After many years and many, many issues drawn for Marvel Comics, industry legend John Romita, Jr. recently made his DC Comics debut, joining writer and Chief Creative Officer Geoff Johns on “Superman” alongside inker Klaus Janson and colorist Laura Martin. At Comic-Con International in San Diego, Romita spoke with Jonah Weiland on the CBR Yacht about leaving familiar surroundings and embarking on a new path at DC, how he finally got his bearings with the Man of Steel and why he second-guesses almost everything in his life. One of comics’ fastest artists, Romita also explained how he had to find a new rhythm working on new characters and in a new universe (not to mention his debut coinciding with the final, oversized issue of “Kick-Ass”). Finally, Romita Jr. opens up on the long-rumored “Shmuggy & Bimbo,” his creator-owned series with Howard Chaykin that features, among other things, the “Wolverine of wiseguys.”
On whether drawing “Superman” for DC Comics took him out of his comfort zone: Interestingly enough, the build-up to [drawing “Superman”] was out of my comfort zone. I told more than a couple people that once I got to — there’s a double spread at the beginning of #32, Superman swatting the big robot — and when I got to that double spread I started working on it and I finished it up and I liked it, and I said, “I didn’t change countries? I didn’t move to a different planet? I just– I’m doing a different costume. And I all of a sudden felt comfortable. The build-up to that moment is what you said comes into play. I did feel a little bit nervous. Less that I couldn’t do the work, more so that I’m dropping my pants in Macys’ window. If people point and laugh, I’m gonna feel uncomfortable about it. And you’re right, there was a comfort zone in all the time I’ve been with Marvel in that I was kind of a buffer, there was plenty of safety. Doing this kind of brings out the microscopes, brings out the haters — and I have as many of those as I have lovers, and they’ll make more noise. And there are Superman fans that’ll make noise. So it was pretty much taking a chance in that if I don’t do the job right I’m gonna hear it louder than if I failed on something else.
It was something I needed to kind of reinvigorate — not that I had lost it, but I wanted to try something new different and ultimately that’s what it came down to. Trying something different. I wanted to go freelance, do some creator-owned stuff. Before I get to all those creator-owned properties I had a chance to do the first super hero, and I’d never considered it but once we got to the meeting of the minds and I heard Geoff Johns was gonna be the guy on it, it really cemented. And Klaus [Janson] was gonna come along and help me out. It really made me feel much better having those two guys. That cemented it.
On how he finally felt at home drawing the Man of Steel: The sketching [phase] did not exist. I just did two promotional pieces — three promotional pieces. [Those] were the first time I did Superman. Now, I didn’t say I did them immediately and, boom, they were done. I struggled a little bit — the very first image I did was the promo piece of Superman with the space background and he’s looking off to the side. The nose is less than Superman-esque. [Dan] DiDio e-mails me and says, “Hey. Not every character has to look Italian. Fix that nose, Romita.” And he was right. Now, I still didn’t get it short enough to be Superman-esque, but that was the first finished Superman figure I had ever done. [Then] I did two more. I didn’t do too much warming up. I was hoping that those three pieces, if I took a while doing them, messing around and playing with them it would warm me up, and it did. And again, first thing I did that made me feel comfortable is that double spread and then I realized, “I didn’t leave. I’m still in the same great business.” And I’m loving every minute of it, and it also — it’s like walking on an tightrope, this time without the balance. And I’m happy with that. I didn’t lose the vim and vigor for it, I just needed something to try that was different and this is the most different thing I can come up with was Superman.
On how he and Howard Chaykin’s manage their big personalities on “Shmuggy & Bimbo,” their upcoming creator-owned series: I honestly have to just put a harness on him because I’m afraid he’s gonna bite somebody as they walk past while we’re working. He’s incredible, talent-wise. I love his personality because he’s a New Yorker and he’s full of life. I know he’s got his opinions, but even when he has opinions about my artwork, I don’t take it personally as a bad thing, it’s instructional. He’s a little bit older than me, and he’s got great artistic chops and opinions. Be that as it may, when I showed him the model sheets for the characters, and I showed him the style I’m gonna do it in, he, instead of saying, “Wow! This is exciting!” he said, “All right. We’ll work on it.” That’s Howard.
On the real-life origins of the book’s main characters and the “Wolverine of wiseguys”: [Shmuggy] is an actual person, and so is Bimbo; two guys that grew up with my parents in the ’40s. When I gave [Chaykin] the treatment for it — I gave him the quick pitch at lunch, gave him the treatment, and he came back with a great overview and then a great first script. It’s probably one of the, if not the most unique story I’ve ever worked on. And possibly in the business. There’s so much about it that nobody’s ever seen or tried before.
I’ll give you a quick example. There’s these two guys, these two human beings that did exist, Shmuggy and Bimbo, were [makes gesture] wiseguys. And they were growing up with my parents, with those tendencies, and they protected the neighborhood. Literally were bodyguards for my parents and their friends. … I used to hear stories as a kid from my uncles and my aunt and my parents about what Shmuggy used to do. Shmuggy was, basically, the Wolverine of wiseguys. Had a face like a catcher’s mitt, according to my Uncle Joe, rest in peace, and he was just wide. He was the toughest guy you could get, all in a little body. I said, “This is perfect. This is the Wolverine of hitmen.” I don’t know if he was ever a hitman, but I turned that persona into a hitman and thought, “This is perfect. Now we just need a very large cohort.” … Bimbo is the big, good looking guy.
It ended up being “Of Mice and Men,” we have one intelligent one, one not so intelligent one. Turns out they both are, but they’re fried from years, and years, and years and years of being given drugs to make them super hitmen. The history of them before the beginning of these drugs is what is the surprise in it all. These guys have been around so long nobody knows how old they are. They don’t even remember what they were. Their fingerprints are gone — nothing strange about that — and they’ve been around so long people wonder why they’ve been around so long.
On “Shmuggy and Bimbo’s tone: It’s brutal, and it’s rough, and it’s not in the vein of rough like “Kick-Ass,” it’s not the kind of outward blood like that. What it is is cold-bloodedness as opposed to just gory bloodedness. It’s a mob thing. Originally it was steeped in the ’40s. Chaykin decided we’re not so well versed in the imagery of the ’40s, but we could be well versed in the ’70s because both of us grew up in the ’70s. Not just the crime but the grime of New York City in the ’70s, it was a repulsive city for a long time and we grew up in that era — suits, discos and so on. He said, “We both know it. Let’s use that and keep the beautiful suits with a little bit of dirt on them.” So his idea for the whole coalesced along with this great story, and it’s probably the most — it’s easy to give away too much, I don’t want to do that because there’s a surprise to this that lasts so long, and then finding out how that surprise started is based in reality along with political intrigue. … While it’s not something that we bang you over the head with it, it’s a perfect parallel to what happened in New York City at that time. And the mob — the Russian mob and the Italian mob — business, and there’s also these two wackos who end up doing something so incredibly amazing without knowing it. I would love to just tell the whole story!