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