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Year of the Artist, Day 171: John Romita, Jr., Part 5 – Captain America #1

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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 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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

19 Comments

I think the problem with Romita and Janson’s inking efforts is that they don’t use a lot of thin lines when shading. They have thick lines and thicker lines. It’s such a small thing, but it gives characters, specifically their faces, more depth and detail. I am with u where I love Romita’s older stuff, but don’t care for his more recent work. I feel like his downward spiral started sometime near the end of his “Amazing Spider-Man” run with Strazynski.

For me, it is hard to describe why I like Romita’s art, even today. There are times that I don’t – especially with female faces. His Aunt May was just terribly gaunt in the face. She’s been drawn with a skinny face before, but for some reason JRjr’s Aunt May really struck me like was not just withered, but withering away. I’m with you on the kids that are drawn a bit weird with over-size heads!

Overall I’ve gotten used to his blockier characters. I remember them way back on Punisher War Zone, even. I did enjoy his World War Hulk, and enjoyed his recent Cap run. I do wish he would stick with a title for a bit longer (a gripe I have with all artists today, especially with Marvel).

Stephen Conway

June 20, 2014 at 4:06 pm

I went between loving and hating and loving again the art on this run. Especially after the time-skip I really enjoyed the book. The design for adult Jet was very Kirbyesque.

Another artist whose work is totally destroyed without “flatter” coloring is Larry Stroman. Really, almost anyone who uses deliberately “pop” 2-D character designs and layouts works better with flatter coloring. Imagine this kind of coloring with Mike Allred or Marcos Martin pencils!

Captain Haddock

June 20, 2014 at 6:31 pm

I have to say in spite of how weirdly cartoony and somewhat off-putting Romita makes his characters, I still LOVE his storytelling abilities. There are few artists who are so gifted that they can so effectively make their stories flow so well from panel to panel. His Captain America run is hardly his best work, but I never once had to struggle with how I had to read the stories and what I was supposed to feel. The book overall has been disappointing, but it was never difficult when Romita was doing it. I could say the same thing about most of his Spidey work, where he had to rescue the book from some terrible stories.

I’m really excited to see his Superman. I feel like when Romita wants to work on a character (like Supes or Spiderman, who he will clearly never outgrow), his work reaches another level. When it’s for a paycheck, you can tell pretty easily with Romita.

I finally had to drop this new Cap title from my pull. He’s my fave so I’m always more particular with the creative team, so I’m probably being overly picky. But I felt the story dragged and I just couldn’t handle the art. I always keep wanting to give JRJR more credit and but I continue to find disappointment. He did some great work on Daredevil but sadly I just can’t appreciate is later stuff.

tom fitzpatrick

June 20, 2014 at 7:15 pm

I’m wondering if maybe you should’ve showcased Kick-Ass instead of Captain America.

JRjr’s art was quite different when being inked by Tom Palmer in comparison to Klaus Janson in C.A.
It’s almost as if JRjr’s art was smoother in K.A. and it’s Kirbyesque here in C.A.

I’m going to have to check out his newest book over at DC, Superman.
See if he’s more evolved or de-evolved, art-wise.

I have to say, I do enjoy the “Romita Is Coming!” promotional campaign DC’s been doing, in a cute echo of what they did with Kirby in the ’70s.

Not enough to pick up the comic, probably, because I don’t enjoy Johns’s writing and I don’t like the New 52 Superman, but I’ll be curious to see the art when the my local library gets the trade collection.

I like the art in this issue. I will never object to Romita doing the Romita style, so things like Cap’s exaggerated mouth in the torture panel or bobble-headed young Steve don’t bother me. The coloring, even when it’s beautiful, I tend to agree is an ill fit. Marvel has (or had) Dean White doing painted recolorations of Kirby for Marvel Masterworks, and there too, it just looks wrong. Kirby and Romita’s action drawings are all about impact, which careful, delicate coloring does nothing to enhance.

For the purposes of this column, it’s a shame you only went as far as Cap #1, because Romita’s art gets much worse later in the series. He becomes increasingly reliant on White to tell the story. I suspect he omits details and flourishes from the script, as what shows up on the page is largely just figure drawings. The reader gets no sense of technology or architecture in the civilizations of Dimension Z, despite the fact that one of Remender’s main stated goals with this arc was to channel Kirby.

I’ll always remember Romita’s drawing of the lead mutate, a villain who appears several times, with dialogue, flies and transports goods for Zola’s army. For him, Romita draws a plain white bed linen with a mouth.

Romita always has a very particular way of drawing Marvel characters, regardless of how their looks change over the years. He seems to be actively resisting the Marvel Now Captain America costume here, from making the cowl’s wings three-dimensional objects again to drawing the gloves and boots in the same basic shape as the classic Cap (albeit with the flaring toned down) to minimizing the excess line-work on the outfit.

This doesn’t always work in his favor, as seen with his clunky tin-can renditions of all Iron Man suits or his refusal to draw Cat-Beast with feline features, but in this case it looks a hell of a lot better.

Omar: Yeah, I’ve noticed that about Stroman, unfortunately.

tom: I don’t own Kick-Ass, so I couldn’t show it. Maybe I would have!

Cass: I got the Marvel NOW! books on credit from my store, so if the first issue didn’t grab me, I didn’t continue with it. In this case, it didn’t really grab me, so that combined with the 4-dollar price point meant I didn’t keep up. If Romita’s art got worse, I wish I had, just to see it!

Just awful. This was the final straw for me on Cap, not only is Remender’s storyline not remotely to my liking it was in my opinion a really ugly comic thanks to JR jr’s modern style. There is a strong sameness about all the characters heads and faces which reduces individuality, not unlike but not quite as bad as Kevin Maguire who draws every female identical and then changes hair, but there is a trend towards that and in years to come I can see Romita ending up down that route.

