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Fifty Years On The "A" List

A Candid Conversation With Marvel Artist/Art Director Supreme John Romita

Conducted by Roy Thomas
Transcribed by Brian K. Morris with special thanks to Mike Burkey

From Alter 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 family?
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 his comics.
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, was it?
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 in-between.

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 what.
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 Ego V3#6-7.]

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 War?
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 Timely?
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. [laughs]

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 them?

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 couldn't identify.

RT: Yeah, it does have a little of the look of Burgos' work. Maybe even Maneely's.
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 suggest it?
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 Timely collapsed?
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 artwork.

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, didn't you?
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 blatant.

RT: When you went to work for DC in the late '50s, did you do anything but romance?
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 to anything.

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."

RT: Metamorpho?
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 Austin."
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 you?
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 whole thing.

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 worked out.

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 gone.

RT: Didn't Stan call you a time or two about work during that period?
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 book!

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 for that.
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 it.

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 art then.
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 moments.

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 later.
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 it."
ROMITA: I think Stan was just subconsciously holding back on revealing Mary Jane.

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 you.
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! [laughs]
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 interesting storylines.

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 isn't!"
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 Captain America.

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 a bit.
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 director?
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 editor-in-chief!
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 the job.
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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