I’ve been a John Romita Jr. (or JRJR) fan ever since I was a kid. A big reason I read Spider-Man was because of the extended run he did with J. Michael Straczynski. But I also adored his Daredevil work when I was a little comics reader. So Marvel, just in time for Christmas, have gifted us with a big ol’ book looking across Romita Jr’s decade spanning career.
You gotta start somewhere, so the first few issues collected here aren’t, to be honest, that spectacular. Most artists that start in “the system” have a generic look to their work and JRJR is no exception. It takes until Uncanny X-Men #183 (six issues in) to really recognize his signature style. But as a chronicle across his whole career and growth, the awkwardly executed Amazing Spider-Man Annual #11 deserves inclusion.
To be fair, Iron Man #128 is a huge improvement from the ASM Annual (there’s two years between). Iron Man features fantastic expressions depicting Tony Stark’s alcoholism that elevates “Demon in a Bottle”’s preachy clichés. The blocking is also infinitely better.
A major attribute of JRJR’s work are his characters’ weights. If you have some beefy dudes in your superhero comic, get him to draw them slugging it out. So of course, Spider-Man vs. Juggernaut in Amazing Spider-Man #229 and #230 are included. Juggernaut’s unstoppable powers are actually unnerving. The way Juggernaut moves conveys a difficultly carrying his own massive weight, which makes it all the scarier when he unwaveringly walks into a freighter that explodes in a supernova…which he walks away from.
Uncanny X-Men and Star Brand #1 begins my favorite period for JRJR—the late ‘80s through the ‘90s. This is where his obsessive detail for texture (especially clothes), languid figures, kinetic energy, and boxy faces truly emerge. Speaking of energy, Star Brand has a lot of cosmic power being shown off, and it looks fantastic. Taking cues from Jack Kirby, power levels explode off the pages, crackling and fizzling. So what if the dialogue is pretty corny? (“I’ve got the power, and I’m going to keep it—if I have to kick every butt in the universe!”)
I’ll jump forward a bit to quickly cover Iron Man #256, which is…pretty disappointing, even from an artistic perspective. I mean, JRJR does a great job drawing spaceships and especially Iron Man zipping through space. But the script is pretty dull and JRJR isn’t given room to really have fun with such a stiff story.
Where Romita Jr’s art really excels is when he’s given gritty material, like across Daredevil #235, Punisher: War Zone #1, and Daredevil: The Man Without Fear #1 and #2. You can feel the sizzling heat and the bone-chilling cold from the NYC setting. “Impressionistic grit” is the best way I can describe the way he tackles these stories. City lights are a cacophony of lens flares behind the characters. There’s not always a ton of background details, but the ones we get are worn and tattered. His linework is thin and scratchy, which produces a “lived in,” unforgettably original style.
This isn’t probably JRJR’s fault, but The Man Without Fear issues are dreadfully re-colored. I happen to have one of the single issues and while the colorwork is washed-out and isn’t the most complex, it’s infinitely better than the digital touch-ups that horribly distract from Miller and JRJR’s masterpiece. Ew.
Uncanny X-Men shows JRJR stretching himself with a trippy script from Scott Lobdell. The layouts sometimes tilt vertically and the color palette is often a contrast of pure white against blue and black. There’s a lot of dialogue between Xavier and Magneto, but the presentation never lets the story drag. However, the scanning is pretty rough, especially in picking up color on dialogue balloons.
Finally, we enter the 2000s, where we witness an epic battle between Hulk and Abomination in The Incredible Hulk #25, the iconic 9/11 issue of Amazing Spider-Man #36, and a low-key Incredible Hulk #34. Unfortunately, there’s no 2010s section. But it’s just as well, because Romita Jr’s modern work isn’t my favorite.
His line work, once scratchy and filled with the perfect alchemy of details, now relies too much on thick lines and digital coloring. Yes, Hulk smashing Abomination into the mud is pretty epic (this goes back to JRJR’s talent of beefy characters), but the lessened details really hurt when action isn’t happening, which is even more evident in #34.
It’s hard to really examine the 9/11 ASM issue because of how badly its aged. Trying to respond to a real-life, horrific, senseless tragedy by showing Spider-Man and all these goofily garbed heroes helping now comes across as insensitive.
Also, it’s pretty Islamaphobic, like when it depicts a stereotypically sinister looking Middle Eastern man saying (probably on a manifesto video) “…it is God’s will that America should fall through their iniquity…” Not to mention another panel depicting a blob of Middle Eastern men waving AK-47s and cheering over 9/11. Staczynski tries to equalize by showing a FOX News-type pundit saying similarly offensive things and other Middle Eastern people looking sad about 9/11…but it doesn’t help much.
On a technical level, JRJR draws the destruction, er, well? But him putting all his resources and effort into drawing the rubble of the Twin Towers is just painful.
Overall, it’s remarkable to see John Romita Jr’s rise from stock ‘70s artist to a breath of fresh air in the crowded ‘90s field. While his art has gotten sloppier (or at the very least, not as effective) in the past few decades, this Visionaries book is mostly filled with his greatest hits and serves as a solid showcase of his scope and versatility through the years.