Romberger and Van Cook at 7 Miles a SecondA comics interview article by: Keith Silva
7 Miles a Second sticks, it imprints on your brain -- it challenges in the way all art means to do. As much a memoir as it is a graphic novel, 7 Miles a Second tells stories from the life of David Wojnarowicz -- a man who was a street hustler, an artist, an AIDS patient and most importantly, a human being. In his thirty-seven years, Wojnarowicz was at war with apathy, as an artist and later as an activist he made sure to be heard, to bring the mainstream to the margins and to hold the powerful accountable.
These are Wojnarowicz's words and his world, however, 7 Miles a Second is very much the creation of James Romberger and Marguerite Van Cook. Together Romberger's art and Van Cook's indelible water colors give body, realness, and life to Wojnarowicz's memories, snatches of overheard dialogue, and dreams. Originally published by Vertigo Comics in 1996 without Van Cook's original watercolors and in a smaller format, 7 Miles a Second has been reprinted by Fantagraphics Books as its creators intended. I spoke with Romberger and Van Cook through email about Wojnarowicz, 7 Miles a Second, and how comics can break your heart.
Keith Silva for Comics Bulletin: How did you first meet David Wojnarowicz?
James Romberger: In the early 1980s Dean Savard's intense gallery ''Civilian Warfare'' was on 11th Street, around the corner from Marguerite's rehearsal studio on Avenue A. Marguerite suggested to me that I go there to see Greer Lankton's amazing show, which documented her sex-change and I was impressed. So a few weeks later, I walked into the gallery with my rolled-up pastel drawings. On the floor of the tiny space, a kind of raw-boned guy was hacking away at a bit of driftwood, making totem poles.
This was David.
He was tall and lanky with glasses on a long-jawed, expressive and sympathetic face. He had a really deep and rolling, cracked-earth voice. I said I wanted to show Dean my work and David asked to see them, so I rolled them out onto the floor. He was really enthusiastic -- he said he'd tell Dean to check the stuff out and when I left, I felt sure I'd get a show there -- the first gallery I'd shown my art to! I didn't end up showing there, but that was probably because we started our own gallery.
Marguerite Van Cook: David came into our gallery ''Ground Zero,'' -- it was at first located in the old ''Civilian Warfare'' space -- and he and I began going for breakfast together on a regular basis. We had a lot in common, art, music, difficult lives growing up, so that we hit it off right away.
CB: Reading 7 Miles a Second, my impression is that David was quite a character and a very intense man. What was it like to know him, to be around him?
Romberger: Yeah, he did always have a sort of heavy, world-encompassing view of life. He felt VERY strongly about injustice and intolerance around the world and throughout history -- and issues like gay rights, about fighting against the invisibility he felt was forced on gay people -- and about child abuse. He had had a terrible time growing up and expressed that over and over again in different works. But while David wasn't exactly cheerful, he did have a healthy sense of humor, something not generally acknowledged in all the literature about him.
We both had a kind of dark humor and I always enjoyed the time I spent with him. It was like, feeling that here was someone who had the same general concerns about how the trajectory of our time on the planet was proceeding, about how certain things were worth fighting for. He was very solicitous of his friends, very generous, but also quite private when he wanted to be.
Van Cook: James, David and I all shared strong ideas about art and the world. For me, David was someone that I felt I could depend on. He watched out for me and to the extent that I could, emotionally maybe, I did the same for him. On a practical level, he gave me paint to work with. From my perspective as a woman in that very masculine milieu of the art world, it gave me a certain validation that was often hard to come by.
James and David both gave me a space to work and acknowledged me as an artist. That was a lot more significant at the time because then art world was so closed to women. We were all at war with the establishment. Later, David's attention turned to the AIDS epidemic and gay rights and all the ferocity that he could bring to bear turned towards fighting for those issues.
CB: 7 Miles a Second is raw, honest and unapologetic. Why did David want to share these specific events from his extraordinary life?
Romberger: He wanted other people who grew up with the sort of feelings and experiences that he had to read it and understand that they weren't alone, to know that others had gone through things like that too.
Van Cook: I would say that the idea of the book was to bring the events of his childhood and teen years to public attention, but also to reach young people who are at risk. Of course, his diagnosis changed how the book would end. It was as though the horror continued into his adult life and curtailed his progress towards life as a fully empowered adult, an adult with a clear voice and tremendous potential.
To me, David was a poet of the soul, there was always a tension between beauty and the vileness of what society did to anyone who was not of the mainstream. I once asked him what he did with the money he got from hustling when he was so young and he told me he would take a bus to the country and walk around. We thought it was so ironic that selling one's body and selling art had many of the same qualities. We laughed rather darkly, about how the body and art are commodified and priced so arbitrarily.
CB: Among other things, David was an artist, a writer and an activist. Why did he want parts of his life retold as a graphic novel?
