Comic Book Artist Edited by Jon B. Cooke Comic Book Artist, Eisner Award winner for "Best Comics-Related Magazine", celebrates the lives and works of great cartoonists, writers and editors from all eras through in-depth interviews, feature articles, and unpublished art.

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.

From Comic 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 the transcript.

COMIC BOOK ARTIST: I'm familiar with your comic strip influences; Caniff, Sickles, Raymond, Foster. Did you admire any comic book artists?

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 on books?

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 book?

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 about it?

CBA: Did Stan tell you when Spider-Man started outselling Fantastic Four?

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 believe me.

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 books.

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 like inking.

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 of tea.

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 of characters.

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! [laughter]

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 portfolio.

John's original sketches for his character, The Prowler, originally named "The Stalker." Thanks to Mike Burkey. Prowler ©1999 Marvel Characters, Inc.

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 that.

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 Characters, Inc.

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 meant.

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 remember that?

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 strip?

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 22 years!

(For the rest of John Romita's interview, be sure to order COMIC BOOK ARTIST #6!)

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