For thoughtful observers of the comic book industry, there's one major question surrounding next week's release of "Superman" #32: How weird will it be to see John Romita Jr. drawing DC Comics characters?
Romita's career at Marvel started in the 1970s, and in the ensuing decades he illustrated virtually every significant Marvel character, in some of the publisher's most famous stories -- including "Daredevil: The Man Without Fear" and multiple runs on Spider-Man. It was announced this past February that he'd make the transition to DC, for a run on "Superman" written by the company's chief creative officer, Geoff Johns. In an interview with CBR News that same month, Romita simply stated: "I never thought this was going to happen."
DC provided CBR with early access to "Superman" #32, the first part of "The Men of Tomorrow," on sale June 25. While there may be some pop cultural whiplash upon seeing Romita drawing not only DC characters but the DC character, the end result is exactly the type of smooth transition you'd expect from an artist of Romita's caliber. Given a career built on drawing iconic superheroes, Superman is a natural fit.
In their initial outing together, Johns appears determined to play to Romita's strengths. There are multiple splashes through the 25-page issue -- like the undeniably appealing double-page spread of Superman punching a robotic version of super-ape Titano that's already circulated online. Yet Romita is also more than capable at quieter moments, and there are plenty of those here, including a reflectively solitary Clark Kent and an old-school Daily Planet newsroom scene.
Old-school is not an entirely inappropriate description for the issue as a whole. While it's not overtly retro and fits right in with current DC Universe continuity -- there's a reference to the outcome of the recent Johns-written event "Forever Evil," plus touchstones to happenings in the other Super-books -- both the story and the visuals feel fairly classic. The New 52 touches to Superman's costume are still there -- lots of arguably superfluous lines and design details on the costume -- but appear slightly de-emphasized. Superman himself looks a little older, too; still youthful, but more mature than the average New 52 depiction.
Romita is joined in his new venture by Klaus Janson, a similarly prolific and prestigious illustrator. Janson hadn't worked at DC for the past decade, the company where he inked Frank Miller on the seminal "The Dark Knight Returns." Romita and Janson have been regular collaborators for years now, and their artistically deft penciler/inker partnership remains on point in this first issue.
Much of Romita's most recent Marvel work departed from shiny superhero action. His final stint (for now) in the Marvel Universe, the Rick Remender-written opening 10-issue arc of the Marvel NOW! "Captain America," was sci-fi/fantasy; the "Kick-Ass" saga (which still has one issue left to go, expected out July 2), obviously contained copious amounts of over-the-top violence. Both series utilized a suitably darker palette. "Superman" reunites Romita and noted colorist Laura Martin, last paired on 2012's "Avengers vs. X-Men." This issue is bright, managing to feel sunny and optimistic even during nighttime battle scenes. Given the criticism DC as a whole has received for its current output trending towards the dark and dour, this is, thus far, definitely not that.
While Romita is new to "Superman," Geoff Johns is a veteran. He had written the character's solo adventures at multiple points pre-New 52, and as part of a team in "Justice League" since August 2011. In "Superman" #32, he initiates -- consistent with the theme -- a likely deliberate attempt at an archetypal Superman storyline, approximately one year since the neck snap heard around the world in "Man of Steel." While much remains to be revealed about new character Ulysses, he's presented as a reflection of Superman's loneliness -- exploring the character's vulnerability, not aggression.
Introducing a new character like Ulysses -- with a mystery surrounding his origins -- is a conscious move to balance the more familiar elements in the issue. Perry White, Jimmy Olsen and Lois Lane all appear, but Johns and Romita have made it clear in interviews that they're both hoping to do something new. That's not easy to do with a 75-plus-year-old character, and time well tell how this effort plays out, but adding to a legacy rather than duplicating it is a worthwhile pursuit.
"Superman" has an important role in DC's publishing line. Romita is one of the company's biggest acquisitions in years, and obviously DC is pleased to promote an artist so clearly associated with the competition. Nearly three years into the New 52 era, it's an example of reloading an ongoing series with a superstar creative team -- something the company hasn't always been able to do as talent continues to turn over. While the true success rate of the Johns/Romita "Superman" era won't be clear for months, it's off to a promising and refreshingly earnest start.
"Superman" #32 is on sale June 25.