Romberger: David thought that comics were a medium that young people were drawn to. I lent him copies of Jack Kirby's New Gods, Katsuhiro Otomo's Akira, Jerome Charyn & François Boucq's Billy Budd KGB as an example of the European album format and Alan Moore & Bill Sienkewicz's Brought to Light, which so beautifully explained the Iran/Contra scandal, all to give him an idea of the potential of comics to handle more sophisticated material.
He had taught himself quite a range of skills and through his short career continued to develop them; in fact, his writing and painting improved by leaps and bounds as he went along ... his last show was gorgeous. But when we began working on the book in 1986, he had only published his collection of monologues, Sounds in the Distance, so it was well before he had done his book Close to the Knives which came out in 1991.
In terms of making comics, he wanted his experiences to read in a very rational way and he didn't really have enough control of narrative development or realistic drawing to do that---he knew that those were things that I had really concentrated on. So he wanted me to bring everything I had to bear on his disparate bits of writing, to shape them into a finished and coherently readable form.
Van Cook: David liked comics and James the master-drawer and comic-maker was right there. It seemed absolutely a match made in heaven. Also, James and I were working on a strip that we did regularly called ''Ground Zero,'' which took a very different approach to how comics might be understood and I think, James's drawing and layout skill together with the idea of these different semiotic potentials that we had been exploring in Ground Zero, made the collaboration between the two of them almost inevitable.
CB: How did such a brutally honest portrayal that deals with male prostitution, drug abuse, art, homosexuality and a personal account of someone dying from AIDS originally end up being published (in 1996) at Vertigo, an imprint of DC Comics?
Romberger: It sat on the desks of several Vertigo editors such as the late Lou Stathis for a while in the mid-90s, they assured me that they could not publish it. But Jenette Kahn was friends with the owners of the Soho gallery Exit Art, who sent her over to see the original art when I showed it at PPOW Gallery.
Jenette went back to Vertigo and asked them to publish it with a minimum of alterations, which they did. I don't know why they changed my cover design, it was actually at least partly inspired by the cover of a DC comic, New Gods #6. Towards, the end, the tiny drawing of Disney character Goofy was altered for legal reasons. Marguerite's watercolor guides were originally separated digitally, because that is how DC rolls. The separation house that did the cover and the discs in the chapter breaks refused to do the rest of the book on moral grounds, and so Digital Chameleon did the bulk of the work. Still, it was always originally intended to have a European-style watercolor finish and so that's what we used for the new edition.
CB: One of the blurbs on the back of the book is from Jim Jarmusch. He writes, ''[7 Miles a Second is] a celebration of the unlimited potential of the comic book form.'' What does the phrase, “the comic book form” mean to you and how does 7 Miles a Second function in that form?
Romberger: The comic book form refers to a (usually periodical) format developed to publish juvenile cartoon stories. At the time we began 7 Miles a Second in 1986, there were very few graphic novels, certainly none distributed to bookstores, and not many comics were being made that were not done about either superheroes or other genres intended for kids. Even by the time 7 Miles a Second was first published in comic book form in 1996, it was only distributed to comic shops; graphic novels had not yet made inroads into the book market; there were no GN sections in bookstores.
David and I were certainly aware of this and were intending to break boundaries in terms of the subject matter that comics can sustain. Its first edition is a "comic book;" given its length, even as an expanded hardcover, the second edition of 7 Miles a Second is technically a "graphic novella".
Van Cook: Comic book form ... That's a difficult question, because while this book, 7 Miles a Second, operates within a recognizable formal structure at first glance, James' design also breaks out of the rubric of the contained panel and is virtually kinetic in that it interacts spatially to let the viewer enter the space. If we were to say the ''form of the comic'' was sequential narrative panels that combine pictures with words, I suppose it would clearly set up the way James opposes that structure and how David and he worked to disrupt the narrative -- of what is the telling of a life story.
David would give James pages of text, conversations, anecdotes and dreams, and James would assemble them in such a way as to do violence to how we perceive sequential reality and how it unfolds in time. David's writing with its snatched, overheard conversations from strangers, speaks to a discontinuity of experience in which strangers form the material of his everyday life. Those details are raw and violent and so for me, their choice to work within a form that for both of them spoke to their childhood and represented the mythology of ''America,'' offered the perfect medium to tell an American child's story and then smash that reality from within.
CB: How did you and David work together to develop 7 Miles a Second?
Romberger: David did not write a script. Between us, we established a three part structure for the book, to begin firstly with a constructed narrative of a day from his childhood as a hustler on Times Square, then move into his teenaged homelessness, cut through with his dreams, and end with a passage set in the present time.
He gave me a large pile of typed prose: dream journals, transcriptions of monologues by various individuals he had spoken with on his travels and other scraps of his writings, from which I selected passages to cut up and rearrange into a scroll. He also told me of specific experiences that he had had that he wanted to include. It was always left up to me to select, edit and shape what he gave me into something that would work in the comics form.
