James Romberger and Marguerite Van Cook are New York–based artists who, in 1984, opened the East Village gallery Ground Zero, which showed pioneering installation, performance, and multimedia work. One of their earliest artists was David Wojnarowicz, the painter, photographer, performance artist, and filmmaker whose provocative work helped define the downtown scene and the rising tide of AIDS activism.
In the mid-1980s, the trio began collaborating on 7 Miles a Second, a comic book based on Wojnarowicz’s autobiographical writings. Drawn and edited by Romberger and colored by Van Cook, it is a stark, often hallucinatory portrayal of Wojnarowicz’s childhood years spent hustling on the streets of New York and exploring the city’s more forlorn quarters, and of his adulthood—he died at age thirty-seven—during which he created an unflinchingly personal body of work and raged on behalf of social and medical justice for AIDS victims.
The book was published by Vertigo, an imprint of DC Comics, in 1996, and was recently reissused, with additional art by Romberger and Van Cook’s original colors, by Fantagraphics.
WHEN HE WAS A TEENAGER, David had made a bunch of comics, underground-y Robert Crumb–looking things. They’re pretty funny. And in the early 1980s, he was doing things for Tommy Turner’s Redrum magazine—stuff made with Archie comics where he cut apart and collaged the speech balloons to make the characters like the Manson family. The story showed Archie, Jughead, Betty, and Veronica doing drugs and murdering their principal, Mr. Weatherbee. He didn’t have the patience to sit and draw a rational narrative: By that time he was more interested in painting and filmmaking.
We started talking about doing a comic book with him around 1985, when David was showing his work with us at our Ground Zero Gallery. He knew that we were doing a strip together. He said he’d like to do his life story in that form and we began to meet about it in 1986. He was totally open to collaborating in any form he could think of; he would touch any medium he could get his hands on. At that time in the East Village, art was more fluid, and it wasn’t such a reach to move from one medium to another. So David saw comics as a means of expression just like anything else.
He gave me a pile of sheets of monologues and conversations and records of experiences and dreams he had when he was younger. He outlined a rough structure of himself as a child, as a teenager, as an adult and asked me what would work for a comic, and I picked things that would work visually. I began penciling it in 1986, and was quite slow in those days—we weren’t in any sort of rush; this was before David was diagnosed with HIV. The next year, Marguerite and I left to live in Belgium for six months, and I inked the first ten pages there. We came back in 1988. David liked it, so I started working with him on the second part. That’s when he showed me A Fire in My Belly for the first time.
In 1991, I finished inking the second part and then we had a few meetings and we talked about what David wanted. At that time he was doing his final works, which were really important, and meanwhile he was having problems with the NEA and Reverend Wildmon and having to go to court, all while he’s very, very sick. And he just kept getting sicker and sicker and then, by that time, the ranks of people taking care of him closed around him, and we just couldn’t get in to see him. And then he died in 1992.
Most of the first two parts of the book aren’t anywhere else in David’s body of writing—it’s really specific to the comic—but in the third part there are also sections of text that overlap with Close to the Knives and his essay “Postcards from America: X-Rays from Hell,” which he wrote for the Artists Space show Nan Goldin curated in 1989, “Against Our Vanishing.” But by the time I actually got to sit and draw this thing and edit it—after David’s death—there wasn’t anything like that in his texts; there was no beautiful day, so the book ends with him dying.
Certainly there are very long blocks of text, which make that section less straight comic book and more illuminated manuscript. But I couldn’t cut them. There were rants that he did that have their own logic and need to be fully intact or they wouldn’t make sense. In those cases I was rendering them more obliquely with the art, trying not to be too redundant with the text or just commenting on them with what I drew.
MARGUERITE VAN COOK
DAVID HAD GIVEN JAMES the gist of what he wanted for the third part. He said: “I want to show myself at the current time, mourning the deaths of my friends and then in the end it’s a beautiful day and I’m happy to be alive.” His choice to turn away from a nihilistic view of life to a brighter one was happening at the same time people were starting to be diagnosed and become ill. The book, especially the third part, expresses a vulnerability we all feel: No one really sees themselves dying.
The intensity is not simply on David’s side, but on James’s side as well, because we lost our friend, so the book was done with the double pressure of completing someone’s work and honoring their memory and also being in the grieving process and thinking about how to handle the epidemic in terms of your voice as an artist.
With the color, I wanted to do something completely different, because I didn’t think it should look like anything else that had come before. And I also really wanted to both have a psychological impact with the color and to help tell the story by drawing attention to certain aspects of it. It requires a certain amount of courage to commit to a painting: You have to get the paint to a certain consistency and you get one go to put it down. So this particular book was emotionally challenging, but I was trying to commit to making these choices, to get it right the first time, to create an emotionally heightened state. We’re in a whole other world here.