As an artist, James Romberger has created stories for “MOME,” “World War 3” and various “Big Books” from Paradox Press, but he’s probably best known in mainstream circles for the many works he’s illustrated at DC Comics imprint Vertigo. He has contributed numerous short stories to Vertigo anthologies “Weird War Tales,” “Flinch,” “Gangland” and one of the segments in the “2020 Visions” miniseries He also illustrated a number of graphic novels including “Bronx Kill,” “Aaron and Ahmed” and “7 Miles a Second,” a collaboration with the late artist David Wojnarowicz, which is being reprinted by Fantagraphics in a new edition coming out in February.
His newest title is “Post York,” published by Uncivilized Books, the story of a young man living in a flooded New York City and offers a vision of a very changed city where life can be cruel and tenuous but also offers infinite possibilities of joys and transcendence — much like New York always has. Comic Book Resources spoke to Romberger about his latest vision, taking the writing reigns on a longer project for the first time and the reprint of “7 Miles a Second.”
CBR News: James, where did the idea for “Post York” come from? Have you written comics before this?
James Romberger: I have written some short stories; one was in the final issue of “MOME.” I have long felt that I was too dependent on other writers, so I went back to college in 2005, mainly to develop my writing. I came up with the “Post York” idea at Columbia University and used it to resolve some assignments. I wrote a few stories and made some paintings and prints, all attempts to depict what New York City would look like after the ice caps melt and the water finds its level. It seemed to me that we would become more like Venice. However, as we can see from Hurricane Sandy, most of New York is not built to withstand the strain that so much water would put on it, the old tenements would collapse and the infrastructure would fail. But, any survivors left in the city would find ways to deal with it as best they could — New Yorkers are hardy and tenacious.
Can you tell us about how your son Crosby ended up writing a song which is included with the comic and was a part of this project?
In “Post York” I drew Crosby as the main character and he was my collaborator throughout the project. Besides the record, he did the collage that is on the back cover and I consulted with him as I was working on the story. For instance, he influenced the scenes in the theater and the projection booth. “Post York” is a project that is suited to multimedia adaptation and so part of the plan was to for him to create a song to include with the comic as a CD and that would be shot as a video. Our publisher Tom Kaczynski suggested a flexi disc and found a company to make it happen. I was thrilled that Crosby wrote a song that I love, that I think is one of his best and it perfectly expands the world of the comic. When the video is done it will be put online at Postyork.com and bring the whole business to life. And horrors — after Sandy, Crosby’s street flooded, on Avenue C the water was up to peoples’ necks, so he was actually living in a situation that looked just like what I drew!
How did you end up connecting with Tom Kaczynski and Uncivilized Books?
After my last efforts for the mainstream, I decided that I would be happier returning to the alt/lit world. I felt an affinity with Tom’s own work when I read it in the “MOME” books that are part of Columbia University’s excellent comics and graphic novel collection and I like what he is publishing. When I met Tom at his table at last year’s Brooklyn Comics and Graphics Festival, I said I had some work he might be interested in, and he was. It didn’t take long for it to come together, because here we are.
I don’t want to give anything away but something happens a little over halfway through the book, and I’ll leave it to you as far as how much you want to explain it, but I am curious what your thinking was.
“Post York” is not “written” in the usual sense, it is more about “world-building” through drawing. As with the films of the French New Wave directors Godard and Truffaut, which developed as those directors were shooting and editing them and might in the process deviate from their scripts, “Post York” developed from the act of drawing more than from any written source. In one of the stories I wrote at Columbia, the kid was talking to himself throughout and then he meets someone and kills them accidentally — but a few years later, when I began to make it into a comic, I got rid of his dialogue and the story took on a very improvisatory quality, in a way drawing itself. I was disturbed by my first ending and decided to instead present another, more positive ending. Then, I kept both endings to show how a small action could alter the course of events — and then one of the endings drew itself semi-logically through another unexpected passage! I used text only when I wanted to clarify something, for example I wrote some dialogue for the female character to give her some weight and show that her existence was important, particularly in relation to other characters. I am thinking about doing another issue that continues to explore alternative improvisations from what is shown in this book. By contrast, I think Crosby’s song is driven by his literal writing, it grew from his poetry.
