Original Art Stories: John Romita - Marvel Giant. 'Nuff Said!

It’s ironic that when John Romita joined Marvel in the mid-1960s, he had never heard of their flagship character, The Amazing Spider-Man. The irony runs deeper when you realise that within a few years the names ‘Spider-Man’ and ‘John Romita’ would be forever linked, to the point where it could be argued that he surpassed Spider-Man’s co-creator, and original artist, Steve Ditko for sheer impact upon the title. “I had never even heard of Spider-Man,” says Romita when asked about the character. “I had never heard of the Fantastic Four. I was not a very bright comic artist. As a comic artist with business in mind I should have been up on all the stuff that was selling very well. I was very parochial. Over the eight years that I was at DC all I looked at were DC books. When somebody told me that Stan Lee was selling books I was mildly surprised but I didn’t even pay attention. I never once cracked a Spider-Man; I never once looked at the news-stands to even see a Spider-Man. It was very strange and very stupid of me; I should have been up on them.”

Romita had entered Marvel and had been assigned to the Daredevil title. This suited Romita down to the ground, but, initially, he only wanted to ink due to feeling burned out from over a decade pencilling romance titles at DC. Stan Lee, who knew Romita from the last days of Timely Comics and knowing that Romita was a vastly underutilized talent at DC, agreed to the inking clause immediately. Once Lee had Romita’s signature in hand he soon changed the rules. “Stan Lee promised me he would only give me inking,” says Romita, “and I was happy because what I found was that I was suffering. At the end of the fifteen years that I was a freelancer working at home I found two things. I found it was very hard for me to discipline myself to get enough work out to make a living. I would be easily distracted and kept away from the drawing table. The other thing was I had the blank page syndrome for about six months and it was very hard for me to start a story. I would sit there and stare at the blank page and nothing would come. At one point it was so bad that I had to ask Don Heck to break down a story for me because I couldn’t get it out in time. I had lost about two or three days and was unable to do anymore. It was an artist’s block and we called it the blank page syndrome. I felt I was burnt out. I figured I had done fifteen years of penciling and a lot of inking, and I figured inking I could do because once I saw something on the page I could ink it, but if I have a blank page I’m dead. So I really thought I’d never pencil again and he promised me. He said, “OK, you can ink” and four weeks later he tells me, “We’ve got a little trouble with the Daredevil book, do you think you can handle it?” I must have been asleep or something because I said, sure, I’ll try. That shows you how clever I was.”

Not wanting to totally throw Romita in at the deep end, Lee reached out to his partner of the time, Jack Kirby, to assist. Kirby, a powerhouse of production, agreed to supply Romita with layouts to follow. Romita instantly realised the lessons that Lee was having Kirby give, not only to himself, but to all of the Marvel Bullpen of the time. When Lee asked artists to study Kirby and draw like him, the emphasis wasn’t that that artists should swipe, but instead look to the pacing, dynamics, design and structure of a Kirby story. Romita understood this instantly and, even more so, was excited by the prospect. When asked about the Kirby layouts, which, when seen today look nothing more than diagrams, Romita stated that, “They were like directors notes telling you, ‘this is a close up, this is a long shot, a scenic shot, and this is a set of eyes’. He would do diagrams and label them with initials, say this is Matt Murdock and this is Karen Page, and all he would do would be silhouettes.” However Kirby had done his job well. “On a couple of panels he really triggered my excitement with a little bit of detail which was nice,” says Romita. “Most of it was very rudimentary, but it was a pacing guide of how to approach storytelling. How to open up excitingly, how to keep it moving, how to bridge the gaps, all those things. Immediately, in those two issues, I learned everything Stan and Jack had instilled in Marvel to make it great.” Other artists agreed with Romita and dispute the myth that Lee instructed others to ‘draw like Kirby’ in the literal (swipe) term. “It’s a misinterpretation,” says Dick Ayers. “The way he would put it would be, you see the way so and so spots his blacks in the drawings, or how he’s dramatic and does this and does that and gets more story into it. Stan would coach you that way. But I never had the feeling that he wanted me to, in fact I knew he didn’t want me to work like Kirby. One day I drew it exactly the way Kirby pencilled it, and it was a Rawhide Kid I think, and I took it in and Stan looked back and he said, ‘I don’t want a love story for God’s sake. If I wanted you to trace, or if I wanted somebody to trace Kirby’s drawings then I could hire them off the streets.’ Then he went on into a long story about what he wanted here and there.” Gene Colan was another who had his own spin on what happened back in the day. “Stan would say whatever book he thought was selling,” Gene says, “he would have the rest of the staff try to copy the same style of work, but I wouldn’t do it. I’d tell him you’ll have to get Stevie Ditko, I can’t do it, and I have to be myself. So he left me alone.”

