Spidey promotional illo by the Senior One. This was used to guide
"the huge facade cut-out for the Marvelmania restaurant," sez Mr. R.
Courtesy of Mike Burkey. Spider-Man ©1999 Marvel Characters, Inc.
John Romita Sr.: Spidey's Man
Yakkin' with Marvel's (de facto) '70s Art Director
Conducted by Jon B. Cooke.
Transcribed by John Morrow and Jon B. Knutson.
Book Artist #6
What can you say about John Romita Sr.? Jazzy? Well, that's
pushing it, but I found the artist to be a regular guy who treats
annoyances like Ye Ed with courtesy and consideration, and one (as
you'll find) who speaks quite frankly as one of Marvel's
premier artists in the '60s and '70s. Tellingly, he's
still married to his childhood sweetheart and (if the axiom is true
that the character of the parent is revealed in the manner of the
child) he's a good father—just look at the graceful demeanor
of his talented son, John Jr. The old man is a gentleman. John was
interviewed via telephone on May 19, 1998, and the artist copyedited
COMIC BOOK ARTIST: I'm familiar with your comic strip
influences; Caniff, Sickles, Raymond, Foster. Did you admire any comic
JOHN ROMITA: Oh, Jack Kirby, from the time I was ten years
old and first noticed Captain America Comics was handled differently
than any other book. The only line of books that came close to Kirby's
stuff, wherever he was, were the Charlie Biro books, which I think
are a forgotten gem in history. He was quite a guy. He was almost
doing what Stan Lee was doing years later, without being noticed.
CBA: You came back from the Army....
John: Actually, I was stationed at Governor's Island
in New York Harbor. I was doing recruiting posters, believe it or
not. A friend of mine was there, and he told me, "If you're
going in the Army, and you don't go to Georgia for training,
give me a call when you're almost finished with Basic Training."
I did, and he said they were looking to fill the place of some guy
who was getting discharged. All he could do was put in for me; his
captain was the art director. Korea was a year old when I went in.
The guys I trained with did go to Korea; I had been slated to go to
Germany, and I was almost rooting to go, because I figured it would
be a great experience—but I couldn't say it out loud because
my mother and my girlfriend Virginia would've killed me. [laughter]
The chances were a million to one, but sure enough, I got the call
to go to New York. I spent a year-and-a-half doing recruiting posters,
and while I was still in uniform, I started working for Stan Lee.
CBA: Where was home?
John: In Queens, right on the Nassau County border. I moved
there because of Carmine Infantino; he was a buddy of mine. I got
his brother into Governor's Island. Just before I left, I was
a Staff Sergeant, and I got Jimmy Infantino in the same way my buddy
had gotten me in two years earlier. Later Carmine told me, "Anything
I can do, let me know. You want to work for DC? I'll give you
a couple of editors." So he gave me the romance editors'
number; he didn't give me Julie Schwartz's number. [laughter]
I was given entrée to DC; at the time he called up Stan Lee
and said, "Any work you've got you were putting aside for
me, give it to John Romita, because I owe him." Stan said, "You
don't have to beg me to give work to John Romita; I'll give
him all the work he wants!" [laughter] I think that was the first
time Carmine realized I was not just a little schnook. [laughter]
Carmine and I were buddies, and he taught me a lot. He was a hell
of a help to me when I was young. He showed me how to draw women.
He said I was doing too lumpy a silhouette, and he was right. He said
you need to get a very compact, simple silhouette, and put the details
inside. That was one of my turning points. That's why I was able
to do romance stuff.
CBA: John Buscema told me that Martin Goodman discovered a
whole closet full of inventory material that would never get used,
and fired the whole group.
John: That was the nature of the business; that was not uncommon.
Everybody had the same specter hanging over them; an editor would
buy the stories, and he would pile them up for emergencies. He was
keeping artists busy so he could always call on them. The publishers
never understood that. Inventory was a natural thing. When I was nineteen,
an editor named Steve Douglas paid me $200 for a twelve-page story;
it was very generous. That was like eight weeks pay, and he never
used the story. When I went in there, he put it on top of a pile on
his desk that was about a foot tall; five-pagers and six-pagers that
he was never going to use. He put it on top, just as a gesture, and
said, "I'm not going to use it, but it's here in case
I need it." He supported artists during all sorts of slumps.
He was a wonderful guy.
CBA: What was the Spring of '57 like? Did you think it
was all over?
