Robot 6

Your Wednesday Sequence 35 | John Romita

The Amazing Spiderman #88 (1970), page 6.  John Romita.

John Romita came to his decades-long tenure on Marvel superhero comics from a career as a solid-to-outstanding illustrator of romance stories, and when he arrived he was asked to pencil his first costumed-action book over rough layouts by Marvel’s main stylistic voice at the time, Jack Kirby.  He learned his lessons from the King well.  Decades after Kirby had ceased to be the company’s prime mover, young artists recruited by Marvel were still sent to learn their fundamentals from Romita.

During Marvel Comics’ greatest period of mainstream commercial success, it was the Romita style — muscular but glossy, dynamic but smooth — that gave the publisher its visual identity.  If Kirby provided Marvel with its Big Bang, Romita was the universe’s rapid expansion, his art bringing the heroes it delineated from comics out onto cereal boxes and binder covers and the near-ubiquitous Underoos.  But though his licensing art certainly touched more eyes, Romita was a consummate cartoonist.  The anecdote about Kirby breaking him in to the Marvel style is more than a charming story: it gets at what was so special about Romita’s work, and why it was so essential to the development of superhero comics.

Before Romita, Marvel was Kirby and Ditko and perhaps Steranko, explosive force and mind-bending optics, pure imagination channeled panel by panel.  Romita took the basics — Kirby kineticism, Ditko atmospherics — and grounded them in a style of staging and action blocking imported direct from his work in romance comics, flowing and approachable.  More than the work of any writer, the combination of flash and humanism and pure readability in Romita’s art is the foundation stone that the soap opera-styled superhero comics of the ’70s and onward built upon.  The page above is Romita doing what he did best, setting furious, unceasing action in the midst of a fully realized workaday world.

The approach employed here is perhaps closest to that of Milt Caniff, who backgrounded cartoon figures with realist landscapes: here Romita pops his hero out from a smooth background of midcentury advertising art-styled drawing with coiled-spring poses taken from the best of Ditko.  Even against the riotous, polychromatic backgrounds of Silver Age comics, the hero screams off the page like an air-raid siren.  This is comics storytelling at its most basic and effective: the most important figure on the page should be the biggest, everything should be in motion, the figures’ gestures should lead the eye across the space between the panels.  Every picture of Spiderman here is supported by the background, enhanced by the environmental drawing it inhabits.  In panel one, the cracked masonry and hatchmarks of webbing zero in on the main figure, pulling the eye to it while emphasizing its struggle.  Panel two takes all distraction away from the figure as it leaps free against abstracted, undemanding puffs of smoke.  Panel three frames the figure with detailed architectural drawings but simplifies them more and more the closer they get to the figure.  Panel four clarifies the motion’s direction with the shadows of the blinds on the back wall.  And after three frames that read almost as the stages of a single gesture, panel five brings us out of the world of the superheroic and back to reality by foregrounding mundane objects, obscuring the hero with the demands of his life.

Also notable here is another reason Romita was so important to Marvel’s commercial success.  This page carries as much evidence of writer Stan Lee’s tendency toward over-elocution as any other example of prime-era Marvel, but where Lee’s verbiage feels intrusive over Kirby and Ditko drawings, Romita was able to work around it.  The main figure folds up double beneath the heavy balloon of panel four, enhancing the drawing’s action while allowing the reader to plow through Lee’s heavy dialogue unimpeded.  In panel three the tiny figure emphasizes the vastness of the city wile also leaving plenty of open space for the words.  Romita’s every frame allows Lee to fit multiple balloons into it without upsetting what he’s doing.  It isn’t the visionary splendor of Kirby or Ditko: it’s popular entertainment trying to function at the highest level of craft that it can.  Judged by this standard, Romita was and remains the quintessential Marvel artist.

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Comments

16 Comments

I’m pretty sure I have read this issue… but I can’t figure out what the heck “the arms” are!

Oh, sorry, read more closely. I feel foolish now.

