Living legend John Romita Jr. has illustrated quintessential runs featuring Marvel Comics super heroes ranging from Spider-Man and Daredevil to the X-Men and the Punisher — but his latest collaboration with superstar writer Mark Millar has really kicked some ass.
The all-star creative team joined forces in 2008 to launch “Kick-Ass” through Marvel’s creator-owned imprint ICON and the series has expanded into a blockbuster multimedia franchise for Millar and Romita, Jr.
First came the surprise hit movie adaptation of “Kick-Ass” in 2010 directed by Matthew Vaughn, followed by a video game released by Frozen Codebase that served as a sequel to the film. Millar and Romita Jr. also released the official comic book sequel, “Kick-Ass 2,” in October 2010. On May 15, the co-creators return to the world of Kick-Ass and Hit-Girl with “Kick-Ass 3,” and the movie sequel “Kick-Ass 2” follows in August.
With the new series just weeks away, CBR News connected with Romita Jr. to discuss his early inspirations for Dave Lizewski — the non-powered teenaged boy who propelled himself to superhero status with only nunchucks, YouTube and a never-say-die attitude –the differences between creating stories featuring iconic Marvel characters and creator-owned subjects and why even though he considers his partner in crime a great friend, even he doesn’t trust everything Mark Millar says.
CBR News: Is there a different sense of accomplishment when creating stories featuring original characters like Kick-Ass versus comic book icons like Spider-Man and Captain America?
John Romita Jr.: You didn’t know that I created Captain America and Spider-Man? [Laughs] Yes, it is much more satisfying but if in 50 years, “Kick-Ass” is still around that might quantify that answer more. If this is just a flash in the pan for a couple of years with no long-term effect, I don’t know.
I like to keep my feet on the ground but if one of my characters lasts 60 years, and is as popular as Spider-Man is or even longer with Captain America, it will be a little more precious.
However, for this brief amount of time, yes, I am very, very proud and flattered with the compliments we get on this series and very proud that I am the co-creator.
Same question, but obviously there is more freedom too, right?
Absolutely true and also, it’s the format. It’s ICON and it’s creator-owned and you have a little more leeway. I liken it to a comedian. Comedians that are doing blue work and get laugher are mostly flash in the pan comedians. It’s really hard to be a blue comedian and last, like a Richard Pryor, for a long time. You have to be a special comedian to be like Richard Pryor and last a long time.
And then there are comedians that do regular, clean work — clean for a lack of a better term — like Seinfeld that go on forever. You have to be special in each tier. If this genre, which is a little bit more adult, allows that and that makes it more popular for a brief amount of time, that’s one thing. But we still have to maintain this success over a long period of time.
Stories still matter. How much foul language is funny all of the time? Or how much violent and shocking content get you a brief amount of attention but then fizzles? You still need quality stories to make it last longer. And that’s what we have with “Kick-Ass.” It’s just quality stories.
Yeah, it’s shocking in a lot of ways and it’s liberating in a lot of ways but no amount of f-bombs and foul words make a quality story. You need a good story and that’s what Mark does.
Thinking back to first image you and Mark released with Kick-Ass nearly punching someone’s face off, this series has always been featured a heightened level of graphic violence. When creating these stunning panels, where do you draw your inspiration? Are you watching a lot of UFC matches or maybe gritty action movies from the 1970s?
[Laughs] First of all, my father taught me how to box when I was a kid. And I’m a big fan of boxing. I still watch a lot of boxing. I’ve also learned some martial arts along the way. My son took martial arts lessons. And I took jiu-jitsu lessons. I have continued those for a good amount of time.
And yes, there is also the violent aspect of the cinema that I have grown up watching over the past 35 years. It went from being discretionary violence to very graphic violence. I’ve watched it change. But the storytelling is still the same. I have graduated from standard, discretionary violence to graphic violence and I was able to see it clearly.
But as a fan of boxing and a fan of martial arts, a fan of storytelling and a fan of choreography, it’s kind of the goop melange, the soup, the mixture of all of the above but mostly, it’s the adaptation of my storytelling with the graphic violence. When my storytelling went from “Spider-Man” discretionary violence to the graphic violence of “Kick-Ass,” all I did was take the same storytelling tricks and apply it to more graphic violence.
It sounds simple but that’s basically what it was. Instead of changing the way I told a story for the sake of the violence, I just applied the same storytelling formula to the graphic violence and it just provides me with a chance to show that graphic violence as opposed to hiding it.
You have a long history with Peter Parker. Did the fact that his build mirrors Dave Lizewski come into play when drawing those original issues of “Kick-Ass”?
That would make sense but remember I struggled for a lot of years keeping Spider-Man lean. And then I heard people complain that I made him too lean. [Laughs] I can’t get it right but I was doing other characters like Punisher and Thor while I was working on Spider-Man and that made me struggle with the bulkiness of the character. I had to bring it back. So no, it wasn’t really the case where it should be the case.
I was actually told from outset by Mark: “Remember now. We’re dealing with a teenager. And we’re dealing with an amateur. The costume should not look very glamorous and the character is kind of lean and bony.”