John: I thought I would never be in comics again. I couldn't
believe I got work at DC. When Stan pulled a western book out from
under me in the middle of a story, I figured, "That's it."
I never got paid for it, and I told Virginia, "If Stan Lee ever
calls, tell him to go to hell." [laughter] I'm glad I never
did that. [laughter]
We were watching the Senate Committee hearings; everything sounded
as though this was the death knell. The bells were tolling; I had
been expecting it since the mid-'50s, because I thought television
had killed the golden goose.
That was the 10-year cycle Gene Colan feared. When he came back into
the business again at Marvel, he said, "I was there in '47
when they cut our throats. I was there in '57 when they cut our
throats. I don't want it to happen again." I told him I
thought it was going to be different this time, that '67 was
not going to be the problem.
CBA: Gene worked with you at DC on the romance books, right?
John: Yes, he was there for the same reason I was. We were
looking for work. I always felt a little like an outsider there, because
I was a little bit shy. I would not push myself on anybody. I also
tell everybody I used to pass through the flat files that had all
the original artwork of all my favorite artists: Kubert, Gil Kane.
All the sensational stuff I could've had—just open the drawer
and take it out—and I was too afraid and too ashamed to admit
that I would do that. I just didn't want to be pushy; I regret
every minute of it. [laughter]
CBA: Who were most of your writers at DC?
John: I was working a lot with Bob Kanigher's stuff.
He complimented me one day in the elevator; he liked what I was doing
with the romance stuff. In my stupid naiveté, I said, "I
hope you don't mind I made a few changes in the stories."
He almost went through the roof of the elevator! [laughter] He said,
"What the hell are you talking about?" I swallowed hard
and said, "Sometimes I'd add a panel, or take out a panel
and do double duty with your copy in one panel." He just tore
me apart before we got to the lobby. He shredded me. [laughter]
CBA: Did you catch wind of nefarious things like kickbacks?
John: Actually, Jack Miller was very blatant about it. After
being with DC for about seven years with all the women editors, I
never had the slightest hint of kickbacks, or any kind of seamy underside.
Jack Miller takes over, and the first Christmas he had me at his desk
to talk about a script, and there were gift certificates on his desk,
to be signed by artists. I was too naive and stupid to even know what
it was about. I asked one of the other artists about it, and he said,
"Oh, did you give him one? Did you sign one?" It was like
a $100 gift certificate for Macy's. I said, "No." I
didn't even know what it was for. He gave me one, but I just
put it down, going, "Oh, that's interesting." [laughter]
I was such a stupid kid. I don't know why he kept giving me work;
I guess I was regarded as one of the top men in the romance department.
I think he probably was pissed off at me after that. [laughter]
I never heard about it at Marvel; Stan Lee was above reproach, but
I heard about it at other places. An editor at DC started telling
guys he was investing in an art studio, and he wanted us all to work
for him. He was dangling big money in front of us, and he had me conned
into thinking I was going to illustrate a book on the American Indian
with him. I was even giving him samples; that's how stupid I
was. What he did was say he needed a little money to get off the ground
with the project. I was getting about $360 for a 15-page job. DC's
practice at the time was to give you a script and a check for the
job at the same time; the editor said, "What I want you to do
is write me out a personal check for $360 after I pay you for this,
and then I'll pay you for the next job—it'll really
be for this one." I swallowed that. It went that way for about
six months, and sure enough, the day after Christmas 1964, he died.
I went into the office, and there's about half a dozen guys all
with sweat beads all over their foreheads. Some of those guys were
$2000 into the company, and as far as the company knew, the artists
and that editor had pulled a scam. They didn't treat me badly;
I paid them back the money—I did the artwork for it, I think.
Other guys, they said, "If you don't lay a check for $2000
on the desk right now, we're gonna have the police come."
CBA: At some point, the romance work started drying up. Were
you eager to move on?
John: A few months later, they said, "We've got
so much inventory, we're just not going to buy any more artwork
for a while." I was too stupid to say, "How about taking
me into Julie Schwartz and introducing me?" I did know a few
of the production people and some of the editors, but I never got
an offer from them, so I went over to Stan Lee. I always had a feeling
somebody was keeping me out of the adventure department.
About two weeks after I left DC, I was assigned to do Daredevil.
I got a call from George Kashdan asking me if I wanted to do Metamorpho.
Ramona Fradon just had left it, and I regretted it; I had a handshake
deal with Stan, and I think they would've paid me more. Only
my foolish, naive honor kept me from telling Stan I'm going back
to DC. So I stayed with Stan; I guess I did the right thing.
