John Romita Jr. on Drawing Superman and Joining DC [Interview]

By | April 29th, 2015
Posted in Interviews | % Comments

Way back in February 2014, DC announced something that, even a year before, seemed impossible: John Romita Jr. was joining DC Comics. Perhaps the single artist most associated with one publisher in the last 30 years, Romita was joining the Distinguished Competition as the regular artist on “Superman,” alongside DC Chief Creative Officer Geoff Johns. Few artists have as much name recognition, creative clout, or identifiable style as Romita does but, as I found out in my chat with him late last week, he also is one of the most humble and kind creators working today.

We were talking because, today, “Superman” #40, written and illustrated by Romita, hit the stands, and on Saturday, “Divergence,” the DC Free Comic Book Day issue, is featuring 8 pages of Romita’s artwork; the first pages from ‘Truth,’ the new Super-crossover that is kicking off in June’s #41. We spoke to John Romita Jr. about his jump from Marvel, what appealed to him about drawing Superman (spoiler alert: initially, not much), and what he looks for in the art that he loves.

John, you worked for Marvel Comics for many, many years. I’m sure that you were familiar with DC characters, but what was your relationship with DC books like? Were you a regular reader?

John Romita Jr.: To be totally honest, it has been a long time since I’ve read many comics at all – I’ve been too busy working on my own work to be able to really read a lot of new stuff. That isn’t to say I don’t keep up with artists and their work, I’m just not necessarily reading them every month. If I can understand what’s going on by looking at the artwork, then I don’t need to read it, per se, to really appreciate it. I’m a fan of artists, and I am an artist, so I’m trying to compete with what I’m seeing, including DC stuff.

But the very first comic book I ever opened was a DC comic, when I was a little boy. “The Metal Men” was the first book I ever opened. Then, I went to a barbershop, and there was an uncovered issue of “Superman” – this goes back way too many years. Then, my father started working for Marvel, and it’s gone on from there.

Obviously, you were familiar with Superman, as a character, before getting this gig. What was the aspect of the character that most excited you about drawing him?

JR: I wanted to try something I’ve never done before, and Superman is the most ‘I’ve never done before’ character I had at DC. I’ve never considered drawing Superman before. Everyone wants to draw Batman; visually, he is the coolest character. In the past, I honestly didn’t think of the character [Superman] in that high of a regard, because it was too perfect. The character has changed, and improved so much over the years, so it wasn’t such an awful thing to try to do a character like that, except for the fact that it has been done so many brilliant artists before me, so I was a little intimidated.

All of that stuff involved in the decision making, it still wasn’t one thing. The guys at DC said “honestly, there is so much going on with Batman, we would prefer if you handled Superman.” And I did have an idea that I’ve always thought could apply to Superman – which also could have applied to a few Marvel characters, Dr. Strange and Silver Surfer – but they wanted me in continuity [so that didn’t happen].

Since I have never considered doing Superman, that’s the reason to do Superman. That’s the bottom line that had me embracing the character. Once they told me that Geoff Johns was going to be open to do the book, I jumped at it, because that is damn exciting to me. Then, I got Klaus Janson helping me out, fixing my mistakes [laughs]. The DC guys are great, so I’m glad it is working out.

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Let’s talk about Geoff for a second – coming on to a DC book with as an iconic DC writer as exists writes now, was there a different approach needed to working with someone like Geoff, as opposed to who you’ve worked with at Marvel, or was the fit there right away?

JR: On every new project, there is an adjustment for both the writer and the artist, and in this case, it went by quickly. We managed to get used to each other in the space of one issue. It’s a matter of formula – I tell the writer “listen, I have an idea about storytelling, and I’ll tell you first if I’m going to try anything.” The writers that I’ve worked with – I’m older than all of them – so when they tell me “hey, we like your storytelling, so if there’s anything you want to change, we trust you, you’re more experienced than us. And I say, “Shit, that means I’m older than you [laughs].”

In all honesty, to have great talents put egos aside, from all areas, to say, listen, we’ll play with this, if you want to do something different, let us know and we’ll work on it. As long as there is room to play with pacing and storytelling, I can work with any writer. That’s what happened with Geoff, and in the space of one issue, we felt comfortable. I called him up, we discussed a few things, here’s what I like to do with these scenes. It was an easy adjustment period, especially with a guy as talented as Geoff. Less experienced guys would be tougher to work with, but not with guys as talented Geoff or Gene.

The opposite is true, too – if the writer was more experienced, then you’d be leaning more on the writer than the even amount it should be. So, there’s an adjustment period, it was quick, and having a guy like Geoff, who’s experienced, worked really well with me. I mean, in a couple of pages, I felt comfortable drawing the character. “I’ve drawn a guy with a red cape before! I’ve drawn Thor! This is nothing new!” [laughs]

The Cover to Superman #40

Today, “Superman” #40 comes out, which you wrote yourself. How different is it to write something yourself, versus have someone else write for you? Do you write a traditional script, or is it more of a free form, improvisational thing, because you are driving both the dialogue and the visual storytelling?

JR: It is more of the latter. The plot was the first thing I did; I wrote out a plot – the idea for the story had been discussed before. I wrote out this plot/script; it was a detailed plot with some dialogue, because that made it easier to explain some of the things I wanted to do. So, I made this amalgam synopsis. I asked them, “Tell me what needs to go into this to connect with the other titles, continuity wise,” because I wasn’t so sure of that. They did that; Eddie Berganza gladly said “We need this in it, we need this in it,” and so I did that, and I applied those little vignettes to it and tried to connect it. So, basically, it was a synopsis that I worked from of my own doing. They OK’d the plot and some of the dialogue, then I did the artwork, and then I did the dialogue from the artwork. It worked out nicely – I did not want to write the dialogue in this, only because I’m not experienced enough, and I didn’t want to cause them any headaches with the continuity. But they did help me out a lot, and I didn’t fuck it up! [Laughs]

Is writing something you’d like to do more of, or are you happy just being the artist on a book?

