As a child of the eighties, I remember the AIDS panic. As the disease gained national attention, the fears of possible contact and transmission vectors, the growing visibility of the gay community, and the ostracizing of the infected and the potentially sick were common discussions by parents, by teachers, and in peer groups. The certain knowledge that AIDS was a death sentence weighed heavy in my awareness. But that sense of AIDS as a killer, the knowledge of how devastating those early years really were, particularly for the gay community, has been lost for those who have come of age after the development of drug cocktails that allow people to live with AIDS for years. Even though AIDS remains the number one killer of people ages 18-45 globally, it has lost some of its fear power in the U.S., where drugs and treatment are generally readily available. Now, though, Joyce Babner joins with illustrator Mark Zingarelli to offer an intimate look at the beginnings of the AIDS crisis, from the earliest cases and the struggle to identify and treat the unknown disease to the rise of AIDS activism and the development of more effective treatments.
Babner is herself a character in Second Avenue Caper, as the recorder of her friend Raymond’s story of the epidemic. She notes that names and details have been changed to protect individual privacy, but other than those changes, Second Avenue Caper captures the true story of how members of the New York gay community came together to fight for their lives and the lives of those they loved against the rising tide of infection.
In the early ’80s, Raymond is an RN and a playwright, working in hospitals to pay the bills while trying to get his plays produced. It is in the hospital that Ray meets Dr. Gritz, an unhappy physician who recruits Ray to join his small-time pot distribution network. Their business relationship prospers as Ray’s friends in the community turn to him for their recreational needs. But it is also in the hospital that Ray begins to hear about the new unknown disease in the city and where he meets Patient #24, the twenty-fourth confirmed instance of the disease. A disease with no known treatments and a rapid fatality rate is striking down the city’s young gay men, a disease that threatens to isolate and ostracize them further from “normal” people. Rejected and feared, often by their own families, the health care establishment, and the larger society, the victims of what would soon become known as AIDS were left to suffer alone with few if any treatment options. Determined to save their friends, Ray, his partner, and other members of the gay community form a crazed cadre of determination, even making a deal with the mob to help smuggle experimental treatment drugs from Mexico into the United States in an A-Team inspired RV.
Part memoir, part history lesson, and part social commentary, Babner’s story pairs brilliantly with Zingarelli’s black and white illustrations to capture the essence of the struggles and sacrifices this unlikely group faced to save themselves and others. The art itself has an ’80s feel, lending authenticity to Ray’s memories of that time. Each personality is given a distinct face; each player in the drama stands out as a unique individual. Drag queens and divas they may be, but Babner’s characters are not caricatures. Both author and illustrator have a deft touch, giving dignity to the living and the dying, respecting their lives as their stories are captured for future generations. Babner’s storytelling approach unwinds like a shared memory, allowing the reader to be an unseen bystander as the events take place. There are no saints and really no villains to this story; rather than canonize her characters, Babner captures their humanity, flawed but caring, scared but determined, outcast but not alone.
Second Avenue Caper earned the 2015 Lambda Award for Best LGBTQ Graphic Novel, and it was also named as a Village Voice Best Graphic Novel of 2014. The novel is unrated, but generally appropriate for mature teen or adult readers. The most problematic element of Second Avenue Caper is the drugs, both Ray’s ventures as a dealer and the recreational use of marijuana by most of the members of his social circle. There is also a lack of respect for the law as the group seeks to smuggle illegal pharmaceuticals across the border. The story has little adult language and no sexual situations, though there are some illustrations of men kissing. A powerful, fast-paced, and bittersweet book, Second Avenue Caper is an important new glimpse into gay history and a touching memoir of the power of friendship and community in helping to bring awareness and activism out of the closet and into American consciousness. For readers who lived through the AIDS scares, as well as those who have only known the disease as a treatable illness, Second Avenue Caper is an important read.
Second Avenue Caper: When Goodfellas, Divas, and Dealers Plotted Against the Plague
by Joyce Babner
Art by Mark Zingarelli
Hill & Wang, 2014