In at least one case Stan encouraged a young artist to find his own style and to cease drawing like another artist. “I drew a lot like Jack Davis,” says Herb Trimpe about his artistic beginnings. “He was my favourite artist and Stan knocked that the hell out of you right away. That was, forget about it, you know. So I tried to draw in the dynamic style that Jack Kirby did – not that Stan would say ‘draw like Jack Kirby’ but as far as his storytelling that was the kind of work that was thrust under your nose to keep in mind while you were working on a story was that whole dynamic style which really defined the Marvel look in many ways.” The keys that Lee, and later Romita himself when he headed the art department, were trying to instil into their artists were dynamics, speed and storytelling, three things that Jack Kirby had perfected over a long career. In some aspects quality didn’t matter as much as a dynamic storytelling approach at Marvel in the 1960s. This would change over time as more artists would enter the industry, influenced by Kirby and as such educated in the keys by osmosis.

For John Romita Stan Lee reinforced these lessons through positive comments, and didn’t focus on the negatives. He’d sit Romita down and explain what worked and what didn’t work instead of merely having a staff artist, or Kirby, rework the pages. “He’d tell me when the page was dull and why it was dull and what I needed to do to instil some excitement to it,” says Romita. “The whole key of dynamics, and the word dynamics kept constantly popping into my mind; it was the dynamics of storytelling. Meaning how to keep it hopping and moving and how to make it very clear that if the reader didn’t want to read all the balloons he would still know what was going on.” By using this method, and by allowing the artist the freedom to set the pacing, Lee had stumbled on one of his greatest tricks, and with the likes of Kirby, Ditko, Don Heck and Dick Ayers leading the initial relaunch of Marvel, and later Wally Wood, Romita, Herb Trimpe, Gene Colan, John Buscema, Gil Kane Jim Mooney, George Tuska and John Severin, he more than had the talent to pull his own unique vision off.

After a short run on Daredevil, which featured Romita drawing a very Ditko-ish Spider-Man, Lee dropped a bomb on Romita. Steve Ditko was leaving both the title and Marvel and the book needed an artist. Romita was in line for the gig and after his work on Daredevil, had shown he could do the job well. There was a certain amount of trepidation surrounding the assignment though, and a lot of mystery as to why Ditko was leaving and walking off one of the best selling Marvel titles of the era. For Romita the move wasn’t entirely unexpected. “Sol Brodsky was aware that he wasn’t happy and I think he used to tell Stan that Steve was getting ready to bolt,” remembers Romita. “Stan tried everything. He let Ditko plot completely from scratch. He gave Ditko every opportunity to do whatever he wanted and the bone of contention was what Ditko wanted was to plot the stories and for Stan to not even change a single thought in the plot. Stan immediately changed everything because he had his own agenda. Ditko was trying to get political and social overtones that were different to what Stan felt were good entertainment. Stan was not a political writer; he just felt that the most important thing was entertainment. Ditko was more interested in using his politics and social outlook to try and send a message through his comics. That’s where they separated. Stan couldn’t let him do that because he wanted to entertain his readers knowing that was the only way there was a future. Ditko didn’t care about the readers; he just cared about doing the story the way he wanted it and not having it changed. I guess they could never work together after that.”

