John Romita Jr. may have just added a superpower to Superman, but his real goal is to make the hero more human — something he's continuing to explore not only in this week's Superman #40, which he both wrote and drew, but also in his upcoming "Truth" storyline with new series writer Gene Luen Yang.
And even though Romita's collaboration with Geoff Johns on Superman ended, the concepts introduced during their run aren't necessarily finished — particularly the story of Mr. Oz, a mysterious hooded figure whose story will continue in future issues.
Before Romita started working on Superman in June 2014, he was best known for his work at Marvel Comics over the last 30-plus years on titles like Thor, Avengers and Amazing Spider-Man. During his Superman eight-issue runwith Johns, Romita not only gave Superman a costume change, but the pair crafted a new superpower for the hero called the Super Flare.
Now, Romita's taking over writing duties for one issue, with this week's Superman #40, before uniting with Yang for a new story that starts in June. And the writer/artist said the next part of exploring Superman's new power concentrates on its side effect — the need for Superman to recover for about 24 hours after he uses the Super Flare, effectively making him a regular human being for a day.
And in this week's issue, Romita promises readers will not only see Superman getting drunk as a human, but he'll be hanging out with the entire Justice League as he does it.
It's all part of an effort by the Superman team to give the character more humanity, Romita told Newsarama. We talked to the artist to find out more.
Newsarama: John, what do you feel that you've accomplished for Superman in the first part of your run, and what are your goals for not only this week's issue, but also your upcoming run with Gene?
John Romita Jr.: What I've accomplished is, I've learned how to draw Superman! [Laughs]
Nrama: That's pretty big.
Romita: Yeah. Somebody — I think it was Eddie Berganza, who's the editor — said, "Hey, John, you're really catching on here." I forget how he put it, but I know what he meant.
But it's true. I'm starting to feel more comfortable. I'm not referring to model sheets or character sheets anymore. I'm starting to get more comfortable with the character. I'm a slow learner. What can I say?
That's the first thing. I'm starting to get the hang of it.
I'm learning continuity and backstories on several characters that I hadn't known before.
And then it works up to this writing thing.
I managed to apply a little bit of my own reality to fantasy. I did that with Kick-Ass, and I did that with other characters I've worked on. And it's not always because I'm brilliant — it's because I can't think of anything else [laughs], or I use reference that's around me: the house, my friends, my neighbors, experiences I go through. So I call it dumb luck.
And that's what applied to this issue of Superman, which is the effect that a couple of ounces of light beer would have on a character that's never touched it to his lips as a human before.
Honestly, since the character is adjusting to having this new power, he gets addicted to the fact that he can control it, to a certain extent. It's not just the advantage of controlling this new power as much as, he can turn it on and off. And he feels empowered by that, and it's become an addiction to him, in that he wants this.
He wants to feel human and then suddenly change costume and be the superhero again, instead of always being Superman.
And then I applied that to everyday things. The junk food after having a couple ounces of beer. You got to brush your teeth. You've got to gargle with Listerine. Just the everyday stuff. Anybody that has a glass of wine the night before and gets up too early, and feels like you still have the glass of wine in your system, and there's a hamburger on the bed next to you — anybody that's ever been through that knows exactly what that is. And "I will never, ever do that again" — that old comment.
So it is just using everyday experiences. I shouldn't say everyday. I don't drink every day. I drink once in a blue moon. I can't believe I just said that.
What I mean is, just applying everyday stuff to a character that is a fantastic character. That was the fun part of it.
Learn how to draw the character, and suddenly learn how to apply myself through a minor part of this great character.
And now I'm working with a new writer. So I learned a lot of things working with Geoff. The DC guys have been great helping me along. And now I'm working with a guy I've never worked with before, and I've read his treatments and his plots, and the man is brilliant. And I really enjoy it. And I'm excited about doing the next set of books with this man.
Of course, Klaus Janson and Dean White — I tell you the truth, it's like having a crutch and support system. Klaus and Dean, I've worked with before, and they're both brilliant.
So I'm very comfortable now.
Nrama: I think most readers can identify with Clark Kent to an extent, but under those glasses, readers know he's this godlike being. So there's always been this sense that it's difficult to really tap into his humanity because he's invulnerable. But in March's issue, as Superman spent time with Jimmy as a "human" after he used his superpowers, it brought a little more humanity to Superman. You're describing this week's issue as a similar study. Is this theme going to continue into your run with Gene when it begins in June — these elements of him being more human and more vulnerable?
Romita: Yeah. I always figured that that was the attempt by everybody that's ever worked on the character, because the knock on the title is that he's too perfect. And then they killed him, and they learned that he's got to be fallible. And yet, it was never played up.
It seems like a natural to me.
So yes, the time that he spends with Jimmy and then the adjustment to being normal — that's why this new power connects with that thought.
