Who Said It? John Romita Sr. Did!

This job affords me a rare benefit: the opportunity to interview several of the persons whose comics formed such an important part of my growing-up years. When I look at their work today, with an older and (one hopes) a more knowing eye, it both impresses me and pleases me, because I find that work stands the test of time and is still vastly entertaining. I remain convinced that modern-day artists and writers whose careers have been influenced by these immense talents are standing on the shoulders of true giants.

Results from my interviews are woven into the historical and biographical essays that appear in several of our books, but not everything that gets discussed makes it into our pages. When things are going good—when it becomes less of an interview and more of a conversation—there are instances where I learn interesting information that, for whatever reason, does not quite fit into the text feature I’m in the process of writing. It’s an ongoing application of the lesson Faulkner (among others) advised every writer to learn: “You must kill your darlings.”

It recently occurred to me, however, that I could share some of those anecdotes with you in this space—and what better way to start than by focusing on one of my all-time favorite artists, and one of my all-time favorite interview subjects: John Romita, Sr.

I’ve interviewed Mr. Romita multiple times, for multiple projects. As early as 2008 we spoke about Milton Caniff and Noel Sickles as we published our Terry and the Pirates editions and were preparing the mammoth Scorchy Smith: The Art of Noel Sickles volume. Within the past year I’ve spoken with him twice, first in support of our soon-to-be-released collection of the Jack Williamson/Lee Elias science fiction series, Beyond Mars

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… And again as we prepared to kick off our reprinting of the Amazing Spider-Man newspaper strip, the second volume of which will be on sale as we prepare to usher out the old year and welcome in the new.

 

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Mr. Romita was always one of my favorite artists—I started buying Amazing Spider-Man with issue #63, with art credited to Romita on layouts, with Don Heck supplying finishes (and Romita doing many of the main characters’ faces). It featured the original Vulture reclaiming his name from Blackie Drago, his younger would-be successor, then squaring off against the woebegone web-spinner. Along with other comics I purchased for the first time that day—Avengers #56,Daredevil #42, Sub-Mariner #5, Fantastic Four #78—Spidey #63 left me eagerly jumping on the Marvel bandwagon. Over time I followed Romita to the pages of Fantastic Four, Captain America(issues #139-142—lovely art and a delightful melodramatic story—*sigh*), and elsewhere, and went back to find his earlier work in Daredevil and some of his 1950s stuff – so of course being able to speak with him even once would have been—pun intended—marvelous.

I always find Mr. Romita to be extremely personable, brimming with personality and candor, incredibly humble about his own immense accomplishments. A true prince among comics talents, I invariably come away feeling it has been an honor to speak with him.

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With that yes-I’m-a-fan build-up, here are a few of the things John Romita Sr. has told me that have not previously seen print…

Romita’s love of Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon is hardly a secret, but perhaps less well known is that JR Sr. almost got a chance to work on the strip early in his career. “I was about a week away from taking over a six-month segment on Flash. [Then-Flash Gordon artist] Dan Barry was in Europe at the time, writing screenplays for European television. He wanted more time to write, so he was going to let me ghost Flash Gordon for about six months. But the Journal-American went on strike and he couldn’t afford to pay me. They struck about a week before I was supposed to start it, and Dan said he couldn’t afford to bring me in, because he’d lose five hundred a week! So my chance to do Flash Gordon went out the window.” Romita also believes Sy Barry (an inker for National/DC Comics who also had a long stint penciling The Phantom for King Features Syndicate) brought John to brother Dan Barry’s attention. “Seymour Barry and I were doing romance stuff at the same time at DC, and I think he must have given me a plug, Seymour must have told his brother I could handle it. Seymour was a great inker. I penciled a job for him once and he became buddies after that, because he did a beautiful inking job on it.”

It took decades, but Romita eventually did get a chance to do a single Flash Gordon Sunday page, dated December 1, 2002. You can see it—and the Flash page by another Raymond admirer, the great Joe Kubert—at artist Jim Keefe’s website.

Romita’s son, John Jr., has of course been long established as a major artistic force in the realm of superhero comics. In a story that speaks to Romita Sr.’s modesty, he told me a story about Marvel’s Silver Age production Manager, John Verpoorten, that had an entirely different spin on the concept of “John Romita Jr.”…

“I never thought I had a style. I used to tell people, ‘I’m sort of an illustrator, but I don’t think I have a comic technique.’

“Then John Verpoorten told me he knew every page I did in the ’50s: Westerns and romance and horror stories. He said he spotted my style all the time. In fact, when I came to Marvel he thought I was John Romita Jr.—he thought the 1950s John Romita must have been my father, John Romita Sr., who had died, and that I was that John Romita’s son!”

In 1970 Jack Kirby left Marvel, moving to DC to write and draw that company’s much-laudedFourth World cycle of comic books. Romita and Verpoorten (as inker) were chosen to step in and replace Kirby on Marvel’s flagship title, Fantastic Four. He remained on the series a scant four months (with mainstay FF inker Joe Sinnott substituting for Verpoorten on John’s final issue); John Buscema stepped in to become the new Fantastic Four penciler with issue # 107. “”I tell ya, I wanted to throw a party when John Buscema took over Fantastic Four!” Romita told me. “I was feeling like I was swimming in deep water when I was trying to take over from Jack Kirby. It was murder! You should have seen my drawing table, it was crowded with a lot of Kirby pages. I just aped his style as closely as I could. It couldn’t have been any closer, based on my efforts, but I don’t think it was as close as it should have been. We didn’t hurt the sales too much, though, so that was sort of a comfort.”

 

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On the Spider-Man newspaper strip, as you’ll see in our upcoming second volume, Romita is succeeded as series artist by Larry Lieber. I mentioned to John that I immediately recognized the specific strip in which Larry took over, because Mr. Lieber has a distinctive way of depicting Spidey’s mask, something I first spotted in one of my very favorite boyhood comic books,Amazing Spider-Man Annual # 5, where Larry is given the primary artistic credit, behind a distinctive Romita cover.

 

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John also fondly remembered that story, in which after a pitched battle with the Red Skull, both Spider-Man and the readers learned Peter Parker’s deceased parents were actually American secret agents. He said, “I worked on that Annual with Larry. I gave him tracing paper sketches, laying out the pages for pacing. I played Jack Kirby! Jack Kirby’s contribution to my career is that he laid out my first two Daredevils, he did what we call a ‘story pacing doodle.’ There were no details, there were stick figures, but he gave the sizes of the panels and the pacing as a guide. I did the same thing on that whole Annual with Larry. I did a lot of rough sketches for him to use as a guide, and I created the look of the parents. We had a ball doing that.”

Thousands of kids my age and me had a ball reading, too, believe me! I always have a ball when I speak with John Romita; it’s been a pleasure sharing these extra anecdotes with you, and I’m glad to be able to use this space to publicly thank him for being so generous with his time, his memories, and his knowledge.

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