James Romberger

Getting Real with James Romberger

The first issue of Romberger’s For Real is an engrossing tribute to–and an analysis of–comics legend Jack Kirby

Artist & Writer James Romberger in NYC, 2019 – Photo: Jason Mojica

In the mid-2000s I eked out a living writing art reviews for Time Out Chicago. It’s hard for me to remember how the arrangement came about, because I had no particular expertise in the art world. I could, however manage to drag my ass to galleries and write up 250 words about what I saw, and I could do it on deadline–which I guess was the important part. In an attempt to make my reviews sound like… well, like art reviews, I relied heavily on a thesaurus and on whimsical phrases that sounded like the kind of thing that someone might say if they fancied themselves an art critic. 

It turns out that old habits die hard, and when I sat down to write this piece, I found myself falling back on my old art-writing habit of trying to write something that sounds good but is not what I actually mean. So, in the interest of not burying the lede under a bunch of flowery bullshit (too late?), let me just tell you that James Romberger’s new comic magazine, For Real, is great, that it’s out now, and that it’s my conclusion that you should buy it. 

And in the interest of keeping things real, I’m going to try my damnest to avoid arty cliches in the rest of this piece. Deal?

But wait. Who is James Romberger, you ask? Okay, that’s where this gets interesting. 

The first comic I ever saw by the Eisner-nominated Romberger was an oddly-sized book sticking out above one of the million dazzling books at Brooklyn’s Desert Island. It was called Post York. It had a minimalist two-color cover and a flexi-disk inside, and the mostly wordless tale followed a young man navigating a dystopian New York City, presumably flooded out by sea level rise. The black and white pages were stark, and the body language of the characters in these quiet scenes was evocative. I was immediately taken with it. 

I began trying to track down whatever I could find by him. I found 7 Miles a Second: an incredible collaboration between Romberger, his partner Marguerite Van Cook, and artist/activist David Wojnarowicz. Then I picked up the Vertigo Crime title The Bronx Kill, followed by post 9-11 story Aaron and Ahmed. I even dug up his contribution to the 1997 re-launch of the 70’s DC classic Weird War Tales.

What I noticed all of these disparate works had in common was that in each, Romberger’s drawing captured people and the places they inhabit incredibly well. Now that sounds rather mundane… like something you’d expect to be a baseline requirement of anyone drawing characters-doing-things in comics, but in reality very few artists really nail the physicality of humans trying to relate to each other like Romberger does. [Wait, am I doing it again? Hmmm… no, that really is the best way I can come up with to describe the expressiveness of Romberger’s characters: the physicality of humans trying to relate to each other].

The other thing I noticed was that there wasn’t nearly enough work by him out there. A quick Google search suggested that he seemed to have had a life beyond churning out pages of comics for my pleasure. I saw something about him showing his paintings in galleries, a mention of him having drawings in the collection of the Met, news that he’d just written a book on Jim Steranko, that he was teaching at Parsons and so on. All of this just intrigued me more because it’s quite unusual to find comics creators who move so effortlessly between the worlds of fine arts and comics, effectively breaking down the wall between “high” and “low” art.

So I was excited when I saw Romberger teasing a new “secret project” on Instagram. “Wait…  is that Jack Kirby?” I wondered.  “Looks like Jack Kirby. Wait… is it a war comic? It looks like a war comic.” The answer to my questions turned out to be… “yes.” 

Panels from The Oven, in For Real #1

For Real #1, in comic shops this week and available online from Uncivilized Books, features The Oven, a story that weaves together the beginnings of Kirby’s battle with cancer and his lingering memories of World War II. It does so in the best tradition of cinema that is “based on a true story” in that it takes a mountain of facts and distills them into a visually compelling and engaging story that is rich with both drama and human fragility. The 20-page comic is backed with The Real Thing, an essay by Romberger in which he writes not only about his personal interactions with Kriby over the years, but about Jack’s relationship with violence–from street fights in New York’s lower east side, to the close combat he experienced in the war. 

“The death and bodily harm he witnessed in combat was so overwhelming to Kirby that he could never bring himself to draw the sort of graphic bloodletting and rotting corpses that were the staple of E.C. Comics and their Tales from the Crypt, for instance,” Romberger writes. “The violence he would depict for the rest of his life was fierce and raw, but his art was never explicitly bloody. He had had quite enough of that sort of thing in real life.”

