As one of the leaders of the New York art comix scenes in the ‘80s, James Romberger is a well-respected creator whose influence overshadows his notoriety. Romberger made his mark with his contributions to the seminal zine World War 3 Illustrated and Ground Zero, the comic strip he produced with his partner Marguerite Van Cook that also served as the namesake for the couple’s art gallery. The two have collaborated on a number of other projects since then, including the masterful 7 Miles a Second, which brought to life the memories of NYC artist David Wojnarowicz and was completed after he passed away.
I spoke with Romberger about his current work for Alison Sampson’s Think of a City project, his thoughts on the current political climate, his frustrations with DC editorial, why he wants to work with Ales Kot and much more.
Nick Hanover for Comics Bulletin: Your Think of a City entry covers a lot of ground very efficiently, seemingly commenting on a number of eras and situations all at once, with the foreground merging ’80s New York and modern urban war zones while the background mixes very classical, bombed out architecture and contemporary skyscrapers. What is the story of this city? What are you saying about modern times with this illustration?
James Romberger: The Think of a City project takes the form of an exquisite-corpse-style chain: each participant is asked to use one element from the piece directly preceding theirs in the series, and also they are to use one of the colors. So, in my drawing the tunnel seen at the bottom takes off from the trenches running through Tait Howard’s graveyard scene— and I used the red of Tait’s sky.
When Alison Sampson sent me the project, I was in the middle of making a gallery-oriented pastel drawing of a homeless encampment that I saw when I was in Marseille briefly last year and I incorporated some aspects of that into the piece. At that time I was also re-reading Philip K. Dick’s brilliant Valis, and I made references to the book in the piece: in the aerosol art on the walls in the foreground and the proto-Christian hooded figures, and in the blending of Greco-Roman architecture with rotting tenements and modern steel and glass buildings in the distance. “The Empire never ended.” As well, I drew in the very front a woman and child; she wears a burqa and they don’t seem to be part of the shantytown on the embankment, but are passerbys. The project guidelines sensibly suggest that the images should be as much or more about the residents as they are about the city itself.
CB: That idea that the “Empire never ended” seems to never lose relevance, and America is currently deep into an election year where discussions of interventionism versus isolationism have reached a fever pitch. What do you hope to communicate with works like your Think of a City piece about the divisions between urban and rural environments in regards to the direction “the empire” is going?
Romberger: The good we Americans do in the world seems unbalanced by the bad we do. We do not in any way lead the world in reversing the impending planet-wide environmental collapse— in fact, we do our best to hasten it. We are a terrible example, consuming far more than our share of natural resources while pounding our chests with pride about our selfishness. We live in a country built on the presumption of ownership, on the mass murder of the people who lived here before us and on slavery. We can’t make amends for our past crimes, much less ever be great until we learn some decency, some humanity and humility. But no. We support repressive governments like Saudi Arabia, while vilifying others for flimsy reasons— before we blow them to smithereens. We allow our police to murder people of color, or imprison them for profit— we are, in fact, the spitting image of Dick’s Black Iron Prison.
CB: From my perspective, the burqa clad characters at the forefront of the piece appear scared, like they’re running from a threat and trying to keep their heads down. The 20th century was full of displacement of religious and cultural groups, and you’ve depicted some of that history in other works. What do you hope people see in this piece in regards to the threat that the Muslim community currently faces in America, especially in larger cities like New York? What are some of the ways you think art can help people achieve a better understanding of these threats and challenges? Do you think some of this issue comes down to the isolationism and dogmatic tendencies of rural, small town America?
Romberger: It is hard to articulate the divergence between urban and rural in this country, but a few years ago I flew twice from NYC to California— my first times ever crossing the country. I flew over vast stretches of nearly completely unpopulated areas where in daytime, no buildings could be seen, at night, no lights visible, as far as the eye could see. Yet these states where so few live have the same voting power in the Senate as a state like New York— or California. Now, I have not always been a New Yorker; I grew up in a small town upstate and most of the people I knew there, never left. And across this huge mostly empty country, people who have never left their little home town, many of whom may have never met a person of color, are able to dictate national policy.
