It’s been difficult at times, emotionally, to continue to revisit a good friend’s death and have it in your life all the time,” says Marguerite Van Cook, who, with her husband, James Romberger, created the graphic memoir 7 Miles a Second (Fantagraphics), about their friend, the late artist David Wojnarowicz.
Wojnarowicz rose to fame in the 1980s, a gay activist whose work exposed the blatant homophobia in organized religion and other institutions. 7 Miles a Second, in comic book form, tells the story of Wojnarowicz’s life in three parts: as a child prostitute turning tricks near Times Square, as a homeless teenager scraping by on the streets of New York City, and as an adult with AIDS, clinging to life. Romberger and Wojnarowicz began work on it around 1986, but Wojnarowicz died from AIDS-related complications before they could complete the book together.
Romberger, Wojnarowicz’s friend and fellow East Village artist, says, “For the first two sections of that book, I worked quite closely with him. I’d go through and edit from the [written] material he gave me and cut it apart and made this long scroll out of it.” Wojnarowicz called these texts “monologues,” surreal, stream-of-consciousness writings that sounded like hallucinatory nightmares: “I wish I could... slam into the sky smack into the horizon and either disappear or fossilize into stone or leave behind a cartoon black silhouette of having broken through like it was all a wall.” It was around this time, in 1987, that Wojnarowicz’s friends were dying of AIDS, including the photographer Peter Hujar, David’s mentor and lover.
According to Van Cook, the colorist on 7 Miles a Second, “As the project went along, different things happened, not the least of which was David’s diagnosis [in 1988]. The comic has, to some degree, very real traces of trauma in its pages.” For instance, Romberger portrays his friend’s rage at those whose homophobia meant neglecting the AIDS epidemic: “The man on the TV... can have the face of a doctor or a politician, of a research scientist or a priest with a swastika tattooed on his heart.... He talks about me in words that make me sound like an insect: ‘carrier’ and ‘infected.’” In spite of Wojnarowicz’s anguish, he and Romberger kept working on the book. Romberger drew from his personal knowledge of Wojnarowicz’s life, documenting even the smallest details including, in one of the newly incorporated pages, Wojnarowicz’s childlike possessions: “The dashboard of his car [that I drew] that has all the little toys on it? Well, that’s the view. [Marguerite and I] were in the backseat. We drove to Virginia with him to do this painting installation.”
In 1992, Wojnarowicz died at the age of 37. The couple was devastated. Romberger could have abandoned the project altogether, having only completed two-thirds of the book. However, he says, Wojnarowicz had very much wanted to have the biographical work published, specifically in the comics format. Romberger says, “The art market is quite elite and insular. So you do a show, and how many people see the show, ever? He saw comics as more of a popular medium that would be mass-produced. So he wanted it to come out in that form.” Van Cook notes that the artist had wanted to use the book to reach out to gay youth, a sort of proto–It Gets Better Project: “It wasn’t just the gay activism, it was also the kids who were in danger. Children who were at risk. Teenagers who were at risk. So, yes, he wanted to reach a broader audience.”
Though the grief from Wojnarowicz’s death was still raw, Romberger continued to work on the manuscript. Romberger says, “His former lover [Tom Rauffenbart] gave me some of his diaries and writings, so I went through and edited those, to find sections that roughly corresponded to what David and I had talked about [for the book].” Armed with Wojnarowicz’s words and the symbols that recur throughout his work—guns, flowers, fossils, deserts—Romberger pushed past the fresh pain of Wojnarowicz’s death in order to get the book just right: “After he died, I went to his apartment and drew it to get it accurate. So in a sense, in terms of a biography of somebody, it’s a much more intimate view because we knew him so well.”
At this point, Romberger brought Van Cook on board to color the panels. Van Cook, an art school grad turned punk band singer turned multidisciplinary artist, was up to the task. She knew about Wojnarowicz’s palette and sensibility. “I used to use a lot of his paints while he was alive.” Wojnarowicz had used cheap paints in primary colors in those hardscrabble days in the East Village, and she wanted, in particular, to apply generous, bright doses of watercolor: “I’m very resistant to coloring inside the lines, and I thought that was an appropriate metaphor for the depiction of David’s life.”
Because she didn’t begin working on 7 Miles a Second until after Wojnarowicz’s death, Van Cook had to make her own editorial decisions. “I made a choice on one of the pages to color the sky bright, deep pink and color the sun yellow orange in that landscape. And several years later, when I was looking through David’s papers, I found an original note that he had been thinking about it, and he wrote that he wanted to color the sky deep vermilion. So I felt somewhat confirmed in my choices.”
When it came to the book’s tone, Romberger wanted to capture on the printed page Wojnarowicz’s rage as well as his vulnerability. He says, “I remember him talking about his father, who was abusive to him.” In the book, Romberger portrays this by having Wojnarowicz watch a father and child at a playground. Instead of feeling moved by this family tableau, David sees the father as a sexual object; we read his inner monologue, his fantasy of rough sex with this father figure. “Kind of an aggressive thing to put in a comic,” Romberger says. But it’s a reflection of how David received no tenderness from his own father; rather, his so-called father figures were the much older johns who violated him as a child. The book doesn’t show any sex per se but, alternatively, portrays sexual violence and a loss of innocence through Romberger’s use of Wojnarowicz’s fiery language.
“It really is so much about what David was about, channeling his anger into a statement,” Romberger says. “He basically felt that he was made invisible, and part of the purpose of doing this book would be that it would be in this mass-produced comic that would get out into the culture. It would make the gay experience less invisible.”
When 7 Miles a Second was originally published in 1996 by DC/Vertigo (and former DC Comics president Jenette Kahn), it didn’t get much attention. Graphic novels at the time were sold only in comics shops rather than mainstream bookstores, and Romberger recalls that the book wasn’t well promoted. He says, “You have your Maus and your Daniel Clowes, but it’s never really [mentioned] with all those books because a lot of people weren’t aware of it.” However, a select few discovered it—Wojnarowicz’s target audience of gay youth. Romberger says, “We’ve gotten an awful lot of letters from young people who felt some affinity with David and felt that this book had meant something to them when they were growing up.”
Its original incarnation lacked the cover, the color, and the format that the duo had wanted, which reduced the visual impact of the story. DC had printed it as a trade paperback and made it conform to a traditional comic book size. “It was actually shrunk too small,” Romberger says. “And they actually took [Van Cook’s] watercolor work and had it redone by a digital artist. The original concept would have been to do it European-style, which is a slightly larger size, in hardcover, around 64 pages, with full-color watercolors. The book the way it looks now is exactly the way it was supposed be done in the first place.” Van Cook says that she loves the look of her restored watercolors: “The effect is a lot more immediate, a lot more true to the intention of the work.”
Now the couple is preparing to debut 7 Miles a Second in its intended design. And almost two decades after the book’s initial run, the cultural landscape has changed for the LGBT community. The conversation has shifted from the AIDS epidemic to gay marriage. The gay experience is not only “less invisible”—it’s on prime time TV. But the feral energy and raw hunger in 7 Miles a Second still resonate. In the book, Wojnarowicz wrote, “I am a glass human disappearing in rain.” With this new volume to illustrate his life, we readers get another chance to see the world through his glinting prism.