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Year of the Artist, Day 170: John Romita, Jr., Part 4 – Uncanny X-Men #301

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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 Uncanny X-Men #301, which was published by Marvel and is cover dated June 1993. Enjoy!

Romita returned to Uncanny X-Men for a brief time in the early 1990s, when Scott Lobdell was writing the book, and we got that whole “Upstarts” plot, with the kids of the Hellfire Club trying to take over. This issue is right in the middle of that, so you know that it stars Trevor Fitzroy, the Character Find of 1991!!!! (“Fitzroy,” I should point out, is really hard to type – those letters just don’t go together very easily.)

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Ewwww. This is the first page of the comic, and Romita does a tremendous job with it. He’s back with Dan Green on inks, and he’s matured quite a bit in the 10 years since Amazing Spider-Man #246, so we see them working together quite well. He draws Selene like he draws most characters – she’s a bit wide and stocky, which is somewhat unusual for mainstream superhero artists, who tend to make women wispy or really muscular, with nothing in between. Selene’s face is agony, and Romita does a nice job showing that, while he and Green make the “transpatial bio-molecular displacement” (God, I love comics) look horrific. Romita tears the flesh from Selene’s bones, and he makes sure the strips are ragged, making it look even more painful. The hatching on her – ugh – costume is great, as it usually looks sleek like leather but here looks rough and beaten up, which is presumably the result of being ripped apart and stitched back together. Either Romita or Green adds the Kirby Krackle, which makes the process look even more horrifying, especially where it’s wedged in between the strips of skin. Steve Buccellato, who was on the forefront of digital coloring, makes this issue bright, which was kind of the style of the times (I think he might have been wearing an onion on his belt) and looks really weird today when you compare it to the dreary drudgery of modern comics coloring (yes, yes, get off my lawn). You can say a lot about the coloring of comics in the early 1990s, but it certainly wasn’t boring.

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These are two good examples of the “Romita face” – both Fitzroy and Selene have the thin, rectangular eyes that Romita often draws, and they both have the wide, toothy mouths associated with Romita. As we see Fitzory straight on, we get a better sense of his wide, flat cheeks and his long, thick nose, which are also Romita staples. He still does the cool stripping of Selene’s face in Panel 2, which still looks really painful. Either he or Green hatches Fitzroy’s face somewhat excessively, but it’s because Buccellato is lighting him from below, so he has to look hellish, as that’s the cliché when someone is lit from below (it’s true!). So we get the thick lines on his forehead and cheeks to imply shadows, while the area under his eyebrows and around his mouth is left unscathed. Buccellato uses yellow moving into orange to get a good creepy vibe to the whole thing. Meanwhile, Chris Eliopoulos letters this, and like digital coloring, at this point it could have been digitally lettered or lettered by hand – Eliopoulos, like Buccellato, was on the forefront of digital lettering, but I don’t know when he started doing it. Starkings and Comicraft were offering fonts around this time, but again, I don’t know about this particular issue. Either way, even though Selene’s speech is a bit hard to read (the early 1990s were a weird time for lettering in Marvel comics, as we got a LOT of different fonts), I like the way Eliopoulos does this, because it helps create the vibe that Selene is in some major distress.

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Man, the Nineties rocked, didn’t they? Fitzroy attacks Forge in his “aerie,” and we get this scene (Mystique was staying with Forge at this time because she was more than a little unbalanced, and Forge … decided he was a psychiatrist?). Romita, as we all know, could be a very detailed artist, and so we get the bazillion shards of glass bursting inward as Fitzroy arrives, leading us from that panel to the marvelous second one. Buccellato adds pink, purple, and blue hues to show something moving fast, but we don’t see it until Panel 2, where we get that drawing of Fitzroy, which is one of the many drawings from this era that you could use to sum up for someone who didn’t read comics then exactly what everyone means when they say “1990s comics.” I mean, look at that glorious panel. It’s pure Romita, as Fitzroy is blocky and thick, with as much of the “Romita face” as we can see. He gives him that great wave of hair on a head that’s shaved on the side for no other reason than it was 1993, and he designs that terrifically busy suit of armor, with the transparent torso guard and thigh guard, which is supposed to protect … his family jewels? Beats me – it’s the Nineties! The spot blacks are wonderful, too, as they add a slight menacing tone to the armor – it’s gaudy, sure, but it’s seen some rugged action, too. And, of course, we get the Kirby Krackle. Everyone loves Kirby Krackle! Buccellato tops it all off with the greens and blues, surrounded by the nauseating magenta of Fitzroy’s energy and the yellow shards of glass. Fitzroy, as you should all know, comes from a dystopian future, and it’s apparently dystopian because Clinton Kelly and Stacy London never existed.