CBA: Why did you work over Kirby's breakdowns on those
first Daredevils? Was that a request from Stan?
John: I had inked an Avengers job for Stan, and I told him
I just wanted to ink. I felt like I was burned out as a penciler after
eight years of romance work. I didn't want to pencil any more;
in fact, I couldn't work at home any more—I couldn't
discipline myself to do it. He said, "Okay," but the first
chance he had he shows me this Daredevil story somebody had started
and he didn't like it, and he wanted somebody else to do it.
While I was up there turning in a cover, he asked me to sort of sketch
out how I would work out this certain page of Daredevil. So I sketched
it out quickly in pencil and he loved it. He said, "Wanna help
me out? How about penciling this Daredevil story?" Like a dummy,
I said, "Okay." [laughter] I did it, and when I came in
with the first four pages, he loved the splash page, but the next
three pages he said were very dull, like romance pages. He said, "I'll
tell you what; just to get you rolling..." He calls up Jack
Kirby right there and says, "Listen Jack, how quick can you do
10 pages of breakdowns?" Except they weren't breakdowns,
they were very sketchy. For some lucky reason, I kept one of those
12" x 18" original breakdown pages from Kirby; I have one
in my files. It's a revelation; there are some panels where he'd
really dazzle you with some great shapes, and some panels he would
just do silhouette and call it Matt Murdock; he'd say "MM"
or "DD," just outlines with no expression, unless there
was supposed to be a horrified expression, and he'd put a big
mouth and big eyes. They were just samples of pacing; he chose the
size of the panels and how much time to devote to each sequence, which
was a pacing guide. So I took those back, and it immediately taught
me everything I needed in that one story. Then he did the next one
too, #13, and after I was finished with those 40 pages, I knew exactly
what Stan wanted. From then on, I did it myself.
One of the things that enticed me to do that was Jack Kirby had penciled
the cover of #13, and I had a chance to ink it. It was one of the
most exciting things I ever had to do; to this day, I still get a
tingle when I think of inking that cover. I had such a ball with it.
CBA: Wasn't it terrifying following up Kirby and Ditko
John: I was a little too dizzy to even realize it. [laughter]
I knew Jack Kirby was an icon, but I had only seen some of Steve Ditko's
mystery stuff. I was not really aware enough to understand what a
great man I was following then. Plus I thought I was just temporarily
filling in for him.
CBA: Spider-Man actually picked up in sales after Ditko left
and you came on. Do you think it's because you got it away from
the soap opera element, and a true romance element had entered the
John: Everybody does assume that's what it was—that
I was bringing a little more glamour to it. To listen to the fans
at the time, what I was losing was the mystery and the shadowy stuff.
They thought it was much too much broad daylight, and too much cuteness.
That's a funny twist, because Stan was worried when I was doing
it. He didn't threaten to take me off it, but he constantly was
telling me I was making Peter Parker too handsome, and everybody too
good looking. Even the villains were starting to look good, and I
was taking age away from Aunt May. [laughter] I think there was another
element behind the rise in sales. For about a year, Ditko and Stan
were absolutely disagreeing on plotting. Ditko was plotting, and they
weren't even talking. It already had probably gotten a little
bit confusing to readers for about a year. So between the fact that
I brought in a new audience, and didn't lose too much of the
old audience I guess, I got the benefit of the rebound.
At the top is Walter's splash for his early '70s version of Star
Slammers and, at bottom, his 1980s revise for the Marvel graphic novel.
© Walter Simonson.
CBA: Did you ever meet Steve?
John: Yes, I met him a couple of times. I never spent enough
time talking to him, to my regret. I was always busy running through
the halls in an emergency, but I always wished I could've.
My first impression of Spider-Man was that this was a teenaged Clark
Kent with glasses. I said to Stan, "This is your number two selling
book? I can't believe it." I had never seen Spider-Man before
1965. July of '65 was the first time I had even heard about it.
I didn't even keep an eye on the DC books while I was working
there. I don't know how I stayed in the business. I did not expect
comics to last; all of us were expecting to be working in another
business in a year. I never kept any of my books; I didn't keep
my Captain America books from the '50s. Frankly, I thought the
comic book industry was dying, and what's the use of worrying
CBA: Did Stan tell you when Spider-Man started outselling
John: Oh yes, he wasn't hiding that. It must've
been a year later; we didn't get the figures very quickly in
those days. I really didn't trust those figures; if the figures
said you're selling well, you're probably selling better
than that. Those figures were very suspect; like the record business,
publishers were very sneaky, and they didn't want to share the
profits, but you were the first one to share their losses.
