There’s an overall sense of pressure surrounding iconic comic-book artist John Romita Jr. as he begins his run drawing Superman this week.
But really, he’s more concerned about perfecting the Nose of Steel than anything else.
“I draw Italian noses. I can’t stop myself,” Romita says with a laugh. “Superman’s nose has never been broken and I put a little bump on his nose, and (DC Comics co-publisher) Dan DiDio said, ‘Wait a minute. Not every character is Italian, Romita! Straighten that nose out!’ “
Romita’s actually feeding off his critics as he begins a run with writer Geoff Johns as the new creative team of DC’s Superman series with issue 32, out Wednesday. It’s his first major work with the company after drawing Spider-Man, Iron Man, the X-Men and rival Marvel Comics’ top heroes since the 1970s.
He found that going from Marvel to DC wasn’t like jetting off to an alien planet like Krypton. “All I did was just change characters,” the artist says. “I’m in the same business, and the first time I drew the character and started penciling a page, I said, ‘I’m still here.’ “
He’s not the only guy new to DC showing up in the latest issue of Superman. Romita and Johns’ first story line introduces Ulysses, an enigmatic man of tomorrow who has a similar origin to the Man of Steel’s. He’ll be showing up along with new villains as well as old Metropolis mainstays.
Romita worked with Johns on perfecting Ulysses’ look. His original gloves got a revamp when Johns thought they looked too 1980s-ish, and instead of a cape, Ulysses has long, flowing blond hair — Romita was inspired by a biker he saw in downtown Manhattan with locks that hit the seat of his ride.
“The guy looked like a fat Hulk Hogan, but still he had a ponytail that went down to his feet,” he says. “I thought that would look very cool.”
Romita’s more tight-lipped when it comes to Ulysses’ character arc: “I don’t know what’s going to happen to him. I don’t think Geoff knows. All I know is I like how he looks visually.”
The first promotional image that Romita did for his Superman run was the first real serious drawing of the iconic hero that he’d ever done.
In the 1990s, Romita used a Superman image on a cover of an Amalgam crossover of Marvel and DC characters, but he’d also drawn the character for fans, though different than most have ever seen him.
At comics conventions when someone asks him to draw someone he has never done before, “I would draw that character after an all-night binge of drinking,” Romita recalls. “Superman was on the floor with his belt buckle open from eating and drinking too much, with beer cans all over the place. And if it’s Superman, just like the Hulk, it would be a lot of beer, because they’re amazing. And then the beard and the scruff, the drizzle down their face. I had so much fun.”
Illustrating Superman for real, he says, means there’s a certain “intimidation factor” because of all the artists who’ve worked on classic stories in the Man of Steel’s 76-year history, plus fans demand perfection when it comes to him.
“People are paying attention, and I’ve never been one to think about it that way,” Romita explains. “Now I’ve made this big noise and people are thinking that I’m doing it to make noise. And while that may or may not be true, I’m getting that microscope.
“All that does to me is maybe pop a few more gray hairs,” he adds, “but it also makes me work that much harder.”
Romita takes the old Jim Croce line “You don’t tug on Superman’s cape” to heart — altering him too much is just asking for trouble. Instead he sees the hero as similar to the Stanley Cup: “You try to add to it and make it better.”
The artist has given him a cool refresh in how he turns from Clark Kent into Superman visually in Superman No. 32. One moment Clark is looking at a photo album, and then the next he’s an artistic red-and-blue blur flying out the window. No phone booth required.
The greatest adjustment for Romita, other than the ins and outs of the costume, is the iconic Superman profile with the hair, which is more wavy and windswept than the prototypical forelock.
“It’s taken me a little while,” he admits. “If somebody says, ‘Ah, you did a lousy Superman face,’ yeah, you’re probably right. I gotta work on that.”
Romita’s also found Superman a trickier character study than his mild-mannered reporter alter ego. Clark’s a pain because he hates drawing glasses, the artist says, but the Man of Steel can’t seem flighty. “He has to look serious. He has to look more superheroic, whereas with Clark Kent, he has to look a little bit calmer.”
Moving to scenes of Superman punching a cyborg gorilla from the grim and gritty teenage heroes of Romita and writer Mark Millar’s Kick-Ass series has been welcome, but doing the latter has also boosted the artist’s interest in doing more creator-owned work. It’s why when his Marvel contract ended, Romita decided to go the freelance route, allowing him to work with DC after many overtures from them over the years.
When he first started talking with DiDio, Romita also expressed interest in tackling another one of DC’s iconic heroes, Batman.
“I would love to,” Romita says of drawing the Dark Knight one day, “but I’m going to let this play out and see if I get booted out the door after doing Superman or not.”