Some excerpts from a really great interview at The Comics Journal by Tom Spurgeon with the late John Romita Sr.:
“One of the things that was good about that school is that it taught you lettering, mechanical drawing, sculpture and photography; the foundation course the first year was very, very complete. It taught me all sorts of things. Like the rest of the class, we would grumble and say, ‘What the hell are we doing photography for?’ Or show-card lettering. But the truth of the matter is that everything I studied in that foundation year has come to my aid in comics. Almost immediately when I got into comics, I was using lettering, I was using perspective, I was using mechanical-drawing techniques.”
“No matter what success I’ve had, I’ve always considered myself a guy who can improve on somebody else’s concepts. A writer and another artist can create something, and I can make it better. I don’t know the name of that company that advertises all the time, ‘We don’t make the material, we just make it better.’ You remember that commercial? That’s the way I’ve always thought of myself. I don’t consider myself a creator. I’ve created a lot of stuff. But I don’t consider myself a real creator in a Jack Kirby sense. But I’ve always had the ability to improve on other people’s stories, other people’s characters. And I think that’s what’s made me a living for 50 years.”
“When you’re doing the work, you don’t have the time for reflection and theory. You’re just glad to get the pages out. And the quicker you get the pages out, the quicker you get the check and the next story. So, what happens is you go into this cycle, like a guinea pig on a wheel: You just keep running until they don’t have any more wheel for you.
This is an interesting thing I’ve discovered. Whenever I interview, people ask why I struggled so much, why I didn’t knock it out like everyone else. Part of it was because I felt like a salmon swimming upstream. I always felt like I was behind everyone else because I started late. Everybody seemed to have a head start on me. I admired people who were only a year older than me, like the Joe Kuberts and the Alex Toths of the world. They were blazing this beautiful trail, and I always felt like I was lagging way behind in the race. And I never felt adequate. It was a terrible affliction. I also felt like I was a style-less artist, a guy with no style, a generic illustrator. The guys who did the toothpaste ads, they were good artists, but I ended up having that generic toothpaste smile on all of my characters. I always felt inadequate because of that. I felt like I didn’t have enough personality. I felt like it was a failure of mine for not being an adult storyteller. So I suffered from feelings of inadequacy all through the 1950s. It was terrible.
I felt very inadequate. I felt like I was never learning. Something drove me. Even though I needed to make the money, I could not force myself to just knock the thing out. I tried to make each panel something new, which is crazy! You’re supposed to set up a formula. If you don’t set up a formula as a comic artist, you can’t make a living. You need to have a standard approach, where you fall back on your normal stuff, the stuff you’re good at. But to try and make an illustration in every panel that’s brilliant and new, that’s the way to kill yourself.
Occasionally, there were guys, there were illustrators who said, ‘Pay me $10 a page, I’ll give you a $10 page. Give me a $100 a page, and I’ll give you a $100 page.’ I always envied that. I couldn’t do that. If a guy gave me $5 a page, I would still do it as well as I could do it, to the detriment of my income and my sleep. It was something that drove me. I didn’t want to put my name on anything I wasn’t proud of. I was terrified of turning out something that was bad. I always had the feeling, even though I know that not many people read comics, although they were selling pretty well then, I had the feeling … I toyed with the idea of using a phony name for year. I don’t know what drove me to spend all those hours I should not have spent. At 23, I got married, and I’m raising a family, and I would still burn the midnight oil and work Saturdays and Sundays because I wanted the stuff better than I had originally envisioned it. So yeah, there was something that drove me against all economic forces. Very strange.”
“The first-time Stan discussed what my artwork would need — I brought in a second or third story, and Stan took a little time with it. And said, ‘You know what I’d like you to do,’ because I was feeling my way as an inker, ‘I’m going to call up Joe Maneely. I’m going to tell him to put a day aside and have you go over to his studio.’ He had a studio in Flushing, which was about 15-20 minutes away from where I lived in Queens. So, I went up there and spent about four or five hours, from noon to about four. He kept working and talking and just gabbing — he wasn’t doing any actual instruction, he was just showing me and talking generally. He was a genius. Absolute genius.
I learned more in those four hours than I did in ten years of doing comics. I may have learned more in that day than any other. He was absolutely the most unselfconscious, productive person. […] He did that whole thing while I was talking to him. He penciled it in the first hour or so. And then he started inking it, and it was almost half-finished by the time I left. It was like a revelation. Talk about formulas — he had his figures in these beautiful shapes, he had general shapes for arms and torsos and things like that. Then he would add features to the block of the head. Then he would finish to the end of the arms. And when he went to ink them, he turned them into the most lively, fresh drawings you ever saw in your life out of nowhere! Just with a basic foundation, a formula underneath. It was like a diagram he drew, and then he put flesh on it with the pen line. He started to do some brushwork to show me. The process was pencil it quickly, do the outline in pen, where you do the actual finished drawing, where you do the features and the eyes and the nose and everything, and the buckskin and the wood texture on the stockade. Then he would go over with a big #5 brush and do nice, big crisp accents.
I realized that this was the process that Jack Kirby and Joe Simon had used, and other people had used down through the years. It was the formula that I had referred to but I had never learned. I had struggled and penciled my drawings, labored over the pencils, and labored over the inks. I sometimes had to correct them. But he was doing them so crisply, so swiftly, it dazzled me. I went home and couldn’t wait to get to the drawing table. That one day was probably one of the most important days of my life.
