With the second film based on his popular creator-owned series Kick-Ass (written by Mark Millar) hitting cinemas on Friday, legendary comics artist John Romita, Jr. is at a crossroads.
Kick-Ass 3 is wrapping up soon (with a movie potentially coming, depending on how the second film does), and his years-long exclusive contract with Marvel Comics is at an end. He no longer feels the urge to lock in a years-long run on somebody else's character, and rather wants to roll the dice on more creator-owned work, where both the risks and rewards are heightened.
He's got creator-owned work in the pipeline with some of the most revolutionary and best-selling names in the medium, and one of his earlier creator-owned works, Gray Area, is now a screenplay headed out to studios to be considered as a film (likely, given its nature, a franchise if it makes it into development).
But he's got a year, more or less, to kill. Each of the writers who want to work with him will need time to develop scripts, and Romita knows that if you're out of sight in comics, you're out of mind--and that can be a death sentence. So what will he do? He's not sure yet--but he's got a lot of offers.
Romita is currently fielding interest from DC Comics and Image, as well as from Marvel, who would rather not lose him if all parties can make the numbers work. Even in work-for-hire, though, he says he wants to do his own stories and has a plot hammered out for a widescreen, high-powered superhero story that he'd like to try out with either Silver Surfer, Doctor Strange...or maybe Superman.
Romita joined ComicBook.com to talk in-depth about the movies, why he's more excited for Kick-Ass 2 than he was for Kick-Ass, and why he wouldn't regret it if the time has come to move on from Marvel after thirty-seven years.
ComicBook.com: What are the odds we'll see you outside Marvel?
John Romita, Jr.: Yeah, there's a good chance I'll do some work for DC. There's a better-than-good chance now. It really just came up becuase we couldn't agree on a contract with Marvel. And there wasn't any kind of nastiness or anything like that, just a disagreement here or there. DC is anxious to do something and I actually had a story idea they really liked that applies to Superman.
So the peripheral conversation started just before the San Diego con but it's been a real long time since my contract expired and Marvel has been waiting for me to finish all the work that I wanted to finish. And they've been touching on contract talks over the summer but nothing of substance, so we're at this point. There's interest from DC that I have to consider and there's interest from other people as well--from Image and Kirkman--and I've got to look at them all. There's a possibility of just going freelance and playing around.
ComicBook.com: So I'm guessing you wouldn't be signing an exclusive deal for anybody? You'd leave the door open to working at Marvel or whatever else?
Romita: Well, there's two things that are interesting. One is Marvel would not be thrilled if I went freelance and worked for both companies. I don't think that would be kosher with Marvel--I mean, not even DC but I know Marvel would be against that.
The other thing is that because of all the creator-owned projects that I have lined up with writers that I have been absolutely enthralled to work with, are all about a year down the road before they're prepared. Neil Gaiman, Mark Millar, Mark Waid and so on--so those guys won't be ready until a year hence. Which means I can do one of two things--just go freelance and play around or I can just sign a one-year contract with somebody to do a storyline that I want, which is a good possibility because I have a couple of plots lined up that I'm really fascinated. One of them applies to a couple of characters, one of which is Superman, and I'm excited about the storyline. It would apply to Superman very well. It would apply to Silver Surfer, it would apply to Doctor Strange, but I'm fascinated at the thought of doing something like applying this to Superman. So there's a good chance. And I'm excited by any kind of challenge and any kind of change.
ComicBook.com: You haven't done a whole lot of writing. Is that something you'd want to get into more as you're as you're getting more entrenched in creator-owned work?
Romita: I would love to but I'm still learning how to be an artist. I have to work on being an artist; I still have a ways to go.
I can plot; I have a bunch of treatments and a bunch of plots and I've put those aside because of time constraints. I'd rather do a whole series with a writer and get it done sooner than later, than taking too much time because of the dialogue. I also wouldn't mind having it put in front of another mind.
The plots and the treatments that I have--they're relatively complete but I learned from working with Howard Chaykin on Shmuggy and Bimbo: I had a great treatment, and then Howard made it even better. I doin't want to take the chance of missing input from a brilliant writer. When you have a chance to work with Neil Gaiman, and then you have a chance to work with Mark again, and guys like Mark Waid and Howard Chaykin--I can't pass up the opportunity to have them involved with it.