No matter what had happened there was never any doubt in Romita’s mind that Ditko wouldn’t return to Marvel and Spider-Man, leaving Romita to return to Daredevil, a title that he really wanted to continue with. For Romita Ditko’s return was obvious, simple economics and common sense dictated it. “When you’re a comic artist for fifteen years you yearn for a successful character and a successful run on a book,” says Romita. “You want ten years, or twelve years on a book, which is money in the bank, security. So when you see a guy like Ditko who after years of what they call being a club fighter, doing war stories, westerns, horror stories and crime stories and trying to make a living. If I were in his position after years of getting short stories and never having any security, if I suddenly found myself with a three year success story I’d have never given it up, no matter how painful it was. In the back of my mind I thought, ‘Well this is temporary, Ditko is going to come back. Who the hell is going to give up three years of success?’ That was my gut feeling.” There was no real feeling of nerves for Romita, as, in his eyes, the gig was temporary at best. Hedging his bets, Lee assigned Romita with one of the more dependable inkers of the time in Mike Esposito. At the time Mike was ghosting for Marvel under the name ‘Mickey Demeo’ while working at DC full time, and his appointment was seen as a bonus for Romita. “I figured that having a guy with his track record was a great boon to me,” says Romita. “He wasn’t going to labor over it, he had a nice free style and I don’t think that our styles matched at first, but he made it work. I was very pleased with the stuff.”

Once Romita began work on Spider-Man he made his own unique mark. The main character looked similar to what Steve Ditko had done, but the other characters, out of costume, looked like pure Romita. This wasn’t an accident, this was design. “I was trying to do a ghosting job because my experience in comics was that if you took over a syndicated strip you had to ghost the original artist,” says Romita. “I felt obliged that the readers would not have any kind of interruption in their month to month enjoyment so I would make it look as much like Ditko as I could. I think I got closer to Ditko than I ever got to Kirby. A lot of people have said no, they saw as being different from the first day and I thought I was doing an absolute knock off job on Ditko.”

One of the most unique aspects of the title was the soap opera feel that Lee and Romita brought to it. Romita’s grounding in romance stories at DC gave him a definite edge over other artists at Marvel at the time as he knew what was needed to separate romance from merely being two heads kissing in a panel. “It was just one of those lucky breaks that I was in the right place at the right time,” remembers Romita. “The thing that differentiated Spider-Man from other heroes was how much of a home life he had and how much personal confusion he had around him. What I did was I glamorized it a little bit and then Stan started constantly jumping on my back saying, ‘I want more mini-skirts. I want more goofy clothes. I want everything modern.’ He used to bring me the Women’s Wear daily every time he could and put it on my drawing table saying, “use this” and “use that” Crazy designs, crazy patterns and crazy textures. Suddenly I was a fashion maven and I ever even bought my own clothes. Virginia (Romita, John’s wife) had to buy my clothes. I have no idea what’s modern and what’s not. So the strangest person of all became a fashion maven. People said that they thought my fashions were sensational and I was just trying to come up with the craziest things I could. It was a crazy time.

“As for the romance stuff, not only did it help me with the girls in the story, it also helped me with the romantic triangle stuff. When you’re doing those panels they can be very dull. When it’s called talking heads, when you’ve just got two or three teenagers and a couple of adults talking, it’s talking heads. When I was doing romance for eight years if I didn’t want to go out of my mind then those talking heads had to be interesting. If they weren’t interesting then I didn’t feel like I was doing my job. Even without being goaded into it I felt obliged to make a romance story look like more was happening than there actually was, because never was ever happening in those stories. It was just a few tears, a lucky break and you’re back together again in ten pages. My efforts to make an excitement out of nothing, in other words, a guy and a girl just talking and walking in a park, well I’d shoot them through the trees, I would shoot them passing a fountain. I would do all sorts of exotic backgrounds and then I would have her hair blowing and her scarf blowing. I would get excitement when nothing was happening and I felt that helped me when I was doing the personal stuff in Spider-Man. That’s where people think, ‘oh wow, look at all that’s happening’, all I was doing was the same tricks I’d done for eight years in love stories. You’re just trying to find something interesting to look at rather than just people’s dull expressions. When you’ve got a crying girl, how many ways can you do tears?”

