John Romita Sr., a transformative figure whose ink-dipped brush stroke captivated millions of Marvel fans and irreversibly shaped the face of superhero comic books, passed away on June 12, 2023, at the age of 93. He was a legendary artist and inspiration to many who followed him, whose influence remains embedded in the pages of comic history, from the flamboyant panels of Spider-Man to the iconic costumes of the Punisher and Wolverine.
Born on January 24, 1930, in Brooklyn, New York City, Romita’s artistic journey had an auspicious start. His first foray into the comics industry was with the 1949 series, Famous Funnies on a love story. His career was briefly interrupted when he was drafted for the Korean War in 1951. During his service, Romita spent 18 months on Governors Island, utilizing his artistic prowess to produce compelling recruiting posters.
Romita’s post-war career took him to Atlas Comics, where his burgeoning talent was tested on non-superhero genres.
In the racially tense times of the mid-50s, he penciled three issues of the controversial and briefly revived Captain America Comics, a narrative that unabashedly depicted themes of racism and violence during a time that celebrated political conformity and strong anti-communism sentiment.
However, the Atlas Implosion of 1957, an unfortunate fallout from distribution restrictions, led to his temporary displacement to DC Comics. At DC, he spent eight years honing his craft on Romance Comics, leaving an indelible touch that would later inform his work on Marvel’s Spider-Man and other key titles.
By the time he returned to the fold at Marvel in the 60s, Romita had developed a unique ability to fill the creative void left by departing artists.
He inked Jack Kirby on the cover of Avengers 23, 1965 before assuming the mantle from Wally Wood on Daredevil in 1965, from Steve Ditko on Spider-Man in 1966, and from Jack Kirby on Fantastic Four in 1970, each time seamlessly extending their narrative legacies.
Among his many celebrated contributions to the Marvel universe was the design of Mary Jane, the fiery redhead and Peter Parker’s love interest, which he reportedly modeled after the actress Ann-Margret. This character design would become iconic and widely celebrated, marking its 30th anniversary with Stan Lee in 1996.
In the 70s, John Romita Sr. began an artistic camaraderie with Milton Caniff, his idol, and creator of the Terry and the Pirates Newspaper strip.
One of his key design contributions came in 1969 with the creation of Kingpin’s wife, who was modeled as a middle-aged version of Milton Caniff’s Dragon Lady, created in the 1930s.
Romita’s own love for Caniff’s storytelling style, which he nurtured during his time at the School of Visual Arts, was also evident in his portrayal of Spider-Man’s battles with various enemies including the Kingpin, whom he modeled after actor Sydney Greenstreet.
Throughout his illustrious career, Romita didn’t shy away from commentary on the sociopolitical climate of his time. This was notably seen in the 1971 Cap 144, where he drew the cover art of a compelling backup story about Sam Wilson’s quest to find his place in the city by Gary Friedrich and Gray Morrow. It was a beautifully drawn and socially relevant piece depicting the African-American hero as his own man, and not a side-kick, echoing the changing tides of the era.
The 70s saw Romita, a devoted family man, always put in the time to fulfill his obligations at the Marvel bullpen along other luminaries such as Gil Kane and Herbe Trimpe, with whom he collaborated on some comic books.
One of his memorable collaborations came in the early 70s when he and Herb Trimpe created exceptional artwork for Conan the Barbarian and Hulk, maintaining Marvel’s dynamic choreography even as the company moved towards anti-hero narratives.
Their camaraderie was further enriched by their close proximity in the Marvel Bullpen, which seemed to be echoed in this marvel art portfolio ad depicting the two pencilers.
By 1975, however, he gave fans a treat with his artwork for the Spidey Super Stories covers, offering more of his signature Spider-Man imagery.
In the midst of the societal turbulence in the mid-70s, Romita was instrumental in designing the costumes of anti-heroes Punisher and Wolverine, characters that resonated with a disillusioned populace.
His artwork, reflective of the era’s chaotic dynamism and his fondness for Alex Schomburg, also found expression in the 1975 Invaders 1 cover.
Romita’s talents were not confined to Marvel alone. He contributed to the first Marvel & DC collaboration comic, the 1975 Wizard of Oz Treasury Edition, which led to the companies putting out the Superman vs Spider-Man comic book a year later.
A particularly beloved aspect of his legacy lives on in the vibrant panels of The Spider-Man Newspaper Strip, which he co-created with Stan Lee in 1977, a series that continued till its end in 2019. Notably, the strip served as a testament to Romita’s distinctive storytelling style, amalgamating humor, romance, and high-stakes action into a single vibrant narrative. He always sought to add a personal touch to his work, such as incorporating local famous faces of each generation into this panel shown here in 1979.
In 1991, Romita beamed with pride at the success of his son, John Romita Jr in a Stan Lee interview, with whom they collaborated on an art piece for the host. Their works, stated here, reflected the strong influence of strip artists like Caniff and actresses such as Ann-Margret and Pam Grier.
Through his artistic journey, Romita never lost his connection to his early years as a romance comic artist. This was evident when he penciled a Spider-Man prequel adventure in 1997, a tale that unveiled Peter Parker’s parents’ secret life as CIA spies and lovers.
Despite his celebrated work at Marvel, Romita remained open to other artistic endeavors. A case in point was the 1997 convention sketch of DC Comic’s Superman, demonstrating his versatility and willingness to step beyond the boundaries of the Marvel universe.
John Romita Sr. leaves behind an enduring legacy. He breathed life into comic book pages, creating vibrant and enduring characters that have captivated readers for decades. His ability to embody the spirit of an era, to encapsulate the struggles and triumphs of generations, makes him an irreplaceable pillar in the pantheon of comic book artists.
His passing marks the end of an era, but his influence remains indelible. As we mourn his loss, we also celebrate the life of a creative force whose work has shaped, and will continue to shape, the landscape of comic book art for years to come. John Romita Sr. – a true maestro of the medium – will be profoundly missed.
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