by John Romita
The following interview was taken in the late '80's while John Romita was still Art Director up at Marvel Comics. He was cordial enough to allow me and another aspiring cartoonist from the Joe Kubert School to interview him as part of a class project. After the interview he showed us projects he was currently working on and provided further insight into his work on the Spider-Man newspaper strip.
He was extremely generous with his time and the advice he gave is just as relevant today as it was then.
This interview was conducted by
Jim Keefe and John Mietus.
It was transcribed and edited by Keefe.
Jim Keefe: Who were your major influences growing up?
John Romita: Well, in comics, it was originally Milton Caniff. I loved Caniff's characterizations but later found out that they were a creation of Noel Sickles. Caniff was a good artist, a good character man, but it was Noel Sickles who created the style. Hal Foster had done the first snappy daily comic strip (Tarzan) and then Noel Sickles did Scorchy Smith. Photostats of Scorchy Smith daily strips, which were a contemporary of Terry and the Pirates, were passed around when I was in my early twenties. They affected everybody. I think Alex Toth had hundreds of daily strips photostatted. He went from just another DC artist to a creative genius just by studying the Scorchy Smith stuff. Alex Raymond influenced me a little bit because he was very slick and then Jack Kirby. I admired Kirby's dynamics. As far as illustrators that influenced me, I'd say Robert Fawcett and Al Parker. Parker was a guy at the time who was very, very big. Very slick. Unmatched.
John Mietus: Who do you consider your influences now?
John Romita: Still Kirby a little bit because he's so deeply ingrained in me. The only reason I don't draw more like Kirby is because I'm not physically able to do it. In fact, John Buscema (who's another big influence on me), incorporated Kirby's dynamics to his beautiful figure drawing and got the best of both worlds. When he first came back out of advertising in the early seventies his illustrations were a little stiff. Beautifully drawn but rather rigid. Then I think Stan Lee just gave him one word, "Kirby," and it triggered him and he just exploded! Gil Kane's another one that affected me. Every time I ink Gil Kane I learn something. And, by the way, Joe Kubert. Joe Kubert's Viking Prince knocked me out and I never recovered. In fact (and I think I've told him this) but when I was in High School I said, this is the best stuff I've ever seen. I thought, this guy must be older than I was. When I got out of High School I found out that he was not only my own age, but I think he was a little younger. He was doing Hawkman while I was still in High School!
JM: I understand he worked in the Eisner-Iger studios when he was fourteen.
John Romita: And rightfully so. He was ten years ahead of his time. I just couldn't believe he was that young. I also thought Al Williamson was a man in his fifties. His style at EC looked to me like an old illustration style. Then I found out that he was my age too. I can't tell you how much of a shock that was. When I was figuring I've got five years to really get going, these guys were already on the ball.
JM: That's kind of how we feel about people like Art Adams
John Romita: There's no justice in the world (laughing). Some guys just fall out of bed and are polished artists while others work hard all their lives. I've never had it easy. I always worked. I had to struggle. I can draw fast but I struggle over the storytelling to get it the way I want it. Young people today are putting more into it. When I did it, I was not a crusader. I was just trying to find a way to make a living. Unless you're very fast, you can't make a good living on it. If you're a guy who plods along at one page per day you'll never make it. Speed is the ultimate. If you're good, people will wait for you. But if you're fast, they'll find a place for you. It's a little cynical but it's true. You'd like to think that quality is going to solve all the problems. There's a lot of guys who are so good but can't make a living at it. Al Williamson is one of the best pencillers in the world but he really can't make a living at pencilling because he wants to do these beautifully pencilled pages with ample time to do them. That's why Al is inking now...and adding a greater dimension to the penciller he's working with.
JK: What was your first break into the comics field?
John Romita: I ran into a guy that I use to go to school with who wanted me to ghost a ten page comic story. I just met him on the train. I was making thirty dollars a week at a company called Forbes Lithograph and he offered me twenty dollars a page to pencil a story. I thought, this is ridiculous! In two pages I can make more money than I usually make all week! So I ghosted it and then kept on ghosting for him. It ends up my friend was working for Stan Lee. I worked for Stan for six months before he knew I was working for him.
JK: So your first published comic work was for Timely Comics?
John Romita: Yes, 1949, as a ghost. Actually, my first order was Famous Funnies. A guy named Steven Douglas up there was a benefactor to all young artists. He had a stack of artwork on his table unused that he had paid young artists for. The man has a special drawing board up in heaven. The first story he gave me was a love story. It was terrible. All the women looked like emaciated men and he bought it, never criticized, and told me to keep working. He paid me two hundred dollars for it and never published it...and rightfully so. He was a saint. I understand that when he died hundreds of artists showed up to his funeral, much to the pride of his wife.
JK: After Timely Comics, you moved on to DC. What was the catalyst?
John Romita: I stayed until 1958 and then Stan Lee had a slump and closed down everything but a couple of books. I just had no place to go so I went to DC. I spent eight years at DC doing romance stories. It was a terrible period of dullness. It really was boring, maddening after awhile. The only reason I did it was that I had to support my family. The normal romance is very bland. A few teary faces but nothing really happening. So when I jazzed that up and got a little more personality into it, I felt proud of myself. There's a little bit of satisfaction in making a job better than the normal.
JM: So you were in the middle of DC romance right at the peak of their superhero revival?