The hooded figures can be seen as threatening— they are armed, after all— and women and children are so often caught in men’s wars. So the drawing reflects the clash of ideologies that envelopes the world today. Christianity, Judaism and Islam furthered civilization in many ways, to be sure— but fundamentalists of every faith, Christian, Jewish and Muslim alike are the sources of so much sexism, violence and intolerance— they thrive on fear and ignorance. I myself feel threatened by religion.
CB: New York seems to be in a time of intense transition, and your Think of a City piece hints at a view of that transition perhaps going badly. What are the issues you’re most concerned about in this time as an artist? What about as a resident?
Romberger: American candidates for office campaign only on economic issues and about immigration and terror. None of our representatives seem to grasp the urgency of the environmental crisis— they don’t even mention it! Coastal cities like New York are among the most vulnerable places to flooding and that affects me directly, so that issue is what I am dedicating my energies to with Post York. But the midwest is also in trouble— in fact, there is nowhere in the world that will not be affected profoundly when it all begins to fall apart. Our systems will not be equal to the challenge: everything is run by computers, but no electronics will work— and moreover, there will be no clean water or air. At that point, art will cease to be relevant. If we are not yet at the tipping point, we will be very, very soon. It needs to be addressed immediately.
CB: Throughout your career, you’ve seemingly been drawn to cities in various states of destruction and decay. What is it about this subject that remains so fascinating to you? What are the parallels you see between, say, the Lower East Side in its worst years and the WW2 ravaged cities you depicted in The Late Child?
Romberger: The bad old days of NYC when the places like the East Village and the South Bronx looked like rubble-strewn war zones were due to deliberate governmental policies of red-lining, where certain areas were allowed to decay to accommodate the desires of real estate interests. Hard to compare this to the carpet-bombing of Portsmouth in the WWII Blitz, but the visual result is strikingly similar.
I draw New York a lot because I have lived there a long time and I know it pretty well. I was able to draw Portsmouth for my partner Marguerite Van Cook’s memoir The Late Child because I spent a good amount of time there; so I hopefully gave the drawings some sense of living detail, to make it feel real to the reader. Portsmouth was really flattened in the war— it was a major target for the Nazis because it was England’s main naval port. I remember Marguerite telling me that when she was a child, she played with her friends on the bomb sites; they were still there, sometimes with unexploded bombs in them.
My own neighborhood of the Lower East Side is continually shifting; in fact it changes so rapidly that I can walk out on a street that I hadn’t been on for only a month or two and find it nearly unrecognizable. Now, I try not to be precious or sentimental about that. But what does throw me off is that the multicultural nature of the city is being lost, as wealthy people who are willing to pay way too much to live in refurbished slums displace working families and artists, musicians, actors, poets— what one might term “culture producers.”
CB: You collaborated with Jay Cantor on the Vertigo graphic novel Aaron & Ahmed, which centered around a character seeking answers for the question “What causes terrorism?” As an artist whose work has not shied away from commenting on 9/11, did the experience of that project answer or provoke new questions about 9/11 for you?
Romberger: I did some work about the two Gulf Wars for the alt-political comic World War 3 Illustrated, and for the galleries I was showing in at the time. I had high hopes for Aaron and Ahmed, but DC drained some of the courage out of Jay Cantor’s plot, somewhere in between the prospectus and the final script. For instance, the homoerotic elements of what was termed by DC editors as a “bromance,” were lessened significantly—— and I was discouraged in my efforts to be more accurate about the torture techniques used at Guantanamo. DC seemed to believe that Obama would close Gitmo before the book’s release on the ten year anniversary of 9/11, but as we all know, that wasn’t allowed to happen. As well, the book was not promoted properly by DC and then within a year, they remaindered it. And we now live in a world where the right wing’s oil wars have generated exponentially more terrorism.
CB: How did it compare to your more global warming focused collaboration with your son Crosby, Post York?
Romberger: Well, Post York is an even more dire vision of the world. In trying to figure out how rising water levels due to melting ice cap would affect New York, I found widely divergent figures: some people say the city will be under 15-20 feet of water, other that it will be more like 20 meters. That’s a big difference. Then pretty much the same week our comic was released by Uncivilized Books, Hurricane Sandy hit and my son came out the front door of his building on East 9th Street and watched a police car float by. I’m working on another issue now and one sequence depicts the character I based on Crosby floating over the High Line. I wish I could say that’s funny.
