This interview was originally published in The Comics Journal #252 (May 2003).
John Romita is best known for his 1960s run on The Amazing Spider-Man, and rightfully so. The Brooklyn native was brought on as a replacement for the character’s co-creator, artist Steve Ditko, at a crucial time in Marvel’s emergence as a publishing line and pop-culture phenomenon. Stan Lee never made a smarter move. Romita gave the adventures of Marvel’s flagship character a look that mixed the heightened everyday appeal of romance comics with Marvel’s across-the-line take on Jack Kirby’s dynamism. Rarely has an artist working in the American comic-book mainstream made as strong a graphic impression on a character not originally his own. No matter which version of Spider-Man readers worldwide prefer in terms of story, it is John Romita’s basic visual interpretation that lingers on in memory: Peter Parker on the motorcycle, clad in a black turtleneck, physically traumatized by a series of sharply and logically dressed villains, finding a moment’s peace with elbows crooked to receive the hands of all-time Good Girls Mary Jane Watson and Gwen Stacy. Romita’s work at its best was fashionable, sharp and fundamentally sound, playing no small role in vaulting the character and the company to the top of the industry.
Romita was born in 1930, and in many ways, his career is emblematic of the second wave of American comic-book creators. Like many comic-book cartoonists, Romita trained in various New York-area schools and worked as an illustrator in the Armed Services. His first job in comics was as a ghost artist in one of the industry’s flush periods, but he soon made a name for himself as a dependable worker who could pick up on various popular styles — the chance to add to the basic visual vocabulary and style palette of comics lost by virtue of his relative late arrival in the field, a missed opportunity Romita speaks of with eloquent regret. He worked for DC when it was a leader in the field and for Marvel when it overtook DC. After his heyday as a penciler for the Marvel line, which also included lovely turns on Daredevil and Captain America, Romita became art director at the company, expanding on an informal role he had played in the office. Even as the formal penciling jobs dwindled, Romita remained Marvel’s most important designer, extremely facile with covers and costumes. Romita worked closely with some of the best artists in the industry’s history, such as Gil Kane, and more than most men of his considerable talent understood what made various artists work on the page. Romita has given back to the industry that employed him in any number of ways, including the fruits of a second generation. His son and namesake has been a successful artist for two decades now, including popular runs on the Spider-Man character, making the Romitas one of the first families of mainstream comic books. The father’s pride when speaking of John Jr. is genuine and palpable, even over the telephone.
Our interview was conducted during the early part of the Christmas holidays, and he was occasionally reminded of the status of soon-to-arrive houseguests by longtime wife Virginia. He was affable and forthcoming, and in his voice and good humor he cast his own artistic journey and the industry’s past in an attractive but sensible light similar to the effect his most fondly remembered comics had on generations of young people, my own included.
— Tom Spurgeon
[This interview was transcribed by Tom Spurgeon and copy-edited by him and Milo George.]
Doing His Share
TOM SPURGEON: How often do you get to the drawing table these days?
JOHN ROMITA: As little as possible. [Laughter.] That’s why I didn’t get the [TCJ] cover done in time for solicitation. I feel terrible about it. I should’ve gotten it done quicker, but between Thanksgiving and Christmas confusion, I thought I was going to have two weeks or a week to get things done, and it ended up a couple of days between one thing was finished and the next thing started. I’ve had relatives here after Thanksgiving, and then I’m getting relatives here early for Christmas. So things have been up in smoke.
SPURGEON: It’s a short holiday season this year, so I think a lot of people are getting squeezed. Do you draw for pleasure still at all?
ROMITA: The only thing I’m about to embark on is to try some computer-generated art. But that’s only because it’s been in my head for five or six years, that I wanted to try it. I don’t know if it’s wise, and, of course, the equipment costs a lot of money, and I don’t know if I’m going to have the patience to sit at the computer for long hours. Right now I just use it for e-mail and the occasional reference call. That’s the only thing I’m planning.
I did a Supergirl cover for DC, only because a former Marvel editor was up there, and asked me to do it. I did it as a favor. But I’m trying to avoid work. [Laughter.] After 55 years I started working when I was 14, and when I hit 66, I left the office but I kept working the last five or six years. And I said, “You know, this is ridiculous. Almost 55 years I’ve been working. The hell with that. I did my share.”
SPURGEON: What was it you did at 14?
ROMITA: I was a messenger in Times Square. It’s documented in one of Roy Thomas’ nostalgic visits. He did retrospective things while he was editing at Marvel. He did a World War II story, and he showed a scene of me delivering packages in Times Square, believe it or not. [Laughter.] I wish I remember what book that was.
SPURGEON: How did a Brooklyn boy end up working down in Times Square?
ROMITA: I went to school in the city. When I was 14, I embarked on a long subway ride to get to the School of Industrial Arts in the city. I wanted to go to that art school so badly, so my mother gave me the permission. Somebody asked if there’s anybody interested in making 60 cents an hour as a messenger, and I jumped up like an idiot. [Laughter.] For the next few years I worked there. I was a little mad at myself, but I needed the money.
SPURGEON: You always drew as a kid?
ROMITA: Oh, yeah. I was drawing since I was about 5.
SPURGEON: Was it very much supported in your family? Were there artists in your family?
ROMITA: They were supportive. We were musically oriented. Everybody loved singing, and I’m the only one in the family who couldn’t sing. They always supported me. But they never believed I would make a living as a comic artist. My father used to say, “Sure, you want to draw, you can draw all you want, but you’re not going to make a living.” He expected me to become a baker and drive a delivery truck.
SPURGEON: How long did that last?
ROMITA: He talked about it all during my adolescence. My mother used to shake her head while he wasn’t looking. [Laughter.]
SPURGEON: Were you known in the neighborhood as the kid who draws?
ROMITA: I used to draw on the sidewalks of Brooklyn. Believe it or not, I used to get chalk donated from all of my friends. I would do drawings all day long, when there was nothing else to do. There was not much else to do — no television, and spring and summer and fall I’d be drawing on the streets. The blacktop was a great blackboard for me. I once did a 100-foot long drawing of the Statue of Liberty. It was a good exercise, come to think of it, hunched over and drawing. I did everything. The whole thing. The pedestal, the full statue, the torch — I went from one manhole to the next, which was about a hundred feet.
SPURGEON: I imagine the impermanence of that might have prepared you for comic books.
ROMITA: When it rained, everybody used to say, “Oh, there it goes.” I would just do another drawing the next day. It didn’t matter.
SPURGEON: You drew in school?
ROMITA: In school, I did the usual things. Every holiday, starting with Lincoln’s birthday and Washington’s birthday, I would do silhouettes of the presidents and other kids would cut them out. I would do backdrops for school plays, and scenery — that kind of stuff.
SPURGEON: What was your curriculum like at Industrial Arts?
ROMITA: It was an innovative idea — and by the way, a lot of my colleagues, the comic-book artists from the ’40s and ’50s, graduated from that school. Carmine Infantino, Joe Giella, Sy Barry, almost all of my colleagues went to that school. Just a couple — John Buscema and Mike Esposito, maybe others — went to Music and Art. Music and Art was an interesting school, but it taught more of the fine arts and printmaking than commercial art. I went to the one that was commercial because I knew I had to make a living.
SPURGEON: You were taught by professional artists there.
ROMITA: That was the theory. It was wonderful. They were all excellent, excellent teachers and wonderful role models because they were all practicing, earning artists.
SPURGEON: Was it at this point that it locked in for you that you could make a living doing art?
ROMITA: Teenagers are very strange. You don’t have to really convince yourself; you just have this vague impression you’re going to make a living someday. Even if I thought, in lucid moments, that I probably wouldn’t make a living as an artist, I always thought that this was something I like to do, and I’ll always be able to do it, and if I don’t get work at it, I’ll do production or something like that. One of the things that was good about that school is that it taught you lettering, mechanical drawing, sculpture and photography; the foundation course the first year was very, very complete. It taught me all sorts of things. Like the rest of the class, we would grumble and say, “What the hell are we doing photography for?” Or show-card lettering. But the truth of the matter is that everything I studied in that foundation year has come to my aid in comics. Almost immediately when I got into comics, I was using lettering, I was using perspective, I was using mechanical-drawing techniques. I only went there for three years, because I wasted my first year of high school in a local junior high. So I went to Industrial Art at the tenth-grade level, and I only did the tenth-, 11th- and 12th-grade years. To my eternal regret. I should have had the guts to take a final year. Another year — I don’t know if they would have let me. [Laughter.]
SPURGEON: You were born in 1930, so you would not have been in the first generation of professional comic-book artists.
ROMITA: No. Another one of my regrets. It really is. I always felt that I became a follower of necessity because they had already done the ground rules. And I became a guy who was just following everybody else’s lead. I think I would have been more of a pioneer and more of a person in my own right rather than a follower. I think it stamped me forever. No matter what success I’ve had, I’ve always considered myself a guy who can improve on somebody else’s concepts. A writer and another artist can create something, and I can make it better. I don’t know the name of that company that advertises all the time, “We don’t make the material, we just make it better.” You remember that commercial? That’s the way I’ve always thought of myself. I don’t consider myself a creator. I’ve created a lot of stuff. But I don’t consider myself a real creator in a Jack Kirby sense. But I’ve always had the ability to improve on other people’s stories, other people’s characters. And I think that’s what’s made me a living for 50 years.
SPURGEON: You would have been right at the best age to experience that first wave.
ROMITA: It was wonderful, that first wave. I was an avid reader. I remember everything that was done. I remember George Tuska: When I was 9 and 10 years old, George Tuska was doing stuff for Lev Gleason. I remember Jack Kirby’s work, I remember Captain America #1. I was about 8 years old when Action Comics #1 came out. I bought two copies of it. I don’t know what reason I gave my parents, maybe it was an accident. I had two copies, and I kept one in a wax-paper bag as a protector. So I was way ahead of everybody else on that. [Laughter.] The other one I traced to death. The cover was absolutely unviewable because I’d just traced it forever.
SPURGEON: You were making distinctions between the artists?
ROMITA: I was aware. That was one of the things that I accepted without thinking. In retrospect, it was a blessing. If you’re 10 years old and you’re talking with your friends about comics. I used to hear my friends say, “You don’t think somebody drew every panel in this book. This is drawn mechanically.” I’d say, “No, they’re doing the drawing.” So I was aware that people were doing 150 drawings a month on these stories, and they were not aware. They always thought it was some kind of trick of photography.
I was also aware of every trick that everybody used. When Jack Kirby’s Captain America started bursting out of panels, I was aware that that was smarter than the normal, run-of-the-mill, dull stuff where every figure was trapped in a panel. I had a power of understanding. For instance, when I was 13 and devouring Milton Caniff and Terry and the Pirates, I was aware of every little trick he did and realized they were tricks. Where he put his background elements, where he put his foreground elements, where he put accent and shadows. I was aware of every single thing. Where the clouds break on the mountains. Everything. I’m talking about 13 years old, and I’m transmitting everything that Caniff was doing; all the cleverness was going right into my brain. [Laughter.]
SPURGEON: Was it his facility that appealed to you, that he was a master cartoonist?
ROMITA: He had a really simple style. It was immediate to me. I loved the fact it was so lush. In other words, it was so powerful with blacks — nice big juicy blacks. Other people were doing linear work, the normal cartoonists were doing linear work that without color looked really flat. His dailies were excellent, and his Sundays were even better. The thing that gets me about Caniff, and which stamped me also as a storyteller rather than an artist, is that I would always start out looking at Caniff for the artwork. I would devour the artwork for an hour, and then I would get lost in the story. Down through the years, whenever I look back through my Caniff collection, I start looking at the drawings, admiring them and enjoying them, and by the third or fourth panel, I’m hooked on the story. And even though I’ve read it ten times, I will read it again. Because he was more of a storyteller than he was an artist. He was a wonderful artist, but he was a great storyteller. He was a filmmaker on paper. And that stamped me as a storyteller. From that moment on, I instinctively realized that storytelling was more important than drawing.
Santa Claus and Stan Lee
SPURGEON: Was entering the comics field encouraged at Industrial Arts?
ROMITA: Interestingly, there was a cartoon class before I got there. There were only three people enrolled in the cartoon class when I got there in ’44. Actually, it was ’45, because the foundation year I didn’t have a specialty. When I chose my major in ’45, there was not enough of a cartoon class. So, they stuck us in the corner of the illustration class. It happened to be a book-illustration class, which I thought was rather old-fashioned, but I learned to respect it. A wonderful book illustrator named Howard Simon was the instructor. He had me absolutely enraptured with his instruction for that first year. But I got hooked a little bit on magazine illustration because it was in color. And the second year I switched to magazine illustration. It had an excellent instructor named Ben Clemons. So I forgot my cartoon plans; they were completely lost after the first year of book illustration. Then magazine illustration strayed me even further from it. I didn’t think of getting back into cartoons. I decided to become an illustrator.
When I got out of school in ’47, I went to work at a litho house. I did Coke bottles, Coke glasses and Santa Clauses. I was just an office boy, but I was doing touch-ups on some major artwork.
SPURGEON: This would be in the style of Sundbloom?
ROMITA: Yeah. Sundbloom and Anderson. Beautiful, lush, sunlit figures — remember?
SPURGEON: Sure. That was really the end of the golden age of magazine and advertising illustration.
ROMITA: It was the golden age: Robert Fawcett, Al Parker, all the wonderful, wonderful illustrators of the ’40s in the Saturday Evening Post. I lived in the Saturday Evening Post for five years. I thought I was going to be another Robert Fawcett. As an illustrator, I started drawing in that style. I didn’t have the knack for painting that I had developed in my first three years in litho, I had gotten pretty good with some painting. But then I started to slip into more of an illustration style in line and color.
SPURGEON: Did you have the same kind of analytical approach to that kind of art as you did to the comics art?
ROMITA: Yeah. I also judged artists by their design sense and their characterization. So the narrative was still there lurking because a good illustrator has to tell a story, but some illustrators disregarded that and just did show stuff. They were showing off their technique and their color. The ones that appealed to me were the great illustrators.
SPURGEON: How did you end up getting back into cartoons?
ROMITA: When I was still at the litho house, I met one of my fellow SIA graduates on the train. We talked and, before I got off the train, he said, “You know, I’m working for Stan Lee.” He was an inker. He was making a living as an inker, making a nice buck. I was making $25 a week, and I think he was doing $150 a week. He was bragging to me, and he was just an inker! He said Stan Lee was looking for guys to pencil, and he could get more work if I turn in pencils. So, he asked me to ghost for him. I would pencil for him, and he would represent it to Stan Lee as his own. So I ghosted for him for about a year and a half. I was working for Stan Lee for that year and a half, and Stan Lee didn’t know me. Until I got drafted. After I got drafted, I spent time in Fort Dix and got assigned to New York on Governor’s Island in the recruiting poster department — which was a lucky break, completely out of the blue. I got back into illustration that way. I was doing comics in my spare time. And while I was in the Army, I went up to Stan and got work on my own.
SPURGEON: He was in the Empire State Building office at that time?
ROMITA: He was in the Empire State Building when I first started working for him, and I can’t remember where he was after that. But the first time I was working for him as a ghost he was in the Empire State Building. I remember many times waiting outside the Empire State Building for my partner to tell me how the work was accepted.
SPURGEON: Was this a common practice?