For a single issue of a “floppy” comic, For Real packs a punch. Not only is The Oven a great story that stands on its own, but the project as a whole wound me up and sent me on a deep dive not only of Kirby’s war comics like Foxhole, Battleground, and The Losers, but also had me revisiting historian Paul Fussell’s incredible examination of the trauma that “the good war” inflicted on ordinary soldiers, Wartime. For Real is the product of deep knowledge of and great affection for Jack Kirby, but is done without a whiff of hero worship. Romberger clearly knows his stuff, but as someone who has spent as much of his life outside the world of comics as inside it, he brings a fresh perspective to the mythology of Kirby. 

I wanted to find out more about the origins of this project, and the origins of Romberger himself, so I met him a cafe in the East Village and grilled him. Before getting into For Real, I wanted to get a better understanding of his early years, and the role that comics–and art in general–played in them. 


Beginnings

“I was born in Long Island, but when I was five we moved upstate. My dad had been an insurance agent, and he realized he was getting fat, and he basically dropped out. Not really to be like a hippy or anything, but he thought he was gonna die of a heart attack. He was like the top Metropolitan Life insurance salesman in Long Island in 1963 or something and then he was like, ‘fuck it, I’ve gotta get out of here.’ My mother had taken the Famous Artists Course, right when she met my dad, and she got about half way through it. Then boom, boom, boom, boom–she had four kids in a row, and so she never finished the thing. She was kind of a frustrated artist,” says Romberger. “So when he quit, they moved to this little town, about as far away from the city as they could get. Your nearest neighbor is a mile away, these little teeny little towns with not even a store.”

It was on those occasional trips to the store that Romberger first developed his appetite for comics. 

“I’d get a ride in with my parents to go someplace and I’d be, ‘oh, can I stop and get some comics at the newsstand,’ you know? Maybe they’d begrudgingly let me grab a few. Twelve cents is a lot for a kid, you’d have a quarter and you’d get two comics. We’d go to a used bookstore upstate, and there was this thing where they ripped the top third of the cover off, and so then the books were only a nickel!” says Romberger. “It was actually a criminal thing, because the distributors were supposed to cut the top third off the cover for unsold copies, then they were supposed to send the books to be pulped. But instead they would sell the comics to these little places, so you could buy ‘em in a bag of 20 for a dollar. I still have some of those–most of my comics have the cover ripped off.”

Like any kid his age, Romberger was not terribly discerning in his early comic consumption. 

“At that point, I was 7, 8… I’d read Archie, or Baby Huey, Betty and Veronica, Superboy… crap! I didn’t really care. I really didn’t differentiate, and I’d sit there happily with a pile of comics,” he says. But in time, he started to pay closer attention to those lines on the page that moved the stories along. 

“I think I might have noticed Alex Toth first because he drew so well and I went, ‘hmm.. These are really good drawings,’ and they were in, like, weird Dell comics or something–Zorro or one of these types of things. I’d be like, ‘wow, these are really well drawn!’ Then I noticed Kirby. I thought that Marvel comics were really depressing: everything looked kind of grubby and the color was bad, but I did recognize that Kirby had something going on,” says Rombger. “What I did like was these weird artists who had these kind of fucked up styles that were sort of wrong. And you go like, ‘oh, if it’s sort of wrong, it means that some guy did this,’ you know what I mean? I makes it possible. Like, ‘oh, I might be able to do this too because look how fucked up this guy is!’ Like Pat Boyette… or Ditko with his weird fingers. You look at these things and think, ‘how the hell did this guy ever get any work because this shit is ugly!’

After Romberger’s father tried his hand at the grueling job of blowing insulation, he and Romberger’s mother decided to start a sign painting business. 

“I worked for them as my skills got a little better, because I grew up with those books from the Famous Artists Course–that was like Norman Rockwell and Albert Dorne–these three giant textbook things,” explains Romberger. They kind of run through the whole gamut: how to do lettering, how to draw perspective, how to make figure structure… and I poured over those things when I was growing up–looking at the comics, looking at that–and I kind of taught myself to draw, on a certain level.”

However, Romberger’s on-the-job opportunities for applying what he’d learned were not without constraints. 

“One of the worst jobs I ever had to do was in Oneonta, this little town upstate, there was this BBQ chicken place and out front they had this giant tall neon sign of a dude in a chef’s outfit chasing a chicken,” says Romberger. “And so the figure and the chicken in metal as well as in neon. And I because the paint had worn out, I had to repaint the figure in behind the neon on a fucking ladder… just an awful, awful job!”