My son was 12 when I started “Kick-Ass” and I was able to see how a teenage boy would look — that awkward look with bony legs and arms. And it stuck with me that the key to “Kick-Ass” is the fact that’s it’s this awkward teenager. He’s not glamorous and he’s very amateurish.
Interestingly enough, you equated Spider-Man to Kick-Ass. I do too, to a certain extent. Spider-Man was the kid that became a superhero. And it was the realism that made him so great. That’s what Stan [Lee] and my father and Steve Ditko did with him. They made him real. Being in Queen’s was real and being in New York was real.
“Kick-Ass” is another step forward. There are no superpowers involved. This is a kid, a legitimate kid, who puts on a superhero costume and awkwardly stumbles through this story. And gets his ass kicked.
Mark tweeted some teases for the upcoming arc. Dave is working at a comic book store and Mindy is in an insane asylum when it opens. What else can you tease?
Nothing. [Laughs] If I tell you what happens, it takes the fun out of it. And honestly, because it’s the first issue, we really don’t want to say anything. But let’s just say that time will pass to the point where things will have progressed naturally.
Much the same way that Hit-Girl needed to grow up because she was going to school and needed to learn how to be a teenager. This book has a progression to it, as well, for Kick-Ass and his friends. And nothing is forced.
I don’t want to say who the villains are or what happens but you’ll like the way it comes out. It’s a comfortable progression. I can’t tell you too much more. I promised Mark that I’d keep my mouth shut and that’s not easy.
Is Red Mist still in play?
Is Red Mist in play? Hmm. I tell you what. Let me look at the first issue. [Laughs while flipping through pages] Let me see if I can tell you what happens.
Remember, we have to make sure that we link the end of the second series with the beginning of this one. Right?
“Kick-Ass” 2 ended with Hit Girl going to prison so we take off from there. But as far as Red Mist goes, I can’t say what Red Mist’s connection to this series is. I’ve got to keep who the main villain is under my hat. I promised.
Mark has hinted that “Kick-Ass 3” is the end of “Kick-Ass,” but he’s also teased a fifth chapter. So is this really the end of “Kick-Ass”?
I will not say. If Mark says it’s the end, don’t believe him. That’s only because “Kick-Ass 3” might end here but the stories may someday, somewhere, continue. I don’t know. I am sure that in Mark’s mind, he’s thinking this is the end of “Kick-Ass” but I don’t buy it. One thing that I have learned is never say “never.” It’s like soap operas. Characters never die in comics. And comic book series never die.
Mark could wake up with a hangover one morning and say, “Hey. I miss Kick-Ass.”
For all intents and purposes, this is the third and final arc but something else could come along. Who knows? I don’t know. I’m not sure what Mark has in mind. If he wants to finish it up here, sure, that’s fine. I am sure he has a way in his mind of ending it cleanly. But I’ve never heard of a series end completely unless everyone dies — and that’s not going to happen here.
I want to ask you about Mark because he is oft portrayed in media, perhaps by his own doing, as a P.T. Barnum styled self-promoter and yet whenever I have spoken with him on the phone, he’s quite a gentle soul and eager to not only talk about his own comics but what others are doing in the industry, too. What has the collaboration been like?
Oh yeah. He’s a friend and a brilliant writer. To me, he’s like Stan Lee. Stan was that way. Stan was a self-promoter but he didn’t only promote himself. He promoted his product too. He still is that way, as a matter of fact, and Mark is too.
Mark has his own model and he promotes his model. What other way are you going to do it?
You’ve recently returned to regular Marvel Comics work as the artist on writer Rick Remender’s Marvel NOW! “Captain America” series, but for most of the past six years you’ve been drawing Kick-Ass, Hit-Girl and Red Mist. Are you itching to return to some other Marvel superheroes like Spider-Man, Daredevil or the X-Men?
I wouldn’t mind going back. I miss doing Spider-Man. I’d love to do Spider-Man.
Anyone else? Maybe even a character from DC Comics?
I don’t know. Have you heard anything from DC? Do they want me?
I’m sure they’d love to have you.
Yeah, Batman seems to be the character that artists that haven’t done DC characters want to draw. He’s a brilliant character. I actually enjoy Batman a million more times than Superman. I really don’t care for Superman that much only because he’s too perfect. And I think that you really can’t do as much with him as you can with Batman. He’s also visually a better character. So yeah, if I had a choice, I would do Batman, of course.
Before I let you go, can you give us an update on your other creator-owned project, “Shmuggy and Bimbo”?
I actually have in my dirty little hands the first script for the “Shmuggy and Bimbo” series that I created along with Howard Chaykin. I came up with the treatment, passed it off to Howard and Howard has massaged it into ours. His scripts are brilliant. It’s very hard-boiled. It’s quality. It’s the first of the things that I would like to do post-“Kick-Ass” in terms of creator-owned work.
After that, in terms of which characters I’ll do at Marvel. I don’t know. You’ll have to ask the Marvel guys.
“Kick-Ass 3” #1 by Mark Millar and John Romita Jr. is set for release on May 15.