ROMITA: There were a lot of guys ghosting. It was a common practice in syndication, anyway. A lot of inkers were very quick as inkers but not good storytellers, or they couldn’t do it fast enough even if they were good artists. They weren’t fast enough. The ones that were fast made a living as pencilers. They needed something to break the ice, to get the work on paper and then they could ink it. So yeah, it was prominent. So I ghosted for some of my colleagues in the romance departments. I ghosted for other people, too. Don Heck once ghosted for me, once, when I hit an artist’s block. I couldn’t produce anything for about a week. I begged him to help me out, and he did a beautiful pencil job.
SPURGEON: Were you becoming aware of the community of cartoonists working in comic books at this time?
ROMITA: Oh, yeah. I was not as gregarious as I should have been. I was a little bit sheepish, a little bit shy. I was 19 years old when I started. I used to go up and wait in the waiting rooms, and listen to the other people talk who had more experience. I remember Davey Berg and Jack Abel and Gene Colan and guys like that, we were always there for somebody to throw us a three or four-page bone. It was like shaping up on the docks like a longshoreman, you went there hoping to get work and if you didn’t get work, you just went without income for a couple of weeks.
SPURGEON: When did you decide to stop ghosting?
ROMITA: I thought about getting work by myself almost immediately after I got to Governor’s Island. As soon as I got settled in, I went uptown in uniform, because I had a Class A pass. I presented myself to Stan Lee’s secretary, and said, “I’ve been working for Stan for a year and a half and he doesn’t know me.” And she came out with a script! Not only that, but she came out with a script and she expected me to ink it, too. That was the first story I ever inked for Stan Lee after penciling for a year and a half.
SPURGEON: I assume this one of the knock-out secretaries that Stan was famous for.
ROMITA: Oh, yeah. [Laughter.] A blonde. Oh, was she gorgeous. It used to stop my heart just to talk to her. The next time I went up I remember he had a beautiful brunette. He always had good-looking women there.
While I was in the Army, that was even when I did a short run on Captain America, in the mid-’50s, ’53. I was just getting out of the Army just as the Korean war came to an end. I got out of the army in July of ’53. I started doing Westerns at that time.
A Dream Come True
SPURGEON: Was doing Captain America a thrill for you, having admired Kirby?
ROMITA: It was a dream come true. All I did was frustrate myself because it was never good enough for me. It was hard for me to do it. I wanted it to look just like Kirby, and I ended up sort of having a mish-mosh between Kirby and Milton Caniff. I couldn’t help myself, because I thought like Milton Caniff even though I admire Kirby’s Captain America. So, I always felt responsible for the failure of that book. Stan told me it was a political decision. Captain America had hit some very rough periods there. Patriotic was a bad word, and the flag was a bad word in the middle 1950s. So, there was a backlash against Captain America. The other two titles, the Human Torch and the Sub-Mariner which Everett came back to do continued for a year or two after Captain America was dropped. I always felt like a terrible failure. Stan always told me it had nothing to do with the artwork; he loved the artwork, but it was politically unpopular.
SPURGEON: Did you have a different perspective on what was good in the art form at this time? There were different artists working in different modes than when you were analyzing the field as a reader.
ROMITA: When you’re doing the work, you don’t have the time for reflection and theory. You’re just glad to get the pages out. And the quicker you get the pages out, the quicker you get the check and the next story. So, what happens is you go into this cycle, like a guinea pig on a wheel: You just keep running until they don’t have any more wheel for you.
This is an interesting thing I’ve discovered. Whenever I interview, people ask why I struggled so much, why I didn’t knock it out like everyone else. Part of it was because I felt like a salmon swimming upstream. I always felt like I was behind everyone else because I started late. Everybody seemed to have a head start on me. I admired people who were only a year older than me, like the Joe Kuberts and the Alex Toths of the world. They were blazing this beautiful trail, and I always felt like I was lagging way behind in the race. And I never felt adequate. It was a terrible affliction. I also felt like I was a style-less artist, a guy with no style, a generic illustrator. The guys who did the toothpaste ads, they were good artists, but I ended up having that generic toothpaste smile on all of my characters. I always felt inadequate because of that. I felt like I didn’t have enough personality. I felt like it was a failure of mine for not being an adult storyteller. So I suffered from feelings of inadequacy all through the 1950s. It was terrible.
SPURGEON: Did you have trouble meeting deadlines because of this?
ROMITA: Deadlines were always a problem for me. My natural bent was not to accept my first thought and to try to turn out a masterpiece every time. Actually, after my first story, I did a story with the guy I was ghosting for, for Famous Funnies. I think the first story I ever did was before Stan Lee gave us any work. I did a 12-page romance story for Famous Funnies. After I did the first page, I thought, “That’s it. I don’t think I can get another panel out.” I did 15 pages of a terrible romance story, and it was so bad that the editor up there — I always forget his name, damn it. He was a wonderful guy. He used to buy artwork from young artists even if he knew he wasn’t going to use it.
SPURGEON: This would be Steve Douglas?
ROMITA: Steve Douglas! I think he has a cherished place in heaven. He must have helped hundreds of us young artists out. He paid me like $200 for that story, and I think he knew he was never going to use it. He had a pile, maybe ten or 12 inches high, on his desk of artwork from young artists he was never going to use. And I still bless his memory, and I should remember his name. Steven Douglas, for God’s sake, Abraham Lincoln.
So I did that story, but I thought I would never live through it. I fell asleep at the drawing table like three or four times that week. It was terrible. The girls in that story looked like bony men. It was just awful. That was probably when I decided to learn how to draw women because I was so inadequate. I had drawn Westerns and war stories and science-fiction stories in my mind. I had done scribbles of my own characters, Terry and the Pirates type stuff. But I never did the women well. I forced myself to become a better artist of women.
I felt very inadequate. I felt like I was never learning. Something drove me. Even though I needed to make the money, I could not force myself to just knock the thing out. I tried to make each panel something new, which is crazy! You’re supposed to set up a formula. If you don’t set up a formula as a comic artist, you can’t make a living. You need to have a standard approach, where you fall back on your normal stuff, the stuff you’re good at. But to try and make an illustration in every panel that’s brilliant and new, that’s the way to kill yourself.
SPURGEON: It sounds like you had a certain amount of integrity as an artist.
ROMITA: Occasionally, there were guys, there were illustrators who said, “Pay me $10 a page, I’ll give you a $10 page. Give me a $100 a page, and I’ll give you a $100 page.” I always envied that. I couldn’t do that. If a guy gave me $5 a page, I would still do it as well as I could do it, to the detriment of my income and my sleep. It was something that drove me. I didn’t want to put my name on anything I wasn’t proud of. I was terrified of turning out something that was bad. I always had the feeling, even though I know that not many people read comics, although they were selling pretty well then, I had the feeling … I toyed with the idea of using a phony name for year. I don’t know what drove me to spend all those hours I should not have spent. At 23, I got married, and I’m raising a family, and I would still burn the midnight oil and work Saturdays and Sundays because I wanted the stuff better than I had originally envisioned it. So yeah, there was something that drove me against all economic forces. Very strange.
SPURGEON: Were there artists you learned tricks from to help you speed up?
ROMITA: It was even more direct. When I did love stories, I had a lot of Alex Toth love stories around me. When I did adventure stuff, I would have Caniff and Joe Kubert and Carmine Infantino. These were guys I thought were much older than me, and I find out later that they were only a year or two older than me. [Laughter.] They were so advanced in my mind, I was using them as a model. So yeah, definitely. I would be influenced and assisted by everybody who went before me.
SPURGEON: People sometimes forget how influential Toth was in determining a certain look for comics.
ROMITA: Actually, Toth led an entire new movement. When I got into comics in the late ’40s, and then in the early ’50s I went over to DC to do love stories, Toth had changed the whole approach to DC Comics. Up until then, it was a Dan Barry, polished, tight look. Toth loosened everybody up and got everybody wide awake. They all discovered Scorchy Smith. They discovered Sickles because Toth maybe had 300 dailies of Noel Sickles in a stack of Photostats. People were copying from that stack of Photostats, and handing them out to each other. The whole industry was using those Scorchy Smith dailies. And that’s when I found out that Caniff and Sickles had developed that style together. We all sprang from that. I think it lit a fire under the whole industry.
SPURGEON: Didn’t you famously spend a day learning tips from Joe Maneely?
ROMITA: Yeah. Stan sent me up. The first-time Stan discussed what my artwork would need — I brought in a second or third story, and Stan took a little time with it. And said, “You know what I’d like you to do,” because I was feeling my way as an inker, “I’m going to call up Joe Maneely. I’m going to tell him to put a day aside and have you go over to his studio.” He had a studio in Flushing, which was about 15-20 minutes away from where I lived in Queens. So, I went up there and spent about four or five hours, from noon to about four. He kept working and talking and just gabbing — he wasn’t doing any actual instruction, he was just showing me and talking generally. He was a genius. Absolute genius.
I learned more in those four hours than I did in ten years of doing comics. I may have learned more in that day than any other. He was absolutely the most unselfconscious, productive person. He was penciling a double-page spread or a full-page drawing — somebody said they weren’t doing double-page spreads, but it looked like a double-page spread to me — of a Western scene, with a stockade being protected by frontiersmen and a circle of Indians around the stockade firing at them. He did that whole thing while I was talking to him. He penciled it in the first hour or so. And then he started inking it, and it was almost half-finished by the time I left. It was like a revelation. Talk about formulas — he had his figures in these beautiful shapes, he had general shapes for arms and torsos and things like that. Then he would add features to the block of the head. Then he would finish to the end of the arms. And when he went to ink them, he turned them into the most lively, fresh drawings you ever saw in your life out of nowhere! Just with a basic foundation, a formula underneath. It was like a diagram he drew, and then he put flesh on it with the pen line. He started to do some brushwork to show me. The process was pencil it quickly, do the outline in pen, where you do the actual finished drawing, where you do the features and the eyes and the nose and everything, and the buckskin and the wood texture on the stockade. Then he would go over with a big #5 brush and do nice, big crisp accents.
I realized that this was the process that Jack Kirby and Joe Simon had used, and other people had used down through the years. It was the formula that I had referred to but I had never learned. I had struggled and penciled my drawings, labored over the pencils, and labored over the inks. I sometimes had to correct them. But he was doing them so crisply, so swiftly, it dazzled me. I went home and couldn’t wait to get to the drawing table. That one day was probably one of the most important days of my life.
SPURGEON: Was this early in your career?
ROMITA: I think I was still in the Army! It might have been ’51 or ’52.
SPURGEON: It’s been edifying for a lot of people to see Maneely’s reputation restored a bit the last few years.
ROMITA: I used to get mad when people forgot him. I used to substitute-teach for people like John Buscema at Visual Arts. I would get his class, and the first thing I would ask is, did they ever hear of Noel Sickles or Joe Maneely. I’d get blank stares, and it would drive me crazy. I’d say, “You know, if I taught this course on a regular basis, you’d have one day a week of just history,” just to learn where all this stuff came from. From Howard Pyle, the great illustrator at the turn of the century, then N.C. Wyeth, then Hal Foster, then Sickles and Caniff and Alex Raymond … Hal Foster was like the torchbearer. I would have to tell all of these people that if you don’t learn that, you’re not going to learn the process. You’re going to be learning from the newest artist, who probably has everything all botched up by now, instead of the original source. So, I definitely think that Maneely has been long overlooked. Have you ever heard the story that I’ve told at a lot of conventions, that if Maneely hadn’t died before he was 40, it might have been hard for the rest of us to get work? [Laughter.] Between Jack Kirby and Joe Maneely, Stan could have gotten his whole production done. [Laughter.]
SPURGEON: He got along very well with Stan.
ROMITA: He and Stan got along very well. He was like a self-starting engine; you didn’t have to give him anything! [Laughter.]
SPURGEON: When I look at your work from the ’50s, there’s a period where you used a lot of shading, a lot of shadow effects.
ROMITA: I don’t know what prompted that. The first time I did that, Stan went crazy, he loved it. I wish I’d never done it. It cost me a lot of money and sleep. He asked me to do something in a documentary style, about some poor preacher on the waterfront who was living on the edges of society. I did with a lot of shading, a lot of line technique. There were a lot of illustrators and a lot of comics artists using that technique. You needed to be very delicate, and comic books were not the place to be delicate, because the reproduction always made things blotchy. So I did the story this way, and Stan went crazy. I almost got myself lynched by my fellow artists because Stan asked them all to do it for a while. They wanted to kill me, because they said it’s costing us hours and hours to do that extra technique. [Laughter.] It was only a temporary thing, thank God. I’m glad I got out of it. Elaboration I think is the worst enemy of comics. I think simplicity is the direction. Unfortunately, years ago elaboration became the keyword instead of simplicity. I think Toth was righter than people like Neal Adams and [Todd] McFarlane. I think they put too much technique in their stuff, and the industry deserves simplicity and clean artwork. It reads better, and it’s more alive and spontaneous. As you know, one of the things hurting the industry now is that there’s too much technique and too much attention to the color and reproduction, and not enough attention to the freedom of the storytelling and the artwork. I bemoan that fact. I think that’s one of the things that’s hurt comics. I know the fans love it. It’s like the tastes of fans, in movies and comics, have caused more mayhem in the production of movies and comics, because fans don’t have good taste. Although I shouldn’t say that. [Spurgeon laughs.] Actually, I don’t mind. Quote me, because I don’t need the fans to buy my artwork anymore anyway. [Laughter.] I bemoan the fact that taste has gone out the window. Young fans love that technique stuff. And to me, that’s the worst thing that has happened to comics.
That’ll get me lynched, huh?
SPURGEON: The vast majority of your work was for just Marvel and DC.
ROMITA: It’s interesting. I was not one of the guys who jumped back and forth, like Gil Kane, or Jack Abel. They used to tell me, “Why don’t you do this? The companies respect you more when they know you got somebody else who wants you.” I was the kind of guy who, if I didn’t have to leave and I got comfortable, didn’t want to make any moves, even if it cost me money. I felt that comfort was more important than money. I needed to be comfortable; I did not want irritation, I did not want to deal with new people all the time. I got comfortable dealing with Stan. The only reason I left Stan in ’58 is because he shut the line down. I was forced to go, so I went to DC and only did love stories for about eight years, which almost put me in the booby hatch. I almost got out of comics because I thought I was burned out. It was so boring. It wore me out.
SPURGEON: Did you have any perspective on the anti-comics crusades?
ROMITA: I was in about ten years when that came to a head. I watched it, just because I thought my industry was going under. I used to tell my wife Virginia next year they won’t be any comics. In ’54, ’55, I thought it was all over. I was not too unhappy. I always thought that comics was a stepping stone to get me a little bit of money in the bank and to get me a little bit of proficiency in drawing, and then I would become an illustrator. And I almost had this subversive feeling that I wished comics would stop so I could get out there and do illustration.
SPURGEON: When I hear artists talk about comics as career in the 1950s, there seems a certain level of contempt for comics. Whereas it seems you had a healthy respect for the medium.
ROMITA: I never had contempt for comics, but I wasn’t always proud of being in comics. I used to tell people I was a commercial illustrator instead of a comics artist. You know the story about people who used to put a comic book inside a regular book so that people wouldn’t see them reading comics? I was the same way. I felt it was the stepchild of the commercial art field, and it was not something to be proud of. But sometime in the mid-’50s, just about the time when it looked like there wouldn’t be any comics, I started to think look at all the comic artists that were doing work I admired and I suddenly realized if I never got out of comics, if I never became a Saturday Evening Post illustrator, it wouldn’t be the end of the world as long as I do the best comics I can do. I decided to be at peace with comics, and try and be the best comic artist I can be. That absolutely relaxed me because up until then I felt like I was in it on a temporary basis. I never expected to be in comics. I never dreamed there would be a comic industry past 1958. I thought comics were finished.