So I go to them with a treatment and they do with it as they please, and it's ours. The thought of writing a complete series isn't as thrilling to me as having a real high quality product. Like I said, I'm still working on the art end of this. I'll be happy with the plotting and the treatments and being happier with the end product.
ComicBook.com: We've talked about this a little bit, but when you talk about these collaborative relationships, Kick-Ass is very often thought of as a Mark Millar project, and then you're an added bonus. Fair or not, do you think it helps that now you HAVE Kick-Ass out there in the world, so the next project you do will be "From the co-creator of Kick-Ass" and suddenly you'll be more marketable and a little easier to promote?
Romita: Sure. I have a thicker skin than that, and it was Mark's original idea. Nobody can deny that. The fact that Mark gets top billing, what are you going to do? It's like Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, although I think Mark is closer to Stan Lee than I am to Jack Kirby.
You can't do anything about it; Mark did create the idea. Now, we both advanced it. I'm called co-creator but it was his original idea that started it. I don't have any false notions about this. He says I've done 80% of the work, so be it. That's fine. The advantage of doing Kick-Ass and its success is just what you said: that it's under your belt, you have somethign to pull out the card with.
Since I'm not a writer, I am an artist, when I approach a writer, it's the same formula which Mark approached me with: Look, you take this and if we're successful with it, we're 50/50 partners on this.
Now, I also have no false notions that when I do a project with Neil, if it's based on my premise...somehow I think Neil's name will go first. [Laughs] I'm not worried about that.
With Gray Area, this is an interesting conundrum: I pitched this idea to Glen Brunswick and now Glen has been doing a lot of work in the comics industry. It's originally my idea, we did Gray Area, now there's a screenplay that's been written and they're going to take it out to the studios within a month. We're going to get it developed. I told the producer, "Listen, after what happened with Kick-Ass and Mark Millar, I think my name should go first with anything from here on in." And he agreed--that's not a problem. I haven't told Glen Brunswick yet [laughs], but we'll see what he says.
Naturally, everybody thinks the writer is the one who comes up with the idea and you make a good point; I'm going to have to make sure that the credits reflect who came up with the idea first. It's minor, but since we're in the creator-owned field, there's got to be something to explain those little details. Everybody knows Mark came up with the original idea; now I have to make a point of, if I'm working on my original ideas, that that is brought to everybody's attention.
ComicBook.com: Last time we talked, I think the film was still shooting. Have you seen it early?
Romita: No. The 14th is the premiere in the U.K., there's a screening in Manhattan on Monday which I'm actually going to and the 16th is the actual release.
ComicBook.com: This one's interesting to me--by and large the first one was such a true adaptation of the book that the idea of adapting the two miniseries together into one film seems like it would be harder to do and still have the same kind of fidelity to the source material. Is that working partially because of a difference in the directors' styles?
Romita: Yes, because Jeff Wadlow was getting my scans of the pencils as I was doing them and he did stick to it. There was a lot more material for him to go by.
I would like to believe that if things weren't so accelerated with the first, that we could have had more source material for Matthew Vaughn but unfortunately I was doing Spider-Man, I was doing Kick-Ass and then they asked me to do work actually on that animated sequence as well as the wall of villains--I did about thirty wall of villains images that appear briefly in the film. So I did months and months of work on the film in addition to doing Spider-Man and Kick-Ass. I only got about three done, I think, by the time they'd gotten to the wrap, I think. I'm not even sure. This time there was more source material.
Romita: Yeah, there's a very nice addition to this that because you have something successful, they want to see what else you've got. And now there's a second film, and we're on the third arc and there may be a third film, depending on how well things go so yeah. If I get something else developed, I'll be Mark Millar, who knows? I'll have people banging on my doors!
I don't literally mean that but that's what gave me the idea to do all of these plots and treatments. I've got four of them and I've got them divvied up among all these different writers. Jonathan Ross is also going to work on me. I can't forget him because the two projects that I've got going with Neil Gaiman and Jonathan Ross are my two pet projects that I've had going for a while in addition to Shmuggy and Bimbo. I came up with them on their own, I did the notes on plane rides and scribbled on the backs of napkins and typed them up.
But at least I'll have something if someone says, "What else you got?" Artists do not generally, unless they become full-blown writers, get this opportunity. So since I've got so much work to do in general, I didn't want to cut off my nose to spite my face--stop being an artist to try and be a writer. And I couldn't get enough material done doing both. If I had decided to write and pencil a series, I would be restricted to one over the course of a year.