CBA: You were working at home all the time?
John: I worked at home from 1949 to 1965. In '65 I took
a job at [advertising agency] BBD&O to do storyboarding. I just
felt I had dried up, burned out; I felt I needed a steady job, a steady
income. I went to Stan and told him I took the job at BBD&O because
I could not discipline myself at home; I can't get the work out.
I took the job on a Friday morning; Friday at lunch I told Stan I
wouldn't be able to help him anymore, and I didn't think
there was much future in it anyway. I got about two hours of him talking
me into staying in comics, giving me stuff like "Wouldn't
you rather be a big fish in a little pond instead of a little fish
in a big pond?" and all of that stuff. I told him I'd be
making $250 a week at BBD&O, and he said, "I'll guarantee
you $250 a week, even if I don't have a script for you."
I didn't have to learn new ropes, so I took the easy way out.
I stayed in comics, and that's how I stayed with Stan.
CBA: So you went to the Marvel office every morning?
John: Yes. The first year Stan left it open to me. I told
him I needed to come into the office; it's the only way I'm
going to produce. Then I said, "If I pull an all-nighter to get
a job in, I may not come in the next day." He said, "Do
it any way you want." I really had it made. I was in there using
their materials and drawing table; it really saved my life. I stayed
there for 30 years.
CBA: Were you doing work at home at night?
John: Unfortunately. That was a stupid idea I had of working
in the office. Stan started taking advantage of it almost immediately;
cover sketches, corrections, and occasionally toy designs, and I was
supposed to be doing Spider-Man. He immediately started to stretch
me the wrong way, and I let him do it.
CBA: Did you have your own office?
John: Yeah, right next to his. He used to put a sign up saying
"John Romita cannot be disturbed today" and he'd be
the first one through the door with an emergency. [laughter] It was
almost like a vaudeville show. I did the same thing for the four years
of the newspaper strip; I was doing the strip and trying to keep my
job. But it never worked. It was always double-duty.
CBA: Did you have a title?
John: I had an unofficial title. He told everybody I was the
Art Director. The funny thing is, just before I went into Special
Projects (I worked with Sol Brodsky doing coloring books and children
books) Stan Lee, in a salary dispute and in order to get what he felt
he deserved, had to claim he was Art Director. So they stripped me
of the title; they called me Art Editor. Marie Severin was my Assistant
Art Director, and for years after that she thought we had pulled a
fast one; that Stan had stripped me of that title just before she
was going to succeed me. I couldn't explain it to her; she wouldn't
It was just an unofficial title; I didn't want the job. Frank
Giacoia took over for me for about a month once, and felt he had done
the job, and was insulted when they took it back and gave it to me.
I told him, "Frank, if I had my druthers, you'd have that
job full-time." I didn't want it; I wanted to just do my
CBA: Why was Frank selected for the job?
John: He was helping me out, doing sketches at the time. He
was always looking for a way to compensate for his lack of speed.
He couldn't keep it up, and if they had given him the job he
would've abdicated it in a matter of weeks, because he was not
a quick penciler. He was the greatest inker I ever saw, but he didn't
CBA: Did you hire people? Was Verpoorten before or after you?
John: When I just started Spider-Man, he was brought on as
a production man. They asked me if I wanted John Jr. on staff, and
I said I would not hire him, because I didn't want him to suffer
through the stigma of having to follow his father. Marie Severin actually
put him on staff. I tried not to hire and fire; it was not my cup
CBA: Was everything out of the Bullpen in the mid-to-late-'60s
coming from Stan?
John: It was all Stan. Even when Roy was first Editor-in-Chief,
it was still Stan until Stan left town. Everything had to be okayed
by Stan, no matter what we did. Even when I was given carte blanche
on some projects, I still had to clear it through Stan. In fact, even
if I didn't have to, I would've anyway, just out of habit.
He was the Editor-in-Chief and Art Director, and everything else.
From the day I first walked in there when I was 19, I couldn't
see it any other way.
CBA: Did you guys feel funny when he would get the lion's
share of the publicity?
