Fifty Years On The "A" List
A Candid Conversation With Marvel Artist/Art Director Supreme
Conducted by Roy Thomas
Transcribed by Brian K. Morris with special thanks to Mike Burkey
Ego Vol. 3 #9
Jazzy Johnny hard at work in 1967 amid furniture he made himself ("I must've
been crazy!" he says).
Photo courtesy ©2001 John Romita
ROY THOMAS: Okay, John, just to get it out of the way
- you were born in Brooklyn in 1930, right?
JOHN ROMITA: Yeah. Just maybe five years too early - no, too
late. Because one of my biggest regrets is that I wasn't in the first generation
of comic artists. While I was in junior high school, Joe Kubert, who's only
a few years older than me, got in on it, doing "Hawkman"!
RT: Of course, if you'd had your wish, you'd be a decade older.
ROMITA: Yeah, I'd be eighty now. [laughs] I started drawing when I was
five. Parents and relatives say, "Ooh" and "Ahh" and how great it is, and you
continue drawing because you like to get the pats on the back.
I was a street performer when I was about ten. The gang of kids I hung out
with used to scrounge bits of plaster from torn-down buildings, because we
couldn't afford chalk, and I would draw on the streets. Once I did a 100-foot
Statue of Liberty, starting at one manhole and finishing at the next. That
was the distance between manholes in Brooklyn.
RT: "From sewer to shining sewer," huh?
ROMITA: People were coming from other neighborhoods to see it and hoping
it wouldn't rain. I also used to draw Superman, Batman - all the super-heroes
that were coming out. [Virginia Romita says something in the background.] Virginia
reminds me, as she always does, that I also became the source of little drawings
of nude girls for all the boys in the neighborhood. Guys would beg me to do
them, and she would say she was disappointed in me for doing those drawings.
She was nine when I was eleven. Actually, she caused me to stop doing them.
When they did plays at the school auditorium, I was stuck with doing the backgrounds
and scenery. Once they taped a huge roll of wrapping paper along the entire
school corridor, and I did a mural down both sides of all the heroes I knew
of, even Zorro, Flash Gordon, and Tarzan.
You name 'em - Romita's drawn 'em! John's preliminary pencils to the wraparound
cover of the 1996 Marvel one-shot Heroes and Legends.
Courtesy of Mike Burkey. ©2001 Marvel Characters, Inc.
RT: Backing up a bit: In 1976, in a story with The Thing and The Liberty
Legion, set in 1942, we showed you as a kid, saying you "deliver[ed] packages
for some of the doctors around here" - in Times Square. We also had you spotting
some Nazi planes overhead, since you said you knew the silhouettes and markings
of all the planes at that time.
ROMITA: Yeah. I delivered packages when I was fourteen, but not for
doctors. I worked in the Newsweek Building for some minor-league outfit that
used to mimeograph biographies of big band leaders like Louis Armstrong and
Glenn Miller. Their customer was this agent uptown on 57TH Street. I would
run 200-300 copies off on mimeograph and take them to the client, so he could
hand them out as press releases.
I'd go into the Brill Building, on what was called Tin Pan Alley. All the offices
had music coming from them - people selling songs on the piano, songwriters
pushing their songs. And when I'd go up to 20th Century-Fox art department,
I could see the posters from my favorite movies being done, and I loved it.
RT: You never had a singing career like a couple of others in your
ROMITA: I had three sisters and a brother. Every one of them could sing
and dance, and I can't dance and I can't sing. But I grew up loving music.
RT: You've said you bought two copies of Superman #1, in 1939? That's
why you're rich today - you kept that spare copy, right?
ROMITA: [laughs] I kept one copy in a wax paper bag, the closest equivalent
to plastic we had, but eventually it disappeared. I traced the other one until
the cover was destroyed. I kept pressing harder and harder, until I could do
that drawing by hand.
RT: Were you aware, in '39 and '40, of the early Timely Comics?
ROMITA: I remember Human Torch, I remember Sub-Mariner, and then Captain
America. One of my favorite companies was Lev Gleason. Charlie Biro's stuff
[for Gleason] appealed to me. His Daredevil was my favorite character. He wasn't
blind; he just had that split red-and-blue costume.
RT: It's funny that Biro's Daredevil was one of your earliest heroes,
and Marvel's Daredevil was the first hero you drew in the '60s.
ROMITA: I told that to Stan in '65, and he said he thought Biro was
a genius. I maintain that Biro did a lot of the stuff that Stan did later,
but it wasn't noticed, even though he was putting a lot of personality into
George Tuska did a lot of work for Biro. When I met Tuska in the late '60s,
I said, "I'll tell you how far back I've been noticing your work. I remember
'Shark Brodie'!" That was a back-up feature, a hobo adventurer connected with
the sea. He was always on a dock somewhere. Actually, I'd seen Tuska years
earlier, when I was delivering a horror story to Stan in the '50s. I saw this
big, strapping guy, and I didn't know it was Tuska till afterward. He looked
like a super-hero himself!
RT: Doing Crime Does Not Pay stories for Biro, Tuska was one the most
influential artists in the field. Later, for several years in the '70s, he
was one of only two artists who could draw any Marvel book and it'd sell. You
were the other one. I remember he did two issues of Sub-Mariner and sales shot
up. They went back down as soon as he left!
ROMITA: I remember. Everything he touched was great. He once did a thumbnail
version of a Spider-Man from a plot by Stan. I was supposed to blow the thumbnails
up and lightbox them - all contrived to save me time. It was a very interesting-looking
job, with a lot of people in overcoats, and some beautiful shadows; I was dying
to do it. But Stan said, "No, it just doesn't look like a Spider-Man story," and
he decided not to use it. I could kill myself for losing those thumbnails.
RT: Two of the comics artists most influential on your style - especially
during the period I became aware of your work back in the early '50s with "Captain
America" - were Jack Kirby and Milton Caniff. That wasn't just my imagination,
ROMITA: No. Milton Caniff was my god. Before I got into comic books,
his Terry and the Pirates was my Bible. I used to spend hours looking at those
pages. I still have two or three years of Sundays in an envelope. I still look
at them and admire and sigh. Everything I've ever learned, I think, was established
in those pages.
He did some beautiful work later in Steve Canyon, but the Terry and the Pirates
stuff - well, it's probably partly because of Noel Sickles. They shared a studio
for a time. Caniff helped Sickles with storytelling, and Sickles helped Caniff
learn how to turn out a daily page without laboring over it. If Sickles hadn't
gotten tired of his own Scorchy Smith, there's no telling how big it might
have become, because that strip was an adventure story on the quality level
of a Hitchcock movie. I'm telling you, the stories, the visuals, were so great
- I don't know about the dialogue, because Caniff had his own dialogue, that
probably surpassed everybody.
I had to scrounge up old Famous Funnies comics to get all of Terry! Each issue
reprinted maybe two or three Sundays, or maybe two Sundays and the dailies
RT: Moving to the Kirby half of my Caniff-Kirby equation - you were
probably one of those kids who liked Simon and Kirby without knowing who did
ROMITA: I was aware of everything Jack did from the time I was eleven.
I'd tell my buddies, "This guy is great! Look at this stuff that's popping
out of the pages. Look at how he does that!" They thought the comics were some
kind of tricky photo technique. They would say, "Aw, you're crazy. Nobody's
going to do all those drawings by hand." Years later, I used to hear that echoing,
and say, "What am I, crazy, doing 120 drawings for how many stories?" [laughs]
RT: You found out how many drawings people can do, right?
ROMITA: I learned the hard way. But for a while I definitely felt I
was doing comics only on a temporary basis. In the Army I did full-color illustrations
and posters. The Saturday Evening Post, Collier's, Ladies' Home Journal - there
were about a dozen magazines that had double-page illustrations to make your
mouth water; but that field was slowly dying. My final year in art school,
I studied magazine illustration and had given up on comics. I wanted to be
a magazine illustrator.
RT: Not a baker? [laughs]
ROMITA: Well, not a baker - but I was going to drive the bread truck.
My father was a baker, and he had a chance to open up a bakery when I was 14-15.
He envisioned me delivering bread when I got my license. It sounded like a
good family business. But we'd have had to relocate upstate, near Albany, and
my mother didn't want to leave her family and friends in Brooklyn. That was
probably the reason, not me. But she said, "No, he's going to stay in the city.
He's going to become an artist." Can you believe it?
RT: You mentioned at the 1995 Stan Lee Roast in Chicago [NOTE: See
A/E V3#1] how in '49 you started out penciling for a guy who was really an
inker, but who pretended to Stan that he was penciling material which you ghosted
for him. Don't you think it's time you finally told us who that artist was?
ROMITA: The reason I never gave his name was, I didn't want to embarrass
him. His name was Lester Zakarin. I met him for the first time in forty years
in 1999, at a convention in New York, and he told me he wasn't offended by
any of the interviews I'd given. I'd always say that this artist I was ghosting
for would tell Stan he could pencil, but actually I'd do the penciling for
him, and he just inked my pencils.
But Stan was one of the few editors who'd ask guys to make changes. And when
he asked Lester Zakarin to change something, he would panic. So I would go
into the city with him and I'd wait at the New York Public Library, which was
very close to where Timely was, at the Empire State Building. Zakarin would
get the corrections from Stan and tell him, "I can't draw in front of people.
