- John Romita’s early work in the 1950s lacked a distinctive style and did not stand out, but there were subtle improvements over time.
- Romita’s work in romance comic books at DC in the late 1950s/early 1960s allowed him to develop a more stylized approach and dynamic storytelling.
- When Romita returned to Marvel, his romance work directly influenced his iconic artwork in Amazing Spider-Man, leading to more dynamic action and better page designs.
Knowledge Waits is a feature where I just share some bit of comic book history that interests me. Today, I discuss how John Romita’s romance comic book work at DC in the late 1950s/early 1960s transformed him into the superstar artist he would be at Marvel for the next few decades.
John Romita passed away a few months back, and it is fascinating to me that so many of the tributes to the man definitely ACKNOWLEDGED that his work in romance comic books was an important part of his career, but for the most part, there weren’t too many proper explanations of just HOW Romita’s romance work inspired his iconic superhero work when he returned to Marvel in the mid-1960s and eventually reshaped Amazing Spider-Man for generations to come.
So let’s take a look at just why his romance work proved to be so important to his development into a comic book superstar.
The evolution of John Romita in his first go-around at Marvel Comics
When John Romita started at Marvel in the 1950s, I think the best word to describe his work would be competent. It was fine. it wasn’t BAD, but nor did it stand out much at all. Here’s a 1951 western page from Kid Colt, Outlaw #17 by Romita. It’s just sort of…there.
But, again, this was very early in his career. He’s 21 years old. He’s so young and inexperienced. Well, the problem is that when you skip five or so years ahead, there’s clearly been improvement on this Western Kid #8 page, but not as much as you would think…
Don’t get me wrong, though, there clearly IS improvement. The characters’ expressions are sharper, there’s more going on in the panels, more dynamism, but it still doesn’t exactly stand out. This makes sense, too, when you’re just sort of stuck in the grind of the era. Romita explained as much to the late, great Tom Spurgeon in a 2003 The Comics Journal interview, noting, “When you’re doing the work, you don’t have the time for reflection and theory. You’re just glad to get the pages out. And the quicker you get the pages out, the quicker you get the check and the next story. So, what happens is you go into this cycle, like a guinea pig on a wheel: You just keep running until they don’t have any more wheel for you.”
Romita went even further, adding, “I never felt adequate. It was a terrible affliction. I also felt like I was a style-less artist, a guy with no style, a generic illustrator. The guys who did the toothpaste ads, they were good artists, but I ended up having that generic toothpaste smile on all of my characters. I always felt inadequate because of that. I felt like I didn’t have enough personality. I felt like it was a failure of mine for not being an adult storyteller. So I suffered from feelings of inadequacy all through the 1950s. It was terrible.”
Romita obviously was going too far in his criticism of his 1950s work, but at the same time, there certainly is SOME truth there, as that’s really what is so shocking about his work, it was how GENERIC so much of his work looked at the time. Again, not BAD work, but it didn’t stand out at all.
What’s interesting is that Romita actually started doing romance comic books at Marvel, as he did all sorts of genre, and looking at this 1954 Love Romances #35 page, there’s still not a whole lot of “there” there. It’s such a plain page…
However, it is fair to note that Romita, at the time, was working in so many genres that it would be difficult for him to develop a style, per se, when he had to switch from one to the other repeatedly. It probably explains why he just settled for a sort of generic approach for all of them.
How romance comics forced John Romita to evolve as a comic book artist
In 1958, due a failed distribution deal, Marvel (then mostly known as Atlas) practically had to shut down completely, and there was essentially no work for any of its artists, so Romita had to go to DC, where he had already been doing the occasional freelance romance comic book, and now he was going to be full-time at DC as a romance artist.
His early work was pretty similar to his Marvel work (although I think there was a certain improvement to the work, as I imagine Romita was trying his best to impress)…
However, the longer he was concentrating on his DC romance work, there was a clear uptick in two areas. One, his character work became more and more stylized, and two, his storytelling became much more dynamic, which, of course, was ironic since the stories themselves weren’t exactly dynamic. Romita would work with the editor on the opening splash pages of the stories (which would serve as sort of mini-covers within the comic itself), and the best splash pages would then be used as covers, and Romita was quickly a regular on the covers of the books. He and editor Phyllis Reed would work together on the plotting of those splash pages, as they would serve as inspirations to the writers (like Robert Kanigher) as springboards for stories, just likw how Mort Weisinger and Julius Schwartz would create a cover and have their writers come up with a solution to the problem posed on the cover.
Look at the angles – Romita was learning that you could change so much about a page just by adjusting angles (something he always credited as a lesson he learned from Alex Toth). It’s so sharp and dynamic.
See how the women were now looking like “Romita women,” too? Part of that is that he didn’t have Bernard Sachs’ heavy inks on his stuff as much, but still, whatever the reason, Romita was now developing a distinctive style, and his storytelling was becoming dynamic and extremely compelling.
How Romita’s romance comic book work directly influenced his return to Marvel Comics
When Romita’s DC romance work dried up in 1965 from a lull in the industry (which caused DC to suddenly have a lot of stories piled up, so the company decided to not take as many new stories in), he moved over to Marvel, where his old editor Stan Lee was sitll working, and after a brief stint on Daredevil, Romita moved over to Amazing Spider-Man, and we quickly saw how the romance work inspired his new Marvel comic book work.
For one, obviously, he famously brought over that gorgeous “Romita women” look to the book, giving it a more popular soap opera-driven feel to the stories. Just look at Romita’s Gwen Stacy, she’s practically dancing off of the page!
And, of course, there is the iconic introduction of Mary Jane a few issues earlier. Just look at how well constructed this page is! Peter’s expression and pose is spot on…
and then, of course, THE moment…
Everything about his work was now more dynamic due to the things that he learned from his time on the romance books, and it led to better action…
And, most importantly, it led to a striking increase in his ability to design a page. This led to him coming up with some of the most iconic sequences of the era, like a distraught Peter Parker freaking out over having too much on his plate…
and the resulting stress leads to him quitting as Spider-Man (for a few pages, at least)…
Romita explained to Spurgeon that he felt that romance comic book work was a great way to teach comic book art, ” I will tell you that if I were to take a comic company, if I had taken one in the ’60s, I would have had everyone trained in animation and in romance stories as well as adventure stuff because it forces you to make something out of nothing. There are certain gaps in stories where nothing is happening and the artist has the responsibility of making it visually entertaining.”
And that’s just what Romita did to his own work after his romance era ended.
If anyone has suggestions about interesting pieces of comic book history, feel free to drop me a line at email@example.com.
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