Happy birthday to John Romita

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.

Spider-Man Kingpin To The Death cover signed

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.

Captain America 145 cover signed

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!

Marvel Age 111 cover

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.

Dick Ayers: 1924 to 2014

This is one blog post that I really wish I did not have to write.  I just found out that longtime comic book artist Dick Ayers passed away on May 4th at the age of 90.

Ayers was born on April 28, 1924 in Ossining, NY.  He spent the first twelve years of his childhood in White Plains.  At age 13, his family moved to a farming community in Upstate New York.  He returned to Westchester in his late teens, just in time to graduate from high school.  Years later, Ayers would say that his teenage years spent living in that rural area, with its lack of electricity & plumbing and multitude of horses, was the perfect training to become an artist who specialized in drawing Westerns.

Serving in World War II, Ayers was stationed in England & France.  Shortly after returning home, he attempted to pitch a comic book series he had devised, Chic ‘N’ Chu.  Although unsuccessful, in the process Ayers met Tarzan newspaper strip artist Burne Hogarth and studied under him.  In the late 1940s, Ayers began drawing comic books for Vin Sullivan’s Magazine Enterprises, and in 1950 created the Western masked vigilante known as the Ghost Rider for them.  Around this time he also began dating Lindy Walter.  They soon fell in love, and married in 1951.

In the 1950s, Ayers began working for writer / editor Stan Lee at Atlas Comics, the 1950s incarnation of Marvel.  He illustrated a significant number of Western, war, and horror stories, as well as drawing several stories for the short-lived revival of the original Human Torch and Toro in 1954.  One of his Human Torch stories was left unseen for 14 years, until editor Roy Thomas had “The Un-Human!” published in the pages of Marvel Super-Heroes #16 (September 1968).  I’ve always enjoyed the crazy splash page for that tale, with its titanic eight-headed, six-limbed monster parachuting down from the sky!

Marvel Super-Heroes 16 Human Torch splash

In the late 1950s Ayers first began inking Jack Kirby, an association that continued into the 1960s, as Atlas officially became Marvel Comics.  I have always felt that Ayers was a really good match to ink Kirby on Western, war, and monster stories.  Among those was Strange Tales #89 (cover dated October 1961) which featured the debut of the now-iconic Chinese dragon Fin Fang Foom.  Ayers was also a good choice to ink Kirby on the early Fantastic Four issues, which still had one foot firmly in the territory of the recent Atlas monster & sci-fi tales.

Ayers had this sort of “earthy” quality that really suited the war and Western genres both as a penciler, and as an inker to Kirby.  In contrast, you had the slick, polished embellishments of Joe Sinnott, which were a much better fit for the high-tech science fiction adventures that Kirby was penciling in his later Fantastic Four stories.  That just goes to show the importance not just of finding the right pairing of penciler & inker, but also making sure that their finished work fits the atmosphere of the stories they are illustrating.

One of the best fits at Marvel for Ayers, first as an inker and then a penciler, was the retro World War II series Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos, which began publication in 1963.  After inking Kirby on the first few issues (plus the Captain America team-up in #13) Ayers took over as the regular penciler with #8, staying on the series for the next decade.  Ayers collaborated with writers Stan Lee, Roy Thomas and Gary Friedrich on Sgt. Fury.  He was paired with such embellishers as John Severin, John Tartaglione, and Frank Giacoia, the latter of whom Ayers stated was his favorite inker to work with.

Sgt Fury 23 pg 4

Ayers was the un-credited co-plotter on a number of these stories.  In his Introduction to the Sgt. Fury Marvel Masterworks Volume 2, Ayers detailed the genesis of one of his favorites, issue #23, “The Man Who Failed,” which was based on a suggestion from his wife Lindy: “Have the Howlers assigned to rescue a nun who was trying to save children from behind Japanese lines.”  The adventures of Nick Fury during World War II were always more slapstick than Saving Private Ryan, and there is a great deal of tongue-in-cheek humor to the scripting of the series.  Ayers explained that he regarded the Howlers’ exploits as “Baron Munchausen” stories, the types of colorful exaggerations that he and his fellow soldiers might indulge in after returning from the battlefield.

That said, Sgt. Fury could occasionally be gritty or poignant.  “The Man Who Failed” had Stan Lee showing British Howler Percy Pinkerton making peace with his youthful indiscretions & mend fences with his older brother.  “Killed In Action” in issue #18 ended with the tragic death of Pamela Hawley, Nick Fury’s first true love.  And issue #s 28-29 had Stan Lee & Roy Thomas scripting an apocalyptic confrontation between Fury and his arch-foe Baron Strucker.  Ayers did superb work penciling all of these dramatic stories.

