Attachments are hard to see. This is because attachments live in the middle—somewhere between people, or between people and things.1 They arise and unfold over time in a dynamic relay between affects and objects, fantasy and reality. Thus, they do not neatly conform to the dichotomies of presence or absence, subject or object, process or product. Attachments can be as ambivalent and fragile as they are steadfast and durable; they can be ineffable and mysterious even as they are emblazoned on a sign and shouted out in the street.
Because attachments flicker between presence and absence, and because they fan out in so many directions at once, it is often easier to represent the object of an attachment rather than the form it takes. Indeed, one way to understand the enduring popularity of kinship diagrams is that they give attachment a graphic form.2 The family tree, for example, crystallizes a structure of relationality that is otherwise difficult to visualize. Of course, the price of this form is high. The hetero-patriarchal genealogy binds attachment to kinship, and it fuses kinship to the state. By necessity, it excludes attachments that do not count as kin within the racialized logics of marriage and descent, law and blood. It reduces relationality to a line that can only be drawn between certain names. In this respect, the kinship diagram exemplifies the vexed relationship between attachment and figuration—as well as its profound stakes for queer and trans people and people of color.
Queer theorists tend to be skeptical of the figures that electrify attachment.3 Broadly, we approach attachment as a drama of desire, wherein subjects fantasize that this person or that object will finally satisfy us.4 This is why Lauren Berlant famously declares that “all attachment is optimistic.”5 For Berlant, attachment is a false promise doomed to disappoint. Attachment turns sour because it binds us to normative fantasies that only further our subjection to power. Later, Berlant will grant that a shift in “attachment styles” can unlock “affective creativity that is not just a fantasmatic toupée, but a recalibrated sensorium.”6 For Lee Edelman, by contrast, attachment is toupées all the way down. We may change the objects of our attachments; we may change the scenes in which they unfold. But no amount of affective creativity can “change our subjection to that framework [of fantasy] or to the compulsion that drives those changes with the goal of preserving those attachments.”7 Here, attachment is an unyielding psychological structure that never changes shape. It is immune to “new representations of relational possibilities” we might discover or create.8
But what if relational possibilities are not merely representations but also forms?9 After all, attachments need more than hallucinations of fantasy to endure. They depend on rules, rituals, and patterns. They require labor to be sustained over time. They inhere between bodies that gather into collective forms, such as the group home or the mutual aid network. Indeed, attachments rely on what Ara Wilson calls “infrastructures of intimacy,” or the material substrates that buttress particular arrangements of social belonging.10 In this respect, we might redescribe attachment as meta-relational. We attach to this friend, but also to a particular form of friendship; we attach to that mentor, but also to a specific institution of mentorship. Attachments adhere to an object and to the relational form that gives them shape, structure, and significance, such as the family, the polycule, the couple, the throuple, the cohort, the surrogate, and so on. Frequently, relational forms exist in tension with one another, competing for authority and priority in a life. But they can also be lived simultaneously, as nested or overlayed without much concern for synthesis.
In this essay, I argue that graphic narrative can train us to see how certain relational forms make queer attachment possible. As Darieck Scott and Ramzi Fawaz argue, comics unleash a plentitude of “queer orientations to the world.”11 Like queerness, comics can be messy. Their “discontinuous organization” at the level of form beckons readers into all kinds of non-normative relationships to desire, fantasy, and sociality.12 Building on Scott and Fawaz, I argue that comics foreground the formal conditions that transform such relationships into attachments that can be extended into the social world. Comics visualize the environments that hold bodies together in space and afford particular relations between them. They do so by forcing attention to setting, which must be literally drawn and redrawn in each and every panel. While attachment needs space, it also takes time. Attachment is rhythmic; it is punctuated by sequences of events, which oscillate between recurrence and renewal, maintenance and transformation. As a narrative form that turns time into space on the page, comics unfold the patterns that stretch attachments out over time. Moreover, comics permit a graphic simultaneity that does not end. The nesting of panels can render the friction between relational forms without demanding that they cohere. Finally, by entwining word and image, comics probe the tensions between discursive and visual forms of representation. Through these combinations, comics contest the assumption of attachment’s fixity, revealing its dynamic elasticity.13 At the same time, they illuminate attachment’s figural limits, especially its complex reliance on yet resistance to representation.
