The Gray Area #1, June 2004, Image Comics
writer: Glen Brunswick
penciller: John Romita, Jr.
inker: Klaus Janson
letterer: John Workman
colorist: Bill Crabtree
On the other hand, some creators, like John Romita, Jr., deserve a little credit. While Jim Lee, Rob Liefeld, Todd McFarlane, and all of their imitators stole the headlines in the early ‘90s, John Romita, Jr. kept the home fires burning, illustrating nearly every character in the Marvel Universe at one time or another, maintaining a standard that may not have sold out titles but certainly kept companies afloat. Ads boasting “John Romita, Jr.’s first creator-owned series,” as the ads for The Gray Area proudly proclaim, truly have something to tout, firstly because Romita waited so long, and secondly because his effort wasn’t a career move, but an opportunity to stretch his creative chops, and nothing more. I know this thanks to Brunswick’s essay at the end of this issue, explaining that The Gray Area was originally intended for Marvel’s Epic line of creator-driven titles, an imprint that went belly up as quickly as it was shoved down our throats. According to Brunswick, Marvel EIC Joe Quesada recommended that Romita shop his work around, something companies rarely suggest to their bread-and-butter artists (which is what made Image’s origins so controversial in the first place). Romita’s faithfulness to his roots earned him the right to fly from the nest, not to mix metaphors, and the results are something to behold.
This first issue of The Gray Area is a hefty read, with thirty-two pages of solid story and sixteen pages of supplemental material, packaged (and priced) like a mini-graphic novel. Although Brunswick and Romita are obviously setting the stage for a supernatural thriller, this issue plays like an episode of The Shield, featuring a corrupt but likeable cop by the name of Rudy Chance. Like Romita’s black-and-white cover homage to Scarface, Rudy’s life is a delicate balance of right and wrong; he’s a successful narcotics officer that profits from his connects with the drug trade, and he’s a happily married family man with a hooker on the side, one that doesn’t hesitate to tell him she’d want something more from their business relationship. Tragically, Rudy’s worlds collide when drug runners kill his family in brutal retaliation, and in his quest for vengeance, Chance unwittingly puts his straight edge partner Patty in harm’s way, and consequently in a coma. As for Chance, well, he dies. Don’t worry, though – this is where his story begins. Befriended by a fellow specter named Jordan, Rudy is led into the gray area, where ghosts seem to dwell in an agonistic purgatory. End of issue one. Yeah, I’d like to know more, too.
The supplemental material adds an interesting layer to the issue and offers a unique behind-the-scenes insight into the creators’ process, much to my fanboy delight. In a thorough sketchbook section that reveals character model sheets and some pages’ pencils, Romita’s work pops with an enthusiasm on par with his better-known Marvel work, if not more so. Admittedly, the issue itself isn’t his A-game – which can be found in Punisher: War Journal if you ask me – but his sense of pacing and blocking is masterful, presumably a talent that runs through the family. I don’t know how much experience Romita has with the supernatural, and therein lies the breadth of his creative chops – it’s not often an artist will cut his teeth with a creative-owned property that contains foreign material. Many of Image’s founders admittedly recreated the X-Men for their inaugural efforts, from storylines to character designs. Romita did recruit Brunswick’s help, and the writer’s humility and confidence with this project shines in his narrative throughout the supplemental material. In a plot with undertones about balance, this issue demonstrates a true sense of the concept, particularly because of this peek behind the curtain.
Unfortunately, I found The Gray Area #1 in the same place I’ve found Image’s other flagship titles: in the quarter bin at a warehouse convention. With all of the superfluous Scarface paraphernalia I’ve seen in stores lately, I wonder why a comic book with apparent ties or inspiration to this film didn’t really take off. Or, I wonder if Romita’s commitment to the company-owned superhero material his peers abandoned in the early ‘90s sealed his fate. Unlike his father, one of the founding fathers of the modern superhero genre, Romita, Jr. is perhaps simply perceived as an illustrator, nothing more. At least he’s a hard-working one. He’s stuck to his guns, unlike some other hailed artists who have dropped off of the map in the last decade. There’s nothing gray about Romita’s career. In my opinion, the guy simply has class, and I’ll buy his stuff anytime. Especially when the price is right.