Smash Pages Q&A: James Romberger

James Romberger has had a long career as a comics artist, writer and fine artist. His books like 7 Miles a Second and The Late Child have been published by Fantagraphics and Vertigo, his comics have appeared in the anthologies World War 3 Illustrated and MOME, his paintings are in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Brooklyn Museum. Last year he wrote the book Steranko: The Self-Created Man, the definitive book about the cartoonist and his work, which he published through Ground Zero Books.

Romberger has two new comics on the stands. Now #7, the newest volume of the Fantagraphics anthology, features a four page comic written and drawn by Romberger. In addition, Uncivilized has just published For Real #1 by Romberger, which consists of “The Oven,” a 20 page comic, and “The Real Thing,” a 10 page essay. Both are about the life and work of Jack Kirby, his time as a soldier in World War II, his cancer diagnosis and treatment later in life, the ways he thoughts about and depicted violence. It’s some of Romberger’s very best work and he was kind enough to answer a few questions about his many projects.

The pastel version of the spread in the story in Now. 
Sainte Marie sur Mer, pastel on paper, 2005. Collection of Walter Robinson and Lisa Rosen. 

Alex Dueben: Where did the idea for au jour d’hui in the new issue of Now come from?

James Romberger: In 2005 I was given the Francis Greenberger Award for being an “under-recognized fine artist.” It was a nice cash prize and Marguerite Van Cook and I determined to use it to take our son Crosby to Europe, so he could see the world and get a little taste for travel. We all spend more than a month abroad in beautiful places that are full of gorgeous art, like Florence and Rome in Italy, and Paris, Nice, Arles and other towns in France. At one point we passed through a little French coastal town called St. Marie sur de Mer, which as I say in the story, is mythologized as being where Mary landed with the young Jesus. For this reason, it is a destination of desire for the Romany – and so, at the time we were there, the place was full of converging caravans of Gypsies. A young gypsy girl took a fancy to Crosby, which apparently caused us to be followed around by her clan – we began to see the same people in odd places watching us; we would be riding a bus and some of the passengers would be making encoded gestures to each other while eyeballing us! And they “arranged” for she and Crosby to dance together at a public square one night. We kind of quietly slipped out of town after that – Crosby wasn’t quite ready to join the caravan. Anyway, the whole place had quite a magical feeling and one day at the beach, we saw the incident that I drew in the story, which reminded me of the sequence at the end of Visconti’s great film Death in Venice. There is actually a page missing, an intro that connects it to the other stories in my unpublished short story anthology Between Acts that I originally drew it for – when I collect it, I will reinstate that page.

Detail from the unpublished first page of the Now story as it was originally to appear in my anthology Between Acts.

How did you decide on the aesthetics of the piece because it is a four page story, drawn in pencil, the color of the paper. You clearly had a look and a feeling in mind for this piece.

I never had any intent to ink or color this story – although I also did a larger color pastel version of the spread. The pencil retains a sort of journalistic feel for the incident – although the piece also has a poetic aspect. It was Now editor Eric Reynolds’ excellent taste to print the story on that colored paper; I’m very pleased with his decision.

How did you end up in Now? Because you were in the last issue of Eric Reynolds’ previous anthology, Mome.

My first contact with Fantagraphics as a publisher was when I sent Eric a story for MOME, which I admired; I had waited too long and he was only able to squeeze me into the final issue of MOME. So I am very happy to be also included in Now, in the company of artists I like such as Keren Katz and Kurt Ankeny et al. My feeling is that steps forward in comics have come in anthology titles – a lot of publishers say they are not worth doing because of sales. I think that is silly – of course they won’t sell, unless they are done well! But many HAVE sold very well and for very long runs, because they were brilliantly edited: all of the E.C. Comics including Mad, all of Warren’s black and white titles, all the mainstream war, horror, crime and love comics, most of the best underground comix including Zap, Weirdo, RAW, Metal Hurlant, A suivre, and many other European magazines, Kramer’s Ergot, etc.

I wanted to talk about For Real, which is a comic and an essay. How did you think about this idea and what did you want it to be?

I thought of the idea when I was on a panel about Kirby at Ben Katchor’s Comics Symposium at Parsons. I wanted to address how Jack Kirby’s work is informed by his experiences with violent trauma – and so, for the comic story I went for a few less-well-documented things about him: his time in WW2 and his cancer diagnosis. I included the essay to clarify the story and to add other points, and also to expand the format possibilities of the For Real title.