To trace how comics unfold queer attachments, I turn to MK Czerwiec’s nonfiction graphic narrative, Taking Turns: Stories from HIV/AIDS AIDS Care Unit 371 (2017).14 Taking Turns documents Czerwiec’s experience as a nurse working on a hospital floor devoted to HIV/AIDS patients from 1993 until its closure in 2000.15 It does so through a colorful, cartoony style reminiscent of a children’s book. Czerwiec uses this style to narrate the queer bonds forged between caregivers and their patients in the midst of the crisis. These relations fail to register in normative genres of kinship, like family or friendship. Nor does identity ground their intimacies, despite much of the staff identifying as queer. Rather, attachments arise from rotations fostered by the collaborative design of the Unit: patients become caregivers, caregivers become patients, and each, in turn, becomes dependent on the other. Rotation, or turn-taking, elongates otherwise ephemeral relations.
As its title underscores, Taking Turns incorporates this organizing principle into its form. It does so, first, by visualizing characters as co-narrators that share the labor of storytelling. Narration becomes group work that sustains an attachment to the Unit as a relational form. Second, Taking Turns visualizes how queer relations arise from queer rotations. These rotations are built into the structure of the page, which cycles between panels without synthesizing them into a single story. In this way, Czerwiec teaches us to see the queer simultaneity of attachment on Unit 371: patients and staff, originally strangers, constellate in the Unit, and bonds arise from their lateral relations to one another. Their stories coexist without necessarily converging. Yet their experiences become graphically constellated as part of a larger visual field, held briefly together in space and time. When the Unit closes, its relational forms dissipate. Taking Turns thusredirects queer theory’s attention from attachment’s intractability to its fragility. It is not very surprising that attachment is sometimes cruel and always ambivalent. But it is astonishing that queer attachments emerge—let alone endure—when so many forces conspire to rend them asunder.16
Taking Turns stresses this point in its first panel when Czerwiec decides to quit nursing school.
Czerwiec wants to sever an attachment to a profession even before embarking on it. Her preceptor suspects that the patients remind Czerwiec too much of her father, who suffered a stroke when she was seventeen. He became Czerwiec’s “first patient” as she cared for him across a range of institutional settings (3). The preceptor switches Czerwiec to the “other side of the floor” where she will work with AIDS patients instead (5). These patients are not mere paternal substitutes. Rather, they open Czerwiec to a new world of social relations. Czerwiec admits to knowing “very little about AIDS that hadn’t been on TV or in newspapers,” although the pandemic has raged for thirteen years and wrought over 270,000 deaths. Despite Czerwiec’s own queer identity, AIDS equates to “distant things, safe things.” Her absent attachment to AIDS derives from a cultivated public silence around the crisis as well as the medical profession’s stigmatizing and segregating AIDS patients. In its first panels, then, Taking Turns establishes a trajectory for us to witness how personal, professional, and political attachments form. After only two days of working with AIDS patients in her clinical rotation, Czerwiec feels “a connection, a re-investment, one strong enough to keep me in nursing school” (8). Here, AIDS is repositioned as a surprising adhesive rather than a solvent of social bonds.
These bonds take shape around the unique design of Care Unit 371, where Czerwiec is employed after graduation. When creating the Unit, the founding doctors realized “not only did we need a cluster educational experience for medical services, but we were beginning to understand that because of the social aspects of this disease… we [also] had to be case managers and patient advocates” (28). Unit 371 thus gathers resources holistically around patients’ medical, psychological, social, and even artistic needs. Of course, hospitals often cluster patients on a particular floor, as in a maternity ward or an intensive care unit. However, Unit 371 breaks ground by combining the cluster form with a desire for community. To be sure, the founders worry that the cluster can intensify “stigma, as if the patients were some kind of leper colony” (29). Yet clustering increases circulation and contact on the floor—not only across medical disciplines but among patients, visitors, and staff. It is easy to forget just how radical a shared kitchen can be in the context of so much ignorance about HIV transmission. By establishing shared relationships to common space, the Unit beckons for a range of attachments to take hold.