SPURGEON: How did you learn about Stan Lee shutting down the Goodman line? There are stories that Stan let people know personally.
ROMITA: I had just ruled up a full Western book — I think it was Western Kid, I’m not sure and I had drawn maybe five or six pages when I got a call from Stan’s secretary, a beautiful brunette. [Laughter.] She told me that Stan was canceling the Western book, and to stop work on it and send in the pages. The fact that she asked me to send in the pages, I was assuming that Stan was going to pay me for the work I had done. But when I sent in the pages and nothing came, I was very hurt and very disappointed. In fact, I told Virginia, “If Stan Lee calls, tell him to go to hell.” [Laughter.]
SPURGEON: I assume he didn’t call.
ROMITA: He didn’t call me personally. With 20-30 artists working for him, it would have probably been a chore. The girl did say that Stan was closing all the books down. I was hurt for that reason, and for another reason: I found out that Dick Ayers and Don Heck were still getting work from him. I thought, “Gee, I thought I was one of his top guys. After seven years, he always said he could trust me with anything.” I thought that I’d be one of the last guys to go. The fact I was third or fourth on his list hurt me. That was my own insecurity. The truth of the matter is I was making $24 a page when Stan pulled the plug on me in ’58. I started out at $25 a page, and every time I went in with a story he gave me a raise. He’d tell the girl, “Give John Romita $2 more a page.” I was up to $44 a page. I was one of his prime guys. Starting in the beginning of ’57, every time I brought in a job I got a cut of $2 a page. Before you knew it, I was down to $24 a page. Virginia kept saying, “How far down are you going to go before you quit?” And I used to say, “Well you know, he may reverse it, and we may build up the page rate again.” I was always an optimist, and a little bit of a sucker. I should not have stood for all those cuts. When he pulled the plug on me, and I was so upset, a week later I was riding on Cloud Nine because I went over to DC and got $38 a page to do love stories. So I said, “Here’s Stan Lee, who cut my throat, turned out to be giving me a $14 raise.” I was so happy to be working at all, even the love stories didn’t dampen my ardor. I jumped in with both feet and, before long, I was making $45 a page from DC doing love stories.
Survey of the Field
SPURGEON: Do you have an opinion concerning the substance of the criticisms that were being made against comics in the 1950s that they were overly lurid, for example?
ROMITA: Well, I have to admit, a lot of comics companies were terrible. Even Stan. The first horror story I did we used to call them mystery stories, the first horror story I did for Stan, I think was a five-page story, the last panel was some villain holding up a decapitated head with blood dripping from its neck. I was very upset to do it. I did it as tastefully as I could, for a 22-year-old. I tried to do it tastefully. But I will admit that a lot of guys did not do tasteful stuff. And the EC books, as clever as they were and as talented as the artists were, were very, very gory. And very strange. And disturbing. I never read those books. I used to look through them, because I admired Wally Wood, Al Williamson, Joe Orlando — all of those guys were doing wonderful stuff. I admired them as artists, but I hated the stories. I did not like EC books. I never thought humor and blood went together. To me, satirizing horror stories was not fun. And they thought it was so clever. I always hated that.
I even will tell you that I did some semi-bondage covers for a small company. I did Western covers where a girl was tied to a chair, and some villain was nearby, and her clothes half torn away. And I knew they were bondage covers. I was just trying to make a living but I did not like that kind of stuff and a lot of that stuff was done terrible, ugly bondage stuff. I was not fooled. The comic industry I knew was a cheap, easy way to make a buck. I stayed at Stan Lee’s because I think Stan always had a feeling of entertainment before sleaze. Strange as some of the stuff in the ’50s was, he always had a certain amount of story in there, a certain amount of characterization, even when he was knocking those five-page stories out. There was a certain kind of personality in everything. So, I always felt that DC and Marvel or Timely was doing stuff a little bit better.
I also loved the Lev Gleason stuff from the ’40s when I was a kid. The crime comics were never as bloody as the horror, and the crime comics had such personality. That was because of [Charles] Biro, and some of his artists were wonderful, like George Tuska. As a kid, I loved them. I was sorry to see Biro go. Unfortunately, I don’t remember much of Biro’s stuff during the late ’40s when I was at school and doing Coca-Cola ads. I wish I had. I met Biro’s daughters last summer at San Diego. It was wonderful to meet them. I went over to them purposefully to tell them I thought Biro was a pioneer, and I couldn’t believe he hadn’t been more remembered before this. I wanted to tell them he wasn’t forgotten by people like me, who learned a lot from Biro just as a reader.
SPURGEON: You’ve said that one thing you enjoyed about Biro’s stuff was that he put a bit of his personality into his work.
ROMITA: He did. In fact, he was doing what Stan Lee has done for years. He was just doing it before. What Stan is doing now, Biro did when I was kid. He put personality into his Daredevil book, and into his little line of tough kids. Remember? I thought those were wonderful books. So, I didn’t think the comic industry as a whole should have been indicted, but there were some comic companies — you know the trashy ones — that were doing some terrible stuff. I was ashamed of that, and I was not proud to be in the industry then. But I always thought there was a redeeming quality in some of the comics, and that should have been salvaged. But I never expected it. I thought we were all going to go down the drain.
SPURGEON: What was Stan Lee like in the ’50s?
ROMITA: Stan was amazing. I will tell you, I’ve maybe worked for a half-dozen other editors. That’s not much of an experience. Ninety percent of my work has been done for Stan. Other editors have sometimes a taste problem, or a judgment problem. They don’t really know what’s good or what’s bad. Or if they know what they like, it’s not as good as it could be, because their taste is bad. I have had a lot of editors with bad taste, and very bad manner. I never worked for Bob Kanigher, but if I had, I would have thrown pages in his face and walked out. He was absolutely the most crude, meanest guy. He was out to make people feel bad. He tore into people in the bullpen as an editor. I never worked with him as an editor, although I collaborated with him on love stories. He was my writer on two of my series at DC. And we worked only as a team, but we never worked together. Thank God, he was never my editor. I always worked for an editor like Phyllis Reed, who was a wonderful editor.
But Stan Lee, compared to the other editors I worked for, was like an angel. A special being. First of all, he looked at your stuff, and he absorbed it. He was thoughtful, and he gave you a response. He told you, “This is very good. This is not so good — work on this.” I learned more every time I went in with Stan with a story, and he would take the time to critique it. That’s how I learned so much. I was feeling my way, and he was the best editor. On top of that, when he wrote my stuff, he almost invariably made the stuff more believable. In other words, I would have misgivings when I would turn in a story from a plot. There would be a 20-page story with no dialog, no captions. I would half believe it. In other words, I worked on it as well as I could, I would make it as airtight as I could, but I didn’t have a lot of faith in it. By the time he scripted it, and I read the script and his placement of the balloons, it looked as though every single panel was thought out carefully between two people. He was a magician. He took time to place balloons you would not believe. He would sometimes rearrange balloon placements three or four times. In other words, here was a guy who was working the clock three or four times. He was constantly turning out work. He would sometimes do a full story in an afternoon. Ten or 12 pages in the morning, ten or 12 pages in the afternoon. And he would take the time to rearrange the balloons because they weren’t aesthetic or they didn’t flow in readership. He was in a class by himself. No editor ever gave me the response and information that an artist needs that Stan did.
No matter what people say about Stan — and I used to grumble about him, too; he takes a lot of credit and all of that stuff — the truth of the matter is there is no better editor than Stan in comics history, and he was one of the best writers I ever worked with. I can’t believe writers could do much better. I’m sure Peter David and guys like that are on a par with him, and the newer writers are very good, but for me Stan Lee was in a class by himself.
Romance is Hard Work
SPURGEON: Let me ask you about your stay on the romance books with DC comics, from 1957-’58 to 1965. You’ve said that the work wore on you after a while.
ROMITA: It wore me out because it was very hard. The truth of the matter is that nothing was happening in those stories. You would get 15 pages where a girl loved a guy, but he was aloof, and she would be heartbroken. He would smile at her, and she would be happy. Then he would go with another girl, and she would be crying. The same story for eight years. It drove me nuts. But what it did was it made me a better artist. I will tell you that if I were to take a comic company, if I had taken one in the ’60s, I would have had everyone trained in animation and in romance stories as well as adventure stuff because it forces you to make something out of nothing. There are certain gaps in stories where nothing is happening and the artist has the responsibility of making it visually entertaining. To make it move. The dynamics is the biggest challenge. Everybody is standing around, leaning on their elbows, their chin on their fists and smiling. The only thing I could do was to jazz it up with things like hair flowing, scarves flowing, the wind blowing leaves or curtains blowing. Whenever I had a chance to use water, I would use some nice wave techniques. Trees blowing in the wind. Romance books forced me to make entertainment where nothing is happening. I learned that partly from Alex Toth, because when he did his love stories, he had the most interesting twists and turns of bodies and heads. Tilting the head this way, that way, backwards, three-quarter back views — all of the tricks that a novice can muster you learn in romance or else. Otherwise, it’s deadly dull.
What happened was that after eight years it wore me out. I had the worst artist’s block. Don Heck came to my rescue, about the end of that eight-year run, in ’63 or ’64. If he hadn’t come to my rescue, I wouldn’t have been able to earn a penny that week. I absolutely sat there and could not produce a page of art for weeks and weeks. And I assumed that I was burned out. I had been working 15 years in the business. Seven for Stan, and eight for DC, and I assumed, “That’s it. I obviously can’t think of another panel, so I’m going to get out of the business.” I even went down to BVD and signed up to do storyboard. I backed out of that because Stan talked me out of it. He promised to match whatever money BVD was going to pay me.
SPURGEON: Is the romance period the first time in your career you did a lot of covers?
ROMITA: I was doing almost all the covers for the DC romance line for six, seven years. Phyllis Reed and I worked constantly on that stuff. What happened was, she had fallen into a great trick. She didn’t like some of the plots that writers were coming up with. So, she started to send them plots. And one of the ways she elicited plots was when we were doing cover drawings. Instead of doing a cover that represented a story that’s already been done, we did the cover first and then the story after. We would build a situation; she would choose a situation that we would draw. And she would build a storyline from the covers. Consequently, we would discuss it by phone. I had a couple of steady characters, an airline stewardess and a nurse. She would say, “I’d like to do a story about the nurse where’s she losing her confidence,” or something. We would incorporate it into the cover, and make it as dramatic as we can. And that would trigger her to send a plot to the writer. Kanigher would take the plotline from her, she probably gave him a two-paragraph synopsis and Kanigher took the ball from there.
I think there were six or seven titles, and I think I did most of the covers for about five or six years, with the added burden that these covers were going to lead to plots. She had come to trust me so much because my suggestions on plotlines were part of her arsenal. She counted on it. She recommended me to be the editor of the romance department when she decided to have a child and leave.
SPURGEON: Becoming an editor didn’t appeal to you?
ROMITA: I was tempted. Not because I wanted the work, because frankly I’ve dreaded the idea of going to work every day. I was tempted for two reasons. First, I thought if she wasn’t going to be the editor, God knows who’s going to be in there and would I get any work? So, I said, “Let me think about it.” The next time we talked, she said, “The only thing I got to tell you, John, is in case you haven’t realized it, if you take this job as the editor, you’re going to be losing your best artist.” That’s the problem. Then I knew I wasn’t cut out to be an office editor. I didn’t have any real training in writing and literature. I had artist’s education, I didn’t have a lot of English composition. So I had no background in writing. I would not have been qualified to correct other people’s writing. [Laughter.]
SPURGEON: Was DC itself a turnoff?
ROMITA: My memory of DC was, I used to go in and I would say hello to the bullpen when I was bringing in art work or bringing in pencils to be lettered. I’d met Sol Harrison and all the guys in the bullpen, but I always felt like an outsider there. For eight years, I would go in there and I always felt like an outsider. I was never embraced and brought into the clique. It was almost like they were very cliquish. They were very cold to their artists and writers. The editors had a very terrible reputation where they would play the artists against each other. Each editor wanted to see which guy’s work you do first, that kind of stuff. They were very brutal. Julie Schwartz, I never dealt with him. I would assume he wasn’t. But I wouldn’t be surprised if he was. The editors I dealt with were very cold-blooded and very, very harsh. Very quick to criticize and very slow to compliment. They would say, “This is crap.” That kind of stuff. Certainly, Kanigher used to scream out, “You call this a pretty girl? That’s a dumb, fat-looking girl here!” I never got that with Stan. I used to say that DC is like an obstacle course for an artist. You go in there, and all you get are obstacles. You don’t get any kind of help. I did feel that for years. I was very happy to get back to Marvel.
SPURGEON: Is that the reason you didn’t do any adventure work at DC?
ROMITA: No, the reason for that is they never asked me. And that broke my heart, too. I told Virginia, “Now that the romance department closed perhaps they’ll offer me something in the adventure department.” But I never got a call. I went in there. It was July, and a lot of them were on vacation. I was not very pushy, and not very confident, either. Even though I had had a brief chance to work on Flash Gordon with Dan Barry — I was going to do some fill-in work for him, and I thought, “Gee, if Dan Barry likes my stuff, this is good news.” But there was a newspaper strike right before I was going to start, and he couldn’t afford to pay for help, so I never did it. My confidence was not very good. I thought I was limited to romance and very antiseptic stuff, and that I couldn’t compete with the big boys. I assumed that’s why they didn’t call me. What happened is after I went to Stan in ’65 and inked a story, and during that time was when I expected to hear from DC’s editors. It took me a couple of weeks to ink a Don Heck Avengers and a Jack Kirby cover. In fact, I told Stan I just wanted to ink, because I thought I was burned out as a penciler. When I didn’t hear from DC, I felt terrible. I really felt bad. It was probably 50 percent my fault, because if I had gone up there and said, “Let me talk to everybody,” but I never did. I was too shy. I was too uncertain to do it. So, they must have figured, “If he doesn’t want to work, we won’t offer him any work.” I kept thinking, “Gee, why didn’t they call me?” As soon as I took on an assignment to do my first Daredevil story in ’65, they called me up, George Kashdan I think. They called me and offered me Metamorpho, because Ramona Fradon was leaving. And I said, “Gee, I wish you had called me last week, because I just agreed to do this for Stan, and I don’t want to go back on my word.” I think I probably could have made more money at DC, but I don’t know what kept me from doing it. I could have just told Stan, “Stan, you know, I got too good an offer from DC, I’m going to go over there.” But for some reason, I decided to stay with Stan.
SPURGEON: Metamorpho wasn’t exactly a prestige assignment, either.
ROMITA: If it was Batman or Superman, I would have jumped. [Laughter.] I hope that I would have had the sense.
SPURGEON: Were you aware of what Marvel was doing at the time?
