‘Kick-Ass’ co-creator John Romita Jr. talks past, present, and future

(CBR) Since the late 1970s, John Romita Jr. has been one of the most prolific and celebrated illustrators of Marvel characters, drawing famous stories like “Daredevil: The Man Without Fear,” “Contest of Champions” and “World War Hulk,” along with multiple runs on “Amazing Spider-Man” and “Uncanny X-Men.”

In recent years, he’s distinguished himself with some decidedly different material: “Kick-Ass,” the hyperviolent (and frequently controversial) “real-life superhero” series he created with writer Mark Millar. Of course, the comic — released through Marvel Comics’ creator-owned imprint, Icon — became wildly successful, with the first film adaptation grossing $96 million worldwide in 2010, and a sequel out this Friday.

Romita has still kept a major presence at Marvel, most recently illustrating the first 10 issues of the relaunched Marvel NOW! “Captain America” with writer Rick Remender. Yet that may be changing soon, as Romita — who’s still at work drawing the “Kick-Ass 3” miniseries — confirmed to CBR News that his Marvel contract has expired, and he’s yet to decide where he’ll focus his work-for-hire output next.

In advance of “Kick-Ass 2” debuting in theaters, CBR News talked with Romita about the movie, how his collaboration with Millar has changed his career, what he’s enjoyed about the “Dimension Z” story arc on “Captain America,” and what his artistic future may hold.

CBR News: John, let’s start out by talking the most timely subject, since “Kick-Ass 2” is out this week. Have you seen the movie yet?

John Romita Jr.: I have not. I have seen it in various parts, but not all together chronologically. I had a chance to see it before San Diego, but the timing didn’t work. Now I’m going to see it tonight, and I’m nervous as hell.

How come?

Nervous anticipation. I used to get nervous before softball games — I still do. No harm can come of it other than you can crack a knuckle or sprain an ankle.

I just get nervous anticipation about things. This more so than the first. The first was completely unknown; this is a known quantity, and now I want it to do better. So there’s a little bit of a difference.

As the co-creator of the “Kick-Ass” comic, how involved have you been in the productions of the films?

In the first film, I worked on an animated sequence. It took a couple of months, it was an origin/flashback clip.

This, less so. There were a couple of images that I had to draw for the director that were Chris Plasse’s imagination of his thugs in costumes. Every time he’d get a new thug, he would imagine them immediately as a supervillain. So I drew those images so that they could appear next to his imagination.

But I really didn’t have a hand in it the way I did the first. I was constantly, and still am, sending scans of my artwork to [“Kick-Ass 2” writer/director] Jeff Wadlow as we go through things. He got a chance to see the pages as I was finishing them. Jeff and his amazing ability to visualize things, he had some basis from the comics and the graphic novels. He used some of the images. That’s the biggest flattery, the biggest honor you can get. And we’re very proud of that.

When you were drawing the second “Kick-Ass” miniseries, did knowing that it would end up a movie — or at least that it was likely — change your approach at all? Or is it about the same process for you as any other project?

No, because I don’t want to go out of the range of what got us to this point. If I start anticipating the moment that the director’s going to say, “Wow, this is it, this is the end-all, we’re going to make a movie about this,” or, “We’re going to change the film because of this latest issue,” that would deter from what we’re doing originally, and the reason we got to this point is because of what we were doing originally.

And also, I don’t think I’m capable of changing things so dramatically that it’s going to disrupt anything, and I guess that’s good, because you stay within yourself. Kind of like an athlete — you stay within what you can do as opposed to trying to hit a 12-run home run.

So, no, I don’t anticipate what someone’s going to say about it. I try to do what I’ve been doing. And since I’ve been doing it long enough, I tend to stay in that control. And that’s what I wanted to do.

To speak in more general terms, the “Kick-Ass” explosion from the past few years, with two movies and the success of the comic book, followed so many successful years of you doing nearly only work-for-hire material at Marvel, other than “The Gray Area” at Image in 2004. What’s that experience been like getting further into the creator-owned world, and watching what “Kick-Ass” has become?

On a personal basis, it’s more exciting than I can describe, because I had been so locked-in to work-for-hire for so long. This was such a revelation and a feeling of freedom, and to have it turn into this is hard to describe. I guess I have to become a writer to come up with something clever to say. [Laughs]

I said this at San Diego — instead of sitting down and being introspective about this, I want to stand up and scream at the top of my lungs, like I’m at a baseball game. “Yeah!” That’s all I can think of. I don’t have anything clever or profound to say. It’s all excitement, it’s all fun.

