Saturday, March 28, 2015

John Romita's first fanzine interview ?

The Web-Spinner was an early fanzine primarily devoted to the output of Marvel comics, a company which brought a new sense of energy to the field. While many young buyers were satisfied with reading the adventures of their favorite heroes, another segment took that enthusiasm to a higher level. Those fans decided to write, draw and produce their own publications, mailing them out to other like minded individuals. There is a raw quality to many of these fanzines, but also, quite often, a degree of intelligence, creativity and pure fun that shines through. Edited by Mike Appel, The Web-Spinner was noticed by the Marvel staff and included letters of approval from corresponding secretary Flo Steinberg and new editorial assistant Roy Thomas. Their fifth issue (undated; likely spring 1966) featured an interesting article on John Romita, perhaps the first time any of his thoughts were recorded in the fan press.

Romita first worked for Marvel from 1951 to 1957, drawing war, western, crime and horror genre stories, along with features Captain America, Western Kid, "Greg Knight" and "Jungle Boy". He was laid off in 1957 when publisher Martin Goodman drastically cut his comic book division - a result of his distributor going out of business (known by comic book aficionados as "The Atlas Implosion"). Romita found work at National/DC, drawing stories exclusively for the romance line. In 1965 Romita returned to Marvel, at first inking but soon taking over the art on Daredevil from the departing Wally Wood. At the time of this article Romita was working at Marvel for less than a year and was recently assigned the reigns of Amazing Spider-Man when Steve Ditko quit (judging by Romita's comments he was likely working on Amazing Spider-Man # 41 at the time). While hardly an in-depth discussion, this peek into a specific point in Romita's career by a teenage fan reveals a few surprises, which I'll discuss in greater depth below.

On page one of Bob Sheridan's article, "Rambling with Romita" the artist makes a revelation that I believe has heretofore been unknown. Bill Ward apparently pencilled a few pages of Amazing Spider-Man to help Romita out on a deadline. This was not an unusual occurrence in comics; assistants (or ghost artists) often did uncredited work in both comic books and comic strips.

Bill Ward was a comic book artist dating back to the early 1940s, working for Fawcett, ACG, Feature Comics and Quality, notably on Blackhawk. Ward is also noted for creating Torchy, a comic strip featuring a sexy blonde, produced while he served in the Fort Hamilton Army base in Brooklyn, New York during World War II. The strip was soon syndicated to Army papers throughout the world. Torchy later became a feature at Quality comics and received her own title for a period in the late 1940s. In the 1950s and beyond Ward began working for Abe Goodman at Magazine Management (the parent company of Timely/Atlas/Marvel) on digest mags such as Humorama, where he illustrated one panel gag cartoons focusing on his specialty, sexy women. His other major account was for Cracked magazine, where he drew humor features for many years.

Bill Ward's statuesque Torchy blended sex and humor, as seen on this splash page from Torchy # 4, May 1950. Image from 

Since Ward continued to work on Goodman's digest mags in the 1960s (including an episode of Pussycat, a Little Annie Fannie styled strip that appeared in Male Annual and Stag Annual and later reprinted in a one shot magazine in 1968), it's logical that he was available to assist Romita. From what I gather by Romita's comments Ward worked on Amazing Spider-Man # 41, dated October 1966. After closely examining the art I suspect Ward contributed to the five page fight sequence with the Rhino (pages 13-17). As Romita noted, he touched up some of Ward's art (and may have provided breakdowns). Below are examples of a few pages from that sequence, all with inking by Mike Esposito.

Page 13 is the beginning of the Rhino sequence, and may be where Ward  started assisting Romita. Panels 1 and 6 look awkward by Romita's standards, although the other panels may have been revised by Romita.  

Page 15 opens with a large panel that captures a sense of Jack Kirby inspired dynamics that Romita excelled in. The figures of the Rhino in panels 2-3 and Spider-Man in panel 3 are stiff and lack the smooth line that typified Romita's style.

The last three panels on page 16 employ cartoony figures, ala the "Jack Davis style" Romita refers to in the article. 

In my estimation page 17 is a clear indication of another hand involved in the art. The awkward position of the figures (particularly panels one and two); the characters appearance and the linework differ from Romita's clean and stylish pencils. Again, Romita may have provided Ward with a rough pencil breakdown to work from, but the overall art is choppier than usual.