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Fitzroy and his sweet boots chase Forge and Mystique away, but not before Forge cooks up a little gift for the bad guy. In Panel 1, Romita shows the beauty of simplicity, as he draws simple shapes around Fitzroy to show the ceiling collapsing. In Panels 2 and 3, we get more “classic” Romita figures, as he draws Forge with a wide face and a wide mouth, while either he or Green makes sure Forge is nice and hirsute. I really wanted to point out the weapon in Panel 3, because this is also a “classic” Romita drawing. Romita loves big weapons, and he tends to draw them as weirdly ornate but also utilitarian – he uses a lot of rectangles, but he and his inkers don’t over-hatch the surfaces, so that we get something like we see in Panel 3, where the lines are bold and the shapes are regular, but there’s no metallic sheen or roughness to the surface. It’s very interesting, because it’s one of those things you can pretty much count on seeing in a Romita comic if the story calls for a weapon.

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This is a nice two-page sequence of Forge fighting Fitzroy. Forge thinks he’s disabled Fitzroy, but he didn’t, and he pays for it. Romita does a nice job in the first two panels of the first page, as we walk with Forge toward the prone body of Fitzroy, but then, in Panel 2, Fitzroy turns and slashes at Forge’s prosthetic leg (Marvel: dismembering people 20 years before DC made it fashionable!), which goes with the momentum of the panel. That Panel 2 is really wonderful – Romita and Green give us a lot of tiny details that make Forge’s leg look even more robotic, but the angle from which we see it makes it look painful, too, even though it’s not a real leg. Buccellato once again has some fun in Panel 4, as he gets to go from white to pink to red to show Fitzroy’s energy warming up, leading to Panel 1 of the second page, where Forge blows up his own hand to escape. That’s another great panel – the explosion is in the upper left, but the lines bursting out of it make sure to take in Forge’s arm and shoulder so we can orient ourselves, while also leading down Fitzroy’s arm to his body, where we get the recoil from the blast. Lobdell, learning at the foot of his Claremontian Master, has Fitzroy say “Mesmro’s eyes” instead of “Holy shit,” because “Mesmro’s eyes” sounds so much cooler. We get a lot of nice spot blacks on the page as Forge’s hand disintegrates, and at the center of the explosion, Fitzroy’s hand loses some holding lines as the light is too bright for definition. Buccellato takes the relatively benign colors from the previous panel and makes it a bit harsher, with the pink deeper and scored with white, so that the explosion looks quite violent. In Panel 2, we once again get a lot of hatching on Fitzroy’s face, as once again he’s being lit from below, this time from the smoking remnants of Forge’s hand, and then Forge staggers away, with a nice movement from Fitzroy in the “back” of Panel 3 to Forge along the trail of smoke, and then to the gun lying in the foreground. Romita really knows how to lay a page out.

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Fitzroy blows himself up for some reason, and we get this wonderful final page. Romita’s attention to detail means we get individual window panels scattering in the explosion, and he or Green add the nice black lines radiating outward and the spot blacks all over the tiles as they burst. The wonderful sound effect leads us down to Storm, who was just about to head inside, and Romita and Green ink her heavily, while Buccellato wisely keeps her colored a muted blue so that we can see her and so that she seems a bit insignificant against the bright explosion. Buccellato thinks about the range of the explosion, so we get bright yellows on some of the glass, which shifts to orange and then even darker orange the farther away we get. It’s a cool cliffhanger, and the art team does a very nice job with it.