Taking Turns foregrounds this organization through a lengthy tour of the Unit. Czerwiec moves through the common lounges, open kitchen, and art therapy room. Within these spaces, she interviews the Unit’s social worker, art therapist, patients, volunteers, and doctors of pulmonary, emergency, and psychiatric medicine. After this narrative tour, Czerwiec figures the Unit’s layout as a graphic map (34).
This choice underscores the complex dependency of the Unit’s social relations on its formal organization. The narrative tour and the graphic map combine without one displacing the other as the authoritative representation of the Unit. Each patient and staff member have different maps of this space. Yet their maps connect in a shared attachment to the Unit itself. The comic’s form underscores the meta-relational dimension of attachment, highlighting that the disparate stories of Unit 371 coexist within a larger visual and narrative constellation.
Rotation is the structuring principle of this constellation. As the founders of the Unit explain: “we are all just people taking turns being sick. I may be the nurse or doctor today, but I could be the patient tomorrow” (30). This is not mere empathy; it is a real possibility for caregivers due to their queerness and their corporeal proximity to HIV. Czerwiec brings this possibility into sharp relief when she accidentally pierces her finger on a lancet used to teach Tim, a patient, how to test his blood sugar and administer insulin (80).
The threat of infection throbs beneath every event depicted in the subsequent thirty-eight pages: Czerwiec gets tested and awaits her results; she takes AZT and continues to work; she makes art, builds new relationships, and attends a professional retreat. Throughout, she speculates anxiously on the prospect of seroconversion. Eventually, Czerwiec receives a negative result. But by withholding the results from readers for so long, Czerwiec elongates the narrative suspense between exposure and safety. Doing so brings the stakes of “taking turns” into stark reality. As we see for Czerwiec, taking turns provokes a sense of vulnerability and solidarity with patients, as the distance between them shrinks dramatically.
Rotation does not simply organize the relations depicted in Taking Turns but also the ways we are asked to read them on the page. For example, Czerwiec is disoriented by her new physical and affective proximity to patients. This close proximity is sustained by the Unit’s protocols for caregivers to sit on the patient’s bed, touch and hug patients, and develop “camaraderie” with them (22). In fact, Czerwiec discovers that many “work colleagues were friends with patients and saw them off the unit” (89). Such intimacy contradicts the strict boundaries Czerwiec was taught in nursing school. Thus, when Tim wants to collaborate on an art project with her, Czerwiec becomes anxious about the “right” response. To figure her anxiety, Czerwiec draws a panel with a proliferation of thought bubbles that lack clear ordering and attribution.
In one sense, this panel gives graphic form to what Berlant describes as a “new formlessness” that arises “when an attachment shifts its genre” (80). Czerwiec is profoundly uncertain about how to appropriately narrate this growing bond. Is this friendship, or something else altogether? She wonders: “What does “inappropriate” mean here anyway?” (89). At the same time, Taking Turns suggests that the transformation of attachment does not produce “formlessness” so much as a hesitation between multiple and equally possible relational forms. This hesitation is captured in the co-existence of bubbles: “It’s okay,” and “Maybe not.” As our eyes cycle across these graphically rendered thoughts, readers experience how rotation elicits new and profound ethical questions about what constitutes “crossing some kind of line.”
