear eyes of those who lived through it as adults in this nonfiction collaboration about the early years of the HIV/AIDS crisis.
Brabner has always worked on social justice issues through her comics, and Second Avenue Caper fits in well with her body of work. Like her late husband, Harvey Pekar, she’s a writer, not an artist, and the book foregrounds words over visuals. Most of this content is based around the author’s interviews of her friend Ray, a nurse and playwright who becomes an activist as he sees his friends diagnosed with the harrowing disease. That’s not to say that Mark Zingarelli brings nothing to the table with his drawings, but there are an abundance of talking head panels. Zingarelli exercises a classic, clean style — simple, straightforward, and focused on results rather than on drawing attention to himself — but he does provide some nice moments. One of the best examples is the repeated image of a makeshift altar packed with photographs and personal items that changes as different characters contract HIV or pass away. The lettering is old-school, contained in the kind of classic boxes that cover the top or bottom of panels, or they float over images with angled edges.
Second Avenue Caper is a quick read, with large panels that fill up the relatively small pages, and the drama is minimized rather than heightened, unlike a comparable story like Dallas Buyers Club. Ray’s voice is there, and his and his compatriots’ trip to Mexico to buy medication is at times exciting, but the narrative could benefit from more detail. Written by people who lived it, the story can seem opaque to those who didn’t. The result is a personal history that is maybe a bit too understated, but also serves as an important starting point for comics documenting the era.