It has to be absolutely quiet. I'm going to a friend's office. I'll do these
corrections and bring them back in the afternoon." Then he'd meet me at the
library, and I'd do the corrections, and then he'd go back to Stan. [laughs]
RT: Sounds like Woody Allen in The Front. But you never denigrated
that guy; in fact, you always maintained he was a good inker.
ROMITA: Well, I did say the guy couldn't draw at all. It's nice of you
to be so charitable. Somebody asked me if that's the same Lester Zakarin who
worked with Bob Bean. Bean was one of the guys who used to stand outside Stan's
office looking for work when I did. I also met Jack Abel and Davey Berg and
Ed Winiarski that way. [NOTE: For caricatures of Winiarski and Berg, see Alter
RT: Who else do you remember from the late '40s and early '50s?
ROMITA: I'm trying to remember names. I don't think Tuska ever had to
wait for anything! We were hopefuls, and we'd wait sometimes two hours back
in '50 and the beginning of '51. They'd tell me about the other people in the
business. I met Gene Colan then; the next time I saw him was 10-15 years later.
I remember meeting maybe a dozen guys, sort of like a rotating cast, at Stan's
and at other places, like Avon.
I started working for Stan before I went into the service in '51. I remember
the first time I went up there. He had this beautiful blonde secretary - he
always had beautiful secretaries - and I said to her, "Stan Lee doesn't know
my name, but I've been working for him for over a year. If he'll look at the
work done by Lester Zakarin, he'll see my penciling." She came out a half hour
later with a script. I said, "When do you need the pencils to check?" And she
said, "No, no. Stan just said to go ahead. When you get the pencils finished,
we'll get it lettered, and you can ink it." And I was about to tell her, "I
don't ink," and I thought, "No, I better not. She might not give me the script." So
I just said, "Oh yeah, sure. I'll ink it." I almost died. That was the first
professional inking job I did.
RT: That's the horror story, "It," about the baby that turns out to
actually be a murderous alien?
ROMITA: That was the first time I put pen to paper. Soon after, I came
up with this crazy technique with all the shadows. Stan was crazy about it.
And the rest of the guys wanted to kill me because he now wanted them to do
all that extra work. [laughs]
RT: When did you actually meet Stan?
ROMITA: When I went in with the "It" job. We went over the story. He
was the first editor I had run into who paid attention to what you did. Most
editors just looked at the work and grunted or told you it was no good or it
was okay. But Stan immediately started giving me feedback - and, in fact, he's
the one who triggered me into doing that damn photographic style.
Maybe that was the story I remember where this guy kept trying to take his
mask off, and it turned out he shredded his own skin off his face. [laughs]
He was like a Ku Klux Klanner with a mask - a vigilante beast - and after his
crimes, his conscience got to him. It was probably an Edgar Allan Poe rip-off.
He kept looking at himself in the mirror and seeing the mask and tearing it
off, and there was another one under it, so he'd tear that one off, and so
on. And at the end, they said, "We don't know what happened to this guy, but
he pulled all the skin off his face."
RT: A nice little morality tale.
ROMITA: Right after that first story - it had some weaknesses, especially
in the inking - Stan calls up [Timely artist] Joe Maneely and tells him, "I'm
going to send this guy out to spend a day with you. Give him as many pointers
as possible." And the next day, I think, I went out to Flushing, probably from
10:30 in the morning until about 4:30 in the afternoon. I watched Maneely;
and while he's talking to me, giving me pointers, he turned out like two or
three pages, one double-spread with an entire pioneer fort in Indian country
with Indians attacking from the outside, and guys shooting from the inside.
He didn't need reference, he didn't need anything. He just sat there, and between
10:30 and, say, 12:30, he had penciled this double-spread in, very roughly.
After lunch - I think I just went out and got a hot dog - I come back and he's
starting to ink it, and he finished the damn double-spread before we finished
the afternoon session! He was just a staggering talent!
Maneely is the first guy I realized could put in bone structure with a pen
line. In other words, he didn't make everything round. He had these nice bone
structure prominences on people's faces and clothing. The word "crisp" immediately
popped into my mind. He would do the whole thing with a thin pen line; then
he would take a big, bold brush and do all the blacks. And for years after
that I worked that way. I was a brush man at heart, but I couldn't stop working
the way he did for a while.
RT: His thin-line backgrounds gave his stuff a feeling of depth many
comics didn't have.
ROMITA: He could get away with it, because there was a rather clean
reproduction in those days. So for years I did my backgrounds with no shadows
at all. He influenced me tremendously, and I think I learned more in that one
day than I did in ten years of previous work.
RT: He died in 1958, when he fell off a train. Bill Everett told me
he and Maneely used to drink their lunch and "lose Fridays" sometimes, so some
people think that may have been a factor. But who knows?
ROMITA: He was 38 years old, I think. If he'd lived, not only would
he have been up there with Kirby and Ditko when Marvel got started, but he'd
have been Stan's ace in the hole. I jokingly said once that, if Joe Maneely
had lived, half of us would have been out of work! [laughs]
RT: And Ditko and Kirby could have handled what he didn't draw! A few
guys like that could be a whole art department. Some people don't let anything
stop them, including doing research or worrying too much over things.
ROMITA: That's exactly what Jack always told me. He used to say, "You're
too technical. Don't worry about it. If it's a little bit off, it's not the
end of the world. The thing is, keep it alive." And he was dead right. I could
be very accurate, and the work would die.
RT: So you worked for Stan until you got drafted, during the Korean
ROMITA: Yeah. I got drafted in the Spring of '51. I tried to get out
to Governor's Island, which would keep me from going overseas like the coward
that I was. [laughs] I pushed up my induction date; it's what they called "voluntary
induction." Instead of waiting to be called, I showed my artwork to this Air
Force captain who was the art director on Governor's Island, and he said, "I'd
love to have you here. If you can manage to get to" - I think it was Camp Upton,
in New Jersey - "then I can get you assigned to Fort Dix. But if you don't
get to Camp Upton, you could end up going to Georgia, and then you're stuck
on their infantry list."
I did manage to get to Camp Upton, and he put in the paperwork to reserve me.
So I got assigned to Governor's Island and to do my Basic Training at Fort
Dix in Jersey. That was July of '51. I had worked with Stan, maybe over six
months. I'd done maybe 10-12 stories for him.
RT: Stan told me once that Timely's comics were being kept out of Army
PXs during the Korean War, because its war stories basically said war was bad
- a little like what EC was doing. Were you ever aware of any feeling against
ROMITA: I didn't hear any grumbles, but I didn't spend a lot of time
at the PX. But I know there was a lot of public annoyance because of the Commie-fighting
stuff. A lot of critics were down on Captain America being a Commie-fighter.
RT: As a kid of 12-13 when Young Men #24 brought back Torch, Cap, and
Namor, I thought all that Red-bashing was great.
ROMITA: I did, too. But there was a period during the war when the American
flag itself became a liability. There was a backlash from all the peaceniks,
or whoever, saying we had no business going to Korea to fight, nationalism
and chauvinism were destroying our American way of life, etc. - and Stan took
the rap. Captain America was almost an American flag with legs, so he got a
lot of adverse publicity. I believe Stan told me that's why he dropped Captain
America first, because Human Torch and Sub-Mariner had none of that.
RT: Actually, Bill Everett had tons of Red-bashing in Sub-Mariner.
So did the Torch. It went on right up to the end of the revival. In fact, the
very last Torch issue had a story set in a North Korean P.O.W. camp. But Captain
America lasted every bit as long as Human Torch! Both heroes were in seven
anthology issues - Young Men #24-28 and Men's Adventures #27-28 - plus both
appeared in three issues of their own comic.
ROMITA: I thought the Torch went on longer.
RT: No, although evidently a fourth Torch issue was prepared in 1954.
One story from it popped up, drawn by Dick Ayers; we printed it, two decades
late, in the 1970s Human Torch reprint mag. But the Torch and Cap solo titles
were cancelled within a few weeks of each other, at most. Sub-Mariner lasted
another year, probably because of that TV deal that was pending in 1954-55
for Namor, which Bill Everett told me about.
ROMITA: Right. That I heard. Stan told me about that once when I confessed
to him that I felt I was the guy who kept Captain America from succeeding.
He said, "No, there was no problem." He liked it.
RT: There was a brief revival of super-heroes in comics in that period,
because of the Superman TV show. Mike Sekowsky drew a new hero called Captain
Flash who lasted four issues... Simon and Kirby's Fighting American went seven...
Charlton's Blue Beetle didn't last long, either. None of them lasted over a
year at most. Matter of fact, the 23 super-hero comics that Timely/Atlas put
out from '53-'55 is way more than anybody put out except DC. You may feel your
Captain America was a failure, but that combination of Caniff and Kirby, I
think, really worked well.
ROMITA: I set out to do an absolute swipe of Kirby, but I never succeeded.
Caniff kept sneaking in there.
Romita's original sketch to the cover of C.A. #77 (July 1954).
Captain America art ©2001 Marvel Characters, Inc.
