Here’s wishing a very happy 85th birthday to legendary comic book artist John Romita, who was born on January 24, 1930. The prolific Romita has had a long association with Marvel Comics over the decades, at one time or another drawing many of the company’s major characters, as well as having a hand in designing a number of them.
Romita’s first regular assignment at Marvel was Daredevil. He worked on issue #s 12-19 (cover dates Jan to Aug 1966). It was while on Daredevil that Romita first drew the character of Spider-Man in a two-part guest appearance in #s 16-17. This actually led to Romita becoming only the second artist to draw Amazing Spider-Man, after co-creator Steve Ditko departed from Marvel. Romita’s first issue was #39 (Aug 1966), teamed up with writer & editor Stan Lee.
During his time working on Amazing Spider-Man Romita designed several new villains, most prominently the Rhino, the Shocker, and the Kingpin. Romita also made his mark as an artist who was talented at rendering beautiful women. He revealed what Mary Jane Watson actually looked like, and he gradually transformed Gwen Stacy from Ditko’s ice queen into more of a sweet girl-next-door type. He also completely redesigned the look of the Black Widow, giving Natasha her now-iconic long red hair, leather jumpsuit and wrist-blasters in issue #86 (July 1970).
Before his time at Marvel, Romita had spent nearly a decade at DC Comics working on their romance titles. This definitely made him very well-suited to working on Amazing Spider-Man. During this time Stan Lee’s stories were as much soap opera as super-heroes. Romita was the perfect artist to illustrate Peter Parker’s personal life and rocky romances with Mary Jane and Gwen.
Confession time: I am not an especially huge fan of Spider-Man, although there are certain runs and storylines featuring the web-slinger that I have enjoyed. Consequently, I do not have all that many issues of his various comic titles and most of those that I do own are from the 1980s onward. So sadly I don’t actually have many of the issues Romita worked on. I really need to pick up some trade paperbacks!
One of the Spider-Man books by Romita that I do have, though, is from much later in his career. Published in 1997, the Spider-Man/Kingpin: To the Death special was a reunion Romita in more than one way. It was his first full-length Spider-Man story in a number of years. It also saw him once again drawing the Kingpin and Daredevil. The book also reunited him with Stan Lee, who scripted over a plot by another long-time Spider-Man writer, Tom DeFalco. Romita’s pencils were effectively inked by Dan Green. I thought it was a nice collaboration. Green’s embellishment seemed to bring out the Milton Caniff influence in Romita’s style.
Although certainly not nearly as prominent as his association with Spider-Man, Romita also contributed a small but impressive body of work featuring another of Marvel’s iconic characters, Captain America. Actually some of Romita’s earliest professional work was on the very short-lived revival of the Captain America title in 1954.
After Romita became firmly established at Marvel in the mid-1960s, he illustrated Captain America on a few occasions. He drew the Cap stories in Tales of Suspense #76-77 (April-May 1966). The second of those tales, on which Romita penciled over Jack Kirby’s layouts, introduced Cap’s wartime love interest & ally Peggy Carter, the older sister (later retconned into the aunt) of his current girlfriend, S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Sharon Carter.
Tales of Suspense was re-titled Captain America with issue #100. Romita guest-penciled issue #114 (June 1969) and a couple of years later briefly became the book’s regular artist, working on #s 138-145 (June 1971 to Jan 1972). Although the writing on some of these issues was a bit underwhelming, particularly the ones featuring the Grey Gargoyle, the art by Romita was nevertheless very good.
Towards the end of this brief run, under writer Gary Friedrich, the stories got a bit better. Africa-American social activist Leila Taylor was introduced as a love interest for the Falcon who would frequently challenge his political views. Cap’s arch-foe the racist Red Skull was unmasked as an agent provocateur who was attempting to discredit Leila’s militant civil rights group by inciting them to violence. Romita’s final issue of Captain America was the first chapter of an exciting story arc that saw Cap, Sharon Carter and the forces of S.H.I.E.L.D. pitted against the hordes of Hydra. His cover to #145 was incredibly striking, with a rage-filled Cap standing over the fallen Sharon, swearing vengeance against Hydra. He worked on a number of additional covers for Captain America throughout the 1970s.
I mentioned before how adept John Romita is at drawing beautiful women. This was very well encapsulated on the cover to Marvel Age #111. Romita drew himself day-dreaming, surrounded by a bevy of the lovely ladies he had rendered over the decades, among them Gwen Stacy, Mary Jane Watson, and the Black Widow. In a humorous, self-deprecating touch, in the upper right hand corner Romita draws his wife Virginia popping in to his studio to ask him if he’s finished drawing the cover yet!
Romita’s son John Romita Jr also went into the comic book biz, himself becoming an equally prolific artist who worked on numerous titles. There are similarities between the styles of father and son, although I would describe John Jr’s work as more gritty. The two have worked together on occasion, with Romita inking his son’s pencils.
I’ve been fortunate enough to meet Romita on a couple of times at comic book conventions, where I was able to get a few of the books he worked on autographed. I didn’t have much of an opportunity to speak with him, but he seemed to be a polite, pleasant individual.
Although mostly retired nowadays, Romita does from time-to-time dip his toe back into the waters of the biz, drawing the occasional cover here and there. It’s always nice to see new work from such a talented legend.