John Romita Sr.'s incredible legacy as the great Spider-Man artist

The comic book world is mourning the passing of industry giant John Romita Sr. today. He had a long career as an artist and art director, but his crowning achievement is his work on The Amazing Spider-Man in the 1960s and 1970s, which helped to define the character for generations.

Romita started his run on The Amazing Spider-Man in 1966, on issue #39, after a dispute between Spider-Man co-creators artist/plotter Steve Ditko and writer/editor Stan Lee led to Ditko's departure from Marvel.

Before that, Romita had mostly been known as a romance comics artist at DC Comics. 

It may have seemed an odd choice to have a romance artist take over a superhero comic that was Marvel's second-biggest selling title.

But it was a genius move on Lee's part, because he must have recognized that although Spider-Man had its super-heroics and fighting, it had an emotional and melodramatic undercurrent that was unprecedented for a superhero book.

When Romita's DC Comics romance work had dried up, he landed a job at an advertising agency.  But Lee intervened, took him to a three-hour lunch, and promised to match the agency's salary if Romita would come to Marvel as a penciler. Lee initially had him do some other superhero work as a kind of tryout, but with a growing dispute with Ditko (the nature of which is the subject of avid speculation to this day), he was grooming him to take over Spider-Man.

Romita said that when he started on Spider-Man he was careful to evoke his predecessor Ditko's style.

"I always felt like a visitor on Spider-Man," Mr. Romita said. "Like I was always doing Ditko somehow. I was trying to keep the characters consistent." He said that by the time issues 108 and 109 arrived on his desk, he was a different person and approached the work from a new angle. "You'll see more blacks and slashing clothing lines than ever I did in Spider-Man, and there are scenes in there that I'm very proud of."

But as is always the case when an artist tries to copy the style of another, his true style shined through right from the start.  Here is some of his work the mentioned issue #108, when he felt he really came into his own.

These two photos I took of Romita original splash pages at a 2017 Society of Illustrators showing of his work highlight the brilliant composition and powerful drama of Romita's art.

Also, it diminishes Romita's contribution to Spider-Man to say that he was "only" an artist.  In the "Marvel method" of comic book creation, the writer (sometimes in conversation with the artist) produces the plot of the story (sometimes a detailed outline, sometimes just a sentence), and then the penciler structures the entire story by drawing it in its entirety, setting scenes, panels, pacing, and beats.  Then the writer inserts the dialog.

The relative contribution of Lee and his artists is the subject of endless debate, but it's clear that Romita did much of the plotting and non-dialog "writing" of Spider-Man.  The dialog stayed consistent, but the stories when Romita was the artist were identifiably different from before and after he was on the book.

I regard Romita's work on Amazing Spider-Man to be one of the truly greatest runs in the history of comic books. It was my thrilling entry to superhero comics from the moment a first laid eyes on in a barber shop.

Thank you, John Romita.