RT: I loved the combination. The women and the shadows were very Caniff,
which I recognized even at 13. I was also following a newspaper strip that
had started in 1951 called Chris Welkin, Planeteer; it was sort of Terry and
the Pirates Go to Mars. It was drawn by Art Sansom and written by Russ Winterbotham.
It had a Dragon Lady character, Chris Welkin was like Pat Ryan, and there was
a kid who was like Terry. There was a lot of good Caniff-influenced stuff coming
out between the '40s and the '60s.
ROMITA: I know, I know. Along with Frank Robbins and Lee Elias, there
was Bruce Gentry, by Ray Bailey, who ghosted Caniff for a while.
RT: You worked for Famous Funnies and Steven Douglas, who was one of
the first and most important comic book editors. When was that?
ROMITA: That was my first job, and it was with Lester Zakarin. I spent
two weeks penciling a 15-page romance story for Steve Douglas, who I found
out was a philanthropist: He bought artwork from beginners, knowing he'd probably
never use it. He was financing our education. He was a hell of a guy. There's
a special place in heaven for him, I'll tell you. I don't think Lester Zakarin
ever got to ink it, because Douglas put it on his pile; he had a stack of artwork
on his desk that must have been a foot high.
When he died, I wanted to go to the services, just to tell his wife what a
blessing he was to guys like me. He was one in a million. The thing is, I never
should have taken a romance story. I had spent all my life doing airplanes
and horses and heroes and war stories. I tried to do women for the first time
in that comics story, and I almost went nuts! In those two weeks I must have
fallen asleep 3-4 times at the drawing board, working past midnight, and I'd
wake up freezing cold because all my circulation was gone. And I would have
a line running all the way down the page where I fell asleep. I wasn't prepared
to do a love story, and Douglas was right in never using it. But he paid me
$200 and it never got into print; so to me, that was a miracle.
RT: When I showed you the splash for the first "Captain America" story
in it [Young Men #24], you said it was by Mort Lawrence, though you drew the
rest of the story. You thought he might've been slated to be the original artist.
ROMITA: I think he started the story and Stan stopped him, for some
reason. When I came in, the splash was done and it was signed "Mort Lawrence." Stan
asked me to do the rest of the story. I'm not sure if there were any panels
underneath the splash or not.
RT: The two other panels on that page in the printed book are by you.
In fact, the only "Captain America" work in 1953-54 that wasn't by you was
that first splash - one story totally drawn (and signed) by Lawrence - and
I presume the first of the three covers of the Captain America title - #76,
which has that thin-line approach for backgrounds we were discussing - and
there's a cartoony smile on Cap's face.
ROMITA: Stan probably had somebody touch it up. Whoever was out in his
waiting room, Stan would call them in and have them do corrections on the spot.
RT: Your cover for Cap #77 is the pier scene with a guy dangling over
a big octopus.
ROMITA: By the way, that guy hanging there was originally Bucky. If
you look at the sketch, it not only was Bucky, but I even had two possible
positions for the head.
I guess John never did tell Stan Lee to go to hell! A late-'70s publicity photo,
courtesy of JR.
RT: And already, I see Cap's shield has only two stripes, with no inked
lines in them.
ROMITA: I sold Stan a bill of goods on that one. Actually, I was good
at drawing circles. I could draw them freehand, and guys would think I was
using one of those aids they call an ellipse. But I didn't want to spend time
drawing all those circular stripes on Cap's shield, so I talked Stan into having
them just color-held, with no black lines. It didn't work out very well, though.
RT: They evidently didn't use color-hold markings, 'cause the red stripes
wandered all over the place. They were just blobs of color! Do you know anything
about the decision to bring Cap and the other two heroes back in '53?
ROMITA: I don't remember Stan telling me anything about it. I was just
so excited that he'd let me do "Captain America"! I was paralyzed with fear,
but excited, and I was feeling so lucky to get the chance that I never even
questioned it. I was just thinking that it foretold a good period of steady
work; that's all I cared about.
RT: It turned out not to last very long. But I can see where it looked
like the coming thing, because by the time those books were cancelled, there'd
been five different comics titles starring the "Big Three," counting the two
anthologies. Young Men had even gone from bimonthly to monthly!
ROMITA: I think I inked all the Captain America stories until Jack Abel
inked the three stories in the last issue [#78]. I think we did something with
a Korean prison camp, too.
RT: You actually drew two POW-camp stories - one in Cap #76 - and another
in #77, which you signed. The one in #76 - with the charming title, "Come to
the Commies!" - is not signed. Did you sign stories when someone else inked
RT: Then you must have inked all of the last issue, because all three "Cap" stories
in #78 are signed by you! Besides the two stories Lawrence worked on, there
are only four "Cap" stories out of the 16 in that whole revival that aren't
signed by you: the first and last stories in Captain America #76 - the lead
story in #77 - and the one in Young Men #27. All four of those look like your
art, though, even the splashes.
ROMITA: Maybe somebody else fixed them up. I remember vaguely that I
was hurt that Stan rejected one of my splashes.
RT: Now that you mention it, the two unsigned stories in Cap #76 - "The
Betrayers!" and "Come to the Commies!" - do look as if they could have been
inked by Jack Abel. They have a thinner, less bold and thick line than you
were using then.
ROMITA: I remember the one with the prison camp, because the reference
I had for the Communist uniforms was like a pinstripe or cross-stitch, like
a pinstripe suit - and Jack did a very fine line on it, finer than I would
have, very delicate, and I was conscious of it.
RT: I don't expect you to have total recall, but I'm determined to
learn everything I can about those 1950s issues. If not you, then who else
am I gonna ask? Stan? Like he says, he does good to remember what he did last
week! We don't even know who wrote the "Cap" stories, though you've said you
think Stan wrote some of them.
Not to start you feeling like a failure again, but do you have any theory as
to why, even though Cap was the most popular of Timely's "Big Three" back in
the '40s, he got less play than the other two in the '50s? Young Men #24 has
a 9-page "Torch" and an 8-page "Sub-Mariner" - but only a 6-page "Captain America," tucked
in between them. And the division in the other six anthology issues was 8-7-8,
with "Cap" always a page shorter than the other two. Also, the Torch was cover-featured
on all seven anthology issues - and there wound up being fewer stories of Cap
than of the Torch, let alone Sub-Mariner with his TV option.
ROMITA: I have no idea. Maybe Mort Lawrence had done a whole issue and
Stan decided not to print it. Dick Ayers was working steadily for Stan at that
time, and maybe he was turning out more stories than me. I know that Dick was
always his first choice, or sometimes the only guy available to him when he
wanted to get work done.
RT: Yeah, but Dick only began drawing "Torch" stories four months after
they started. Russ Heath, of all people, drew the first one, in Young Men #24;
then Carl Burgos did them in #25-28. Ayers' first work was in Human Torch #36
- where virtually every one of his Torch figures had a Burgos Torch pasted
over it! Makes me wonder why Burgos, who created the character, didn't just
do all the "Torch" stories.
ROMITA: Maybe he was too busy. He was on staff, working 9-to-5 in the
office. And, in fact, he did do cover sketches. I don't know if I told you,
but he did cover sketches for Captain America. In fact, Burgos may have had
something to do with that first Captain America cover [#76] whose artist you
RT: Yeah, it does have a little of the look of Burgos' work. Maybe
ROMITA: On the Electro cover [Captain America #78], I distinctly remember
that Burgos gave me a sketch. I don't remember if I changed it or not, but
he was giving me cover sketches for about a year. I believe the one with the
octopus is the only cover sketch I did. Burgos was sort of like a cover editor.
RT: He'd do the sketch, but you'd do your own drawing, right? You weren't
working over his layout?
ROMITA: No. They were very rough sketches, on bond paper, not full-sized
pencils. The one I did from scratch [#77], I scaled up.
RT: Credits were less common in comics in that period, after the Siegel-Shuster
DC lawsuit in the late '40s. Was signing your covers your idea, or did Stan
ROMITA: Well, he never objected to it. If you remember, for a while,
all the westerns were signed by Stan Lee and not necessarily by the artist.
It was probably the artist's choice. But over at DC, I was given the impression
- it was mostly subliminal and sort of unsaid - that they considered it egotistical
to sign your artwork.
Now it can be told! John's first Marvel task was to ink Kirby's Avengers #23
cover the way it looks at left, as (eventually) seen in Marvel Masterworks,
Vol. 27 (1993). However, in 1965 the Comics Code decided Kang's right hand
looked a bit too, well, frightening 'way up there in the middle of the air,
so it had to be moved down and to the left, as per the printed cover at right.
See how the Code saved you from all those nightmares?
©2001 Marvel Characters, Inc.
RT: God forbid. [laughs]
ROMITA: Really! They thought you ought to be a pro and not go putting
your name all over everything. It worked out okay. This way nobody could blame
you if you did bad stuff. For the whole eight years I worked for DC, I don't
think I signed any of my romance work.
RT: I was devastated when those Timely '50s heroes were discontinued
because, except for the stories being too short, I just loved them. Why did
Timely always cram in four stories - for example, three "Cap" stories of six
pages each, plus one five-page "Torch" filler? DC in that period would have
three 8-pagers in, say, Superman and Batman.
ROMITA: Timely used to do 3-to-5-page fillers in the westerns, too.
