Ever since I sat down to re-read Neil Gaiman's Eternals, I've been thinking about John Romita Jr. In many ways, Romita is a very unusual artist. In an era where artists struggle to meet deadlines, he's as regular as clockwork, and even churned out two books a month for a brief period in the late '90s. In an era where talent flits about rapidly, he's worked for the same employer regularly for almost thirty years, and even managed to rack up an impressive eight year run on one character. In an era where fans demand flashy realism he gives them solid abstraction, and yet he remains wildly popular.
So I thought I'd sit down and figure out what, exactly, is so appealing about JRjr.
Wolverine, v2 #24, p. 5
It's easy to understand the appeal of Romita's art. In many ways, he's a bridge between old-school Marvel and nu-Marvel. He's made a thorough study of old-school artists like Kirby and Ditko, as well as more recent talents like Miller, Sienkiewicz, Lee, and even Liefeld. He's dissected their styles, learned their tricks, and incorporated them into a style that's distinctly Marvel and still his own. But he's not like the average Marvel artist, who's seemingly learned to draw by copying coming books — he has a thorough knowledge of anatomy, composition and drawing technique that comes from long study and life drawing.
Unlike his contemporaries, Romita has no use for a murky, detail- and shadow-drenched realism. His style is incredibly bold — simple shapes composed of flat planes, heavy shadowing, and thick brushstrokes. Correspondingly, his style is also very abstract — he's not afraid to build shapes out of seemingly directionless hatching, to reduce details to a few quick strokes of the pen, to hint at something rather than obsessively belaboring it. His figures have tremendous solidity despite their seemingly empty construction. His mastery of foreshortening and perspective allows him to create dynamic, active layouts full of energy and power. When Spider-Man punches the Hulk in the face, you can feel his knuckles bruising.
It's the sort of technique that only becomes possible after years of thirty years of work, that one finds in the late period of great artists like Kirby or Adams. And like all great artists, his style continues to evolve.
Thor v2 #25, p. 11
Consider the above sequence from Thor #25. It's hard to imagine any of Marvel's current artists turning in a page like that. It's all lines, lines and blobs, and a big black blob that could be a silhouette. It feels sketchy and loose, it takes all shorts of cheap shortcuts (especially in the hands), and it features a bunch of little panels, medium shots, not marketable pin-ups.
And yet it's a masterful piece of drawing that radiates power more than some obsessively overworked piece of garbage ever could, and is strikingly beautiful to boot.
Which isn't to say that he doesn't have weaknesses. Though his drawing style may have evolved over the years, in many ways his storytelling skills have not. He's still at his most comfortable when drawing an old-school Marvel comic, where a flawed hero works out his personality problems while punching someone else in the face.
Peter Parker, Spider-Man #84, p. 7
He tends to work best with writers like Chris Claremont, Howard Mackie, or Mark Millar, who keep the story plugging along at a brisk clip with lots of action, colorful characters, and dynamic situations. Conversely, he tends to be a poor match with writers like J. Michael Straczynski or Neil Gaiman, who tend to write slowly-paced comics with lots of introspection and talking heads. Indeed, when he's paired with the latter sort of writer his boredom literally radiates from the page, as he dutifully ticks off the panels until the next fight scene.
Still, the right writer can coax some legendary work out of him. But of course, to be a legendary artist, you've also got to work on some legendary storylines, create legendary characters, produce legendary layouts. What is Romita's magnum opus, the one storyline he'll aways be remembered for, the one fans will point to as one of comics high water marks? I racked my brains for hours trying to find a storyline that would fit the bill.
I couldn't think of one.
Thor, v2 #11, p. 17
And that's frustrating. Romita has a vast body of work that spans thirty years and includes substantial runs on almost all of Marvel's most popular characters. Surely there must be something in there there that's worth remembering.
Maybe Daredevil: The Man Without Fear — but no. Oh, sure, it's one of the greatest Daredevil comics of all time, but there's nothing here that feels like John Romita Jr. It's a Frank Miller comic through and through, and the art is saturated with Miller's storytelling and compositional tricks. Indeed, on some of the pages you can almost imagine Romita working directly from Miller's breakdowns with no variation.
At first glance his two-year run on Thor seems to fit the bill. He's working with top-notch collaborators in Dan Jurgens, Klaus Janson, and Greg Wright. It features some of his best drawing — abstract yet powerful, crackling with dynamism and energy that leaps off the page, with some great storytelling and some exciting new characters that have distinctive designs that could truly be called Romita-esque. Most of the dangling plotlines are wrapped up by the time Romita leaves, which allows it to stand on its own as a nice solid unit. But his run on Thor is also plagued by fill-in issues, some of which happen to resolve key plot elements. And while it's a good read, it's also big, dumb, and stupid, a back-to-basics approach to the character that really hasn't influenced his later portrayals in any meaningful way. Overall, it pales in comparison to other legendary Thor runs like Kirby's, Simonson's, or even Jurgens' own "Reigning."
