Spiderman, by John Romita Sr.
'The Amazing Spider-Man', issue #42, November 1966, featuring the first time Peter Parker (AKA Spider-Man) and his love interest Mary Jane meet, an iconic scene in Marvel's comic history.

John Romita Sr. was an American comic book artist, and a longtime employee of Marvel Comics. Starting in the early 1950s, he had his first stint at the Marvel predecessors Timely and Atlas. Until 1958, he did pencil work on all sorts of genre anthology books, as well as the 'Captain America' title, before becoming the lead romance comic artist at DC Comics. By 1965, Romita was back working for Stan Lee at Marvel, where he had a notable run as co-plotter and artist on 'The Amazing Spider-Man', redefining the title with his slick line-work and more down-to-earth topical subject matter. He is best remembered for creating Spider-Man's love interest Mary Jane Watson (1966). Romita Sr. was also co-designer of other popular Marvel heroes, like Luke Cage (1972), The Punisher (1974) and Wolverine (1974). From the 1970s until his 1996 retirement, his activities shifted towards his role as Marvel art director for both the comic books and the Special Projects division. His son John Romita Jr. also became a prominent artist for Marvel Comics.

Early life
John Victor Romita was born in 1930 and raised in Brooklyn, New York City, into a family of Sicilian descent. His father, Victor Romita, was a baker and expected his son to follow in his footsteps. Nevertheless, his parents were supportive of his urge to draw. He was well-known in his Brooklyn neighborhood for filling the sidewalks with his chalk drawings. At school, Romita used to decorate the halls with his artwork during seasonal festivities, and design the backgrounds for school plays.

John Romita was part of the first generation of American kids that grew up reading comic books. From a young age, he studied and analyzed the artwork, taking a particular liking to the work of George Tuska, Jack Kirby and Charles Biro. In the newspapers, he devoured 'Terry and the Pirates' by Milton Caniff, whose use of layout, accents and shadows became a big influence. Later he also discovered the work of Noel Sickles, the illustrator/cartoonist who had learned Caniff most of his trade. Romita was also fond of magazine illustrators like Robert Fawcett and Al Parker, as well the storytelling in Frank Capra, John Ford and Alfred Hitchcock movies. Later in life, he expressed admiration for peers like Alex Toth, Carmine Infantino, Joe Kubert and Gil Kane. In the early 1950s, when he just got started in the comic book industry, Romita spent an afternoon with comic artist Joe Maneely in his Flushing studio, which he later named "one of the most important days of my life" (The Comics Journal #252, 2003). In a couple of hours, Maneely showed Romita how he did his pencil layouts and inking with the brush, teaching the young artist tricks he benefited from for the rest of his career.

'The Man Who Never Was' (Strange Tales #5, October 1951) by John Romita and Les Zakarin.

Early work
At age 14, John Romita enrolled at the School of Industrial Arts in Manhattan, where the illustrators Howard Simon and Ben Clements were among his teachers. Graduating on his seventeenth birthday in 1947, Romita then got his first art assignment from an anesthesiologist at Manhattan General Hospital. During six months, he earned 60 dollars a week doing artwork for a medical exhibit on pneumatology medicine. After that, he found a job with the New York City firm Forbes Litho, working mostly as an office boy messenger, but also drawing bottles, glasses and Santa Clauses for Coca-Cola ads. During his period in the late 1940s, Romita also made his first comic book work. His first paid story was done in 1949 for Steve Douglas, the editor of Eastern Color's Famous Funnies comic book. Romita did a romance story, but the editor kept it piled on his desk, and it never saw print. Douglas was famous for giving young artists their first professional work experience, without running it in his comic book, as their material was often not skilled enough.

Around that same time, Romita met his high school friend Lester Zakarin on a subway ride. Zakarin was an inker for comic books, who could get more work if he also did pencils. Becoming his ghost penciler, Romita spent a year and a half working with Zakarin on crime, horror and other genre-based comic stories for Timely Comics, Avon Publications and a couple of other publishers.

'Backfire!' (Battle Action #20, December 1955).