Half a page from “The Oven” in For Real #1

Your interest in Kirby is well established and you’ve written about him over the years, but what made you interested in dramatizing his life and finding these two stories in particular?

I am interested in forms of documentary where some of the facts are obscured or missing. For instance, I am featured with Marguerite in an upcoming feature documentary film called Make Me Famous, where we investigate the death of Edward Brezinski, an artist we showed in our Ground Zero gallery in the 1980s. Edward died in the mid-2000s under mysterious circumstances in France and we went there and tracked down the facts onscreen – and they had me draw for the film a few incidents that we heard about, but had no visuals for, like a Berlin bar fight that he was involved with – this is something that artists can do. That film will be released in 2020. My story “The Oven” has some aspects of that, too – visualizing something that is inadequately documented.

How did you figure out the visual styles of each time period and how they complement and contrast each other?

I did the best research I could on the area of France Kirby was in – but I couldn’t find many clear pictures, and what things look like now often doesn’t reflect what they looked like then. I had to wing a lot of it. A German friend, Hanni, provided the soldiers’ translation. I didn’t try to emulate Kirby’s art style; Jack would be the first to say “Don’t copy me, do your own thing.“ I mean, there are a few large panels or spreads that maybe reflect Jack’s expansive compositional scale, but if anything, for this comic I was thinking of the pared-down simplicity of Alex Toth when he was at Dell in the mid-late fifties. At that time, Toth was way too rushed doing full-length 32 page stories for his usual perfectionism, and he cut away a lot of clutter for that reason. Even though I rip Toth up a bit in my essay for his bloodless and sometimes jingoistic war comics style, informed as it is by his cushy non-combat desk service at a camp newsletter. He was all caught up in the “romance” of aerial warfare. Still, he drew really, really well. And it is always best to draw something you know, as I do the process of getting CAT scans – I have one every year now, to help preclude bad shit.

One image from Romberger’s drawings for the Berlin bar fight sequence in the upcoming feature documentary film Make Me Famous. Color: Marguerite Van Cook.

I’m going to be honest, reading about Kirby’s war experiences and reading the new biography of Stan Lee and the description of his cushy wartime service left me so angry. I also kept thinking about the differences between their work and the heaviness of so much of what Kirby did, in many senses of the word.

Oh yeah, Lee was another one, a desk jockey that loved to give orders and to take credit for everyone else’s painful effort. Kirby was really a decent, even humble man, not unaware of his own value but too empathetic to lord it over others. There is no comparison between the two.

Most people know you for the longer books you’ve drawn, but what do you like about short form comics?

Short stories are much less repetitive; none of that “finding angles to draw the same few characters talking for 20 pages” stuff. Really, I feel bad for young artists who feel they have to do 200 pages for everything. You basically drop off the planet for a few years at a time while making these long books – which is a very long time when you are young, for both the artists and the audience.

A page from the upcoming book version of Post York.

I know that you’ve also been working on Post York, expanding the short book you made a few years ago into a longer story.

Post York is done; it is now a 100 page book, which I just signed the contract for with a major publisher that I can’t name because they haven’t announced it yet. But they will soon. It expands the world I built with the Uncivilized Books one-shot, which is included as the first third of the book. I am very, very happy with it – and I am also pleased because I wrote that and the For Real material myself.

So have you started thinking about For Real #2? Are you thinking about what a #2 could be?

Future issues of For Real will be an anthology title with me as the editor, using other artists and writers that I admire. I have some feelers out with certain people – in particular, I am planning with a young writer to do a special North Korea issue that will be split between three or four stories to be drawn by different artists. I may draw one of them. I may have “stars” draw covers, or interiors. I deliberately opened the potential to use other forms of narrative such as essays. It won’t be limited to any one type or genre of story. It will be awesome. I have wanted to edit a title like this for many years. Think of it as my Frontline Combat. [laughs]

2 thoughts on “Smash Pages Q&A: James Romberger”

  1. Great stuff. Romberger is a fantastic artist and storyteller; the comics world is better for his increased presence in it. Everyone should pick these up. And yeah, the new Lee biography was horrible and enabling; more reviews should take it to task.

  2. Excellent interview with my old pal James. He and Marguerite Van Cook are doing some of the most beautiful and brilliant work in comics right now, and it’s rewarding to see them appreciated and understood.

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