ROMITA: That’s the funny thing. I was aware that Stan was making noise. They talked about Stan at DC quite a bit. They used to discuss why Stan was starting to sell books, and why his reputation was growing, but I didn’t have the sense to go and buy some books to see what was happening. I never saw a Spider-Man book until I went back to Marvel. I never saw a Fantastic Four. It was my own stupidity. Truthfully, the only books I was looking at were books I could pick up at DC and read for free, because I wouldn’t spend money for the books. I was so cheap. I was not keeping up with the comics industry. The only thing I used to pick up were guys like Alex Toth and Joe Kubert, and, of course, the romance books. I heard things were happening there, but I wasn’t aware of exactly what. I never saw one to judge it. When DC’s romance department was shut down, they had such an inventory to use, so DC front office said, “The hell with this, you’re not paying for new artwork until you use up all of those.” So, they shut down the romance department. I had no work, so I went back to Stan. I wouldn’t have gone back if DC had offered me anything decent; even a second-line adventure thing, I probably would have stayed there. I was very proud to be there. I always thought that DC was the Cadillac of the industry.
SPURGEON: I think most people thought that.
ROMITA: They did. It was. It was very much prestigious. In a way, I was sort of snobbish about it. It was one of the things that kept me there, even though I was bored to tears. Stan used to call me all the time, in ’62 and ’63, saying, “Come back.” I always had the excuse that he was only paying $25 a page and I was making $45. So, I’d tell him, “Stan, I can’t take a cut.” I was proud to stay there, but I think because Stan guaranteed me to match my salary at [the advertising agency] BBD&O, and I wouldn’t have gotten any guarantee at DC, I think that was the reason I stayed with Stan.
SPURGEON: Did he promise to give you a certain amount of work, or did he promise that regardless of the work you did he was going to pay you a set amount?
ROMITA: I don’t know if he could have backed it up. I told him, “I can’t work at home anymore.” He said, “We’ve got a drawing table here at Marvel, you can come in any time you want, you can work all hours.” It was such a good deal. I said, “My problem is I can’t discipline myself.” Because I had that blockage, I told him I couldn’t guarantee I would work every week, and that’s why I didn’t want to pencil anymore. And he said, “Tell you what. If you can’t do any work for a week, you’ll still get paid.” Now frankly, I don’t think he could have backed that up. [Laughter.] I was gullible enough to believe him. I think Martin Goodman would have told both of us to get out if he had tried to pull that one. That’s one of the things he conned me with. He told me if I couldn’t turn out a page, I’d still get paid.
SPURGEON: You must have found your penciling ability, though, because pretty soon you were on Daredevil.
ROMITA: That’s interesting. When I did the first Daredevil story, the first three pages were very dull. As much as I had tried to do dynamics, I froze up a little bit. Jack Kirby broke down my first two stories on Daredevil. It was a very rough pacing and size guide, scribbles and outlines, to show what to put in a panel and how to pace it. So those first 40 pages of Daredevil, #12 and #13, were guide lined by Jack Kirby. They weren’t pencil drawings, they were sort of silhouettes and initials — DD for Daredevil, Matt Murdock was MM, that kind of thing. That’s what triggered me into getting Stan’s way of penciling. For a while, while I was learning, I forgot my drawing block. It was never easy, though. I will tell you, I worked 50 years in comics, and I don’t think I ever had an easy week. I don’t know why anybody would stay in a business that twists your guts every single day, but I did for some reason. I kept telling Virginia, “Soon as I get an ulcer, I’m quitting this business.” I never got an ulcer, and that’s the reason why I stayed in the business. [Laughter.] It was never fun for me. It was never easy. Guys like Jack Kirby and John Buscema could knock out a story and never bat an eyelash. With me, it was a chore from the minute I started.
SPURGEON: You were at this point immersed in the new Marvel. With your analytical mind for art, did you figure out what they were doing that was making them successful?
ROMITA: Not only that, but that’s the reason I started to be called art director. I not only learned the theory of everything, but I also learned how to indoctrinate people in Stan Lee’s way. When Stan was too busy, and there was an artist that needed some kind of instruction, because I was in the office, Stan would say, “Listen, go in and talk to John Romita. He knows exactly what I like.” And sure enough, I ended up being his substitute voice. When a young artist came in, I would give him all of Stan’s catchphrases and whole spiel.
SPURGEON: What would you tell the young artists who came to talk to you?
ROMITA: Stan’s approach was basically this. Think silent movies. In other words, all your characters have to act overtly and very clearly. You don’t do anything mildly. You don’t have somebody with his arm bent, pointing a finger. You have him thrust his arm out in space. The Jack Kirby way. Every sinew of a body is involved even if you’re saying “Go down this street two blocks and make a right on the next corner,” you look like you’re pointing at Armageddon coming. If a man slams on a desk, you don’t make it just where a guy’s fist is on the desk resting. You have him pound the desk and everything on the desk pops up like an earthquake. You never have anybody who’s saying something, especially shouting, with his mouth closed. There was a whole generation of comics artists where everybody’s mouths were closed, and everybody’s eyes were half-lidded. And one of the things I learned immediately from Stan was if somebody was talking, have his mouth open. If he’s shouting, have his mouth wide open. Show his teeth. And that was Jack Kirby, too. Some of it was Jack Kirby’s natural approach. Some of it was Stan Lee’s acting school; the way he used to act out all the plots. The stories he’s famous for. He used to jump up on the couch, he used to jump on the desk, he would run around the office, he would strangle himself, he would use voices.
He was saying your characters had to act, clearly, loudly and dynamically. So, what I just told you, I used to embellish and tell people, “Don’t do anything mild, don’t settle for the first thing you think of. If you can make it better, make it better. Everything has to be exciting.”
SPURGEON: Was there a transitional period for you to get used to the Marvel Method, working from rough plots rather than scripts?
ROMITA: It was very hard. First of all, I said I couldn’t do it. I told them they were out of their mind. I had it hard enough trying to make it work, where my natural ability, if the writer would ask for a certain thing and it didn’t fit my natural ability, I used to go crazy. I had to figure out a way out of it. If I had nothing to start with — I had artist’s block! Imagine what kind of artist’s block I would have when I had nothing except the bare-bones outline of a story. The first story was very hard for me. Very, very hard for me. I had to have Jack Kirby’s help.
What happened was that after a while I started to realize this was a visual medium that had been done words first and pictures second for 35 years. And I said, “You know something? This now can become the visual medium it really is supposed to be.” The people in silent movies were ingenious, because they didn’t have dialog. They had written words, but it used to be a set of interruptions. Movie geniuses erupted in Hollywood because they were working in silent film. Movies went downhill when sound came in because they no longer had to rely on their genius of the visual medium. It became a verbal medium, and it hurt Hollywood. Comics was a visual medium that was never used visually, except by geniuses like Jack Kirby and Alex Toth. They did comics visually from instinct. But people like me, when a writer asks me something, I was bound and shackled by the writer’s concept. What happens is, if you’re not shackled by that, if the range and width of your thinking is limited, you can only do certain things. But suddenly, when you have the whole thing to choose from, when you have to set up a sequence because you have to know what’s happening in panels one and two before you decide on the big spread in panel three, you have to think visually. When I found out not only wasn’t it hard; it was liberating. I think the comics boom is a direct result of the accidental thing that Stan Lee did just to save time, plotting stories quickly because he couldn’t get the scripts done. That led to the biggest comic boom in history. And I think it was strictly Stan Lee’s accidental, little change.
Yes, it was very hard at first, but I think it kept me interested longer than I would have been.
SPURGEON: How long was your stay on Daredevil?
ROMITA: Only about six or seven issues. It broke my heart, because I really loved Daredevil. I was really sorry to have to leave it. I did it because I was a good soldier. Stan needed help on Spider-Man, and I said, “OK, I’ll do it.” For a long time, I thought Ditko might come back and I could go back to Daredevil.
SPURGEON: Was there some sense in the office that Steve Ditko might quit before he did? From what I read, I get the feeling that everyone thought Spider-Man was a gig that could potentially open up.
ROMITA: I had heard that they were having trouble. What happened was they were disagreeing on the plots violently. Stan told him, “All right, you can plot the stories.” Then there was a problem because Stan would change the thrusts of the stories because his sensibilities made him change them. Ditko was a very conservative thinker. If he had a story about rioting students, he would make them horrible rioting students. They were breaking the law and they should be dealt with. Stan would give them motivation, and instead of the black and white of it he would give you both sides of the story. Ditko would do a whole story of a riot on campus, Stan would change the thrust of the story, and that would lead to changes in expressions and everything. Stan always did that. He did that with Jack, he did that with me. Many times, I would have one thought in my drawings, and he would turn it into something else. And that was the proof of the pudding of what a great writer and editor he was. He was impressed with artwork, but he wouldn’t hesitate to change the artwork if he thought the story could be better.
That’s a great editor.
SPURGEON: Did you know Ditko personally?
ROMITA: I only met him a few times. I have about ten horrible regrets, and one of them was that I didn’t make the time. When you’re in the office for years and years, you always feel that the next time we can get together. I was busy most of the time. Ditko would be walking down alone, or somebody else would be talking to him, Marie Severin or somebody, and I’d think, “I gotta go out and talk to him.” And I never did make the time. We used to say hello, and we shook hands a few times, but I never made the time to talk to him. I regret that terribly.
SPURGEON: He had a really unique artistic sensibility, particularly given the time.
ROMITA: I consider him one of the true creators in the business.
SPURGEON: Is it true that it took you a little while to warm up to his work?
ROMITA: That’s one of those things that got printed that I regretted. Because it came off sounding terrible. One of the first things in an interview way back in the ’70s was I said that when I first looked at the first three or four issues, I thought they were overly simple and too crude. But that’s the part that came through on the interview. They didn’t give the full context, where I said that by the time I got into the 20s in the run of Spider-Man, learning the ropes on Spider-Man — I got the whole run of Spider-Man from Stan to look through. The first few issues I felt he was really knocking them out. They were not the same Ditko I had seen doing jungle stories and horror stories where he was a polished brush-man doing gutsy, juicy stuff with a lot of shadows. In Spider-Man he was doing very quick line jobs with a lot of small panels. What I said was I didn’t understand why the book was such a success, because I thought the book was rather crude and the characters were rather simplistic. But what I added was that it was amazing how he developed by the time he was in the 20s and the 30s, the books were coming alive and they were powerful and I admired them. Right from his middle 30s, #33, #34, #35, were some of the best comics ever done. That’s where I launched myself from. In fact, I tried to ghost it.
I don’t know if he read that interview or didn’t read it. He never complained, but I always cringed when I thought, “Oh my God, he must have felt so hurt when he read that I would say his stuff was too crude.” I didn’t mean it that way.
SPURGEON: I always thought it was pretty remarkable that Ditko was able to be that idiosyncratic that late in the medium’s development. His style is still really striking.
ROMITA: That’s one of the reasons I earmark him as a creator, because he’s one of the few guys — there are like a dozen guys like that. The George Tuskas, the Jack Kirbys, even Don Hecks. Don Heck got put down a lot. He was a guy like Colan, like Ditko, there were a few guys who did what I would call a complete world on paper. If you looked at one panel of Jack Kirby, you knew where you were. You were in Jack Kirbyland. And when you were in Ditkoland, you knew where you were. The reason I called myself a generic illustrator because my stuff, I could make you believe you were in anybody’s land. [Laughter.] I could do Ditko, I could do Jack Kirby, I could do Don Heck, I could do Caniff. I could even do Colan. I used to fake Colan’s stuff. So, the thing is whatever those guys do have an integrity, a completeness about it; they created an entire world. My world reflects the real world. I do real buildings; I don’t do them like Jack Kirby, I do them like the buildings look to me. That’s why I consider myself an illustrator. I’m doing real people. I try to make them distinctive, and give them personality. When I first started, I was doing such generic people. Everybody had the same nose, everybody had the same smile, everybody had the same dimple in their chin. I realized I was doing horrible stereotypes. I started using movie actors. Whenever I’d do a war story, I’d say, “All right. This sergeant is going to look like Burt Lancaster. The private is going to look like Kirk Douglas.” When I did Westerns, the secondary characters with the big beard and the crooked teeth, the Gabby Hayes thing? I got all my characters from movie stars. That’s how I got some personality in my stuff. I couldn’t create a Romitaworld, although later on people tell me they recognize my stuff right away. That was a shock to me when I heard that.
SPURGEON: Although you don’t seem to have a high opinion of the distinct nature of your own work, I think people believe you put a really strong graphic thumbprint on Spider-Man, even the definitive one.
ROMITA: It’s interesting, because I started out trying to ghost Ditko. It didn’t work. I realize now in retrospect I didn’t do it, but I thought I was doing a complete ghosting of Ditko, line for line.
SPURGEON: Did you feel the book was Ditko’s?
ROMITA: I thought the responsibility of a second artist on a book was to make the reader think it was seamless transition. I felt obliged to make the book — if the book is a three-year success story and building, I felt that we didn’t need change on this, it was a success! I’ll do the same thing. If I were to take over Dick Tracy, would I give Dick Tracy a straight nose or would I keep the nose he had? If I were doing Little Orphan Annie, I wouldn’t start doing pupils in her eyes. Seventy years later, and Annie’s still got no pupils in the daily comics. I was raised in that generation where an artist was obliged to ghost the work that he picked up from the previous artist. I tried like crazy. I worked with a thin pen, I even did a story with a rapidograph. The Rhino story I did with a rapidograph just to do it like Ditko, to get that thin pen line and big brush line. The only reason I didn’t get closer to Ditko was because I was physically unable, just like I had failed in the ’50s to do a convincing Kirby take-off. Then I realized in retrospect I guess I had enough of a personality that I couldn’t do other people that well. I could simulate Kirby. I did three or four issues of Fantastic Four in exactly the Kirby style. I did romance books in other people’s styles. I always felt like I was a pinch hitter, I was a bullpen guy. The other guys, the Ditkos of the world, they were the starting pitchers. The guys to emulate. That was my take.
SPURGEON: There had to be some point on Spider-Man that you realized you were the second-day’s starting pitcher rather than the relief guy.
ROMITA: It started to dawn on me. After about a year, I realized he wasn’t coming back. It started to become mine, because I started to use more brush. By the time, I was doing the Vietnam story, I was doing it more like Caniff. It had become my stuff. Stan kept complaining that I was making Peter Parker too good-looking and too well-groomed. Even though I tried, I could not make Ditko’s Peter Parker, that sort of stammering nerd. I couldn’t do it. For some reason, my heroes had to be good-looking, had to be square-shouldered. Stan finally gave it up, and said “The hell with it. Do it your own way.” He liked the rest of my approach. He accepted some of my limitations.
SPURGEON: I think it’s a big part of your run’s appeal. It’s a very glamorous book in a sense.
ROMITA: Historians now look back on it and say, “It was a maturing period, and Peter Parker matured.” From this stammering young teenager to an 18, 19-year-old, finally maturing, getting better looking and more confident. They took it as contrived and schemed by Stan Lee and myself. The truth of the matter is that it just happened. Like I told you, when Stan wrote the stuff, it was different than what I envisioned. Most of this stuff took on a different personality than I had envisioned by the time it happened. We would go through sequences where we would plan nothing, absolutely nothing, even how the story was going to end. Sometimes we would do a five or six-issue epic, and it would grow and build and we had no idea where we were going. Looking back at it now, it looks like every single step was planned. Like the quest for the Rosetta Stone, the tablet, that became an epic that traveled through about like four different villains. It looked like we planned it from the beginning. We had no idea there was going to be a Silvermane at the end of that storyline. It was accidental.
SPURGEON: One notable difference in your version of Spider-Man as compared to Ditko’s is the prevalence of the female character. By this time, you had become very comfortable drawing women.
ROMITA: Oh, yeah. Actually, I think that’s what saved my skin on the book.