John Romita: Well, they were starting. I never got a shot at the superhero section. When the romance department had too much inventory they came in and told me they didn't need any more of my work. I went into the other editors (unfortunately a lot of them were on vacation) and they didn't give me anything. After eight years of proving my reliability and a certain level of quality, nobody even gave me a thought. Then I came up to Stan Lee and ended up doing Daredevil. Soon as I got the assignment on Daredevil I got a call from two DC editors wondering if I wanted to do Metamorpho and I said that I was already committed, so I never got the chance to see what I could do with the DC Superheros. It's one of my regrets. So then I came back in '65 and I started doing Daredevil. Then six months later I was doing Spider-Man...and I never got a chance to do anything else.
John Romita (left) with Jim Mooney. Circa 1998.
Mooney inked for Romita on Spider-Man in the late 60's and early '70's.
JM: Let's get some background information on the apprentice program. Romita's Raiders.
John Romita: The apprentice program was a good idea, Shooter came up with it. These guys are working for minimum wage from nine to five, five days a week, for a generally limited amount of time. Somewhere between six and eight months.
JK: Do most of them continue working freelance here?
John Romita: A lot of them do. Two out of three who come through here are working in the field or in the business. If not for us then somebody. It's a good system.
JK: When did you start as Art Director?
John Romita: 1972. It was one of those casual things. Marvel was very casual in those days, no structure at all. Stan was having a lot of trouble with covers, so he yanked me off Spider-Man to help out. That's when Gil Kane filled in and occasionally, John Buscema. Since I was coming in everyday anyway, that's when I actually joined the staff full time. I started doing cover sketches but whenever there was an emergency, like when Captain America was slipping, Stan would ask me to jump in and do three or four issues. And when Jack Kirby left he asked me to do three or four issues of Fantastic Four.
JK: Did you find it hard jumping in like that?
John Romita: It was difficult. See, at the time, the books had a very definite look. For three years Spider-Man was Ditko and for ten years Fantastic Four was Kirby. I didn't feel like anyone had the right to change it. When I did the Fantastic Four I did it as Kirby. If it looked like me it's only because I couldn't mimic him any better. When I took over Spider-Man, for the first three or four years I was mimicking Ditko. If you look at my Daredevil, I did Daredevil my own way. Deep shadows and lots of bone structure.
JK: I noticed when Spider-Man first appeared in Daredevil it looked like a Ditko Spider-Man.
John Romita: What Stan Lee wanted was for me to do a two part Daredevil story with Spider-Man as a guest star to see how I handled the character. So when I did Spider-Man, it was like Dick Tracy was guest starring in Daredevil. If Dick Tracy were guest starring in Daredevil, I would have tried to assimilate that different technique and done him like Chester Gould. That was the way I thought Spider-Man should be done, like Ditko. For the first three or four years I did Spider-Man it was all Ditko. It was a thin line. Ditko simulation. And if Peter Parker changed it was because I couldn't help it. Stan Lee use to come up to me and say I was making him too good looking. I'm making him too brawny. But I couldn't stop myself. It was the only way I could draw him.
JK: Was the Spider-Man newspaper strip your style?
John Romita: Yes, the strip was all mine.
JK: I understand you felt kind of restricted because of the format.
John Romita: It was hard, I use to look longingly at comic book pages and say, that's the way to live! You were working on a postage stamp in the dailies. When they started to go under two inches high in the newspaper, half the panel lettering, you know what you got? You got about three quarters of an inch to do your illustration. That's ridiculous! And Stan wanted texture. He wanted fabric texture. He wanted brick techniques. He wanted zipatone.
JM: He wanted it to look like the comic.
John Romita: He wanted it to look like a photograph. If Stan Lee could have used photographs in the strip he would have used photographs. He wanted it to be so convincing that peoples eyes would pop out and there was just no time to do that in a strip running seven days a week. Of course I did the foolish thing of trying to keep my job while doing the strip. What I did was split my week and worked three days for the company and the other three days I did the strip. It ended up I worked seven days a week on the strip. That's why I left the strip after four years. What I did was say, I can't pass up the strip because it could be my future. The strip could be a blockbuster and how could I pass that up? I could get rich. So I made a deal with myself that as long as the strip was building I would stay on it and sacrifice my time. So for three and a half years it kept building and then the fourth year it leveled off. If it had become a fifteen hundred paper blockbuster I would have never left, but it was making just enough money to tease me. A little extra money above my salary and it was nice, but when it started to drop I wasn't going to work for less money so I just dropped the strip. I'm amazed that it's still going. I didn't think it was going to last my four years. I thought it would last at least two years then blow away like the DC strip, Superman. DC was really pushing Superman and it just sort of dried up and withered on the vine after about eighteen months or two years...and we kept growing.
JM: Didn't it come out about the same time as the Superman movies? Weren't they using that to kind of springboard it along?
John Romita: I thought that was going to be a lot more. A guaranteed success. But the Spider-Man stripped survived against all odds. Against every indication. Story strips and adventure strips are absolutely dead in the daily newspapers. I guess Spider-Man's still a good enough success that it can support an artist and a writer, but it never got as big as I was hoping.
JM: My hometown paper still carries it.
John Romita: See, that's the thing. It has a good solid base. If you had a dozen top papers you could support a strip and then the rest of it, the small town papers, were the gravy. I'm amazed, because newspaper strips, I think, are really doomed because there are less and less newspapers every year. King Features is still powerful because it sells tremendous amounts overseas. It was very gratifying to do a strip that went all over the world. I use to get letters from Europe and South America and it was great. I felt like I was reaching so many people. And Stan Lee use to give me a lot of the credit because we really devised it together. Sometimes we'd take an old comic story and expand it. It really had a lot of great possibilities but it's just the basic nature of that business. What they need is a good full size supplement with big gutsy artwork and a nice chunk of story. If they would do that kind of stuff it would sell. But they don't have the guts to do it. That's one of my dreams is to see that happen.