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

Are there other changes from the Vertigo edition?

Romberger: There are several “new” pages. We were going to do a second edition of this book when Calvin Reid had gotten Publishers Weekly to do a comics imprint, Reed Press, but PW just pulled the plug on it. Before it was cancelled, Calvin said we should freshen the book. I had laid out sequences that I had earlier eliminated for expedience, so I added a sequence to the hospital scene, where David’s looking at his friend dying on the bed. There’s text about the first Gulf War, but I was uncomfortable with that reference at the time, because it would have seemed like it was referring to the current, second Gulf War. There’s also a page of David painting—it’s an important piece of writing that talks about why he’s working so hard to express himself in the time he has left, but originally, I didn’t want to put that in, because the book wasn’t about David being an artist. But a review of the first edition said it didn’t show him as an artist, so I put it back in. And there’s a piece at the end that extends from the sequence at the beginning of the third part, where he’s walking into the water, because Marguerite had asked what he did with the money he got from turning tricks. He said he’d take a train out to the country and walk out into the water until he was over his head. So at the end you see him underwater, which refers back to the initial image of the book of him in front of a scuba diver in a window. It’s the perfect bookend.

Marguerite, I’d asked you about receiving a message from David through Tarot cards, but you said something afterward that was more to the point—that it wasn’t so much that he had reached out to you but that he was simply on your mind.

Van Cook:
I had this deck of cards that were given to me, and they had strange images of demons on them. I was looking at these different images—ones called “hot and heavy” and “do it now”—and I thought, Oh, this is David, and I had this sensation that David was there. He was commanding.

Did it give you encouragement to finish the book?

Van Cook:
Oh sure.

He was very aware of his dream life. He kept a pad next to his bed and wrote down his dreams. He took it as a part of his life. Karen Finley had a dream about seeing David in a tree, and maybe, in a certain way, he’s still there in the dream world. It’s an optimistic view and kind of comforting.

Van Cook:
David was an important figure in our personal lives. When he died, I was angry with him for abandoning us. I thought, Why did you leave me?

It is tough to keep working on the book and to keep going back to it. But I think time has gone by, and the world is ready to see a book from a gay artist, talking about some of these more difficult aspects of his life in a way that people weren’t ready for at the time.

Who was the intended audience?

Van Cook:
He definitely wanted young people to see it, teenagers who might be at risk. When I was looking at it now, as opposed to when we were really engaged with its production—we were so young ourselves—the gap between us and our intended audience was shorter, and the gap between us and David a lot shorter.

Romberger: He’s still back there, still young, still looking good.

Van Cook:
It’s shocking and some of the imagery is really harsh, but I think teenagers are ready to see it.

I purposely avoided drawing any very explicit sex—you can’t show a young kid getting a blowjob—and it’s not meant to have a prurient interest whatsoever. David jut wanted kids to know that someone else had gone through what they might be going through.

Van Cook: And we got letters from people who were modeling their writing on his, people who were at risk, people who were homeless, young men who were homeless, seventeen, eighteen years old, who were writing to us and using him as a guide for their own efforts.

They sent you accounts of their experiences?

Romberger: Yeah. What I found appealing about David beyond the importance of establishing gay civil rights was his worldview—he’s accessible to the general public. I met a lot of young comic artists who aren’t necessarily gay but who really responded to this book in terms of what comics can do, that you can do a book about something more than just entertainment.

Van Cook:
I think that goes back to our mind-set when we were running the gallery. Whenever somebody said, We want to do this, we said, Absolutely, go for it, and go harder. Even if it was David building a brick wall in the gallery. We were completely open, more explicitly political than most of the galleries. We were all on the same page about trying to make a radical statement, and not just in terms of actual politics, world politics, global politics, but politically in the art world as well, none of it being separated. So, in that sense, we wanted to produce a radical book, one that didn’t look quite like anything else.

A section of the scroll Romberger made from cut-up strips of David Wojnarowicz's text, with handwritten notes from both of them.

The book is challenging, not in the sense of being difficult to parse or to understand, but in that often undermines the reader’s expectations. A lot of that happens through the art and color.

Van Cook: In one panel that I colored, there’s a woman, a prostitute, standing in a doorway. That particular panel was a reference to Steranko’s color, but I changed the order around. In other words, I took things he used for background and put them on the skin. I just did everything I could to disrupt normal ideas of what color should be. I think there’s a lot of disruption throughout.

