Vaughan & Chiang's "Paper Girls" Builds a Familiar Yet Disconcerting World
Every day this year, I will be examining the artwork on a single comic book story. Today’s artist is John Romita, Jr., and the issue is Iron Man #120, which was published by Marvel and is cover dated March 1979. These scans are from the hardcover edition of Demon in a Bottle, which came out in 2008. Enjoy!
Romita’s run on Iron Man isn’t his earliest work, but it was pretty close to the beginning of his career, and since it’s the earliest work I own, I figured it was a good place to start. More importantly, it’s before he developed his signature style, so we can see how he grew over the course of his career. In this issue, he’s credited with “pencil art” while Bob Layton is credited with “finished art,” so I’m not sure how detailed Romita’s pencils were – usually “finishes” are linked with “breakdowns,” so maybe his pencils were more detailed than simply laying out the page. But let’s not worry about that and get into this issue!
Romita’s faces tend to be perhaps the most distinctive thing about his artwork, but there’s no evidence of that quite yet. He was 22 when he drew this, and despite the fact that his dad was a bigwig and so Romita might have already known what he was doing, either he wasn’t confident enough yet or Marvel wasn’t confident in him yet or Layton was just a very good inker, because his influence is pretty strong here. He uses a lot of brush strokes, especially in Panel 2, as he gives Tony those thick, lush eyebrows and slightly cheesy mustache, while heavily defining his cheekbones. Tony’s facial expression, frankly, is a bit weird given that he’s flirting with the flight attendant – he looks a bit more belligerent than we might expect him to. Maybe those three martinis he’s already have are getting to him a bit. Of course, the way Romita and Layton draw her in Panel 1 isn’t great, either – she looks like she might go for his throat at any moment. This is a weird, sexually charged scene, and it’s making me uncomfortable, so I’m moving on.
Romita lays a page out pretty well, as he tilts Panel 1 to show the distress the plane is in (after a flying tank hits it, courtesy of Namor chucking it at some army dudes who pissed him off), and the angle leads us down to Tony, who’s crouching on the floor in Panel 2. He, in turn, is grabbing a chair, both leading us off the row and also pulling himself up, giving the entire sequence a “V” momentum. He struggles against the tilt in Panel 3 before reaching the toilet, which of course is occupied by a ridiculously stereotypical spinster. Romita still uses the tilt of the plane in Panel 6 to show Tony pushing by the woman and moving her – and our eyes – toward Panel 7, where she takes the time to move our attention back to the toilet, which is now essentially where the reader is sitting. It’s a nice layout. Romita doesn’t forget that it’s 1979, so Tony’s shirt is open and either he or Layton added a chain – you never know when you might need to swing – and the woman he forces out of the bathroom is strangely inked, as Layton obviously wants to make her “older” so he gives her some wrinkles, but her sharp and shapely eyebrows make me think she’s really a younger, beautiful woman who’s suddenly going to tear off her dress and go all “Hot for Teacher” on us. Okay, now this page is making me uncomfortable. Let’s move on again!
Iron Man saves the plane, of course, and we get this sequence as he does so. One thing that bugs me about Iron Man is how artists always make what he’s wearing look less like armor and more like a costume. Layton doesn’t need to add muscles on his torso, and he definitely doesn’t need to hatch it so that it looks rougher and more like skin. The rough inks on the arms and legs are fine, because Layton actually inks in a sunburst on Tony’s left arm, so that it looks metallic, but the inking on the torso is silly. I get that it’s a comic book and Tony’s armor wouldn’t do any of the many things attributed to it, but it would be nice if it looked a bit like actual armor. Some artists do a good job with it, but while Layton’s inking is nice here, it doesn’t make Tony’s torso look like armor. It bugs me.
Iron Man is trying to explain things to Namor, but Namor, as we know, has major anger issues, so he chucks a boulder at our hero. Once again, Romita lays the page out well, and once again, we get Layton’s dominating inks – he uses thick lines on Namor’s cheekbones much like he did on Tony’s, and he gives him eyelashes that some women would kill for. With regard to Tony’s armor – we can’t absolve Romita in that last panel, as he drew the shape of Tony’s legs as if Tony weren’t wearing any armor whatsoever, so the fact that Layton’s inking it doesn’t really come into it too much – he could have changed the shape of the legs, but that would have thrown the balance of the entire drawing off, and obviously, Layton was unconcerned with making Tony appear as if he were actually in armor. C’est la vie.
This is another nice layout by Romita, as he gets the fluidity of the action really well, which probably speaks to his upbringing, as he seems to have a better grip on it than many young artists. Of course, it could also be Layton’s inking, which continues to be very nice. Romita, staying generally “on-model” for the Marvel house style of this period, makes both men strangely barrel-chested, as their torsos seem a bit out of proportion with their legs, even though their legs are pretty powerful. He does a nice job leading our eyes across the page, from the roll in Panel 2 to the way Tony gets his leg onto Namor’s chest and blasts in Panels 4-5. Layton, I’m going to assume (although I know I shouldn’t), added the bubbles to the water, which makes Panel 2 more dynamic and also shows that the water is getting hotter. This is just a nice superhero fight scene.
Oh, and “Meanwhile, back at the ocean”? Really, David Michelinie?
You can see the lack of “armor” quite well here, as Tony’s legs in both Panels 1 and 3 might as well be naked. The inking in Panel 2 gives Iron Man’s mask just the right touch of humanity, and because Layton keeps the lines straight, even the small extra hatching doesn’t interfere with the fact that he’s trying to show a rigid face plate. His reaction in Panel 3 seems a bit extreme due to the (probably) small amount of water that’s gone into his mouth, but it’s a superhero comic – extreme reactions are where it’s at!
I know I wrote more about Layton in this post than Romita, but the idea of inkers dominating pencilers is fascinating to me, and it’s pretty clear that Layton knew what he was doing and maybe Romita didn’t quite yet. It makes this more of a “Layton” book than a Romita one, but it’s not a bad place to start so we can see where Romita went from here. So come back tomorrow and see where I go next. The dude has drawn pretty much every single Marvel comic ever published in the past 35 years, so who knows where I will go (not Batman, though, as Romita is the exemplar of the Romita Exception to the Batman Axiom of Comics)? It’s so exciting! Calm down by checking out the archives!
Comics Should Be Good accepts review copies. Anything sent to us will (for better or for worse) end up reviewed on the blog. See where to send the review copies.