When it comes to Spider-Man, I’m all about the Romitas

Spider-Man hits his big 60th birthday this year, and he’s still swinging along as strongly as ever. Dozens and dozens of great artists have drawn his adventures since 1962, but when I picture Spidey in my head, it’s always a Romita Spidey.

The father-son duo of John Romita Sr and John Romita Jr are inextricably linked in my head when I think of Peter Parker. For 56 of Spidey’s 60 years, they’ve been involved in drawing him. To me, they are Spider-Man. 

Co-creator Steve Ditko’s wiry, nerdy Spider-Man set the standard for the character, don’t get me wrong. I love Ditko and he set the template all others have followed. Ross Andru, Gil Kane and Mark Bagley were all indebted to the Romita and Ditko template. Todd McFarlane’s antic, spidery look for the character launched an entire comics movement in the 1990s, while Ron Frenz combined the best of Ditko and the Romitas for a punchy ‘80s incarnation of Spidey.

But still, I’m all about the Romitas. Romita Sr was the first artist to take on Spider-Man after Ditko left, starting with Amazing Spider-Man #39 way back in 1966. His style was bolder, more confident than Ditko, his Peter Parker a handsome everyman instead of Ditko’s exhausted loser. His women were gorgeous – he’s the one who first drew Mary Jane Watson. He was also more “mainstream” – there’s a reason that Romita’s images of Marvel characters set the company standard in the 1970s, appearing on merchandising galore. Romita was never quite as flashy as Ditko or McFarlane, but he was always dependably powerful. Long retired, Romita Sr is still with us at 92.

And then there’s the son, who has actually gone on to surpass the father. John Romita Jr has been drawing issues of Amazing Spider-Man on and off now for an astounding FORTY years, which has to be close to some kind of record. His first issue was Amazing Spider-Man #208 from 1980; his latest is Amazing Spider-Man #902 (*also known as Amazing Spider-Man, 2022 series #8, because they can’t stop friggin’ relaunching these series every year or two lately).

I’m racking my brain to think of another artist who drew the same character intermittently over a nearly 700-issue span, but coming up blank – I don’t think even Superman’s legendary artist Curt Swan quite achieved that. 

Romita Jr, 66, is now a senior citizen himself which is kind of stunning, as I still mentally think of him as the pumped young apprentice taking up his father’s drawing board decades ago. The issues where young Romita Jr first caught my eye was a two-part story in Amazing Spider-Man #229 and #230, where Spidey fought the Juggernaut, a Hulk-level behemoth way out of his league. That was in the middle of a fantastic run by writer Roger Stern and Romita widely judged to be one of the best Spidey periods of all time.

In these two issues, Romita Jr captured both the massive, unstoppable Juggernaut and the wily, indefatigable Spider-Man perfectly – each panel clearly lays out the impossible odds and stakes of the battle. Spider-Man is strong and determined and yet refreshingly human in scale. 

Both Romitas excel at giving Spider-Man weight on the printed page, which might seem a strange requirement for a character who’s always hopping and swinging about. They’re also both experts at clear storytelling, a style which went out of vogue in the McFarlane-dominated years but has come back into fashion. I think Spider-Man needs a degree of realism to keep the character grounded, and when artists get too abstract and distorted drawing him, it never quite works for me. 

Much as I love Spider-Man I tend to dip in and out of regular comics-buying depending on how good the current creative team is. The dismal clone saga of the late 1990s broke the habit for me and I don’t need to be a completist forever. But Romita Jr’s latest Amazing Spider-Man run with writer Zeb Wells is refreshingly fun, back to basics comic storytelling – and his art is a big part of the dynamic feel. His villains like Tombstone and the Vulture are hulking, ominous and grotesque, while his Spider-Man is, as always, strong yet a bit fragile. 

Romita Jr hasn’t stayed on Spidey that entire 40 years, of course – he’s come and gone many times – but like Spider-Man himself, he always bounces back. His style has changed a lot – become more blocky and angular, with big, bold panels – and not everyone likes that. It doesn’t always work in quieter scenes, where his humans can look a little baroque, but in the action scenes, Romita Jr still delivers. His storytelling is still among the top of the field. Fight scenes from recent issues are crisply delineated, with bold figures moving powerfully.

Decades after they first wowed me, the Romitas have still got it.  