Capt Savage and His Leatherneck Raiders 2 cover

With writer Gary Friedrich, Ayers also worked on the Sgt. Fury spin-off title Capt. Savage and his Leatherneck Raiders.  That short-lived series’ most memorable story arc is probably the one that ran in issue #s 2-4, wherein Friedrich & Ayers revealed the super-secret origin of Baron Strucker and the terrorist organization Hydra.

In the early 1970s, Ayers was receiving less work from Marvel.  They also began reprinting his earlier stories without paying him.  For a time Ayers had to work as a security guard to make ends meet.  Eventually Ayers had the opportunity to explain his situation to Neal Adams.  An early, forceful advocate of creators’ rights, Adams got in touch with DC Comics editor Joe Orlando on Ayers’ behalf.  Orlando assigned Ayers to a number of titles including Kamandi, Jonah Hex, Freedom Fighters, Scalphunter in Weird Western Tales, G.I. Combat, and The Unknown Soldier.  On that last title Ayers’ pencils were embellished by talented Filipino artist Gerry Talaoc.  As I’ve written before, I very much enjoyed their collaboration.

Unknown Soldier 255 pg 1

Ayers worked at DC through the mid-1980s.  He also did work for the Archie Comics / Red Circle line of books, drawing a revival of The Original Shield.  Starting in 1991, Ayers began working on Femforce, the fun superhero title published by Bill Black’s AC Comics.  Ayers demonstrated a real mastery of the female form in those comics, illustrating some playfully sexy good girl art.

AC has also brought back into print a variety of public domain Golden Age comic book stories.  Ayers’ classic Ghost Rider stories were among the material reprinted in AC’s Best of the West, with the character re-named the Haunted Horseman.  Ayers would occasionally contribute new artwork to the book, such as Best of the West #43, which had Ayers collaborating with artist Ed Coutts on a beautiful cover spotlighting the Haunted Horseman and the time-traveling Femforce gunslinger Buckaroo Betty.

Best of the West 43 cover

In 2005 Mecca Comics Group published Ayers’ three volume graphic novel autobiography The Dick Ayers Story, which was in-depth look at both his personal life and long career as an artist.  This was a project that Ayers had spent several years working on, a labor of love on his part.

Dick and Lindy Ayers lived in White Plains for several decades, and so would often make appearances at NY-area comic book conventions.  The first time I met them was at a show held at the Westchester County Center in the mid-1990s.  I remember asking Dick what he thought about current comic book artists.  He told me that he felt many of the more recent artists in the biz were not good storytellers.  He explained that a good comic book artist is someone who, if you removed all of the dialogue and narration, a reader would still be able to tell what the story was about just by looking at the artwork, how the action moves from one panel to the next.  That was probably the first time I ever heard comic book artwork explained to me in that way, and it helped me to develop an appreciation for the importance of layouts & storytelling.

Dick and Lindy Ayers at the All Time Classic New York Comic Book Convention in June 2000
Dick and Lindy Ayers at the All Time Classic New York Comic Book Convention in June 2000

I would often see Dick and Lindy at comic shows.  They were always such friendly people.  When I still lived near White Plains, they invited me over to their house on a few occasions.  It was a really enjoyable to see Dick’s studio, and to take a look at his original artwork that he had framed.  Another time, on a pleasant spring afternoon, we were in their back yard having lemonade & cookies.  I also saw them when Dick gave a lecture at the White Plains Public Library.

The last time I saw Dick and Lindy was at a small NYC comic show around 2011.  I recall that Dick was walking with a cane, and looking a bit unwell.  It seemed like age was finally starting to catch up to him.  However, I was recently happy to learn that he was scheduled to be a guest at the New York Comic Fest which is going to be held on June 14th at the Westchester County Center.  I was really looking forward to seeing Dick and Lindy again.  Unfortunately, that is now not to be.

I’m sad that Dick Ayers is no longer with us.  However, I am happy he lived a good, long life.  He leaves behind both a large family and an impressive body of work.

Comic book reviews: Captain America vol 6 #15-19

I’ve been following the ongoing Captain America title pretty religiously since 1989.  That’s, what, 23 years?  The series has seen a lot of ups and downs in that time.  On the whole, I think that Ed Brubaker’s eight year run on the book has been more positive than negative, although I never did prefer his tendency for decompressed storytelling.  I also have to admit, as I’ve said in a previous blog, I never warmed up to the current volume of Captain America.  But, a few months ago I learned Brubaker would be concluding his mammoth stint with issue #19, and I decided to stick around for the finale.

