WARNING! This interview contains spoilers for the soon to be released Superman: Year One series by Frank Miller and John Romita Jr.
Welcome to the second of our ongoing semi-regular series where we chat with some of DC Comics’ very best writers and artists. This time we’re talking to one of the greatest comics artists on the planet. What can I say about John Romita Jr.? Anyone who knows anything at all about comics will already know that he’s the son of comics legend, but also a legend in his own right. He was at MCM Comic Con in London where he proved to me, and to thousands of fans, that he’s also a great guy.
Over two days I spoke to Mr. Romita, and attended every panel he appeared on. Growing up in England, I have been a fan of his work since his early days drawing framing sequences, covers and splash pages for U.K. reprint titles. In person he is a funny, hugely talented, but incredibly humble man.
It was inspiring seeing his eyes light up when talking about his father. It was amazing hearing him sing the praises of his collaborators, and colleagues. What really surprised me though, is how he genuinely feels that he’s not yet as good as he can be, and how much he still feels he has to learn.
He is an artist that clearly loves what he does. His enthusiasm for his work is infectious, and a joy to experience.
The following interview is the result of a one-on-one desk chat with the man, and two panels. I left the convention a bigger John Romita Jr. fan than I already was going in.
Comics memories from early childhood
My father (the legendary John Romita Sr.) was a romance cartoonist, so – like most kids my age – I wasn’t really paying attention. He was just drawing people kissing all the time!
He would never sleep; we would all go to bed, and he would be up in the attic. You’d see the little light up there, and I would always be the one who had the screaming Mimi nightmares, so I would go up to see what he was doing.
One morning he was (drawing) Daredevil. It was two or three in the morning and he was drawing Daredevil #12, the cover. I asked him what it was. He actually explained to me all the (characters) and that this one guy in the middle was gonna beat up all the bad guys. Oh… and he’s blind! So my father told me, and the top of my head exploded and I wouldn’t move, and I started asking him a million questions. In all the years that he was drawing I never asked him any questions, until that cover.
So, that was the moment when I really became fascinated with comics.
He was so patient, he explained everything to me and I literally learned about the Daredevil character, superheroes, and blind people all in one session! That all the other senses are accelerated, to make up for the loss of one. I was eight years old, I think, or seven years old at the time, and it stuck with me from then on.
He told me recently that he kept that cover, all these years, because I said that that was the moment that I was fascinated by the industry. He’s got that cover hidden somewhere in the house, and he won’t tell me where it is.
He tells me that I drew regularly after that.
Daredevil #12 by John Romita Sr.
Making the decision to become a comics artist
As I went through grade school and realised that I couldn’t sing or dance, and that I had to come up with something. My grades were good enough that I could do what I wanted, but the art was always present in my house. So, it just happened.
It’s an immediate thing. If you do something well, then people will say something good about it. So, even though I wasn’t that good, there was something improving… but it was embarrassing to have such a brilliant artist in the house, and that I was so awful.
It took me forever and ever, and I still haven’t gotten to the point yet that I could compare (what I do) to my father’s work. He’s a brilliant artist in general, not just a cartoonist. I’m a cartoonist.
He did things as a teenager that I still can’t do. It’s two things; it’s great to see it, but it’s also very intimidating. It keeps your feet on the ground, because you know that there’s always somebody better than you.
He was (already doing it) when I said to him that I was gonna do this, when I was a young guy, and he said “No, you’re not going to be cartoonist, you’ll be an artist. If you decide you’ll be a cartoonist you’ll have been an artist first, through education.” So, it was demanded upon me that I go to a major university and learn.
I did, I lasted two years and then I got a job after my second year of school and dropped out… literally because I had work at Marvel. He’s telling me still to go back and finish my degree!
In university I got treated like the “Red-headed step child” for lack of a better expression. The professors derisively nicknamed me “Rockwell” because everyone else was a fine painter. Everybody was doing the bleeding eyes, and the beautiful heavy emotion. I was in college in ’74 and my professors were “Hippies” from the 1960s. If you were an artist, or were going to be an artist, being a cartoonist was like being a soap-opera actor, as opposed to a Shakespearean actor.
They were constantly chuckling at me, because I didn’t want to do this… these deep rooted, meaningful images. I just wanted to be an illustrator. I was constantly told to relax, and that I was too uptight.
The first paycheck
I was working for the British department, where they would take each issue, split it into two (halves) and I would have to to come up with a cover and a splash page for the second part, and it was printed here (in the U.K.). Obviously, because it was distributed here. So I’d do the sketches, and sometimes the covers, and the new splash. That was in 1976.. I was three by the way, in ’76.
The first American work I did was a six page Spider-Man… mess. “Chaos In The Coffee Bean.” It was godawful. It lines a lot of bird cages. After doing that, by the grace of God, somebody said that I was decent, and they gave me a little bit more work.