Page two of the article is worth a close examination, as Romita speaks of his predecessor on Spider-Man, Steve Ditko. It's important to note that his observations on Ditko are second-hand, likely based on conversations with either office staff (Sol Brodsky; Marie Severin; Roy Thomas) or directly from Stan Lee, who, like many that collaborate in creative fields, often view their situations through entirely different prisms. What is most revealing is Romita's statement that it was Ditko's idea to make Norman Osborn the Green Goblin, explaining that he "drew the mags so that Osborn HAD to be the Goblin". This corresponds with Ditko's later accounts that appeared in issues of Robin Snyder's newsletter:

 “I even used an earlier, planted character associated with J. Jonah Jameson, he became the Green Goblin.” Steve Ditko, the Green Goblin, Robin Snyder’s the Comics, July 2001

Stan Lee's account differed greatly: 

 “The ultimate bone of contention was a recurring villain called the Green Goblin, whose identity had always been hidden. When it became time for the long awaited unmasking Lee recalls that Ditko said ‘it should be somebody they’ve never seen before, just some person’. Lee, on the other hand, felt that a startling revelation had been promised. ‘Every reader in america is going to think we’re crazy. They’ll be angry. It’s got to be somebody, Lee said. Ditko left without drawing the story.” Les Daniels, Marvel, Five Fabulous Decades of the World’s Greatest Comics, Abrams, 1991.    

In numerous interviews over the years Lee's declaration about an "argument" with Ditko over the Goblin prevailed, but its possible his memory scrambled together other disagreements with Ditko (the artist had earlier villains such as Electro turn out to be "somebody they've never seen before") or he may have made up a colorful, melodramatic story that was often reported as official comic book history.


                                           Amazing Spider-Man # 37, June 1966

Ditko's penultimate issue of Amazing Spider-Man pointed suspicion directly to a man who had been appearing as a background character in Jameson's men's club for many issues, often in stories that also featured the Goblin,who Lee named Norman Osborn. His son Harry, a fellow student at Peter Parker's college, is seen in panel two.    

"I planted the GG’s son (same distinctive hair) in the college issues for more dramatic involvement and story line consequences" Steve Ditko, The Ever Unwilling, Robin Snyder’s the Comics, Mar 2009.

The importance of Romita's quote from 1966 is that it corresponds with Ditko's later pronouncement that he had plotted the stories from the beginning with a specific character in mind, using the ongoing mystery as a motif that would eventually come to a crescendo. Ditko left before he completed those plans, leaving Lee to unmask the Goblin and devise a backstory in Romita's first two issues (Amazing Spider-Man #'s 39-40). While the characters identity would have been the same under Ditko, the plotline would undoubtedly have differed dramatically.

In later years Romita often parroted Lee’s statements; understandable given that he was not directly involved in the situation and had likely long forgotten the original circumstances. But in the pages of an obscure fanzine produced by young, enthusiastic fans we are privy to an off the cuff, unassuming and revealing conversation at a time when creators were still taken aback that anyone cared. As comic book conventions grew in the mid-1960s and beyond that all changed; by 1975 Marvel ran their own convention and interviews may have been more reserved and tempered by company policies. Whatever the case the Web Spinner article is a look into an unpretentious, charming and historically important period of comic book history.     

For a more detailed account read my article "The Urban Myth of Lee, Ditko and the Green Goblin" in Ditkomania # 82, Oct 2010 (a fine fanzine which you can purchase through publisher Rob Imes)  


On the last two pages Romita discusses many topics, including the upcoming Marvel Super-Heroes cartoon, the Batman TV show (which he could finally watch in color - a big event in that period - note the new set that the author helped him carry in), his former employers, National/DC and Jack Kirby. His admiration for Kirby is obvious, as is his disgust for editors who didn't appreciate his monumental talent.

 The Marvel Super-Heroes cartoon Romita discusses arrived on television screens in September of 1966. The animation was crude and barely animated, but it did utilize the art and (truncated) stories from Marvel comics. I still have a soft spot for the series, perhaps because I was at just the right age to be enthralled by these characters coming to life in my living room each night. Ad from Amazing Spider-Man # 43, December 1966. Art by Jack Kirby, Gene Colan and Marie Severin; inks by Chic Stone, Vince Colletta, Jack Abel and Don Heck.      

As a boy John Romita was inspired by Jack Kirby's artistry. In the 1950s he drew Kirby's co-creation, Captain America, molding together two of his greatest influences; the lush brushwork of master cartoonist Milton Caniff with Kirby's powerful imagery. In 1965 Romita had the opportunity to work with the master on a number of occasions. Here Romita provides finished art over Kirby layouts on a Hulk story. The work speaks for itself. Tales To Astonish # 77, March 1966. 

John Romita worked at Marvel for decades, as artist, art director and "go-to" guy. His clean, distinctive line, superb sense of storytelling and exceptional, poster like cover art drew readers in and sold comics month after month. On a personal level Mr. Romita is a true gentleman who loves talking about the business and celebrating the work of his peers. Now retired, Romita's work continues to be studied, respected and, most importantly - enjoyed.     

Special thanks to Fearless Frank Mastropaolo for his insight - and for keeping me on my toes!