Artist John Romita, Jr. is a living legend, having illustrated iconic runs on nearly every major Marvel Comics character before finally making the leap to DC Comics in 2014. Following a run on “Superman” with writers Geoff Johns and later Gene Luen Yang, Romita is currently hard at work on “Dark Knight Returns: The Last Crusade,” a prequel story set ten years before Frank Miller’s classic Batman epic begins. DC’s upcoming Rebirth will keep him in Gotham City, working with fan-favorite writer Scott Snyder on a Two-Face story in the recently announced “All Star Batman” series.
Romita, Jr. sat down with CBR TV’s Jonah Weiland in the world famous CBR Tiki Room at WonderCon in Los Angeles to discuss making his mark on Batman, what he wants to achieve with his run on “All Star Batman” and how he’s differentiating his Batman from Frank Miller’s and the other iconic takes that have preceded him. He also talks about the big twist at the heart of the Jason Todd-centric “Last Crusade,” and why he prefers working from plots instead of full scripts. After giving an update on his long-in-the-works “Shmuggy & Bimbo” creator-owned series with Howard Chaykin, Romita, Jr. explains why he’s still trying to live up to his father’s legacy after all these years.
John Romita, Jr. begins his conversation with CBR TV by explaining the origins of his collaboration with Scott Snyder, his long desire to draw Batman and exactly how he became a part of the upcoming “All Star Batman” series. He then talks about how he never expected to draw Two-Face and how excited he is for Batman to drag the villain out of Gotham and across the country.
On what he hopes to achieve working with Scott Snyder on “All Star Batman”:
John Romita, Jr.: I’ve always been a fan of Greg Capullo’s and when I got on “Superman” I wanted to do Batman at some point. I told them, “Let me do Batman at some point.” So I was looking at Greg’s artwork. I very rarely read comics, because I want to look at the art, I’m competing with artists, I admire artists, I emulate some of their great stuff, and so on. Looking at Greg’s stuff, I can read the book without reading the dialogue. That’s how good an artist — he’s brilliant. But that makes we want to read the dialogue. So I started reading Scott Snyder’s stuff.
Right about the time that I was picking up their issues they told me that we were gonna sit down with Scott for some social thing. I told Scott how much I admired his stuff, and I was being truthful. I have told writers I have loved their stuff without actually reading their dialogue. It’s the truth, because I look at the artwork and if I can’t follow the story through the artwork then that’s a good writer and that’s a good combination. So I told Scott, “Really enjoy the stuff, yadda yadda.” He says, “We gotta do something.” I said, “I really would love to do some creator-owned” — I was doing “Superman” at the time, had no idea what was gonna happen. I said, “Let’s do some creator-owned.” He goes, “Yes!”
Apparently, in his mind, he was thinking further ahead that there was a chance I’d be able to do some Batman and he had dibs on me, apparently. And it worked out so well that this happened. It was gonna be called “Detective,” it was gonna be called something else, but we were gonna do it together. Unfortunately we didn’t get a chance to do an extended run on a title. It didn’t work out because his schedule was so tight that he accepted this a six-part story with subsequent artists, which is fine, and it just happened that we get together. And he happens to live within a mile of my house, didn’t know it, and we sat down at a local tavern over beers and talked it out. The story he came up with — and I never expected Two-Face to be a villain I would draw, had no idea what I was gonna be drawing — and when he told me what he had in mind for it the top of my head just popped. All these images came into my head as he’s talking to me and I just knew this is the right thing to do. It’s such a cool story bringing Batman out of Gotham and on the road with Two-Face, dragging him across the country, the visuals manifest themselves. That’s a testament to his writing abilities.
On his approach to Batman villain Two-Face:
There’s only a certain amount you can veer from the norm, but I didn’t want to get too hideous in the visual because it’s too easy to do. Sometimes artists have a tendency to overcompensate for lack of ability with too much — too much detail, too much hair on arms, too many muscles — and I didn’t want to get carried away with Two-Face’s grotesque part. It’s not important how grotesque he is, the point is he’s got a marred face. So I said, “I want to dial it back a little bit.” We know who he is. It’s gonna be bloodshot eye, it’s gonna be the scarring, but I didn’t want it to get carried away. He said, “Yeah, yeah, that’s fine.” He gave me an idea of a mechanical looking disability. I said, “I want to try it. Let me mess around with it,” and that’s where we left it. So I’m gonna play around with it, but I did say I want to dial it back a little bit. The amount of the grotesque isn’t that important. What he’s doing with the character is important, and what he has in mind is dialing back the insanity of the character. This is not gonna be the Joker. This is gonna be somewhere between the Joker and Lex Luthor; the brains of Lex Luthor and the insanity of the joker, but this is a different type of villain. And that plays into the story about Batman dragging his bony ass across the country. That’s how good the story is. The power of Harvey’s evil side is he’s got his fingers all over the evil world. Everybody knows who he is and he’s got connections to get people through things. No matter where they go at any time of the day or night they’re gonna get attacked because Two-Face is out in front of it. Batman has no idea what he’s in for.
In the second installment, John Romita, Jr. describes how he approaches putting his stamp on iconic characters, including how he interpreted Frank Miller’s “Dark Knight Returns” version of Batman compared to his own on the upcoming “All Star Batman” series. He also talks about adapting his “Dark Knight Returns: The Last Crusade” prequel series from a five-page plot by Miller and Brian Azzarello, and how he and fan-favorite “Batman” artist Greg Capullo learned comic book storytelling by working from plots instead of scripts.
