The Secret Origin of Superman: Year One

John Romita Jr. takes us inside his creative collaboration with Frank Miller and the secrets of DC's Superman: Year One.

Superman: Year One New Costume by Frank Miller and John Romita Jr.

Superman: Year One, an oversized three issue limited series from DC is a new exploration of the Man of Steel’s origin story from Frank Miller and John Romita, Jr. The book has grabbed headlines for its unconventional approach to Clark Kent’s early days. We sat down with Mr. Romita for an in-depth look at how the project came to be, the creative partnership between the two legendary comic book greats, and the classic elements that went into Superman’s “new” costume. He even gave us some interesting hints about this version of Superman’s past…and potential future.

Den of Geek: Superman: Year One is a big project and you’re working with another big name in Frank Miller. How did this come about, how were you approached to do this?

John Romita, Jr.: At some point, Dan Didio had proposed an idea in the infancy of this and had discussed it with Frank, and they talked about possibly expanding Frank’s Year One format to Superman. But ironically, I think they felt that fans thought Frank didn’t like Superman, because of the way he treated him in the Batman format. And Frank says, “I love the character.” 

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So they mentioned to me, “If Frank is interested, would you be interested?” I said, “Yeah, of course,” as soon as I heard Frank was going to be a part of it because he and I work so well together. We’ve worked together in the past, and we came up in the industry together at the same time, working from plots. He knows what he likes, he knows what I like to do, and he just threw me a vague synopsis and let me run with it. And 200 pages later, we’re here.

Wow, so were you working Marvel style on this?

Don’t like to call it Marvel style.

I know. We can’t say that when we’re talking about Superman! 

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Frank likes to call it Stan Lee/Jack Kirby format, which is apt. Yeah, I do like working this way, and it’s the point where I can get one line, one sentence, out of Frank and turn it into 25 pages. Just because knowing going in what it’s going to be and how I would like to see it done and what I’d like to see done, I can play with it, and he can write the dialogue according to it.

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Fortunately, what I did was accepted and DC liked it and Frank liked it, but I would discuss it. I would thumbnail out the whole plot first to make sure it fits the 64 pages across three issues. And then I would call the editors and Frank, and tell them what I was going to do with those little vignettes, the scenes, what I was adding, and what I was going to do with it. They loved it and they accepted it. It was great.

That first issue is so Smallville focused, which has a really earthy feel to it, and then the second issue is Atlantis. So is there this elemental breakdown of each of these issues, where each one is going to have such a different feel to it?

I guess you could say that, but it wasn’t intended to be that way. It broke into that format, the enlisting in the Navy at the end of the first issue, and then expanding on the Navy into the SEALS in the second issue, and then the ocean plays a big part in that.

I just think we hit our stride in the second issue. The first one was Smallville, so it was more mundane in that he lands as the baby in the beginning. The first 10 or 12 pages are from the baby’s eyes. In other words, you don’t see the baby until well into the issue in the reflection of the glass of the rocket. It’s watching his world blow up, watching his parents disintegrate, then out in space, then arriving at the planet that his father had told him about, crash landing, and then opening up, and there’s Pa Kent standing there waiting for him. All from his eyes. That is the only thing familiar with the story in the first one. 

Superman: Year One Krypton

We played with everything a human goes through in adolescence all the way up to adulthood. All the little things you go through, bullies, dealing with school, football, sports, dealing with women (or dealing with men). Everything that a normal human goes through is applied to Superman as a super being. 

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What happens? You get bullied in a bar, you get bullied at school, and you’re a super being knowing you’re a super being. How do you not break somebody’s neck accidentally? Of course, if I was a super being, I’d go back and get everybody that deserved to get hit and get them. 

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But that is interesting is what’s applied to him by his Earth parents. They could have very easily been screwballs to begin with and he could have been an axe murderer. But the fact that they told him, “Don’t hurt anybody, don’t get hurt.” It’s from his mother, “Be a sweetheart.” And his father says, “Yeah, you be a sweetheart, but if anybody lays a hand on you or your family, you have to take care of business.” And he can’t. He deals with bullies at school, because his friends get bullied. They can’t touch him, so to speak. Then they bully his first love, Lana Lang, and he has to deal with them gently but firmly.

Then he goes through adulthood. He runs into a bully in a bar and accidentally starts a brawl while he’s in the Navy. How do you deal with something like that? I think the way we did it, it was a little bit charming, but it was serious, and it was important. I loved the way we handle it, especially the barroom scenes, which of course, I know a lot about.

One of my favorite things about this is that new Superman costume design, where you’ve taken elements of the Fleischer Studios’ Superman cartoons. This is the second time that you’ve gotten to put a new coat of paint on the Superman costume. I love that you chose the smaller “S” logo, with the black field and things like that. Can you talk about your influences on and did you and Frank collaborate on that? How did this work?

