Geeking Out About Flame Con Panels: Talking 7 Miles a Second

“On Saturday, August 20, I attended the fascinating Flame Con panel “Talking 7 Miles a Second” featuring Marguerite Van Cook and James Romberger and moderated by Maggie Galvan. Calvin Reed, senior news editor at Publisher’s Weekly and a personal friend of the panelists, was in attendance in the audience. Ostensibly about the titular graphic memoir written by artist David Wojnarowicz, it also touched on the collected work of the panelists and Wojnarowicz, the art scene of New York City in the 80s and 90s, and the unique artistic appeal of comics.

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Marguerite Van Cook and James Romberger at Flame Con

David Wojnarowicz was an artist, performer, and AIDS activist in New York with an extensive body of work who passed away in 1992. Romberger was the artist, and Van Cook the colorist, for 7 Miles a Second, one of the first original works of DC’s Vertigo imprint. It was originally published in 1996 and rereleased by Fantagraphics in 2013. The story is set during three periods of Wojnarowicz’s life: at six years old, as a homeless teen and gay hustler, and towards the end of his life as he was dying of complications from AIDS.

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The original Vertigo cover

The panel began with a look at Wojnarowicz’s 1985-86 Ground Zero Gallery NY show “You Killed Me First,” which Romberger and Van Cook helped curate. Ground Zero was a pioneer of installation art and featured several East Village artists. Reed shared some of his own stories of Wojnarowicz’s show and his own work with Ground Zero. “Making money was a low consideration,” according to Van Cook. Romberger said they “encouraged the full transformation of the gallery.” “You Killed Me First” included the front of the gallery space being made to look like a subway tunnel, complete with actual garbage from the street.

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David Wojnarowicz (Photo courtesy of Grove Atlantic)

The panel then segued to a discussion of 7 Miles a Second and how it came to be. Romberger explained how the script was actually a manuscript full of monologue transcriptions, conversations, observations, and dream recollections, among other things, that was cut out and formed into a ten-foot-long scroll. A slide that reproduced part of it showed a sheet of paper dense with typing and marginalia. Van Cook pointed out that Wojnarowicz “had a great ear for conversation” and that his first book Sounds in the Distance earned praise from William S. Burroughs for “captur[ing] the voice of the road.”

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Legendary Vertigo editor Jenette Kahn had told DC to “let them do what they want,” in Romberger’s words, though that did not stop the publisher from altering the cover and muting Van Cook’s amazing colors. Van Cook added that she knew what Wojnarowicz liked about her work. “He was obsessed with using Day-Glo colors in comics,” she said. She described resorting to children’s paint boxes in order to find the right hues. The results featured on several slides were nothing less than stunning.

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One key point of the panel was the exceptional appeal of the comics medium for a story like this. “Comics are really good as a memory device,” Van Cook said. Since so much of 7 Miles a Second deals with remembered instances, this was particularly apt. How does one depict illness? How does one represent childhood? The interplay between text and pictures more closely resemble how people think and recall lived experience, according to the panelists, more so than any other art form.

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“You don’t want the image to just be a picture of the text,” Romberger mentioned. “There are so many reasons you can articulate why [7 Miles a Second] is art.”

 

The original print run was 25,000 copies, but it was very difficult to find. The original artwork was exhibited at the New Museum on Broadway, and the Museum of Modern Art displayed a copy of the book behind glass as part of its “Open Ends” show in 2000.

 

This panel was a personal highlight of the weekend for me. It was incredibly insightful, and I wish I could reproduce here all the turns the conversation took. I made sure to stop by Romberger’s and Van Cook’s table to grab a personal copy of 7 Miles a Second on Sunday, and I encourage everyone to seek it out.

Unsung Gay Superhero: Ultraverse’s Spectral

As Pride month draws to a close, I decided to take it upon myself to profile one of the unsung pioneers of gay superherodom. Yes, most of us know Northstar, who came screaming out of the closet in Alpha Flight 106, way back in 1992. But what of the guy standing right behind him, who debuted one year later in June 1993? Surely the second mainstream gay superhero deserves to be remembered. And so I present to Geeks OUT readers: Spectral, the Multi-Powered Man!

What’s that? You’ve never heard of him? That’s fair. The series in which he appeared lasted only twenty-four issues. He hasn’t been seen or heard since, though he was ostensibly absorbed into the Marvel universe (more on that later). He utterly fails to make any lists of gay superheroes. In fact, more than one friend of mine accused me of making him up when I told them about this post. I assure you, dear readers, Spectral was real. He may be a footnote in the history of LGBT comics representation (if that), but I hope to rescue him from obscurity if only because he is not merely a gay superhero. Spectral is the gayest superhero who ever was or will be.

