In addition to his regular pencilling job on Marvel NOW!'s Captain America, John Romita, Jr. is in the rare position of having a creator-owned comic that is arguably the subject of even more conversation than his Marvel work.
In his case, that book is Kick-Ass, currently entering its fourth volume. As the co-creator of the series and the characters who inhabit it, the artist has taken on a gig that leads him to refer to himself as a "hypocrite" and helped catapult that property to success on the page and onscreen. Along with writer Mark Millar, he took a book that many comic fans dismissed when it was first released and turned it into a bona fide franchise for Millarworld, Marvel and Universal Pictures, who are months away from the release of the second in a trilogy of films based on the four comic book miniseries.
Romita joined ComicBook.com to discuss the film, the creative process behind the comics, and how it's taught him that he can't always trust his first instinct.
ComicBook.com: I guess the first thing that occurs to me--my first instinct when I saw it was that it Millar's sensibilities were a bit juvenile. Is it difficult to combat that when you're discussing this work? Is that something you worry about, when you have a movie poster that says "The Motherf---er," that you're going to lose a segment of your audience?
John Romita, Jr.: First of all, let me just say the impression of Millar: There's nothing like that in his mind. It's all clever like a fox; he's sharper than anybody gives him credit for, and he's smarter and he's more adept at everyday life than anybody gives him credit for when he does product like this. It's not because he has anything other than a higher intention in his heart; he's an ultimate huckster; he's a P.T. Barnum with a lot more intellect, but people don't give him that credit. So let me just set that aside, that anything he does it's with an eye toward being successful and it's not because he doesn't have the ability to do something on a higher plane.
This is just a commercial property. Ultimately that's what it is, and it's what everybody does--everybody works to make money. The answer to your second question is that of course that's going to be more difficult.
It's much like a slasher movie--it's geared toward people who like slasher movies. You can't sell that to the everyday market. It's the same thing with this--this is a niche market and it's a niche product and neither one of us thought of it as for everyone--and yet it made a point.
And I know what Mark is doing with this, and I know that when I first got on board, I didn't expect it to be this, honestly, when I first started working on it. Be that as it may, it's become a very solid form of what it was supposed to be and there's no compromise on it. If you like it, you like it and if you don't, you don't. And again, this goes back to my college days in advertising: Shock works. Controversy works--and I think there's a bit of that in this, too.
But I ultimately look at this as the next level of Stan Lee's Spider-Man. This is the ultimate in the kid that becomes something. Everybody can identify with Peter Parker before becoming Spider-Man but nobody can really relate to being a superhero. In this case, everybody can identify with trying to be a superhero and getting the snot beat out of you. And in everyday life, teenagers curse up a storm. My son and his friends come over here and when they don't think I'm anywhere nearby, it sounds like a bunch of sailors out at sea.
So again, I'm trying to give this context: yes, it's difficult to sell it to the mass audience but I don't think the mass audience is fit for anything necessarily that comes out of comics. There's always a group that it applies to and I think that's the case with this.
ComicBook.com: It's interesting because the film got such broad acceptance; it didn't get universal love, but anyone whose opinion I respect, they dug the movie. Is there some kind of satisfaction in that because you get to say to people like me, the skeptics, that they were a--holes?
JRJR: Yeah, of course. The interesting thing is that before Mark had proposed the idea to me, I would have said to myself, "I can't do something like that; I'm a mainstream comic book guy." I got on the project at its inception, not knowing that it was going to be to this extreme. Just working with Mark was the first step, that's something I wanted to do.
Then getting on it, and enjoying it more than I expected--I still wasn't satisfied because I was thinking, "I'm going to get pilloried for this because I said I wouldn't do stuff like this." But once I swallowed the fact that I was a hypocrite, I'm loving every minute of it and it's a high-quality product.
So what you're saying applies to me. I didn't think it was right to do this kind of thing commercially and I was wrong, and I'm very happy. So yes, the answer is to that, sure.
But there's two ways to look at that--nobody thought it would do well as a movie. Just the people in the [comics] industry were looking forward to it. And it did well--look how it did in DVD form.
A little anecdote is that the guys on my softball team wouldn't let their kids see the film, and they all have several copies of it as DVDs in their houses now. And not because they did me a favor. They told me they weren't going to the theaters with their kids when it first came out and yet they all have it as DVD copies because they saw it and they enjoyed it. And they all wanted to read the book because they wanted to see where it came from--so yeah, there's satisfaction in that.
But it's a wider range becuase Mark is the one that came up with the idea and then we fleshed it out to its present state. I didn't know how this was going to go over, honestly. When he told me that "We're going to this, this and this," I said "I don't really want to try this." In all honesty, my wife was the one who really urged me to do it. She says, "Try something different, you'd be crazy not to." At the very least, I wanted to work with Mark and then as it grew in front of me, I got the satisfaction of doing something completely different and that's something I've always wanted to do. And now it's a revelation to me and I enjoy it wholeheartedly.
And not because I like drawing anything particularly foul--and I don't draw anything foul, really, it's just violence, but what I do is I apply my normal, everyday process of storytelling to this violent form. That's the hypocritical part of me--I didn't think I would do something like this because I thought I was just a mainstream artist. So it brought something out in me that while it doesn't agree with a lot of people, it changed the way I do storytelling because it allowed me to expand beyond the normal, everyday comic book stuff.