The current series of Captain America (volume six, for those keeping count… I really wish Marvel would stop renumbering all their series) has seen Steve Rogers cross swords with one-time ally Codename Bravo, who had now allied himself with a faction of the subversive terrorist organization Hydra.  Bravo looked upon the political corruption & social decay of contemporary America, and believed that Cap had failed to lead the nation to a better place.  Bravo also held a long-standing grudge against Steve for, in his mind, stealing away Peggy Carter from him back in World War II.  Bravo joined forces with the Hydra Queen and Baron Zemo to create, as he saw it, a better world.  Unfortunately, like most terrorists, Bravo and his allies felt that if they had to shed innocent blood and tear the country apart to start afresh, then so be it, because the ends justified the means.

Captain America #s 15-18, “New World Orders,” is co-written by Brubaker and Cullen Bunn.  Hydra has successfully taken control of a popular Fox News-type network, and is broadcasting a 24 hour cycle of character assassination against Cap, the Avengers, and the U.S. government.  To bolster the effectiveness of their mass media manipulation, they are utilizing hypnotic Madbomb technology.  Hydra has also dispatched robot shock troops, the Discordians, across the globe to cause chaos & destruction, in order to make it appear that the Avengers are ineffective and unable to preserve peace & order.  Through their propaganda, mind control, and inducing of fear & panic, Bravo and his confederates hope to turn the general public totally against the government and the American political process, presumably to pave the way for a coup.

I think Brubaker & Bunn do a pretty good job of wrapping up the overall Codename Bravo storyline.  To be honest, though, I think “New World Orders” could have used another issue, because it felt rushed in places, especially the final chapter.  That probably seems a strange critique, considering I was previously complaining about Brubaker’s decompression.  However, I think his earlier arcs on this volume were all a bit too long.  It’s a shame that one of the issues from those earlier installments of the ongoing major story was not allocated to “New World Orders” instead.  Still, it’s a decent enough wrap-up.

I was surprised that Brubaker did not do anything to address the apocalyptic future vision that Steve Rogers glimpsed at the end of Captain America: Reborn, the one with the War of the Worlds type alien tripods devastating the Earth.  For a few years now, I had assumed that Brubaker was going to build up to some sort of major storyline involving that.  It looks, instead, that Bunn will be utilizing Steve’s look at the future in the current Captain America & Black Widow comics, although I’m not one hundred percent certain, since I just glanced through those issues in the comic shop.

Captain America vol 6 #16
Captain America vol 6 #16

The artwork on “New World Orders” is of a very high quality.  Scott Eaton & Rick Magyar do great work.  Likewise, the covers by Steve Epting are magnificent.  I was especially impressed with the cover to issue #16.

For his finale on Captain America #19, Brubaker once again assumes to solo writing duties, and Epting, who was there at the beginning of his run, returns to draw the entire issue.  This untitled tale is an insightful and introspective conclusion to Brubaker’s time writing the character.  The writer once again brings back the insane 1950s Cap, the twisted mirror image of Steve Rogers.  Brubaker also addresses something that, truthfully, had never occurred to me until he touched upon it earlier in his run: Steve never set out to be Cap, to become a symbol of heroism & patriotism, to represent an entire nation.  The truth is young Steve only wanted to serve his country by enrolling in the military.  When finally offered the opportunity to do so by participating in Operation Rebirth, he believed he would become the first of an army of super-soldiers.  It was only after Professor Erskine was assassinated that Steve was thrust into the role of Cap, that he was asked by his government to adopt the identity of a red, white & blue super hero, a living propaganda symbol.

What I think Brubaker is getting at is that part of the reason why the 1950s Cap (and by extension some of the other men to briefly adopt the role) failed is because he deliberately set out to assume this enormous responsibility.  He looked upon it as a blessing, and was unable to live up to the tremendous burden that it truly was.  Steve Rogers, in comparison, never wanted to be Captain America.  He took it on only because he felt it was the right thing to do, the best way he could serve his country.  It was his humility, and recognition of the tremendous responsibilities that being Cap would bring, which enabled him to succeed where others failed.  It is an interesting line of though on Brubaker’s part.

Issue #19 has, once again, some superb artwork from Epting.  He is an amazing artist, and it’s great to see how much he has grown as an illustrator, not just over the course of the eight years from when he first worked on Cap, but throughout his entire career.  If you look at his work back in the mid-1990s on Avengers and X-Factor, it was decent, and had potential.  Over the two decades since then, he has continually grown & developed, becoming an amazing illustrator.  I really became a fan when he was over at CrossGen, and my admiration for his work absolutely went through the roof due to his run on Captain America.  I’m glad he was able to come back for Brubaker’s finale.