John: Well, we joked about it. I would kid him about it. Originally
nobody thought about plotting credits, except Ditko. Ditko got plotting
credits, then Jack Kirby got plotting credits immediately. I got no
credits at all during the first run; I got them in retrospect. Later
on, he would tell people we co-plotted. I never was offended by it,
and I always assumed it was his right, because it was thought these
characters really came from him. Even the ones Jack Kirby created
with him, I felt were full of the Stan Lee stamp. I always assumed
he had a right to do this. Now, when he left the office, and it was
still "Stan Lee Presents", I was very puzzled. [laughter]
That was just good PR for Marvel. He always took the benefit of the
fact that they figured continuity was more important than reality.
He was called Publisher of Marvel Comics for years when he was out
in California, but Mike Hobson was Publisher.
CBA: Did you actually co-plot on the Spider-Man books going
into the '70s? There seems to be characters like the Kingpin
and Black Widow who have a very strong Romita stamp.
John: The only thing he used to do from 1966-72 was come in
and leave a note on my drawing table saying "Next month, the
Rhino." That's all; he wouldn't tell me anything; how
to handle it. Then he would say "The Kingpin." I would then
take it upon myself to put some kind of distinctive look to the guy.
For instance, if it's the kingpin of crime, I don't want
him to look like another guy in a suit who in silhouette looks like
every other criminal. So I made him a 400-pound monster; that was
my idea. I made him bald, I put the stickpin on him, I gave him that
kind of tycoon look. (I later saw in a DC story from the 1950s a splash
page where there was some tycoon who was wearing the exact outfit
that was on the Kingpin. [laughter] If it was in my mind, I never
remembered seeing that.)
I did the costume on the Black Widow. One of my favorite strips from
when I was a kid was Miss Fury. They had done a Miss Fury book at
Marvel, and when I found out they had the rights to her, I said I'd
love to do a Miss Fury book sometime. I had done an updated drawing
of Miss Fury, and Stan said, "Why don't we redesign the
Black Widow costume based on Miss Fury?" So I took the mask off
her face, and made the Black Widow the one in the patent leather jumpsuit.
That was why the Black Widow changed.
We would have a verbal plot together. First it was two or three hours,
then it was an hour. Stan would tell me who he would like to be the
villain, and personal life "threads" he would like carried
on. Generally we would select the setting; sometimes we wouldn't
even have time to select the settings, like "it takes place on
a subway." He would give me that, and tell me where he wanted
it to end. I would have to fill in all the blanks.
CBA: You would take care of all the subplots?
John: A lot of times I injected stuff in there. For instance,
when he asked me to do Robertson, I think I decided to make him a
black man. I can't swear to that. I wrote up a whole history
for the guy, which he never used, by the way. My original character
sketch had him with a cauliflower ear, because I wanted him to be
a former Golden Gloves champ who worked his way up from the gutter
and became the night editor of the Daily Bugle. I had this whole family
thing written out for him, which he used later, with the rebellious
kid and the beautiful, long-suffering wife because he worked nights.
The first Captain Stacy sketch was based on one of my favorite actors,
Charles Bickford. I would take people like that and inject them into
the stories all the time. The Mary Jane character was already established.
It's funny; I was rereading the books again, and Stan and I always
say in our interviews that we hadn't decided whether to make
her beautiful or not. I just saw one of the early Spider-Man's
from about three months before I took over, where Betty Brant and
Liz Allen met Mary Jane. Even though a flower was covering her face,
when they left the office, they said, "My God, Peter knows that
girl? She's beautiful!" I couldn't believe it was right
in front of my eyes for years in the reference, and I never noticed
it. Stan had already decided to make her beautiful. When I did it,
I thought we decided then, at that time, to make her beautiful. He
must've decided earlier, or he forgot. [laughter]
CBA: You focused on Iceman for one, and Medusa. Were you looking
to spin those off?
John: Medusa was one of my favorite characters. I always thought
I would like to do a series on Medusa too, but I never made the time.
Anytime I was free of Spider-Man, I was generally bailing out another
book like Captain America or Fantastic Four. He would tell me, "I've
got to take you off Spider-Man" but he would always leave me
with the responsibility of keeping Spider-Man up to snuff. I was inking
it, I was touching up pencils. Stan would give me the plot, and I
would plot it out with Gil over the phone. I did that with John Buscema
for Spider-Man. I had the problem of trying to keep John's interest,
because he hated Spider-Man so much, mostly because of the big cast
CBA: When do you remember starting to talk about putting a
drug message in Spider-Man?