In the case of the first two parts, he saw and we agreed to how I designed the pages and edited his words. On my request, in some places he would add some captions and balloons where I left spaces for them in my penciled layouts. After his later diagnosis with AIDS, our discussions about that third section evolved and it became a narrative of his battle with AIDS. After he died, I selected from his writings things that corresponded to our discussions and his lover Tom Rauffenbart gave me access to David's last diaries. As for the credibility of what David told me ... I'll take his word for it.
CB: Marguerite, what was your involvement with the development of 7 Miles a Second?
Van Cook: I was part of an ongoing conversation about comics, but once James and David began work, I really left them to it. After David died, James worked from the diaries to finish the book and he suggested that I try a few pages. I’d been coloring other things with James, so it was a thought that moved from being just an idea, to a concrete decision. I think I began and James was shocked, but liked what I did and so he said to go on.
CB: James, what was your reaction as David would describe his experiences about hustling, the abuse he suffered from his father and his anger towards religion, medicine, etc.? How did you approach illustrating such personal material?
Romberger: I may have added a certain aspect of myself to some of what I represented, it is funny that at the time I drew the first part, I had no idea what David really had looked like as a child, I hadn't seen the famous picture of him from that poster with his little buck teeth and so the kid I drew is really a sort of blend of him and me.
But in general I align with his views, especially regarding the universality of civil rights, the horrors of child abuse -- I mean, insomuch as I can align with his feelings, given that I am straight. I may have imposed the emphasis on the value of empathy in human relations that binds the themes of the third section to those of the first....since it was left to me to unify the book in the end.
CB: You fill 7 Miles a Second with some incendiary images. Could you talk about the sequence on pages 40 and 41 showing the dashboard of David’s car and his thoughts and memories as he drives?
Romberger: That spread was one of a few ''new'' pages that were originally designed for the first edition, but which I deleted for various reasons. In this case I put it back in because an article we had read about David had claimed that he didn't own a car. Well, of course he did and one of our fond memories of him was when he drove us to Virginia to work on a painting installation in his old Rambler station wagon (just like the one my parents had when I was growing up).
Marguerite and I and our son Crosby, when he was still a baby, were in the back seat and so what you see is our exact view. David had filled his dashboard with all that stuff! He loved weird animals and bugs and funky little toys and junk culture, 3D pictures and the like. He was sort of a collector of odd ephemera and this is a good example of how it was used in his day-to-day life. God help him if he had ever gotten into an accident, he would have ended up with a dinosaur in his forehead.
Another of the new pages accurately depicts how David painted in his studio; it corrects what seemed to be an omission of the first edition. Marguerite also colored these things the way they were. This kind of living detail is something that you might not see if someone made a movie of his life, but Marguerite and I were able to put these details into the comic correctly, because we knew him and had been there.
CB: What is your favorite illustration in the book and why?
Romberger: Note that I don't consider cartooning to be "illustration," because it does not accompany a text that can function on its own without the art; and it is rarely redundant, as illustrations often are---rather, it works to dovetail with the text and the art gives narrative information that isn't in the text. I suppose that one of my favorite drawings in the book is the full-page panel of David sitting at his kitchen table, the title page early in the third section---it is accurate and looks a lot like the last time I saw him.
CB: Whose decision was it to use watercolors instead of other methods such as pencils, markers or computer software to color 7 Miles a Second?
Marguerite: In those days, one worked on color guides and it was usually sent to computer separators. However, we had been in Europe and seen the blue line method of working and that was how we hoped it would go. I had an idea that I wanted to do something that I’d never seen before, because it was important to make this work different and I also felt that comics in general needed to be re-imagined.
CB: The second I saw the first page, Marguerite, I knew exactly where and when this story was taking place. Your colors look like every movie or TV show I've ever seen set in Manhattan in the 1970s and early 80s. How did you capture this feel as well as this look and how easy/difficult is that to achieve using watercolors?
Van Cook: I was in New York and I saw the colors in some cases. Nathan's, for example, really was those gad greens and yellows, but I also wanted to use colors that were not typically used and to make the characters stand out against their backgrounds. On a practical level, I see my job as supporting the narrative and making sure that James's drawings are not diminished by the colorist's (my) misreading the space. The drawings must be colored tonally to make what is important standout and to make the spaces read properly. I try to make the depth of field clear and put attention on the drawing's strengths.
Practically, I worked on each sequence and tried to feel the emotion with color and then put it down. In some cases, I wanted to show how difficult it is to be a human in a technologically conceived environment. I tried to work with the tension between human colors of the psyche and the brash colors of the mechanical realm. I tried to recall physical sensations and how the mind starts to experience the world in a heightened way when one is in danger or exhausted and put that down. I sat up long into the night, when everyone was asleep, and then I'd try to get myself into a place where I could go there with David -- with a child, or teen -- on the edge of reality.
