John Romita, Jr on Kick-Ass 2, violence and more

During our Kick-Ass 2 set visit last year, we got to speak to comic artist and producer John Romita, Jr. Here's what he had to say...

NB: Just so you know, this interview contains a very brief, mildly spoilery description of a fight scene in the Kick-Ass 2 movie. 

A prolific comic artist since the 1970s, John Romita Jr cut his teeth on a short story for an issue of The Amazing Spider-Man before embarking on a popular run in Iron Man. Having brought his distinctive art style to the likes of Punisher: War Zone and Daredevil: The Man Without Fear, more recent years have seen him team up with Mark Millar for the creator-owned series, Kick-Ass.

Following the cult success of the first movie, Romita Jr’s on board with the sequel as an executive producer, and even has a brief cameo with his partner Millar, which we’ll hopefully see in the final cut.

When we sat down for a round-table interview with Romita Jr last autumn, he could barely contain his excitement at being involved in the movie – and his enthusiasm for comics, movies and outlandish gore was infectious…

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So what was it like seeing Kick-Ass 2 go into production?

Actually, the story part of it is almost unimportant. Being on a film set is so exciting! Seeing actors, I’m like a little kid. All my friends, literally, are guys in their 50s. And they’re saying, “Can you get Christopher Mintz-Plasse’s autograph? McLovin! Get McLovin!”

Actually, I don’t call him McLovin. He says he gets that so much, he can’t stand that name. So you can’t call him that. But the thrill of being on a movie set is one thing. And the fact that the story’s being adapted into another film, I knew it was going to happen quite a while ago, but again, being on the set and meeting the director face to face, as opposed to being email buddies… it was such a long process. And then getting here, it’s all about watching the actors and seeing the director doing things you’ve only seen on television.

I’ve seen it first-hand with Matthew Vaughn and now I’m seeing it again with Jeff Wadlow. I’m like a little kid, I giggle to myself. I’m tempted to email and text friends of mine, but they really don’t give a damn. [Laughs] So my wife and I – she handles it with much more aplomb than I do. I’m like a 10-year-old kid.

I told someone yesterday that, I was almost embarrassed when the first film was having its premiere on Leicester Square. I saw my name on the screen for the first time, and I’m supposed to be a middle-aged New Yorker. Nothing should faze me. And I just [gets up from chair with a huge grin on his face].

My wife says, “Sit down! Start acting like you’ve been here before!” [Laughs] My wife’s handling it like Clint Eastwood, and I’m like a little teenager. So this is a blast, in every manner and form.

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So are these all your designs? Are we sitting inside one of your drawings?

Oh yeah. The table – did you guys see the Justice Forever table top that’s out in the dark? That was in here, and that was mine. I didn’t have a warehouse in my set, but it’s exciting, it really is. Actually, to the point where, when I came in, I actually thought this was someone’s basement as opposed to a set that had been built. Over there’s the elevator from the book. They really stuck to it.

In answer to your question, to see things that are picked from my visuals is such flattery, I can’t tell you. The director isn’t even saying things to that effect to me. It’s just accepted that they’re using it; it’s just accepted that they can use as little or as much as they want.

I don’t know if you know this, but they passed us by as I was working on the first series. I was working on issue three, I think, and they were in the middle of the film. There wasn’t enough to go on, or there wasn’t enough for Matthew Vaughn to have used, even if he’d wanted to. Whereas in this film, there’s a lot more material for [Jeff Wadlow] to use should he feel that way.

So I went and looked at the storyboards, and met the storyboard artist, and I saw things that were literally from some of my shots, and expanded for the filming. It’s flattering beyond all get-out, I can’t explain it to you.

When you embarked on Kick-Ass 2 and Hit-Girl, did it affect your design aesthetic, knowing that it would be translated into film?

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That’s a great question. The fourth and fifth issues of the first series, I was intimidated. Actually, the whole series, the second [issue] on, knowing there was going to be a film. I suddenly realised that there was going to be a film director and producer watching what I was doing. And I’ve been a business long enough that I don’t get nervous, but suddenly I was nervous.

Not nervous that I might mess up, but nervous in the sense that I can’t cheat here. I’ve got to do everything in in-depth detail. So knowing [Kick-Ass 2] was going to happen, I wasn’t intimidated as much as I was upping the game a little bit.

