SPIDER-MANDATE: The Lowe-down on "Secret Wars," Tie-Ins and Stacey Lee
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 Captain America (volume ∞) #1, which was published by Marvel and is cover dated January 2013. Enjoy!
As I’ve written more than once, when an artist has a long career, it becomes difficult to cover his or her career really well, so I decided to jump 20 years to show the most recent Romita comic I own, the first issue of the Marvel NOW! Captain America. Romita’s didn’t change significantly once he reached his mature phase, but this issue of Cap shows some problems that can create. He’s inked by Klaus Janson once again, but more importantly, he’s colored by Dean White, so we’ll see some things with that.
We begin with a flashback to 1926, as Steve Rogers’s father is beating up his wife, who stands up to him because of course she does. Steve asks her why she didn’t stay down when Drunk Joseph knocked her down, and of course she tells him, “You always stand up.” Romita has gotten more abstract over the years, but here, I think he’s going for it more because it’s a flashback, as he’s a bit more detailed in the present day. Romita has never been the most fluid artist, but as his figures become a bit more blocky, that works against his action scenes a bit. We see a little bit of that when Joseph leaves the room in Panel 3, which looks a bit awkward, but we’ll see it more later. Romita and whomever inks him have always been able to hatch quite a bit without looking too busy or too “Image-y,” but he and Janson ease back on it here, with Janson’s surprisingly light touch on Mama Rogers’s hair a bit disconcerting. White colors the page with a bit of flatness, probably in order to show that it’s taking place in the past. It’s certainly different from the rest of the book, as we’ll see.
In the present, we get more of what we’d expect from a Dean White-colored comic. Romita gives us a dramatic scene of a plane plunging straight down with Cap clinging to the roof, and his pencils and Janson’s inks are almost obscured by White’s coloring. It’s somewhat surprising that two artists as strong as Romita and Janson can be overwhelmed by the colorist, but it almost happens here, as White’s smooth brushes soften the artwork considerably. The use of colors, not lines, on the flames and the speed lines of the planes is fairly common these days, and while we can still see the lines of Cap’s costume in the third panel, White is using that soft touch on it to make the mail on his tunic look less armored. We’ll see more of this as we go along.
It’s strange to see this artwork, because while it’s clearly Romita, there’s also something unusual about it, and I can’t quite put my finger on it. The gun that the “Green Skull” is holding in Panel 1, for instance, is a typical “Romita weapon,” but for some reason it looks more amateurish than other examples. Is it the fact that Janson doesn’t ink it as crisply as Green did with Forge’s gun yesterday? Is White’s high-tech coloring a poor fit with Romita’s more old-school styling? The digital palette, with the blending of colors and the use of shadows, seems to work against Romita’s blunt style, so that the way White colors Cap in Panels 2 and 3 makes him look cartoonish, as the blocky pencils jar with the smoother coloring. Romita has always been more cartoony than a lot of superhero artists, but in the current environment, where colorists are not using flat colors of uniform brightness, that seems to negate some of Romita’s strengths. The way White colors Cap’s shield in Panel 4, for instance, with its gleam of steel, feels too “realistic” for Romita’s artwork. Is it just me?
Romita’s figures are still stocky – even Sharon – but once again, there’s something off about this sequence. It’s vexing, because I don’t want to blame White, but I’m not quite sure why this doesn’t work. Romita has never been great at emotions, so Panel 1 is kind of weird, as Cap doesn’t look like he’s kissing Sharon as much as he’s trying to drink something through a straw. The final four panels place the characters far enough away that Romita doesn’t need to do too much with their faces, so it’s not completely that. Maybe I will end up blaming White – when we consider how detailed Romita and his inkers have been, with hair carefully lined and the misc-en-scene precisely hatched, the washed-out surroundings and the smoother hair of Steve and Sharon looks strange. It’s too bad.
When Cap heads off to “Dimension Z,” we get this introduction to it, and once again, there’s some odd tension in the drawing. This works perfectly as a painted cover of an old fantasy or science fiction novel – the kind that Greg Hatcher writes about so eloquently every once in a while. As there’s not a lot happening, the painted look White prefers isn’t interfering with the artwork too much – the cliffs are “softer” than we might expect from a Romita drawing, and the spire a bit more ethereal, but this is a very nice panel mostly because there aren’t any people in it. That’s a shame.
This panel is a bit better, although Steve is still a bit too exaggerated, something else that has crept into Romita’s art more and more. Steve’s mouth is bigger than even Romita’s normal mouths, and his cheeks extend upward farther than is humanly possible. I know it’s because he’s in a lot of pain, but Steve looks so ridiculous in this panel it robs it of much effect. Still, Steve is drawn with good definition, and White doesn’t use too many shades on him, so it’s not too bad. Zola, meanwhile, shows what can happen when an old-school penciler like Romita gets colored by a new-school colorist like White and they don’t destroy each other. Romita’s solid style is good for a robot like Zola, and his segmented arms and legs mean that Romita and Janson get to use thick lines to show that. Zola’s face is behind protective glass, so while Romita and Janson make sure it’s heavily lined, we still get the glaze over it from the glass. White softens Romita’s pencils on the robot’s “head,” but it’s still mostly black, which helps balance it. As Zola has a standard color scheme, White needs to use purple and yellow, and I wonder if that helps – we still get the metallic sheen across his shoulders, but because the colors are somewhat outlandish, even the muted palette White uses can’t obscure that. So Zola becomes a pretty good latter-day Romita figure, and it’s probably the best drawing in the book.
Romita can still lay a page out well, as Cap makes his escape from Zola’s tower and destroys a bit of it in the process. The breaking glass is in stark contrast to when Fitzroy burst into Forge’s aerie yesterday – Romita drew them in here, it seems, but I wonder if Janson left some of it uninked, letting White simply use that white ink on the shards in Panel 4 to suggest the glass. In Panel 6, the shards are inked a bit, but because the glass is farther away from the reader, each shard isn’t as clearly delineated. Meanwhile, in Panel 3, Steve still bugs me. There’s just something off about the way Romita is drawing figures in this comic. I don’t know what it is.
Romita has always been terrible at drawing children – their heads are gigantic and too round, while their bodies are spindly – which makes it very odd that he drew Kick-Ass, but I guess Millar wanted him. I just wanted to show one drawing of a kid in these posts, because it’s just not great.
One thing you may have noticed in this post – no, not that I was very ambivalent, although there’s that – is how muted the colors are. Can you imagine a mainstream superhero comic looking like yesterday’s almost Day-Glo X-Men comic? The trend has been toward more muted colors, but it’s also been toward three-dimensional colors, with lots of shades and textures. As I’ve noted several times this year, that works for some artists, but I don’t think it works for Romita. He’s a bold, somewhat simplistic artist, and his art works really well with flatter colors. It’s not like colorists can’t flatten their colors when they work digitally, but many of them choose not to. It’s too bad that many editors believe in a “one-size-fits-all” kind of system, but we’ve seen over the course of this year that it’s a fairly common problem, and it’s been one for decades. Oh well.
So that’s John Romita Jr., whose older work I love but whose more recent work has had its ups and downs. We’ll see if moving to DC gives him a new opportunity to recapture his past glory. Who knows? Tomorrow I’ll check out an artist who has gotten really good but whose very early work is almost shockingly bad. Luckily, he kept at it! Thanks for joining me, and remember that the archives are always there for you!
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