I used to get mad when people forgot him. I used to substitute-teach for people like John Buscema at Visual Arts. I would get his class, and the first thing I would ask is, did they ever hear of Noel Sickles or Joe Maneely. I’d get blank stares, and it would drive me crazy. I’d say, ‘You know, if I taught this course on a regular basis, you’d have one day a week of just history,’ just to learn where all this stuff came from. From Howard Pyle, the great illustrator at the turn of the century, then N.C. Wyeth, then Hal Foster, then Sickles and Caniff and Alex Raymond … Hal Foster was like the torchbearer. I would have to tell all of these people that if you don’t learn that, you’re not going to learn the process. You’re going to be learning from the newest artist, who probably has everything all botched up by now, instead of the original source.”
“Elaboration I think is the worst enemy of comics. I think simplicity is the direction. Unfortunately, years ago elaboration became the keyword instead of simplicity. I think Toth was righter than people like Neal Adams and [Todd] McFarlane. I think they put too much technique in their stuff, and the industry deserves simplicity and clean artwork. It reads better, and it’s more alive and spontaneous. As you know, one of the things hurting the industry now is that there’s too much technique and too much attention to the color and reproduction, and not enough attention to the freedom of the storytelling and the artwork. I bemoan that fact. I think that’s one of the things that’s hurt comics. I know the fans love it. It’s like the tastes of fans, in movies and comics, have caused more mayhem in the production of movies and comics, because fans don’t have good taste. Although I shouldn’t say that. Actually, I don’t mind. Quote me, because I don’t need the fans to buy my artwork anymore anyway. [Laughter.] I bemoan the fact that taste has gone out the window. Young fans love that technique stuff. And to me, that’s the worst thing that has happened to comics.”
“After eight years [at DC Comics] it wore me out. I had the worst artist’s block. Don Heck came to my rescue, about the end of that eight-year run, in ’63 or ’64. If he hadn’t come to my rescue, I wouldn’t have been able to earn a penny that week. I absolutely sat there and could not produce a page of art for weeks and weeks. And I assumed that I was burned out. I had been working 15 years in the business. Seven for Stan, and eight for DC, and I assumed, ‘That’s it. I obviously can’t think of another panel, so I’m going to get out of the business.’ I even went down to BVD and signed up to do storyboard. I backed out of that because Stan talked me out of it. He promised to match whatever money BVD was going to pay me.”
“For a while, while I was learning, I forgot my drawing block. It was never easy, though. I will tell you, I worked 50 years in comics, and I don’t think I ever had an easy week. I don’t know why anybody would stay in a business that twists your guts every single day, but I did for some reason. I kept telling Virginia, ‘Soon as I get an ulcer, I’m quitting this business.’ I never got an ulcer, and that’s the reason why I stayed in the business. [Laughter.] It was never fun for me. It was never easy. Guys like Jack Kirby and John Buscema could knock out a story and never bat an eyelash. With me, it was a chore from the minute I started.”
“I never demanded anything. I was sort of a sap. Frankly. I was always a good soldier. I never made waves, even though a lot of times I would grumble. I used to have a line I would grumble when I was inking, that I’m doing this work at three in the morning and somebody else cashed the check already. Whether it was Stan Lee or Gil Kane or whoever I was inking, or whoever I was correcting, I used to grumble like everybody else. But I would never go in and say to Stan, ‘I’m tired of this,’ or ‘If I don’t get this, I’m not going to stay.’ I was never that kind of guy. I needed comfort and peaceful surroundings. I didn’t promote myself. I traded a lot of income in exchange for peace and quiet and easy-going surroundings I was comfortable in. If I had been a squeaky wheel, I could’ve gotten more oil.”
“He [Jack Kirby] used to tell me all the time, ‘You spend too much time worrying about the stuff. So, it doesn’t hold water, so it’s not exactly accurate, so what?’ He and John Buscema used to tell me to throw away my eraser. Stop erasing stuff you’ve drawn, because even your worst drawing is as good as anybody’s best drawing. That was the advice they both gave me.
John Buscema was also a classic character. He was always grumbling about the crap being put out. He came in one day when I was tearing up a splash page that I had half done. He said, ‘What the hell are you, crazy? Why are you doing that? That was a good drawing.’ I said, ‘No, I didn’t like it. There was something wrong with that. The figures were too small.’ He said, ‘You’re nuts!’ He used to tell me all the time, ‘It’s only comics, what the hell are you getting so upset about?’ I used to tell him, ‘I can’t explain it to you. But if I don’t like panel one, I can’t do panel two.’ With him, he didn’t give a damn. I said, ‘Well, it’s easy for you. Your worst drawings are better than most people’s best.’ That’s the same line he used on me. I didn’t believe it, and he did. And he really was. He was one of the best artists. I really idolized his artwork.”
“I’ve had a wonderful time. Even though I’ve worked seven days a week a lot of my life, and I’ve missed a lot of sleep, and I’ve missed a lot of family functions, I can’t complain. I never got an ulcer, I never got sick. I worked 50 years in a business and obviously, I must have liked it, otherwise, I wouldn’t have worked 50 years, right? [Laughter.] I must have loved it.”