I worked as an Art Consultant… meaning that I was washing floors and windows and taking out the trash. Eventually they gave me a little bit of work, and slowly I improved enough to get more and more work. Then that was it. It took a long, long time.
Iron Man was my first full-time gig. Bill Mantlo was the writer and Bob Layton was the inker… though in his words he was my savior. I always kick him in the (butt) for saying that. He claims all the credit for my career, by the way. That was my first full-time book in ’77/’78? Something like that.
R.I.P. Dan Adkins. He was the artist that literally passed away, so there was an opening. I was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time.
(When I get a new script) I take notes; I write notes in the margins on the plot, on what reference I’m gonna need, on page descriptions, and panels. I literally go panel, to panel, to panel, to make sure that it paces out to the right amount of pages. If I come up short, or come up long, I adjust it and add anything to it – discussing it with the writer.
So I (write) a lot of notes… they call it “Thumb-nailing” but I don’t do any illustrations until I’m at the board, just a lot of notes and indications for myself. I then go and print out as much reference as I can, that’s needed, and then I start immediately, right onto the boards. I rough out three to five pages at a time, then finish the artwork right there. (That’s) the formula that I’ve always worked on.
The storytelling is actually the most brain-worthy part of the job, for me. This is because I want to make sure, I want it to come out to make sense, to make sure it looks like a stop-motion film. My drafting is only O.K. but the storytelling is much more important to me. I’m a better storyteller than I am an artist. I make up for it with the storytelling. I call it “Sleight of hand.” … pay attention to the storytelling, so you don’t see how bad the artwork is in this corner.
If somebody reads the book and says, “That was a great story, I really enjoyed the story” and they don’t say, “I really enjoyed the artwork” that means that I’ve done the right thing. The artwork is not the (most important part of a comic-book), it’s the story. It helps out that I can tell a story. I enjoy it. More-so than doing the artwork, to tell you the truth.
Plots and artistic input Vs. full detailed scripts
Historically DC Comics always had writers sending out full scripts; dialogue, panel by panel breakdowns, and minute detail telling artists exactly what needed to appear in each panel, and on each page.
Marvel writers tended to send out plots, and guidelines. These stated what should happen over the course of the page, and the issue as a whole, but gave the artist a lot more input. Dialogue and sound effects would then be added after the art was complete.
These divergent ways of creating comics suit different artists in different ways, but “The Marvel” way is starting to become the norm… everywhere, it seems, but Marvel, who became famous using this method.
DC is now allowing the artist to be more intrinsic to (the storytelling). Marvel, a couple of years ago, some moron – I would like to give you his name, but I won’t… though his initials are A. A. – said that artists are interchangeable, and not the most important part. The irony is that his job didn’t last long after that, because the sales of their books had declined.
DC allows the artists to be important to the process, so they give us plots now. It’s a complete reversal. DC was all about scripts, way back, I was lucky enough to start at DC working on plots. We didn’t get full scripts, per-se. It was all about us learning to tell stories, and then the writer would write the dialogue according to the artwork.
That really allowed me to learn storytelling.My father helped out when I was young, but a lot of the Editor-In-Chiefs at Marvel were insistent upon storytelling. Establish it, make sure you know where you are, tell the story. That’s really how I cut my teeth on storytelling, working at Marvel at that time.
Now I have a 65 page Superman: Year One trilogy. Frank (Miller) gave me three pages of type written plot for 65 pages of artwork. It sounds intimidating, but I actually could’ve done 165… there’s so much in there! There’s so much to to play with, and I love doing that, I prefer doing it this way. Not everybody enjoys it as much as I do, but that’s the way I prefer. This no longer “The Marvel way” this is “THE way.” I prefer it that way.
Superman: Year One
I make sure that I speak to Frank about it first, but he gives me the plot and it’ll say something to the effect of… the beginning of the first issue, it’s not a retelling of the origin per-se, it’s (Frank’s) expansion on the origin. Instead of just having the baby land, then he grows to become Superboy, it’s the long process of him growing up as a struggling adolescent.
The first couple of scenes (Frank) mentions it should be “Through the eyes of the baby” and I took it literally. So, for the first several pages, as the destruction of Krypton is going on, I drew it through the eyes of the baby. Being moved around, and put into a rocket, and taking off, you don’t see the baby’s face until you see his reflection in the glass. The whole of Krypton explodes in front of the baby, and his parents have disintegrated! This was the first ten pages before he even lands on Earth! I had more fun with that than I could’ve imagined. I got ten pages out of one line.
That’s the kind of thing. I made sure I discussed it with Frank and the editors first, “Yeah… go ahead, that’s fine.” It’s great that it worked out that way. Every time that Frank would give me a line that was so weighted in story possibilities, all I had to do was call up and make sure that it was O.K. with what I had planned, and… here we are.
It gets to the point where Clark Kent enlists in the navy, because Krypton (was a world of) water, and he lands in Kansas. There’s no water in Kansas. He has dreams about the oceans on Krypton, and decides he wants to be near water again. So he enlists in the navy. Now, because he’s a physical specimen, he’s a Superman, he’s recruited into the Seals. That’s the kind of expansion; there are about 25 pages of him going through basic training! It’s a lot of fun. I had more fun with that than was imaginable.