I'm happy to do that every little moment I can. Every little anecdote, every little vignette that I can make him seem as human as possible and as real as possible — even though my style doesn't lend itself to realism, per se, there are things you can do. And one of them is sitting in the bar with the Justice League, which if it hasn't been done before should be done more often.
Nrama: They certainly deserve it.
Romita: You save the universe. You go have a beer. You ought to do that.
Nrama: I'm wondering about the haircut we're seeing for June. Was that you?
Romita: Uh… I may have suggested it. I don't remember who got credit for it.
If it's not accepted, it wasn't my fault. If everybody loves it, I gladly take all the credit for it.
Yeah, the idea of changing the character made sense. Honestly, in my own humility, I thought, well, they told me I didn't do the forelock right, and I didn't do his nose right when I did my first image of Superman, so wink wink… nudge nudge… I managed to break his nose and I got his haircut. So maybe that was selfish of me.
But it was part of the line we were thinking about the character.
Aaron Kuder did some sketches of the short hair. I did some sketches of the short hair. You know it's Clark Kent.
And somebody has to cut Clark Kent's hair. It has to be done. We have to figure out who actually does that. He's got a super barber somewhere. We'll figure it out.
Nrama: One of the neat things about him being more "human" is that he can sit in a bar with the Justice League, as you said, and he can experience other things in life as a human. But that vulnerability comes with danger as well. And looking at June, as you start the "Truth" storyline, it looks very ominous. Is "Truth" about the other side of being "human," that there's a bad side to it? Is that where the book goes?
Romita: Absolutely. It's part of any superhero's existence that there has to be some danger, if you are part human, or are human in your alternative personality — Spider-Man takes off his costume, anybody takes off his costume and he's suddenly are endangering, if you're found out, you're endangering your loved ones.
It never happened to Superman before, and that has to play a part in this, especially since he actually does become human.
And there is a delay. He may not know it, and it's in this issue, where he jumps out a window and suddenly realizes — whoops! I haven't gotten the flight back yet. I've got to bounce around, because cops hop around.
All this plays into… it's a natural progression. He's not perfect.
And now, since he's embracing being human, he's endangering everybody because he doesn't have the power. And Jimmy Olsen knows this.
To me, that's the way you show the humanity of a character. You humanize the character. And literally, in this way, he's become human.
At some point, he steps in front of a loaded pistol, and Jimmy's like, wait a minute! Did you know he wasn't going to shoot? Well, not really, but he still had to do it.
All of this plays perfectly with the idea of humanizing the character, and literally, we're humanizing him. And he gets attached to being able to do that.
It plays perfectly. He's an alien! He gets the chance to hang around and be a normal guy and eat food. And he tastes elements of food that he ever tasted before. And the idea of him going into a bar wasn't because I think every character should go out and get drunk. I just thought it's something nobody expects. I just think it's stressful having to save the universe or the planet regularly. So why not?
Little things to attached everybody to their humanity. Batman should be listening to the blues. He's a dour, stoic character. That's the kind of music he listens to, is the blues. The Flash is a wise ass and he says stupid things. I tried to make Wonder Woman a little more glib, but they said, no, she's an old style Amazon, and she'd never say anything that glib.
So my addition to this is the humanization of the characters. And the great powers that these characters have just are themselves. It's easy to see. There's no greatness to anybody changing advancing the powers — the trick is to advance the humanity of it. I'm glad I'm a part of it with everybody else.
And I did enjoy writing this issue very much because it played out nicely.
Nrama: Are the costume changes coming up also part of trying to humanize him a little?
Romita: Sure, sure. I think the changes in the costume over the years are fine, but there are only so many changes you can put into Superman's costume. You've got to have the S. You've got to have the red cape. You've got to have the forelock. Well, we managed to mess with the forelock, but his hair can grow back.
But the costume change — instead of changing the costume, you just put him in a normal outfit. He's done that a million times as Clark Kent, so now he just does it as Superman.
There are so many chess pieces to play with. It's a great game, and you come up with something new and different every time. If you can do something that's never been done before, that's fantastic, but I think it's nearly impossible. It's like coming up with a new melody. I don't know how songwriters do it. But coming up with something new and different — especially for Superman — is nearly impossible. And great minds have put their heads together, and we're working on it! I've got to have writers to help me through it.
Nrama: That brings me to Mr. Oz and this blank book that we saw before the Convergence break. Is that some type of meta thing, where you're saying the book on Superman isn't written yet — that you're still playing around with it and trying different things?
Romita: Ooo! I don't think I can say anything. Give me $50,000 and I'll tell you exactly what's going to happen. Bribery is not above me. I am a civilian. I can't really tell you anything beyond that.
But it's an amazing storyline that Geoff Johns wrote out when I first started working with him on the title. And the end of what he had — the tail end of his complete treatment — is what's coming. And it's fantastic.
I'm so excited about it.
I never expected to be excited about doing stories for a character that's been done more than anybody else. And yet here we are. I'm excited, and I'm very proud of it.