Jan Robert Andersen

June 21, 2014 at 11:26 pm

While I got why you skipped his 1980s Uncanny X-Men I really think you skipped too much going from his 1990s X-Men to his recent Captain America.

I was introduced to JrJr in the late 1970s and early 1980s on Iron Man, Spider-Man and X-Men. I really liked him on Spider-Man but preferred other X-Men pencillers.

When he landed on Ann Nocenti’s Daredevil with Al Williamson I was very impressed.

This was back when American comics took of with Frank Miller’s Daredevil, Dark Knight Returns and Year one, Watchmen, Marshall Law etc.

I also checked out the Star Brand but left quickly the New Universe with JrJr when he left.

I followed John Byrne from his X-Men to Fantastic Four to Superman and returning to Marvel with Iron Man and Namor.

JrJr was part of why I picked up that Iron Man run and I followed JrJr onto Punisher War Zone, Heart of Darkness, Man Without Fear, Punisher/Batman, and even picked up his second X-Men run and Cable.

I also have some of his other mid 1990s stuff like Spider-Man Lost Years and those Howard Mackie Peter Parker Spider-Man but not his Thor run.

When JrJr returned to Marvel in the 2000s second Spider-Man with another favorite of mine J Michael Straczynski run I was thrilled.

I think his style had evolved from his 1980s and 1990s stuff and in fact was his peak.

I also got his Sentry by Paul Jenkins, Wolverine by Mark Millar, a somewhat disappointing Eternals by Neil Gaiman and the great Incredible Hulk run by Bruce Jones.

He sort of settled in his current style with some stiffness and shortcuts creeping into it.

I was also disappinted by his Gray Area and was only kind of interested in his World War Hulk and Kick-Ass Again by Mark Millar.

I never picked up his Black Panther, Avengers, and Captain America and I’m really not especially interested in the New 52 Superman.

I havn’t left behind JrJr but he just havn’t been doing thing i find interresting.

Jan Robert Andersen

June 22, 2014 at 12:16 am

JrJr evolved his beat-up and bruised faces and bodies on Daredevil and Punisher War Zone giving his faces that broken nose look.

While he still uses a lot of this in his current work is often doesn’t suit the recent titles. He is better at more grounded stories and characters.

His Daredevil, Punisher, Spider-Man and even Kick-Ass are better matches for his style than Eternals, Avengers an X-Men.

Both Black Panther and Captain America should suit his style but but somehow they don’t match up. It could be his interest in the characters and stories.

Wolverine, Hulk and even Sentry worked better and Eternals was the most off.

I see at least two problems here.

One, we mostly see the figures in head-on or side shots. There aren’t a lot of interesting angles.

Two, the layouts are subpar. On the first page, the last three panels are similar in terms of framing, and the last two are almost identical. On the third page, which I’d say is the worst, five of six panels feature the same middle distance. Only the closeup of the fist breaks the monotony. On the fourth page, the last four panels show Steve and Sharon in mid-distance with only small variations.

The seventh page, whose layout you praised, is the only one that’s decent. Even so, Cap’s figure is head-on, side, head-on, side, and side, roughly speaking. The first four panels are mid-distance and the last two are long-shots. There’s no great variation of angles and distances to make this page exceptional.

Go back and look at Romita’s Spider-Man layouts on Day #168. For instance, the J. Jonah Jameson page you rightly praised. Romita was arguably at his peak then. That page is so much better than anything here that there’s no comparison.

It’s almost as if two different artists did the breakdowns and Romita did the finishes. You can recognize the Romita touches in all his work, but his layouts have declined significantly. I don’t know if that’s an intentional change or an unconscious evolution, but whatever the reason, his work used to be better.

I think he peaked with World War Hulk. From there on out I feel his touch has gone downhill.

I was amused to see those ‘Romita is coming’ ads in DC, partly because JRJR is hardly a creative force on a par with Kirby, and also because after all that hype Kirby’s books weren’t the raging success that DC hoped – I wonder if Romita will be. It’s not that I dislike Romita’s work, but I think that his best art is in Spider-man, Kick -Ass and Daredevil. He just doesn’t do epic or sf that well. His aliens and monsters are pretty awkward, his mythic characters have Kirby’s blockish quality but are charmless. His costume designs on X-men also seemed pretty lame. I remember reading his first few issues on Thor, which were followed by a fill-in by John Buscema which felt like a breath of fresh air, despite the latter’s long association with the character. His Cap wasn’t too bad, but curiously, the best parts, both in the writing and the art, were the flashbacks to Steve’s childhood in the early 1920′s, which IMO further demonstrates that he’s better with realistic settings than fantastic ones. But I hope that he and Johns make a go of Superman, which has been floundering for too long.

I really like JRjr’s storytelling abilities. His art style my not fit for everything (even if I enjoy seeing it) but I think he does a great job. Plus he is one who is actually doing work, not waiting for an inker or his studio to do the hard work. I loved his later Iron Man, Romita always had a problem of showing his with armor but at the same time moving smotly.
He has aslo say that Milgrom (I think) in this Coffe Bean Spider-Man story and Layton in Iron Man practycly saved his ass, as he was too green at the time. But when he was left alone he did great job! Maybe he is not always great, or the best, but I find it very difificult to think better artists than him.

Maybe it’s the combination of colouring and the cartoony style of JRJR, but this reminds me of Kurtzman and Elders Little Annie Fanny. That being said I really like it!
http://bit.ly/1nhq4EB

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