Romberger: There are places where the color kind of fights the line. I don’t have a problem with it because it adds so much to the murk and the heavy, thick atmosphere of what David’s going through. It’s not about being pretty.

The early scene in the basement of Nathan’s, with the two conversations going on at once, has that same discordant feel. A seemingly benign conversation between David and the john is juxtaposed with a woman’s very disturbing monologue. It’s very effective.

Romberger: Comics is certainly a way of expressing thought very directly, because you think in words and images together. So they’re very good for imparting information beyond just telling a straight narrative. They’re especially good for semiotic purposes, where you’re pulling apart what’s happening and showing deeper levels of meaning. So you not only have the page that is made up of images that are in proximity to one another, but then the page that’s next to it. And these things don’t necessarily translate so well into the digital format, because with a book you really have this flipping, and you’re holding it as an object, so you can refer very easily back and forth, simultaneously seeing several areas at once. You’re able to do specific things with comics that go far beyond mere entertainment. They can be so expressive—for educational purposes or for informational purposes, philosophical purposes. And this book, to me, in a way veers toward the philosophical. It’s an illuminating philosophical document, in a sense.

What are you working on now?

Romberger: We’re working on a book that is from Marguerite’s writing, about her childhood and also about her mother’s experience. Marguerite grew up in Portsmouth, in England, which was bombed by the Nazis. The book starts out with several sections about her mother. The first part is her mother going through the bombed-out neighborhood in the Blitz, and then it shows her adopting Marguerite’s sister after her husband is killed at the end of the war. Then she has to go in front of a tribunal of men because Marguerite was born out of wedlock. She was forced to explain herself.

Van Cook: Which is true.

The other parts show Marguerite growing up in Portsmouth and in the south of France. But to me, the key issue of the book is this prejudice people have for children born out of wedlock. It speaks to the idea of illegitimacy. It’s quite distressing to me that the battle for gay rights has turned into a battle for marriage, which is just basically buttressing the same patriarchal system that leads to all the other problems we have. It seems to me a misdirected thing. But, on the other hand, gay people want the same rights and they deserve the same rights as everybody else.

Van Cook:
The theme—adults betraying children—carries over to the book with David. You were asking who that book was for. It obviously wasn’t for young children, but that idea of betrayal was a salient issue for David. And the show he did at our gallery with the film You Killed Me First, about a young girl who’s abused by her father and her mother—it references David’s life. To some extent, it references any child who’s been abused.

Romberger: Post York, the comic I just did for Uncivilized Books, with our son Crosby, is based on the idea of global warming, the melting of the ice caps, and the flooding of New York as a result. I drew Crosby as the main character in this book because, in a sense, I realized this is the world I’ve left him in. Maybe it’s coming out of a feeling of guilt, but I felt like if I’m going to do a comic about something, I should do it about something that’s significant. I don’t feel like wasting my time.

And right as it was published, the hurricane hit New York and where my son lives, water was up to his neck when he came out his front door. Cop cars were floating by. So this unfortunately has come true.

How do you feel seeing 7 Miles reissued? Does it still feel as relevant as it did then?

Romberger: I just wish David had been here to see the book finished like this. He did want to see it before he died. He was like, You gotta make sure you finish this before I die. Well, how the fuck? It didn’t happen, you know, and partly because he stopped answering the phone.

Van Cook:
For us the disease is still extremely relevant. People feel like it’s over, but it isn’t. So we’re morally obliged to make sure this book is heard, and continues to be heard and seen.

In the same way, David continues to be relevant, like what happened recently at the Smithsonian when they removed his film, A Fire in My Belly. He’s somebody the right always tries to attack, but he’s so defensible. What he was saying was true. I wish there were somebody that would come up today with that strong of a voice, but they don’t grow on trees, do they?

Van Cook: In the East Village at that time there were a lot of new galleries that opened, and each one had a stable of artists that was like a little family, a little tribe. And one of the things that made it so urgent and so terrible was that you’d see one person from that gallery, from that tribe, be diagnosed and get sick, and then a whole lot of them would go. In the same way, I suppose emotionally, I think we have become like little isolated tribes, yet still crossing over into different places, and so our relationships are all crossed over into these intellectual, visual, and emotional spaces. There’s that sort of resonance in the way we compartmentalize different moments in our lives, and it reflects in the way you handle narrative.


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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *