Drawing power: ‘Kick-Ass’ co-creator John Romita, Jr. on the comics-movie connection

The co-creator of Kick-Ass, the title character of the Universal movie sequel Kick-Ass 2, doesn't seem like the kind of guy who'd co-create a character named Kick-Ass. John Romita, Jr.—the artist who with writer Mark Millar concocted the Marvel Comic miniseries Kick-Ass, two sequels and a spinoff—is a jovially polite and mock self-deprecating family man who gives no hint that in the rarefied realm of comic books, he's had a kick-ass career. An industry star whose name on the cover means sales, he's had significant runs illustrating such heavy-hitter heroes as Spider-Man, the Hulk, Daredevil, Wolverine, Thor and others as a "penciler"—the initial artist of an assembly-line comic-book page, who drafts the art and visual storytelling from scratch while an "inker" later adds shading and texture. Critically lauded, he's shared an Eisner Award, the comics’ Oscar, in the Serialized Story category for an arc of The Amazing Spider-Man—a bit of poetic bookending since his dad, the acclaimed John Romita, Sr., was the signature artist on that title during the 1960s Silver Age of Comics and years afterward, following the departure of Spider-Man co-creator Steve Ditko.

Yet for all that, and to Romita, Jr.'s dismay, Hollywood often considers what he and other comics creators do as little more than movie storyboarding. And he well knows the ironic dichotomy of that: With comic-book sales a fraction of what they were in the past, and with other entertainment like videogames and the Internet competing for consumers' time and dollars, the movie industry's interest helps keep comics vital. With industry leaders Marvel and DC owned by media giants—The Walt Disney Co. and Time Warner, respectively—and smaller ones like Dark Horse dependent on movie properties licensed to comics and comics properties adapted to movies (Sin City, 300, R.I.P.D.), this symbiosis isn't changing anytime soon.

Romita, 56, was born in the Brooklyn Hospital Center and raised in the adjacent New York City borough of Queens until he was "eight, about to turn nine, in 1965," when his family—dad John, mom Virginia and older brother Victor—moved to Bellerose, Long Island. He's since lived in Chicago and San Diego but has settled in Port Jefferson, Long Island, with his wife, Kathleen, and their 17-year-old son, Vinnie. He has two older stepchildren who live in California.

Romita, Jr. broke into the industry doing occasional freelance sketches as filler for reformatted British reprints of Marvel Comics, and made his stateside debut in 1977 as penciler of a six-page Spider-Man backup story in that year's summer annual. The following year he began his first regular art assignment as penciler of Iron Man, and has continued with Marvel for 35 years. He and Millar, whose comics miniseries Wanted was adapted into a hit film starring Angelina Jolie and James McAvoy, created Kick-Ass in 2008 for Marvel's Icon imprint, which is currently publishing Kick-Ass 3.

Film Journal International:  I understand you have a cameo in Kick-Ass 2 as somebody named "Schmuggy"?

John Romita, Jr.: [laughs] I did, but it's been edited [out] because we couldn't coordinate with Mark Millar to do that cameo. He had some meetings and just couldn't make it. We're in the fight scene—the big battle scene—but they didn't get us our close-ups.

FJI: So you're in the scene, but someone watching couldn't make you out clearly.

JRJ: Physically, I'm in the movie. What it is, is that they made us up and they put us in costume and the two of us are in this mass battle scene and we face off against each other—it was going to be Mark and me fighting each other. I was the bad guy and he was the good guy and they were gonna do a quick close-up of the two of us, but it didn't happen.

I was in the first one, too—I was a barista. I was in London at the time they were filming this scene and I didn't know what a barista was. I thought it was a lawyer—we were in London, what the hell did I know? So they asked me to look at the camera, then turn and turn the television on with a remote control. And then they edited out my face! I laughed and laughed—I was the only authentic New Yorker in the scene and they edited out my face for not looking authentic enough! Then the producer, Tarquin Pack—a real wise-ass and a very funny guy, he likes to break my balls—said, "Don't worry, we'll put your name in the film to make up for it. So they used my last name, but they changed my first name to Tony: Tony Romita. "Why'd you do that?" I asked. "Well, 'Johnny Romita' wasn't tough enough." So I was in the first one and [I'm in] the second one, and you'd never know it.

FJI: How soon after the first Kick-Ass did the sequel get the go-ahead?

JRJ: Maybe two years after. You know, the sequel was a developing thing, but the actual go-ahead took about two years [because] the success of the first film was a little bit behind their timetable. In other words, it was the DVD that secured it. [Kick-Ass] did relatively well at the box office [grossing $96,188,903 total worldwide on an estimated $30 million budget], but it didn't meet expectations—they were expecting much more money domestically [where it earned $48,071,303]. And what confirmed the sequel was the way it did on DVD.

FJI:  When you were doing the second Kick-Ass miniseries, did knowing that it's a movie property now affect your storytelling or make you want to do things differently because you knew certain things would work well in a film?

JRJ: That's a great question, because it crossed everyone's mind, including Mark's and mine. But that was the reason we avoided that trap. Mark is smart enough and I'm too much of a coward to try to turn the work that we're doing in the direction of a film, because that's not where our strength comes from. The quality of the story comes from sticking with what we did, and so we did that. Even knowing that directors and producers are looking at the work—because they asked me to forward scans of my pencils as I'm working on it—even knowing that, I just stuck with what I can do. And fortunately Mark's plots and script lend themselves to doing exactly what's strong for him, too. So there's no preconceived notion and no attempt to make ourselves better than what we are.

FJI: Now, Kick-Ass is about regular people who put on costumes and serve as crime-watch vigilantes; they don't have actual superpowers or Batman-style gadgets and super-capability. But I'm interested in your take on superhero movies, which came after the action-hero movies of the 1980s and 1990s—your Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis, Stallone movies. When the movie Daredevil [2003] came out, I wrote that superhero movies seemed the next iteration, because the action-hero movies had already escalated the action to the limit of human capability.

JRJ: They may very well be. Superheroes have been around [metaphorically] since [the non-superpowered "superspy"] James Bond. But the reason there's been such a tapping into the comic-book stories—more so now than ever—is because of the ability of special effects. Think about it: There's no limit to what can appear on the screen anymore. And what that's done is allow comics to be completely infused into Hollywood. Now there's no limit to what can be shown on the screen, so throw it in, lock, stock and barrel.

And to me, the costumes were always a hold-up point, because they'd look silly on the screen as opposed to in a comic book.

FJI: It's true that, for some reason, costumes do look better now than they did in the old Captain America and Spider-Man [live-action] TV shows [and TV-movies].

JRJ: Absolutely! [laughs] Who knows? Maybe fashion has improved as well.

FJI: Or the materials or whatever. Even in the 1990 "Flash" TV series [based on the DC super-speedster], the costume looked fairly realistic.

JRJ: My simple answer to that is that the [technical] quality progresses because you learn from what has been done before and you improve on it. Without the failures or the successes of the past, you can't build. I'm a better artist because of the artists before me, namely my father, and it has to be the same way with film. It has to be the same way with fashion. Any business: If you don't improve on what's been, you can't improve on yourself.

FJI: How did you and Mark Millar first decide to collaborate?

JRR: We worked on Wolverine [vol. 3, #20-31, cover-dated Dec. 2004-Oct. 2005] and it's hard to tell how that process worked; I don't remember whether it was Mark that initiated it or the editor, but we were put together on Wolverine. Mark will probably mention that he asked for me, but I don't remember. And it was such a pleasure, so much fun, albeit challenging, because Mark has visual demands that [would make movie-spectacle master] Cecil B. DeMille roll over in his grave. But the end result was that it looked so great that when he decided to do a creator-owned project, [and knowing] my same desire, he said, "Before you come up with anything, I have an idea." And that's where we started with Kick-Ass. [Note: Most Marvel and DC comics are done as "work for hire" when the publisher retains virtually all rights. Marvel's Icon imprint is one of several in comics that publish "creator-owned" works, in which creators of independent characters retain copyright and other rights.]

FJI: Jim Carrey has been speaking out very publically about the violence in Kick-Ass 2, which was made before the Newtown massacre. Millar has said the violence here is no different from the violence in Quentin Tarantino or Sam Peckinpah movies. I'd note that unlike those directors' movies, Kick-Ass 2 has violence involving teens or, in the case of Hit-Girl, a preteen. What's your take?

JRJ: As long as people don't equate fiction with reality and connect them too seriously, then you won't have a problem with people's opinions about it. Unfortunately, you can't account for people being out of their minds, and that goes back to Jodie Foster and the wacko that attempted to assassinate the president. [In 1981, John Hinckley, Jr., who'd developed an infatuation with actress Jodie Foster after seeing her in the movie Taxi Driver, wounded President Ronald Reagan and three others, leaving press secretary James Brady paralyzed on the left half of his body.] The imbalances of the mind can't be controlled and you can't blame fiction. You can't even blame nonfiction. You can't blame people's writing. You can't blame movies. But unfortunately, it happens. This particular thing with Jim Carrey, it's politics and you're entitled to your opinions. And I'm of the mind to follow along with what [distributor] Universal [Pictures] said, which was that yeah, you respect the opinion, but you disagree with the way things were done.

FJI: You've mentioned that your dad, John Romita, Sr., is an influence on your art style, along with [comics artists] Jack Kirby and John Buscema, [painter] N.C. Wyeth and [illustrator] Charles Dana Gibson.

JRJ: Absolutely true. And [illustrator] J. C. Leyendecker. [But primarily] Kirby and Buscema, combined with my father—I like to say that I have a combination of all three. I don't know if that's true or not, but in my head when I begin drawing it starts off with a combination of the three of them and, unfortunately, by the time it reaches the paper it's mine. [laughs] But the illustrators you mention—Leyendecker is one of the most brilliant illustrators in the history of the country.