Romberger’s parents knew he was interested in comics, and tried to foster his interest in art as best they could in upstate New York, inviting a local comic artist from nearby Oneonta to dinner at their family home. 

“His name was Don Sherwood, and he did this strip called Dan Flagg in the local paper. And it was a terrible strip–it was kind of a rip-off of Alex Raymond-style art. But terrible, terrible, terrible,” recounts Romberger. “This guy–I found out later–there’s an old story in Creepy magazine by Al Williamson about a comic strip artist, he puts an ad in the paper looking for a writer. And the writer comes for the interview and [the artist] says, ‘I’ll interview you as soon as I’m done ruling these panel borders.’ Meanwhile, he’s also got an ad out for an artist, and he’s also go an ad out for an inker, and he’s also got an ad out for a letterer. Somehow they all run into each other at a restaurant and realize they are the ones doing all the work, and all the guy does is rule out the panel borders! Then he kills them one at a time because they all come and want more money, and then their corpses come back at the end and kill him. This guy was based on Don Sherwood! He’s famous for hiring everybody else to… he didn’t do any work! 

Anyway, this guy comes to dinner at my parents house, and they go ‘Jim, show him your artwork.’ And I don’t know what the hell I had at that time, but he looked at it and he goes, ‘kid, you’ve got no talent at all, you better find another line of business.’ This asshole! The famously bad non-artist!”


The Big City

In the late 70s, when Romberger’s grandmother passed, she left some money and said that he should be sent to art school. 

“Instead of sending me to New York City, they sent me to Utica, which is like a shithole in the middle of nowhere,” remembers Romberger. He attended for two years, and shortly after, Romberger made his first attempt at breaking into comics.

“I met some odd people… these poets. And I ended up doing two short full-color stories from poems, and then I hitchhiked up to New York. I was going to try to sell them to Heavy Metal, because Heavy Metal at that time was like the cool slick magazine. But I couldn’t get the appointment at the time I happened to be there. There was no internet then, so you’d have to call, but you can’t get through, so whatever–you go!” says Romberger. “But I did get an appointment with Epic Illustrated, which was published by Marvel, and Archie Goodwin was the editor–well known, beloved editor. He looked at the stuff and he said, ‘wow this is great, I’ll buy it!’ And I was like, ‘oh great, but I just have an appointment with Heavy Metal tomorrow, so if you don’t mind waiting?’” Romberger shakes his head at his gall. “What an asshole!  And Heavy Metal, I did actually go but they didn’t want it, so I went back to Archie like, “yeah, okay…” Wow, what a dick!”

A panel from one of Romberger’s stories published in Epic Illustrated in 1983

Romberger says a couple of years passed before both of the stories were published in Epic, by which time he had moved to New York and enrolled at the School of Visual Arts. “It was funny, because at that moment at SVA we had Will Eisner and Harvey Kurtzman both teaching there. Well, I didn’t want to take classes with them, I thought that only an idiot would go to school for comics,” he says with a touch of regret. “I thought, ‘you can’t teach that, you have to look at comics.’ I just thought it was an idiotic thing.”

After just a semester at SVA, Romberger moved to the East Village where he became roommates with Seth Tobacman, the artist behind World War III Illustrated.

“I wasn’t really thinking of myself as a mainstream comics artist. I did some stuff for World War III, and then I was really starting to do gallery things. So I did a strip with Marguerite [Van Cook] called Ground Zero, that ran in the East Village Eye and these other odd little papers, but it was very independent… sort of a sci-fi version of our lives. I wasn’t really looking for much involvement in comics, at that point I was really more of a gallery artist,” said Romberger.

An installment of the Ground Zero comic strip by James Romberger & Marguerite Van Cook.

“So it really wasn’t until after doing the full gallery of Ground Zero for a few years–we’d shown David Wojnarowicz, and he’d seen some of the Ground Zero comics we ran in the paper–and he said, “you’d be good to do this project I have in mind.”

It was at that point, in 1986 when he and Van Cook started working with Wojnarowicz on what Romberger describes has his “first real book,” 7 Miles a Second.  It wasn’t a fast process. Romberger started the book in ‘86, came back to it in ‘88 and started working with Wojnarowicz on the 2nd half of the book, which took another two years. “He saw that bit done, then he got sick.” 

Wojnorowicz died in 1992 of AIDS-related complications, and the finished artwork was shown at New York gallery PPOW in 1993, but Romberger couldn’t find anyone to publish the comic. 