SPURGEON: I can’t think of any comic to that time which had mixed these romance elements into the superhero material so explicitly, although in general mixing genres was a real strength of the Marvel line.
ROMITA: It was a very interesting thing. That was a lucky break for me. Instead of rejecting the fact that the pretty girls were starting to dominate the story for a while, instead of saying “What the hell is going on?” — like when I was a kid watching Westerns; I did not want to see those pictures where the cowboy kissed the girl at the end; I’d rather see him kiss his horse or something — we were able to bring the readers along for a ride. As we were changing our approach and as things were changing, the readers were changing, too.
A lot of readers have told me at conventions that they grew up with Peter Parker. My own son says that. He just did an interview for the DVD of Spider-Man where he says he felt like he grew up with Peter Parker. He felt like he was a brother. He was a brother he didn’t have to worry getting hit by. [Laughter.] And if my own son fell for that, can you imagine what the readers did? They tell me now, at conventions, that they learned how to react to things, how to think, how to behave from some of the comics the same way I learned how to react and behave from movies. We were sort of like the old movies from the ’40s that I weaned myself in. The comics took place in the ’50s and the ’60s.
SPURGEON: A lot has been written how the original comic-book artists were taken with movies, but it occurs to me that your generation may have been more immersed in films than they were. Were you a fan of the movies as a kid?
ROMITA: My mother used to have to come to the theater and search for me. I could sit through three or four showings of films. I’m talking when I was 9 or 10 years old. She’d drop me off at the movies and then she’d come pick me up and if I wasn’t there she’d have to come in and find me.
SPURGEON: Were you as analytical with films as you were with comics?
ROMITA: Sure. The same perceptive reaction I had to comic books, I had to movies. For a 10 or 11 year old, I was very aware. I would know if there was a very dark secret, a social secret. There was a rape in an early movie I saw. The girl is married to an older man, and I remember feeling and understanding everything that was going on. And I was about 12 years old! I was very aware of every emotion. The storytelling in movies absolutely gripped me. I could not leave the movie theater. I had to be dragged out.
SPURGEON: Did you make distinctions between filmmakers, did you have favorites?
ROMITA: Oh, yeah. Capra, Ford, Hitchcock — I was aware of them all. I’m talking about watching Hitchcock when I was ten or 12 years old and understanding it. I had an affinity for film and for Milton Caniff. Caniff freely admitted that movies affected everything he did. I could see Katherine Hepburn and all the other movie actors in his characters.
SPURGEON: How do you think film informed your artwork and that of your immediate peers?
ROMITA: The dynamics. For instance, they started using red filters to get dark skies in the Westerns. Believe it or not, in later years Gene Colan and I used to sometimes talk for an hour how the red filter affected the artwork. Gene Colan told me he sometimes used a black sky because he had seen a film where the dark sky was in it, this great, sensational effect where the clouds where shiny white against a black sky because of a red filter. We would talk of all those tricks and all those shots of horses and stagecoaches.
You ought to talk to Gene Colan. Ask him about Bullitt, and he’ll talk to you for four hours. He knows every single line and every shot. He actually audiotaped Bullitt. Before videotape was invented, he went into a theater and audiotaped Bullitt so he could listen to the dialog. He was as crazy as I was. We’re both children of the cinema.
SPURGEON: How did you feel about the material you were being given to draw at Marvel? Did you recognize that what Marvel was doing was hitting people differently?
ROMITA: My whole family used to help me plot. If we were taking trips to Cape Cod, for instance, that would be six hours in the car. We’d be plotting stories all the way. I would tell them, “Stan wants me to do a certain thing, and I’m having trouble with this and that.” John Jr. at the age of the 10 and 12 was helping me plot. My wife was helping me plot. My oldest son, Victor, who probably could be a writer if he wanted to — he works for IBM — has a wonderful story sense. My whole family was plotting those stories.
SPURGEON: How did you feel about the expanded creative involvement with the books. Was it simply fun for you? Did you feel a sense of social responsibility in how the books you were working on were affecting Marvel’s readership?
ROMITA: I did feel that. I felt like we were really onto something. When I started to realize, I was a storyteller first and an artist second, it changed my whole approach to comics. Art is only a tool, just like the lettering on the paper. If you don’t tell a story, the best art in the world is a waste. I used to tell people, if you can’t make a story interesting, readable and entertaining, then you can do Michelangelo’s or Leonardo’s drawings, and it would be absolutely ignored and nobody would buy it. On the other hand, if you’re a moderately successful artist with limitations, but you tell a dynamite story, you can sell books all day long. That’s my theory.
When I’m teaching young artists, I tell them, “If you’re going to learn from me, check your ego at the door.” One of the first things I learned was don’t fall in love with you own artwork. When I first started inking comics, I would do a line on a figure, and I would love that line. I would say, “Wow, I really got a nice brush line there.” Then I would decide I needed a black background. Sometimes I wouldn’t put the black in there because I didn’t want to ruin that line. I said to myself, “What are you, stupid? You’re going to leave this open for some colorist to put a bad color in there when you should put black in there. The hell with it! The hell with the line! Put the black in there.” And that’s where the ego comes in. Artists fall in love with their own artwork. They lose the importance of the character and the story in the satisfaction of their technique. And that’s the worst thing a comic artist can do. You’re a storyteller first, and an artist second.
SPURGEON: Is there specific work from your Spider-Man run that met your ambitions for storytelling?
ROMITA: Story wise, there are a lot of stories. There are a half a dozen stories I’m very proud of. A lot of them that got knocked out because of lack of time I’m not too proud of. The storylines I’m prouder of than actual artwork, but there are two issues that I’ve told people are my favorite two Spider-Man issues: #108 and #109. It was a plot I had a lot to do with. And the reason I plotted it, and insinuated the ideas with Stan, was because it was a chance to do Orientals in the Caniff style. That was the Vietnam sequence where Flash Thompson comes back from Vietnam, and somebody from Southeast Asia wants to kill him because he destroyed a temple. Spider-Man saves his life, and Dr. Strange was a guest star. Those two stories I’m proudest of as artwork. It’s more like me than anything else. The storytelling, the drawings, the powers and the fact that I used a lot of blacks. It was juicy, what I call a juicy piece of artwork.
I’ve also done covers I’m very proud of. A lot of covers I was very satisfied with. But the truth of the matter is I never did a piece of artwork that came up to what I intended it to look like. I always envisioned it better. When people accuse me of false modesty, I tell them, “You gotta understand. I’m the only one that knew exactly what I wanted on that. You didn’t know how good I wanted that to be. All you saw was the finished product. And you like it, and I’m grateful — thank God, that’s what paid my bills. But I know what I wanted there. I wanted an epic on paper.” [Laughter.]
SPURGEON: You mentioned that you and even your family did some of the plotting on the Spider-Man issues. Did you ever pursue plotting credit?
ROMITA: I didn’t ask for it. Jack Kirby demanded it, and Ditko demanded it. I didn’t demand it because I didn’t feel the need for that kind of stuff. I felt like a contributor, but I didn’t plot the story from scratch. Stan would always come up with a thought. There were times when I got very little, and then built on it. There were times when we would have a 15-minute conference and we would be interrupted, and I would never get back to Stan and I would be stuck with a very skimpy concept that I would have to flesh out. Those are the ones the family did when we were in the car traveling, because I would have a beginning and an end but nothing in the middle. When Stan started to give Jack Kirby plotting credit — the ultimate was when it became a Stan Lee and Jack Kirby production. When you were saying, it was produced, that was the ultimate comment. “Produced by Stan Lee and John Romita,” that said I was the co-producer of this story and these characters and this product. It was a very, very good feeling.
But I never demanded it. I never demanded anything. I was sort of a sap. [Spurgeon laughs.] Frankly. I was always a good soldier. I never made waves, even though a lot of times I would grumble. I used to have a line I would grumble when I was inking, that I’m doing this work at three in the morning and somebody else cashed the check already. Whether it was Stan Lee or Gil Kane or whoever I was inking, or whoever I was correcting, I used to grumble like everybody else. But I would never go in and say to Stan, “I’m tired of this,” or “If I don’t get this, I’m not going to stay.” I was never that kind of guy. I needed comfort and peaceful surroundings. I didn’t promote myself. I traded a lot of income in exchange for peace and quiet and easy-going surroundings I was comfortable in. If I had been a squeaky wheel, I could’ve gotten more oil.
SPURGEON: Was credit a sore point amongst the Marvel artists in general? Or did most of them share your outlook?
ROMITA: A lot of people claim that Stan took too much credit. My attitude is that if I had done the same work for another editor, it wouldn’t have been as good. Jack Kirby was a genius. But the truth of the matter is that Jack Kirby didn’t have any long runs on any books — mostly because of economics, because he wanted to go onto new things — but he didn’t have real long runs. Just think of the magnificent accomplishment of 102 issues, plus annuals, of Fantastic Four. If I had done 102 issues of any book, I would be puffed up like a rooster. That is a tremendous legacy to leave to people. He did the equivalent of the full life’s work of A. Conan Doyle or Robert Louis Stevenson, all the magnificent things that were done in Fantastic Four in that ten-year run. He didn’t do that with Joe Simon. He wouldn’t have done that with Carmine Infantino and the team. Don’t you think Stan Lee deserves some credit for that? That’s what I always thought. As much credit as Stan has and gets, I think he deserves most of it. I think he was the best editor that ever lived, and one of the best writers. I always felt “Why should I ask for equal credit with the guy who did most of the creation here?”
SPURGEON: Do you think one contributing factors that left Stan open to those accusations is the way Marvel was set up as a company?
ROMITA: The corporate people could have squashed it a long time ago. It didn’t have to be “Stan Lee Presents” all those years. What they were doing was doing what they thought was the best commercial trick: If “Stan Lee Presents” is the way to sell books, let’s do it. Stan didn’t have it in his contract that it was going to say “Stan Lee Presents” forever; that was a commercial decision by several different entities, different conglomerates down through the years. Martin Goodman allowed it to be “Stan Lee Presents” because it was good business. Martin Goodman wouldn’t give you the skin off a grape [Laughter] if it weren’t business wise. Same thing with the all the conglomerates and guys that came after, right down to [Ron] Perelman, who knew where his bread was buttered. “Stan Lee Presents,” that’s the way to make it work. That’s not a mean accomplishment. I don’t remember that Jack Kirby Presents never got a huge sale out of anything. Certainly John Romita didn’t get a huge sale out of anything before he went to Stan Lee. I have to face that. I’m not kidding anybody.
SPURGEON: You’re saying there’s a bottom-line commercial component that can’t be denied.
ROMITA: I don’t believe it I would have had the run for 25 years on some form or another on Spider-Man — whether I was plotting stories for somebody else, like Gil Kane, or just inking somebody else or doing roughs for somebody else to finish, doing thousands of covers, toy designs, Macy’s Spider-Man balloon — I would not have had that run with anyone but Stan Lee. I didn’t make that run as a John Romita enterprise; I was a part of a group. I was not my own unit. So, to me, Jack Kirby’s success on Fantastic Four, Thor, and all of those things, I think if it wasn’t for Stan Lee, they would not have been successful. When he worked for himself, he had what I would call critical successes and commercial failures. That’s fact, I think.
Remember, I admire Jack as the genius of comics. I admire him as an idol. But I have to admit, he never sold anything on his own.
Jack, John, Jerry and Bill
SPURGEON: The Marvel bullpen and freelancing community of the late 1960s and early 1970s was an interesting place. The biggest change was an absence. Was it shocking when Jack Kirby left Marvel?
ROMITA: It was a terrible shock to me. I knew that there was a friction. And Roz was very upset with Stan because of a lot of misconceptions. She accused Stan of all sorts of things that Stan was somewhat innocent on. But he did take credit. And maybe he didn’t give enough credit. If he had said, “Co-Created by Jack Kirby,” it might have made him stay. But I think they were down on Stan, mostly because a stupid article in the Herald-Tribune. That was just an unfortunate thing. Stan never got a chance to see that thing. And if he did, he probably glossed over the paragraph that insulted Jack, saying that instead of looking like the dynamic creator of thousands of characters, he looked like a bra salesman. That would have killed me. And he blamed Stan.
SPURGEON: Did you know Jack Kirby personally?
ROMITA: Oh, yeah. We always had a wonderful relationship. He was a very interesting guy, but he was like a time bomb. He was a powder keg. He was always like ready to explode. But he was very cordial face to face. He would be cordial to people he didn’t like, but the next day he would bad-mouth them. That’s what’s called being business-like, and you can’t go around grumbling at everybody, you know. He was a special kind of guy, don’t get me wrong. He had a great sense of humor, and he had a wonderful talent. He would share it with you, and give you all sorts of tips. He used to tell me all the time, “You spend too much time worrying about the stuff. So, it doesn’t hold water, so it’s not exactly accurate, so what?” He and John Buscema used to tell me to throw away my eraser. Stop erasing stuff you’ve drawn, because even your worst drawing is as good as anybody’s best drawing. That was the advice they both gave me.
SPURGEON: John Buscema was, like yourself, a mid-’60s hire that became an important anchor for the Marvel line. What was working with Buscema like?
ROMITA: John Buscema was also a classic character. He was always grumbling about the crap being put out. He came in one day when I was tearing up a splash page that I had half done. He said, “What the hell are you, crazy? Why are you doing that? That was a good drawing.” I said, “No, I didn’t like it. There was something wrong with that. The figures were too small.” He said, “You’re nuts!” He used to tell me all the time, “It’s only comics, what the hell are you getting so upset about?” I used to tell him, “I can’t explain it to you. But if I don’t like panel one, I can’t do panel two.” With him, he didn’t give a damn. [Spurgeon laughs.] I said, “Well, it’s easy for you. Your worst drawings are better than most people’s best.” That’s the same line he used on me. I didn’t believe it, and he did. And he really was. He was one of the best artists. I really idolized his artwork.
SPURGEON: Buscema was an incredibly facile artist.
ROMITA: But always acting like the gruff. [Laughter.]
SPURGEON: Bill Everett returned to Marvel for a few years before his passing. His take on superhero comics in the Sub-Mariner comics in the ’40s and ’50s was a crucial antecedent to what you guys were doing in the 1960s. What was it like to work with him?
ROMITA: It was like sitting next to George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. To work with Bill Everett every day for about two or three years … I also had the experience of working with Jerry Siegel. He was proofreading for us. I used to say to myself, “I’m sitting next to Jerry Siegel. I’m sitting next to the guy who created this whole industry.” [Laughter.] I can’t tell you.
One time I met Frank Frazetta. We were on a bus going from Orlando to Tampa with a bunch of young artists. And all they’re saying, I can hear them whispering, “There’s John Romita. That’s John Romita. Do you realize that’s John Romita?” I sidle over to them, and say, “Do you want to hear something funny? You want to know what I’m saying to myself? That’s Frank Frazetta over there!” [Laughter.] That encapsulates what comic artists mean to each other.
SPURGEON: Was Everett in good health when you worked with him?
ROMITA: He had gotten himself straightened out. He wasn’t drinking. He was still smoking a little bit, but I think he had even straightened that out. It looked like he had solved his health problems, and then he had a heart attack and we lost him while he was still working there. But those years were really great. He was inking guys, he was teaching us so much. We used to do birthday cards: Marie Severin would draw me up in a work situation, sort of a put on of me, joking. And everybody would sign it, saying “Happy Birthday, John.” I’ve got a couple signed by Bill Everett that are treasures to me. Here I’ve got the whole Marvel crew — Stan Lee, everybody — signing my birthday card. I’ve got three or four of those. They’re just absolutely my treasures.