In Romita’s hands the book became almost a romance title with some action thrown in. “There were times when Stan wanted to do nothing but a soap opera and just have Spider-Man as the spice,” says Romita. “In other words, ‘this is the fruitcake, and this is the guy who’s the raisins in the fruit’.” This sometimes went against Romita’s leanings though, and the two would argue from time to time, with the results being more action inserted, but the emphasis would seemingly always return to the soap opera aspect, often, at times, with stunning results. When the decision finally came down to kill Peter Parker’s long time girlfriend Gwen Stacey the impact amongst readers and professionals alike was incredible with a genuine outpouring of both grief and anger. It’s hard to imagine this impact being as strong as it was without the bedrock of development that had come before, primarily at the hands of Lee and Romita. Others came onto the book, both as writers and artists, but still the name John Romita is mentioned in glowing terms when anyone thinks of the Amazing Spider-Man.

The Spectacular Spider-Man was created in 1968 as a black and white magazine with all new stories from Romita, Jim Mooney, Larry Lieber, Bill Everett and Stan Lee. Sadly the book would only last two issues before being shelved, with the title being used for the launch, successfully, of the second Spider-man comic book in the late 1970s. The cover for the first issue was painted by Harry Rosenbaum, better known for his paintings in various men’s magazines of the time. This cover marked one of the few times that Romita failed to deliver what Stan Lee wanted. The first illustration showed Spider-Man crawling up a wall, as per the norm for the character, but Lee wasn’t happy. He took Romita aside and mentioned that the perspective wasn’t entirely right, it was awkward and unwieldy, and as a result a change was suggested, why not have Spider-Man on the roof, as opposed to a wall? Romita took a stat of the Spider-Man figure and drew an all new background, showing him on a roof, as per Lee’s request. The result was then painted by Rosenbaum and duly published. By having Rosenbaum paint the copied figure and background, Lee unintentionally managed to save Romita’s original line drawing and it can be seen today fully intact. For the second issue Romita was allowed to paint his own cover, with devastating results.

One crucial thing that John Romita possessed was, and still is, a genuine affection and admiration for those who have both come before and after him. This was evident when he related to me how he felt when working at Marvel with some of the giants in the industry, in particular Jerry Siegel. “For a short time there was only a thin partition separating our cubicles,” remembers Romita. “He was on one side of the wall and I was on the other. He was only there for a few months, I think six to eight months. He was proof reading for us, which was like all the clichéd stories you hear about the world-wide famous guy who suddenly is doing a tedious job. And here I was saying, “This is JERRY SIEGEL next to me! This is the guy who created Superman! He’s about eighteen inches away from me and his chair is backing on mine.” I got such a kick out of that. Then Bill Everett came into the Bullpen and here I was with Bill Everett, and Jack Kirby coming in every couple of weeks, and Jerry Siegel right near me. It was like WOAH, I felt like I was in Valhalla. It was the biggest charge I’ve ever had in comics.

“He had been through so many successes and then a few failures, and I think he only did it because he probably needed the money, because he had gone through the Ziff-Davis fortune and I’m sure he was just reduced to having to do proof reading because he needed the money. He was quiet, and rather subdued. We didn’t have a lot of conversations because when you’re a proof reader you can’t stop to talk to anybody. So he’d just sit there and proof read all day and we didn’t want to bother him. I certainly didn’t want to go over there and ask for his autograph, I felt sheepish about that. I felt like bowing to him every time I passed his cubicle.”

Surprisingly Romita also shows another side, a side that sees him downplay his own abilities at times. “I know how self effacing how John is and it’s very strange,” says Dave Hunt. “He’s JOHN ROMITA and he has such self-doubt. It’s real, and not a game he’s playing.” Still others see past that, and only see the warmth and genuine affection for his fellow artists that Romita displays. “John Romita, the man, the legend, the surrogate father,” says Mark McKenna. “I love John Romita. John never had a bad word to say about anybody. NEVER. John is also a devoted Dad and husband to his lovely family. When you meet a person of legendary status, especially someone you grew up admiring from a distance, you don't expect them to be as thoughtful, warm and caring as John is. Forget that the man is one of the most talented people to ever grace a funny book. John is what you imagine you want your idol to be. Always smiling, always light-hearted even through back pain or a New York Met loss (I think he liked the Yankees too) on his portable radio. The perfect role model.” “Another of my early mentors,” says Rich Buckler, “the guy just seemed to know everything about drawing, and I do mean everything!”