So the satisfaction is, in answer to your question, yes, but it's also because it gave me a whole new ballpark to play in.
ComicBook.com: It seems as though these movies based on more indie properties--the Kick-Ass, Ghost World, American Splendor-type stuff--that those really move the needle in terms of translating to book sales in a way that Captain America doesn't, do you agree?
JRJR: Sure, sure. And I think just on the surface, because these are creator-owned books, it's much different from the mainstream properties. I think that's the difference; it's the smallest difference but it is the biggest difference in that it's just creator-owned but becuase it is creator-owned, it's not a mainstream book. And who knows how long they'll go on for? That's the difference.
So even though it is just because it's creator-owned, that's a huge difference, if that makes any sense at all. Because it's not the long-ended series that will go on for forty or fifty years like Spider-Man or Captain America, that's the attraction. It's lightning in a bottle is another term for it--finite is the word. Unless it catches on like some other creator-owned properties that have become mainstream books have, unless they catch on and they run forever, this will be lightning in a bottle.
That's an attraction--and then you want to go back and see, since it's such a violent story in a lot of ways and graphic in a lot of ways, people want to see where it came from. That's fine to0--and they know that Captain America and Spider-Man are not that way, so why go back and look for controversy? With Kick-Ass, when somebody says, "This comes from this series that Mark and John did," it's "Well, maybe there's more. Let's see what it is! I wanna see the car accident!"
That's the other thing--is to see it come from the comic, and in a lot of ways it's nearly identical to some of the scenes we've done, I think that's an attraction, too. It's exciting.
ComicBook.com: There's something about the fidelity to the source material that you get for this kind of project, isn't there? You're really adapting a work instead of just making a movie that has Batman in it or something.
JRJR: There's great satisfaction in that--it's flattering, and everything you can imagine. But this is under a microscope moreso than the normal work-for-hire and mainstream books, in that it is out of the norm, because of the content, and yet it's successful. I can equate this to Hollywood, where people are bringing graphic novels and screenplays together to pitch to studios and producers. Because you can see visually how something plays out, and then hear that there's a successful amount of sales. So it's a demographic--it's a test. A producer will see that this sold this many copies, and it's a controversial subject--wow, we have a niche here! It's a test market; it all applies and it just brings comics and Hollywood all that much more alongside each other.
I'm not shocked, but after the fact. Seven years ago, eight years ago I would have said, "Wow, I'm not sure how that's going to work out." Now, here we are. So it's very satisfying and I always thought, interestingly enough, because of seeing it way back when that this was storyboarding. Comics is storyboarding, and now it's become a natural progression into film. But because of the advancement in technology, any story that has been produced in the comics industry from time immemorial can now be replicated in film! That's the other thing--anything we do now is not out of the realm of possibility on film.
The mainstream books can be done, this can be done, anything can be done. There's no stopping it, so why not play with the subject matter to the point where you can just get outrageous? That's the thing--as outrageous as Kick-Ass is to a lot of people, look at it. There's kids dressing up in costumes all the time. Well, now there are people dressing up and patrolling their neighborhoods. There were neighborhood patrols in New York when I was a kid, and now they're dressing up in costumes and patrolling the neighborhoods--so this is not so outrageous.
So it's got the realism imbued in it, and yet it's not too ridiculous; all we did was apply a little bit of outrage to it. And people are taking this, and they're making films out of it and they're following it nearly identical to what we've done, which is a compliment but this is what should have been done all along. This is what comics are--they're storyboards! Jack Kirby's work was used for cartoons in the '60s and the '70s. Alex Toth's work. Comic artists and illustrators have been used forever and not gotten the proper credit, and now it's coming out that way.
Look, the fans of comics from twenty years ago, thirty years ago, who grew up reading comics, are now directors, producers and working in Hollywood. I've met guys who are twenty years younger than me who say, "Wow! I've been reading your books since I was a kid! I love that we can do this because of technology." So it's a confluence of events, and yes--it's a great compliment to see something filmed nearly identical to what we played out in the book. I take great pride in that, I smile all the time about it.
JRJR: No, it was never weird. The shock of seeing it being done in front of me happened with the firs tmovie when I walked on the set three, four years ago whatever it was. Going back this last fall was more fun and a novelty just to see the actors again, and watch it being done.
No, it's not even surreal anymore; it's just so much fun--I can only say fun. I love going to London, that's the first thing. I love going on the set of a film in general is the second thing and then knowing it's our property is the third thing but the novelty of seeing our stuff done in a scene...the shock was there the first time. This time it was all smiles and cheshire cat grins of "Wow, I'm really loving this." I really, really take great pride in it.
It legitimizes what we do, and I think I'm not the first one who's done it. There are guys much better than me that have done it in the past and there are guys better than me who're going to do it in the future. Ultimately to me, this is really a pat on the back of comic book creators. I honestly in all modesty think that this is just the beginning. Like I said, technology allows anybody to do anything.
This on its face is not supernatural stuff; this is not out in space. This is real, ground-level stuff. Grassroots work. So this is severe storytelling and this is what I'm most proud of because I think I'm a better storyteller than I am anything else and Mark and I do storytelling in Kick-Ass. That's the crux of this. And that's what I'm most proud of, and to see it played out on film? Not surreal, just damn flattering and I'm very proud of it.