I think Stan's system was to get a lot of stuff in inventory, so he could juggle.
If they sold extra ad pages, he could use a 3-pager instead of a 4-pager. I
think what Stan had up his sleeve was, if the full books didn't last, he could
use any inventory he had in an anthology book.
Around 1957 was when Stan and I were at our lowest ebb in our relationship.
In the last year, he cut my rate every time I turned in a story. He was not
even talking to me then. He was embarrassed, because he had given me raises
for two years every time I went in, and then he took it all away. I went from
$44 a page to $24 a page in a year.
RT: As Gil was fond of saying, "Comics giveth and comics taketh away."
ROMITA: Virginia kept saying, "Well, how long are you going to take
the cuts until you go somewhere else?" And I told her, "I'll hang on, I'll
hang on." Then, when it came time that he ran out of money and had to shut
down, or cut down to the bone, I had done two or three days' work, ruling up
the pages, lettering the balloons, and blocking in the figures on a story -
and here comes a call from his assistant - she had beautiful bangs, beautiful
brown hair, I forget her name but she was adorable - and she says, "John, I
have to tell you that Stan says to stop work on the western book because we're
going to cut down on a lot of titles."
I said to her, "Well, I spent three days on it. I'd like to get $100 for the
work, to tide me over." She said, "Okay, I'll mention it to Stan." I never
heard another word about the money, and I told Virginia, "If Stan Lee ever
calls, tell him to go to hell." [laughs] And that was the last work I did for
him until 1965.
RT: Stan told me that Goodman would give him the word to fire everybody,
and then Goodman would go off to Florida and play golf. [laughs]
ROMITA: Oh, I understand Stan's pain, because I went through that, too,
towards the end of working at Marvel in the '90s, and it was no fun. I remember
I had just fought for and gotten a raise for one guy in the spring - and then
in the summer we had to let him go. And I'm telling him, "Listen, it's got
nothing to do with your work. They're just cutting down everybody here." But
it was mortifying to have to do that. I had to watch him get this incredulous
look on his face, saying, "Are you kidding me?" But, yes, that's how the Timely
thing ended, and I wound up going to DC.
RT: Hadn't you done a little work for DC during that last year before
ROMITA: Yeah. I did a couple of romance stories for them, trying to
supplement my income; but it was too much hard work, because I was not fast
enough to do two stories at once. So that would always cut into how much I
did for Stan. Stan had me in once and said, "I notice you've been doing some
romance stuff for DC." I said, "Yeah, to get some extra money." And he said, "Well,
I gotta tell you, you know you're on my 'A' list, meaning if I got two scripts,
you're gonna get one of them. But I'm going to have to take you off my 'A'
list if you're going to do work for DC."
So I called up Zena Brody, the romance editor at DC - she was a nice girl and
a pretty good editor, too - and told her I couldn't do any more for her, and
she was very upset. She said, "Gee, I was counting on you." She was talking
about doing a steady series with me. I told her, "I'm sorry, but Stan Lee is
giving me the bulk of my work." She said, "We'll try to get you more work." But
I said, "I have to decide now because I can't gamble. If you can't give me
the work Stan is giving me, then I'll be out." And then, six months later,
he let me go through his secretary.
I was so mad, partly because he had kept me from making extra money. Stan didn't
know that I couldn't really earn any extra money - [laughs] - although he had
gotten an idea by then that I was pretty slow. But that really tore me up,
because I was thinking, "Gee, I'll never get into DC again." And a little later
I walked in there and they welcomed me with open arms and I went from $24 a
page to $35-$38 a page.
RT: If they'd made that offer before, you'd probably have been there
a year earlier.
ROMITA: No, because I was making over $40 a page at Timely before the
cuts started. It's funny, too, because when I lost the work from Stan, Virginia
had run right out and got a job!
RT: Was it you or she who once had a route delivering newspapers?
ROMITA: I did that in '56, but that was mostly for exercise. I was getting
fat. I almost got a job on the docks. Some longshoreman friends were going
to get me a longshoreman union card, and I figured I could work 2-3 days a
week and get all the exercise I needed and make some extra money.
RT: You'd have had to watch out for all those Communist octopuses!
ROMITA: More that that: I'd have had to watch out for gang bosses that
would have you beaten up if you tried to get work. But then I saw this newspaper
route for sale - $4000 to deliver 300 papers a day - so I borrowed the money
and I got the route. I used to get up at three in the morning and deliver papers
until seven, then take a nap and get up again around ten or eleven and start
working on comics. That was like a year and a half before Stan cut me off.
Even though it was a drag to get up seven days a week and deliver papers, it
kept us solvent for a while. But when Timely folded, Virginia said, "The paper
route is not enough money," so she got a job. And then a week after that, I
brought in a bigger check than I had ever got at Stan's!
Virginia had taken a job to fill in for vacationers, and she felt embarrassed
to leave them in the lurch. So she stayed for most of the summer, and it killed
her because it was a pork-rendering place. They would reduce fat to chemicals.
From what I hear - I have no sense of smell - it was the worst smell in the
world. And she had to work in that building for two months, and I don't think
she ever got over it. [laughs]
RT: When you went back to DC, was Zena Brody still there?
ROMITA: I believe she was just leaving, but she recommended me highly,
so I worked for this other, very sweet girl who had a severe limp. And then
a very good person took over, Phyllis Reed. She and I worked together very
well for years. She used me as her main artist. I would work out the cover
ideas out with her, and she'd have the writers base the scripts on our covers.
And then I would get the story that fit the cover.
They'd use the cover as the splash on one story, which was usually the last
story in the book. That saved them the cost of a page, so the cover cost the
same as one of the pages. You'd get a 15-page job and only get 14 pages of
RT: Several Timely people like Colan and others went over to DC after
the '57 collapse.
ROMITA: Jack Abel was there, too. I met Frank Giacoia doing romances.
I met Sy Barry. I worked with Sekowsky but I never met him; I inked a couple
of his romance stories - very educational. Working on Sekowsky's strong pencils
was a great boon to me; I learned how to do a lot of things. There was Werner
Roth, who later did X-Men.
I inked Arthur Peddy a few times. The only problem with him was, I had to shorten
all the arms. He had the habit of making people's upper arms so long and gorilla-like
they would reach their lap. I never asked the editor; I just corrected them.
I couldn't stand them. Sort of like Rob Liefeld, back in the '90s. I had to
shorten the legs and arms on everything he did.
I inked almost as much as I penciled, for a while; but maybe that was before
I left Stan. When Phyllis Reed came, I did all pencils and very little inking.
RT: Was there anyone besides Stan counted as an editor at Timely in
the late '40s or early '50s? Don Rico seems to have functioned as one, earlier
- at least Gil told me he handed out assignments - Vince Fago was editor-in-chief
while Stan was in the Army - and Dorothy Woolfolk, or Roubicek, was there briefly
in the mid-'40s. But none of them was editing at Timely by '49.
ROMITA: Don Rico wasn't doing drawings then; I only knew him as a name
on a script. Vince Fago - I remember the name, but I never dealt with anybody
at Marvel except Stan until you took over. The only other editors I worked
for were the romance editors at DC, and Sol Cohen at Avon.
RT: You did a fair amount of horror and crime at Timely in the '50s,
ROMITA: I have two pages from a racetrack gangster story I did in 1949.
The Marvel book [The Art of John Romita] reproduces a gangster splash with
an old 1920s car and machine-gun fire. Biro did period pieces, and so did Stan,
from time to time. I did a story of the Revolutionary War, which is one of
my pet stories of all time.
Stan wrote a very interesting 10-page story dealing with a family in Boston
that was torn apart by the Revolutionary War. Half the family was Tory, and
half the family was Patriot. That's one of my stories that I use to show people
what writers do to artists! I should have saved it.
The script called for a splash showing a street in Boston, and outside this
house there was a balcony above the entrance. And on the balcony was the father
of the family, and four sons and, I think, a daughter. The family was looking
at the Battle of Bunker Hill in the background - so I had to show Bunker Hill
and the other hill [ED. NOTE: Breed's Hill], with gunfire and smoke from one
of the M.C. Wyeth illustrations. Oh yes, and there was a division of Redcoats
marching down the street! [laughs] So there's a thousand soldiers, this family,
and other people looking out the windows and looking, in the distance, at the
Battle of Bunker Hill.
And I called up Stan and I said, "How in the hell do you expect me to get all
this into one drawing?" I think he even had a panel at the bottom of the page,
too; it wasn't even a full-page. It took me forever; it took me two days just
to get reference. I should have used the Jack Keller system - have a lot of
smoke obscuring things.
The things of mine Stan liked best were the horror stories. I remember one
horror story I did; in the last panel I had the villain or somebody grasping
a severed head, holding it up in triumph. I asked Stan, "Are you sure we can
get away with this?" He said, "Oh, yeah. As long as it's not red blood." [laughs]
RT: The Bill Gaines approach. How did you feel about doing horror stories?
ROMITA: I didn't like them, although I turned out to be good at them.
I don't like horror stories. I still, to this day, don't understand the attraction
of Dracula movies. It was always a mystery to me that EC was so famous for
their horror stuff. I hated them and I hated, even worse, blood and slashing
knives. I just had to make a living.