Tom Palmer and Dean White felt the same way, and the three of us got together and realised that this is another step above what we did the first time, so we had to do a better job. Whether or not we did, that’s up to the people who read it, and so on. Mark [Millar] isn’t fazed. He could be standing in the middle of Piccadilly Circus naked and still do his job [Laughs].

I think it’s much more physical being an artist than a writer. With writing, you read through a script, and it takes you half an hour to judge it. With art, it’s right there, immediate, boom: “I don’t like that, it’s terrible.”

The storytelling takes a long time to get a feel from it, and I’m told I’m a better storyteller than an artist. It’s like a prestidigitator [We had to look this up afterwards, and it means performing a conjuring trick with the hands] – “Look over here, see the storytelling. Now over here, that’s my artwork.” Sleight of hand, I call it. [Laughs]

Have you had any moments where you think they’ve got things wrong, and you’ve had to tell someone off?

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In the filming? You really think I’d say something?

A gentle telling off.

The answer is no. However, I was watching the choreography of the fight between Mother Russia and Hit-Girl, and there were a few moments, like her standing on her katanas, her swords. The rest of it was typical moviemaking choreography, and while I wasn’t upset with what they were doing, I was hoping there’d be…

For instance, there was a moment where Mother Russia has Hit-Girl down. And there’s a perfect opportunity – I don’t know if any of you guys have ever boxed before, but there’s never a moment where you don’t take an opportunity to get in a punch. And there’s a moment where she has her down and she’s going to take a swing, and I wanted to stand up and say, “Jeff, hang on a second. There’s a chance for her to punch. Don’t pass that up.” But I [claps hands over mouth] Shut up.

I don’t know if you guys saw me yesterday, but they had me in costume in make-up. I’m one of the Mega Guys, the bad guys. 

Do you have a name?

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I’m Schmuggy. [Laughs] That’s true. So Mark and I did our group scenes yesterday, and we’re going to do close-ups of us fighting, and that’s our cameo. So the answer is no, but I’d have loved to have interjected sometimes, but I didn’t because Jeff knows exactly what he’s doing. And if there were a moment that wasn’t up to my standards, I wouldn’t have the testicles to say anything! [Laughs]

So what is your role in the film?

No, we’re part of a group of costumed [characters]. I’m a bad guy, he’s a good guy. And during that mass scrum, Mark runs around and catches me, then we wrestle and beat each other up.

But what’s your job on the film as a whole?

Oh, I’m considered to be an executive producer.

So you’re here on an advisory capacity.

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If anyone asks me any questions, I’ll try to answer them.

In practice, have you advised anybody?

No, nobody’s asked my opinion. [Laughs] No, I’m good on that. I actually don’t take offence to that, because I’m glad that there’s no need for it, and that Jeff knows exactly what he’s doing. I think, when he pointed to the storyboards, and said, “Do you want to speak to the storyboard artist so you can see what he’s done?”, there were no opinion concerns. They know I love every second of it. I don’t think I could possibly be critical.

Mark and Matthew have had their moments of their dialogue discussion. Apparently, there’s a line that Mark didn’t care for. And I don’t have that capacity with Jeff, because the visuals, as they go, can be based on what’s already been done. So if anything goes wrong, they can just blame me! [Laughs]

With Mark and Matthew, it’s an ongoing thing. The script changes – Matthew and Jeff Wadlow are changing things as they go along, and they’re asking Mark for his opinion. And that’s fine. But as for the visuals, I don’t think there’s any need for my artistic opinions. If something was so blatantly awful, I think I’d whisper to someone else, “Can you possibly change that?”

I’m being honest, that there’s nothing I’d complain about. Actually, in the first film, I was a little bit taken aback by Chris Plasse’s costume. I thought that was a bit garish. I had to be told, “Remember, these are amateurs. They’re children, they have no concept of what a costume should look like as a superhero, and that’s why we’re trying this.”

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But in this film, Plasse’s costume looks more comic book-ish. It’s a cross between Gene Simmons and comic book superheroes. I think it’s great. I’m happy with Clarke Duke’s costume. At the end of the first film he said to me, “You’d better make my costume great!”