Whereas if I do things right, and I give it up to the writer, we'll be half-partners on our own material and I'll be able to do three or four creator-owned books a year. And I think to me that was the better alternative.
I do have people interested in what I'm doing, and I think if Gray Area gets developed, it will be a really nice expediting of things.
Romita: I don't know about going out on top. I'll never get to the point where I feel that I'm on top because then I'll slide back down a pole. There's always somebody better, and I've no false notions about that, either.
No, because I've done enough with Marvel--and this is part of this whole conversation--I've done enough with Marvel that I can't say, "Wow, there's something that I really wanted to do that I haven't done yet." With the exception of doing Fantastic Four monthly, I think I've covered all my bases. I would love to do a Doctor Strange, but that's considered a secondary character by Marvel.
So the idea I told you that applies to Superman applies to Doctor Strange and the Silver Surfer. So either one of those two characters could work but it applies well to Superman. If I were to only do DC work for a couple of years or a year, I would not regret it in any way because I've done so much and I've been very loyal to Marvel for thirty-seven years. There's no doubt about that. There would be no looking back, I wouldn't regret it for a minute.
However, that's not the case. Who knows what's going to happen in the next few weeks? Marvel has yet to have their full say in the matter and the conversation hasn't really gotten down to brass tacks yet, but we're getting to that point and I'm not afraid of making a change.
I honestly would only do about one more year of work-for-hire should that be the case. Before the creator-owned market gets diffused, I want to take my best shot and I have some great writers lined up and I'm going to make it my best shot and see what happens and I won't regret that either. If I didn't do it, I would regret it.
ComicBook.com: Talking about the writers--on the one you mentioned earlier, would you potentially be working directly with Kirkman or just a general deal at Skybound?
Romita: I'm talking about Robert Kirkman. And the reason I mentioned him after the others is that he found out late in the game that I was off-contract; he didn't really know. He said, "I have an idea," unfortunately it was an already sold idea and we wouldn't be half-partners in it but I would love for you to do this." So he's basically in the game because basically, it'd be creator-owned, I'd be freelance, I'd be working on his project.
It's very attractive to work with a guy like Robert Kirkman. the only reason I mentioned it in that order is because literally just before he left breakfast, he was shocked to find out that I was off-contract and we had been having a conversation since, so I just went in chronological order.
Romita: I don't know if it's publishers working that way personally, or pushing older guys out the door. Marvel have offered a six-year contract or a five-year contract [to me]. And of course they would have to adjust the project, but I've been under the same contract for seven years. Literally nothing has changed for seven years and if they want the contract to be the same as it has for seven years, that's a problem. It would be a problem for anybody; I've been loyal, and I've been with the company long enough.
ComicBook.com: Well, and you've got a kind of value that's attached to you from Kick-Ass, too, in terms of both Marvel and DC being so driven by the film side and you've now got evidence that your work is translatable in a successful way.
Romita: You're right about that, and there's been a monkeywrench thrown in with creator-owned and the success of creator-owned.
Another thing is that if Gray Area gets developed, it would be a moot point because there would be less need to do a regular deadline, work-for-hire book. Listen, I'm not a kid anymore and at some point there's going to be a groundswell of, "Hey, he's been around for a long time, he's not Joe Kubert." There's a time for that.
I know that I can do work-for-hire consistently and I'm proud to have done that, if creator-owned hadn't been around. The opportunity to develop my own ideas that I've worked really hard to come up with, and pitching them to writers that are esteemed, brilliant writers and they are all attracted to them, is flattering but it's also a good business move. I can't pass them up! I can't pass up the opportunity. If they fail, hey, I have failed before and I'm not ashamed of trying and failing. I would be miserable if I did not try.
There was the opportunity to work with Image back in the '90s--it ended up working out okay, but again, I've been with Marvel for a very, very, very long time. I think someone even at Marvel said, "Why would he go anywhere else? He's been with us forever?" You can look at that two ways: it's flattering that they want me to stay there forever but it's also--I feel that way about my barcalounger, you know?
ComicBook.com: And there has to be a sense that if it's assumed you're going to stay, that makes you more attractive to others and potentially gives you better possibilities for projects with non-Marvel suitors.