RT: Other people, like Bill Everett, seemed to really like it.
ROMITA: He really did. He did some quality mood stuff. I had to inject
as much mood as I could, like bottom lighting and gristle and stubbled beards
and clenching hands. I put in as much black as I could to try to hide what
I was doing. [laughs]
RT: At least Stan never had this feeling that Charlie Biro had - that
blacks were "cheating," and that he wanted to see everything.
ROMITA: That was one of his trademarks - that everything was High Noon
in a Charlie Biro story. There were a lot of blacks in Stan's mystery stories.
RT: In '57, American News had failed and Timely had collapsed, so you'd
gone to work for DC. But by 1965 that phase of your career was all over, right?
ROMITA: I ran out of work at DC. Phyllis Reed must have quit before
I left, because my last year or so I worked for another editor. He may have
been let go almost at the same time that I left. He wanted kickbacks. He used
to leave gift certificates on his desk for you to sign. [laughs] It was really
RT: When you went to work for DC in the late '50s, did you do anything
ROMITA: I never drew anything else for them. In fact, it used to hurt
me. Although I never spoke to the other editors - I think I said hello to Julie
Schwartz once - I was hoping I would bump into them and they'd ask me to talk
to them about some work. I was too shy, and much too lacking in confidence,
to stay around and join anybody for lunch.
Before I came over to Marvel, Mike [Esposito] told me that DC wasn't too happy
with the finished faces he and Ross [Andru] were doing on Wonder Woman, so
they were talking about me ghosting Wonder Woman's face. But it never came
RT: Each DC editor had his own stable, and they didn't poach on each
other's preserve, nor did they want an artist getting off the reservation.
They were pretty territorial.
ROMITA: It was worse than that. Frank Giacoia used to get this: If you
were unfortunate enough to be doing stories for two of them at the same time,
each of them would watch you like a hawk. And no matter whose story you turned
in second, you were in trouble; you'd lose that book as an assignment. I thought
to myself, "Gee, I'd just as soon not work for guys who were that bloodthirsty." I
had been used to Stan, who was very benign and benevolent. And these guys,
I heard, were cutthroats, and, boy, you better not cross them or you'll never
get work again.
RT: You had done lots of adventure comics and some Captain America
comics that were better than most of what DC was turning out at the time. Yet,
when they started Doom Patrol in '63, they gave it to Bruno Premiani. Good
as he was, he was more of a romance artist than a super-hero artist.
ROMITA: Right, he was more like an illustrator. It hurt, because in
my daydreams one of those editors would say to me, "How would you like to do
Batman," or something, "as a filler?" I was itching for it, but I didn't have
the confidence to go in and ask anybody. It was my fault.
I've kidded Julie Schwartz many times: "You guys let me go. You never paid
attention to me, and then a week later you offered me Metamorpho, but by then
I had a handshake deal with Stan to do Daredevil." By then I had inked one
Avengers story and gotten the Daredevil assignment, so it was probably two
weeks when [DC Editor] George Kashdan called me and said, "I heard you weren't
doing any work for us. I was on vacation. If I'd known you were without work,
I would have offered you this book. Can you do it? It's yours if you want it."
ROMITA: Ramona Fradon had just left it. And he said, "Boy, I'd love
for you to do Metamorpho." And in my mind, aside from the fact that I had a
handshake deal with Stan, Metamorpho was not a book I wanted to work on, even
though I think I could have done a good job on it. The only thing that could
have made me go back on my word to Stan was if they had offered me a major
title - even a second-line character, not Superman or Batman - just a title
that was recognizable. I was just too damned straight-arrow to do it, under
those circumstances. Once I'd told Stan I would do Daredevil, I stuck to the
deal as though I had signed a contract. So I don't know if that was trying
to save their ass to the bosses - "How did you let him go?" and all that stuff
- but it took them about two weeks to notice I was even gone.
RT: I wonder if they'd noticed that, months earlier, Gene Colan had
started drawing "Sub-Mariner" for Marvel. But, of course, he did it as "Adam
ROMITA: He used the phony name because he was still drawing romances
for DC. Somebody suggested I might use a phony name at Marvel - it must've
been when I was doing work for both companies - and I wrote out "John Victor," for
my two boys. Then I said, "This is crazy. Who am I kidding? Everybody's going
to know I'm doing it, so why use a phony name?" Remember "Gary Michaels"? That
was Jack Abel.
RT: Gil Kane was "Scott Edward," and Werner Roth was "Jay Gavin," both
named for their kids. "Mickey Demeo" was Mike Esposito, and Frank Giacoia was "Frankie
Ray." Stan and I would chuckle about how DC had all these great hero artists
buried in their romance department. It wasn't that DC was disorganized. It's
more like they were too organized to utilize their artists well.
ROMITA: Also, I think they didn't want to take on new artists. If they
had enough good artists, they weren't willing to break up their routine just
to break in an artist who might be better down the line. I don't think I impressed
them enough in the romance.
But I did have a shot, back in the '50s, at doing Flash Gordon for Dan Barry.
Sy Barry and I had worked on a romance story together, and we became friends.
He recommended me to his brother. Dan Barry sent me a letter from Austria.
He was living in a castle there, I heard, and writing European television stuff
and doing storyboards for them. He was looking for an artist to ghost some
of Flash Gordon, so he could do more writing. I sent him some love stories
as samples, and he wrote back that he liked them very much and that as soon
as he got organized and could make a transition, I would help him out.
Later he called me up and said, "I'm going to send you a script on Monday." The
day he was going to do it, the Journal-American [NYC newspaper] went on strike,
and they could not pay him for Flash Gordon until the strike was settled. It
went on for three or four weeks, maybe more. And he called me up from Europe
and said he had to hold off because he wasn't getting enough money to pay an
artist to help him out.
RT: He wouldn't have been able to keep water in his moat. [laughs]
ROMITA: He probably could have afforded it. He just didn't want to do
it, because he didn't know how long the strike would last. That cost me the
Flash Gordon try-out.
I had a close call with Milton Caniff in the '70s, too. He asked me to do Steve
Canyon - I'd been recommended by Shel Dorf - and I sent a couple of Sunday
samples, and he told me, "As soon as I get organized," etc. And then he had
an emergency operation. He was in the hospital, and he had already assigned
some stuff on an emergency basis.
RT: You had a run of great luck with newspaper strips there, didn't
ROMITA: Yeah. Actually, Virginia was rooting against it. She figured
I'd become a clone of Caniff. And I also had a close call with Kirby in the
'70s, of course....
Just a day or two after Kirby left Marvel, he called me up and said, "John,
here's the story - you know I'm going to DC." I said, "Yeah." And he said, "Here's
what I'd like you to do: I would like you to come over with me and help me.
What I want to do is, I want to write more than I draw." In other words, he
envisioned writing a line of books, like Stan, and he wanted to get me to draw
some of his main characters. I might have worked on New Gods or Mister Miracle...
probably Mr. Miracle. He said he'd love to have me do the pencils for his stuff,
and we could set up some kind of a stable. He said, "I got some great inkers
ready to work on your stuff. It would be great for me, and I think I can make
it worth your while. It would be a terrific idea." And I said, "You know, I
got to think it over, Jack."
I told Virginia, and she almost had a heart attack. She said, "First of all,
if you go with Jack, you're going to be a Jack Kirby clone." And I said, "Well,
I don't know how. I'm not going to be working on his artwork. He's going to
be writing and I'm going to be penciling" - although he might have broken them
down for me. But he could break down a hundred stories for me and it wouldn't
affect me, because he didn't do details on his breakdowns. He did silhouettes
and rough scribbles. She said, "No, you're going to end up working for Kirby.
Your personality will be buried and nobody will know anything about you." I
couldn't argue with it, but I was tempted.
I'll never quite forgive myself for not giving that a try, notwithstanding
Virginia's protests, because there's no telling whether I could have made a
difference on Mister Miracle. He might not have gotten so exhausted on the
John Romita's tight pencils for Spider-Man #51 (Aug. 1967).
Courtesy of John Romita. ©2001 Marvel Characters, Inc.
RT: You'd also have been in line to be an editor, since Carmine was
hiring artist-editors by then. We never know what might've happened on the
road not taken. In the very early '70s, when Stan was having trouble with Goodman
near the end, he met with DC about going over there. I didn't learn about it
till later. He told me, "If I'd gone to DC, I'd have taken you with me." Of
course, I might've decided to stay at Marvel and become editor-in-chief a year
or so early. Still, I'd probably have gone with him; I felt a great loyalty
to Stan. Besides, DC had all these heroes I liked! Sometimes I even wonder
- what if Mort Weisinger hadn't been so impossible and I'd stayed at DC in
'65 instead of going to Marvel?
ROMITA: Imagine, you could have wound up editor-in-chief of DC! Just
like I often wonder what would have happened if I had accepted Kirby's offer.
It's a wild gap in my life, and I would love to have seen how it would have
RT: You never have done any work for DC since '65, have you?
ROMITA: No, I never have.
RT: Bob Kanigher edited mostly war stuff. Did you do any work for him?
ROMITA: I drew some of his romance stories. Phyllis Reed gave me her
two main titles, Young Love and Young Romance. She had steady soap opera series
in both books: "The Diary of a Nurse," and another one about an airline stewardess.