These aren’t great X-Men issues, but they’re not terrible, and Romita was really doing some unusual work on them, because it’s clear he was, at 36/37 years old, trying to adjust to the New Kewl Reality of comics, but he was still old-school enough that it created some weird tension in the books. Soon he would move on again to other comics, but I’m going to skip ahead to a more recent comic, where he’ll be teamed once again with Klaus Janson, and the results are … well, they’re something. You can find more interesting penciler/inker pairings in the archives!

22 Comments

The coloring of this book was amazing. Buccellato really elevated the art. And Dan Green was doing great on the inks too. I really felt like both JR JR and Green both really, really improved from the first run together, and this is coming from someone who really loved their first run together. I disagree that JR JR was trying to balance the New Kewl Reality of 90s comic book art with the old school vibe, though. I never felt JR JR was trying to ape the new kewl style at all. He always felt to me as doing his own think throughout the 90s and staying away from the Imagey trends.

T.: It’s not necessarily that he changed his style as much as he adopted some of the excesses, like Fitzroy’s ridiculous armor and some of the hair styles and such. It’s certainly not egregious, like when Herb Trimpe tried to do it, but it’s still art that is influenced by the new reality, I think. Obviously, on later books like when he drew The Punisher, he retained his own style.

Im one of the few that thinks Jrjr is still great!!

He is this generations Kirby.

Admittedly, his style is not traditional, and his women are not HOT! But i don’t care! Its not Sports Illustrated Swim Suit Special!

Man, Selene looks like she got on the wrong side of Itchy (of “Itchy and Scratchy” fame).

tom fitzpatrick

June 19, 2014 at 7:18 pm

There’s nothing wrong with Fitzroy! Just try typing Fitzpatrick! Hmph!!!

I second Trey, regarding the Kirby statement.

I missed out on this JRjr’s run! :-(

The art is really stylish here. John Romita Jr.’s pencils look great with the bold, blocky colors of older comics. His work doesn’t look as impressive with the hyper-saturated digital coloring that’s now the norm, but stuff like this, his work on John Byrne’s Iron Man, and his Daredevil is just a joy.

It almost makes up for the militantly adequate Claremont imitation that was Scott Lobdell’s X-Men.

Man, JRJR knew how to draw a fight. Just skimming through the images you get the sense that this is a no holds barred to the death fight. Forge gets his hand and leg destroyed and he’s bleeding heavily – You can almost feel his pain through the page.

That’s something that I feel a lot of comics are lacking nowadays. The Big 2 are all too quick to kill off characters, but I can’t really recall seeing fights where it looks like the characters are just hurting. The closest I can think of are a lot of fight sequences in Invincible, mostly because Ryan Ottley is just great at drawing blood spatters.

Nah, if anyone’s this generation’s Kirby, it’s Bachalo.

I am also a JRJR admirer. He does good work, is fast and reliable, plus he is a good storyteller.

Man, I loved his brief Uncanny run although fans apparently hated it at the time.

As I recall, Bob Harras unceremoniously dumped him off the book without even telling him he was gone, much like he did with John Byrne a few months earlier.

Trevor Fitzroy and the Upstarts… I haven’t thought about them in years and years. Now there was a subplot that went absolutely nowhere fast. It got started by Jim Lee, Whilce Portacio and Rob Liefled, who all then went off to found Image Comics a year later. Scott Lobdell and Fabian Nicieza then inherited it, and either had no idea what to do with it, or no interest in pursuing it.

I know hindsight is 20:20, but Bob Harras unceremoniously sacking Chris Claremont to hand over the reigns of the X-books to Lee, Portacio & Liefeld really was a monumentally bad decision that blew up in his face almost immediately, and left the various titles floundering for quite a while.