 

I know, I know. Midnighter is obviously gay, and he’s hard to top (no pun intended), but let me explain: Spectral was a human torch who burned the colors of the rainbow! And he had a different power with each color! His friends died of AIDS (it was the 90s). And he lived in San Francisco! That last one is actually kind of a cheat, since Malibu, the publisher of Spectral’s book, set themselves up as the West Coast alternative to Marvel and DC and set most of their titles in California. However, short of a superhero who gains powers by actually having sex with a person of the same sex, it’s hard to think of a gayer hero than Spectral.

Spectral was a founding member of The Strangers, one of the flagship titles of Malibu’s Ultraverse imprint. Created by writer Steve Englehart and artist Rick Hoberg, it was actually one of the most diverse superhero teams in the history of comics. Not only did it feature a gay man, but it had two black characters and one Latina (we infer this last bit of information because she occasionally exclaims in Spanish, not because anyone ever mentions that a character named Elena La Brava might be anything other than another white woman). They each (save one) gained powers from a magic bolt of lightning that struck a cable car they all happened to be riding at the same time. Did I mention The Strangers took place in San Francisco? Because the book rarely lets you forget that fact.

Spectral, aka Dave Castiglione, was one of the most powerful members of the team. When he burned red, he gained super strength. Orange gave him standard fire powers, yellow granted him flight, and green flames gave healing powers. Blue fire somehow meant he had water powers (How were the flames not extinguished by going underwater? Shut up.). Indigo was a deus ex machina power (seriously, this post will be three times as long if I try to explain it). Finally, violet flame made him invulnerable.

 

The first few issues were the team’s origin story, during which Spectral spent time figuring out his powers and saving the day at the last minute. This in itself should make Spectral more heralded as a gay superhero. Northstar was always something of a joke, but Spectral saved his whole team’s collective ass more than once. His sexuality was hinted at, but usually when he was alone.

 

This was considered subtle back then.

It’s not until issue 5 that Spectral is finally outed. It’s not a very empowering scene, either. Grenade, one of the most aggressively heterosexual members of the team, who nevertheless has a costume that wouldn’t be out of place at a leather convention, angrily confronts Spectral and more or less demands to know his sexual orientation… And then is cool with it. It’s not great, but the acceptance the rest of the team exhibits is comforting, and was astonishingly progressive for the time.

For proof of that, the letters pages are unfortunate reminders of how regressive attitudes were as recently as twenty years ago. “If you intend to use your comic books to push a social agenda, the ‘comic’ book should make this clear.” (from Issue 11) “I have nothing against gays, I just tire of being constantly reminded of it. Why doesn’t he just wear a sign? Better yet, he could change his name to ‘Flamer’ and let the people draw their own conclusions.” (from Issue 16) The letters about Spectral were supposedly positive on a twenty-to-one ratio, but the negative ones overwhelmingly saw print in order to “keep the letters page interesting.”

 

The initial handling of Spectral’s sexuality was the unfortunate high point, as the rest of the team often paired off or he was the brunt of some insulting banter that was supposed to be funny. From issue 9:

It’s your loss, Bob. (Seriously, that character’s name is Atom Bob. This book is downright goofy sometimes.)

 

Or he would be left to stand around awkwardly while his teammates paired off. You can practically hear a slide whistle in the background of panels like these from issue 11:

For the rest of the short run of the series, Spectral was the odd man out. The rest of the team consisted of two straight couples and the two black members of the team, because if you have two members of a superhero team who ostensibly belong to the same minority group they are obligated to become friends even if they have nothing in common. He disappeared for months, sometimes barely appearing in issues, often being chastised for arriving late to team meetings. This may have been because he was so powerful that any superhero fight would have ended too quickly if he were involved, but also because he was being set up as a red herring for a mystery, and because it was more comfortable for the gay guy’s personal life to happen off panel.

 

This did change, though! Spectral was eventually given a boyfriend — in the final issue. Granted, there were clearly plans for more issues, but the boyfriend survives the superhero battle that ensues! And he gets a line! (It’s: “Hi.”) I’d like to think that this would have led to a more prominent role for Spectral, closer to what was promised in the beginning of the series. It’s just as likely this would have led to him being sidelined more often.

