Sunday, April 12, 2015

John Romita Jr.'s Iron Man

Iron Man #259, August 1990 was my very first Iron Man comic book.  I was a Spider-Man fan.  I had never really paid any attention to the golden Avenger, but I got this issue in one of those comic grab bag lots you could get from the Sears catalog back in the day.  My family knew I liked comic books, but had no idea how to shop for such a hobby, so every year at Christmas I would get this assortment of comics that I assume Marvel over-produced and undersold.  (It wasn't all bad, these mixed lots are where I got my first appearance of Gambit, and my first Jim Lee art on Uncanny X-men).  In that lot, among the issues of Groo and Double Dragon, was Iron Man #259.

The story takes place fairly early during the Armor Wars II event.  Maybe not the best place for a new reader to jump in, but this was back in the good ol' days of comics where every issue was treated like someone's first and editors were not afraid to reference back issues so you can go catch up.  John Byrne was the writer and while this outing wasn't as strong as his legendary run on Fantastic Four, it was still pretty good and contained a solid story with bigger picture storylines that built interest in future issues.  Sadly, that wouldn't be in the cards for me as the gas station where I bought my comics didn't carry Iron Man...

But it wasn't the story that stood out to me.  It was the art.  I was familiar with John Romita Jr. from his work on Spider-Man in the 80's.  At that time his style was still heavily influenced by his father's iconic work, but his work on Iron Man was very much unlike his earlier stuff.  He was starting to really come into his own. Look at the incredible composition of this splash page.  It echoes the action of the cover, but trades some of the spectacle and ramps up the drama.  Iron Man is trapped.  The Titanium Man (or his ghost) looms over him, dominating the panel and crushing our hero in the bottom left corner of the panel, the most submissive placement in the panel.  In what little room is left behind T-Man, darkness threatens to close in on both characters.  This single panel does an incredible job of setting up the next several pages of the comic.
While the hatching that would become his signature is at work here, it is put to good use predominately on the villain and the background and contrasted with the sleeker "shine" lines on Iron Man's armor.  It's striking work and it is clear that JRJR is at home drawing big guys in metal suits.

Here's another page from later in the issue.  Iron Man has escaped the Titanium Man's ghost and has lost track of him.  However, he has also woken up three days later in San Francisco with no idea how he got there.  This particular page is nothing new.  It's the classic "putting on the armor" page that is almost required in an Iron Man comic and one that Romita Jr. would do nearly once per issue during his run.  But look at how well he does it.  He loves it.  He takes one of the most chiche pages in comic book history and just takes it to the next level.  The key is the simplicity.  Something that gets very lost in his later and current work.  He doesn't complicate the backgrounds, he keeps them clean, only adding motion lines to the final panel as Iron Man takes off. The close-ups in the first four panels are smartly done.  It's understood that he is putting on the suit, so JRJR pulls us in close so that we only get snippits of the armor building to the reveal in panel 5. Again, not much new here, but it's so well done that it deserves mention.  There are scant few straight lines and virtually no hatching.  Instead, Romita Jr. uses blotches of black to indicate the shine as the light plays off the armor.  Without a lot of line work, the colors are bolder and more striking and the overall impact of the full suit in the last panel is as good as any splash page.  Most importantly, Romita Jr. is able to take something that Iron Man does every issue, sometimes more than once, and still make it an exciting and awesome moment.

The final page of the issue is another splash page. It wasn't uncommon at this time to open and close with splash pages, particularly when there was a big reveal.  It wasn't abused like it was in the early aughts when artists were almost required to load a comic with splash pages to fill out an issue that was extremely light on story.  This splash page reveals the true identity of the Titanium Man's ghost to be the Living Laser.  The scene just before this takes place in a massive room filled with mirrors, where the Laser blinds Iron Man with a barrage of light.  When the glow recedes, there stands the Laser in his moment of triumph.  I like this page, again, because of its simplicity.  Due the very nature of the Living Laser's physical manifestation, you cannot shadow him.  He is pure light, so Romita Jr. is required to reduce his line use to the absolute minimum.  The Laser's pose is dynamic and JRJR takes liberty with his anatomy to make him just a little more bendy than an actual human might be.  The use of Kirby Crackle as the only background helps put all of the focus on the reveal and keep the page clean and simple.

Unfortunately, I only have one other issue of JRJR's run on Iron Man, issue #265, but it's a winner too.  Another striking cover with interiors to match.  Hopefully, I can fill out this gap in my collection and one day marvel in the full glory of what I feel is the height of John Romita Jr.'s work.

Later in his career, JRJR began to rely much too heavily on his hatching work and pretty soon everything looked like it was made out of spaghetti or coils of rope.  His style also began to skew more blocky and this human anatomy began to look like "gooey cubes."  (imagine a perfect cube, then round off all of the edges).  His work on books like Uncanny X-men, Avengers, and later the Amazing Spider-Man exemplify this unfortunate evolution in his style.  Gone is the economic line use, the blotchy black shadow work, and the simple panel layout.  Even something as simple as a hooded sweatshirt features more lines and folds than seem reasonable.  At this point, JRJR's work is nearly a parody of itself and a sorry departure from his absolutely incredible work on Iron Man.  I used to get very excited to find that he was going to be working on a comic I was reading, but now I almost dread it.  I've seen the heights to which he can soar, so it's hard to hard to look at something that is less than his best.

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