How about the "Enemy of the State" arc of Wolverine? It's another high profile comic, and once again he's working with top talent in Millar, Janson, and mounts. Perhaps the drawing isn't his best — the later issues feature some work that's crude, if effective — but it's still very good. It's a solid storyline that's's wrapped up in twelve issues with no loose ends. And yet, it too is big, dumb, and stupid, and hasn't led to any lasting changes in the Wolverine mythos. It is a high water mark for the character of Wolverine, but given how thin Wolverine has been spread over the years his high water marks are more of a gentle flow than a dramatic flood.
World War Hulk? Even higher profile, but also bigger and dumber than anything else he's ever done, wit a deeply unsatisfying ending. Eternals is a bit more adult and features some exciting design work, but it's too talky and the ending is equally unsatisfying.
I suppose, given the lack of alternatives, there's always his eight-year stint on Spider-Man.
Wolverine, v2 #23, p. 10
Now, John Romita Jr.'s Spider-Man is like comfort food — enjoyable, but not all that good. He was brought in post-"Clone Saga" to prop up a floundering, directless title. His art managed to stabilize sales somewhat, but Howard Mackie and the other writers were never really able to come up with a new direction for the character that stuck. At least Howard Mackie knew how to write to Romita's strengths — short, old school stories with lots of cool characters and fight scenes. He was eventually replaced by J. Michael Straczynski, who managed to do the impossible — he made JRjr comics unreadable by slowing down the pace and filling them with talking heads. And magic.
Still, an eight year run is nothing to sneeze at, especially combined with his four-year run from the '80s. He's drawn more Spider-Man comics than Steve Ditko, more than Todd McFarlane, than Ron Frenz, more than his father, more than anyone except maybe Mark Bagley. For many readers, his Spider-Man is the definitive Spider-Man.
In that sense, he's a lot like his father — perhaps not as dynamic or inventive as Ditko or Kirby, but a tremendous artist nonetheless, and one who set the standard for all future depictions of a character. It's worth noting, though, that John Romita Sr. was Marvel's art director — his drawing style was Marvel's house style, the benchmark that all artists were compared to. JRjr, howver, is drawing in an era where there is no house style. He's just one superstar artist in a stable of superstar artists, and Marvel just takes his presence for granted.
And truth be told, Marvel does take him for granted. They don't have to sell him or his comics, because they sell themselves. Often, he's been used to prop up sales on a struggling title, to drum up interest for a struggling mini-series, to ease the transition to a new creative team when a hot-shot artist jumps ship to another company. It's great to be the go-to guy, but when you're running around putting out everyone else's fires you don't really get a chance to express yourself.
Peter Parker, Spider-Man #87, p. 4
Then again, why shouldn't Marvel take Romita for granted? He dutifully does whatever they ask for, doesn't make waves, doesn't push for more creative control. He's never even thought of jumping to another company — indeed, he's only published one comic without Marvel's comic, and that was apparently Marvel's idea. When Romita came up with the concept for The Gray Area, Joe Quesada decided that it didn't fit into Marvel's publishing strategy and suggested that he take them over to Image might be a better fit. He even released him from his exclusive contract so that he could go work on the comic.
Now, The Gray Area wasn't exactly a huge success. It had an awkward plot ineptly handled by a neophyte comics writer. It had a ridiculously high price point — $6 an issue, for a normal-sized comic. But it sold way better than would have been anticipated, purely on the strength of Romita's art. And for months, the news sites couldn't stop talking about the fact that Romita was doing his own stories, for a company other than Marvel.
Daredevil: The Man Without Fear, p. 108
Still, after The Gray Area, Romita dutifully returned to Marvel, so their faith in him wasn't exactly misplaced. And they have been giving him higher-profile assignments such as "Enemy of the State," Eternals, and the World War Hulk. Oh, and they also launched a new creator-owned so they could allow Brian Bendis and David Mack's to pursue their own artistic visions without releasing them from their exclusive contracts.
And that's where we find Romita today, still working at the House Jack Built, still producing consistently excellent work at a steady clip, for storylines that will be forgotten as soon as their finished. Still, Marvel is showing him more repsect than they have for some time, and perhaps one of these days they'll finally let him cut loose, to draw stories and create characters that we'll all remember for a long, long time.
I know I'll keep reading until he does.