Yet Unit 371 asks for more than new lines between nurses and patients. It quite literally redraws the shape that their attachments will take. As Chris Haen, the Unit’s social worker, observes: “there absolutely are boundaries on Unit 371, but they are thinner than in other settings,” given the “fear and hatred” that patients endure in the outside world (91). Czerwiec juxtaposes Haen’s dialogue with two different panels: the first represents the “very diffuse boundaries” that structure interactions with patients, such as holding hands and sitting on the bed; this panel elides lines between these events; the second panel, on the opposite page, represents the same events within discrete frames that overlay one another with thin but precise lines.
The interactions have not changed, but the boundaries that organize them have. The panels overlay to demonstrate that these are not unethical line crossings but necessary crossings that sustain queer dependency. Bonds need boundaries—otherwise, they collapse into non-relationality. But as Haen notes, boundaries “must be adaptable to the needs of the community being served” (91). Such adaptations rely on relational forms that take account of the social violence faced by the community in question—in this case, the intersecting stigmas of homophobia and HIV. Similar to Czerwiec’s anxious thought bubbles, then, this page beckons for a rotational reading. It teaches us to trace distinct, if contingent, relations between each panel and to thus value the adaptability of queer boundaries.
Drawing boundaries takes work, and graphic narrative is uniquely poised to figure this relational labor. In fact, as Czerwiec adapts to the relational form of the Unit, Taking Turns redraws the boundaries between word and image, text and reader. For example, Czerwiec maps HIV’s destruction of the immune system onto the body of a patient. As she does so, the patient speaks back: “You forgot my skin. Be sure to tell them all about Kaposi’s Sarcoma” (9).
Here, another boundary thins as the patient becomes a co-narrator in dialogue with the author and her readers, capable of renegotiating the boundaries of his own figuration. The style of his figuration matters, too. Instead of a hyper-realistic style, Czerwiec illustrates Taking Turns in a simplified, colorful, and cartoony design. Doing so transforms the reader’s relations to the representation of AIDS itself. In this character, for example, the physical effects of AIDS are reduced to two small lines beneath his eyes. This choice allows Czerwiec to focus less visual attention on the physical devastations of AIDS and more on its psychological and relational effects. To be clear, the body matters to Taking Turns. But the comic wants us to see AIDS not simply as a medical problem but also a social one. Surprisingly, the less realistic and more cartoony aesthetic attunes us to these dynamics. As we see in Figure 7, this metafictional moment recalls the dialogic structure of a children’s book. Children’s books often disrupt boundaries between characters and readers, beckoning for call-and-response and other kinds of play around the edges of the diegesis.17 Taking Turns uses this metaleptic form to foreground the contingency of the author’s representation of AIDS and to stress the patient’s agency in the act of being represented.18
It is crucial, then, that Taking Turns does not give readers unfettered access to the patient’s intimate relationality. For example, as Czerwiec ends her shift, a patient calls out to her: “Hi. I’m Stephen and I’m really scared. Could you hold me?” In a rare instance of first-person perspective, we see Stephen through Czerwiec’s eyes. The next four panels narrate Czerwiec holding Stephen without illustrations.
Instead, text becomes graphic, placed at the center of each panel with a green background. The words are vivid and visceral: “His oxygen mask hissed over my shoulder. He smelled of medicine. I felt bone, skin, cloth. Heartbeat” (45). Strangely, the absence of an image brings us closer to the physicality of attachment. We imagine the figure of a body held close through the narration of sounds, smells, and sensations. Yet this choice also holds us at a distance, emphasizing the limits of our experiencing such radical intimacy from afar. The closeness of the hug dissolves boundaries to such an extent that visual perspective loses its force, yet it also cocoons Czerwiec and Stephen in the absolute privacy of their embrace—an embrace not seen but imagined, conjured by our own imaginative labor. Here, the oscillation between word and image gives form to the affective labor that queer relationality demands while preserving its fragile and precious boundaries.
After holding Stephen, Czerwiec feels “silenced, shaken” with “awe,” but she is confused by what she feels in awe of: “Life? Death? The pure intensity of my experience with Stephen?” (46). She returns home and begins to paint “images on pieces of wood” into the early morning. In her words, “There was a gulf between my life on Unit 371 and my life off Unit 371… Painting these boards helped form a bridge” (47).