We both, almost simultaneously, admitted our love the Max Fleischer cartoons, and that was pretty much it. I think that having seen those animated shorts is what made us want to do that. It’s as simple as that. Frank loved it and I loved it. I thought the animation was fantastic and I just loved the way the costume looked. So we tried to have an air of it, and that’s why we changed the logo the way we did. But that was pretty much where it ended, as far as the costume similarities. And then the shorts were back, so we were back to the old costume. Actually, the neckline is a little bit lower.

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Even his build is reminiscent of the Fleischer cartoons…

I wanted him to look like a leaner teen, so to speak, and then I immediately got taken to task online. “You have a geeky, skinny Superman? What’s the matter with you, Romita?” I said, “Ma, come on.”

Frank is known for Year One stories, and he took some heat because of All-Star Batman and Robin, and things like that, and that feeds the perception that he’s not a Superman fan. But I think that first issue especially is pretty reverent to the spirit of the character, and issue two is something completely new that we’ve never seen. I know Frank always says that his Batman stories all take place in one corner of the universe. Is this the Superman of those Batman stories as well?

We’ll have to find out.

Oh, really?

I can’t say any more. I just gave it away, but you have to ask Frank if he had that intention going in, or if he has that intention after what we just finished. I don’t want to say the word “finished,” let’s just put it that way.

So, Superman: Year Two is a possibility?

Oh, no, I don’t know what you’re talking about.

Frank can be a bit of a lightning rod with this kind of stuff, but you have your own history with the character. And obviously, there’s tremendous love for the character, and I think it does come through on the page, but what do you guys think, or what do you think, is the heart of Superman that just has to be in every story?

That’s hard to describe. Other than the fact that he’s a Boy Scout and he’s an intergalactic super being, everything has to be through that lens. He’s on Earth, so anything earthly has to be through that lens. He doesn’t like bullies. He feels compelled to save the planet from itself. So much can be filtered through that lens. Anything from a common mugging to a supervillain coming from a different planet applies to him. That being said, we can twist it the way we like to make it good for the comics, so to speak. But I honestly feel that anybody that deals with fantasies about being a super being can apply their stories to this, especially us. I’ve always wanted to be a superman for one day and take care of everybody that’s an asshole. Sorry about that.

It’s okay.

To all you assholes, I’m sorry. 

Don’t apologize to them! What do you think of the format? It’s not quite a treasury edition, but it’s different. Did you draw this with that format in mind?

From the get-go, it was a large size. I don’t know if Frank told them he wanted it in large format, or they applied that to us. All I know is that at first, it looked like I was working on a wall. It filled up my drafting table, and I could have wallpapered my house with the pages that we used. They were gigantic. As I got used to it over the course of 200 pages, the pages got smaller. I went back to another issue of the normal size paper. It was like working on a postage stamp. 

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I love the larger size, because it’s cinematic. The storyboard format panels, which I love, comes from my father saying, “Everything is a peripheral vision, like a movie screen.” I like to work that way. I don’t like to do any strange shaped panels. Vertical panels bother me, unless something is required to be shooting straight vertical. I love the wide lens. So this, with these pages, these gigantic pages, it was cinematic, it was fun. 

Of course, I’m a moron for adding all the backgrounds that way, I tend to do that to myself, but I loved everything about the large format after I started. First, I cursed a little bit, then I loved everything about it halfway through it. Maybe.

Is this the first time you’ve had to work in that larger format?

Frank says when we started, we worked on pages that size, back in the 1920s, whatever that was. I don’t remember working on paper that large, but he said the Daredevil: Man Without Fear that we worked on together was large paper. I don’t know if it was this size, but this is the largest.

Was that Daredevil book done done Lee/Kirby style as well?

It was. It came from a movie treatment that Frank tried to get passed, and it didn’t make it, so in his anger, he said, “We need to turn this into a movie.” I approached him about doing a Wolverine graphic novel. He said, “Everybody’s doing Wolverine. Let’s do this.” And he handed me the treatment and let me run with it. Then he called me a couple of weeks later and said, “I have an addendum to put in between page 17 and 18. I’ll send it to you.” He sent me a sort of synopsis and that addendum ended up being 88 pages. That’s working with Frank. That’s what happens. He said it was my fault, but anything Frank gives you, you can play with it. It’s like getting a piece of clay and turning it into a statue, it’s great.

Superman: Year One

What are you most excited for people to see in these next two issues?

There’s a couple of scenes in the second issue. I absolutely loved the boot camp and the BUD/S training in the second issue, because I got to reference these heroes. I’m a big fan of the military, and I got a chance to draw San Diego in it. But there’s a scene at the end of the third issue that I get a chance to draw a couple of characters with Superman that is one of the better moments in my career. It’s great, and the choreography of the action is fun, of course. But doing things that I’ve never done before, like boot camp and SEAL training, and the BUD/S training, and playing with that, that these guys don’t know this man’s a super being, except for his drill sergeant, who has an idea there’s something different about this guy. That’s fun to me.

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I created something called surf-ups. He does push-ups in the surf, and he does something that annoys his drill sergeant. And he says, “You’re going to break the record for surf-ups right now. They’re going to be underwater from now on.” Not knowing that he can breathe underwater. Playing with that kind of stuff and the amazement.

