By Judy McGuire, January 2019 Issue.
If you were lucky enough to catch the Whitney Museum’s incredible David Wojnarowicz exhibition, History Keeps Me Awake at Night, in New York City in the summer of last year, you had to have been floored by it. If you missed it, there’s not only a spectacular catalog for sale, there’s a new edition of 7 Miles a Second, the brutally beautiful comic book he collaborated on with artists James Romberger and Marguerite Van Cook.
Wojnarowicz is primarily known as an artist, so I wondered why he wanted Romberger and Van Cook to illustrate his words. “You have to have a specific skillset to draw comics,” Marguerite Van Cook — who colored the drawings — said. “It’s very time consuming, and James could draw better than David at that point.” Wojnarowicz was also an incredible writer, as this book and others show, and the stories he tells lend themselves beautifully to being illustrated.
The twosome met David in the ‘80s, in the East Village. “When Civilian Warfare [a gallery] was on 11th Street, I had a rehearsal space on 11th and A. I sent James around to see David’s show,” says Van Cook. “David was out front of the gallery, hacking up a log, which you could do at that time. He looked at James’s drawings and they bonded. “
After being friends for a few years, they decided to do a project together. “David liked to collaborate, and they looked forward to working together,” she said. “They were working on a story about David’s life on the streets. We wanted it to be something that could reach kids who were in that same position.”
When 7 Miles a Second was published the first time, in 1996, comic books didn’t really deal with topics like teen hustlers and AIDS. But then — DC Comics president and editor-in-chief, Jenette Kahn, had wandered into an East Village gallery showing of Romberger’s drawings from the book and made its publication her mission.
We’d had so many rejections,“ Marguerite Van Cook said. “Which I don’t consider a badge of honor.” But with Kahn, they had found a champion with a checkbook. “DC/Vertigo gave us carte blanche with the book,” continues Van Cook. “We worked with Karen Berger and she was really great about it, although the first people who were supposed to do the color refused to do it once they saw the content.”
“It’s hard to imagine how different it was to be gay in America, back in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s,” she continues. “The three of us went on this road trip to Virginia, and it was scary, and even within New York. I had friends who got beaten up.“
David Wojnarowicz died of AIDS in 1992, long before the book was even finished, let alone published. After he died, progress on the book hit “pause.” Until, according to Tom Rauffenbart’s intro to the Vertigo edition, Marguerite drew a tarot card one night that convinced her David was getting annoyed by the hold up.
“Oh god, you’re going to make me sound…” Van Cook laughed when asked about the tarot connection. I assured her I have seen ghosts and didn’t think it was weird. “After he died, we felt him around it a lot,” she said. “We would keep feeling him and I was sure he was talking to me — he just kept popping up.”
“I had this particularly strange set of cards by Penny Slinger,” she continued. “Someone gave me them. They’re very graphic montages, and one night I pulled a card and I’m sitting there looking at it — it’s a horrible face and the tongue sticking out and it was David telling me, just fucking do it.”
“David could be a bit scary,” she laughed. “He was always lovely to me. But if he didn’t like someone … and he had that voice.”
So, the two finished the book, with the help of David’s diaries and the world of comics is better for it. Van Cook had used vibrant watercolors to hand paint Romberger’s drawings, but because of technology available at the time, the printing on the Vertigo version wasn’t true to the color. It still looked good to me (and most people), but it always bugged them that it was just a little off.
Years later, Fantagraphics offered to print it and the two remaining collaborators — who are also married — were happy that they’d finally be able to have a color corrected version. Alas, it was not to be. “With Fantagraphics, the color is brighter and clearer, and you can see the nuances,” Van Cook said. “But they printed it on a heavier, more absorbent, paper stock so again, the color didn’t come through as intended.” The two had resigned themselves to living with it when the book went out of print just a couple months before the Whitney show was to open.
Leaping at the chance to finally print it the way they’d envisioned, they quickly formed their own imprint — Ground Zero Books — and printed it the right way, just in time to sell at the show, exposing a whole new population to Wojnarowicz’s life.
I asked Van Cook what she thought David would’ve thought think of their finished labor of love. “What he would’ve liked is that it’s on curriculums,” she said. “College kids can get it more easily, which is why it’s available on Amazon — something I swore I’d never do. That’s the most exciting thing to me. Every time we get notes from college professors saying how much it facilitated conversation … it’s amazing. David would’ve loved it.”