On Saturday, August 20, I attended the fascinating Flame Con panel “Talking 7 Miles a Second” featuring Marguerite Van Cook and James Romberger and moderated by Maggie Galvan. Calvin Reed, senior news editor at Publisher's Weekly and a personal friend of the panelists, was in attendance in the audience. Ostensibly about the titular graphic memoir written by artist David Wojnarowicz, it also touched on the collected work of the panelists and Wojnarowicz, the art scene of New York City in the 80s and 90s, and the unique artistic appeal of comics.
(From left to right: Marguerite Van Cook, James Romberger, and Maggie Galvan)
David Wojnarowicz was an artist, performer, and AIDS activist in New York with an extensive body of work who passed away in 1992. Romberger was the artist, and Van Cook the colorist, for 7 Miles a Second, one of the first original works of DC’s Vertigo imprint. It was originally published in 1996 and rereleased by Fantagraphics in 2013. The story is set during three periods of Wojnarowicz’s life: at six years old, as a homeless teen and gay hustler, and towards the end of his life as he was dying of complications from AIDS.
The original Vertigo cover
The panel began with a look at Wojnarowicz’s 1985-86 Ground Zero Gallery NY show “You Killed Me First,” which Romberger and Van Cook helped curate. Ground Zero was a pioneer of installation art and featured several East Village artists. Reed shared some of his own stories of Wojnarowicz’s show and his own work with Ground Zero. “Making money was a low consideration,” according to Van Cook. Romberger said they “encouraged the full transformation of the gallery.” “You Killed Me First” included the front of the gallery space being made to look like a subway tunnel, complete with actual garbage from the street.
The panel then segued to a discussion of 7 Miles a Second and how it came to be. Romberger explained how the script was actually a manuscript full of monologue transcriptions, conversations, observations, and dream recollections, among other things, that was cut out and formed into a ten-foot-long scroll. A slide that reproduced part of it showed a sheet of paper dense with typing and marginalia. Van Cook pointed out that Wojnarowicz “had a great ear for conversation” and that his first book Sounds in the Distance earned praise from William S. Burroughs for “captur[ing] the voice of the road.”
Legendary Vertigo editor Jenette Kahn had told DC to “let them do what they want,” in Romberger’s words, though that did not stop the publisher from altering the cover and muting Van Cook’s amazing colors. Van Cook added that she knew what Wojnarowicz liked about her work. “He was obsessed with using Day-Glo colors in comics,” she said. She described resorting to children’s paint boxes in order to find the right hues. The results featured on several slides were nothing less than stunning.
One key point of the panel was the exceptional appeal of the comics medium for a story like this. “Comics are really good as a memory device,” Van Cook said. Since so much of 7 Miles a Second deals with remembered instances, this was particularly apt. How does one depict illness? How does one represent childhood? The interplay between text and pictures more closely resemble how people think and recall lived experience, according to the panelists, more so than any other art form.
A panel from 7 Miles a Second that reflects the artist's mortality, his thoughts on same, and his own work, all at the same time.
“You don’t want the image to just be a picture of the text,” Romberger mentioned. “There are so many reasons you can articulate why [7 Miles a Second] is art.”
The original print run was 25,000 copies, but it was very difficult to find. The original artwork was exhibited at the New Museum on Broadway and the Museum of Modern Art displayed a copy of the book behind glass as part of its “Open Ends” show in 2000.
(From left to right: Van Cook holds up her graphic memoir, The Late Child, Romberger holds the original Vertigo collection of 7 Miles a Second, and Galvan has the Fantagraphics reprint.
This panel was a personal highlight of the weekend for me. It was incredibly insightful, and I wish I could reproduce here all the turns the conversation took. I made sure to stop by Romberger’s and Van Cook’s table to grab a personal copy of 7 Miles a Second on Sunday, and I encourage everyone to seek it out.