SDCC: John Romita, Jr. Swings Into San Diego

On Saturday morning at Comic-Con International in San Diego, Marvel Comics Editor-in-Chief Axel Alonso moderated a revealing and far-reaching spotlight on legendary Marvel artist John Romita, Jr.

Alonso kicked the panel off by recalling how he first began working with Romita at Marvel 12 years ago on the "Amazing Spider-Man." Alonso had been put in charge of the Spider-Man titles and immediately brought on J. Michael Straczynski to write "Amazing." However, he was left wondering "How do I make Spider-Man sexy?"

He looked at the current Spider-Man titles and realized that "'John Romita, Jr. is not the problem with Spider-Man right now. John is the one good thing'...Rather than go with someone new and unforeseen, I stuck with John. I told him I needed to him to be extra inspired and make [New York City] a character in the book."

Romita added, "And not long after that, 9/11 happened, and it made us make it a character." Alonso noted, "We watched the Twin Towers go down from street level at Marvel. We stopped and said, 'We have to say something about this. We can't go on with business as usual.'"

That led to the 9/11 issue of "Amazing Spider-Man," which Alonso called "one of the top three comics I'm most proud of to this day."

Romita said, "I actually didn't want to do it - not because it wasn't a good idea story-wise. I just felt we were trying to capitalize on an attack. On a cowardly, disgusting, repulsive attack. I could go on. I didn't want to make it look like we were trying to capitalize on it. I spoke with my father, and he felt the same way. It ended up being such a good idea story-wise that I couldn't back down from that. Joe Straczynski said, when first asked about it, 'There are no words to describe it.' He ended up using that as the basis of the story. I can't look at the artwork anymore. I wasn't in New York at the time, I was in California, but I still can't even look at the artwork [for that issue] anymore."

Alonso called the landmark issue "a love letter to New York."

Romita is the perfect freelancer, Alonso said, because he's "fast, good and nice." Most of the time, an editor will gladly contract a freelancer who only exhibits two of those traits. "It's like a team of scientists got together and created the perfect freelancer," joked the E-i-C.

Romita's work ethic comes from his father, legendary artist John Romita, Sr. "My father was a depression baby, so to speak," said Romita. "It was important to put food on the table, so when I was kid the man worked forever. He never looked like he slept. That always stuck with me and my brother. It's always stuck. I also started working for Marvel when there were no royalties, there was only a page rate. In order to earn a living you had to do a certain amount of pages. I had a small page rate so I had to do a lot of pages!"

"I start [penciling] around 10 o'clock and I finish around 11 or 12 at night," the artist said of his work habits. "I stop for breaks, dinner and any other errands my wife comes up with, but I work for as long as I can to get as much as I can done that day.... 10 or 12 hours a day and 6 to 8 hours on Saturdays and Sunday.

"I still have this terror, this feeling of fear, that if I don't get [art] done in time I'm going to get yelled at by my editor and I'm gonna lose my job. I swear to god that's the feeling I get. I can not get it out of my head!"

Alonso joked, "That is a rare quality in a freelancer, trust me."

Alonso asked Romita what it was like to grow up with John Romita, Sr. as a father. Romita remembered how his father worked in an attic studio that had a pull-string door on a ceiling above his bedroom. "I couldn't reach that rope! That's why I couldn't get up there. Eventually I could reach the rope and I pulled it down and went up... I remember walking up and he was about ten feet away but it looked like it was about a hundred yards to me. He was surrounded by boxes and had this little drafting table. There was a little window behind him and there was a light over his head. I walked in and he said, 'What are you doing up?' and I said, 'Oh Dad, I can't sleep the monsters are coming after me.' He told me he couldn't come down to kill the monsters right then 'cause he was on a deadline. So he sat there and I pulled up a pillow and sat there below him. I probably fell asleep more than a couple of times. One time he was working on the cover to 'Daredevil' #12...Kazar was up in the tree, to the left I think, and these plunderer guys were surrounding Daredevil."

Romita said his mind was blown when he discovered Daredevil was blind. "[My father] probably spent about 12 hours explaining [Daredevil's] origin to me cause I wouldn't shut up and kept asking questions. He was probably late on his deadline because of me. He probably used me as an excuse!...He told me that the next day I was down at his feet and scribbling."

Romita said he chose comics as his own field because he "couldn't sing and dance," although he was a decent baseball player. "I was a great sandlot ballplayer but never got discovered. So art is the only thing I could do decently."