A spread from 7 Miles a Second

“I had a big stack of rejection letters from every publisher you can think of. At that time I was showing uptown at Grace Borgenicht–right across from Trump Tower–and among my collectors up there were the Hearsts. Like the Citizen Kane Hearsts! Well, they sent my dummy of the David book to all the different subsidiary publishers in the Hearst empire, and they all went, ‘nuh-uh.’ I have this letter, it’s got little Post-It’s attached to it–they had these boy’s club names and Hearst was called ‘Bunkie’–Bunkie, I don’t think we can publish this thing, it’s almost pornographic. He’s the head of the thing and they’re still telling him no!”

Romberger showed the book to editors he knew at DC Comics, and they told him flatly “there is no fucking way in hell these guys would publish this.” But word eventually got to DC Comics publisher Jenette Kahn, not from within her own company, but from art-world contacts. As Romberger tells it, “Jeanette Kahn went back to Vertigo and said, ‘publish it, exactly the way it is.’” And that’s what they did, save for a copyright-infringing drawing of Walt Disney’s Goofy. 


One Thing Leads to Another

Romberger continued doing work for Vertigo under editor Axel Alonso, and when Grace Borgenicht closed her gallery, he thought he’d shift fully toward comics, but that’s when Alonso jumped to Marvel, a company Romberger was not keen to do business with due to their storied mistreatment of some of their greatest artists like Jack Kirby and Gene Colan. 

“So then I went through several years of development hell where I proposed things but we couldn’t get them going. Nobody was really hiring me, and we were actually getting pretty broke. We both got ill for a period,” recalls Romberger. “Everything kind of went tits up, okay?”

He says, “We then went through another couple years of not knowing what the fuck to do, where to go, doing a little bit of this, a little bit of that. And at a certain point, around 2002 I was interested in the comic stuff, but I was really frustrated because I couldn’t get anywhere. Marguerite goes, ‘you know what, just for fun, just to work out your comics jones, why don’t we do a little fanzine?’ We did three issues, it was called Comic Art Forum.”

Comic Art Forum #2

Working on the self-published fanzine, Romberger interviewed Gene Colan, investigated the whole Jack Kirby/CIA/Argo thing, and had a fateful meeting with one of his favorite comic artists, Jim Steranko.

“He realized pretty quickly I knew his shit inside and out, and I was able to articulate what he’d done. So he said, ‘let’s do this thing where you will make this list of my innovations.’ That’s his kind of thing–a list–I didn’t really give a fuck about that. I was interested in the idea of going through the work and pulling it apart, close-reading it and seeing what the fuck it’s about. We did that–and I gave him his list–but the thing really felt like it should be a book of some sort,” says Romberger. “But he said, ‘well, you need to write a biographical intro that explains why I am who I am’ and things like this. But at that time, I really didn’t have the writing chops. I’d gone to school, but for art. I didn’t do the humanities, I couldn’t write at all. And one of the problems I was having in working in comics was in working with writers, you’re really like the schlep boy, the writers get respect and the artists get shit on–and it’s gotten worse. So I thought, ‘I really want to get ahold of my own skills, I’d like to learn to write better, I’d like to learn to write creatively.’

And with that, both Romberger and Van Cook went back to school, first earning associate’s degrees at BMCC, and then getting scholarships to Columbia University. With greater confidence in his writing, and a wealth of knowledge about comics, Romberger began writing features and reviews for Publishers Weekly. And continuing the one-thing-leads-to-another theme of our story, it was a role that puts us on the home stretch of the path that leads us to For Real. 


King Kirby

“The writing actually led into teaching,” explains Romberger. “Ben Katchor, he was running the illustration program at Parsons, started doing these comics symposiums where he would invite different people every week to speak. I did one for Post York with my son, then I did one with Marguerite for The Late Child, and then a couple of years ago they did one about Kirby. They invited like eight of us, and I took the opportunity to kind of explore some of the ideas that I had, among them that Jack needed more time. He was always so rushed by his deadlines, they never gave him time to actually do something good. If instead of having to do 4 pages a week, he could do 1 page a week, you’d see this huge jump in the level of how much he could refine that drawing. He drew really, really well, but it was always like rush, rush, rush! Now, sometimes rushing is good, sometimes a deadline is good and you get the urgency in the work… the directness of it. But, in his case, I think it would have been good for him at a certain point to slow down. The only time I ever saw him do that was on the Spirit World and the In the Days of the Mob books: they’re very beautifully drawn, and they’re done for adults. But they wouldn’t let him keep doing that.

