“I never planned on doing Superman,” John Romita Jr. confessed to me over the phone. Well, that was after he noticed my last name and greeted me in Italian, something that caught me off guard even more than the admission that taking on the most well-known superhero in the world wasn’t part of his plan.
When John Romita Jr. was announced as penciler on the main Superman title in 2014, it was what you might call “kind of a big deal.” The artist built nearly his entire career at Marvel, where he not only worked his way through virtually every iconic character in the company’s stable, but also brought box-office sensation (well, for one movie, at least) Kick-Ass into the world with writer Mark Millar for Marvel’s creator-owned Icon imprint. Not only that, but Marvel is in his blood, as his father, John Romita Sr, is one of the most celebrated Spider-Man artists of all time.
Wouldn’t it make sense that if a guy like John Romita Jr. was going to switch teams, he’d immediately aim to make a splash with the company’s biggest gun? Well, not exactly.
“I preferred a different type of character,” Romita said. “I thought I would be on a more street level character like Batman, but here we are a year later, and I’m having a great time with all the changes and alterations to Superman.”
The “changes and alterations” he speaks of take place in a storyline that ran in Superman #32-39, now collected in graphic novel form as Superman: The Men of Tomorrow. In it, Superman meets Ulysses a strange visitor from our own world, who spent his entire life in another dimension, and returns here with superhuman abilities of his own. The two have a lot in common and strike up a friendship, but Ulysses isn’t all he seems. Over the course of the story, Superman discovers a new power and ends up with a new costume.
“When the opportunity arose to work with the DC guys, the discussion went back and forth and I came up with a premise that I had always wanted to apply to a couple of different characters that I thought might apply to Superman,” Mr. Romita told me. “People liked it, but then Geoff Johns came on board so that got put aside and the chance to work with Geoff in continuity was preferable.”
In addition to Romita’s dynamic, distinctive art style, Superman: The Men of Tomorrow feels very much like a “classic” Superman story, one that (costume aside) could slot nicely into just about any era of Superman history. The Superman of the post-reboot DC Universe has often been a bit of a mystery to even the most open-minded readers, but Geoff Johns delivers a Superman and his supporting cast who have the familiar trappings of the legend, while Romita brings an oversized sci-fi flavor to the proceedings, at times recalling his work on Marvel’s Eternals limited series from 2006.
Perhaps because of Romita’s inescapable Marvel career, there’s a certain Marvel vibe that comes along with some of the more cosmic elements of Men of Tomorrow. “It wasn’t planned that way,” he assured me. “Geoff’s ideas were great and concrete, and they did expand as we worked together. You might be right in a certain way, but it wasn’t planned to happen that way.”
Still, it’s tough to look at a character like Ulysses and not think of Bronze Age Marvel characters. His distinctive design, his existential musings, his apparent innocence. “The design is mine,” Romita said, “but the insides of the character, the guts of the character, that’s Geoff’s. There was never an intention to even accidentally come across [like Marvel].”
He describes the design of Ulysses as a collaborative process, too. “I was walking near Penn Station and I saw a gigantic biker with a very long platinum ponytail. I remember Geoff mentioning that he didn’t want a cape for Ulysses because it was too close to Superman. I wanted it to be different and for him to have that flow behind him, so that’s where the long hair came from. I didn’t want him to be anywhere close color scheme wise, but I still wanted him to be kind of reflective of Superman. I got lucky with the design of his gloves and boots, but at first Geoff thought they were a little too ‘80s. It was a team effort, as long as it’s okay with everybody it’s okay with me.”
Two things grabbed headlines with The Men of Tomorrow. Superman discovered a new power, one the required him to get a new costume. Superman now has a “super flare” that he can unleash, expending all the stored solar energy in his cells. It’s immensely destructive, but leaves him powerless for 24 hours. It also wreaks havoc with his wardrobe, which resulted in Superman’s clunky New 52 duds getting a slightly more streamlined design at the hands of Mr. Romita.
“They had mentioned it early on with a little chuckle saying ‘we’re gonna fry his costume’ now that he has this new power,” Romita told us. “I know people have problems with changing Superman’s costume, but it’s a slight alteration. There are too many main things…the red cape, the S, there’s not a whole lot you can do. I wouldn’t take any credit for redesigning the costume. A lot of big decisions the company has to stick with so that everything can look a certain way for the international community. So I don’t mind being a good team player.”
Of course, the fan reaction is never exactly quiet. “Superman purists hate my guts,” he jokes. “The good thing about me is I have large amounts of both sides of the coin. Some of it is constructive criticism, some of it is pure hatred. It’s kinda like being a politician. Half of your constituency hates you, but you have to deal with the people that love you and hopefully please them. But pay attention to the guys who don’t like you, because some of it is constructive. I’ve done that in the past and I’ll continue to do that.”
I asked him if working for DC was different than working for Marvel. “When I got the first script for Superman I was a little concerned, I thought ‘Wow, I feel so different and weird’ and then after a few pages I said, ‘well, wait a minute, I didn’t betray America, I didn’t change countries, I just changed books.’ The process was the same. I got to work with a brilliant writer and had relatively free reign that was adjusted as we went along. I had as much fun and as much anxiety as I did with any other title or any other character. It’s the job I love, and I’m loving every minute of it.”
Romita said that he didn’t look to any particular Superman stories for inspiration, but he did talk to Kenneth Rocafort, the artist who has probably done more work on the New 52 Superman than anyone else. “I loved his style…but it wasn’t a concerted effort to emulate anybody. But when I did Batman as a guest star I went by Greg Capullo’s work, which is absolutely brilliant, and gave me a whole new appreciation for his stuff, just by using previous issues as references.”
Speaking of Batman, Romita had a looser, more humorous take on the traditional Superman/Batman dynamic in Superman #40, which he wrote as well as illustrated. “All of my good friends, we don’t sit around and say ‘Wow, I think you’re great. You’re wonderful.’ It’s more of ‘I think you can be an asshole sometimes, and I think you should know that.’ That’s the way that people who love each other talk to each other in my neighborhood.”
“One is the big goofy brother who’s the boy scout, and then the tough guy should be a ballbuster. Of course, I got a lot of crap for that from some of the purists. ‘Oh, this isn’t Marvel, this is DC! You can’t handle characters like that over at DC!’ Fine, I’ll shut my mouth!”
That issue did lead to one amusing moment, where Bruce Wayne’s musical tastes are alluded to. While the Justice League (in civilian garb) are sitting around drinking, Batman’s phone rings, and the tune catches Wonder Woman’s attention. “Nothing but the blues,” Bruce Wayne says in response.
I had to know. If Batman is listening to the blues, what song is on his ringtone?
“It’s the first line from Muddy Waters’ ‘Hoochie-Coochie Man,” Romita told me. “Legal said, ‘we can’t do it.’ I attempted to get that to be my ringtone on my phone but haven’t been able to get it right because I’m not smart enough. But if Batman had a musical preference, for a guy like that it would be the blues.”
For someone who earlier said he never saw himself working on Superman, Romita sounds like he’s having a good time. “Working with Geoff for that period of time, and getting the opportunity to add some of my work into a character who is 80 years…it’s a testament to the character and a testament to Geoff, because I never would have expected enjoying Superman this much.”