Movies I Have Never Seen #19: Megaforce (1982)

What is it: Forty years ago, children around the world lined up to celebrate the greatest cinematic experience of their time. They played with the toys, they read the storybooks, they dove into the rich fictional world. Unfortunately for the creators of the 1982 flop Megaforce, it wasn’t their world, but that of E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial. The strange, toy-etic action flick Megaforce was part of a weird wave of would-be early ‘80s sci-fi franchises that were blatantly ripping off elements of Star Wars and Mad Max. Somewhere, a world exists where movies like this and its kinfolk Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone, Metalstorm: The Destruction of Jared-Syn and Krull received multiple sequels. It isn’t this one. 

The plot of Megaforce, such as it is, is about a futuristic UN-esque peacekeeping agency who ride around on motorbikes and dune buggies and fight a vaguely stereotypical foreign gang. Our star is none other than a wild-eyed Barry Bostwick of Rocky Horror and Spin City fame, perhaps the last actor on earth you’d cast as your leading man in a post-apocalyptic action flick. With a headband harnessing grand flowing locks of ‘80s hair and beard and a skintight shiny uniform that leaves absolutely nothing to the imagination, Bostwick’s awesomely named Ace Hunter is indeed a sight to behold. And that doesn’t even get into the flying motorbike scene featured at Megaforce’s climax, perhaps the film’s finest moment of sheer kitsch.

Why I never saw it: Wait, was it ever even in theatres? Or home video? Megaforce kind of sank from the world, the only evidence it existed comic-book ads, an Atari videogame and a line of tie-in vehicle toys that were mostly forgotten the moment they were released. It made less than $6 million worldwide and vanished. I might not have even clocked Megaforce’s existence if it weren’t for an onslaught of comic book ads for it in 1982. I’ve already written about how 1982 was my year of comics awakening, and you couldn’t pick up an issue of Star Wars or Marvel Team-Up without seeing Megaforce’s cheery manly ad on the back cover with a pumped-up Bostwick and the slogan “Deeds, Not Words” staring at you. Why, you could even get a Megaforce Membership Kit for a mere $1.00! Years later, I finally set out to find out what the fuss was all about.

Does it measure up to its rep? It had talent, in theory – director Hal Needham was behind Smokey and the Bandit and The Cannonball Run, so he knew how to make movies about loud cars and broad characters. But Megaforce is on the more dismal end of non-starter sci-fi cheapies of the early ‘80s (I’ve got a soft spot for Krull, I admit). Most of the movie is about explaining what Megaforce is, leading up to and training for the underwhelming battles, and enjoying Barry Bostwick’s luxurious hair. Bostwick brings a jovial energy to the movie that the story never rises to meet. Co-star Persis Khambatta (Star Trek: The Motion Picture) makes Bostwick look like Laurence Olivier and the rest of the cast are generic action stereotypes. The motorcycle battles – endless – get boring very quickly and nothing much really happens in Megaforce. There’s no stakes, no emotion, no sense of the wider world, just a few glimmers of the cheesy masterpiece it could’ve been if Ace Hunter had been allowed to really cut loose.

Worth seeing? To be honest… no, unless you’re in a very particular sort of mood and crave a particular sort of guilty pleasure. Maybe it’s just finally catching up 40 years later to seeing what that omnipresent comic book ad was all about. Even for a bomb, Megaforce doesn’t maintain the kitsch heights of The Room or Battlefield Earth. But … despite the slapdash storytelling, the long stretches where nothing much happens, the unforgettable sight of Barry’s Bostwick in too-tight tan spandex … there’s something I find kind of adorable about Megaforce and its willingness to fail big. Deeds, not words, indeed. 

The art of adaptation: Neil Gaiman’s Sandman

I first read Neil Gaiman’s Sandman comic beginning with #8, more than 30 years ago now. It was pitched as an introductory issue for new readers, a catching of breath after a hectic opening storyline for the series, and simply featured the godlike Dream, the lord of the night, catching up with his sister, Death, as she goes about her duties. It’s also one of the best things Gaiman’s ever written, humane and heartbreaking. 

It’s exactly the sort of story I’d worry about seeing turned into Netflix “content” in this age of comics being adapted for everything.

I shouldn’t have worried. 