CB: Was the frustration of dealing with editorial interference on Aaron & Ahmed part of what motivated you to primarily stick with indie and boutique comic publishers afterwards? Since the revelations of what transpired at Homan Square in Chicago, do you think current audiences would be more interested in “accurate” depictions and commentary on American torture and interrogation methods?
Romberger: I was also alienated by the trend that Vertigo largely initiated of putting the writers’ name on the cover huge and crediting the artists in smaller (my Bronx Kill and the rest of the Vertigo Crime line) or leaving their names off entirely (Neil Gaiman’s Death).
I wasn’t allowed to put forth much of a romantic or sexual dynamic between the main characters of Aaron and Ahmed which was, after all, subtitled ” A Love Story.” When they made me put underpants on a character that was scripted to be nude, I wondered what century I was in. To aim at something specifically torture-related, for instance, I asked the editors repeatedly to add a reference to the peronial strike, a technique used at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib whereby prisoners are hit routinely in the same part of the leg in a protracted manner, causing untold agony. DC thought readers weren’t interested in these sorts of details. I believed that at the end Aaron, having been judged a terrorist himself, should have ended up in the same forced-feeding chair in Gitmo that Ahmed had been in when they first met, making for an apt symmetry, but they relied on the old DC standby cliché of a rubber room in an asylum.
I wasn’t surprised to hear of the Homan Square “disappearances,” nor am I to continually see police murder people of color with impunity, yet be set free. Those crimes, the phony drug war that feeds the privatized for-profit prison industry and the deliberate proliferation of guns in our society are the ongoing project of America’s right wing. I believe comics are as good a place as any to explore these issues.
CB: Your work on Seven Miles a Second functions as a profound and intimate depiction of what could be seen as the crisis most closely associated with New York before 9/11, the AIDS epidemic. The comic was a three tiered collaboration with you and Marguerite Van Cook editing and illustrating David Wojnarowicz’s experiences in New York’s gay community before and after AIDS awareness. In a review for Slate, Noah Berlatsky said “The lowbrow trashiness of comics is, as it turns out, a perfect fit for the highbrow trashiness of the ’80s New York arts scene the comic depicts.” Given the concerns of the gay community that their scene is too frequently sanitized (particularly in the Will & Grace ’90s), do you consider the “trashiness” of the comic to be a vital part of its artistic intent? Were the three of you focused on depicting a more realistic New York arts scene, albeit one presented in a frequently abstract and surreal way?
Romberger: We loved that Noah gave us a rave, but I don’t agree that comics are inherently trashy— after all, all novels were generalized as trashy only a few centuries ago. David wanted his story to be told in a popular medium and I think he would have been floored that DC comics published the first edition— hard to get more mainstream than that! It was an effort to deal with material that up to that time had hardly been represented in the medium, or actually, much of anywhere in the culture. David felt that he didn’t see himself reflected in the culture. Remember, we started the project in 1986, well before there were many graphic novels, much less one focused on empathy, gay issues and AIDS.
As for the art scene, it isn’t really in the book. We did do a page of David painting in the second edition from Fantagraphics. After roughing it out in the first place in the early 90s, I had edited that page out because I didn’t think his art career was relevant to the story we were telling at that time— however, years later when we had the opportunity to “freshen the book” I realized that it represented something that was missing in the book and reinstated that page, along with some other initially self-rejected pages.
CB: In the time since Seven Miles a Second was first printed by Vertigo in 1996 and its reissue by Fantagraphics a few years ago, a number of filmmakers have taken similar approaches to this era and the AIDS crisis, specifically Gregg Araki and his landmark film Mysterious Skin, which has a similarly hazy style and focus on dreams and features a color palette that reminds me of Van Cook’s coloring in the comic. What do you consider the legacy of Seven Miles a Second? How did the reaction to the comic differ from its first printing and its later reissue? Are there works in other media that you feel are inspired by it?