We expand on little moments. A small indication of a vignette can blow into several pages. Ten… twenty pages.
Then he ends up in Atlantis.
I’m giving away too much. You didn’t hear any of this (stuff) from me, by the way.
There’s 200 pages of story coming up. Before he actually appears in costume there’s about 100 pages of artwork, but there is nothing in there that is boring… trust me. You have to just believe me. It’s three 65 page issues, and I’m halfway through the second issue, so I’m halfway through it.
First Batman memory
Bruno’s Barber Shop in Brooklyn. I was sitting in the chair, with my neck covered by a big sheet, to get my head buzzed. Right there was a Batman comic on the floor, along with a Superman comic… with no covers. So I picked it up and looked through it. There was also a Metal Men… and I started looking through. That was the first time I ever saw a comic book. I was 5, or 6? That was when I started asking questions.
I’ve always wanted to work on Metal Men, because of that barber shop. Thank God for Bruno!
Working with Frank Miller on The Dark Knight Returns: The Last Crusade
I didn’t just have to live up to Frank (Miller) and Klaus (Janson) I had to follow Andy Kubert (on the first chapter of DKIII: The Master Race)! Pain in the @$$… working with Frank and Brian (Azzarello) wasn’t as daunting as looking at the work that Andy was putting out. I was actually more comfortable getting the plotting from Brian, who just allowed me to play. I get intimidated when I see people working on the same character, and it’s gonna be a out a month before my stuff comes out.
So, after I stopped throwing rocks at (Andy’s) picture, I got into it. The plots gave me so much room to play, and I ended up doing it without having it inked, which was really different – Peter Steigerwald painted over (my pencils) – and gave it the chance to make it look different.
Compared to all the other artists here, I’m actually the new guy when it comes to Batman. I mean, there was the Batman/Punisher one-shot in, what? ’95? (I was three or four years old at the time) to put down a run on Batman at this time… after really not knowing how great the character was. I’d heard from guys like Jimmy (Palmiotti); when you’re working on Batman, just the silhouette of the character, those ears, and the cape… they’re just glorious things. That’s when I realised that this is a great, great character. Possibly the greatest character in comics history.
John’s take on Batman, for his upcoming appearance in Superman: Year One
Honestly, how many times has Batman been done, and how well has he been done? If you stop and think about what’s been done before, you end up with brain-lock, and creativity lock. I can’t think about that, honestly. I have a deadline, and I try to meet it, and cope deadline style. It’s intimidating, just like Superman was intimidating. You sit down, and just do your work.
Not only is there so much writing brilliance around (Batman), I’m kind of lost in all the stories because I read them so long ago. Frank (Miller)’s style on Daredevil, then all his Batman stuff… as an artist, was very liberating because it took away the pressure of having to be perfectly accurate, and realistic. It was this great style.
There was a style variance from all the artists… it really helped. Every difference, from the length of the ears, to the shape of the cape, there’s so much to take in, that I realise that you cannot compete. You just go back to get it done, and you hope that it won’t suck.
There’s so much input now in the industry, whereas years and years ago there wasn’t that much. So you hear negative and positive, and you can only do the best that you can. I look at all the stuff that’s come before and I am in awe! Every time that I think that nothing more can be done (with Batman) that’s new, these guys draw something that’s different. So. I’m cheering and I’m cursing at the same time.
Frank Miller and The Joker
Frank told me to go find reference. (He) gets reference, and finds pictures of water tanks, and rooftops, and I had to start doing that; climbing roofs, and fire escapes… I broke a toe because of that!
I’ve only worked properly on the Joker and Two-Face. The Joker had been done to death until Frank did his… the reference was David Bowie for Dark Knight. So he sent me a bunch of images of Bowie, and that was so much fun to work on. This was a Joker that wasn’t Joker like. It was a blast because of the difference, so it didn’t feel like he’d been done to death anymore.
Advice for aspiring artists
If you’re an artist it’s like being a musician; the more you practice, the better you get. That’s all there is to it.
You can just teach somebody how to be an artist. If you draw every day, just like if you play the piano every day, eventually you’re gonna be brilliant. I’m working on it. You can’t stop practising.
Get rid of your ego. There’s always somebody better, get used to it. you’ll get better if you don’t have a gigantic ego and keep worrying about whatever everyone else is doing. Concentrate on making what you’re doing the best that it can be.
I had a hell of a time at this convention. I will say that parts of it were poorly organised, but the experience of meeting Mr. Romita and some of my other favorite comics legends was an incredible experience.
So, there it is. We WILL be seeing Batman in Superman: Year One. It seems that we have a lot to look forward to with this series. What do you think about this conversation? Were you as blown away by Mr. Romita’s revelations as I was? Please let us know in the comments.