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James Romberger
Celestial Battle,
1995
(detail)



















James Romberger
From Seven Miles a Second,
1995



















James Romberger
From Seven Miles a Second,
1995
(detail)



















James Romberger
People, 1995
(detail)



















James Romberger
in his studio




















Collapsed Roof, 1991



















700 E.9th St., 1992



















The Saint, 1991



















Tranquilidad, 1991









david lives:
a studio visit with james romberger


by Walter Robinson



0n a snowy day in March (March!), I made my way past the drug dealers and wackos on Manhattan's scenic Avenue B to visit the legendary Lower East Side cartoonist James Romberger. He's done strips for WW3 and shown at Borgenicht Gallery (which closed last year with the retirement of Grace Borgenicht). Right now he's working on a show coming up probably next fall at Tibor de Nagy and preparing to celebrate the imminent publication of his new comic, Seven Miles a Second, a collaboration with the late artist David Wojnarowicz (RIP 1992), whose autobiography provides the storyline, and with artist Marguerite Van Cook, who was the book's colorist (she's also his wife). "It's very high-key," James notes. "Retinal burn."Seven Miles is put out by Vertigo, DC's "literary" line. It costs $7.95 and should be on sale in comics stores by the end of March. James is sitting at his tiny drawing desk in his tiny cluttered tenement apartment, nursing a broken foot. He fell down the stairs. "I was sober as a judge," he claims, saying that he has to say that to everyone since "they all assume I was drunk. The stairs are rounded, actually, they're dangerous." James is boyishly handsome, with long sandy hair, and talks with eagerness and humor. Looming over him is a huge branch, painted with colored bands and starry scenes of outer space, a work Wojnarowicz had made for a show at the Paladium nightclub. He shares the apartment with Marguerite and their kid Crosby, who is 10 and obsessed with Goosebumps, this line of kid horror- books by R.L. Stine. "Marguerite," James asks, "are you going to go down to the bodega and get me some cigarettes?" Speaking as someone who has totally lost interest in comics but has a substantial collection of 15-year-old X-Men and Conan the Barbarian titles in boxes somewhere, I can call this a great piece of work. The art is perfect and the story is the truth that gives it a rare power. It features true stories from David's youth--he was nine when he first had sex--and some of the kind of political rabble-rousing that got him in trouble as an AIDS activist. For those of you that came in late, Wojnarowicz became the focus of controversy over an NEA grant for the catalogue to a 1988 show at Artists' Space in New York, in which he attacked the Catholic Church for its position on homosexuality; he subsequently sued Rev. Donald Wildmon and the American Family Association for its unauthorized use of his work in an anti-gay pamphlet. After a headline-grabbing court battle, Wojnarowicz won a $1 punitive award. "I remember David saying how happy he was that NEA gave him this money," James said. "He had a picture of Christ and Sgt. Rock banging it up. He kenw he was going to get in trouble." Looking at Seven Miles, which includes a few pictures of David himself, I say I miss him. "We keep trying to bring him back to life for Pat Buchanan, now that he's running for president" James says. "Buchanan used to attack David in his Post column all the time." "There's a possiblility of some controversy in the Bible Belt," he hazards, noting that a comic shop in Florida had been busted for selling a DC comic that showed how to use a rubber by picturing it on a banana. In Seven Miles there's a story in which a middle-class businessman picks David up at the Times Square Nathan's and takes him to a hotel room and gives him a blowjob. It's discreet, hidden with his hand--"in my understanding of porno," James says, "it's about that inch of flesh"--but the idea should be enough to blow a gasket. "Actually David said how the bald guy in the comic helped him out, took him to museums and taught him about art. Meanwhile he was a full pedophile," James said. "I remember when Father Bruce Ritter was in the news (forced to resign as head of Covenant House in a scandal over homosexual liaisons with young runaways), David said, he was a good guy. But the book's not supposed to be prurient, or defending what happens in the stories. It's about abuse. Nathan's is closed, finally, after all those years. It was a dump," said James, who went there with David and took some snapshots for reference when they were working on the comic together. "Downstairs was like hell...it was a filter for abuse." What are you doing now, I ask. "Gallery stuff. And waiting for DC to give us more work." If Seven Miles sells more than 15,000 copies he gets a royalty. Romberger had been drawing a second book, called Jezebel's Virtues, written by former X-Men editor Ann Nocenti, about a prostitute. But it was cancelled by DC after he had worked his ass off for 70 pages. "There was a big comic book war after DC killed off Superman. A couple months ago," James explains. "Marvel fired half their people, DC cut back. They called up with good news and bad news--and the bad news is very bad. Come in and pick up your check, but it's the last one. It was a tremendous amount of work to go to waste--they spent about $25,000 on the project." Now it's work on "gallery stuff." He showed three times at Borgenicht since 1988; his last show at Grace's was about the Gulf War mess. "Borgenicht did right by me. Even when they weren't selling they gave me money. And when she went out of business, she took drawings for the money I owed her and gave them to museums. I have work all over now, at the Met, the Brooklyn Museum, the Parrish." Now he's working for a show at Tibor de Nagy--"East Village Scene, landscapey stuff, tropical looking rubble. And pictures of the Crusties." Crusties are the hippies of the `90s, East Village style--those white beggars with the piercings and dreadlocks who combine an advanced sense of style with a pronounced dirtiness. "Perfect for me," James says, "I'm really good at drawing dirty things." They beg for money, Marguerite says, and then when they have a few dollars go buy a big shake from Ray's for the sugar rush. "You think they're stoned," she says, "but they're just strung out on sugar." We used to wonder what he'd do with the money David earned hustling, James said, so I asked him. "He'd hang around with his buddy, when they had enough money from hustling they'd get on a bus and go to the country for the day.