One aspect of your work that I’ve always enjoyed is how you don’t really work with a grid. Now on the one hand I hate that somehow this qualifies as distinctive because I don’t think that it should be, but will you tell us what you think it’s possible to accomplish laying out every page in a unique fashion?
A grid emphasizes that it is what is in the panels that is important rather than the shape of the panels and it can work great if the artist wants to impose a more rigid timing. I have done some gridded stories. But, I have more often used a more angular, expressive type of panel configuration that harks to ’70s comics, as do some of my contemporaries such as Tony Salmons. In the case of “Post York,” Tom K inspired me to be less precious regarding page design — I ended up eliminating quite a few panels that I had drawn completely but that were unnecessary. I deleted some on every page, in fact, and the design and the story became more effective for the omissions.
One of your earlier books, “7 Miles a Second,” is being reprinted by Fantagraphics early next year. How did that happen and why is the book coming out from Fantagraphics and not Vertigo, where it was originally published?
For unknown reasons, and despite that in 1996 it sold [out] its 25,000 print run and was well-reviewed, DC chose not to bring “7 Miles a Second” back to print. I spent years trying to make a new expanded edition that was scanned from Marguerite’s original watercolors happen with other publishers. It nearly did in around 2004 with Calvin Reid’s Reed Press, but the line folded just before we went to print. We finally got a French version out last year from Editions Ca Et La and then, just for the hell of it, I sent the book to Eric Reynolds at Fantagraphics. We should have sent it to them in the first place!
“7 Miles a Second” was the first work of yours I read and my first exposure to David Wojnarowicz. I know it’s been a while, but how did you come to work on the book? Because this was a very different project for Vertigo at the time, if I recall correctly.
My wife Marguerite Van Cook and I became friends with David when we ran a gallery in the East Village in the 1980s called Ground Zero; he did two shows with us there. He admired the comics we did together and we began to discuss translating his experience into that medium. We began the book in 1986, long before Vertigo existed and I don’t think we ever expected that DC Comics would be interested in it. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to finish the drawings fast enough for David to see the whole thing. After his tragic early death from AIDS, the art was completed for the book in 1993 and book dummys were sent to nearly every publisher in America. We collected quite a large pile of rejection slips. In fact, the book sat on various editors’ desks at Paradox and Vertigo for a while, but they told me there was no chance they could publish it-until DC publisher Jenette Kahn saw the exhibit of the original art in a Soho gallery. She then directed Vertigo to do it.
“Post York” and “7 Miles a Second” are very different stories but they’re both portraits of New York City, one in the past and one in the present-and today “7 Miles a Second” feel like an even more distant past than it did when it came out in the mid-’90s. How big an influence do you think New York has been on your work?
As a New Yorker, I am pretty familiar with Manhattan, although I have had to come to terms with the fact that it is constantly in flux. It is strange that I’ll get used to an aspect of the landscape, but so often, I will come out to find it gone and replaced with something completely different. Still, I also love that shifting quality and the multiculturalism of the city; it is my primary subject.
You’ve worked on a few projects at Vertigo over the years, a number of short comics, “2020 Visions,” “Bronx Kill” and most recently, “Aaron and Ahmed.” Do you have any favorites among the books or collaborators?
DC and other corporate comic producers are problematic in that too many people have a say in any given project and an overemphasis is given to the demands of entertainment. More recently they have been promoting the writers excessively over the artists, in my opinion a serious mistake in a collaborative visual medium. “2020 Visions” has so far been the most enduring book that I had a hand in for Vertigo that was initiated by them and I appreciate the prescience of [writer] Jamie Delano’s scenario. It seemsÂ the company did not, though, because while the book has gone through quite a few reprints here and overseas, all of them have been done by other publishers.
You mentioned that you did some paintings and prints and wrote a few different stories set in this flooded future New York prior to working on the actual book. Will we ever see those works as maybe part of an exhibit or book depicting the future?
I am considering doing some strips for various anthologies using the world and characters of “Post York” and perhaps even to do another entire issue. Eventually a book collection might be done of all the work connected to the project.
So what comes next for you?
I am working to get a master’s degree in film studies at the CUNY Graduate Center; meanwhile I am about halfway through pencilling a yet-untitled graphic novel written by Marguerite , about what her mother went through when their town Portsmouth was bombed by the Nazis in World War II, and about Marguerite’s childhood in England and the South of France. It is beautifully written and a pleasure to draw.
“Post York” is on sale now.