Romberger: Postcards from America, a not-great movie made about David years ago lifted a passage from our book (without permission, but apparently as a consolation, they cast Crosby as David’s little brother)— but whenever another, hopefully better film is done, I’d hope that we will be asked to participate in some way. We really liked Araki’s Mysterious Skin. We’ve certainly seen other films over the years that also used painterly, saturated approaches, to the point that we thought the cinematographer had been looking at 7MAS. The culture has expanded considerably in the time since 1996 to become much more inclusive, much more diverse. I think the book resonates in ways that one might not expect, though it would be hard to pinpoint its influence unless someone directly acknowledges it…still, people like Sammy Harkham and Tom Kaczynski spoke to me of their appreciation for the book when I first met them. We were thrilled that the great Jim Jarmusch liked it enough to give us a quote for the new edition! The influence of Marguerite’s wet, saturated, psychologically charged color as seen in the 1st edition’s digital separations has seeped into a lot of media, from Image Comics to MTV cartoons to advertising.
CB: Outside of your Think of a City material, what else have you been working on?
Romberger: In fact I’ve been doing much more gallery work than comics recently; I’ve done two major exhibitions of pastel drawings this last year, one at the now-defunct Dorian Grey Gallery and one with my family at Howl Happening. As for comics, I’ve done a pinup for Ed Piskor’s Hip Hop Family Tree Vol 4, a one page strip for the Image Comics Thought Bubble tabloid and a foldout Prince Valiant pastiche poster for the poetry/comics magazine Ink Brick #3— those three with Marguerite Van Cook. I also did an illustration for a fiction book by Comics Journal critic Bob Levin. I have cut back on my own critical writing, but I did write an essay for the catalogue for Charles Hatfield’s big Kirby exhibition at CSU Northridge, and also one for Study Group Magazine #4, just out. And I am working on Post York #2; that will be my next comics release.
CB: How does the audience reaction differ for you between the art gallery/exhibition world and comics? What are some of the challenges and pleasures of each world that keeps you coming back to them separately?
Romberger: I don’t see much of an interaction between the two forms. “Fine” or gallery art is made for a tiny audience and the buying portion is even smaller. I enjoy doing pastels and large ink drawings for that market and there is some degree of control and satisfaction there—-but I love comics and the “graphic novel” is a vital artistic movement now in many ways.
Now, one would assume comics are intended for a wide readership, but certain parts of the medium seem determined to shrink its audience. The overly complex continuity of the mainstream makes it so you can’t buy a single issue of anything and have any idea of what is going on. And the digital color and font lettering are off-putting to anyone who isn’t comfortable with that sort of plastic surface and machined look. The alternative often offers a more handmade intimacy and a wider range of potential subject matter. But it is also frustrating that on the one hand in the mainstream, you can be quite well paid but have to answer to such a array of editorial functionaries such as those seen in DC; while on the other hand, in the art/lit/alt comics scene, the books are made beautifully and come out the way the artist intends, but there is so often no money to be had at all and (perhaps because) the promotion and distribution are lacking.
CB: The ‘80s seemed like an especially vibrant time for anthology and compilation works in comics, but what do you think of the new, more web based collectives that have emerged, like Study Group? How would you compare contributing to their zines and anthologies versus the zines that you were so involved in the ‘80s?
Romberger: I think the alternative comics scene now is healthier is some ways than it was in the 80s, but there is a problem with distribution, largely I think due to Diamond’s monopolistic handling, in that they won’t carry a lot of the more interesting comics being produced. I hope someone emerges to take up the slack. I am pleased to work with Study Group Magazine, as I am to be associated with Uncivilized Books. Smaller publishers and imprints like these and Retrofit, Floating World and Hang Dai are doing some wonderful books and they deserve to reach a wider audience.
CB: Whose work are you most excited by in comics today? Are any up-and-coming creators you’d especially love to work with in some capacity?
Romberger: We need more anthology titles. Those are where the big leaps forward come in the comics medium. I squeaked into MOME’s last issue, which was my bad, I should have sent them some of the still-unpublished short stories I have sooner. I’d like to contribute to Kramer’s Ergot—Sammy suggested putting Marguerite and I together with a writer, but it hasn’t happened yet.
I want to work on something with writer with Ales Kot; I really liked his Image book Zero. I keep hoping to do something for the Hellboy group of books, perhaps with John Arcudi who has expressed interest in writing something for me. I’d like to do a book with Drawn and Quarterly— and with Annie Koyama, maybe something more art-driven like a sort of portfolio. I might also like to do something with First Second, because they seem to understand how to promote their books, something that shouldn’t be underestimated.