So I’m trying to get to that spot where before things dry up, I want to try and get a couple of my ideas in. That’s what I’m looking forward to. It’s nice to do something different after all these years.

At the same time, it appears that you’ve deliberately balancing both worlds, with runs on “Avengers,” “Avengers vs. X-Men” and “Captain America” concurrent with your time on “Kick-Ass.” Was doing both important to you?

I don’t know if it’s important in the general stream of things, but in my head, I always want to keep my foot in the work-for-hire zone, because when I was very young in the industry, somebody told me, “You got to stay on the newsstands.” I don’t want to disappear and have this notion that I’m indispensable and that I can do whatever I want. I don’t think of it that way. I’m always going to be earning the money to pay for the electric bill. I can’t not do that.

But if I can do both — if I can somehow keep my foot in the work-for-hire pool, and at the same time dangle my foot in the hot tub of creator-owned… what a metaphor!

So one’s a pool, one’s a hot tub. Got it.

And there’s also a very good looking blonde woman in that hot tub at the same time. It’s my wife.

I’d like to be able to do both and continue to do both, and I think that’s what I’m going to lean towards, because I don’t have this notion that I can all of a sudden just go off into la-la land and try to make movies. It’s not me. It’s not going to happen.

So the transition must have been somewhat of an adjustment, especially in terms of content, given the deliberately over-the-top violence of “Kick-Ass.” Was that a weird transition for you at all, or was it something you were excited to do after not being able to for so many years?

Everything you just said came into play. At first it was a strange feeling to look at the plot when Mark would say, “We’re going to have this guy’s head chopped off, and all of these people are going to get cut into little human nuggets,” that kind of thing. He was warning me at the beginning — and I knew creator-owned going in was that free — “Listen, we’re going to be a little over-the-top here, we’re going to try this, and we’re going to try that.”

The answer to it was easy, because I didn’t have a way of changing gears for the violence. You have to stick to what you can do, as opposed to trying what you can’t. There’s nothing wrong with that, but this was too important. I just tried to choreograph the super-violent scenes in the same way that I was choreographing the discretionary violence, because I only had one way of doing it. I assumed it would work, and it turned out to be a nice juxtaposition — a poetic choreograph of over-the-top violence works in the same manner as the discretionary violence. All you have to do is imagine less, and be more deliberate. Instead of a shadow of two people battling it out, or somebody getting skewered, you don’t show the shadow. You show the literal form. All I did was apply my own formula to the “Kick-Ass” violence, and it worked out nicely, and then I felt more comfortable instantaneously, because I remember thinking, “I have to do something different, because my old stuff is just the old stuff.”

The first thing I did was tell [inker] Tom Palmer, “No black fields, no shading.” It’s just going to be linework, just to look different. And people honestly didn’t notice it, because [colorist] Dean White is brilliant, and his grades of color were stark, so there were dark fields, but only color, there were no literal black fields. We tried to do something visually different. Here I am doing superviolence, and I was applying the old formula to it, and it ended up looking different. It worked out really well for me, almost accidentally. I call it, “Stepping into a pile of dog doo, and coming up with a toe ring.”

Was there ever any content that gave you pause or made you uncomfortable, or were you trusting in Mark Millar’s vision?

There were a couple of things that made me uncomfortable. One is the C-bomb, the famous comment that was in the film. That made me uncomfortable because that is the most foul word in the history of mankind in America, and yet they use it a little more frequently in the UK, without the same bang to it. They use that word as if we use the word “bitch” around here. Be that as it may, it still made me uncomfortable. Made me uncomfortable when I heard it from a little girl, and it caused all kind of controversy.

The only thing that I had pause for were the kids getting killed in one issue, and the rape scene that didn’t really happen. It was everything but the rape scene — everything leading up to the rape scene, the brutalizing of the girl.

Those things are uncomfortable for me on a personal basis — the thought of a child getting hurt rips my heart out, the thought of a woman getting attacked rips my heart out. Then seeing Hit-Girl getting beat up in the second arc, that broke my heart because I came to know Chloë Moretz. “Nobody can touch that girl!”

Those little moments made me uncomfortable, only because it’s something I had never considered before. You’d have to ask Mark if he regrets any of that. I don’t know. I’ve seen stuff in some independent books that still makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up, that I’m shocked at. Because this is higher profile, I had those moments of discomfort, yes. There’s something I’ve never done before. The first time I illustrated a naked woman in an issue, it made me feel uncomfortable. I come from a Catholic background, what can I say? [Laughs] I’m puritanical. I’m such a wuss!