Romita: There's also a way of over-thinking this--this is very simple, that I don't have any regrets if I had to leave Marvel, which hasn't happened yet. But I've done so much and been so loyal to them, this would not be a painful divorce. Again, it may not happen. I don't know what Marvel's going to do, what they're going to come up with. DC has been making inroads into their offers and that's wonderful too but I honestly don't have any preconceived notions about value to a company, per se. I guess value to a project is more like it. That's why the creator-owned is so important and I want to try it so badly. Again, doing one characters for the next four years--I've done that several times over thirty-seven years. After about a year, the arc that the writer has in mind has run its course--that's what I did with Captain America. It was ten issues and now I have a chance to finish up the third arc of Kick-Ass uninterrupted and that will be finished up in the fall.
Then I have the opportunity to do whatever I want and I guess I'm excited about any new challenge. One of those challenges is coming up with a storyline that I created. Again, the dialogue would be something that I'd like to work on. That might be something down the road. But I have done everything just short of the dialogue; I've come up with most everything in the treatments. There's some dialogue in it, and then you add a brilliant writer to it. I've got these four writers that--I'm in dreamland! Five, if you count Mark [Millar] because Mark wants to do something again. I have five of the best writers in the business that would like to work with me on something and there's a possibility that all five of them--with the exception of Mark, because Mark usually comes up with his own--but those four guys are interested in my four projects. There's flattery in that but it also means that they'll just add to the idea that I came up with that they were attracted to. I honestly think that's the best of both worlds.
The work-for-hire attraction is there but it would only be for one more year until the creator-owned properties are developed. I'm not going to do what's wrong for me; I'm going to do what's taking a chance for me. I won't hurt anybody's feelings at Marvel or anybody's feelings at DC. What I will do is what's best for me, and what's best for me is to take this chance.
Mine is more of a gamble than theirs--because they'll still put out their product--but I'm looking at what's best for me. This has been well thought-out by my wife Kathy and me, by my lawyer, and bouncing it off my father as well. I passed up many opportunities to stay with Marvel and suddenly there's a chance to do something outside of Marvel and outside of work-for-hire. Honestly, I will still do some work-for-hire work, it's just a matter of what. I'm not going to completely absolve myself of work-for-hire because the old bugaboo is, "If you're out of sight, you're out of mind," and I'm not going to allow that. So there will be work-for-hire, probably in a freelance format. So I'm not leaving Marvel, I'm not dismissing myself at all. I have every intention of doing work for them in the future--and the same with DC, it could be. And I think that's exciting because there's a challenge to doing the work-for-hire but what's important to me is trying the work for hire. That's what's utmost in my mind.
I can see the forest for the trees, and all those cliches.
ComicBook.com: How chaotic is it for you with the movie? Is this just another day or is it really a distraction? I mean--you're talking to me for forty minutes, that's forty minutes you're not going to be working.
Romita: [Laughs] Now that I've finished Cap, I have to get a Kick-Ass issue done by a week from Monday and that's entirely doable. I have about two-thirds of it roughed out already. The amount of work I do on one title is much more than doing two. In other words, I can do two issues of one title as opposed to one issue of two titles. When you're sticking with one character or one storyline, it's a little easier. And it's easier now that the mad rush of Cap is past and now I just have to concentrate on the Kick-Ass. Now when I'm done with Kick-Ass 3, I'm going to probably go back to having two titles a month again, whether it's the creator-owned and some work-for-hire again, or two creator-owned, I don't know. I'm really curious to see how this summer plays out and I'll know sometime this fall who I'm working for. Right now I don't know.
I'm finishing up the Kick-Ass run and the chaos of the movie would have been worse if there were premieres and traveling to London and so on, and back to Los Angeles like the first. We didn't do that. There's a screening of the Kick-Ass movie on Monday; I haven't seen it yet. I've seen a lot of clips and a lot of the filming, I was there. I know what's going on, I know what's going to happen, but I haven't seen the uncut version. I'm looking forward to it. The chaos is not from the comics industry. The unknown is interesting. I'm a little bit more comfortable in my skin than I was seven years ago.
I'm a little more excited about the second one than I was the first one. I didn't know it was possible, because the first one was such a shock to my system, going to premieres and all that stuff, this is much more exciting because it leads to so much more down the road. There was so much unknown after the first film. Now that there's a second, there's a good possibility that other things will follow, and I'm excited about that. And in ten years, we'll talk and I'll let you know if it worked out!