In Second Avenue Caper: When Goodfellas, Divas, and Dealers Plotted Against the Plague, "Ray" recounts his brave, quixotic, tragicomic adventures as an experimental AIDS drug smuggler who funded his operation by selling weed out of his New York apartment, during the early years of the "gay plague." It's a strangely fitting subject for a graphic novel, and Joyce Brabner and Mark Zingarelli graphic novel make it work as a history book that'll make you laugh and cry. Cory Doctorow reviews.

Second Avenue Caper: When Goodfellas, Divas, and Dealers Plotted Against the Plague is the story of how "Ray," a nurse in New York City, fell first into a career as a small-time pot dealer, then, as the AIDS epidemic unfolded, ran a ring of drug-smugglers who moved massive quantities of experimental — and ultimately useless — anti-viral drugs into the USA across the US border.

Ray was an overworked hospital nurse who lived with his boyfriend, Ben, when he was approached by an incompetent, surly doctor who dreamed of striking it rich by selling Colombian weed that he could move into New York through his connections in Mexico. He needed Ray to act as the retail operation, because, frankly, he had no friends.

And so Ben and Ray's careers as dope peddlers began. Their apartment turned into a salon of bohemians and a community hub for drag queens, queers and freaks of all description.

Then, as the "gay plague" emerged, and men began to die at Ray's hospital, their little circle was shattered. Their regulars and their friends began to sicken and die, and the wider world didn't seem to care — indeed, they were actively hostile to the sick and dying. Then Ray heard a rumor about an experimental anti-viral drug, available in Mexican pharmacies, that could be used to treat the disease. So he organized a caravan of unusual drug-smugglers, including his conservative mother, who made the trip to Tijuana and brought back enough dope for several people for several months.

It wasn't enough. Ray hit up his crooked doctor pal for help. By this point, the doc was in tight with the weed-smugglers, and had access to a tricked-out smuggler's RV with huge hollow cavities and a reinforced suspension. By performing cash- and dope-muling tasks for the drug ring, Ray got access to the RV and the gang organized a kind of community theater troupe that created plausible, harmless midwesterners to make the run across the border.

So begins the story of Ray, Ben, and their merry band, who smuggled experimental drugs wholesale, sold weed at discount prices to people whose appetites had been stolen by HIV/AIDS, and who fought in the streets for justice.

Second Avenue Caper captures the pathos, tragedy, sweetness and mania of the early days of the AIDS pandemic. Creators Joyce Brabner and Mark Zingarelli bring it to life and make it sing. Brabner is the widow and collaborator of Harvey Pekar, Zingarelli was a Pekar collaborator who contributed to American Splendor. The story they tell is a real one, though names have been changed to protect the vulnerable. It's all the more significant for the current, racially tinged debate about ebola.

Second Avenue Caper: When Goodfellas, Divas, and Dealers Plotted Against the Plague

-Cory Doctorow