John Romita Sr., creative force at Marvel Comics, is dead at 93

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John Romita Sr., creative force at Marvel Comics, is dead at 93
John Romita Sr. at his desk in New York, Jan. 3, 1980. Romita Sr., the influential comic book artist who illustrated Spider-Man in the superhero’s early years and helped create some of Marvel’s most beloved characters, including Mary Jane Watson and Wolverine, has died. He was 93. (William Sauro/The New York Times)

by Derrick Bryson Taylor and George Gene Gustines

NEW YORK, NY.- John Romita Sr., an influential comic book artist who helped define the look of Spider-Man and his alter ego, Peter Parker, and who helped create some of Marvel’s most beloved characters, including Mary Jane Watson and Wolverine, died Monday at his home in Floral Park, New York, on Long Island. He was 93.

His death was announced by his son, John Romita Jr., who is also a comic book artist.

“Millions came to know Marvel through his art, and millions more came to know Peter Parker through the unmistakable bold brushwork Romita brought to his pages,” Marvel said in a statement.

Romita took over artistic duties on Spider-Man, written by Stan Lee, in 1966, after Steve Ditko, the original artist and the character’s co-creator, left Marvel. Within a year, the title had become Marvel’s top seller.

That year, Romita drew the memorable image of Mary Jane Watson, who would become Peter Parker’s love interest, in which she famously declares, “Face it, Tiger ... you just hit the jackpot!” (In 1987, after she said “I do,” Romita drew the cover depicting their wedding.)

Lee and Romita also introduced many villains to Spider-Man’s gallery of rogues, including the Rhino, the Shocker and the Kingpin. And from 1973 until his retirement in 1996, Romita was an art director for Marvel.

“His version of the characters became the format for the characters in international editions and merchandise,” Romita Jr. said in an interview.

John Victor Romita was born Jan. 24, 1930, in Brooklyn, New York, the oldest of five children of Victor and Marie Romita. His father was a woodworker, his mother a homemaker.

His early interest in drawing was encouraged both at home and in school, according to a 2007 biography by Sue L. Hamilton. In 1938, he purchased two copies of Action Comics No. 1, in which Superman made his first appearance; he kept one safely in a bag while using the other as a drawing guide.

Romita began working as a commercial artist after graduating from the School of Industrial Art in Manhattan in 1947. But a chance meeting with a friend and former high school classmate, who worked for Stan Lee, led to his first break. Romita began secretly sketching comics in pencil for his friend, who would later go over them with ink and pass them off as his own work.

Taking his career into his own hands in the 1950s, Romita revealed that arrangement to Lee, who gave him the opportunity to work, part time, under his own name, Romita recalled in an interview with The Comics Reporter in 2002.

Arlen Schumer, the author of “The Silver Age of Comic Book Art” (2003), told the The New York Times in 2017 that Romita was a worthy successor to Ditko, adding that his “distinctive hand” as art director “could be seen on everything from covers to interior panels and pages, effectively supplanting the Marvel style once dominated by Jack Kirby” — the company’s original chief artist — in the ’60s.”

Romita said he was most proud of his work on two issues of Spider-Man in the early 1970s, when he began to distinguish his artistic vision of Spider-Man from that of Ditko.

“I always felt like a visitor on Spider-Man,” he told the Syfy channel in a 2017 interview. “Like I was always doing Ditko somehow. I was trying to keep the characters consistent.”

But, he said, by the time the scripts for issues No. 108 and No. 109 arrived on his desk, he was a different person, and he approached the work from a new angle. He started adding more solid black to his art as well as more embellishments to the characters’ clothing.

Romita was also known for creating the look and attitude of Mary Jane Watson, a character he said he had based partly on the actress and singer Ann-Margret. “We were trying to make a girl that was very with-it and very modern,” he said.

In a phone interview, Romita Jr. said: “The man had no ego. That kept us on the ground.” But, he added, his father was very proud of his work on Spider-Man.

Talking about Spider-Man, he recalled, became a family activity on car rides through Queens, the borough that Peter Parker called home. In the car, the family would discuss future Spider-Man stories. “I don’t know if he was being comedic or he really needed some input,” Romita Jr. said.

In addition to Romita Jr., Romita is survived by his wife, Virginia, who worked at Marvel as a production manager; another son, Victor; a grandson; and two granddaughters.

Romita defined or refined the looks of many memorable Marvel characters. He gave the Black Widow her sleek black bodysuit, he designed the initial look of Wolverine, and he adapted a sketch of a skull-and-crossbones emblem for the Punisher so that it took over his torso, adding a white belt that resembled teeth.

Though he was primarily associated with Marvel, Romita also did some work for DC Comics, from 1959 to 1966 — for the company’s romance comics, not its superhero titles. Paul Levitz, the former publisher of DC Comics, posted a memory about Romita on Facebook: “I smile remembering John calling to thank me for a very modest DC reprint fee check for a romance story he’d drawn,” which, Romita remarked, was for more than he had originally been paid for the story.

After Romita retired, he continued to take on individual projects for both Marvel and DC, including a 2014 cover for Superman after Romita Jr. had taken over the art for that series.

Romita told The Comics Reporter in 2002 that he regretted not having been part of the first generation of professional cartoonists, and that he thought of himself as following the lead of others.

“No matter what success I’ve had, I’ve always considered myself a guy who can improve on somebody else’s concepts,” he said. “A writer and another artist can create something, and I can make it better.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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