When he was just 13 years-old, living legend John Romita, Jr. suggested a character to Stan Lee that eventually became the superhero Prowler. After doing some cover work with Marvel UK as a teenager, JRJR — as he’s known to his fans — illustrated a six-page story in 1977 called “Chaos at the Coffee Bean!” that appeared in “The Amazing Spider-Man Annual” #11. Romita was 21 years-old and the Spidey story marked his first North American credit as an artist.
For nearly 40 years, Romita was a mainstay at Marvel Comics, illustrating every major character from Iron Man and the Hulk to Thor and Captain America. Not unlike Daredevil, another character he drew for an extensive run, Romita was a man without fear whenever it came to accepting his next assignment.
That all changed in 2014 when the ground shifted and Romita moved to DC Comics and launched the second chapter of his illustrious career as the new ongoing artist of “Superman.”
With the first arc of his run, which was written by superstar writer and DC Comics’ Chief Creative Officer Geoff Johns and inked by his longtime collaborator Klaus Janson, now collected as “The Men of Tomorrow” and released this week, Romita told CBR News that he was intimidated by drawing Superman and, being perfectly blunt, “didn’t really care” about getting his pencils on the Man of Steel after making the move from Marvel.
The always-candid Romita also shared his thoughts on developing Superman’s first new superpower — the super flare — since heat vision was introduced in 1949, as well as his inspirations for illustrating Superman and his nemesis in “The Men of Tomorrow,” the Last Son of Earth, Ulysses.
Romita also discussed the current arc of “Superman,” written by Gene Luen Yang, which explores the reasons behind Lois Lane publicly outing Clark Kent as the Man of Steel and how he would have taken the story even further offline if he were granted carte blanche by DC Comics.
CBR News: At Marvel, you drew everyone from Spider-Man to the Incredible Hulk. When you first started drawing Superman for DC Comics, what did you consider as the most important elements of the character for his look, feel and design?
John Romita, Jr.: I don’t know if I made a concerted effort about trying anything. I was just trying to not mess it up because I was little intimated at first that I was doing something so large in terms of the history [of the character] and his iconic look. I was a little nervous. And I remember vividly when I did the double spread in the first issue of Superman punching the big robot and I was drawing the cape and I said to myself: “I’ll be damned. I’ve drawn capes before. I can do this.”
Basically, it was Thor — the red cape, the size, the shape, the power. I immediately felt more comfortable within minutes of finishing that spread. Then I realized that Superman is such a massive character in a lot of different ways — not just in terms of the history, but also in terms of the aesthetics. It was about the way the character looks and the way the character should appear and the way that I should choreograph him. This guy [Superman] is six-foot-five, six-foot-six. And he’s 270 pounds of solid muscle. I’ve done that before. I can do the power and size. And I felt comfortable all of sudden but until that point, I had self-imposed a little bit of nervousness. And it was self-imposed because I hadn’t read any of the critics yet and the critics tend to get a bit hyperbolic, especially the haters. I wasn’t paying attention to them until after I got the first issue done. But by that point, I was like, “Holy shit! I can do this.” [Laughs]
While I am certainly not relishing your self-imposed nervousness, I do find it refreshing that taking on Superman was intimidating for an artist of your caliber. As a living legend, you have been working in the industry for more than 40 years. Are you still looking for assignments with specific characters to fulfill your bucket list?
Yes, I do, but Superman wasn’t necessarily on the list until after I started working on him. Honestly, I didn’t really care to do Superman until I had long conversations with the DC guys like [Co-Publisher] Dan DiDio and so on. We came up with a common ground for a story idea that I had in mind and that morphed into me working with Geoff Johns with Superman in continuity. And then having Klaus [Janson] on it was also an attraction. It worked out that I was doing something that I never thought that I would do and that was Superman in continuity. I’ve come to enjoy doing it very much with Geoff Johns and the DC guys and now with Gene Yang. I did not expect nor did I embrace the idea of doing Superman.
As an artist, Batman was always more attractive to me. Not just physically but because of the mood and the passion as compared to a more vanilla character like Superman. And now here we are, making sweeping alterations to that vanilla personality. It’s worked out nicely but I did not embrace Superman as the reason to go to work at DC. I would have preferred Batman at first but this worked out really well. I am really happy with this.
I really enjoyed “The Men of Tomorrow” arc you did with Geoff Johns. I thought Ulysses was a truly tragic character and certainly not a typical supervillain in mainstream comics. When you were developing the character with Geoff, do you remember the initial notes he shared for the Last Son of Earth? And how did you land on his final design? You mentioned Thor earlier, and I got a hint of a Thor vibe from Ulysses.
I didn’t think of him that way, honestly, but the power of the larger characters like Thor and Hulk certainly carries over, especially in the battle between Superman and Ulysses. But no, I don’t think Ulysses is a derivative of Thor. Believe it or not, Geoff’s idea for the character was for him to be a counter-character to Superman and similar in a lot of ways too. But it’s the reverse. It’s the coin flip. He’s coming over from another dimension, so to speak, and switching with Superman. Superman was sent here from an alien planet and Ulysses is a human that went to an alien planet in a different dimension and came back. There’s that irony there but the description was not such that Thor was comparable to him, but maybe the power was.