John: That was a direct result from a government agency who
sent Stan a letter, asking him to do something to put forth the message
that drugs are bad for kids. Stan took the ball and ran, and I plotted
it out with Stan and Roy. Once again, Gil got the plum. We were going
to do it, and I was pulled off to do Captain America or something,
and Gil gets the stories. He got the death of Captain Stacy, he got
the drug issues, he got the death of Gwen Stacy, the hundredth issue,
and the vampire Morbius; Roy and he plotted that out. I decided to
give Spider-Man two extra arms. It's a natural; if he's
got the spider blood and he gets an infection, maybe it could really
manifest itself strangely. I told Gil about it over the phone, because
he was doing the story. He came in with a drawing where Spider-Man
had two extra arms and two extra legs coming out of his thighs, which
really looked crazy! [laughter] I said, "That's not the
idea. Give him two extra sets of arms." Then when he did that,
everyone in the office laughed their heads off; they thought it was
the dumbest thing they ever saw. I thought it was a great idea; I
thought it was a natural, and everybody laughed. I'm still hurt!
CBA: The bullpen was growing.
John: It started to get out of hand there for a while. When
Roy was in charge, there was still a lot of continuity. Roy and I
saw things the same way. When guys like Marv Wolfman, Len Wein, Gerry
Conway, and then Archie Goodwin came in, I was dealing with people
that had a different bent on things than I did. We—Len Wein,
Marv Wolfman, Gerry Conway and I—designed a lot of characters
together, like Wolverine and the Punisher. I always got along with
everybody I had to work with. You can't be abrasive in those
situations; how the hell are you going to cooperate?
CBA: Did you ever feel like pulling a hissy fit when you wanted
control of a book?
John: No, I never did. I didn't want that. I didn't
want to make those decisions. I'm not an executive and I don't
want the responsibility of that. What I always told Stan and everybody
else: I'll take the Art Director job. Jim Shooter gave me the
official title, and I told him my style is this: If any editor needs
my advice, they get it, but if they don't take it I'm not
going to say a word, because that's their business. They're
the ones with the credit of Editor, and they're the ones with
the responsibility. I don't feel Art Directors should hire and
fire; I can advise, and when they use the wrong artist—for instance,
when Todd McFarlane got the Hulk—I just said, "I don't
like what he's doing. I think he's doing a very strange-looking
Hulk." I often wonder if the Hulk would've been our biggest
character if McFarlane had stayed on it. That's an interesting
quandary I'll always carry with me.
CBA: When did Stan stop coming into the office every day?
John: Even during the '60s, there were whole years where
he would only come in three days a week, and sometimes two days a
week. He would stay home and write one or two books a day. He was
always absent from the office quite a bit. He generally was in every
week, but not always every day. He still made decisions from home,
and they'd hold decisions for him until when he came in. Then
when he went to California, that was a whole different thing.
CBA: But he trusted you guys.
John: Yes. The reason I became Art Director is because I had
learned his indoctrination routine with new artists. Shortly after
I started working in the office, he would meet a new artist and want
to tell him everything he wanted to tell everybody else; what kind
of excitement he wanted, the "Marvel" way, think like Kirby,
excitement. I got that routine pat, and one time he heard me telling
it to a young artist because Stan was busy. He said, "From now
on, when a young artist comes in, I'm just gonna send him in
to you." That's how I sort of became Art Director without
John's original sketches for his character, The Prowler, originally
named "The Stalker." Thanks to Mike Burkey. Prowler ©1999 Marvel Characters,
CBA: What lessons did you take from Kirby's work at Marvel?
John: From the time I was 10 years old, I could look at Kirby's
stuff and see exactly why he was doing it. I felt the same way about
Caniff; I used to understand why he did certain things, and I immediately
translated it to my drawings. I was just blessed with that.
CBA: Did you see Jack when he came into the office? Did you
talk to him?
John: Oh, yes. We used to go out to lunch at the Playboy Club;
sometimes four or five of us. We used to have wonderful conversations;
I treasure them. You may have heard I used to drive home with them;
whenever he was in for a story conference, Stan would drive Jack home.
My house was on the way, so they'd drive me home, and then take
Jack home. Sitting in the back seat of Stan's convertible with
the top down, going up Queens Boulevard, listening to them plot stories,
I felt like I was sitting behind Cecil B. DeMille's director's
chair. It was the most wonderful thing; I felt like a kid back there.
CBA: In the past, you've told that great anecdote about
realizing they weren't listening to the other!