I listened to music that brought out emotions and I'd cry sometimes for him there, for his loss, for my loss, and put that into the color. Sometimes, I'd get angry and work with that too, and if that sounds a bit over the top, well it was, because the stakes were so high. I wanted to show how life does not stay in the lines, certainly not mine, certainly not David's, and that was the job. I let it bleed.
CB: James, some of 7 Miles a Second follows traditional comic book layout and composition (panels, word balloons and dialogue boxes) and other parts of it are composed as full page or two page spreads and other times you set small panels inside a lot of white space. What was your approach to the layout and composition of this story?
Romberger: The first part is set up to be a straight "cinematic" sequence, basically a consecutive series of actions in a single day where my "interior camera" is following little David as he goes through his miseries. The second part is also sequential, but where it is interrupted by the more surreal dream sequences, the layouts become more oblique and diagonal. On the third part, although I had to edit it without David being here to give his final agreement, I did follow what we had discussed together as much as possible.
In some ways the third part is the least edited, because I didn't feel right cutting text from the writing in his long "rants" and his final diaries that I selected. So I tended to keep the text more separated from the imagery; the images "comment" on the text in a more removed, abstract manner. I also used more two-page spreads in the third part. As the text becomes more interiorized or microcosmic in scale, I amp up the scale of the images; they get bigger, to hopefully create a greater impact on the reader.
This is something one can do in comics, huge images that in a film would require a substantial budget, or even be nearly impossible to accomplish. It is my impression that most alternative comics then and now avoid more realistic and expansive, or what is seen as adventure-style cartooning, instead tending towards a cooler, more removed look, and so that is an unusual feature of this book -- and I think that Marguerite did tremendously innovative coloring on this book. She very much deserves the co-authorship she gets with this new edition.
CB: Besides setting a tone for a specific time and place, Marguerite, you also get the (un?) envious task of having to color someone else's dreams. How did you work with David and James to bring color to something so intangible and so personal?
Van Cook: Initially, I began with great trepidation. For me, in many respects, this work is rooted in modernism. It really wrestles with nostalgia, but maybe for a world that never existed except in the imagination. The doors were wide open for me to go where I wanted.
I knew what of my work David liked because he told me and so I used some of that. James of course was right there and every morning when I handed him something, he would give me his thoughts. I don't believe he ever asked me to change anything. These two were my family if you like, I just decided to do what I thought would bring something as challenging as possible to the work. Both James and David like things to challenge the status quo and so I took risks. After all, what are the colors of a story about life and death? Of your friend’s life and death?
One thing, I'd like to clarify is that because of the nature of the story and aspect of the art, some people have written that David was using drugs. This would be a mistake; this is the story of the creative mind under pressure.
CB: Marguerite's work was changed drastically when 7 Miles a Second was first published by Vertigo in 1996. Rejection is a part of being an artist (not to mention life). How did you feel at the time and what does this presentation by Fantagraphics provide that was lost in the previous edition?
Van Cook: I'm so thrilled about the way Fantagraphics worked with us and let us have full reign. Naturally, I didn't love the DC version, because of the odd choices and strangely, because someone couldn't tell the difference between orange and pink. However, at the time, we were just glad it was out and so I really tried not to dwell on some of the choices (I did cringe when I saw the first page every time though). At the time, even now, I don't think I realized quite how radical it was and remains. I'm glad it is finally how James and David first conceived it.
CB: On his website, Dylan Horrocks recently told the story (from your bio) about the time you met Jack Kirby at a convention. Kirby says: ''Kid, you’re one of the best. But put your work in galleries. Don’t do comics. Comics will break your heart.'' When did you receive this advice in your career, what was it like to get that advice and how has it informed your career as an artist?
Romberger: I met Kirby in the early 1980s and what he said to me did affect how I then proceeded. I have done gallery shows. Of course, the gallery system has its problems too. I have also done some projects for mainstream comics. The first edition of this book was unusual, an anomaly for Vertigo/DC Comics; I think it was only possible because of the relationship between Jenette Kahn and Karen Berger. It usually is not possible to do anything with integrity in American corporate comics. In the end, you want to work with independent people, to have a degree of control over what you do.
A corporation prefers that there is no one person responsible for anything---and it does not want its product to be "about" anything, they only want shallow entertainment that promotes their heartless agenda of profit. Kirby gave and gave; he proved time and time again the value of his concepts and his dedication, but no one ever really trusted him to do his best, no one ever treated him fairly and he was kicked in the teeth by the people he made rich, including Stan Lee. It is terribly shameful that Kirby's family gets nothing from the billions Marvel makes from exploiting his work. One would hope that if enough of the public knew of this, they would demand that the right thing be done.