Episode 6 of the new Gaiman-endorsed Sandman series, “The Sound of Her Wings,” which adapts that eighth issue and another classic story, is one of the best bits of TV this year and greatest feats of comics adaptation I’ve seen. (I’m not alone in this slightly hyperbolic verdict.)  

“The Sound of Her Wings” walks the tricky line between rote recitation and making the story come to life. Pairing it with a take on Sandman #13, a stand-alone story of a man who’s granted immortality by Death and his once-a-century meetings with Dream, is a masterstroke. “The Sound of Her Wings” episode becomes a sweeping meditation on what gives life and death meaning, even if you’re an immortal being, on the little triumphs and failures that make up the time we get. 

Even though I’ve read these two comics so many times I practically had them memorised, the gorgeous adaptations still left me a choked-up sentimental fool at the end. 

Adaptations are funny things in comics. I still remember the giddy thrill of simply seeing Batman fight the Joker on the big screen in 1989, or of watching Spider-Man swing past actual skyscrapers. Us comics nerds were famished for any recognition in those long-ago pre-extended universe times, for any hint of seeing characters come to life. (This is probably why I actually saw the Howard The Duck movie in cinemas.) These days, dozens and dozens of comics are being adapted to different mediums, and novelty alone isn’t enough. 

But not every adaptation works. The 2009 Watchmen movie felt spot-on in a few ways, yet strangely hollow in others. It felt a bit like a cover version of the graphic novel, never quite capturing what makes Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ story soar. 

Often you’ll get a mix-and-match of great comic book stories into film – Avengers: Infinity War takes elements from Jim Starlin’s Infinity Gauntlet miniseries, and weaves a different tale around them. The Winter Soldier took a lot from Ed Brubaker’s excellent Captain America comics, but was a fairly loose actual adaptation of them. 

We’re starting to see more and more comics movies and films going beyond superheroes – which can only be a good thing. Some of them swing and miss – that Preacher series didn’t do a thing for me – but we still get gems like Sandman, Paper Girls, Resident Alien and Sweet Tooth. 

“The Sound of Her Wings” immediately had me running back to re-read the comics for the 500th time or so. In the end, I feel like an adaptation should be a guide, a pointer towards the source, rather than seen as an attempt to improve on it. 

I’d never say Sandman the series supersedes the comics it faithfully adapts, but it certainly complements them in ways I’d never … well, dreamed. 

Vanished world: The immortal journalism of Joseph Mitchell

Life comes at you fast. Somehow, I’ve been a working, paid journalist for 30 years now, and the industry is almost an entirely different animal than it was back in 1992 when I started getting my first bylines in the college newspaper. 

I came in just as the digital world started to change everything. The town newspaper I first worked at professionally in small-town Mississippi still had dusty trays of hot type slugs tucked under the composing table. While chunky early Macs were being used to lay out the pages by then, the final layouts were still painstakingly pasted up from print-outs before being walked over to the press room. These days, much of my journalism work is in mediums I wouldn’t have even quite comprehended in 1992. 

The appeal of journalism for many newcomers is a fundamentally romantic one. The big scoop! The breaking news! It’s never exactly as you imagined it, of course, and there’s plenty of dull moments, like there are in any job. In recent months, I’ve been revisiting the work of one of the patron saints of long-form journalism to spark inspiration and to remember that at its heart, before counting clicks and hot takes and fighting misinformation, it’s all about telling a story.

Few people told a story better than Joseph Mitchell, who walked the streets of New York for a variety of long-gone papers nearly a century ago, before going on to become one of the best-loved New Yorker writers of all time.  

Mitchell was the bard of cheap dives and eccentrics, finding stories to tell far away from the ivory towers. “I believe the most interesting human beings, as far as talk is concerned, are anthropologists, farmers, prostitutes, psychiatrists, and an occasional bartender,” he’d write.

His most famous work, Joe Gould’s Secret, memorably explored a bohemian “blithe and emaciated man” who claimed to be writing the longest book in history – or maybe he wasn’t. 

But Mitchell wasn’t just about the oddballs – his “Mr. Hunter’s Grave” is a gorgeous, sensitive look at an elderly Black man at the end of his days, while “Up In The Old Hotel” is a captivating read about mysteries hidden in Manhattan’s old buildings. “McSorley’s Wonderful Saloon” evokes every beer stain and cigar stub at the oldest Irish bar in New York and its impossibly stern manager, who served only one kind of ale and would close up if the bar got too crowded with “too much confounded trade.” 