John: I knew that even when I heard them plotting in other
instances! [laughter] Jack would say, "Stanley, I think I've
got an idea. How 'bout this?" Stan would say, "That's
not bad, Jack, but I'd rather see it this way." Jack would
absolutely forget what Stan said, and Stan would forget what Jack
said. [laughter] I would bet my house that Jack never read the books
after Stan wrote them; that's why he could claim with a straight
face that Stan never wrote anything except what Jack put in the notes.
He was kidding himself; he never read them.
CBA: Did you see any of the problems Jack was having?
John: I had heard all of the inside stuff, like from the Herald-Tribune
article that insulted Jack, that he thought Stan was a part of. Stan
could not convince him of that, and certainly could not convince Roz
that Stan hadn't encouraged the writer to make fun of Jack. I
know for a fact that Stan would rather bite his tongue than say such
a thing, because Jack's success would've been his success.
There's no reason to run Jack down. Stan had the position; he
didn't have to fight Jack for it. I don't think Jack ever
wanted the editorial position; if he wanted credit, he deserved credit.
Stan used to give him credit all the time; he used to say most of
these ideas are more than half Jack's. Why they would think Stan
would try to make him look bad in print is beyond me; but from that
time on—which is very close to when I started there in the middle
'60s—when the Herald-Tribune article came out, there were
very strained relations, and I thought it was a matter of time before
Jack would leave; but I thought he would never leave, because I always
figured if I had a success like Fantastic Four and Thor and Captain
America, I don't think I could leave; so I always assumed he'd
stay grumbling, but Carmine made a deal Jack couldn't refuse.
CBA: Stan is a well-loved guy, and he takes a lot of heat,
but he's also a showman and he has that hyperbole.
John: Oh, he's a con man, but he did deliver. Anyone
who says he didn't earn what he's got is not reading the
facts. Believe me, he earned everything he gets. That's why I
never begrudged him getting any of the credit, and as far as I'm
concerned, he can have his name above any of my stuff, anytime he
wants. Every time I took a story in to Stan—and if Jack were
reading it, he'd have felt the same way—I had only partial
faith in my picture story. I worked it out and I believed in the characters,
but I was only half-sure it was going to work. I always had my misgivings.
By the time Stan would write it, I'd start to look at that story
and say, "Son of a gun, it's almost as though I planned
it," and I'd believe a hundredfold more in that story after
he wrote it than before—and if Jack would've allowed himself
to, he would've had the same satisfaction. I sincerely believe
I think Stan deserves everything he gets. Everyone complains, including
me sometimes. I used to say, "I do the work, and Stan cashes
the checks." [laughter] It was only a half joke, but it's
the kind of a grumble you do when you're tired.
CBA: There was a scramble when Jack left.
Unused What If cover of one butt-ugly Peter Parker! Known for his
renderings of beautiful women, who knew Romita had this talent for drawing
nasty critters! Thanks to Mike Burkey for this, err, gem! ©1999 Marvel
John: Jack had sent in a half-finished story, and I went in
to Stan. My first assumption was that Fantastic Four was finished;
we wouldn't do the book any more, just out of respect. I found
myself saying to Stan, "Who the hell's going to do FF? We
don't have anybody good enough!" He said, "You're
gonna do it," and I almost fell down. I didn't feel qualified
to do it, and I sweated through four issues with Jack Kirby books
surrounding me. [laughter] Every inch of my drawing table had a Jack
Kirby page on it, and I did those four strictly from Jack's stuff.
I felt obliged to make it a seamless transition.
CBA: What was your relationship with freelancers? If they
were late, did you have to call them?
John: There were times I had to call up John Buscema (which
is like me calling up Milton Caniff and saying, "Milton, your
pencils are a little hairy"). I had to tell John that the Filipino
artists didn't understand some of his breakdowns, they were unclear
what certain shapes meant. And John, of course, would scream over
the phone, saying, "What the hell kind of clowns do you have
working out there?!" He would really do some very rough breakdowns,
but most of us would know what they meant. The Filipino artists, not
knowing the comics vernacular, didn't know what all those shapes
CBA: The cover designs of Marvel Comics in the early '70s
conformed to the same rigid format. There suddenly was just a square
for an illustration with the title of the story underneath, with a
lot of verbiage around. Do you remember this really locked-in design
when Gil did most of the covers?
John: We did it for about a year, with a margin in it. They
were looking to stand out from the rest of the crowd. I think Roy
was involved. I think Gil might've designed it. I don't
remember how much input I had on it; all I remember—that may
have been when I was doing special projects.
