No black and white answer: John Romita on "The Gray Area"

For 27 years John Romita Jr. has been a Marvel Comics staple, firing out thousands of images of Spider-Man and Wolverine. But now, JRJR leaves his comfort zone and enters "The Gray Area" from Image Comics.

Yeah, Image Comics. But it's cool -- after all, Marvel recommended he take this story there. Together with writer Glen Brunswick ("Frequency") and inker Klaus Janson, JRJR dips his first toe into the creator-owned realm.

"The Gray Area" is the story of Rudy Chance, a New York City cop that bites the dust. With his death, the story begins, as Romita and Brunswick take a trip through the afterlife.

"My thought is there's no black and white," Romita told CBR News. "10 percent of people are good and go to Heaven, 10 percent are bad and go to Hell, and the other 80 percent go to 'the Gray Area.'"

Romita, who has always had a fascination with the afterlife, says that there is no other way to put it -- the main character is an asshole.

"He's crooked, he gets into bed with the drug cartel, gets greedy, gets his partner killed. He's never directly killed anybody, he's tried to be a good cop, but he's skimmed money, beat some people up. So where do you draw the line? Where does he go? Does he go to hell? Where does a non-violent bad person go? A white collar criminal? How's about a guy that steals to feed his family? They go to the Gray Area, and there's where you get to prove that you're not that bad. I've decided that apathy is the 8th deadly sin. You go to the Gray Area, you're forced to fight at the 'eternal battlefield.' Even if that gets you chopped into little pieces, they'll put you back in, until you get it."

This idea, Romita says, came to him in bits and pieces, in the "stratosphere of things that float" above his head. Of course, a couple shots of tequila also helped bring it along. That, and a chance meeting with Glen Brunswick, who co-wrote the story that eventually became the film "Frequency," starring Dennis Quaid.

"I'm not in my element to write this, but I can draw the shit out of it," Romita admits. "I had a neat idea from a couple tequila highs, a couple technicolor nightmares. Then Glen and I ran into each other at a movie premier, I found out he had a comic book fascination, so we started to discuss it. He had an immediate creative impact on this story -- he has got a lot of panache."

Once the two started fleshing out the idea, it was time to put pen to paper, and Romita immediately checked in to see how Klaus Janson's availability was.

"Anytime I have a new project, the first name that comes to mind (to ink my pencils) is always Klaus. He's a brilliant artist. And he's professional as all get-out," Romita says. "Klaus is always my first choice, because my father's retired. And now Klaus is doing everything, he's constantly saving my ass."

As for having a book with his name on it that wasn't published by the House of Ideas, Romita is quick to say that it was Joe Quesada's idea that he take the book to Image.

"We've had this story for two years, the biggest struggle was the waiting," Romita says. "Marvel agreed that they wanted the story, at the same time I was in contract negotiations with them. We waited a year, I asked if we should just pitch the treatment, and Marvel was very honest and up-front. Quesada reccomended that we take it to Image because they couldn't do anything with it for the time being. He told me they'd treat us right, enjoy yourselves, mazel tov. So we polished everything, made sure it was ready. Then Quesada even gave us some great suggestions."

A guy that's so well known for the spandex crowd has adjusted quickly to drawing regular dead folks in "The Gray Area." The hardest part is the panels that are overflowing with people -- after all, the Gray Area is crowded. But what's making the job easier for Romita is that this world is in fact imaginary, as opposed to, say, Spider-Man's stomping grounds of New York City.

"This is all non-referenced material, there are no Times Square scenes," Romita says. "I don't have to refer to any buildings. Just Groucho Marx."

Yes, Groucho Marx.

"Sure, he's still in the Gray Area -- heck, he's probably a pup in the Gray Area," Romita says. "If I had the time you'd also see [Frank] Sinatra. Maybe Elvis [Presley]. Maybe some sports figures, too."

And for the fans that will miss his work on "Amazing Spider-Man": he'll miss it too.

"It feels like losing a sibling! I hope to get back to the character someday. If someday the guy that's drawing it wants to move on, and it all works out, then yeah, I'd like to get it back, that title will always be a part of me," Romita says. "But I'm not the type of guy to demand a book, that's not my style."

With this a creator-owned property, Romita would of course like to see it developed into a movie someday. For now, he's just concerned that people won't give it a chance. After all, the name Romita means artist, not writer, to many.

"I'm dropping my pants here. People are either going to see this and point and laugh, or they're going to stand up and cheer."

"The Gray Area" #1 of 3 is on shelves today with a $5.95 price tag and contains 48 pages.

"I'm hoping people can see the forest through the trees. It'll be really cool visually. But at first, people may see it as cliché. The guy's partner accidentally shoots a child. This has been done before. The point is, readers will have to go farther into the series. They have to read literally to the last page. This is a little Seinfeld-ian, things at the beginning of the story will be brought back at the end of the story. But people see that on the Internet, the say, 'Ahh, that's cliché!' But they're saying that after reading five pages out of 100! Wait until you read the other 90 pages, and they'll see the way this is all inter-working."

After he's done with all this death in the Gray Area, Romita would like to lighten things up just a bit with an '80s mafia story. Yeah, Romita is a guy that enjoys living on the West coast so he can catch "The Sopranos" twice.

"I'm working with Glen on it, and it's called 'Shmuggy, Bimbo and the Sugarman,'" Romita says. "It's about three guys from Brooklyn. Hard boiled stuff, that's all I can tell you."

Shmuggy? Bimbo? The Sugarman?

"God rest their souls! They're real people! They grew up with my parents!"

Ah, to be John Romita Jr.

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