So I had steady characters - a brunette airline stewardess and a blonde nurse.
The blonde nurse was based on Kathy Tucker from Terry and the Pirates. [laughs]
I couldn't help that.
All the captions were done longhand, as if out of the nurse's diary. I did
the longhand, and Ira Schnapp, the letterer, would follow my lettering on it.
I used to letter every word in pencil and outline every caption and every balloon.
In fact, after a while, I was in such a hurry that I used to outline the balloons
in ink and Ira would fit the copy over my pencil copy inside the balloons.
So I would put pointers on balloons and caption outlines in the story and then
ink them, and he would letter them after I had finished the inking. I did those
two series, and Kanigher wrote both of them.
I didn't work for him; he was not my editor. Phyllis Reed was, and she shielded
me. But every once in a while he and I would meet in the corridor. I didn't
want to work for him because I had seen him berate Gene Colan in the bullpen
once. He just had laid him out. He said, "Your women are too fat; they don't
have long enough legs. What the hell kind of drawing is this?" And Colan was
enraged. I think he wanted to kill him. Kanigher was a very hard guy to work
with, so I wasn't interested in working for him, so I was glad I never got
work from him.
He was a good writer, but he used to ask for the damnedest things! I remember
one episode about a romance at a ski resort. He had this scene where the two
of them are standing on skis at the top of a hill and they're kissing. I called
him up and said, "Gee, I'm going to have a hard time with this, because how
the hell do I have them look like they're not going to fall over?" He had actually
written in the script: "I know this is going to be hard to do but it can be
done. I've done it." [laughs] Like he's trying to brag to me.
Towards the end of my stay at DC, Kanigher and I were in an elevator going
down and he said to me, "I like your stuff. The stories are really coming out
good." I said, "Gee, I'm glad it doesn't bother you that I make changes." And
his eyes almost popped out of his head. I said, "You know, sometimes I separate
your balloons and move a balloon from one panel to the next, or I put in an
extra narrow balloon as a transition panel when I think it needs it. Sometimes
I break up your captions into two different panels." [laughs] Well, he almost
had a heart attack, and before I got to the ground floor, he destroyed me!
He said, "Who the hell do you think you are, you young punk? You're changing
my scripts? Where do you come off doing that?" I said, "You just told me you
liked the stuff."
I guess he didn't read the finished stories through too carefully. He just
thumbed through them. I got such a kick out of that in retrospect, but while
it happened, I thought, "Oh, sh*t. There goes my career." He could have killed
me. He could have had my head if he wanted. So I give him credit that he didn't.
Maybe he looked over the stories and realized that I'd improved them, because
a lot of times he left no transition time in between panels, so I would have
somebody walking away, instead of, from one panel to the next, they're just
RT: Didn't Stan call you a time or two about work during
ROMITA: He called me in '63 and '64 and said, "We're starting to move." And
I knew that they'd started to sell, because DC used to have conferences about,
why is Stan Lee selling? I was at one of them - I guess because I had been
there for eight years. They had Stan's covers up, and they put some DC covers
up next to them. They were trying to decide what the hell made Stan's books
sell. They said, "Stan Lee's covers look crude. Look at those big, ugly blurbs" -
with the big, jagged edges Artie Simek used to do.
One of the earliest style guides of Mary Jane from the 1960s, drawn by Marie
Severin and John Romita.
Art courtesy of Mike Burkey. ©2001 Marvel Characters, Inc.
RT: You remember in '66, when they made Andru and Esposito do a sort
of campy copy of H.G. Peter's work on Wonder Woman? I asked Mike [Esposito]
about it at a poker game at Phil Seuling's, and he said it was because the
DC editors were convinced that the secret of Marvel was bad drawing.
ROMITA: That's what I remember them saying: "Maybe the stuff is like
rock'n'roll, you know? It makes kids feel like they can be in that world," that
kind of stuff. It was hysterical, the way they were talking. Most of them said, "Ahh,
it's a fad. It will pass. Hey, what are you trying to find good? It's garbage."
RT: But you knew that one of the secrets was Jack Kirby.
ROMITA: DC had let Kirby go because he wasn't disciplined enough. They
wanted neat, clean stuff, and Jack was a wild man. He told me he almost killed
an editor once because the guy told him he didn't show the shoelaces on a Cavalry
man's boots! And Jack almost went ballistic. "What the hell does anybody care
about shoes?" [laughs] And another editor told him he had an Indian get on
a horse from the wrong side. Kirby said, "You're out of your mind. You think
the kids care about that?" You know, he would never put Cavalry buttons on
the right way. He would rather invent a new uniform.
RT: So Stan would offer you work, but I guess the money was less?
ROMITA: He would say, "John, we're really starting to roll. It would
be great if you could come back." And I'd say, "Stan, I'm making $45 a page.
What are you paying?" He'd say, "Twenty-five a page." And I'd say, "How can
I take a $20 a page cut?" "Well," he says, "maybe we can make it up to you." I
said, "Stan, I can't give this up as long as I've got it, you know." He called
me three or four times, and I just kept telling him no. But I didn't tell him
to go to hell, like I'd threatened. [laughs]
RT: Did you feel a secret glee that you were able to say no, after
that other period?
ROMITA: Actually, I felt vindicated. It helped that DC had wanted me,
too, and that I was making more money there. Besides, I didn't trust Stan at
that stage. I thought he would go up and down like a roller coaster. Frankly,
I wanted to stay at DC, and I wished I could do a hero strip, even a western
like "Johnny Thunder." I was proud to tell people I was at DC. I felt like
DC was the Cadillac of the industry. I bought their line that Marvel was crude-looking.
I never read any of Stan's stories. I just saw the covers.
I never read one Spider-Man book or even knew it existed until Stan came in
with a pile of them and said, "How would you like to try Spider-Man?" The only
thing I knew they were doing was Fantastic Four. When he showed me Spider-Man,
I said, "You know, this looks funny. This looks like a teenaged Clark Kent." I
apologized to Ditko years later. I was surprised to hear it was a good-selling
RT: Why did the work run out for you and others at DC?
ROMITA: Some big-shot up there found a stack of inventory stories and
art in the closet - stuff they had paid for, but never used - and he said, "Why
the hell are we paying thousands of dollars every month for new stuff when
we got a closet full of artwork here?" And they just shut down; everybody in
the romance department was let go. And it was typical. Martin Goodman used
to say the same thing to Stan years ago: "If we've got inventory, then why
are you buying new artwork?" So DC just closed down the romance original-art
department, and I was out of work.
RT: In other words, don't eat for six months and maybe we'll give you
work again? They did that with young mystery writers in the late '60s, which
is how we got Marv Wolfman, Gerry Conway, Len Wein, and several other guys
over at Marvel.
ROMITA: DC didn't even say that. When [editor] Jack Miller told me -
and of course he was on the frying pan already - I remember asking him, "Could
you introduce me to some of the other editors?" And he said, "Nah, I don't
think so - they aren't looking for anybody." He never even got off his ass
to introduce me to anybody. He told me, "Listen, you're a freelancer. You're
not on contract. You're free to go and get work anywhere." I said, "Well, gee,
thanks." [laughs] "After eight years of being exclusive to DC," I said, "that's
a pretty cold thing to say." He said, "Listen, my hands are tied. I can't give
you any work." And I said, "Then why don't you get me an editor?" He never
answered me. He was a real cold fish.
RT: But you still didn't automatically think of going over to talk
to Stan, did you?
ROMITA: The truth is, I had been going through a little bit of a slump,
an artist's block. I was having days when I couldn't produce a page. It reduced
me to tears a couple of times, because I wasn't bringing any money in, and
I was thinking, "What the hell's gonna happen?" Suppose I could never do another
story! Deadlines used to terrify me, and I wasn't the kind of guy to fake it.
So when this happened, I told Virginia, "I'm not going to Stan Lee. He's not
paying enough. I'm going to get into advertising."
I had been talking to Mort Meskin, whom I had seen a couple of times at DC.
He had visited and had lunch with the guys; he was working at BBD&O [a
major advertising firm], doing storyboards. He told me, "Comic artists are
in demand over there. They don't even have to show them anything. If you tell
them you've been making a living in comics for more than two years, they'll
hire you on the spot."
And it just so happened that one of my neighbors and fellow volunteer firemen
was one of the creative directors up there. His name was Al Nomandia. He had
been a famous panel cartoonist, a very bright guy. I called him and he said, "Sure,
come on in." So I went in on a Thursday, I think, and they hired me. They were
going to pay me $250 a week. It was $75-$100 more a week than I was making
in comics. I took the job.
And then on Friday, like an idiot, I went over to Stan. I had already told
him I would come over to Marvel. In fact, I had inked The Avengers over Don
Heck, and I'd inked the Kirby cover, and I loved it.
RT: That's the Kirby cover with that towering figure of Kang?
ROMITA: I enjoyed that job. I told Stan I would love to just ink, but
when he asked me to pencil, I told him, "No, I don't think I can." That's when
I got the job at BBD&O. But when I called up Stan to tell him, he said, "Come
on in. I'll take you to lunch."
