November 2014

Brian Nicholson

fiction

The Late Child and Other Animals by Marguerite Van Cook and James Romberger

Last year, Fantagraphics reissued 7 Miles a Second, a comic-book adaptation of the writing of artist and activist David Wojnarowicz, drawn by James Romberger and painted by Marguerite Van Cook. That book is punk as fuck, colored in the tones of every kind of acid, and filled with rage, against the indifference of people in general and the naked disgust those in power had for homosexuals dying of AIDS in the early 1990s, when to be diagnosed was to be given a death sentence. It is an immediate work, an attempt to communicate before death that did not win its race against time. In its last pages, Romberger and Van Cook abandon traditional comics storytelling in favor of illustrating large portions of Wojnarowicz's journals with abstractions and grotesquery, instead of the imagined happy ending its author never got around to writing.

The collection The Late Child and Other Animals carries on two-thirds of that first collaboration. In the longest piece, "The Late Child," Romberger draws a memoir written by Marguerite Van Cook, of her childhood and the life her mother had before Marguerite entered into it. After this initial drawing, Van Cook again enters the picture, to fill in with watercolors and make the work sing with harmony, highlighting shifts in mood. It is a significantly gentler and more pastoral book, traditionally beautiful. Calling 7 Miles a Second "beautiful" would lead to smirking inwardly while waiting to be challenged; the book carries ugliness inside itself as part of its very being. While that book's language pushed forward with velocity and free association, this one places each considered thought into a caption to ring out poetically.

That is not to say there is no anger here, or sadness. The anger is even directed at the same central source: the condescending and paternalistic viewpoints of people in power. The book begins during World War II, with Hetty Van Cook in England. The night's inky shadows and washes of blue are lit by a bomb raid's yellows. Her husband dies in the war, and she must fight to keep her adopted child as the courts assume a woman alone will not be able to raise a child successfully. Years later, she is pregnant with Marguerite, and must stand before a tribunal to argue again that she will be able to raise a child successfully, this one conceived by a man in another marriage. The men of the court insinuate and insult and claim the moral high ground, depicted as hallucinated crows.

The book thereafter increasingly belongs to Marguerite, her own personhood asserted, and the rest of the book earns its gentle pastoral vision by claiming the relative happiness of her childhood as a solid win for her mother's ability to raise her. Any dangers and darknesses that emerge are endured and triumphed over, and are also relatively mild. Whereas 7 Miles a Second begins with a tale of being a underage hustler in New York City, The Late Child includes a story of being sexually harassed as a little girl on the way home from dance class. Viewing the two books in dialogue, we see the happy ending, arriving late, in a book depicting lives that happened earlier, but in spite of the same bastards.

Marguerite's partner on these books as well as in life, Romberger, leaves his ink drawings open enough for her watercolors to capture various types of natural light during the day. He shines during night time sequences when he can apply the ink to larger forms of shadows, in the manner of more classical cartooning. Even his lettering recalls the influence of Alex Toth. Romberger's recent solo work has included an essay for Studygroup Magazine about his own upbringing and childhood experience with sexual assault. These stories of family, continuing generationally, create a context that follows into his "Post York," a comic about a New York City decimated by floods caused by climate change, starring as its protagonist their son, now in a world created and decimated by the decisions of previous generations. It seems worth mentioning that, while The Late Child and Other Animals begins during World War II, Romberger's own early career is marked by contributing to World War 3 Illustrated, a magazine anthology of politically minded cartooning. The lines keep on getting drawn, and filled in with black.

"The Late Child" ends before Marguerite's teen years, before any sort of punk "awakening" or becoming aware of her own artistic potential. It ends with the eating of a rabbit, a more natural process, more universal. This rabbit was raised one summer as a pet, and the book concludes "This was the season when I learned that I must leave my loves behind." Such a lesson must have occurred at a point left outside the book to her mother, before she exited the narrative, not just of the book, but of life itself. Where she lives now is perhaps best conveyed from the conclusion of Hetty's story from before Marguerite entered into it, from the beginning of the book. The bomb goes off outside the window, and embeds in wood glass that glitters.

The Late Child and Other Animals by Marguerite Van Cook and James Romberger
Fantagraphics
ISBN: 978-1606997895
176 pages