“A Hero Among Those Who Gave Us Heroes”

Those were the words my friend (and Gene Colan biographer) Tom Field used. They perfectly capture the feelings a lot of us of a certain age-group are experiencing as we learn of the passing of artist and long-time Marvel Comics art director John Romita Sr., a loss which is being marked worldwide, as this BBC News article attests.

Mr. Romita was, of course, best known for his work on Marvel’s Amazing Spider-Man, but those of us who grew up with many of the latest Silver Age Marvel Comics coming into our households each week have great attachment to his earlier work on Daredevil and any number of other projects — a personal favorite remains his four-issue “Element X” tale in Captain America and the Falcon #s 139-142, in which he provided full pencil-and-ink art for the first half of the story before turning the ink work over to the always-excellent Joe Sinnott in the final two issues.

“Jazzy Johnny” (as Stan Lee dubbed him in credits and Bullpen Bulletins references) had crystal-clear storytelling abilities, an impeccable sense of design, and lavished care on every character he drew, turning them into actors whose thoughts and emotions were expressed in their faces, gestures, and body language, a contribution that played a vital role in pulling readers into each moment and through the story as a whole. When interviewed for the second volume of our Spider-Man: The Ultimate Newspaper Comics Collection, Mr. Romita said:

“When you’re doing a street scene there are people in the foreground — your star is in the midground, but you see part of people’s faces up close. Stan used to tell me, sometimes with notes, ‘Don’t make the damned passersby so interesting! I feel like I want to write them into the story!'”

I was fortunate to interview Mr. Romita on three occasions, first regarding Noel Sickles and Milton Caniff in support of our Scorchy Smith and initial Terry and the Pirates projects, then regarding Alex Toth for Genius, Illustrated, and finally for our Amazing Spider-Man newspaper strip collections. Each of these is among my favorites of the many Library of American Comics interviews I have conducted over the past seventeen years. His recollection was sharp, the points he made were cogent and insightful, and he was so personable, it was impossible not to like him. When we spoke regarding Toth, we had previously both been at the most recent New York Comic Con; when he learned of that he told me, “We should have got together!” Now, it’s entirely possible he was being polite, and certainly John Romita Sr. had no shortage of fans and fellow professionals eager to make claims on his time, but the idea that he might have enjoyed our telephone conversations enough to wish we could found an opportunity to meet face-to-face was a personally-heartwarming moment.

The world is richer for having had John Romita Sr. in it and we are poorer for having lost him, but his body of work and contributions to the truly American artform we call comics will live on. When I was a youngster, the star artists of the Marvel bullpen did a set of self-portraits as a product for the company’s then-current fan club. Whenever I think of John Romita Sr., this image is forever in the forefront of my mind:

Rest in peace, sir. You are already missed.

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