The barroom scene actually cracks me up. He’s there talking to a journalist, and it’s an attractive lady. And some drunk comes over and harasses her, and Clark Kent says, “Back off, you moron.” And the guy takes a swing at him, and he blocks it, and the guy gets hurt and falls into a crowd of guys and start a bar fight. And Clark “started it,” so to speak, and he gets turned every which way but loose by his drill sergeant. He has to do a million surf-ups. He’s got to clean bathrooms, that kind of thing. I love that kind of familiarity with people. That was fun.

The art is recognizably you throughout. But I feel like there’s something else in there that I can’t quite put my finger on. Did you look to anything outside of comics, or did you pull in any other influences when you were designing this book?

No. The reason I say that is because I’m too busy trying to get that story right, and I sacrificed, maybe, some money shots. Honestly, the story was all important. I’ve been getting that from people that they loved the story. Then they say, “and the artwork was wonderful.” Thank you. But when they say they love the story, that means I’m doing the right thing. Because if they pay attention to the art, and they’re not paying attention to Frank’s words, which of course, that’s ludicrous, but if they love the story, that means I’m telling the story properly. That means they’re reading it like they want to read a novel. I’d say it’s a graphic novel. It was not in any way, shape, or form, an attempt to be derivative of anybody’s style, or to do anything similar to my father, or Jack Kirby, or any other artist in the business.

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I’ve said this a million times. My father told me, “Get used to the fact that there’s somebody better than you anywhere in the world. You’re not going to be the best artist in the world, so just accept it and then do the best you can.” I’m too busy trying to keep it on schedule, get it done on time, make sense of it, and not look stupid. “Don’t F this up.” Was the famous words of an astronaut. “Oh, lord, don’t let me F this up.” That’s the feeling I had when I was starting.

Do you think more writer/artist partnerships working in comics right now, would benefit from working Lee/Kirby style?

Yes, if they’re able to. I don’t know how many young people can do the plot and lean on the artist to do as much as I was given the ability to. The leeway that Frank gave me, I don’t know many guys … If they can, that’s wonderful. I embraced this, I think it’s the way it should be, but it’s heavy script in the last 20 years. I don’t think it’s necessary to give people dialogue. They should be able to tell a story and give the emotion and facial expressions on their own. Sometimes some artists can’t.

I’ve had an artist call me and say, “I don’t know how to tell a story without a script.” It was a couple of years ago, and I said, “No, you can. You’ve done it before.” “No, I’ve only worked from a script.” “Wow, and you get paid for this, huh?” I honestly think everybody should be able to do it this way, but not everybody can.

Who was the first person you worked that way with?

From the get-go when I started at Marvel.

Really?

Absolutely, and I watched my father do it when I was a kid. Interestingly enough, Stan Lee, rest in peace, used to describe a plot to my father and let my father take notes. Stan would hop around the room, jump on the backs of chairs and pose for my father. My father would come back after having written notes, and then we would go on a road trip, and we would talk all about it. He would pace out the story all by himself and Stan would fill in the dialogue. That’s an extreme version, but I’ve gotten literally a paragraph for 22 pages from John Byrne when we worked on Iron Man together, and that’s the way I prefer it. 

As long as you keep the editorial base, the need for the editors to get the character right, especially with a character like Superman, which… I don’t have the history with the character. But as long as I get those things correct, then we’re good to go in any direction. But I started off that way, and I got used to it.

Why do you think it changed?

Maybe people can’t tell stories well, and they just needed the crutch, or the writers feel completed to direct everybody. I’ve had writers give me a tome, and I’ve had writers give me one paragraph. Fortunately, the artists that are writers now – John Byrne was an artist and became a writer. Frank Miller is an artist that became a writer – they know that I can tell a story, or they prefer it that way. I prefer it. I don’t think anybody should work from script, but there should be some dialogue perhaps in the plot, so that their artist knows, “When somebody’s angry, I’m going to say these words and design that panel appropriately.” 

I told Frank the scene after the bar fight, and he gets taken to task by his drill sergeant. It’s a small figure yelling at Clark Kent with a gigantic panel, and I wrote in the borders: “every foul word you can imagine is in that panel.” I wonder how Frank is going to write that. I want to know what’s going to go in that panel. I haven’t seen it yet. “You F-ing moron, you’re never going to see daylight again! You’re going to be in a toilet the rest of your career!”  I think that’s the fun part.

What’s next for you after Superman?

Ooh, I get to sleep, that’s the great thing. I’m in the middle of doing two issues of Batman with Tom King, and I get to work with Klaus Janson again. And then the two of us, Klaus and I, are going to work with Brian Bendis on Action Comics. That’ll be a year’s worth at least, and then I got told a couple of things that are coming in my direction subsequent to that, and I’m looking forward to. DC’s got a lot of fantastic things coming up, and I can’t share them with you. I know what they are, and they’re fantastic.

Mike Cecchini is the Editor in Chief of Den of Geek. You can read more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter @wayoutstuff.

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