FJI: Your dad—a legend in the industry, a 2002 inductee to comic books' Will Eisner Award Hall of Fame—was of that generation of comics artists who worked 14 hours a day for far less money than people get now and no royalties. They were like baseball players in the days before free agency.

JRJ: People talk about my work ethic and the fact that I'm a little bit faster and more prolific than other guys, and I always tell them, "It's very simple. I watched my father nearly kill himself for deadlines." In terms of the work ethic, I learned it all from him and from his generation. And it wasn't so much that he was such a hard worker. It's that he just couldn't do anything quickly and concisely: He just was always stressing and killing himself over things because he was always a perfectionist.

FJI: Well, he sure sounds like a hard worker.

JRJ: What I mean is, he was a Depression baby. He always needed to work—anything to put money on the table. So that need almost diminished his artistic view of what he was doing—it was a job and just a job. So when he retired he walked away from the table and, other than some side work, in 20 years he hasn't looked back. Here's a man who's a brilliant artist—and nobody, I mean nobody, knows the extent of his brilliance because it was in the comics—and he didn't look back about it.

So I learned my work ethic from that man. And I started back before there were royalties on sales—I was just being paid the page rate, so you made your rent by doing enough pages and that meant working through the night a couple of times a week. And here I am 36 years later, I still sometimes work through the night. I worked through the night last night and I met my self-imposed deadline.

FJI: You are your father's son.

JRJ: Except I would miss art more than anything—it's very therapeutic for me and a lot of guys my age. It's a need—it's the one thing that you really are good at.

FJI: So you were in comics when it was still flat page-rate and suddenly this new reality comes in where top creators such as yourselves are getting royalties, movie deals, making quite a good living—were you saying to yourself, is this a blip, or is it going to last?

JRJ: That's always a question. People have been saying, "Comics are going to fall, it's all over" forever, and the only reason comics haven't is that they've changed so amazingly—they've progressed. But every time there was a change, people would panic thinking about what could go wrong. There was a time when people were saying that VHS tapes were going to be the end of comics because people were going to be watching more movies. And then the DVDs—same thing. CDs, computers…every new thing that came up was going to make comics unnecessary. And here we are, still talking about them.

Now the print medium has been challenged because of digital reading: People are saying you're not going to read a newspaper, you're not going to read a paperback any more. But I still see people reading newspapers and paperbacks. I still read The Wall Street Journal—it's tangible, I hold the paper in my hand. I still read paperback books. I still read magazines. And I use the Internet to read as well, so I think it's the same with comics. There are collectors, and there are people who still need to hold a physical copy of a comic book or a graphic novel in their hands. And I'm very glad about that.

FJI: Although [limited-animation] motion comics and things like digital comics from places like ComiXology seem to be surging now.

JRJ: That's true. I don't reject progress, but I don't think you can forget where you came from. I think there's always going to be a balance. There's always going to be something new to come along and threaten what we do, but the ideas are what we need. That's what comics bring to the plate—brilliant, brilliant ideas.

FJI: Kick-Ass 3, the final miniseries, recently published its second issue. Are you okay with the franchise ending? Have you and Mark told all the story you wanted to tell, or…?

JRJ: I will definitely miss doing the artwork. And if it's drummed up in some manner that's comfortable for Mark, I would definitely embrace it again in a minute. This has been more fun that anything else I've done in my career, and very simply and very shallowly [laughs] because of the films. Something gets turned into a film like this and there's a novelty to it and there's an excitement to it. I got a chance to see my name on a movie screen—I crossed that one off my bucket list.

FJI: Your exclusive contract with Marvel is ending soon.

JRJ: It's already expired. My association with Marvel will never end, but my contract has expired.

FJI: I've heard you might be drawing Superman for DC Comics?

JRJ: Yes, I have the opportunity to do Superman, that's correct.

FJI: Are you going to?

JRJ: Not positive yet. I'm not sure. The offer is there, I'm considering it. I have a plot lined up that I discussed with the DC guys and they love the idea, so it's just a matter of making a decision about what I want to do next. The opportunity to do Superman is going to be there and I may someday take it. I don't know. But I think at this time it's just a matter of working out which comes first after I'm done with Kick-Ass. I have five issues of Kick-Ass 3 to do, which comes out to seven because there're two double-sized issues. So that will be toward the middle of the fall and after that I'm not sure what I'm doing yet. I'm excited about all the other projects I have lined up with some great writers. Schmuggy and Bimbo is a pet project of mine because I created the storyline with [writer-artist and TV producer] Howard Chaykin. Ideally, I'd like to do that next. I may try something before I get into that, but that's my favorite project to look forward to.  

FJI: "Schmuggy."

JRJ: Yeah.

FJI: Like your character in Kick-Ass 2.

JRJ: They asked me to name myself and I said, "Just call me Schmuggy." That's based on a guy I knew who grew up with my parents in the ’40s—there really was a guy named Schmuggy.