Atlas Comics
Between early 1951 and July 1953, John Romita fulfilled his military service in the U.S. Army. Instead of being sent out to fight in the Korean War, he was stationed on Governors Island in the New York Bay, where he was tasked with designing recruitment posters. In his spare time, he continued doing comic book work, this time working directly for editor Stan Lee at Timely's new line of comic books, Atlas Comics. During this period, he also had his first experiences with inking his own work. Between 1951 and 1957, John Romita drew stories for all sorts of genre-type comic books, including war (Battle, Battle Action, Marines in Battle, War Comics), suspense (Menace), mystery (Mystery Tales), romance (True Secrets) and westerns (Western Kid, Western Outlaws). He had a particularly long run on 'The Western Kid', co-creating the character and drawing lead stories in the first seventeen issues (1954-1957). With writer Don Rico, he additionally made back-up features with jungle-explorer Greg Knight for the 'Lorna, the Jungle Girl' comic book (1956-1957).

In 1953, Romita also worked with Stan Lee on the revival of the company's wartime superhero Captain America, created originally by Jack Kirby and Joe Simon. Initially published in two issues of 'Young Men' (#23 and #24), the character then returned in his own comic book, which had been on hiatus since 1950. By now presented as a "Commie Smasher", the new stories had the Captain fighting Soviet enemies. But since the public interest in superheroes was at an all-time low, combined with public opposition against the Korean War, Captain America failed to attract the same patriotic sentiments with the audience as during World War II. After three issues, cover-dated May through September 1954, the title was canceled again.

Cover drawings for Girls' Romances #76 (May 1961) and Falling In Love #58 (April 1963).

Romance comics at DC
In 1957, editor Stan Lee had to shut down most of the Atlas titles, and drop many of the artists working for them. John Romita then tried his luck at DC Comics, for which he had been doing some freelance romance stories on the side since 1953. At the time, DC was the top player in the comic book market, or, as Romita called it, the "Cadillac of the industry". Between late 1957 and late 1965, he was the lead artist of their romance comics line, which included titles like Falling in Love, Girls' Love Stories, Girls' Romances, Heart Throbs, Secret Hearts, Young Love and Young Romance. Besides doing many stories, several written by Bob Kanigher, Romita was also the main cover artist for all titles. Working extensively with the line's editor Phyllis Reed, Romita's cover drawings were often used as starting point for new story plots sent to the writers to develop further (instead of the other way around). While most of the stories were one-shots, there were also a couple of recurring characters, such as airline hostess Bonnie Taylor and registered nurse Mary Robin, both created in 1963.

Working on romance comics urged Romita to bring subtlety, drama and emotions into pages without much action. He became known for "jazzing up" his artwork by having "hair flowing, scarves flowing, the wind blowing leaves or curtains blowing." Romita's tenure came to an end after a DC executive discovered an inventory of unused stories and fired most of the romance artists.

Mary Robin, R.N. - 'Cry for Love!' (Young Love #4, January 1965).

Return to Marvel
After leaving DC, John Romita initially wanted to focus his career on advertising storyboard art. But instead, he was brought back by Stan Lee to Timely, which by now released its comic books under the "Marvel Comics" imprint. The market had transitioned into the "Silver Age of Comic Books", and a new line of superheroes had become company staples. Since his work in romance comics had resulted in an "artist's block", Romita only wanted to do inking jobs. However, after inking both cover and interiors of an issue of 'The Avengers' (#23 of December 1965), Romita was already handed penciling duties of the 'Daredevil' comic, initially working from rough layouts by Jack Kirby. After doing issues #12 through #19 during the first half of 1966, John Romita was assigned to the comic book that would define his career.

"Spider-Man No More!" (The Amazing Spider-Man #50, July 1967).

The Amazing Spider-Man
In mid-1966, the artist Steve Ditko suddenly left Marvel out of creative differences with editor Stan Lee. By then, he had already done 38 issues of a new and popular superhero called 'The Amazing Spider-Man', which he co-created. The main hero was a student called Peter Parker, who received superpowers after being bit by a radioactive spider. Getting confronted with a wide range of supervillains, the young Spider-Man had to learn how to use his powers responsibly. Starting with issue #39, John Romita and Mike Esposito were tasked with continuing the title as pencil artist and inker, respectively. Initially thinking it was just a temporary fill-in job until Ditko's return, Romito remained close to Ditko's rendering for the comic. But Ditko didn't return, and gradually, Romita made the comic his own. Following his background in romance comics, he brought an elegant flair to his characters, with attention for thick-and-thin accents in his linework, clothing textures and moody shading. He also dropped Ditko's 9-panel structure and turned towards more dynamic page layouts in the tradition of Jack Kirby, while the inking switched from pen to brushwork.