JR: A little bit of everything. I honestly did not want to dialogue because I felt like I was not complete enough as a writer to do it. Which is silly, because if you’ve worked in the business long enough, you’ve seen some of the greatest writers pass through you, and you’ve passed through them, so you get an idea of what works.

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I was going to say, I’m sure, over your extensive career, you’ve illustrated scripts by some pretty terrible writers, so I’m sure you can beat the work of those guys!

JR: [Laughs] To me, it was like jumping out a plane for the first time – you just hope the canopy opens up. I’ve plotted before. I have no problem with plotting and writing out treatments – I’ve written out treatments for some great writers on some creator owned stuff coming up, and I’ve even thrown in some dialogue before. But I didn’t know if I could do it – they sort of forced my hand, and now I know that I can do it.

And I really did enjoy it – I didn’t feel like I had to take out the dictionary or my thesaurus too often. It was a confluence of events, a combination of events, and I had a great time doing it. As far as doing it again? I am enjoying the treatments I’m doing with guys for the creator owned work, and getting their scripts back, and I have a lot of fun drawing from that. I can do it again, and I might do it again, but I still have to get to a point where I’m comfortable with my artwork. When I do that, maybe I can start writing more.

I got to take a peek at the Free Comic Book Day issue, so I’ve seen a few pages of your work with Gene Luen Yang. The book seems to be taking a really interesting turn – I don’t want to spoil it for our readers, but what are some of the broad differences on the arc you did with Geoff versus the first arc you’re doing with Gene?

JR: It all blossoms from this new power, and the effects it has upon Superman and Clark at the same time. It is a small toehold into this idea, and it branched off into a big thing that I am so excited about. The idea of having another power is easy to say, but then to have it be an offshoot of his heat vision, and then to have him trying to control it, and then to have him almost become addicted to being human, it all branches out from there.

In issue #40, we see what Superman does when he is human for 24 hours? He has to shop for himself, he has to eat, and all of a sudden he doesn’t like what he’s eating. He feels like crap after drinking half a mug of light beer, all little things that make perfect sense. You know, parents put a little shot of brandy into a child’s bottle to get them to fall asleep – that’s what it would be for Superman. If you put a shot of brandy into Superman’s water bottle, he’d pass right out. By the way, I am not condoning putting brandy in a baby’s bottle, I’m just using that as an example [laughs]. The whole gentle way we handle Clark in a bar, that was a lot of fun.

The first arc you’re doing with Gene crosses over into almost all the other Super books out there – did you have any say as to what the overall tone of that arc would be, or were you just concerned with your issues of “Superman?”

Superman's New Look in 'Superman' #41

JR: No, I’m not just concerned with my pages – the titles all affect one another. There is a great camaraderie between the creators, and the artists are all awesome. We all contributed to the look of the character in his new duds. To ignore the other creators would be crazy, especially since I can learn so much from them. They’re the nicest guys in the world – I’ve worked with Greg Pak before, and it’s a blast.

It is a great direction for the character, it is a fun direction, and nothing about it is contrived. There are going to be cynics, but consider this: if it has never been done before, that is amazing considering how long the character has been around for. To come that close to something that hasn’t been done before – and people can argue “oh, that’s been done here and there.” I think it is nearly impossible to create something truly new, like a new melody in music, or an idea for a new novel, coming up with a new magazine title. How do you come up with anything new? Same thing in comics: come up with a new idea for a character that’s been around since the Stone Age, I think it’s fantastic. I’m proud of it. And I would’ve been as cynical as anyone if it was same old same old, but it isn’t.

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Before I let you go, if you could steal one small bit of artistic style from another artist, what would you take, and who would it be from?

JR: What a great question! JC Leyendecker, one of the great illustrators of all time. He did a lot for the “Saturday Evening Post” in the 1920s. Look him up.

Football Hero by JC Leyendecker

What about his style would you nab?

JR: I like the sharpness, I love the angles. It is reality with interesting style to it. Reality can be boring, and I think style added to reality is the same as fantasy added to reality in comics. I think it was Stan Lee had said that if you do too much of one, or too much of the other, it is boring. Too much superhero stuff is boring; too much melodrama is boring. You combine them, you massage them, into the right mixture, and people are hungry for it. Same thing with artwork: reality is boring, add a little style to it, and there you go.

I’ve been a fan of Leyendecker since I was a kid and my father showed his work to me when I was a little kid. I have a book in my office that is beat to death that I refer to all the time. I love the angles, I love the reality with that great style to it.

In the comics industry? The three guys, the (Jack) Kirby/ (John) Buscema/ (John Sr.) Romita trio, that’s where it’s at. That’s the standard.

Thanks to John Romita Jr. for chatting and to DC Comics for setting this all up, and make sure to check out “Superman” #40, due out today.

Brian Salvatore

Brian Salvatore is an editor, podcaster, reviewer, writer at large, and general task master at Multiversity. When not writing, he can be found playing music, hanging out with his kids, or playing music with his kids. He also has a dog named Lola, a rowboat, and once met Jimmy Carter. Feel free to email him about good beer, the New York Mets, or the best way to make Chicken Parmagiana (add a thin slice of prosciutto under the cheese).