“This Brighter Path”: An Interview with James Romberger & Marguerite Van Cook

How long was it after his death before you felt you could go back and finish the book?

Romberger: He died in ’92, and we finished it in ’93, so it wasn’t long before I thought, Oh, fuck it, I need to finish this thing. So I contacted Tom Rauffenbart, David’s partner, and he gave me access to David’s diaries and let me into the apartment so I could sit and draw the room and the baby elephant skeleton to get it accurate.

The painting of his that you include in the third section seems hopeful.

It’s an atypical painting. It’s like the Marvel comics character Eternity—he’s black but you can see the universe through him. David had painted a figure made up of the universe looking through a microscope, which was his hope that doctors would find the thing to save him.

The structure of the book is curious. It’s divided into three stories, and in the first two, the character—though we understand it to be David—isn’t named. He talks about himself in the third person. It’s not until the third part that he’s called David. It’s almost as though those first two parts are a kind of parable or a kind of testifying, while the third part is deeply indignant, wrathful really, and deeply visionary. The emotion is really laid bare in that last section.

Van Cook: I think the intensity is not simply on David’s side but on James’s as well, because we lost our friend, so it was done with the pressure of completing someone’s work and honoring their memory and also being in the grieving process and also being under the pressure of what to do about the epidemic in terms of your voice as an artist.

I imagine if David had been alive that he would have wanted to do something like that. Maybe he would have wanted to break down the huge chunks of text in the third part a little more. But I have no idea—we never got to that phase with him.

Van Cook:
We also saw David writing his texts, and he would rework a passage and rework it and rework it, so his writing had been edited and edited and edited before it came away. He was not going to let anything go out from his desk that was not exactly what he wanted to say. And there was a lot at stake, because he had been sued, held up to ridicule, and had to stake his life, literally. When he could have been taking care of himself, he was fighting for freedom of speech, for the AIDS epidemic, for homosexual rights. It was a heavy thing to take on.

There certainly were some things that dictated themselves. If I take literally his “make me huge on Fifth Avenue,” well, the text logically to use for that would be the one where he’s talking about being eight hundred feet tall. Maybe he would have wanted to do something more cinematic, but I think it dictated it’s own thing. I don’t know any other biographies that end with the writer actually writing his own death. So many young lives were cut short at that time, and David was the voice.

How did the colors come about?

I assumed I would color it myself and that it would be like the blue-line thing in European color albums, finished in watercolor, but when it came to DC publishing it, what I would have done is reference the type of color done by someone like Jim Steranko. I would have referenced more traditional comic-book color, but what this needed was something else. Then Marguerite did a few pages and what she did was so completely unusual and unpredictable that the colors became a whole other part of the collaboration.

Marguerite, had you colored comics before?

Van Cook:
Bits and pieces for Ground Zero. But for 7 Miles a Second, I wanted to do something completely different, because I didn’t think it should look like anything that had gone before. And I also really wanted the color both to have a psychological impact and to tell the story with what I was drawing attention to, by focusing on certain parts of the narrative—to bring something forward or put it back in space. I looked at James’s drawing and his depth of field, and I worked across pages so that the color across a certain set of pages seemed to be related narratively, and then I would switch to another palette as things changed.

I don’t think there is anything like this in other comics.

You did all the coloring after he died, but you reference his colors, don’t you?

Van Cook:
I had a lot of his paints—on road trips we shared the paint—so I had his palette. And I knew what he responded to in my own work and knew that he liked certain comics. In some places, I referenced his use of maps, his use of black and white to indicate memory. But some of these places in the comic are actually the colors that I made them—Nathan’s was really that color.

I also wanted to be transgressive and put colors into comics that typically weren’t there. I have theories about “guy” coloring, so, for instance, I put bright pink at the top of the spread of the train. Whatever concept you have of gender, this doesn’t play that game. We’re in a whole other world here.

Romberger: When she did the coloring for Vertigo, they used her watercolors, which were beautiful, as color guides. First they gave the job to a color-separation firm and they did the cover and the disks that are chapter breaks, but they sent the rest back because they disagreed with the subject matter. Then Vertigo sent it to Lovern Kindzierski, and he separated the rest of the book. He did a pretty good job, but he tended to read her pinks as orange, and there were other discrepancies. It also has the plastic sheen of the digital finish, and I always preferred the original watercolors. With the reissue, we scanned the color guides and restored the line marks. It was drawn to be in the oversize European format, so this is really how it was meant to be.

Van Cook: I wanted to do things that really opened the color in a different way, much deeper, and I wanted to honor James’s drawings as well. I also think I did things that were atypical because I am a painter. I’d lay down a color and then another coat of a different color—completely opposite colors, which you can do it with watercolor, but it’s not something you typically see in comics. When I went to work a little bit later with Vertigo, it was one color, one color, one color.