'Vengeance from Vietnam!' (The Amazing Spider-Man #108, May 1972).

As was common practice within the company, Romita was working according to the "Marvel Method", initiated by editor Stan Lee. First, Lee and Romita worked out a "verbal plot" during a story meeting, then Romita turned the idea into a fully drawn comic story, after which Lee or one of his writers would do the finished texts and dialogues. As co-writer with Lee and later Gerry Conway, Romita worked on stories that tackled real-world issues like the Vietnam War, political elections and student activism.

Romita Sr. was co-creator and designer of many supporting characters, most notably the flamboyant Mary Jane Watson as Peter Parker's new love interest. Mary Jane was known to readers since 'The Amazing Spider-Man' issue #15 (August 1964), long before Romita was assigned to the series. But she was still an invisible character, often mentioned, rarely seen. The few times she made an appearance, she was often out-of-frame, much to curious readers' frustrations. As part of the narrative, Peter Parker's Aunt May tried to set up a date between Peter and Mary Jane, but for a long while Peter kept finding excuses to not follow through with this plan. It took until issue #42 (November 1966), before Mary Jane made her first full appearance. John Romita based her looks on actress Ann-Margret. Mary-Jane's beaming face and now immortal line to Peter, "Face it, tiger... you just hit the jackpot!", made it one of the most memorable scenes in Marvel Comics history. Among the villains that were introduced during Romita's tenure were the Rhino (October 1966), the Shocker (March 1967) and, most notably, the Kingpin (June 1967).

Until 1973, Romita worked almost exclusively on 'The Spider-Man', if not as penciler, then as lay-out artist and inker for Don Heck, Jim Mooney, John Buscema or Gil Kane. Until 1977, he also did most of the title's cover art. Starting 3 January 1977, John Romita was also the original artist for the 'Amazing Spider-Man' newspaper comic, distributed as both a daily and Sunday feature through the Register and Tribune Syndicate. While Stan Lee was credited as the writer, both Jim Shooter and Roy Thomas have served as the feature's ghost writers. On 10 November 1980, John Romita was succeeded by Larry Lieber, who continued to draw the feature until 2018.

Cover drawings for The Amazing Spider-Man #48 (May 1967) and Spidey Super Stories #7 (April 1975).

Marvel's art director
By the time John Romita returned to Marvel in 1965, he indicated that he couldn't find the discipline to work from home anymore, and was offered a drawing table at the Marvel offices. Now part of the "Marvel Bullpen" - a nickname for Marvel staffers working at the in-house art studio - Romita also became a go-to person for additional production art, corrections, covers and fill-in jobs. Whenever the dialogue in a story required different facial expressions, Romita was tasked with drawing new faces on the artwork. When a title was floundering, Romita was assigned to do a couple of fill-in issues, resulting in runs on 'Fantastic Four' (1970-1971) and 'Captain America' (1971-1972). By the time Stan Lee was promoted from editor-in-chief to publisher in 1972, John Romita was unofficially appointed Art Director (meaning he got the title, but not the accompanying salary). In this capacity, John Romita continued to do corrections, but also served as costume designer for the 1970s wave of new Marvel heroes, including Luke Cage (1972), The Punisher (1974), Wolverine (1974) and the restyled Black Widow (1970). During the 1970s, Romita also worked as artist and editor on the 'Spidey Super Stories' comic books, which tied in with the live-action skit section on the Children's Television Workshop TV series 'The Electric Company'.