And the visual of Ulysses came from the fact that I didn’t want to do another cape. [Laughs] I just couldn’t get myself to draw another cape. I was actually in Manhattan one day, walking toward Penn Station and I saw this massive biker on his Harley with a very, very long platinum blond ponytail but it was not in a ponytail. I immediately though that instead of a cape, you could use a gigantic head of hair. I thought of the image of hair flowing behind him much akin to a cape. And later on when Ulysses gets sliced by the bad guy that pretty much took place of what would happen to a cape. That was my substitution. And the visuals ended up being what it is for more than a couple of good reasons.
The “Men of Tomorrow” arc also introduced the super flare, which is the Superman’s first new superpower since 1949. Can you explain the power and share how you presented it on the page?
The genesis of this is that I said an offhanded comment during a phone conversation wondering if there was any power of Superman that hasn’t been manifested yet. Or is there something that we can come up with that hasn’t been utilized yet, and Geoff Johns said, “I’ve got an idea!” That’s not the exact chronology that led to a specific moment but we ended up coming up with this and it is an offshoot or an extension of his heat vision. When his heat vision is used, it is the power of the yellow sun that he is emitting. And now this is the extension of it and it’s a tragic extension because it drains him completely of that power. The explanation as to why all of sudden this happens to him hasn’t been keyed on yet but that might not even be important. It’s just something that happens to him and what happens beyond that is where we’ll go with the story moving forward. The power is just a complete purging of his yellow sun power. It’s as simple as that. And he goes 24 hours powerless afterward. The good thing about it is that we were able to explore a couple of things with Superman like what happens to him without power for 24 hours and how it affects him. Everyone started without the old bugaboos like “he’ll still be a hero” and “he’ll stand in front of a guy with a gun.”
But the first thing that I said was that I want to see how it affects him personality-wise. I would have had him go beyond what they did. And that was probably smart because they dialed me back quite a bit. I wanted him to really have emotional problems and they said, “Well. We can’t do that.” But he does have some and it manifests itself in ways like if he has a couple ounces of beer, he passes out. Different foods affect him. Everything that would have been interesting to Superman but wouldn’t have been worth it to him because he’s Superman, now is affecting him because he’s human. This is kind of fun. And how this is going to affect him in the long-term is playing into a storyline that I can’t get into right now but trust me, by hook or by crook, this turns out to be such a great lead-in to a string of stories and before he goes back to being the iconic character, he’s going to be rung through the ringer for a while. It’s going to be really interesting.
Earlier you mentioned the critics and the haters and how you did read the comments and feedback. When we last chatted about “Superman,” you shared your thoughts about Lois Lane and how her relationship with Clark Kent/Superman should be affected by her knowledge of his secret identity and the CBR Community exploded. [Laughs] Now that the proverbial cat is out of the bag with the release of “Superman” #43, do you have anything else you would like to share about Lois’s reaction to her finding out ‘the truth’ about Superman?
That’s a good question. The way the story is ending up is less than what I would have wanted. I personally don’t think that she should just fall in love with the guy or swoon over him the way that everyone wants her to do. And that may or may not happen. I’ll leave that to be a surprise. But I think that as a modern everyday female — especially a strong woman like Lois Lane and a beautiful woman at that — she shouldn’t just fawn over him. Especially after this New 52 setup and now with this, discovering what he is and that he basically has been lying to her. She doesn’t just have to fawn over him. It works out being a really well done way of handling it. She maintains her strength and the explanation as to why she does what she does is very well done. But I would have gone in a different direction emotionally with the two of them.
Listen, my wife is a stunningly beautiful woman and has been around a lot of better looking men than me and wasn’t interested. Just because they’re both good looking people doesn’t mean anything. The fact that he was Superman and the fact that he was lying to her, I think that she might have even felt hostile towards him. It’s the old adage of a spy like Arnold Schwarzenegger in “True Lies” where when the wife finds out, she’s pissed at him. But they [editorial] didn’t take my advice. But it did work well. I would have gone off in a further, more extreme direction because this is the chance to do something that hasn’t been done with Superman before. And that’s the idea of this. It should be like Jerry said to George Constanza: “If every instinct you have is wrong, then the opposite would have to be right.”
But it worked out nicely. It’s a nice combination of what I thought of and what the brains thought of and Gene did a nice job of working toward it. And it all made Lois Lane a better character in my eyes because we got to mess with the scenes and expressions on faces and how she handles this almost pathetic character. After he loses his powers, Superman is just a regular guy. And she can handle him on a one-to-one basis whereas this guy was nearly a god. And they realize that. In the little vignettes between the two of them when they look at each other and the swooning that you would normally get in “People” magazine, I think she should slap him. [Laughs] And call him “a dummy.”
And because of this power surge, the instances that we can show Clark as a human instead of doing the easy stuff, let’s do the exact same stuff that would happen to a guy that suddenly realized that he’s something that’s he not. How awkward would that be? And we tried. But again, they had to harness me.
You’ve told me in the past your favorite DC character growing up was Batman. You’ve been able to draw him during your current run on “Superman” and write him and the rest of the Justice League, as well, in “Superman” #40. Any plans to do more with Batman down the road? And what about more writing at DC?
I don’t know. I’m still struggling being an artist. [Laughs] You want me to try and be a writer? Tell you what. When I get to be a really good artist, I will start working on the writing. How about that?
“Superman: The Men of Tomorrow” by Geoff Johns, John Romita, Jr. & Klaus Janson is available now; “Superman” #43 goes on sale August 26.
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