Mitchell is all meat, no fat in his writing, and many of us journalists today could learn from his economic, indelible descriptions – a man whose “profanity was so vigorous I expected it to leave cavities in his teeth,” or former President Herbert Hoover, who had “the face of a fat baby troubled by gas pains.” But clarity is the guiding light – he’d note, “A newspaper can have no bigger nuisance than a reporter who is always trying to write literature.”

“The best talk is artless,” Mitchell would write. “The talk of people trying to reassure or comfort themselves, women in the sun, grouped around baby carriages, talking about their weeks in the hospital or the way meat has gone up, or men in saloons, talking to combat the loneliness everyone feels.” 

Decades after his death, it’s worth mentioning there is some controversy over how Mitchell may have blurred the line between fact and fiction in some of his later work. It’s a fuzzy line that probably shouldn’t have been crossed, although times were different then, and the essential core of his storytelling remains based on fact. 

Leaving the desk and hitting the streets to find your story has gotten less and less common as journalism has changed, as stories are put together via scraping social media posts or quick emails to the same talking heads over and over. I’m as guilty as anyone else of this tactic, but have to admit that over my 30 years now in the industry the stories I remember most are the ones where I went out and talked to another human being face to face, listening to their ‘artless talk’ and their stories. Mitchell’s world is long gone, but his writing remains a touchstone for me. 

Joe Mitchell’s best is collected in the essential collections Up In The Old Hotel and My Ears Are Bent. Decades after he scribbled his bylines, it’s all still mandatory reading for anyone who wonders what journalism and telling people’s stories should be about. 

Back on the big screen: New Zealand International Film Festival

Life isn’t entirely normal yet, and may not be for a while, but at least I can go to film festivals again.

During the strictest of New Zealand’s lockdowns, cinemas were all shut down, and one big casualty the last few Covid-addled years has been the New Zealand International Film Festival, which suffered from cancellations, postponements and management problems in 2020 and 2021.

Ever since I moved here in 2006, NZIFF has been a highlight of the calendar year, a time when Auckland gets to pretend it’s the centre of the cinematic universe for a week or so and enjoy the buzziest hits from Cannes, amazing revival classics and hidden gems that change your brain. I’ve watched dozens and dozens of NZIFF movies over the last 16 years, and I missed it dearly in these Covid days. 

This year’s festival isn’t quite up to full speed compared with the before times – it is shorter and smaller – but I still managed to catch several great films this week mostly at Auckland’s legendarily awesome Civic Theatre, the best place in New Zealand to watch a movie. 

I love my Marvel cinematic universe and all that jazz, but a well-curated film fest is a whole different vibe, one that engages new parts of the brain. It celebrates the communal joys of art, too – at a time when doing anything as a community feels a bit fraught, it’s good to be reminded there are benefits to it. 

I would’ve liked to fit more in my schedule, but only four movies made the cut for me this year. I watched an intimate and witty documentary on the late great author, Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck In Time; South Korean icon Park Chan-Wook’s exquisitely crafted twisty romantic detective thriller Decision To Leave; the harrowing and weirdly life-affirming documentary about two married volcanologists Fire Of Love, and this year’s Cannes Palme D’Or winner, the scabrously funny, filthy Swedish satire Triangle of Sadness. 

Triangle of Sadness is a divisive movie among the critics but in a packed gorgeous old cinema, this barbed attack on influencer culture and the privilege of the wealthy felt like a perfect film festival experience. A story of two young and vapid gorgeous people who end up on a cruise ship that turns into a Lord of the Flies-esque fiasco complete with plentiful vomiting and even worse, it’s not subtle. It’s not a deep satire, and it might be a little long. Yet its outraged, shouty and impotent tone somehow seems to mirror the weirdness that is life in 2022. It’s the movie for the moment, as we’re all a little bit stuck in our own personal cruise ship voyages from hell. In the end, you have to laugh about how absurd everything is, don’t you?

Without a film festival to gather up all the visions of the world, from South Korean noir to Swedish ennui, it’d be a bit harder to see these things, these perspectives. To be in a crowded cinema (mostly mask-wearing, thankfully) and laughing and gasping over the world together seems a bit naughty, a bit daring these days.

I missed that vibe, and even if the crises roiling the world are hardly over, it feels good to laugh together, for a moment, at a film festival.