I was such a comic-book addict as a kid in the 1970s that to this day all I need is a thumbnail sketch of a superhero’s head to discern the artist.
I was reminded of this the other day when my 15-year-old daughter walked through the living room wearing a Marvel T-shirt with a grid of characters’ faces on it, from A-listers — Hulk (smoothly rendered by Herb Trimpe, of course), Thor (the unmistakable Jack Kirby), Iron Man (Bob Layton, master of glistening metal) — to the supporting cast, like Hawkeye of the Avengers (John Byrne, after his star turn on X-Men) or, my personal favorite, Luke Cage, Hero for Hire (by Billy Graham, a Black illustrator better known for his work on Black Panther in a dozen issues of Jungle Action).
Luke Cage was a convict callously experimented on in prison, but still he used his resulting super-strength and bulletproof skin to do good on the mean streets of Harlem.
But then, if you stop to think about it, the happy dream fades, and thoughts turn to how all those guys sweating it out over a hot drafting table to conjure work of such staying power were mostly taken advantage of — grossly underpaid, no control over their own creations, no artist’s rights.
That’s an old story, although I wonder about the man behind the Spider-Man head on my daughter’s shirt, John Romita, who died last week at the age of 93. He may have started out in Marvel’s “bullpen” of artists, taking over The Amazing Spider-Man from the legendary weirdo Steve Ditko in 1966, but he went on to be the Marvel art director into the 1980s. Part of the power structure, in other words, for better or worse.
No one was more polished. Or accomplished. He remade the Spider-Man title into a groovy kind of soap opera, with a fire-haired love interest, Mary Jane Watson, a bellbottomed and Army-jacketed gang of friends and rivals, a better-looking Peter Parker, even a motorcycle for the former nerd of the Bunsen burner.
Some of Romita’s scenarios were so good they were borrowed wholesale for use in the Tobey Maguire movies decades later, one showing a downcast Peter walking off into the distance, leaving his Spidey suit dumped in a foreground alleyway garbage can. (“Spider-Man No More!” was the storyline.)
It’s hard to describe the pull those old images have. Artists like Romita fashioned worlds kids could get lost in, and did. But hey, there were worse things out there to find yourself hooked on.