John Romita, the artist’s artist and one of the architects who helped build the House of Ideas.


Edo Bosnar said…
Fantastic post - and great blog, by the way, I can't believe I've just now discovered it.
Just one question: is there any explanation to accompany that 3-page comic that's obviously spoofing the bullpen? It's amusing as it is, but I'm betting it's even more funny if you know why John(?) is bonking that poor bespectacled guy...
Barry Pearl said…
It was the summer 1966. I was 15 years old and on line, outside, of the New York Department of Health where you got working papers if you were going to get a job at that age. I had just picked up Spider-Man #42, “The Birth of a Super-Hero” and got to the last page. I saw the most beautiful woman ever drawn in a comic book. “Face it tiger,” she says, “You’ve hit the jackpot.” She was not the only one.

Ditko’s Spider-Man was brilliant. There was nothing like it. The character had depth and human emotions. The strip was innovative and thought provoking. It was also dark and depressing. Spider-Man’s history had been a bleak one, his parents died, his uncle died, and Betty’s brother died and then he broke up with her. His Aunt was always ill, J.J.J.’s paper was always against him, even sending Spider-Man slayers after him, yet he still worked there. He seemed trapped in his own life. He had no friends, one relative and no future. College was to be no different. From the beginning, his new friends were to pick up Flash’s attitude. When Ditko left, he took his version of Spider-Man with him. I’ll always miss that.

I remember picking up Spider-Man #39 from the stands. The cover was vivid; the Goblin held a helpless unmasked Spider-Man on a string. The two part story was fantastic.

In the Marvel Universe, artists were storytellers too. Ditko, in his dark and dank world was the Anti-Kirby. Spider-man had a tragic past, and he could never get away from it. It was Romita that put the hero into the Kirby Universe. Here, the world was brighter, the people were prettier and they were more optimistic. Optimistic because the characters could grow and change. As a teenager, I needed that. With Ditko, there was no joy in Parker's life, no real hope for happiness partly because there was no maturation. Now there was.

Romita let Parker grow up. With Romita, Parker relationships with Harry and Gwen matured. Peter, as every teenager, wanted his own “pad” and he got one. He even got his own motorcycle. His stories were wonderful and, yes, his women were always beautiful.

Ditko did give us memorable and creepy villains but I identified very little with anything Steve Ditko did. There was a scene where Peter meets his old girlfriend Betty (Amazing Spider-Man #41) and realizes that he has gotten over her. He has grown up, he feels relief. This felt real and it was something I could identify with. Romita’s characters seemed real because they grew. You see, in 1966 I was growing up and now the comics I was reading were growing with me.

John Romita: "In working on a plot, we usually did it verbally. Stan and I would get together for an hour or two and we would talk about the villain, the general gimmick of the story, try and figure out the exact opening, the fight scenes, and an interesting twist at the end, plus the personalities and personal life threads running through the story. We would work that out verbally. I was a little bit nervous because I kept thinking I was going to forget the important things. It's difficult when you do a verbal plot because you have a tendency to only remember what your suggestions were. Actually, now I find working with a script very restrictive. "

When Marvel released its first two “black and white” magazines, Romita showed that he could have adult appeal and that comic book storytelling could be for adults. His two Spider-Man stories for grown-ups were just outstanding: familiar, yet very different from what we had seen in the comics. In Savage Tales he drew the first of the Femizons, beautiful woman who, well, I am sure there was a plot to that story, I just don’t remember it.

Thanks to Stan’s listing the credits every issue, something DC would never do, I was learning who was producing the stories that I liked the best. I always looked forward to seeing Johnny Romita’s name. Face it, we all hit the jackpot.
Daniel Best said…
Edo - that story is an unpublished story showing how Larry Lieber (the bald guy) and John Romita would plot an idea, only to have Stan Lee act out what he thought should happen. Great stuff isn't it?

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