So when I was designing Battle Guy’s costume, I was sending him model sketches, and he was, “I love it, I love it! Give me a shield!” So I gave him two shields on his forearms that they haven’t followed through here – he’s just got one shield. Everyone was happy with their costumes. Donald Faison’s costume was almost exactly what I did, Battle Guy’s is a little different. Chris Plasse’s costume has the spiky hair.

But the answer is, no, I won’t say anything to anybody! 

How would you compare Jeff’s approach to your material to Matthew Vaughn’s, because it was a huge passion project for Matthew. He poured his own money into it.

Jeff’s as passionate about it inside himself. He’s always smiling. They tell me he’s very intense. Interestingly enough, I’d seen his movie Never Back Down before I knew he’d be on this film. It’s a popcorn movie, it’s the Karate Kid of mixed martial arts. It’s a fun movie, and I’m all about the visuals as much as I am about comics. I don’t read comics, I look at the artwork.

I’m a fan of all art. I don’t read the story per se, though I can see the story in the comic without reading the dialogue. If I can follow what’s going on, then the guy can tell a good story.

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So Jeff, I’m looking at the visuals. We’ve got the same cinematographer, and I enjoyed the visuals on that movie, greatly. I loved his angles, I loved his wide-angled lens images of the settings. It’s the same with [Kick-Ass 2] as I’m watching the video. It’s beautiful. He has a great visual sense, similar to Matthew.

Before I met Matthew, before I knew he was going to work on Kick-Ass, I saw some of his British gangster films. Snatch and Lock Stock – the Guy Ritchie films that he produced. I loved them. I absolutely loved everything about them. And that similarity in the imagery is why, at least in my mind, Matthew picked him. Whether they were friends before, I don’t know. But their imagery is similar, and if their passion is the same, then that’s great too.

To me, on a superficial level, it’s visuals. And with the storytelling, with a little help from me, from a little help from Mark, and Matthew, we’ve got a similar look, but a higher quality because we have experience of looking at the first one.

How does the violence compare to the first movie, and also the comics, because the comics are extremely raw.

We tried to ramp it up. Interestingly enough, Mark wanted to go another step up, but we had to avoid gratuitous violence. [Laughs] How are we going to do that? Mark says, “What are you going to do to up your game?” And I said, “All I have to do is come up with something that’s at least a little bit more clever than the first time.”

Every little bit of violence that I tried in the first wasn’t just the standard chopping – there had to be something balletic to it. As a matter of fact, Hit-Girl wasn’t a ninja in the original request, she was just a crazy little kid. And I take Ju-Jitsu lessons, and my son was taking Ju-Jitsu lessons. He was 12 years old at the time, but there was a group of younger kids with their wooden swords, doing all these amazing balletic and beautiful choreographed bits.  And I said, “That’s Hit-Girl. We’ve got to put her in with the sword.”

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Mark just had her as a girl with knives. She’s just a crazy little Tasmanian Devil of a character, and I turned her into a ninja. It’s balletic, and it made it easier for me to choreograph as a superhero genre fight than just a crazed little girl. I wanted to make it balletic and graceful, because she’s the only superhero in the series – everyone else is just an amateur.

There’s a scene where Aaron and Chris first confront each other like West Side Story, and they’re doing this to each other [mimes pushing]. And Hit-Girl says, “Will one of you two please just throw a punch?” Because she’s the only superhero. So when I’m working on Hit-Girl, the fighting’s at least based in superhero choreography – I applied my own storytelling of superheroes to Hit-Girl, only the violence is so much higher.

With superheroes, they punch, and there’s no blood. With Hit-Girl, when she kicks someone in the testicles, blood comes out of their mouth. Everything that happens in a real fight shows up in Hit-Girl. When you get punched in the face, your face disintegrates. I don’t know if you guys have ever been in a bar fight, but it hurts, and there’s blood everywhere! You immediately swell up, you run away with a broken nose, and you’re bleeding.

So it’s just ramped up a little bit further. In this, I had to come up with creative ideas about murdering people. [Spoilery segment excised here]

With Hit-Girl, can you reveal any colourful additions to her vocabulary this time?

Not in the series, but in the film, that is a bone of contention about how we’re going to handle this, yes. Good question. This is the argument – it’s in discussion between the three intelligent guys in this business: Matthew, Mark and Jeff are discussing that very thing, whether that line should be used. And it’s very rough.

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-John Romita Jr, thank you very much.

Kick-Ass 2 is out on the 14th August in the UK.

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