During the 1980s and 1990s, John Romita was working extensively for Marvel's Special Projects Department, which took care of the production of children's books, coloring books and other brand expansions, such as merchandise. Romita provided artwork for ads with the Nestlé Bunny, and did cover illustrations for book publications related to Disney films and the Barbie franchise. It wasn't until 1985 before editor Jim Shooter gave John Romita his official promotion to full-time Art Director. Together, they set up an art apprentice program for new artists that joined the Marvel Bullpen, a group that became known as "Romita's Raiders". While Romita mainly did corrections on cover art, the Raiders worked, usually uncredited, on corrections on interior pages. Among the artists that were part of this group have been Mark Alexander, Greg Capullo, Jim Fry, Steve Geiger, Don Hudson, Delayne Hawkins, Chris Ivy, Scott Koblish, Scott Kolins, Yancey Labat, Bud LaRosa, Phil Lord, Kevin Maguire, Jose Marzan Jr., Mark McKenna, Vince Mielcarek, Tom Morgan, Frank Percy, Pond Scum, Rodney Ramos, Jim Reddington, Kris Renkewitz, Bruce N. Solotoff, Brad Vancata, Keith Williams and Bill Wylie.

Captain America #143 (November 1971).

Retirement and death
In 1995, John Romita had been on the Marvel payroll for thirty years, and had five people working under him. His wife Virginia Romita (b. 1931) had been working at the office as traffic manager since 1975, and had thirty people on her staff. During the mid-1990s collapse of the comic book market, Marvel had to undergo major cutbacks, and had the Romitas coached on how to let people go. The couple was devastated by this dreadful task, and shortly after Christmas 1995, they both put in their three weeks' notice. Although he was now retired at age 65, John Romita continued to do occasional cover and story art for commemorative issues or special storylines, mostly related to the Spider-Man character. Among his final jobs were variant covers for 'The Amazing Spider-Man' issues #568 (October 2008) and #642 (November 2010).

A longtime resident of Bellerose on Long Island, John Romita Sr. died in his sleep on 12 June 2023, at the age of 93. He was survived by his wife and two sons, among whom comic book artist John Romita Jr.

In 1979, John Romita received an Inkpot Award and in 2002, he was inducted into the Will Eisner Award Hall of Fame, followed by an induction into the Inkwell Awards Joe Sinnott Hall of Fame in 2020.

Variant covers for The Amazing Spider-Man #568 (October 2008) and #642 (November 2010).

Between 1965 and 1995, John Romita Sr. was one of the most loyal contributors to the Marvel comic books. Working at the office from nine-till-five, Romita was involved in most Marvel titles that saw the light from the 1970s through the 1980s, working with all of the company's editors during this period. While artists like Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby were very vocal in their criticism against editor Stan Lee, particularly his tendency to take credit and payment for things he didn't do, John Romita never complained about the Marvel working method. In interviews, he acknowledged Kirby and Ditko were creators of entire worlds and universes, while he as a "bullpen guy" was perfectly fine with continuing other people's creations. Always the perfectionist, Romita felt every comic page was a chore from the start to the end. Also in his job as art director, Romita remained modest. Instead of pushing his ideas, he only gave his criticism whenever an editor asked for it.

Besides training a generation of new comic book artists, John Romita was one of the defining artists for the 'Amazing Spider-Man' comic book. His rendition of the character and his entourage became the company standard, and during his tenure, 'The Amazing Spider-Man' became the top-selling Marvel title. His Spider-Man served as an inspiration for many new artists, including his own son, John Romita Jr. (b. 1956), who had important runs on several of the character's titles. Among the many artists influenced by Romita Sr. have been Tom Beland, Brian Michael Bendis, J. Scott Campbell, Micah S. Harris, Dave King, Zlatko Milenkovic, Robert Obert, Sebastião Seabra, Walt Simonson, and Adam Weller.

John Romita was also a popular choice of inspiration for pop art painter Roy Lichtenstein. Images from one of his 'Heart Throbs' stories inspired 'Knock-Knock' (1961), while one from 'Secret Hearts' was used for 'Crying Girl' (1964) and his 'Girls' Romances' work inspired 'We Rose Up Slowly' (1964). Issue #127 of 'Young Romance' was the source for Lichtenstein's 'Craig' (1964).

Charles Burns' odd comic strip 'Naked Snack' (1991) was based on a sketched out Spider-Man story by Romita from a 1980s 'Marvel Try-Out' book. In its original context, readers could trace, ink and colorize the sketches into their own version. Burns took this amateur initiative to a different level and redrew everything into his own style. He changed the text in the speech balloons, the character and background designs and sometimes switched panels in the lay-out to fit his story better. The plot now became a story about people selling meat of sentient animals on the black market.


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