Alonso asked if Romita started making comics right away, and Romita revealed he actually designed the Marvel character The Prowler at age 13. His father showed his character sketches to Stan Lee who said, "Hate the costume, love the name! So I created The Prowler at 13. It took me five years to come up with something."

Lee ended up changing everything about the character except for the name, though. Romita had listed his powers only as "he prowls."

Alonso then asked Romita about his first paid drawing gig. Romita said, "I started working in '76, while I was still in college, doing sketches for the British department, believe it or not."

Romita revealed how his father warned him against taking work at Marvel before graduating college, saying he could only drop out once he got a paycheck. He got work at Marvel doing sketches in his third year of college and dropped out, though his father still encouraged him to go back and finish his degree one day.

"For 18 months I got a job as an art consultant, which pretty much meant washing windows. Anything Roy Thomas or any of the editors wanted, I was doing. I was registering artwork with the overlays, covers and logos. I was a production assistant. I got crapped on by a lot of people because I was my father's son. They said they didn't really like me."

Romita got his big break on "Iron Man." "After a couple years I got offered 'Spider-Man,' and then I was offered 'X-Men' after that," he explained. "I'll never forget John Byrne saying to me via phone call, 'You're crazy for doing 'X-Men' with Chris [Claremont.] It's gonna fry your brain.' Those were his words."

Spider-Man is by far Romita's favorite character followed in close second by Daredevil. His love of both characters involves many factors, but is partly due to his father. "There's an emotional attachment that if I sit and concentrate long enough it makes me tear up. My father and I have a great relationship because of comics. I can never not be a cartoonist because of the attachment to my parents; just thinking about my father up there in that attic and my mother bringing food up to him."

Alonso then invited Romita's "Black Panther" collaborator Reginald Hudlin up onto the stage. In addition to writing comics, Hudlin is an executive at BET and was a producer on "Django Unchained."

Hudlin remembered how he got the "Black Panter" assignment. "I was working with Paul Powers, a storyboard artist, in LA. We were working on a storyboard and I was describing the shots by saying like, more of a Jack Kirby style punch, and he asked me if I had ever met Neal Adams. I said no, so he gets Neal Adams on the phone, and I was talking to Neal Adams! He told me to come by the next time I was in New York, which happened to be the next week. I talked to him for a little bit and he asked me if I ever wrote comics. I said no, so he called Marvel and set up a meeting for me the next day. I sat down with Axel and we immediately vibed. We just talked and he asked if I wanted to write comics. I said yeah, so he asked what I wanted to write. I said 'Black Panther' cause I love Black Panther, and I was frustrated in my Hollywood life by all these attempts to make the 'Black Panther' movie over the years. They were all horrible, horrible scripts. There was a version where he grew up in the projects in New York and didn't know he was an African king. I'm like, 'What's that movie?!' It was just one horrible story after another. I remember meeting with the head of Sony, and I said whether or not I was involved with the process you can not make any of these scripts, these are all horrible.

"So I thought that if I just did this 6-issue ['Black Panther'] mini-series that Axel generously offered to me then at least I could tell the story right. But I knew that in the comic book world, I'm the writer and the artist is the director. Usually I write for myself, so if I'm gonna have a director, I wanted a beast. I wanted the best. I wanted John Romita, Jr.

"The great thing is I had met John before I talked to Axel about 'Black Panther.' He was in Los Angeles, and I said let's get together. We just went to lunch with no other agenda other than I was a big fan of [Romita's.] We had a great, wide-ranging conversation that ended, not surprisingly, on women. I remember we were talking about Pam Grier and Condoleezza Rice," the writer laughed.

Romita jokingly added, "Hopefully [Grier's] not in a wheelchair by the time I get to meet her!"

Hudlin remembered one of their first conversations about "Black Panther." "I remember [Romita] called me up and basically had one question. He said 'short cape, long cape?' I was like 'long cape.' He said, 'Okay, I'm good,' laughed Hudlin. "There was no doubt that we were using the classic Kirby costume."

After the book came out, Hudlin's director of animation at BET, Denys Cowan, produced a short animated teaser film for what would become the "Black Panther" show using Romita's artwork. "I took [that footage] to my boss and said, 'Look, I want to do a deal to buy my own book at the network. Is this weird?' and she said she'd been waiting for me to do that...Then I flew to New York and showed it to Axel and Joe [Quesada] and they looked at it and said, 'We're so glad you didn't ask permission to do that. Because we're definitely doing this.' So we took that first 6-issue story-arc and turned it into an animated series, which is the best-selling DVD in the animated Marvel Knights line. Bigger than Joss Whedon's 'Astonishing X-Men.'"

