A series of features that take a look at some of the greatest comic book creators of the 1960s and 1970s. Known affectionately as the “Silver Age”, this was a period when the superhero comic was being redefined and established as a major influence on popular culture. Characters like Spider-Man, the Avengers and the Fantastic Four were being created as a new kind of superhero for the American public. They were superheroes that had domestic arguments, were filled with teenage angst, struggled to pay the bills, and could be related to on a human level. Comic books were experiencing a creative boom, and amongst the plethora of talent driving it was the “jazzy”… John Romita!
Introducing John “Ring-A-Ding” Romita
In 1966, Steve Ditko, the artist who had co-created Spider-Man and laid down the foundations for Marvel’s biggest character, quit the book. At this point, Spider-Man could have easily sunk into obscurity as a short-lived creative triumph of 1960s Marvel with nothing more to give. Little did anyone expect how a romance comic artist would then raise the character to new heights of popularity. The name of this artist is John Romita, whose bold lines, deep shadows and striking composition captivated generations of comic book fans to come.
Patriotism and Romance: Romita’s Early Years (1949-1965)
John Romita’s first work came in 1949 with an unpublished piece for Famous Funnies and then as an uncredited ghost artist with Timely Comics . Timely then became Atlas and Romita began working for Stan Lee on various genre titles, most importantly “Commie Smasher” Captain America . Atlas went bust in 1957 and along with artists like Gene Colan, Romita left for DC Comics , with whom he spent eight years drawing romance comics. The look and character design of these comics would greatly influence Romita’s take on the cast of Spider-Man (for better or worse, depending on which Silver Age Spidey fans you ask!) During this period he drew stories for the infamously difficult-to-please Bob Kanigher, who once called called Romita a “young punk” for moving his speech balloons and captions .
Romita joins the Marvel Bullpen
John Romita left DC in 1965, when the romance department coldly decided they had “too much inventory” and didn’t need to pay for new work . However, Romita had already been approached by Stan Lee to join Marvel and soon he was back on the drawing table and pencilling Daredevil . Though at first he was only pencilling Jack Kirby’s layouts, Romita felt right at home with the horned avenger, then only 12 issues from its genesis, and the comic proved his potential as one of Marvel’s strongest artists. It wasn’t long before Stan Lee had Romita guest-starring Spider-Man in an issue of Daredevil, which many consider to be his “trial run” drawing the character.
While Romita was working on Daredevil , the creators behind Amazing Spider-Man were not seeing eye-to-eye; it was no secret that Stan Lee and Steve Ditko were moving in different directions with the character. The uncompromising Steve Ditko was set to leave Marvel’s second-biggest selling book, Stan Lee needed a back-up and who better than the artist who so expertly conveyed a certain similar, rooftop-swinging masked crimefighter from New York? However, John Romita was ambivalent about his transition to Spider-Man ; “People laugh when I say this, but I did not want to do Spider-Man […] I felt obliged to ghost Ditko because […] I was convinced, in my own mind, that he was going to come back in two or three issues.”
The Legacy Begins: Romita’s Spider-Man (1966-1973)
Ditko didn’t come back and, whether he liked it or not, fans couldn’t get enough of Romita’s Spider-Man: “Within a year, under replacement artist John Romita, [Spider-Man] passed up the flagship title to become the company’s top-selling book.” [Roy Thomas, Marvel Vault (2007), p.98]. Once he had realised that Ditko wasn’t going to return to Amazing Spider-Man , Romita began fully incorporating his style into the comic. Gone were the nine-panel pages, the thin lines and the awkward figures – powerful, energetic composition and groovy, romance-style characterisation had replaced them.
Romita’s Peter Parker was a socially active man for the student crowd: intelligent, handsome (sometimes too much so for the character) and with glamourous new girlfriends. With the introduction of the red-haired “hipster chick” Mary-Jane Watson in Amazing Spider-Man no.42, Romita put his stamp on the comic and gave Spider-Man that essential and entertaining soap opera interaction. Most memorable scenes include a dance-off between Mary-Jane and Gwen Stacey at the Coffee Bean, with “Petey” getting down to the music [ See image ]. Despite the contrast with Ditko’s original conception of the characters, the way Romita presented the cast of the comic would become the most recognised in Marvel fandom thereafter.
Romita in the 70s and Beyond
Throughout the Silver Age of comics, John Romita was a prolific artist and maintained a high standard in his work. He had acquired a large following of fans and was established as one of the most solid and consistently reliable comic creators in the industry. His talent and dedication soon lead to his promotion as Marvel’s Art Director in 1973, heavily influencing the design and style of Marvel comics from that point on, as well as being involved in the creation of characters such as Wolverine, the Punisher and Luke Cage. During the late 1960s and 1970s, his art could be found in the pages of almost every major Marvel comic book on the stands, though he would occasionally return to his signature characters until well after retirement.
Essential Dardevil vol.1 (where available)
Essential Spider-Man vols. 2-5 (some may be harder to get than others)
The Romita Legacy (2011)
If you liked this feature, why not check out what Nicholas wrote on Silver Age veteran Jim Steranko .