Greay effing read, man! I’m actually taking every word from your fourth paragraph, and applying it to my own work! Brilliant and helpful stuff! Also: Great to see Romita Sr. get some love, a master craftsman and an essential figure for Marvel Comics, that is prennially overshadowed by the genius of Kirby and Ditko. I know it was a Romita Spider-Man on the cover of a VHS tape what first attracted me to the character as a child, and probably the reason I am a comics person to this day.

J.R. Sr. took the Spider-Man character and launched him into the stratosphere. His work still defines so much of Spidey to this day. I will always buy a J.R. drawn issue, just for the sheer beauty of it.

Is the lower half of that Spidey page supposed to be all yellowed out like that?

Panel 3 is fantastic. You feel the dynamism of Spidey swinging between the rooftops. More subtle than a Kirby, and that’s what makes it great.

One quibble – Wasn’t the dialog by Stan typically done after the pencils were finished (based on a rough outline by Stan at most)? Thus it would be impossible to configure specific panels around specific dialog balloons.

As a general rule of course, I’d agree that Romita knew Stan’s tendencies and likely took care to leave plenty of space for his verbiage without breaking the panel flow. I just doubt that he worked around any specific dialog balloon layout.

you’re right – but they got asked to leave a ton of room in specific places. they had to compose panels with lots of space open or the stuff just got killed. plus i know stan was waaaaay more hands on with spiderman than anything else (especially after he left the other books, around the time this page was published).

Very much enjoyed reading this. I don’t have any technical knowledge of art, so it’s great to read someone explain why his art is always so amazing (ahem).

Romita is a brilliant talent, and easily one of the greatest artists in Marvel’s history. Maybe even in the history of comicbooks. Each page he drew was just beautiful.

Awesome stuff, Matt. This is eloquent and thoughtful from start to finish–I always look forward to this column. Question: much of what you relate to Romita in terms of the ‘development’ of superhero comics seems to me to be applicable to John Buscema. Buscema’s got a heavier line that perhaps tends towards the gritty rather than the glossy, but I’ve always conceptualized Buscema and Romita as occupying a similar space in my mental pantheon. Thoughts?

I pretty much agree with everything you’re saying. Romita was huge the way Jose Garcia-Lopez was: he defined the look of “superheroes” (specifically the Marvel ones) for the public in his licensing stuff without their ever having to open a comic book. His big contribution was the glossy finish, the way he brought the craziness of Kirby and Ditko into line with the contemporary commercial-art culture. Buscema was more about distilling viable storytelling methods from that same material: finding something for inside comics. He’s got way less sheen to him, and he could get a lot more off-model than Romita ever did, but he took (especially) Kirby’s dynamism and explosive pacing/blocking/framing and molded it into a standardized mode of comic book making that pretty much everyone to do superheroes since has taken something or other from.

I think John Romita was more Marvel’s answer to Curt Swan or Jim Mooney at the time. Would have loved to have seen Curt Swan inked by John Romita. Curt Swan, Jose Garcia Lopez and John Romita brought a more grounded look to the characters they drew. Steve Ditko excelled at the quirky and mysterious, Jack Kirby the epic and John Buscema brought a classic quality to the line, but Romita’s style filed all the edges off of the characters making them acceptable to everyone. That last line by no means being an insult, rather a tribute to a great skill.

The almost musical nature of the motion of this sequence is astounding. Look at the ay the character bounces and leans in alternating succession from one panel to the next. He begins on the left, then leaps to the right side of the page, then he leans to the left as he swings, then he flies back right through the window, and in the final panel the alternating leaps of Spider-Man cool down as he sifts into the page-nuetral persona of Peter Parker.

My Dad went to high school with John Romita Sr and they were friends – both being artists. Matt’s points about JR being the consummate cartoonist at heart are right on. You can see cartooning in the drawings they did for their high school yearbook. Both were heavily influenced by the Sunday comics – Alex Raymond in particular.

@Peter
“The arms,” I believe, are Doc Ock’s.

@John @B R
Yes, the arms are Doc Ock’s. They had taken them from him and he was mentally controlling them from across town to bring them to him. Spidey was fighting the arms as they fought their way across town to rejoin with Doc Ock.

This was the 1st comic I ever bought “off the rack” and is responsible for my lifetime love of comics!

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