BMCC alumna and graphic novelist Marguerite Van Cook is known for being the lead singer of the punk band The Innocents and touring Europe with The Clash in the late 1970s.
BMCC alumni, critic and artist James Romberger's drawings of the Lower East Side of Manhattan are in public and private collections including the Metropolitan Museum and Museum of the Modern Art in New York City.
Both Van Cook and Romberger have been an integral part of the Lower East Side art scene for over 30 years, and together in 1983 founded the Ground Zero Gallery, propelling artists Peggy Cyphers, David Wojnarowicz, Calvin Reid and many others to national recognition.
They have also collaborated on graphic novels including the cult classic 7 Miles a Second, written by James Romberger, Marguerite Van Cook and the late poet and artist David Wojnarowicz.
Released in 1996 by DC’s Vertigo Comics and re-released in 2013 by Fantagraphics, 7 Miles a Second presents Wojnarowicz’s days as a young hustler in New York City and his adulthood living with and bringing national attention to AIDS.
The most recent Romberger/Van Cook collaboration is The Late Child and Other Animals, an autobiography written by Van Cook and illustrated by Romberger, who left space for her to color the images, deepening the narrative.
“I wouldn’t even use the word ‘illustrate’; I think he tells the story himself, which compliments the text that I provide,” Van Cook says.
The Late Child: A story that needs to be told
The Late Child and Other Animals tells the story of Marguerite Van Cook’s mother, Hettie, who was living in Portsmouth, England and in the process of adopting a child when her soldier husband was killed in World War II.
Ten years later—and not having remarried—Hettie gives birth to a second daughter, becoming one of the thousands of young women at that time who lost or were at risk of losing their children because of societal disapproval of unmarried mothers, and the legally condoned practice of forced adoption.
“These women’s stories need to be told,” says Marguerite Van Cook.
“We have a lot of forgotten history and I may not have been as confident about telling the story of The Late Child, if I had not been for some of the workshop classes I took at BMCC.”
While Hettie did not lose her children, Van Cook and her sister grew up in an era in which a significant social stigma was attached to having an unmarried mother.
She gives the example of winning a scholarship at age 12, "only to have it withdrawn when my headmistress called them and told them I wasn’t suitable because my mother wasn’t married.”
Despite all that, she graduated high school and attended both Newcastle Upon Tyne Polytechnic and the Portsmouth College of Art and Design.
Her and Romberger’s return to college began in 2006, when she was helping their son Crosby apply to BMCC, “and I thought ‘It’s time for me to do this, too’,” she says. “I hadn’t read the ‘great books’, and I’d always felt that something was missing.”
Van Cook went on to earn an associate degree in English, also winning the Marilyn Diaz Prize for English, and gives BMCC credit for being the place where she gained academic confidence.
“It’s a very welcoming environment that is not judgmental,” she says, and remarks that in her writing classes, “We were trying to put something on the line and tell the truth and move forward, and some of the students’ stories were amazing; the diversity was so reassuring.”
She also felt inspired by her French professor, Peter Consenstein, of the Modern Languages department.
“I still remember her sitting in class and just soaking it in,” says Professor Consenstein. “Here was this East Village artist from the time of punk who loved going back to 17th-century France.”
Later, Professor Consenstein was invited to join the faculty at the CUNY Graduate Center, and he happened to be sitting on the committee that admitted Van Cook into the doctoral program in French she is now completing.
“I feel it’s all connected,” she says.
A bonding experience
James Romberger says he was inspired at BMCC by “being surrounded by younger people. You get so much energy from that environment.”
He adds that there are advantages to returning to school later in life, such as being more focused, less at the mercy of hormones and “the chemicals in my brain.”
Romberger earned an associate degree in theatre, and says one of the best things about BMCC “is that they force everybody to take a class in public speaking, and by the time you’re done, you’ve relaxed and you’re able to get in front of people and speak.”
He also acted in a student production of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Ernest, "which was a bonding experience and they’re friends of yours for the rest of your life,” he says.
Not only that, he says, being a theatre major benefited his work in cartooning because “a good part of the information that I’m putting into the drawings involves acting; the characters have to act convincingly.”
Before enrolling at BMCC, Romberger attended the Munson Williams Proctor Arts Institute in Utica, Upstate New York, and the School of Visual Arts in New York City.
Even so, “I felt I had a lot of holes in my education. I wanted to gain control of my own work,” he says, explaining that many cartoonists today not only illustrate, but write their own graphic novels.
“So I went for courses involving writing,” he says, “and I also took all the basic things like sociology and psychology, trying to get a well rounded group of information as a base.”
Both Romberger and Van Cook stayed on the Dean’s List during their time at BMCC, and upon graduation, received scholarships to Columbia University where Romberger earned a bachelor’s degree in fine arts, and Van Cook earned a bachelor’s in English and Comparative Literature as well as an M.A. in Modern European Studies—not to mention, a Van Rensselaer Prize for Lyric Poetry.
Today they are both at the CUNY Graduate Center, where Van Cook is earning a Ph.D. in French while Romberger is working toward a master’s degree in film studies.
Fellini, Antonioni and global warming
James Romberger also wrote the graphic novel Post York (Uncivilized Books, 2012), which he says “gestated here at BMCC, and then I refined it by the time I was at Columbia.”
Post York comes with a flexi-disc of a song written by Romberger’s and Van Cook’s son, the musician and graphics designer Crosby Romberger, and was nominated for the prestigious Eisner Award.
The book developed from the idea that “as the ice caps melt—which is what’s happening because of global climate change—the water, displaced, has to go someplace,” says Romberger.
When Hurricane Sandy hit New York City in October 2012, “Crosby comes out that morning—he lives in the East Village—and the water goes up to his neck and there goes a police car floating by,” Romberger says, adding that “I’ve drawn him as the main character floating around the city in his boat, trying to survive.”
Today his CUNY Graduate Center studies on the work of filmmakers including Federico Fellini and Michaelangelo Antonioni “filter their way into the comics," he says, "so it’s a way of me to be able to be put all this information into a creative format.”
Meanwhile, James Romberger’s illustrated depictions of New York’s Lower East Side are in collections at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the Philadephia Museum of Art and many other galleries and museums. His essays, interviews and criticism have appeared in Publisher’s Weekly and dozens of magazines.
“Just get out there and do it.”
“Get to work” is Romberger’s advice to aspiring artists at BMCC, and Van Cook advises, “Take as many creative classes as you can, and step outside of your own medium.”
“You think you’re a poet? Take acting,” she adds. “If you’re an actor, take poetry, take creative writing, take some literature classes. Take science classes! Step across all the boundaries and you’ll really start to find different ways of looking at whatever you think you’re interested in.”
“When you’re done with your homework,” Romberger says, “go out, find your friends and start a band. It doesn’t matter if you can’t play. Who cares! Just get out there and do it. And paint a picture, too!”