All that aside, I did think John Romita Jr. did some good, solid work during his brief return to Uncanny X-Men in the early 1990s, even if the the stories he was pencilling were somewhat underwhelming.

@Ben Herman, there are some great columns over at uncannyxmen.net that explain what Claremont had planned through Uncanny #300, culminating in a major psi-war with the Shadow King. There’s even some concept art and promotional art that’s been floating around for what that would have looked like. Here’s the column I’m thinking of:

http://uncannyxmen.net/secrets-behind-the-x-men/x-men-and-x-factor-united

Having just completed my Stern Avengers in trades run I’ve come to realise how little of JRjr’s original X-Men run is traded up. Yes it’s in Essentials but aside from the first issue and those 200 upwards I don’t think anything 177-200 has been collected :-( And aside from an issue in an ancient Bishop trade I don’t think any of his later X-Men issues are either

I like Fitzroy, he’s cool looking and kind of an underrated villain.

Yeah, JRJr did some awesome work on this terrible X-run. This one is probably the best -or at least my favorite- issue of the batch, after the one where Sabretooth fights Jubilee (that then gave us the much better What If issue full of violent deaths).
Although my favorite bit of this run is the short sequence where Exodus fights Sersi in the Avengers crossover.
Exodus, what a lame character that was…

This is the era where I really became a huge fan of John Romita Jr., though it was Punisher War Zone #5 that hooked me. I reeally miss this style. Very chunky and solid and three-dimensional.

Stephen Conway

June 20, 2014 at 1:32 pm

This is pretty nice art, especially for the time. Yes, the armour is ridiculous and I think the hatching for Forge’s bodyhair is a bit overdone, but the flow is strong and the anatomy is pretty good.

I’m guessing his Dimension Z Cap story with Remender will fill the number #5 slot. His art there was a bit too loose, bit it was very Kirby-esque.

I’m paging through looking for JRjr.’s high cheekbones on females. Hmm, Selele has no cheekbones at this point, guess I’ll have to pass. :-)

I’m happy with JRjr’s art shown here, I like that last page! But the pictures made me cringe for another reason – I am not wild about this era of X-Men. It’s interesting that I can remember the good art and good stories, but if the story is not there (for me), I won’t remember the art.

So happy Greg picked JRjr!

The Cable limited series that he drew came out a few months or around the same time as this. I love his art on Cable; super detailed, crazy giant future guns everywhere, not to mention a few “stab his eyes!” That Fabian Nicezia threw in there.

Most of Marvel’s material following the departure of the Image founders seemed to mandate that other artists follow in that “bombastic” (or “Extreme!!” if you prefer) vein as best as they could, likely in hopes of maintaining the momentum those guys built for the company. X-Men in particular, given that the Jim Lee versions of the characters were what they were using for their multimedia licensing push. In Romita Jr.’s case, he seemed to want to achieve it by upping the already present Kirby-like elements in his work, rather than move towards something clearly more Image like.

Personally, I thought his best work along these lines was the Amalgam Comics: Thorion one-shot and his subsequent run on Thor. Both of which really upped the bombastic Kirby elements to gel with the science fantasy subject matter to great effect. Always thought it was a shame that interviews he gave at the time seemed to indicate that he wasn’t into the material as much as his Daredevil or Spider-Man stuff, as while it was frequently pretty good, it didn’t “wow” me in the same way.

I can’t agree with the statement that JRJR is this generation’s Kirby. I can agree that his style is reminiscent of Kirby’s with the stylized chunky anatomy, but Kirby invented hundreds of amazing characters and storylines that are still being mined and expanded upon. There is no one like Kirby at work in the Big Two, probably no one like Kirby would be allowed to flourish today as most everything is a reiteration of previous work, whereas Kirby was spitting out new ideas every single month.
Okay the art. i like JRJRs art a lot. He has style and substance but these panels do betray an “Image” influence that doesn’t do anything for me. The colouring is great!

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