SPURGEON: When Everett was “on” as an artist, he was capable of really lovely-looking art, although he wasn’t a fan favorite near the end of his career.
ROMITA: He was the best example of what I would call a creative artist. When you were in Bill Everett’s world, you knew where you were. He did it when there was crudity in comics, when the printing and the work was so low-priced you had to knock it out. He was doing piecework for pennies and turning out original masterpieces. That first generation had the glory of breaking new ground. He broke new ground every time he did a drawing. To me, when you’re doing something in 1935 and 1936 in comics, before anybody else had even made any rule — you’re making your own rules — that’s a giant. That’s what I meant by George Washington.
Other People’s Art
SPURGEON: Was there a point at which you began to phase out of penciling? I was trying to track your credits, and it seems like you gradually moved away from the penciling workload you took on when you first started working at Marvel. On Spider-Man, it seems that you started to ink Gil’s stuff as much you penciled it yourself.
ROMITA: I didn’t give up penciling. What happened is Stan would come to me and say that Captain America was having trouble, could I do a few issues of it. So, Stan and I would plot the story, I would give the plot to Gil Kane, then I would do Captain America. When Gil Kane sent in the pencils I’d have to do corrections because Stan would want to change things. I would do corrections on the pencils from Gil. And then sometimes there would be inks by Jim Mooney or Frank Giacoia or somebody, and I might have to do corrections on those. Sometimes the Mary Jane faces didn’t come out right or something. When I inked Gil Kane, I used to have to make a lot of changes, not because I’m an egomaniac, but only because Stan used to ask me to. Stan didn’t want Gil Kane on Spider-Man, he wanted John Romita. So he said, “I want you to ink Gil Kane, but I want you to make it look like you.” That was insulting to Gil, but Gil of course didn’t care as long as he got the money.
The truth of the matter is that a lot of guys were hurt by that. Don Heck was very incensed when Stan would say “I want you to work more like John Buscema or John Romita.” Don Heck one day blew up and told me, “Listen, you tell Stan if he wants John Romita or John Buscema to use them and not me.” And I understood. But I also used to tell him, “Listen Don, you don’t have to draw exactly like us. He doesn’t mean that. What he wants you to do is approach them like we do. Glamorize it; more dynamic, more movement, that kind of stuff.”
But guys like Don and the other artists that felt they were not getting work from Stan because he preferred Jack Kirby and me and John Buscema. Stan wasn’t down on anyone’s artwork. He never changed anybody’s artwork because he disagreed with the artwork; it was the storyline that he changed. The artwork had to be changed because he was changing the storyline. I changed a lot of Jack Kirby, but not because the artwork was wrong. Stan wanted a new expression, or he wanted to change the position of a character, because he was always changing a storyline. What Jack would send in was always invariably different than what Stan had asked for. Stan would write another story, and I would have to do changes to make it work. People think that because I was art director, I made that judgment, but I never did. I wouldn’t have changed Jack Kirby’s artwork if my life depended on it! But when Stan wanted a change in story, I had to change the artwork. I changed Colan, I changed Barry Smith — did you ever see those embarrassing Barry Smith covers with my faces on them?
SPURGEON: [Laughter.] Yeah, sure.
ROMITA: Do you know what a reputation I have, and how many people criticized that? [Laughter.] I got criticized by quite a few people as being an egomaniac.
SPURGEON: Was every change you made directly from Stan, or had you internalized what Stan wanted and made changes yourself on that basis?
ROMITA: Every single one from Stan. I never changed — I’ll rescind that. I changed a Spider-Man figure on an artist I won’t mention. [Laughter.] Because he had the arms and legs so long it was ludicrous. I had to cut a half inch out of each arm and each leg.
SPURGEON: Was that Gil Kane?
ROMITA: No. But I will tell you that yes, Gil Kane used to make Spider-Man six foot five. My answer to that was that I would make his head bigger, so he would look five foot ten. That I did. But that was not a knock at his artwork. That was a knock at his characterization.
SPURGEON: Of all the important artists, I can think of who did a great deal of work for Marvel, I think of Gil Kane as someone with whom you worked particularly closely. What did you think of Kane’s work, his approach to comics?
ROMITA: The quote that I give to most people is that every time I inked Gil I learned something. Every single panel. I always learned something. He didn’t do things perfectly, but he did dynamics. A lot of guys in my situation, my rough drawings are very exciting, very dynamic. But by the time I finish them, it gets moderated and sort of stifled a little bit. I’m putting accurate details into it. Gil never lost the thrust of his figures. He would go from his rough drawing and have these figures extended, fully extended and moving in space, and he never compromised with it. The finished drawings never lost any of that. I always respected that. Jack Kirby had that, too. His figures had thrust and mass in space, and they never lost it. People like myself, when you get the accurate details and start to modify it, you modify it to death. That’s a danger. My rough drawings are always better than my finished drawings.
SPURGEON: Another thing that’s unclear to me when I’m tracking your career: At what point did you officially become an art director?
ROMITA: [Laughter.] It was never official. It was a handshake. It was so unofficial that Stan used to be paid as art director. I never got a penny for being art director.
SPURGEON: That’s not a very good arrangement at all.
ROMITA: I used to say that Stan would give titles instead of salary increases. He would call a person an assistant editor, but not give them a raise. He used to give us nicknames instead of raises. [Laughter.] That’s why I got so many nicknames.
The Transitional Period
SPURGEON: By the early 1970s, weren’t you passing on covers and other things that one would think of as an art director’s work?
ROMITA: I only did it in conjunction with people like Roy Thomas. In my last few years, people like Bobbie Chase and Ralph Macchio relied on me heavily for covers. I would do a lot of sketches for them. They would send them to the artist, and the artist would follow my sketches. A lot of editors never asked me for help. I did work out a lot of Gil’s covers. Roy and I would get together with Gil once a week, or once every two weeks, and work out cover concepts on half a dozen or a dozen books. There was time there where he was doing like five or six covers a week for us.
SPURGEON: Working with Roy Thomas on covers — I take it this was when Roy had taken over from Stan after Stan moved upstairs in 1972?
ROMITA: Roy was Editor In Chief.
SPURGEON: What was the office like after Stan made his move?
ROMITA: It was strange, after many years of Stan being there constantly. He had started coming into the office three days a week so that he could stay home and write on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Sometimes he would come in on Tuesday and Thursday and stay at home the other three days. So, we had sort of gotten used to operating without him being there. Sol Brodsky would do the administrative work. When Roy took over, and Stan decided to write full-time, and when he went to California, Roy had to become Editor in Chief to make the daily decisions. It was strange, but we had sort of drifted into it. Roy and I had sort of taken over, thinking of the covers, because Stan wasn’t coming in every day. We had gotten a taste of it before we left. It wasn’t so bad. Some people had trouble with it. When you’re used to working with Stan, a lot of them had trouble taking orders from Roy, Roy being a fairly newcomer compared to some of the older artists. They felt like he was a kid who shouldn’t be in charge. When other editors came in from the outside, there were grumbles in the bullpen. “Here’s a DC guy; he shouldn’t be our Editor In Chief.” No names. [Laughter.] But there were many calls for a strike or something. “He doesn’t know how to do Marvel stuff. He’s a DC guy.”
SPURGEON: Didn’t the whole culture of Marvel change as young creators — many younger than Roy — started to come in? In fact, many of the editors and editors-in-chief from that decade were culled from the younger generation.
ROMITA: Guys like Len Wein and Archie Goodwin becoming editor was quite a change. When Jim Shooter came in, it was even moreso. Young people who had started in the business 20 years after we got into the business is always a shock. It’s true in business. You can’t always choose who your leaders are going to be.
SPURGEON: I think I’ve read that you felt you were able to offer help to the newer guys, but you never imposed yourself.
ROMITA: No, I never did. Shooter made me full-time art director. It was official then, come to think of it. That’s when I didn’t have to do any work — I didn’t have a quota of artwork to do to earn my money. I guess this is like 1985. When Shooter gave me that, I had been working in Special Projects for Sol Brodsky. We were doing children’s books and coloring books. I was doing the newspaper strip in the late ’70s and early ’80s. Shooter asked me, “How would you like to be here full-time?” We instituted an apprentice program. We ran about 35 guys through that department in seven years, whatever it was. We got maybe 25 of those guys working in the business. That was a great project, and it was Shooter’s idea. I implemented it, and it worked very well.
That was the first time we had a whole batch of young editors. Shooter told me, “I told them to use you as a tool, an asset. And anybody who doesn’t use you is going to be fighting me. I’ve told them to use you, if they don’t, then that’s their problem. That’s between them and me.” I told him, “Listen Jim, I’m not going to be the kind of guy who says I demand an artist on a book, or I don’t like a certain artist so take him off that book. I don’t want to have that power. I don’t want to have the tension that arises from it. I will be available to anyone who wants to get my advice, and if they get my advice and don’t use it, I don’t care.” I said, “That’s the only way I’m going to do it,” and he said he agreed with me.
Confrontation is no way to get things done. I used to tell people, “I think this is a mistake.” For instance, when McFarlane did the Hulk, I told Bob Harras I didn’t like McFarlane’s Hulk. So, he took him off the Hulk and put him on Spider-Man. So if it weren’t for my stupidity, he wouldn’t have been on Spider-Man all those years, and I would have been happier.
SPURGEON: So if anyone doesn’t like the arc of Todd McFarlane’s career, we have you to blame.
ROMITA: He might have made Hulk the biggest character of all time. You never know. I shouldn’t have tampered with it!
My style is I can to tell you what I think: “I don’t like this stuff. I don’t like the way this character is drawn.” But I’m not going to demand that if you don’t do it my way I’m going to go to Shooter and tell Shooter it’s him or me. I can’t work that way, if I have to have a confrontation every day. Other people that have tried my job since I’ve left, have tried butting heads. It got them nowhere. All it did was get them animosity and tension and nothing produced.
SPURGEON: I want to ask you about a couple of your projects in the 1970s. You were in as artist on the Spider-Man newspaper strip, both an abortive attempt in the early ’70s and the successful launch later that decade.
ROMITA: The one in the early ’70s never got off the ground. Somebody never even submitted it to the syndicate.
SPURGEON: Was it an agent you had that was supposed to submit it?
ROMITA: It was somebody in the office. It was jealousy of Stan Lee — somebody didn’t want to see him get a strip. In ’77, the Tribune syndicate came to Stan. Tribune was a syndicate in the Midwest. I was rooting for King Features, but Stan accepted this one. They were sort of a small outfit that didn’t have a lot of push. But we managed to get it up to 500 papers at one time.
SPURGEON: Spider-Man has an interesting place in comic-strip history because at the time of its launch there were almost no adventure strips in the paper.
ROMITA: There still aren’t. But absolutely. Every one of us agreed. Joe Giella had done Batman for about three years and it died. He was in the office, and I told him I was going to start Spider-Man. He said, “It will probably last about a year and a half or two, but enjoy it while you got it. Because you’re going to be killing yourself, because it’s a daily and Sunday.” I told him, “Well no, because I got a deal that as soon as it affects my health I’m going to quit.” I didn’t want to quit my job at Marvel and do the strip, which would have been easier on my health and mind. I aged in those four years about ten years, I think. The strip was a killer. I was trying to make it so damn good. I wanted to knock people’s socks off. The only reward I got was that I got a call from Milton Caniff saying that he loved the way I was doing Spider-Man. That was worth all the work right there.
The other thing was that I didn’t quit the job. I worked three days a week at Marvel and the other four days a week, believe it or not, to do the strip. I did it at a sacrifice of income, because I was giving up part of my weekly salary. I barely broke even those four years, with salary. I worked seven days a week. It was hard work. But it was very satisfying. It was wonderful to think I was getting letters from South America, from Europe, from Asia. I had a fan in Norway that followed everything I did in the strip. I had fans in England, I had fans in France and Italy. The fact that I was reaching around the world with that strip was so satisfying. I would have quit a year earlier if it wasn’t for that great satisfaction.
SPURGEON: The other project of yours from the 1970s is radically different. In Stan Lee’s archived papers in Laramie, Wyo. I came across a proposal for a Playboy strip based on the Tom Swift character you and he did together.
ROMITA: Did you see any of the drawings? I hope they’re not going around.
SPURGEON: I did. And actually, the drawings are quite lovely. The work really looked nice.
ROMITA: That was sort of mixed emotions there. Playboy wanted us to do that more raunchy. Believe it or not, it was too tame for them. You know what that was all about? When Penthouse was doing that very crude Wicked Wanda, Annie Fanny started to look a little bit tame, so they wanted to do something to compete. They were going to drop Annie Fanny. Stan was very flattered, and he loved the idea of making the extra money. Of course, to me all it looked like was a lot of extra work. [Laughter.] I didn’t have a lot of time on my hands. But I was torn between having this international exposure in full color — I was thinking, “Wow! What a rush that would be, to have my stuff printed in this quality stock, with beautiful color. A first-class production.” But it was against my grain. It was really hard. I’m really a prude, a square, you know? I got as raunchy as I could. Did you see anything about the villains, the men?
SPURGEON: I did.
ROMITA: Did you see their heads?
SPURGEON: I did. [Laughter.] Yes.
ROMITA: You know what they were supposed to be?
ROMITA: I thought, well, doing a dickhead is probably as crude as you can get, right? They didn’t think it was crude enough. They wanted more chains, spikes and straps. They wanted S&M. I tried it twice to make it raunchier. I thought an orgasm machine was pretty raunchy — the girls were all completely nude, you know. I certainly didn’t want to show any male frontal nudity, but I was doing as much as I thought I could get away with.
When the editor asked for more, I tried for a couple of days and then I went in one day and told Stan, “I got to tell you something. I hate to do this to you, but I think you ought to get another artist. I don’t think I’m the guy for this. I think I’m much too mild-tempered. You need a Wally Wood on this kind of stuff.” He said, “I don’t want to do this with anybody else.” I said, “Stan, I don’t want to cost you this assignment. This is something you’re going to love to do.” He said, “No. If you can’t do it, I won’t do it.” I said, “Don’t do that to me. I’ll feel terrible!” He said, “The truth of the matter is, I want to work with you on this stuff. And if we can’t make it work …” I told him, “I’ll tell you the truth. If we could make it work, I’d almost be ashamed.” For instance, I couldn’t show it to my grandchildren. Even my kids. I said, “If I use a phony name, everybody is going to know anyway who’s doing it.” So, I said I’d rather not do this at all. As much money, as may be in this — I told you, I’m a sap, I give up all sorts of lucrative ideas, because it’s too much a change to ask of me — I could not think like that. You know the old joke about getting down on old fours and looking at it like a dog would? [Laughter.] I can’t do that! So, we gave it up voluntarily.
That’s the only time I can point to Stan passing up a chance to make money. [Spurgeon laughs.] I swear. I will document that. In my experience, that’s the only time he ever turned down anything that could be big money.
SPURGEON: Another thing I recall when I think of your work in the ’70s is I know you worked on the original design for the Wolverine character.
SPURGEON: Can you talk about your approach to character design in general? I can’t imagine a more crucial skill for a mainstream comic book artist to have, as so much depends on the visual appeal of the character. Your Spider-Man designs were also very attractive. Except for Kirby and maybe Ditko, you provided Marvel with some of their most memorable characters.