Like the gutter between panels of a comic, the gulf between social worlds poses a problem of passage: How can Czerwiec move between these bounded and opposed, yet parallel and simultaneous, structures of belonging? The boards form a bridge because they are transitional objects that do not close the gap between relational forms.19 They live in the middle, sustaining a necessary, if distressing, tension between them. After all, if Czerwiec attaches too strongly to the Unit, there can be no life beyond it—and no possibility for rotations that distribute dependency. Taking turns requires elastic bonds, which can stretch and yet return to form. With their firm materiality, sharp edges, and capacity to be sutured in many different ways, the boards unlock transitional elasticity in ways that anticipate Czerwiec’s turn to graphic narrative. Indeed, when the Unit closes, the boards no longer work: “images alone felt inadequate” and writing degrades into “whiny journal entries” (165). Comics become a new bridge between writing and drawing and between life on and after Unit 371.
However, unlike most transitional objects, Czerwiec’s boards and comics are objects of collaborative attachment, created with her patients. For example, Czerwiec and Tim paint boards the “color of the summer sky as night falls… with faint white stars” (93). When Tim becomes too debilitated to paint, their collaboration continues with Czerwiec incorporating his designs into the artwork. Taking Turns interleaves these boards as splash pages that demarcate each narrative section, reinforcing the idea of the boards as preludes to the comic, and also the collaborative and co-creative nature of the comic itself.
As the sections progress, the stars accumulate. This choice subtly intimates time passing–as each night arrives, more stars appear in the sky. While this signifies the growing losses on the Unit, it also figures the unfolding process of Tim and Czerwiec’s creative labor and the bond it builds between them.
After the Unit closes, stars arise throughout Czerwiec’s art. She is unsure why until Roger, a former patient, observes, “stars are guides” (179). In this sense, the dead live on with agency: they afford “navigation,” remaining present even when invisible to the eye. Yet to become guides, stars must be strung together into narrative and graphic constellations. Lines must be visually drawn between them to make meaningful shapes that allow us to locate and orient ourselves in space; these shapes are contingent on location and position. At the same time, the wider visual field in which stars live is ever-shifting because of the earth’s infinite rotation. Drawing inspiration from the graphic form of the night sky, then, Taking Turns does not wish to preserve one nurse’s personal attachments. Rather, it charts the relational forms of collaborative attachment fostered by Unit 371 itself. Like the stars in the sky, these forms do not belong to any one person. They are not bound to one floor of one hospital in one historical moment. They are available still for attachment and uptake, waiting to be put into rotation again.
When the Unit closes, Czerwiec grieves the loss of this transitional and transitory space: “The AIDS Unit closed for good: cause to celebrate! But I felt miserable. And ashamed for feeling miserable” (165). This moment captures the ambivalence of attachment, an ambivalence shared by the survivors, who also wonder “what am I going to do when I don’t need to come here anymore?” (154). In gaining a “different future,” caregivers and patients lose the community they forged together. This loss exemplifies what Judith Butler calls the “breakability” that conditions every bond.20 Bonds break, by necessity. Yet, as Taking Turns suggests, some relational forms are better poised to weather breakability than others, such as those that structure Unit 371: the cluster, communal space, rotation, adaptable boundaries, and collaborative attachment.
Neoliberalism knows how to undo attachments. Its renders all bonds fungible as it enshrines unfettered individualism as the apotheosis of (anti)social life. It does not hold. It hoards. In this context, queer politics may need to do more than “refus[e] to accept the adequacy of given forms, which is also to say, the sufficiency of any social positivization.”21 We may also need to give graphic and narrative form to the social relations that nourish queer belonging. Relational possibilities may be infinite, but they are not so sublime as to evade all figuration. Indeed, as Taking Turns illustrates, graphic narrative can figure the conditions of queer dependency and confront their representational limits. Relational formalism does not sap queerness of its radical potential; nor does it passively accept any given form as sufficient or final. But it does grasp the often-mundane forms on which queer belonging depends, so that it can endure. Many forces want to unravel queer bonds. Relational formalism charts the designs that enable queers to hold fast—however fleetingly—together.