 

I’ll admit I stretched the truth to call Spectral mainstream. Ultraverse comics, at the height of their popularity, were never going to become as culturally relevant as Marvel or DC. Like Image and Valiant in the early days of those publishers, they were seen as a bracing alternative to the status quo. Ultraverse rode the comics boom of the early 90s hard, developing a tight continuity and conspicuous advertising. It was seen as groundbreaking at the time, full of innovation and diversity. The Strangers were going to be developed into an animated television series, too. Spectral could have been the first gay cartoon superhero!

Then Marvel, as they are wont to do, ruined everything.

 

In 1994, they purchased Malibu and ran it into the ground. That’s the most charitable way I can describe what happened. Whether Marvel was trying to acquire better coloring technology or simply beating DC to the punch because they had designs on Malibu (both of which have been given as reasons for the buyout), the quality of the writing nosedived. The Strangers was one of the luckier titles, as it was cancelled early and kept from having to shoehorn Marvel characters into its pages. Loki, Thor, Black Knight, and Silver Surfer all showed up in Ultraverse titles before the whole line was mercifully cancelled. According to the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe: Alternate Universes 2005, the Ultraverse universe exists on Earth-93060. I doubt it will be making any appearances anytime soon.

 

This is a shame, really. For all of the faults of the book, The Strangers was a comic that provided a positive role model for gay kids. They had to do a bit of hunting for him, but he was there. As one fan put it: “I feel that [Spectral] has been all the things gay people would like in a role model…I know of only two superheroes in all of comics that are gay. This is hardly overkill…it’s interesting for a change” (Letters page, issue 22). Valiant and Image have undergone renaissances in recent years, so why can’t Marvel take a chance and hand over the reins of these characters to capable creators?

 

I won’t hold my breath waiting for that to happen. But now we know of one more superhero who was out and proud. And Spectral gives us one more reason to be out and proud ourselves.

Darwyn Cooke: His Life and Legacy

In an industry too often marred by inappropriate personalities, graphic artist Darwyn Cooke distinguished himself as kind and warm to his fans while beloved and respected among creators. Cooke died early on Saturday, May 14, shortly after he entered palliative care for aggressive cancer. He was a rare person, a talented artist and a gift to humanity. He was 53.

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Cooke’s foray into comics work was a short story in New Talent Showcase #19 in 1985. For the next 15 years, though, he largely worked as a graphic designer for magazines in Canada. In the 1990s, he worked as a storyboard artist for Batman: The Animated Series and Superman: The Animated Series, beginning his work with DC’s most famous characters.

His work on Batman in print began in earnest with Batman: Ego, a one-shot story in August 2000 that was eventually collected with other stories in Batman: Ego and Other Tails in June 2007. Cooke and Ed Brubaker revamped Catwoman in 2001, starting with a four-issue story in Detective Comics #759–762. This helped spawn a Catwoman solo title, which Cooke illustrated for four issues, and a prequel graphic novel, Selina’s Big Score. His design for the character is “still the one used today,” an official statement by DC comics revealed.

In 2004, Cooke wrote and drew DC: The New Frontier (with colors by Dave Stewart), for which he won his first Eisner Award. It is impossible to overstate how influential and magnificent this book is; it is required reading for all comics fans. For many, it contains the definitive depictions of the most iconic superheroes ever created, and it reintroduces many characters that were lost to the public imagination. Cooke’s artwork is often described as simple and elegant, but it is also imbued with an optimism that is sorely lacking from the medium and has been since.

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In a blog post from 2010, which she recently shared again via Twitter, Gail Simone recounted her reaction to New Frontier and how Cooke presented her with a “Sophie’s choice” involving the artwork. She prefers New Frontier to Watchmen, and Alan Moore—the creator of the latter work—supposedly asked that no more DC comp books be sent to his house “[except] New Frontier.”

Beginning in 2009, Cooke began adapting the Parker novels of Donald Westlake (writing as Richard Stark). His style proved just as adept at crime stories as superhero tales, as timeless as the best noir fiction. He is also known for being the writer and artist of Before Watchmen: Minutemen and the writer of Before Watchmen: Silk Spectre, prequels that transcended the misgivings most fans had about DC’s revisiting these characters.

Among the other awards Cooke won for his work were an Eisner for Best Single Issue for Solo #5 (2006) and Joe Shuster Awards for Outstanding Canadian Comic Book Artist for Batman/The Spirit and Superman Confidential.

Of course, there was more to Darwyn Cooke than his bibliography. By all accounts, he was a great man, well known for his sense of humor and generosity. His passing is a loss not just for the comics community but also for society at large.

His family has asked that donations be made to the Canadian Cancer Society and Hero Initiative.