ROMITA: The first one I think was the Rhino. Stan would just write the words, “Next month: The Rhino.” And I would have to come up with a character that looked like a rhino or based on a rhino. Then there was the Shocker and other characters. Every time, we’d come up with a new villain, he didn’t want to use a lot of Ditko’s villains. He felt they had overused them already, so we always tried to come up with new ones. I started sharpening my creative skills that way. Some of them worked. I didn’t think the Shocker worked; I thought it was embarrassing. But some people have said they loved the Shocker. I’m not the one to judge. I didn’t think the Rhino was going to work until Marie Severin did a drawing of the Rhino in action. I did a drawing of the Rhino and I was about to reject it, when Marie Severin said, “I like that.” I said, “It looks silly, the face sticking out below the horn.” And she showed him charging like a bull, and I said, “You know, you’re right.” Some thought it was a one-trick pony, all you can do is having him charging into things. But she made me believe it. When I did the Kingpin I was very proud. I also was very proud of the Robbie Robertson character. I still don’t know if Stan asked me for a black guy, or if I recommended a black guy. Stan asked me to do a night editor. He may have said he wanted him to be black. He can’t remember and I can’t remember. I think it was my idea, but I can’t be sure. I also used to write backgrounds on the characters. I remember writing out an extensive background, like four paragraphs, on Robbie Robertson.
He was a poor kid growing up in a ghetto and fought his way in the Golden Gloves, which is a New York thing, a boxing tournament every year. He worked his way through college at night and became the night editor. I had him originally with cauliflower ears, but Stan thought that people would think we just didn’t know how to draw ears. [Laughter.] He rejected the cauliflower ear. But the white hair on the black guy, it just clicked. I was very proud of that character. We built a family around him, a wife and a kid who was a close friend of Peter Parker’s. I was sorry that they didn’t do much with Robbie Robertson in the Spider-Man movie.
When we went to the Kingpin, I really was rolling then. All he said was, “I want the Kingpin of Crime the next month.” And so, the first thing that pops into every artist’s mind is the gangster type with the black shirt and the white tie and the scar and graying temples, or something like that. But I said no, I don’t want to do that. I wanted to make him as distinctively different as possible. I fashioned him like the political cartoon version of a business tycoon from the turn of the century; overweight, bald, with a morning coat and a cravat and a stickpin. I made him as distinctive as possible— the word kingpin suggested stickpin to me. So I put a diamond stickpin in his cravat. But basically, he was to look like a Wall Street tycoon instead of a racketeer. But hugely powerful, because he was 400 pounds of muscle. I pointed out in the original sketch to Stan, he’s not fat and flabby, he’s just powerful. He can terrorize anybody in his gang, that kind of stuff. I was very proud of the Kingpin. The silhouette was what I was after. You can see a silhouette of the Kingpin and you don’t mistake him for any other character. All the other gang leaders in comics, if you put a silhouette up, they’d all look alike. That’s what I was after, a distinctive quality.
So, when it comes to the Wolverine, that was different. After I had created a few villains for Stan, other editors started to come to me, like Marv Wolfman and Len Wein, and Gerry Conway when he was writing Spider-Man. When we did the Punisher, I tried a trick. I assumed they were going to ask for a guy with a mask. I did him in a costume, and I tried a different way of doing a skull on the costume. I made the skull the entire torso instead of some small skull and crossbones. But then I did him without a mask on purpose, fully expecting they were going to come back in a half hour saying, “We like the costume, but put a mask on him.” When they didn’t come in, I had this confusion: “Are they saying, if John Romita doesn’t put a mask on him, that’s good?” or are they saying, “It looks good this way. We like it that way.” I never asked them, and I always forget to ask them. So, here’s a guy who is going to be a vigilante. Of all the people who need a mask, he does. How does he get away without a mask? I wanted to see expressions on his face. I did not want to have a mask where you don’t see expressions.
So that was that. I was proud of a praying mantis costume I did. I had insect shapes coming out of her hair and things like that. When Wolverine was asked for, the typical arrangement was that somebody would come and say, “We want a character called The Wolverine.”
I don’t believe anybody told me anything about the size. I went to the Encyclopedia we had in the office, and got a picture of a wolverine. I have to tell you, I wasn’t very bright at the time; I thought a Wolverine was female wolf. So help me. [Laughter.] I never knew that a Wolverine was a completely different character than a wolf. I see a picture, and it describes it as a small, ferocious character with tremendous claws and it’s cat-like, which was a surprise to me. So, I envisioned a guy who was very short and powerful. I described him as five foot four, five foot five. I also said he was very ferocious, always angry. The only thing different than what he’s evolved into is I had a very small set of ears on him that was cat-like. Later on, we had a female character called The Cat which had the same ears I did on the original design. The only change they made was to give the huge points on the mask instead of the small, cat-like ears. But the rest of it, they’ve kept almost intact all these years. I’m very proud of it. All I did was put a lot of claw shapes on it. The biggest thing I did, and I know I decided to make it, I knew if you had claws that long, they were going to get in the way. He wouldn’t be able to light a cigarette, he won’t be able to scratch his nose without tearing his flesh, so I decided to make them retractable from the back of his hand. Retractable claws. With the Cat we had claws from the fingertips, I just made it from the back of the hand so it wouldn’t get in the way of his normal, everyday existence. I was very proud of that, to the point when I saw the X-Men movie. You remember that moment, the first time he shows his claws and made it so dramatic. I leaned over and told Virginia, “I just got the biggest rush of my life.” Because that was my idea. Retractable claws. I just had a feeling like Thomas Edison must have felt [Laughter.] when that light stayed on.
SPURGEON: I think there’s a generation of young men who will never think of a wolverine as a female wolf. [Romita laughs.] So it sounds like what you’re doing is basically working through the characters from a story standpoint and letting that dictate the design.
ROMITA: I also used to try and combine images. On the Punisher, the teeth of the skull are the belt buckle. I like that kind of thing. Instead of just doing teeth, I did a functional thing on it. When I did the Shocker, I did a Spider-Man-like V-shape in the front of his costume. The quilted part came to a point just about at the belt. What I did to try and make it clever is I put a V-shape belt on it to go around the shape of that V-shape cloth. From that moment on, everybody has accused me I originally intended it to be called The Vibrator instead of the Shocker. [Laughter.] I said, “No, what do you mean?” “There’s a v on his belt.” No, that was completely done for another reason. [Laughter.] But they didn’t buy it, they thought he was supposed to be The Vibrator.
SPURGEON: As Marvel expanded its creative purview in the 1980s, you were involved with many of those efforts. Did you enjoy your experience working in Special Projects?
ROMITA: I enjoyed the idea of it. Some things I liked. But we were always on such a low budget that it started to wear on me. It was very hard. We did a three-book A-Team series that had such a low budget I was ashamed of it. I didn’t even want my name on it. It was so bad. And yet I’ve signed dozens of copies of those books. [Laughter.] Fans come to me and tell me how much they loved it. And I tell them, “If I tell you what I think of that book, you’re going to be hurt.”
SPURGEON: When did you start working for them?
ROMITA: I think it was about ’81, just about the time I left the strip. I went to Special Projects thinking I was going to be doing a lot of different things, and I’d have something new to work on. Coloring books were a little bit of a drag, but I was also open to trying new stuff. I did a lot of Disney stuff, Barbie and stuff like that, in subsequent years anyway. I liked the variety. Variety was very important, because when you’re 30 years in an office, boredom is a very big problem. The more variety I got, the better. That’s why I loved creating female characters, and I loved doing the Nestlé Bunny. You remember the ads? I did those. A lot of them. I really enjoyed those. I did a lot of Disney covers. I enjoyed Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin. I did the first two Barbie covers. And, of course, you know about the Spidey Super Stories. That was one of my proudest moments. I was the liaison between Marvel and the Children’s Television Workshop. I helped create that project, and I was supervising it. I also did like the first ten out of 12 covers. I had a lot to do with trying to keep it good inside, but it had to be for a very, very young audience. The whole thing was very restrictive but it was such a satisfying thing, because it was scientifically designed to create reading desires in young people. And it worked; we used to get a lot of compliments from teachers saying that a whole generation of young people learned how to read because of that comic book. We did that for about five years. We did no ads — there was no commercial advertising in it. It was strictly a public service kind of thing and I was very proud of it. Having educators call me up and telling me they thought the book was a great benefit, I can’t tell you how proud I was of that.
SPURGEON: As I understand it, the genesis of a lot of Marvel’s move into educational, overtly socially responsible comics had its roots in the famous Harry Osborn addiction story in Amazing Spider-Man. Jumping back a bit, were you involved with those issues?
ROMITA: Gil used to get all the plum issues. I plotted that sequence with Stan, as I did with all of them. I was just being used on something, probably The Fantastic Four. I’m not sure. When Kirby left, it was about that time — ’72, ’71. So, what happened is I would plot the issue with Stan, then he would say, “OK, I need you on something else,” and I would have to give the plot to Gil. So, I gave the plot to Gil by phone, and he got all the plum issues that way! He got the death of Captain Stacy, the death of Gwen Stacy and the drug issues. Those were all major sequences. It was just luck of the draw. It had nothing to do with anything except I was doing something else at the time.
SPURGEON: You also helped plot the death of Gwen Stacy story, one of the real watershed events in Marvel’s publication history.
ROMITA: And I was inking at that time. I think I inked the first one of the drug issues.
SPURGEON: It seems like you had developed a pretty good story sense. Did you ever think about going to plotting more formally or writing?
ROMITA: I didn’t do it more than once. Actually, I did a plot on a story of Spider-Man in Mexico, where Spider-Man is the only guy who could go down this bottomless pit. In my sketchbook — it’s called the Mexican Princess story. I plotted that myself completely. I had a group of creatures based on the Morlocks from The Time Machine. They were down there unable to see but they were very dangerous creatures. I was plotting that story, but I never finished it. We started a couple of projects. I started another one called the Black Swan, and I spent months on it. But what I usually do is tie myself up in knots. I try to make it so spectacular and have so much dimension, so much epic quality, that I usually destroy myself. I wear myself out. I have to give it up, because it will just tie me in knots. If I had to write for a living, I don’t think I’d ever produce anything. I’d be changing it until the last minute, and never get it done.
SPURGEON: It sounds like you have more of an editor’s mentality than a writer’s.
ROMITA: No, I’m just a perfectionist idiot. [Spurgeon laughs.] I’m never satisfied. I turn in the drawings because I can get a modicum of something done in time. If somebody asks me to do an introduction for a book, you should see how I agonize over it. I can do it, but it takes forever.
The Tall Guy
SPURGEON: Marvel in the 1980s means Jim Shooter as editor in chief. Am I right in assuming from the viewpoint of someone working there that there was a honeymoon period when Shooter took over at Marvel, particularly given the revolving door that preceded him?
ROMITA: For two or three years, it was wonderful. We had a great deal of respect for each other and there was a self-respect engendered during those years. He used to demand that Marvel would send us places first-class and put us in first-class hotels. It was wonderful. We would go to conventions and we were treated better. He treated us well. It was a wonderful time. You’re right. It’s interesting that you would describe it that way. It was like a honeymoon period, like a golden age. When things were going well for Shooter — he sold millions of copies of Secret Wars, he was riding the crest of the wave. But when the second Secret Wars flopped, and he tried a new line of books [the New Universe line] and they fell on their kiester, he started to get very testy and very short-tempered.
First, he was butting heads with corporate upstairs. He also was there when New Line Cinema took over. They had done a couple of successful television shows, and they felt like they were conquering the world. They ended up not knowing what they were doing. They were terrible. Anyway, Shooter butted heads with them. Before they took over, he got us all together and he said he wanted to tell the new owner that they should do something for the good of the company. We had about 50 or 60 titles, and we were killing ourselves. The second line wasn’t doing too well. We were all saying we wished we could do 25 titles or 20 titles of top quality books and not kill ourselves on 60 titles. Now that was an artists’ and writers’ dream. Some would have lost work, but we thought for quality’s sake the best stuff we ever did was when we had 17 titles, when Stan was doing it, writing everything. We never dreamed we would have the chance to do it. What Shooter said was, “When we talk to the new owners, I want us all to get together, stand solidly together and say we demand to cut the line down to 25 books.” I said, “You know something, Jim, you can’t get a businessman to sacrifice income on the hope that you’re going to get a better product and make more income five years down the line.” No businessman is going to vote for that. He said, “We’ll convince them.” I said, “Jim, you know, I don’t think I can back you on that. I think he’s going to tell us get the hell out and he’ll get somebody else to do it.”
From that moment, between his tension with the front office and because things were going bad editorially, he started to get a shorter and shorter temper, he became less and less tolerant and more demanding, and it got to be a very bad time. It’s too bad, because we went from a wonderful time to a bad time overnight, and it was very disheartening.
SPURGEON: How much of a strain on the company and those working at the company was the Jack Kirby art-return controversy?
ROMITA: That was something that interrupted our normal functions. It was one of those terrible things. All the companies had done terrible things. They had all destroyed artwork. DC used to cut them up and throw them away. Some people burned them. Our warehouse used to be a terrible, gaping maw where stuff would get lost or stolen or burned or wet from rain. It was a bad time. When Kirby wanted his artwork back, nobody knew where it was. We find in retrospect that a lot of the artwork was stolen. A lot of my artwork was stolen. There were stories I never saw again. I got back artwork only by the luck of somebody else caring about it and getting it to me before it got stolen. But most of the stuff was gone.
So Kirby, he didn’t accept that. He felt Marvel was keeping it, and was going to get rich on it someday. Kirby was the first guy I ever heard say that our artwork would be on museum walls one day. And I used to laugh. I’m talking about the ’60s here. Then when it was coming to pass, I think he thought Marvel was going to make a fat payday of it, auctioning it off. The truth is Marvel didn’t have most of it. What they had, some stupid lawyer had convinced Marvel that Jack Kirby was going to envision publishing it someday, the way Joe Simon has now gotten the rights to Captain America. I think they had this unreasonable fear that Jack was somehow going to outwit them and use those pages for his own gain. But the truth of the matter is Jack wanted it for its resale value and his legacy, his grandchildren. The whole thing was a tempest in a teapot. Jack Kirby’s stuff goes for money now, but at the time I don’t think it was going to be bringing that much money in. Certainly, some of the good stuff, depending on the inkers, but all of it wasn’t going to sell. But it was unfortunate. We got terrible, terrible press on that. We got some awful treatment at conventions. It was a bad time. I’d rather not to think about it. I was very upset. I certainly didn’t like being told I was somebody who mistreated artists and artwork. It was a terrible time.
Don’t Do This!
SPURGEON: You were still at Marvel in the early ’90s.
ROMITA: I started as a staff person in January of ’66. And I worked until ’96, almost exactly 30 years.
SPURGEON: So you were a witness to the explosion of comics that were being done.
ROMITA: I was there.
SPURGEON: What did you think of Marvel’s conduct during this period?
ROMITA: It wasn’t Marvel. It was Perelman and his henchman.
SPURGEON: What did the empire-building phase look like from the perspective of those working there?
ROMITA: All I got out of it was suspicion, because they were not building it for us; they were building it for themselves. They set out to create a paper value for the company to enhance their borrowing power, using us as collateral. That’s all Perelman ever did. He bought Revlon, and ran up debt on Revlon. And then when he was going to lose Revlon, he ran up debt on Marvel to pay off Revlon. You want to know something? All the TV successes, all of the syndicated strips, the reprints, whatever, none of that money ever found its way back to the artists or the creators.