Captain America vol 6 #19 variant cover
Captain America vol 6 #19 variant cover

Epting contributed a great cover for issue #19, as did Butch Guice on the variant edition.  I really had a hard time choosing which one to get (wish I had the funds to pick up both) but I finally went with the one by Guice.  He’s another excellent artist who has consistently developed through the years.

Anyway, that’s that for Ed Brubaker on Captain America.  I think that, despite some rough, uneven patches, on the whole he did a very good job on this series.  He certainly leaves the book in much, much better shape than it was when he first came onboard it.

So, what’s next?  Rick Remender is taking over as writer on Captain America, with art by John Romita Jr.  I’m certainly tempted to continue reading the series, since I’m a fan of Remender’s work.  At the same time, the $3.99 price tag and the promise of a lengthy opening story arc leave me unsure.  Especially the price.  Why oh why does Marvel need to charge four bucks for a 22 page comic book?!?  I’m rather more inclined to try Uncanny Avengers by Remender.  Yeah, it’s also four dollars, but I enjoyed the first issue of that, and I like the idea of Cap leading a mutant team of Avengers against the Red Skull and other major threats.  I’ve wanted to see something like that for years.  Well, maybe I’ll just wait for the trade paperback collections of the Remender’s new Captain America series.

Comic book reviews: Captain America vol 6 #11-14

Back to talking about mainstream comic books for a bit.  I previously decided that, after over two decades of following it regularly, I was going to drop Captain America from my reading list.  Since then, I found out that current writer Ed Brubaker will be ending his nearly eight year long run on the series in a few issues, with Captain America volume six issue #19.  So I made the decision to stick it out and see how he wraps things up.

Brubaker’s penultimate story arc, “Shock to the System,” continues his ongoing subplots concerning Codename Bravo and the Hydra Queen, who have systematically been taking a wrecking ball to Steve Rogers’ life while simultaneously undermining the public’s already shaken faith in the government.  Bravo and the Queen are relegated to behind-the-scenes players in this arc.  Truthfully, I don’t mind, since I haven’t warmed to either character.  Instead, taking center stage is government agent Henry Peter Gyrich and a new vigilante Scourge, assassinating supervillains who have been placed in a witness protection program.  And the mysterious Scourge turns out to have ties to Captain America.

I might have been more impressed with this arc if it wasn’t for the fact that the central conceit, namely “Hydra brainwashes Gyrich to recruit a new Scourge who happens to be an old friend of Cap” hadn’t already been done before a number of years ago by Fabian Nicieza in the pages of Thunderbolts.  Consequently, some of “Shock to the System” felt like a retread.

Captain America vol 6 #14
Captain America vol 6 #14

I was also, once again, underwhelmed by Brubaker’s decompressed writing style.  So much of the time, Brubaker has done quality work on the Captain America series, but at the end of each arc I couldn’t help saying “That was really nice, but maybe it could have been told in one or two fewer issues.”  Well, I had the same reaction to “Shock to the System,” which felt like a nice three part story padded out to four issues.

I don’t know, perhaps I am being too critical of Brubaker in this respect.  The entire trend of decompressed storytelling, of writing for the “trade paperback,” has become so much of a house style at both Marvel and DC.  Pretty much every writer utilizes it.  For me this is frustrating, because Brubaker is generally a very good writer, but that practice of decompression serves as something of a liability to his stories.

On the plus side, “Shock to the System” did see the return of two long-time supporting characters from the Mark Gruenwald years, one of whom I am a big fan of.  It was nice to see both of them back, and Brubaker uses each of them very well.  Okay, true, one of them does end up dying.  But it was well-done and dramatic.  Brubaker really made it a tragic event, rather than merely a throw-away death.

The strongest aspect of Captain America #s 11-14 was actually the artwork by Patrick Zircher, or, as he seems to be calling himself now, Patch Zircher.  I’ve written before that he started out penciling New Warriors back in the 1990s, doing good, solid work.  Well, he’s definitely improved & grown as an artist, becoming even better over the years.  His artwork on “Shock to the System” was extremely well done.

So, five more issues of Captain America remain until Ed Brubaker’s departure from the title.  I don’t know how he is going to bring closure to all of his plotlines in that remaining amount of time.  I’m hopeful that he doesn’t have to rush things and/or leave some of his subplots unresolved.  It’s true, I’ve been underwhelmed by Cap volume six.  But on the whole, Brubaker’s work on this series has been very good, and I would love to see him go out on a high note.