On creating his take on Batman for “All Star Batman” compared to Frank Miller’s for the “Dark Knight Returns” prequel “The Last Crusade”:
Like you said, “my Batman.” You have to lose your ego when you work on a character like Batman, or a character like Superman, it’s been done before. No matter what you do, unless your style is so distinctive, you can’t go too far to any extreme. You have to keep the character where it is. These are iconic characters and there’s corporations behind that iconic look.
Frank Miller’s “Dark Knight [Returns]” I’m doing the prequel to it, I have to stick to — let’s see if we can figure this one out — ten years younger than Frank’s version of Dark Knight. It takes place ten years before. He’s a little bit aging; he’s gonna have a little bit of gray; a little bit thicker, not defined — not as out of shape as Frank gave you the impression he was. So I get a chance to play with that in that he’s a little bit thicker, and that’s fun, but I had to be subtle with it. Shorter ears, and it’s the old-fashioned — excuse the expression, for lack of a better term — the old-fashioned costume. But the costume was so important in the story that Frank and Brian [Azzarello] came up with.
So the difference is that I’ve drawn this version. I have started on Scott Snyder’s version for the All Star. I don’t know how that’s gonna come out. But there is a costume designed that’s ready for me [designed by Greg Capullo.] The ears will be a little bit larger than Frank’s version, but not so that it will be the Kevin Nowlan long, extended ears. It will be somewhere in between. Honestly, I have to see what works out.
On “The Last Crusade” and its “brilliant” twist:
It’s about Jason Todd. The shame of Batman almost neglecting this kid and him getting captured. Everybody knows what happens between this prequel and Frank’s “Dark Knight” but there’s a twist to this that is brilliant between Frank and Brian. I can’t say what happens but — everybody knows what happens to Jason Todd, but how do we show it? The story is amazing.
They gave me five typewritten pages of plot and I got 56 pages out of it. I’m up to 42. There’s no wasteful words in that plot. It’s exceptional beyond exceptional. You don’t realize working on it that I’m sitting there with two, typewritten paragraphs — I got 20 pages out of it, nearly. That’s how good a plot is when you can not stop yourself from drawing. I thumbnail it all out and I said, “This is so great.” I couldn’t wait to get to it.
On how he and Greg Capullo learned storytelling in similar ways:
Guys like Greg and I worked from plots before we did scripts. He knows how to tell a story with minimal amount of work. I told Scott Snyder, “You don’t have to give me a lot of stuff.” And interestingly enough he says, “Greg tells me that he learned your style of storytelling from growing up in the industry at the same time.” I told Scott, “Yes. Less is more. You can give me the dialogue if you feel it’s intrinsic to that moment for a specific expression, but you don’t have to give me anything. I just did 56 pages from five pages of plot. So find that happy medium, and if you feel that you can’t describe something to me in a plot form, if there’s some subtlety and you need to throw a line of dialogue in there, don’t worry about it. Throw it in there. And if you want to alter it depending on the artwork, so be it.”
But Greg knows, there are guys that know how to tell a story. Dan Jurgens knows how to tell a story. And I hate to say it’s the old school guys, but our generation of art, we learned how to tell story from plot. It was our own wiles. I think that that prepares us — those type of artists — for any eventuality, whether it’s a script — when Neil Gaiman said to me on “The Eternals,” he called me up and said, “I know what you can do, and I know I’m sending you a script, but don’t call it a script. Play with it. If there’s anything in there that you’re altering, if you’re taking anything out, let me know. If you’re adding anything let me know and I’ll write dialogue according to what you’re doing.” Neil Gaiman deferred to the storytelling that I was doing and that was a real compliment.
It’s the same thing with Scott, same thing with Greg, with Dan, we know how to tell stories because we relied on that plot. We had to come up from plots, and script work, while it’s restrictive to a certain point, it’s a breeze because we know how to do it without the dialogue. So Greg’s stuff shined with Scott, and hopefully mine will as well.
In the final part of the conversation, Romita, Jr. provides an update on when fans will actually see “Shmuggy & Bimbo,” his long-awaited creator-owned book with Howard Chaykin, as well as why he’s drawing the story entirely in widescreen panels. He also talks about what inkers he hopes to work with in the future, why his father John Romita, Sr.’s legacy still looms large, and his desires to find his voice as an illustrator, specifically as a painter, provided he ever retires from comics.
On whether he feels like he’s still living in his father’s shadow:
In my own mind there’s never been me coming out from his shadow because he’s such a brilliant artist that nobody’s seen. He did a recruiting poster for the Women’s Army Corps, the WACs, when he was 19 — I can’t do that now. He did illustrations in his portfolio when he was a teenager, 17, he’d go to Bryant Park during his lunch break and illustrate the people, the bums, anybody. I can’t do that stuff now. I call him a prodigy, but he became such a brilliant artist so quickly that he lost that prodigy effect. That, to me, is self-imposed. He never once made me — he thinks I’m better than he ever was. He’s a lying old man. [Laughter] But he’s such a brilliant artist aside from being a cartoonist. John Buscema’s the same way. The old school guys were brilliant illustrators before they were cartoonists. I’d like to be that, but I became a cartoonist before I became a whole artist.
But I’m gonna paint, if I ever retire, so I look forward to that. Oils and acrylics and gouaches, anything I can cobble together. I’d actually like to do my paintings with just a knife, stuff I learned in college that I forewent as I got into business.
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