Review by Frank Plowright
John Romita’s hardcover selection as a Marvel Visionary is far more concentrated than any of the remainder. His influence at Marvel was vast, not as much due to the comics he drew, but in the time and advice he gave others in his post as Marvel’s art director.
When he arrived at Marvel in 1964, he needed advice of his own. He felt years drawing romance comics left him without the necessary dynamism for superheroes, so asked Jack Kirby to lay out his earlier stories. Two examples are here, starring the Hulk and Captain America. While both are professional, it’s an odd combination, and Romita’s work improved via finding his own path. He lacks Kirby’s raw power, but the athletic grace he brings to his pages is something Kirby couldn’t manage, and all those romance pages sure paid off when illustrating Peter Parker’s social life.
The book opens with 1950s strips. Romita’s skill is already evident in these daft supernatural and science-fiction mash-ups, but his Captain America of that era is based on the all-motion Milton Caniff school of newspaper strip art. It’s not as successful, and the scripts are fossilised.
In story terms it’s only well towards the halfway point that the material takes off. Early Daredevil’s not aged well, primarily due to not yet finding his milieu, so it’s with Spider-Man reprints that we hit gold. There are a lot, as it’s both the strip on which Romita’s artistic reputation rests, and the one he drew almost to the exclusion of all others. While other Marvel artists switched around, Romita’s editorial duties eventually permitted little time for pencilling comics. Representative issues from his five Fantastic Four outings and eight on Captain America are here, but the remaining superhero strips in total are outnumbered by Spider-Man issues.
Those open with a landmark, revealing the Green Goblin’s identity. Stan Lee’s dialogue is somewhat melodramatic for today’s tastes, but he has a fine sense of dramatic pacing, and the plot hits all the right beats on the way to a still surprising final battle, albeit one undermined by time. That’s followed by a full introduction for Mary Jane Watson ending an otherwise ordinary tale, and another genuine surprise as Peter Parker gives up his Spider-Man career. After some collaborations with Mike Esposito inking, here credited under the alias Mickey Demeo, Romita was unusual at Marvel in that he both pencilled and inked his pages.
John Romita Jr’s favourite work of his father’s is the brief early 1970s stint pencilling Captain America. It stands out, not only via some social relevance in Lee’s script, but a focus more on the Falcon and Spider-Man. Lee’s inspiration is missing from the FF work, where Romita’s Kirbyeseque layouts are the most interesting element among a lacklustre and melodramatic plot.
Satana’s introduction is silly, but showcases Romita’s pencilling in black and white, and with the limitations of 1960s and 1970s colouring evident elsewhere, the four pages are a highlight.
Two 1990s strips close the book, and despite not having drawn regular comics for years Romita hadn’t lost instinctive skills. Al Milgrom’s inks on a strip about Peter Parker’s parents don’t showcase Romita at his best, but Roger Stern’s script toying with James Bond’s style entertains and throws in a couple of surprises.
The closing section is assorted sketches, covers, designs, posters and two weeks sample continuity for the proposed 1970s Spider-Man newspaper strip. That’s no masterpiece, and muddily reproduced, but displays Romita confidently adjusting to the discipline.
This hardcover represents Romita well, but the stories he’s illustrating aren’t top rank.