It’s comic creator month here on geekhardshow.com, so what better time to take a look back at some of my favourite creators and their greatest creations. Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll be looking at a selection of creators and listing what I think are some of their most masterful works. It was announced recently (and rumoured for a long time) that John Romita Jr. is making the jump to the Distinguished Competition to try his hand at the Man of Steel himself, Superman. I thought this would be the perfect time to take a look back some of the greatest work he did at The House of Ideas. An artist who’s a self professed adopter of the “Deadline Style” (the art isn’t always pretty but it gets out on time) Romita Jr. has a pacing to his work that makes it jump off the page. His art never lack excitement. What follows are seven of the best stories by John Romita Jr. to hit the comic racks. Some are beloved classics. Others are hidden gems. All are MUST reading for any fan of J.R. Jr. So take a look True Believers, you just might learn something.
Demon in a Bottle
(Invincible Iron Man Vol. 1 #s 120-128 – 1979)
Writers: David Michelinie, Bob Layton
This was the first big story that John got to work on and even though Layton did the finishes on his breakdowns (and issue #122 was completely drawn by Carmine Infantino), it stands as the first of many iconic Marvel stories that JR Jr. would have a hand in. Demon in a Bottle stands as the quintessential Iron Man story as it introduces Tony Stark’s problems with alcohol. Meant not to be a moralistic tale but just the latest villain for Stark to overcome, it’s revealed over several issues that Stark has been binge drinking as he goes through a number of embarrassing and damaging setbacks in his life as both a hero and a businessman. Iron Man is framed for killing a foreign ambassador when Justin Hammer takes control of his armour (while Tony’s still in it) and blasts the dignitary with a repulsor ray. The stress of finding a way to clear his name and the eventual action that ensues leads Tony down a very dark path. Issue #128, the issue where he hits rock bottom, won an Eagle award in 1980 for “Favourite Single Comic Book Story.” The book was praised not only for the dark, character driven writing but also for “Romita and Layton’s highly distinguishable artwork“. This was the tale that showed that there was some depth to the Iron Man character and for the first time, engaged the readers in a story that was more than just “hero beats villain and saves the day”. Not a bad way to kick one’s career into high gear, I might add.
Punisher War Zone
(Punisher War Zone Vol. 1 #s 1-6 – 1992)
Writer: Chuck Dixon
This was a return for JR Jr.after a brief hiatus from drawing monthly comics and still stands as one of the most exciting Punisher stories to date. Punisher decides to take the Carbone crime family apart from within the organization. He infiltrates and destroys them the only way he knows how…..by killing them all (Well, most of them). I’ve praised this story before (in my list of Greatest Punisher Stories) for showing Frank Castle to be more than just a bruiser. His military mind comes into play as he goes behind enemy lines to gain ground in his war on crime. While much of the art and colour choices of the early 90s era leave much to be desired, this book is one of the exceptions. The book is gritty and furious in its execution.
The Man without Fear
(Daredevil: The Man without Fear #s 1-5 – 1993 to 1994)
Writer: Frank Miller
Originally produced to be a Marvel Graphic Novel, the book was repackaged into a five issue miniseries focusing on the origins of Daredevil. This story gives you a better look into the life and death of his dad, Battling Jack Murdock, as well as Matt Murdock’s time at college, the beginnings of his friendship with Foggy Nelson and his doomed relationship with Elektra. The comic also goes into a bit more detail on Matt Murdock’s training with Stick who showed him how to harness his new found powers and better understand them. The book features no costumes (at least not the ones we’re used to) and The Kingpin’s appearance is fleeting. There is however a ton of action with both Murdock and Elektra kicking serious ass. I personally think that this would’ve made the perfect Daredevil movie especially when looking at the almost cinematic shots Romita Jr. composes on the page. If you know someone who says they don’t get the appeal of Daredevil, this is the story to give them. The same goes for anyone who doesn’t get the appeal of JR Jr.