SPURGEON: Marvel was publishing a staggering number of books.
ROMITA: That was all hype. Promotion and a lot of hype. The thing that they promised to stop was multiple covers. And if it wasn’t multiple covers, it was spectacular covers which were embossed or foil or plastic or three-dimensional, cut-outs — all sorts of tricks. Instead of making the books better inside, they were selling them with trick covers. And every time we got a promise from them to stop doing it, they would do it again and the reason they would tell us is that “We can’t stop doing this if they’re still buying it. If they keep buying it, why should we have to stop it?” And I used to tell them, “Because it’s not fair.” They did four different covers on X-Men #1. It was completely dishonest. For years, we had had the argument of doing a John Romita cover on a book done by some rank amateur. It was a cheat. I never liked it. When I was a kid, and I got a beautiful cover done by George Tuska and then inside is something by some amateur, I was always frustrated. As a reader, I remember that feeling. That’s a terrible thing to do; promising one thing on the cover that wasn’t inside it, and we were doing it. We kept demanding that they stop, saying that this was embarrassing, we were embarrassed and they kept saying, “But we’re making money.” But it wasn’t good for us. We didn’t get any of that money. It was Perelman’s conglomerate. He had friends feeding at the trough. It was terrible. There were people up there doing non-existent jobs — I’m not mentioning names.
SPURGEON: I remember attending one of the Marvel retailer meetings, and there was this strange subtext coming from the comic-book people presenting that they kind of knew what they were doing wasn’t healthy but they had to do it anyway. It was like Marvel was happy to let us know they weren’t following the advice of their comics people.
ROMITA: No. They were not. And we used to get promises all the time that they would stop. We were playing the collector’s market, and it was a dead end. You want to know something? There were times at the height of that boom when at convention all of the Marvel people used to say, “Don’t buy ten issues! That’s crazy!” Parents would come so proud and say, “I’m doing this as an investment for my kid’s future.” And then they’d say, “I can’t take this out of the plastic bag for you to sign it.” And I would tell them it’s going to rot in that plastic bag. I’d say, “Why are you going to get five issues, and not open them?” They would say as an investment, that they were going to put it in the safe. I would tell them if they wanted an investment, buy a book that prints 100 thousand. In 20 years, you’ll make nice money. You won’t be rich. If you have Superman #1 and you get $30,000 for it, that’s not going to make you rich. That’s not going to send your kids to college. You’re lucky if you get half a semester out of that. I would tell them you’re not going to rich with X-Men #1, or Spider-Man with McFarlane. They printed nine million copies of X-Men #1. That is never going to be a collector’s item. Who are you kidding?
So here we were, the Marvel people, telling fans “Don’t do this!” We knew it was going to end. As soon as people woke up and realized they were never going to be worth anything, they would stop buying. And what happened was, during that period, we abandoned our readers. We were doing fancy covers, and nobody was writing that stuff right. It was crap. All of our longtime readers were being frustrated and starting to jump off the bandwagon. So, when the collector’s thing burst, and the boom started to dry up, most of our readers were gone and it’s never recovered. Now, I don’t know if we would have lost most of them anyway. I think what we did is cut our own throats.
This isn’t just Marvel. Marvel was the most visible part of it, but DC did the same. And the other companies out there — remember Malibu? — they did the same thing. They did these fancy covers with beautiful printing. Image did the same thing in a way. Image was riding the crest of Robin Hood against the Duke of Nottingham. Image fans knew it was crap but they wanted to buy it anyway! “We love these guys! They’re heroes to us. We don’t care if it’s crap, we’re going to buy it!”
SPURGEON: [Laughter.] You didn’t think much of the Image comics, I take it?
ROMITA: You couldn’t read them! You couldn’t follow them, you couldn’t tell what was happening, everybody looked alike. There were some guys in that stable of guys that couldn’t do a convincing foot or a hand if their life depended on it. You could not follow those stories. I used to ask kids, “You look at this Captain America by one of your favorite artists, and you tell me what’s going on in this double-spread.” And they’d look at it and not know what’s going on. And I said, “And you like it?” He says, “Yeah, I love it.” You can’t tell what’s happening! “But it’s beautiful!” That’s what killed that whole comic flow.
It was suicide in a way. We certainly cut our own brake-fluid line. We were going downhill and we took out our own brakes.
SPURGEON: Do you think things have improved since?
ROMITA: We’re getting some readers back. I don’t think it will ever be the same, mostly because the books cost too much money. That was always going to be a specter, by the way. Prices go up, the sales are going to go down. Kids can’t buy five or six books in a month, they can only buy one. My son has 25 years of comic-book work in him, and I hope the industry survives. You can see we’ve made inroads with Spider-Man. Spider-Man has made a comeback. The Ultimate stuff has created a new market. So, I think we’ve got some hopeful signs, but it’s never going to be back to what it was in the ’90s. That was false to begin with.
SPURGEON: You just mentioned your son, John Jr. Having a son work in the same industry, do you get a different perspective through his experiences?
ROMITA: He’s been in there when it’s been a roller-coaster ride. Tremendous good times and the money was flowing and everybody looked smart, and it crashed, and everybody was against it. He’s had the best and the worst of everything in a short time. Comparatively. Compared to 50 years of my experience. He’s been in the business since he was 20 years old, 27 years now. The thing is that he’s had some bad breaks. He wasn’t in on any of the big, lucky breaks. The Image guys were really in the right place at the right time. And he missed that boat because he was doing the regular books and they were doing the special books.
SPURGEON: You can actually read his comic books. That might have been a strike against him.
ROMITA: That’s true. When you’re doing storytelling, and you’re not trying to dazzle people with your technical ability, yeah, it did go against the flow. The truth is John never short-sheeted anybody. There was always a story. Always characters. I’m very proud of him. I think he’s one of the few guys who’s a storyteller and also a special artist.
His issue #36 of Spider-Man is a masterpiece. It takes your breath away. I was at the exhibit at San Francisco in April. That’s the first time I’ve seen people’s jaws drop open for black-and-white art. I assumed they were going to be disappointed. If you expect to see it in color, and you see it black and white, and you go, “Oh, it looks so flat.” They went around, and I could see eyes widen and mouths drop open. The work was staggering. That was the first time I saw work stagger people. No Jack Kirby, no John Buscema, no John Romita could have done that story better. I thought he had done the best story when he had done the Man Without Fear series with Frank Miller. I considered that the best comic-book series in the last 25 years. If you look at that series, you would see great artwork and great writing from Frank. But this one, #36, is a masterpiece of art and a masterpiece of writing. The work is so powerful. His blood is on those pages. Not only his tears, but his blood is on those pages. He was thinking of coming to New York to help them dig, he was sitting in California so frustrated, doing a story that reminded him every minute of the worst catastrophe in history.
SPURGEON: Do you have any regrets about the way your career unfolded?
ROMITA: That I didn’t create anything major. I didn’t create Spider-Man, although I may have made it better. I wish I had had the chance to develop my own projects and make it a worldwide success. But how many of us have done that?
SPURGEON: You’ve talked about this a lot. What is it about the act of creation that inspires you?
ROMITA: Let me tell you, the people I admire most in the world are people like Irving Berlin, that every day somebody will use something of theirs. Every single day someone is singing one of his songs. It’s like the Englishman who’s written all the musicals.
SPURGEON: Andrew Lloyd Webber.
ROMITA: To me, to have something of yours on the stage, at every minute of every day somewhere in the world … Somebody’s doing an Andrew Lloyd Webber. Irving Berlin’s music is being played. Every minute of every day. Edison’s work is every day in existence. You’re reminded of him every day when you turn on a light. To me, that’s the greatest thing that can happen to a person. I would have traded all of these 50 years if I could have been a composer like Irving Berlin. I would trade all of the success I’ve had, even with no change in income. I would rather have been a composer.
SPURGEON: And it’s just because of the universality?
ROMITA: To think that somebody I thought up would be on somebody’s lip, every minute of every day, somewhere in the world. To me, that’s the way to be immortal. You’re immortal.
But it’s not a terrible loss to me. I’ve had a wonderful time. Even though I’ve worked seven days a week a lot of my life, and I’ve missed a lot of sleep, and I’ve missed a lot of family functions, I can’t complain. I never got an ulcer, I never got sick. I worked 50 years in a business and obviously, I must have liked it, otherwise, I wouldn’t have worked 50 years, right? [Laughter.] I must have loved it.
SPURGEON: Here’s something I was wondering from earlier in the interview. You mentioned George Tuska several times, and of all the artists you mentioned, he’s the one with whom I’m least familiar. Can you describe what you liked about George Tuska’s work that it’s so memorable to you?
ROMITA: It has that immediate distinctive quality, that you know the moment you see it that it’s George Tuska. When I was a kid, when I was 20 years old, I went into Stan’s office. I saw a Photostat, full-sized, inked by George Tuska. And I asked “Can I have it?” And they said, “Yeah.” They were going to throw it away. I had it on my drawing table for five or six years. He had done this with a #5 brush, a big, bold watercolor brush. He had inked this thing and it was alive. And I inked that way for ten years of my life because of that one page. Also, you have to remember, when I was 10 years old, I remember reading Shark Brodie in a Lev Gleason book by George Tuska. It’s still here. I can still see the panels from that book in my mind. That’s 62 years ago! [Laughter.] That’s a long time to have memories. It’s the same way I remember every panel I’ve seen of Caniff. I can still get a charge out of reading a Sunday Terry page from 1943. I have an envelope here with yellow pages, that are crumbling, right from the Daily News that I read when I was 13. It’s like watching a Capra movie to read one of those Sundays. Have you ever seen the Sunday page with the Dragon Lady and Hotshot Charlie? They’re in the middle of the war and get together someplace in China. The Dragon Lady is looking over at Hotshot Charlie and Terry Lee talking while she’s talking to Pat Ryan or something. Hotshot Charlie is saying, “You know something?” [Laughter.] “That beautiful woman is looking over here and she’s given Hotshot Charlie the eye! She’s hot for me!” You know, that kind of stuff. And finally, she comes over, and she says, in her Chinese vernacular, that she’s been trying to remember who this little guy reminds her of. She says it just occurred to her. It’s from a story about a princess. And it is of the witless little man that this man reminds me of. Meaning Dopey from Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. And Hotshot Charlie turns bright red from embarrassment, and all of those guys are trying to stifle their laughter because she put him down so severely. [Laughter.] I used to know that word for word. That’s what I’m talking about — immortality. I can enjoy that as if I were reading it for the first time.
SPURGEON: You don’t think people react to your own work that way?
ROMITA: Whenever somebody tells me that, I tell them, “You have no idea how happy you just made me.” But yes, they have told me that.
SPURGEON: I would think the work that you did was emblematic of that whole decade of Marvel Comics after the initial Kirby-saturated rush, that when people think of Marvel in its heyday they’re likely to think of your artwork.
ROMITA: To this day people ask me for drawings of Gwen Stacy, and tell me how it hurt them when she died. And I tell them the story when Pat Ryan’s girlfriend Raven Sherman died in Terry and the Pirates. I was 10 years old, and for the first time I remember grown-ups talk about a comic-strip character as if they were alive. I remember somebody said, “Did you hear that Raven Sherman died?” And I thought to myself, “Wow! This grown-up thinks of her like I think of her. That that’s a real woman.” And he says, “Isn’t that amazing, that Raven Sherman is dead?” That’s the closest I’ve come to that kind of immortality, when people tell me that they still think about the day Gwen Stacy died. You know how great that makes me feel? [Laughter.] I want to buy them a drink.
If an interest in John Romita can be satiated by a single volume, Spider-Man Visionaries: John Romita Sr. (Marvel: 2001. ISBN: 0785107940) makes a pretty effective one-book choice. It contains the seminal Spider-Man/Green Goblin “I know your secret identity” story from Amazing Spider-Man #39-40, the premiere of the oddball villain Rhino from ASM #41 and some fun, soapy Peter-Parker-on-campus stories from issues #50, #68 and #69, complete with samples of Romita’s stellar cover-design work.
However, as a skilled artist whose effectiveness and charm wear well over time, Romita’s work is probably best experienced over several consecutive comic-book issues. Essential Daredevil: The Man Without Fear, (Marvel: 2002, ISBN: 0785109498) and The Essential Spider-Man Volume Two, (Marvel: 2002, ISBN: 0785109897) show Romita taking over on a couple of big-name assignments and doing his best to work in the title’s preceding artist’s style for the first few issues. The Daredevil assignment is a surprisingly comfortable one for Romita, and he could have enjoyed a long run there had Lee not needed someone to take over for the departing Steve Ditko on Amazing Spider-Man. The bulk of the Spider-Man run is in The Essential Spider-Man Volume Three (Marvel: 1998. ISBN: 0785106588) and The Essential Spider-Man Volume Four, (Marvel: 2001. ISBN: 0785107606). Although some of the work in Volume II may be stronger, it’s in the bulk of the ASM run where you get an idea of Romita’s ability at drawing babes, his very clean and straightforward approach to action and soap opera and his under-appreciated skill with costume and character design. The best part about reading The Essential Spider-Man Volume Five (Marvel: 2002, ISBN: 0785108815) is seeing how well Romita works with Gil Kane, often re-staging a scene so that it becomes more sharply told. These comics best represent Marvel’s success at shaping Kirby’s basic approach into a house style as slick and accessible as anything DC ever put on the stands during its commercial heyday.
For me personally, Romita doing Captain America is as enjoyable as the more fondly remembered run on ASM. I’m told The Essential Captain America (Marvel: 2002, ISBN: 0785108270) contains a story drawn by Romita done during the early part of that character’s ’60s re-launch. I can personally testify to the compelling nature of the December 1953 story “Back from the Dead” and the March 1954 short “Captain America Turns Traitor,” both reprinted in The Golden Age of Marvel Comics (Marvel: 1999, ISBN: 0785107134). The mid-’50s Captain America re-launch was doomed by its politics and the Timely superhero revival in general lacked a natural audience, but you can really see the young Romita striving to emulate that Simon and Kirby style. If you’re looking for some really striking work by Romita that you may not have seen before, check out the individual issues of Captain America Romita drew in the early 1970s (#135, #138-146, #148). Hip-deep in the “relevance” period, these comics are strange even by superhero standards. Marvel wants to give you a superhero that deals with real issues affecting people “in the street.” At the same time, Marvel insists on using plot twists like a local black power movement being run by super-Nazi The Red Skull under one of those loose-fitting masks seemingly designed solely to be pulled off one’s head. Romita’s art is lovely and vibrant, almost to the point you forget the head-scratching weirdness of the stories.
Romita’s influence past his heyday as a penciler is harder to nail down. We know, for instance, he designed costumes for Wolverine and the Punisher, and that he suggested Todd McFarlane not work on The Incredible Hulk, but his influence as an art director probably depended on how each freelancer and editor made use of him. It’s safe to say that Romita was one of the best mouthpieces for Stan Lee’s preferred approach to superhero visuals, and should be given a lot of the credit for how Marvel’s comics in its corporate period in any way resembled the original ’60s material. If you want to look for more work beyond his main superhero assignments — such as the brief but forgettable run on Fantastic Four (#103-106, #108) — most of the online comic-book databases will provide exhaustive credits for everything from covers to the occasional fill-in pencil work. The Playboy tryout Tom Swift with Stan Lee and the pair’s first abortive attempt at a Spider-Man daily comic strip remain unpublished, although examples can be found in the University of Wyoming’s Stan Lee archives. — TS