CBA: Were you involved with the overall look of the books?
John: No, the only thing I was ever involved in was if they
had a guy who they didn't think told the story clearly, or well
enough, they'd ask me to talk to him. I never was in favor of
the look of the books, or the techniques particularly. Jim Shooter
would use me to try to indoctrinate artists on technique, a formula
for "clear comics." He asked me to do things that I'd
never done on my own, things I hated to ask artists to do, like to
do everything as a diagram.
CBA: Did you see a difference between the Marvel books and
the DC books? It seems to me now that I'm studying both companies
so closely, it seems the DC books under Carmine Infantino were pretty
much art-driven books....
John: They were, and in fact, I think that was the history
of the whole thing. They did the cleanest, most beautiful drawing
for years, they were the Cadillac of the industry. When I was over
there in the romance department, I was proud to be there, because
it really was the Cadillac of the industry—they had the best
coloring, the best lettering. And Marvel was making inroads into the
sales with the wildest stuff you ever saw in your life. I remembered
a time they had discussions in the bullpen at DC, and I was getting
my artwork cleaned up or accepted, I would hear things like, "What
the hell is Stan Lee doing that's getting people to buy these
books?" And they'd look them over, and there would be a
big discussion and somebody saying, "We think the young fans
identify with it because it looks like it was done by kids!"
and other remarks like that.
CBA: But they didn't read Marvel Comics?
John: They might've read them. I think it was an open
secret what Stan was doing: He was telling people in interviews what
he was doing, giving relative reality to the characters, giving them
real lives—relevancy, social context and social impact—and
DC knew the story, knew what he was doing, and they still overlooked
it. They'd say, "Oh, no, that can't be. It must be
something else." DC was blinded by their own arrogance. They
didn't really want to believe that anybody could do that kind
of stuff and sell books, when their beautiful stuff was not selling.
It was denial!
CBA: Whose decision was it to put Marvel books up to 48 pages
at 25¢? Roy said it was Martin Goodman's decision. Do you
John: Yes, it probably was some distributor's suggestion
for marketing, or maybe Stan Lee had some kind of input. I don't
remember why it was done, but I know that during those years, DC and
Marvel were constantly trying to outsmart each other, they were trying
to outthink each other on the price increases and decreases. You know,
DC still claims we shafted them once when they agreed to go to 25¢,
and we stayed at 20¢.
CBA: Now, actually, both of you guys went to 25¢ and
48 pages, then the next month, Goodman dropped down to 32 pages and
20¢, giving a better cut to the distributor, kids being able
to buy five comics for a buck instead of four comics for a buck.
John: I think Carmine or Dick Giordano or Joe Orlando had
said that was underhanded, but very clever.
CBA: That's when Marvel took the lead?
John: Yeah. I think that was the final straw, because we had
been gaining on them for a couple of years. The whole thing was so
bizarre, and I'll tell you, frankly, most of the time if you
came into the Marvel offices you would've just seen the top of
my head, because I used to be so immersed in daily problems, I had
very little attention span for all the policy making... I'd
hear about them, but it would go in one ear and out the other.
CBA: After Ross Andru took over Spider-Man, did you want to
get another book?
John: No, I was glad to be out from under the deadline. I
was shuddering that they'd ask me to do one.
CBA: When did you first hear about the syndicated Spider-Man
John: Five years before. 1977 was when the strip came out.
About '72—here's another Chip Goodman story—Stan
and I had a strip and a nibble from the syndicate, and we did two
weeks of daily samples. Chip was supposed to get in touch with the
syndicate, and close the deal. Stan found out a year later that Chip
never took the pages off his desk, and never took them around. So,
we missed the boat on the first go-around (which might've been
a better syndicate—I think that was Universal Press or something,
a syndicate that was very hot to do Spider-Man). Chip Goodman single-handedly
screwed up the whole deal. Then in 1976, we got the deal with the
Register-Tribune, which was a minor Midwestern syndicate, and Stan
jumped at it. They sandbagged me, because they told me it was going
to be either a daily or a Sunday, and I said, "Okay, I want to
do it." So I prepared a couple of weeks of dailies, and they
said they loved it, and the deal was signed, and just before we needed
to go into production, they said we had to go daily and Sunday; but
I stayed with it, and I just killed myself for four years. It was
hard work. I didn't want to quit my job, because I had no faith
in the future of the strip. I didn't think it was going to last
(For the rest of John Romita's interview, be sure to order COMIC
BOOK ARTIST #6!)
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