The Artist’s Spider-Man: John Romita Sr.’s Muscular Melodrama
Over the past half a century, many artists have put their own spin on the hero who came to be Marvel’s best known and best-loved character, Spider-Man. With this series, The Artist's Spider-Man, ComicsAlliance takes a look at the artists who made the character their own, and had the biggest influence on those that followed.
Steve Ditko co-created Spider-Man, but the artist who arguably made him a mainstream superhero was his successor, John Romita Sr. Working with writer Stan Lee, Romita polished many of the rough edges that Ditko intentionally made part of the Spider-Man's DNA, and in the process made him the highly adaptable character he is today.
Shockingly, Romita didn't really want the job of drawing Amazing Spider-Man after Ditko's abrupt departure following issue #38. Romita had been working on Daredevil, and wanted to keep drawing that book. In an interview with Alter Ego, he said:
The only reason I did Spider-Man was because Stan asked me and I felt that I should help out, like a good soldier. I never really felt comfortable on Spider-Man for years. I had felt at home immediately on Daredevil. On Spider-Man I felt obliged to ghost Ditko because --- this may sound naive, but I was convinced, in my own mind, that he was going to come back in two or three issues... The only reason it wasn't better was that I couldn't ape him any better.
Yet Romita brought a very distinct style to the book; in may ways, it felt like a purposeful turn from Ditko's idiosyncratic style. Spider-Man got more muscular and began to look more like a traditional superhero, and the handful of villains Romita co-created during his first run on the character --- The Shocker, Rhino, Kingpin --- were a little less weird than Ditko's creations. (Ditko's villain creations included a man with a fishbowl head and a man with a lightning bolt head.)
They were also, at least in the cases of Rhino and the Kingpin, huge. This was ostensibly to maintain the idea that Spider-Man was still the underdog, even though Peter Parker was looking more and more like a bodybuilder.
When he took the Spider-Man job, Romita had drawn his share of superhero stories featuring Captain America, The Avengers and other characters, but he spent a good portion of the late 1950s and early 1960s working on romance comics. The titles he worked on included Young Love, Girls' Romances and Heart Throbs. That background also clearly influenced Romita's Spider-Man work. Though Peter had begun dating Gwen Stacy as Ditko's run came to an end, the romance stories really ramped up under Romita and, for lack of a better term, the characters got prettier.
Undoubtedly the most important character Romita designed was Peter Parker's eventual wife (until she wasn't), Mary Jane Watson, whom Romita said he designed after Ann Margaret from the movie Bye-Bye Birdie.
The introduction of Mary Jane (who would become far more than just a love interest over the decades) led to the love triangle plots that would become a regular and expected part of the character's comics. In general, Peter's social life (including on campus at Empire State University, where protests raged) became a more important part of the book.
These elements were a huge hit with readers, and within a year of Romita's initial run on the character, Amazing Spider-Man was the top-selling Marvel comic. That's perhaps why the more muscular, notably more handsome Romita version of the character became the template artists would follow for decades to come.
Or perhaps it was because Romita stuck around.
Unlike Ditko, who never returned to the character, Romita stayed at Marvel, serving as the publisher's art director through much of the 1970s and periodically returning to create covers, draw special interior art or collaborate with his artist son (who we'll get to in this series eventually).
The real proof that his Spider-Man is the definitive version for many: Romita drew the Spider-Man used for the Spider-Man commemorative stamp in 2007. That's about as official as it gets.