(Amazing Spider-Man Vol. 2 #s 30-34 – 2001)
Writer; J. Michael Straczynski
Spider-Man is probably the character that John Romita Jr. is most known for. How many times have we seen JR Jr.’s “Spidey in the rain” drawing? A lot. But this is the story that stands out as it was the book that helped Spider-Man turn the corner and get out of the slump that Howard Mackie had put the title in during his nineties run. JMS, while eventually going off the rails with a number of stories that would be a detriment to the wall crawler, started with a pretty sound idea that had legs. As I’ve stated previously, both Ezekiel and Morlun were interesting new characters with tons of potential and Romita Jr. made them both very visually interesting. When I think of the renaissance of the early 2000s at the House of ideas, this is one of the stories that really stands out for me as a great example of the quality work that was coming out at that time. It’s unfortunate that just a couple of years later, John would be off the book and JMS would make some terrible choices for the character. But when looking back on this story on it’s own, it truly is a visual masterpiece.
Return of the Monster
(Incredible Hulk Vol. 3 #s 34-39 – 2002)
Writer: Bruce Jones
Another renaissance for a Marvel character in the early 2000s, this story focused on Bruce Banner instead of the big green guy. When the Hulk is accused of killing a little kid, Banner goes on the run and attempts to keep the beast locked inside the best he can by trying to avoid almost everyone in his travels. This does not go well for him as his face is all over the news, the law is after him and he’s also being hunted by a clandestine force who remains a mystery throughout most of the story. This was the book that brought Hulk back to the big dance, making it an A-List title after years of mediocrity. What’s really cool about this first story arch is that Romita didn’t really get to draw the Hulk much. In fact, most Hulking out is off panel for this first story. This is where JR Jr.’s pacing comes into play. He does an amazing job of ratcheting up the tension and making it feel very claustrophobic for Bruce to the point where were almost begging for him to turn into the Hulk. The excitement of reading this book as it came out was almost unbearable because you felt like that the Monster would return any second and there was a mix of both hope and fear in the reader for that moment. This book really let Romita Jr. stretch his legs and build the story off realistic tense moments as opposed to the superhero fare he was used to.
(Kick -Ass Vol. 1 #s 1-8 – 2008-2010)
Writer: Mark Millar
This was another book that let John Romita Jr. change his focus a little. As I said, most of his work up to this point was mainstream superhero stuff. This book allowed John to explore some ultra-violent material and bring his unique style to it. Mark Millar’s story of Dave Lizewski, a regular comic lovin’ kid who wishes to become a superhero…..and then does, is one that really resonated with fans and went into production as a major motion picture before the miniseries was even finished. What was cool (and to some fans, really annoying) was that since the book was released as a creator owned title through Marvel’s Icon Imprint, JR Jr. didn’t have to use his “deadline style”. He could take his time with the art and produce some of the best work he’s done in years. What’s sad is that his work on the subsequent series have actually been even better as John has experimented with his finishes and produced some great art. Unfortunately, while the artwork has continued to improve, Millar continues to almost cannibalize the characters and produce stories that are a shadow of the original series. So while JR Jr. has done better visual work with the character, the story has never lived up to this one. I personally like to look at this story as a self contained story and pretend that there were no sequels. It’s easier that way.
Castaway in Dimension Z
(Captain America Vol. 7 #s 1-10 – 2013)
Writer: Rick Remender
Yes, I believe John Romita Jr.’s latest run on Captain America is an instant classic. Rick Remender promised a story we’ve never seen before in the world of Cap and that’s what we got. Romita Jr. had a huge hand in making this book feel different from what came before in the world of Steve Rogers. He also got to present two very different worlds: the streets of Brooklyn during the depression era and the other-worldly landscape that was Dimension Z. Arnim Zola traps the Star Spangled Avenger in a another Dimension where Zola is king and Cap must join the resistance. During this time, Steve liberates a young child, Zola’s son, and raises him in the wilderness with the help of the locals. Years pass before Cap is able to confront Zola and all hell breaks loose. It was fun to see the crazy and cool, almost alien characters that Romita created. The book was total Sci-Fi and it was interesting to see the contrast between Captain America and his environment. JR Jr. left the book after this arch and he took the excitement with him (sorry to Remender and company but it’s true). A great send off for John Romita Jr. I just hope this isn’t his last go round with characters from the House of Ideas.
So that’s the list. Some of you might disagree with a few of my choices or omissions, but these are the John Romita Jr. stories that stand out as the hallmark of quality. So check ‘em out and enjoy.
And if you’re gonna geek out, GEEK HARD!