Alonso then brought Klaus Janson on stage, the second surprise guest of the panel and Romita's inker on "Black Panther" and countless other projects.

Romita considers Janson to be his favorite collaborator. "He gives you broad brushstrokes and then fine pen lines, and I love the combination. It makes everything glow when Klaus inks it. I think he's the best."

Janson said he feels "intimidated" inking Romita's artwork sometimes, calling it "the best comic art in the last 20 or 30 years," but it's also a lot of fun. "I have a tendency to be a little too serious about what I do. I try to approach it very intellectually and seriously. One of the characteristics of inking John's work is that it's fun to ink. You can't say that about a lot of pencilers. I know that john has my back and I know that I have his back. I know that when I work with John, he's not gonna call me up and say to make sure that every single line he puts down has to be inked. I want to be faithful to what John is doing because he trusts me. Because of that trust, I want to do right by him. I think the two of us make a very good combination."

Romita returned Janson's compliment. "The first guy I ask to work with is Klaus. If Klaus is busy I ask for Tom Palmer. They're from the same generation. There's something about that old-school mentality, that workhorse mentality. He started a few years before me, so did Tom, and there's something about that grind mentality. If I'm late, I know that they're gonna pick up for me, and they do. They've saved my ass more than a few times. They're great artists who are inkers."

Alonso then opened up the panel to questions from the audience.

A fan asked Romita if he is able to pick and choose his projects at Marvel since the commercial success of "Kick-Ass." "It's not pick and choose. If somebody asks me what I want to work on, I suggest something. Fortunately for me, the guys at Marvel have strategically been able to put me on projects that have worked out well. At this point, I can ask. I don't pick and choose so much as say, 'Can I possibly do this?' because there are some things I'd like to do. For instance, if I had a choice right now, I'd love to do 'Dr. Strange.' I have an idea to do 'Dr. Strange,' but I'm not gonna say 'I demand to do 'Dr. Strange' because that might not justify the weight of my contract, so to speak. There's a budget on each book. But I'd love to do a 'Dr. Strange' run."

Romita than turned to Alonso and said, "I might even suggest to Axel that if I had a chance, I'd like to do 'Dr. Strange.'"

Alonso replied, "I would say that's not impossible, John!"

Romita told a fan that his favorite collaborators are Klaus Janson, Tom Palmer and Danny Miki. He also revealed he'd be doing a creator-owned book with Howard Chaykin called "Shmuggy and Bimbo" sometime after he finishes "Kick-Ass 3."

Romita told a fan that his "Kick-Ass" and "Wolverine" collaborator Mark Millar is "a character and a half and his work is the same way. He's Stan Lee with a Scottish accent. A brilliant, brilliant writer who asks for some amazingly challenging things and I should hate his guts for it, but this thing with 'Kick-Ass' is something that I never expected to happen. He started working with me on 'Wolverine,' and speaking of 'Wolverine,' he asked for some scenes that to this day give me nightmares."

Janson continued for Romita, "We were working on 'Wolverine: Enemy of the State,' which is one of my favorite projects ever with John, and there's always a challenge that Mark asks of all of us but every issue had the helicarrier crashing into the Earth! John was not happy!"

"Mark wanted the helicarrier exploding, full of people, to crash into Times Square at rush hour! That's easy [to write,] it's a line and a half: 'Helicarrier crash lands into Times Square at rush hour.' [Mark,] you son of a bitch! I talked him out of it, so he crashed it into a cornfield in Iowa instead," the artist laughed.

Hudlin asked if Romita preferred a complicated shot like that to be a splash page or several pages. Romita said, "That's a great question. It's gotta be more than one cause there's so much going on, especially with the helicarrier...There was another scene where the helicarrier gets sunk and the words were, 'Each of them dies horribly from a shark bite.' You can't do that in one [splash]! Scenes like that deserve more."

Romita revealed that after accidentally leaking that Spider-Man's origin had been changed during J. Michael Straczynski's run, he received an angry email from Straczynski. "He sent me the most scathing email. 'You asshole! Don't do that! That was supposed to be a surprise!'" laughed the artist looking back.

Finally, Romita gave one his favorite moments from his "Black Panther" run. "There's a moment in a movie when somebody gets their ultimate revenge and them jam something into a character and look them in the eye and watch them die. I know it's been done in movies a million times and [Hudlin] gave me the opportunity to do that with Klaw. Black Panther gets to stick this guy and look at him die. That's the kind of scene that you get to enjoy as an artist... You get moments that give you chills when you read a script."

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