In any given panel, she’s drawing your eye to what we want you to be looking at, or adding an emotional resonance to something that’s not necessarily there in the drawing. So the color is contributing as much to the narrative information as the drawing and the text are. That’s the potential of color that is so rarely used in American comics.

Van Cook: In the Stray Dogs sequence, which is set in midtown, in Hell’s Kitchen, I really wanted to convey the heat you experience on the sidewalk, the way the colors bleach out when you haven’t had any sleep. So I went through some of these experiences, sort of Method acted.

Romberger: I just realized in the Nathan’s scene, at the beginning, there’s a mistake—I’m surprised David didn’t catch it. Down in the basement of Nathan’s it shows Ms. Pac-Man, but Ms. Pac-Man didn’t exist when David was a kid.

In the final part, one of the most moving spreads is David and his friend exploding, and there’s just the gorgeous line “When I touch your body I feel,” and it equates the body with the landscape. And “I’d like to be in your blood vessels.” It’s about really being in love and being physically close to somebody else. There’s a very famous line that he ends it with, “All these moments will be lost in time like tears in the rain.” It’s the saddest line and movingly beautiful. Well, that line is straight-out cribbed from the end of Blade Runner, and I don’t think anyone’s really noticed it.

Van Cook:
Was he afraid of pop culture? No.

The train spread from 7 Miles a Second

You use a lot of his visual imagery in your art.

Deliberately. That was one of the frustrating things about the cover. David told me, I want you to show me running on Park Avenue so you can see the PanAm building behind me, but my leg has turned into a root and I’m rooted to the ground. It was an image he liked, and I said, I’ll draw the ground breaking off in front of you. So when it came down to doing the cover, I chose that image, and the design is based on the design of New Gods no. 6 by Jack Kirby, where this mummified figure is standing on a boat and on either side of him are pictures of Orion and Lightray, in discs. I thought, David always used discs in his work, and I use his discs as chapter breaks, so I’ll roughly use the design of the New Gods cover, which is a DC comic, and I’ll have these discs, too. But when DC got to it, they didn’t like the discs on the cover. They made us take them off.

So now, with Fantagraphics, I finally got to do the cover I really wanted to do.

You originally sent the book to a number of different publishers—were they comics publishers or mainstream?

Romberger: We didn’t think the comics people would go for it, at all. I was showing at the time on Fifty-Seventh Street, at Grace Borgenicht, and a couple of my best collectors were the Hearst family and they were very sweet and sent it on to some of their publishing arms. I ended up getting back the letter Mr. Hearst had sent his people. It had all these little post-its attached—“There’s no way we can possibly publish this.”

So it did the rounds.

Romberger: It did huge rounds. I have a big stack of rejection letters from pretty much every publisher. Some might have been interested if it had been black and white, but they wouldn’t do it in color, and David and I had really intended the book to be in color.

What were some of the excuses you got?

Romberger: “No, we absolutely can’t publish this.” “Something we would never touch in a million years.” It did sit on the desks at Paradox and Vertigo. I remember the late Lou Stathis was an editor at Vertigo, and he said, “I just don’t think there’s any way we can publish this.”

I did a show of the original art at David’s gallery at P.P.O.W. gallery, and the people running Exit Art sent their friend Jenette Kahn, the publisher at DC, to see it. She went back to Vertigo and said to do it just the way we wanted. They did it almost exactly, except for messing with the cover, and, at the end of the book, there’s a part where David is at his kitchen table and there’s a car on his table with Goofy in it. They didn’t even ask me to fix it—they had some production artist replace Goofy’s head with a rat face. It’s obviously scribbled in there.

And they printed it in a smaller format.

They printed it in comic-book format with the digital color.

Van Cook: And the author photographs we gave them were taken by Nan Goldin and were color, and they cropped them and printed them in black and white. They cut the originals up.



2 Responses to “This Brighter Path”: An Interview with James Romberger & Marguerite Van Cook

  1. Pingback: Comics A.M. | Silver Age artist Dan Adkins passes away | Robot 6 @ Comic Book Resources – Covering Comic Book News and Entertainment

  2. patrick ford says:

    Art work and writing can be diminished or raised by their context. At least in my case that’s true.
    I’d picked up SEVEN MILES A SECOND years ago and have to admit the fact it was associated with DC (stupid reason I know) as well as the dreadful colour DC applied over top the work, affected the way I saw it.
    A couple weeks ago I saw this interview and was prompted to pick up the new edition published by Fantagraphics.
    It’s a fresh experience. The book is still trying to live down the fact it was ever published by DC. The people at DC who took a chance on it do deserve some kudos, cause it isn’t something you’d ever expect to see as part of a DC imprint.

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