It seems like you’ve been working that out of your system, though.

When I was first working on this, my son was 11, I think, and I had to keep him out of the room. “Dad, what do you mean I can’t come in the room? What are you doing in there?” “Vinnie, you can’t see this.” Almost as if I was doing a porno movie. I had to keep him out, because the stuff was so rough. And that made him want to see it all the more! So I had to hide the books from him, I had to hide the artwork from him. That’s what people do — they’re dying of curiosity.

The whole thing was a shock to my system at first, and it was a shock to everybody’s system — my parents and my family, so on — because it was me. And then I had moments when I was trying to come up with new and inventive ways to ruin people’s bodies, to cut them into little pieces. “How can I do something that’s never been done before? Let’s cut this head’s guy off in sections, instead of completely.” You know what kind of sick, twisted people come up with this kind of stuff? And here I am, coming up with it in the middle of the night as I’m working.

There’s one last issue of your “Captain America” run with writer Rick Remender left to come out. How’d you enjoy illustrating that story? Just from the perspective of a reader, seemed like a cool story to draw; a different type of Captain America book, with plenty of otherworldly creatures for Cap to interact with.

Amazing. Because it was so different. I love different. Rick Remender came up with this fantastic otherworldly deconstruction of Captain America. Very proud of it, and Rick did a hell of a job.

It was not easy, which seems to be par for the course for me — a single character book turns into “War and Peace”; Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Ten Commandments.” Everybody throws in a cast of millions whenever I’m working on a book. [Laughs] I don’t know if I should take it as a compliment or I should get mad. But Rick Remender should be applauded for this series. It’s brilliant, and I’m very proud of it.

You’re likely still focused on drawing “Kick-Ass 3,” but what do you see next for you beyond that, in a general sense? Your Marvel contract, I believe, is up.

Yes, yes it is. It’s up.

Is there a chance you’re headed elsewhere with work-for-hire material? What’s in your future?

I honestly don’t know for sure. I do know I’ll be working, I just don’t know in what capacity. Could be freelance, could be work-for-hire and creator-owned. I have a lawyer working on that, with Marvel, and DC, and Image. Everybody’s talking. I’m still doing the “Kick-Ass” book under the Icon label, and I have four-and-a-half issues to finish. I honestly don’t know, and I’m going to let things play out as they will. All I know is, I want to do creator-owned, and I want to do work-for-hire. I have five creator-owned ideas in various forms of production. “The Gray Area’s” got some interest, “Shmuggy and Bimbo.” Everything that I want to do is all down the line, and I’m not sure what I’m going to do first in what order, but I know that I’ll be an artist. [Laughs]

You’ve had such a legacy at Marvel, but is it almost at a position where you’ve drawn all the Marvel characters you wanted to and you’re looking for something different? Or would you be happy with more Marvel work?

I can’t even think about it that way, because I’ve done several arcs with each character. I think it’s less about characters now, and more about an idea that I have and I’d love to apply it to a character, whoever that could be. I honestly am going to let things work out before I decide which characters I want to do.

I can’t really give you a straight answer. That’s the unfortunate thing. I’m in such a gray area — excuse the pun — at the moment. I’m going to let it play out, and let my lawyer deal with the contract negotiations, because I’m too nice a guy to be a negotiator. I just can’t take advantage of anybody. [Laughs] I’m a wuss! What can I say, I’m a wuss.

Plus, with these long-running characters, a story can come along — like the “Captain America” “Dimension Z” arc — where it’s an old character, but portrayed in a way that hasn’t been seen before.

Absolutely true. And that plays a part in it, it does. And it depends on writers. I think the industry moves that way. You can’t expect a title to go on ad infinitum with the same ol’, same ol’. So you have different people coming in, throwing their thoughts in different directions, and that’s the freshness of the industry.

And Hollywood plays a part in this. People know that their ideas can be attractive, because there are no limits anymore. Hollywood and comics have come together where they should have a long time ago, but the technology wasn’t there. So now it’s a wide open, and that’s exciting. The work-for-hire and the creator-owned, they’re connected, in many different ways. And that’s exciting, because it really does open up everybody’s imagination. And I can’t tell you how excited I am about the future — the immediate future.

“Kick-Ass 3” #2 is on sale now, and the “Kick-Ass 2” feature film opens Friday.