Brabner, Joyce (author) and Mark Zingarelli (illustrator). “Second Avenue Caper: When Goodfellas, Divas, and Dealers Plotted Against the Plague”, Hill & Wang, 2014.
Joyce Brabner gives us the true story of a tight-knit group of artists and activists living in New York City in the early 1980s who found themselves on the front lines in the fight against AIDS. They were struggling to understand the disease and how they could help so they made a deal with a bona fide goodfella, dressed in wonderful disguises, piled into an “A-Team” van, and set off for the border. They were determined to save their bedridden friends by smuggling an experimental drug into the United States from Mexico.
Their community was in crisis and the world looked away. So what were they to do? Here an impassioned gang of misfits never gave up hope as they searched for ways to raise awareness and beat the plague. This book is a heartfelt tribute to the generation that faced down AIDS.
“Second Avenue Caper” is set in Manhattan in the darkest early days of the HIV/AIDS crisis. Brabner’s vivid script tells the story of a band of friends – her friends – who plotted to smuggle illegal drugs from Mexico to help beloved comrades desperately ill and abandoned by the medical establishment. Ray, a male nurse and drag-show producer tells the story; his Jewish partner, Benny, becomes a collaborator. Much like what really happened, characters disappear and Brabner tells the story with no sentimentality and this makes it all the more powerful.
In addition to being a story about AIDS this is the story of the Lower East Side, where the book is set and is now a totally different place. At the time, it was full of people from Communist-led countries. Now it seems like all the buildings have been emptied out and put on hold for retail development and the spirit of neighborhood that was once there is gone.
The book captures the time and the pathos, the tragedy and the sweetness as well as the mania at the beginning of the AIDS epidemic in New York City. This is a graphic novel that is also graphic in what it has to say. We are seeing more and more books coming out that are about the AIDS epidemic and this in one that pulls us in immediately.
Joyce Brabner and Mark Zingarelli document a recent moment in history that already seems so far away but it is important that we never forget what happened. The story is powerful, the artwork is wonderful and what happened with AIDS is anemblematic tale of our times and it is classically heroic and moving at the same time.
We can never allow ourselves to forget that “At that liminal moment when it became clear that a pattern of infection threatened to become a deadly epidemic, heroes emerged from the ranks of the ordinary. They were motivated by the desire to help friends survive this pitiless disease, or, in many cases, to make sure they died loved and cared for.”
We meet some of those people right here and their stories are poignant and brilliantly told to us. Joyce Brabner gives us a wonderfully crafted tale that is powerful in its depiction of the strength of the human spirit in the face of unspeakable tragedy. Mark Zingarelli’s artwork is spectacular with a brilliant cinematic quality to it.