So we went to lunch and he spent three hours browbeating me. And he gave me
everything: "Why do you want to be a little fish in a big pond when you can
be a big fish in a little pond? I'll guarantee you to match their salary." In
fact, he promised me something that I should have known he could never keep.
He promised me he would give me $250 a week whether I worked or not. I swear!
JR's pencils for the cover to Amazing Spider-Man #112. The lines that look like
they're made by tape - were made by tape.
Courtesy of Mike Burkey. [©2001 Marvel Characters, Inc.]
RT: I'm sure he meant it, but Martin Goodman would never have gone
ROMITA: No, Stan wouldn't have been able to keep that promise. But,
like an idiot, I thought, "Stan Lee told me I'm going to get the money!" Many
times in the next few years, you remember how Martin Goodman used to come around
and ask, "What does John Romita do here?"
RT: He wondered, because your name wasn't on many stories.
ROMITA: He wanted to know what I did up there - and I was doing everything
for Stan. I was correcting artwork, I was doing covers, I was correcting covers.
I mean, it was ridiculous, but if Goodman saw me talking to somebody, he wanted
to know how come I wasn't working. [laughs] Anyway, I told Stan I'd take the
job, but on one condition: I can't work at home. I obviously cannot get my
work out on my own schedule. I need a 9-to-5 situation. He said, "You come
in. I'll have a drawing table for you. I'll have an office for you as soon
as I can afford it."
In fact, I was on a freelance basis. If I came into the office and then did
some work freelance overnight, I didn't have to come in the next day. So it
was a pretty nice situation. I used to come in two or three days a week and
do freelance whenever I could. Later I was on staff when I started doing Spider-Man.
RT: When you and I were introduced in July of '65, I'd been working
at Marvel all of two weeks, but you thought I'd been there for years. I recall
how surprised you were when I told you I remembered all that great work you
did on Captain America and The Western Kid back in the '50s. It had never occurred
to you that anyone would remember your work a decade later. I'd have recognized
your name if I'd heard it at DC during the two weeks I was there; but of course
no one ever mentioned it to me.
ROMITA: No, I was a secret. A couple of years later, John Verpoorten
told me that he had always admired my father's work. [laughs] I said, "My God!" And
he said, "Yeah, didn't he do Captain America in the '50s?" And I said, "No,
that was me." He couldn't get over that. He thought my father had done it.
RT: When you came over, Wally Wood had already told Stan he was quitting.
That's why his last Daredevil cover was actually just stats. He didn't do a
cover for it.
ROMITA: Stan showed me Dick Ayers' splash page for a Daredevil. He asked
me, "What would you do with this page?" I showed him on a tracing paper what
I would do, and then he asked me to do a drawing of Daredevil the way I would
do it. I did a big drawing of Daredevil. I sold it recently to Mike Burkey.
It was just a big tracing paper drawing of Daredevil swinging. And Stan loved
RT: Like he hadn't known you could do super-heroes?
ROMITA: He thought I'd been paralyzed doing romance, because I had told
him I'd rather not pencil. Then, when I did my first Daredevil story, he threw
out the first three pages I brought in because they were too dull, like a romance
story. And I had to agree with him that they were quiet. He got Jack Kirby
to break down the first few pages for me. As soon as I saw Jack's breakdowns,
I knew exactly what Stan meant by pacing. Jack laid out two issues. I still
have the original art to those two stories. [ED. NOTE: Among other places,
one of those pages from DD #12 was reprinted in Alter Ego V3#1... but you'll
have to search for a copy, because our first issue is now out of print.]
RT: How did you end up with that? They usually didn't give back original
ROMITA: In the '70s Irene Vartanoff was in charge of returning original
art. She used to tell me horror stories about stuff getting water damage, and
fire damage, and being stolen. She told Stan one day, "There's a bit of John
Romita's artwork at the warehouse, and I'm afraid it's going to be stolen or
damaged." This is after art returns had been given to other people, but by
then I wasn't doing any new stories. Stan signed a slip and I ended up getting
probably two out of every five stories I ever did. I got a batch of Spider-Man
stories, and I got the two Daredevil stories in one big envelope.
And here's the heartbreaking thing: One of the pages in the envelope was a
page of layouts by Jack Kirby that I had not used! It was a perfect example
with all of Jack's notes and the way he used to do the layouts. But I think
I loaned it to somebody, and I haven't seen it since.
RT: Daredevil had picked up nicely under Wally Wood; then you did it
for eight issues. I remember that, although Daredevil had a smaller print run
than Spider-Man or FF, for at least a couple months while you did it, it had
the highest percentage sales of any Marvel comics.
ROMITA: I know. I was beaming from that. That was one of my proudest
RT: When Stan had you take home some of Ditko's Spider-Man books to
read, to guest-star Spidey in Daredevil, did you feel it might be a try-out
for that book?
ROMITA: Actually, I did think so, but I was hoping against it, believe
it or not. People laugh when I say this, but I did not want to do Spider-Man.
I wanted to stay on Daredevil. The only reason I did Spider-Man was because
Stan asked me and I felt that I should help out, like a good soldier. I never
really felt comfortable on Spider-Man for years. I had felt at home immediately
on Daredevil. On Spider-Man I felt obliged to ghost Ditko because - this may
sound naive, but I was convinced, in my own mind, that he was going to come
back in two or three issues.
RT: Even though he and Stan hadn't been speaking to each other for
months if not a year before Steve left?
ROMITA: I didn't know a lot of that.
RT: It wasn't a secret within the company. I thought you'd have learned
that from Sol [Brodsky] or somebody, even if Stan hadn't mentioned it to you.
ROMITA: I had heard rumors that Ditko was plotting the stories because
he and Stan couldn't agree on plots. But he had done 38 issues and two annuals
- and I couldn't believe that a guy would walk away from a successful book
that was the second-highest seller at Marvel. I said to myself, "Naw, he's
not going to stay away." I didn't know Ditko. I assumed he'd do what I would
have done - he'd think about how he had given up a top character, and he'd
be back. And I was sort of counting the days until I could get back on Daredevil.
In fact, when I did the Spider-Man/Daredevil stories [Daredevil #16-17], I
really felt it was obvious that I couldn't do Spider-Man as well as I could
do Daredevil. I was amazed when Stan gave me Spider-Man to do. I felt he was
desperate. So I did the book to help him out, hoping all the while that it
would be temporary.
After six months, when I realized it wasn't temporary, I finally stopped trying
to ghost Ditko. Till then, I was using a thin line. On #43, the one with Jameson's
son, I outlined the whole thing with a Rapidograph and then used the big, bold
brush to put ink in. I thought that was Ditko's style. Looking back on it now,
I realize I wasn't doing a very good Ditko imitation, but I was not being myself,
either. In Daredevil #18, my last issue, I was doing that big, bold thing that
Frank Giacoia inked; and when I inked myself, like on the covers, it was a
big, bold style with a big, heavy line. But on Spider-Man I was doing these
nine-panel pages and the thin line, and I was doing Peter Parker without any
bone structure - just like Ditko was doing, I thought. The only reason it wasn't
better was that I couldn't ape him any better.
RT: Do you think Stan would've got around to showing Mary Jane when
he did if you hadn't taken over the book? Because he did it only a few issues
ROMITA: I think he once hinted to me that he had stalled at showing
her. Maybe he suspected a while in advance that he and Ditko were not going
to stay together.
RT: I remember the day Ditko quit. He came into the office I shared
with Sol and Flo Steinberg, dropped off some pages, and left. Sol scuttled
in to see Stan right away, and then I learned about it. At the time, Sol had
a memo on his desk for a $5 a page raise for Steve, which was fairly substantial
for 1965. I don't think he ever even got around to mentioning it to Steve,
not that it would've made any difference.
So, whether Stan was stalling with regard to Mary Jane or not, he was definitely
not trying to edge Steve off Spider-Man. But Steve gave them no choice. He
just quit. He told Sol, "I'll finish these jobs I'm working on now, and that's
ROMITA: I think Stan was just subconsciously holding back on revealing
RT: If so, do you think it was partly because, good as Ditko was and
is, he didn't draw women as pretty as you do?
ROMITA: Stan wanted her gorgeous, while Steve's women were a little
bit stiff and conservative-looking. They didn't move their bodies the way Stan
liked. He wanted Mary Jane to be like a go-go dancer. That's what I did. But
that first panel of Mary Jane looked so much better in the pencils. I did myself
in with the inking. I lost the right expression.
RT: I know a generation of Spider-Man readers who might disagree with
ROMITA: Stan used to accuse me of favoring Mary Jane over Gwen. He'd
want me to make Gwen more glamorous. But Gwen was more serious, especially
after her father [Captain Stacy] died. I kept telling Stan, "Gwen's a lady
- she's not the same kind of airhead that Mary Jane is. I can't have her smiling
all the time." When he had me start putting Gwen in mini-skirts, I didn't feel
it was right for her. Pretty soon it was hard to tell Gwen and Mary Jane apart.
They were like Betty and Veronica - the same girl except for the hair color.
From Amazing Spider-Man #123, the funeral of Gwen Stacy. [Left:] Previously unpublished
pencils by Gil Kane; and [right:] the inked page by John R.; both are repro'd
from photocopies of the original art - and the latter reveals significant
changes - most of them, certainly, at Stan's specific instructions.