Thank you to MK Czerwiec for permission to reproduce images from Taking Turns and to Becky Clark, Eugenie Brinkema, and Emmy Waldman for their insightful suggestions, which greatly improved this essay.
This is part of the cluster Graphic Formalism. Read the other posts here.
- See D.W. Winnicott, Playing and Reality. New York, NY: Routledge, 1971.
- On kin-aesthetics, see Tyler Bradway and Elizabeth Freeman, editors, Queer Kinship: Race, Sex, Belonging, Form. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2002; and Elizabeth Freeman, The Wedding Complex: Forms of Belonging in Modern American Culture. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2002.
- See Kadji Amin, Disturbing Attachments: Genet, Modern Pederasty, and Queer History. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2017. For a queer critique of attachment theory, see Oliver Davis and Tim Dean, Hatred of Sex. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2022, especially 87-114.
- As an alternative to this self-oriented drama, Leo Bersani develops an ascetic theory of “impersonal attachment” that ruptures the personal as the primary framework for relationality. See Leo Bersani and Adam Phillips, Intimacies. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2008.
- Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2011, 1.
- Lauren Berlant and Lee Edelman, Sex, or the Unbearable. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014, 61.
- Berlant and Edelman, Sex, or the Unbearable, 105.
- See Caroline Levine, Forms: Whole, Hierarchy, Rhythm, Network. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015.
- Ara Wilson, “The Infrastructures of Intimacy,” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, vol. 41, no. 2, 2016, 247-80.
- Darieck Scott and Ramzi Fawaz, “Introduction: Queer About Comics.” American Literature, vol. 90, no. 2, 2018, 197–219. 203.
- Ibid, 199.
- On the queerness of plasticity, see Ramzi Fawaz, Queer Forms. New York: New York University Press, 2022.
- MK Czerwiec, Taking Turns: Stories from HIV/AIDS Care Unit 371. University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania University State Press, 2017.
- Unit 371 opens in 1985 at the Illinois Masonic Medical Center in Chicago.
- For a convergent argument, see Scott Herring and Lee Wallace, editors, Long Term: Essays on Queer Commitment. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2021.
- On metalepsis in children’s books, see Robyn McCallum, “Would I Lie to You?: Metalepsis and Modal Disruption in Some “True” Fairy Tales.” Postmodern Picturebooks: Play, Parody, and Self-Referentiality, edited by Lawrence R. Sipe and Sylvia Pantaleo. New York: Routledge, 2008, 180-92. For an important argument about the queerness of metalepsis, see Florian Zitzelsberger, “On the Queer Rhetoric of Metalepsis.” Word and Text, vol. 9, 2019, 125-42; and “Metalepsis and/as Queer Desire: Queer Narratology and the ‘Unnnatural,’” COPAS, vol. 21, no. 1, 2020, https://copas.uni-regensburg.de/article/view/329/pdf.
- In her acknowledgements, Czerwiec thanks the “narrators of Unit 371,” further stressing that this story is not hers alone (205).
- See Michael D. Snediker, “Ethics Out of Line, On Hold: D.W. Winnicott’s Queer Sensibilities,” in Clinical Encounters in Sexuality: Psychoanalytic Practice and Queer Theory, eds. Noreen Giffney and Eve Watson. Santa Barbara, CA: punctum books, 2017, 145-70.
- Judith Butler, “Breaks in the Bond: Reflections on Kinship Trouble.” UCL Housman Lecture. London, UK: University College London, 2017. https://www.ucl.ac.uk/classics/sites/classics/files/housman_butler_2017.pdf.
- Berlant and Edelman, Sex, or the Unbearable, 98.