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.