©2001 Marvel Characters, Inc.
RT: So that's the real reason you killed off Gwen Stacy! [laughs]
ROMITA: Somebody - maybe it was Gerry Conway, who was writing the book
then - suggested we should kill off Aunt May. Gil Kane was penciling Spider-Man
then, but I was still supposed to keep an eye on it, and Gerry and I would
talk over plots. I didn't feel Aunt May's death would make much of an impact.
To do that, we had to kill off one of the main girls, and Gwen was the one
Peter was in love with. Mary Jane wouldn't have meant as much; she was going
with somebody else.
RT: As editor-in-chief at the time, I know that Stan, at least verbally, "signed
off" on the idea of Gwen's death at some early stage. Like I once said about
you, Gerry, and me: None of our mothers raised any sons stupid enough to kill
off Gwen Stacy while Stan Lee was out of town and present him with a fait accompli!
It's interesting that you felt the death of Gwen would be more symbolically
important than Mary Jane's. But some of the main problems you got into with
Stan were because of your penchant for ultra-realism, wasn't it - with the
turtlenecks and all?
ROMITA: Stan would ask why I always had Peter wearing a turtleneck,
and why he didn't wear his shirt open. I would say, "It's because he's got
his costume on under his clothes!" Stan didn't think I should worry about that,
but I didn't want readers to think I'd forgotten. That's why we had him have
to take off his shoes and socks when climbing a wall - and I made up the web
sack because I figured, if he had to put on his Peter Parker clothes when he
arrived somewhere as Spider-Man, we had to show how he transported his clothes.
It drove me nuts, and I drove Stan nuts with it, but sometimes it led to some
RT: When you were drawing Spidey, Stan was always trying to find ways
to get more out of you - like with those Tuska thumbnails. Then there was that "Spider-Man" story
penciled by Ross Andru that wound up in Marvel Super-Heroes #14 [May 1968].
I don't recall much about it, but I've always figured it was meant to be a
fill-in issue of Spider-Man, but that Stan didn't like it much, and that's
why it got sidetracked into another mag.
ROMITA: Or maybe it had to do with the fact that the story was about
voodoo. It was a good story, but a little different for the way Spider-Man
was being done at that time.
RT: Yet Stan had at least co-plotted it. I don't think he was ever
as much an admirer of Ross' art as you were, as I was, as a lot of the other
guys at the time were.
ROMITA: I think the thing that showed how good Ross was, was that Superman
vs. Spider-Man book. Do you remember that two-page spread at the start of the
book? That was terrific!
RT: As Gil used to say, Ross was one of the few comics artists who
had a real "sense of space." When he drew a city seen from the air, you could
get vertigo staring into the pencils! But somehow some of his penciling strengths
never quite translated when the work was inked. Ross clearly wasn't the answer
for what Stan wanted with Spider-Man.
ROMITA: Stan was always trying to speed me up. He had Don Heck penciling
over my breakdowns for a while. Stan would have me lay out the story. Then,
when Don had finished the pencils, he'd call me in to fix up anything Don had
done that he didn't like. Even after it was inked, he'd have me changing what
the inker had done. I told him, "This was supposed to save me time, but it
He tried Dick Ayers at it, too. In fact, there's one splash page that was used,
based on what Dick did - it was a splash that was mostly just webbing. But
Stan didn't like the way Dick drew Peter Parker, so we settled on John Buscema.
RT: Who hated drawing Spider-Man. Yet he became the third Spidey penciler.
ROMITA: Yeah, though he mostly just did layouts. I'd call him up to
give him a quick plot outline, and he'd say, "We're not gonna do another one
of those, are we? I hate Spider-Man!" But then he'd do this great job. I wish
I could have inked some of his stories, but I was busy on Fantastic Four and
RT: I was very happy when you took over Cap for a while, obviously.
How did you feel about doing that book again? I think its sales had been dropping
ROMITA: That's why I was put onto it. In some ways the book I was happiest
doing was Captain America. That was a character I always felt comfortable with.
RT: You and Gary Friedrich turned out some good Cap issues. Meanwhile,
Stan saw to it that you always had a "presence" on Spider-Man.
ROMITA: He kept my name on that book with all kinds of ploys. Do you
remember? I was "artist emeritus" for a while, whatever the hell that means.
I was always kept busy doing other things. I would go in to see Stan with a
problem, and he'd tell me, "Okay, call this guy, or that guy, and get him to
do something." I used to ask Stan, "How come I come in to you with one problem,
and I walk out with two?"
RT: That's because Stan knew there were guys he could trust to take
the burden off his shoulders - in those days, it was you, Sol Brodsky, and
me... Marie Severin, too. I've got to ask you this: You've said that, when
you found out Kirby had quit, you thought at first that Marvel would have to
drop Fantastic Four. Did you really feel that? Carmine Infantino supposedly
said the same thing to people over at DC at the time....
ROMITA: Yeah, because I didn't think there was anybody else who could
do it. I asked Stan who was going to draw it, and he said, "You are!" I thought
he was out of his mind. He took me off Spider-Man - which had become our #1
book - to do Fantastic Four, which was our #2 book.
RT: Well, it was still Marvel's flagship title, so to speak. It said
up there at the top of every cover: "The World's Greatest Comics Magazine!" -
so Stan felt an obligation to try to live up to that. Hey, John, you ought
to know as well as anybody - "With great power, there must come great responsibility!" [laughs]
ROMITA: But I didn't think I was the guy to do the FF. If you look at
those four issues I did, you'll see everything was taken from Jack. If there's
any Romita in there, it's only because I couldn't find a shot to swipe! I was
glad to get off the book after a few issues. Besides, Stan still had me doing
fix-up work on Spider-Man at the same time!
RT: Yet, for those few issues you did, the sales of Fantastic Four
actually went up.
ROMITA: I think it's just because everybody was watching and wondering
what the hell was gonna happen!
RT: How did it work out with Gil Kane penciling Spider-Man?
ROMITA: Gil was great. He thought about Spider-Man in a different way
from the way I did - and from the way Stan did - but it worked out pretty well
for a long time. I loved inking him, though that meant changing his work somewhat
and adding lots of blacks.
RT: In the early '70s Martin Goodman's son Chip became publisher of
Marvel, which had been bought a few years earlier by Perfect Film [a conglomerate
which soon changed its name to Cadence]. Do you remember dealing with Chip?
ROMITA: By that point, I don't think Chip Goodman liked Stan, so there
was friction. In 1972 Stan and I did two weeks of dailies and a year's worth
of plots for a Spider-Man newspaper strip. We gave it to Chip in a big envelope;
he was supposed to try to sell it to a syndicate. Months later, when he was
gone, we found the envelope still on his desk, still sealed. He had never even
opened it. I always thought that maybe the reason why he didn't try to sell
it was because he didn't want Stan to have any more success. I don't think
he had the knife in for me, but maybe he had it in for Stan.
RT: Chip tried hard, but he could never live up to his father's expectations.
I believe he had a brother who was sort of a black sheep and refused to have
anything to do with his father's publishing empire. [NOTE: For more on this
subject, see the interview with Gary Friedrich in Comic Book Artist #13!]
ROMITA: After Goodman sold the company to Perfect Film in the late '60s,
he was supposed to stick around for three years, or whatever it was. Chip was
supposed to take his place. But that part of it must not have been on paper,
because as soon as Martin was gone, they got rid of Chip. That's why Martin
started Atlas Comics. It was pure revenge.
RT: In 1972 Stan had gained control of the company and was both publisher
and president of Marvel for a while. That's when I became editor-in-chief,
and Frank Giacoia became "associate art director." Didn't you still do unofficial
art-directing during those several months, before you officially became art
ROMITA: Stan told Frank he could lay out covers, which was what he wanted
to do, and Frank started saying he was the art director. Or maybe Stan let
him do that, instead of paying him more money.
RT: Frank was an excellent inker, but he was never secure in his penciling,
so his job designing the covers didn't work out for long. I think he held it
against you - and probably against Stan and me, as well. Which is a shame,
because we were really all in his corner.
You say in The Art of John Romita that I was editor-in-chief for "three or
four years." Actually, it was just a little over two. It probably just seemed
longer, John - to you and me both! But I think we made a good team.
ROMITA: Yeah, even though we never worked together on a book.
RT: Well, we did do that four-page "Satana" story. Stan wanted to introduce
her fast, before anyone else used the name. I thought, "Here's my chance to
finally do something with John Romita!" I guess she was supposed to be Marvel's
answer to Vampirella.
We won't have room in Alter Ego to go at length into your days as art director
at Marvel - maybe we can do "John Romita, Part II" later - but obviously that
situation worked out well for as many years as you wanted it to. What surprised
me, I'll admit, was reading recently that Stan once offered you the job of
ROMITA: Yeah. I think that was after you quit [in August 1974]. But
I'd seen what the job did to you - you didn't have any time left over to be
creative - you just had to come in and put out fires every day. I didn't want
Actually, I think I turned down that job twice. The first time was when Sol
Brodsky left to help start Skywald in about 1971. Stan wanted me to take over
his administration chores and offered me the job of editor-in-chief.
To read the rest of this landmark interview with John Romita, be sure to
pick up your copy of ALTER EGO #9, on sale now!
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