Romberger continues, “So, I had a couple of ideas about that, and I was talking about how the trauma of what he went through in World War II and growing up really affected his way of dealing with violence. When I got home from [the Kirby symposium], I started thinking that I should really do something that articulates all of that in one place.”

A page from The Oven, in For Real #1

Inspiration struck, so to speak, when Romberger had a heart attack. While in the hospital, an x-ray revealed a spot on his lung and he was sent for a CAT scan. Though it came back clean, an annual CAT scan is now part of his routine. 

“I had gone through this process of having the CAT scan, so I knew it very well,” says Romberger. “I thought, ‘you know what, Kirby must have had to go through that when he got diagnosed with throat cancer,’ so I just drew him going through that process. I also knew about this thing with the oven–that he had been in this factory and tried to climb into this oven to get warm. It kind of sprang to my mind as a complete story.” 

With the Kirby story in mind, he then set out to devise a framework that would allow it to be more than a one-off. 

“There was a magazine I really loved in Europe called Corto. It was a book of Hugo Pratt’s Corto Maltese, which is this fantastic series of this peripatetic hero. It was almost like National Geographic, but it would run a short Corto Maltese piece in there, or he ran the things he did with Milo Manara like Indian Summer. But he also ran short pieces by other artists in full color, as well as essays that were an exploration of some country, says Romberger. “It was this fantastic magazine… I don’t know how long it lasted, maybe a couple years? I thought, ‘I really like this anthology that mixes formats.” 

For Real is set to be Romberger’s own mixed-format anthology, in which he will edit a wide variety of reality-based stories from medium’s best artists. But let’s be honest: Jack Kirby at war is a tough act to follow. 

“You gotta kill that guy…”

In The Oven, Romberger creates a portrait of Kirby built upon research done specifically for this story, but also what can only be described as research through osmosis: the kind of feeling you get for a person’s way of being from a decades of absorbing their work, from your own personal interactions with them and their family, and from the mark they leave on people you know and trust. 

“He was a very empathetic individual,” says Romberger. “He was always worried about about how other people were feeling. He was quite like that, a very selfless kind of character.”

In the video above, recorded in 1983, Kirby describes the existential threat he faced in WWII– which was literally kill or be killed. “See, people think about war like they think about comics or they think about broadway plays–they don’t think that it’s serious, that it’s reality,” said Kirby. “But it is. You’ve gotta kill that guy… and this guy looks like a butcher, see? And he’s got all the accoutrements on him, and he’s gonna kill ya, and there’s no way out of it. You’ve got your gun on him and he’s got his gun on you–what do you do?”

This kind of trauma helps to explain why, even in the pre-code era of comics, Kirby shied away from graphic depictions of violence, things he could have presumably drawn from memory. But with Kirby famously fantasizing about engaging in violence against Nazis before he went off to war, as demonstrated by his iconic cover for 1941’s Captain America #1, I ask James if there was a noticeable change in his work after he returned from Europe.

Kirby promoting Nazi-punching in 1941.

“There’s a clear separation when he came back. He’s got this experience and it’s coming out in the work,” says Romberger. “He had been working in the superhero idiom, doing those kind of punch hitler in the nose things, then he came back and basically he went right into working with Joe [Simon], and they did their own self-published thing, Foxhole. Jack was writing those too. He was writing fairly gritty shit about what happened, but it was pretty bloodless. They do have a bit more of a feeling of the filth and grime of being out there in the fucking thing.”

Reading For Real and learning more about Kirby’s experiences at war, puts the stories about Kirby getting fucked-over by his comic industry employers in a new light. Public opinion amongst those who have one on the matter contends that Kirby put up with things that he should not have. I couldn’t help but wonder if this wasn’t due to the curse of perspective that Kirby gained in the war? Did Kirby’s witnessing a young soldier he was talking to being turned into “a red smear on the wall” make the indignities he suffered at the hands of Marvel and later DC seem minor by comparison? Does having lived through troubles greater than the ordinary person give a person too high a threshold for putting up with things they ought not to. To grin and bear things simply because they know there are worse things that could happen.

As Robmerger’s depiction of Kriby says in the comic, “it was a tight spot, it could have been worse.”


For Real #1 is available now in discerning comic shops, and online from Uncivilized Books

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