Working-class (super)hero

Like Spider-Man himself -- the first superhero to use a laundromat -- longtime Spidey artists John Romita Sr. and Jr. are regular New Yorkers who dreamed big.

Published May 3, 2002 8:00PM (EDT)

A few months short of his 40th birthday, Spider-Man, the first flawed and fallible comic-book superhero, is finally ready for his close-up. If Columbia Pictures' "Spider-Man," starring Tobey Maguire in the title role and directed by cult favorite Sam Raimi, is the smash hit everyone expects, it may outstrip the current box-office record-holder among comics-to-movie superheroes. That was 1989's "Batman," currently the 39th-biggest-grossing film in cinema history with receipts of $251 million. Columbia is so confident in Spidey, or so keen to appear that way, that it has already announced specifics of the sequel -- again directed by Raimi and again starring Maguire and Kirsten Dunst -- before the film's opening weekend.

No one understands the arachnid hero's appeal better than John Romita Sr. and John Romita Jr., the father-and-son team of comic-book artists most closely associated with Spidey. John Sr. drew the superhero in monthly books for seven years straight in the comic-book heyday of the late '60s and '70s. When Marvel Comics creative genius Stan Lee launched the daily Spider-Man newspaper strip in 1977, Romita Sr. drew it for the first several years.

Romita Jr., or J.R., as he is universally known, currently draws Marvel's classic Spidey title, the Amazing Spider-Man, as well as the Incredible Hulk. He did last November's Spider-Man book reflecting the World Trade Center disaster and four of the movie-themed covers that appeared on last week's issue of TV Guide. (As is standard in comic books, they were inked by other artists, one of them his father.)

Spidey's appeal is that he has always been more ordinary than other superheroes, contends J.R., who grew up in Queens, N.Y., with the web-casting superhero almost as a family member. By day, Spidey's alter ego, Peter Parker, is a pimply teenager who also lives in Queens, the semisuburban homeland of New York's working and middle classes. Introverted, awkward and -- at least at first -- a dud with the girls, Parker is nothing like Clark Kent, that clean-cut native of the planet Krypton by way of small-town Kansas.

Spidey, perhaps Lee's most famous creation, was the first superhero to be an ordinary guy. His is the story, J.R. says, of "the little guy making great, the average kid who becomes a superhero. He gets colds, he gets the snot beaten out of him, his uniform gets dirty and it shrinks when he washes it."

It's crucial to Spidey's particular popularity that he works his heroism in the real New York City, not Batman's Gotham City or the Metropolis of Superman, says Romita Sr., 72, who still makes his home in New York but is visiting J.R. outside San Diego when I talk with them. Spidey, he points out, is a typical wiseass New Yorker driven to heroism by greed and ego -- at first he uses his special powers to become a TV star -- and then by guilt after his selfishness inadvertently leads to his uncle's death.

Spidey's complex personal life has also been central to the character's longevity, which is only matched by a handful of other fantasy superheroes. "It's like a constantly changing melodrama based on real people that readers knew," says Romita Sr.

Father and son are sitting in J.R.'s California studio -- with a tiled patio and elephant palms outside -- surrounded by dozens of drawings of Spidey, who was launched in August 1962. Lee foresaw that a more complex, skeptical America was ready for a new type of hero and that icons such as Superman, the flagship character of rival DC Comics, were remote from the experience of many readers.

The origin of Spidey's superhuman capabilities was especially apt. Shortly after his first appearance, in a comic book called Amazing Fantasy drawn by Steve Ditko, the Cuban missile crisis brought America to the brink of nuclear war. As all Marvel fans know, an irradiated spider at a local science exhibit bit the geeky Peter Parker; from then on, he could morph into a creepy-crawly that scaled walls and ceilings and squirted his own webs from his wrists.

"You could say that we were a very animated family," says 45-year-old J.R., recalling his comics-dominated upbringing. On car trips the Romita family would dissect new plots and characters. On weekdays, at least until his father started working in Marvel's Manhattan offices, J.R. sometimes stole up to the attic to watch him draw.

He hadn't been interested in his father's earlier comics work -- romances, westerns and detective stories, mostly for DC -- but Spider-Man, which his father began drawing when J.R. was 8, captivated him immediately. Spidey was not only an action hero, he was tinged with counterculture and danger. "Spiders were on tattoos and motorbikes in the '60s. It was a very cool image," says the dark-haired and muscular J.R.

Romita Sr. got his start in comics at age 19, inspired by the work of Norman Rockwell. In fact, Romita Sr's nickname, Jazzy John -- "Stan Lee used to give us nicknames instead of a raise," he says -- was ironic; he was conventional, at least by Marvel standards. "They'd always tell me I should smoke a joint and loosen up," he laughs.

A lifelong penciller of rippling muscles and bosomy babes, the soft-spoken and courteous Romita Sr. refers to Shakespeare, the Gershwins and Irving Berlin in discussing his 50-plus years in what is often seen as a lowbrow form. Much of his ability to draw people, an unusual strength in the superhero genre, came, he says, from drawing romance comics: "I was able to do the girls so well, I could pay the mortgage!"

Romita Jr.'s strength, on the other hand, is storytelling, which he says was first instilled by watching films with his father, including classics like "Inherit the Wind," "Twelve Angry Men" and "On the Waterfront." A recent issue of Amazing Spider-Man even had no text whatever, just Romita Jr.'s dark, almost cinematic artwork.

Marvel, which pumps out 20 of the 25 top-selling comic books in America, has four Spider-Man titles, each of which sells about 80,000 copies monthly. The famed "Marvel method," which led to truly visual comics for the first time, was not exactly planned. Lee would often phone Romita Sr. and his other artists with nothing more than a brief outline; he hadn't written a script because he was working on so many titles at once.

The artists told the story first, then words were added. "You were forced to think very methodically," says Romita Sr. "We artists all became great storytellers because we were constantly thrown into the deep end."

The comics industry, and Spider-Man with it, has been rocky for years. After a peak in the '60s, when comics were sold in every corner store and supermarket -- and MTV, computer games and the Internet were many years away -- the form lost much of its luster. Younger, worldlier generations of kids were not hooked on the same adolescent boy-power fantasies that had held the '50s and '60s in thrall.

After the success of Tim Burton's "Batman" in 1989, a three-year binge of comic collecting reached ridiculous proportions -- until the inflated prices led inevitably to market collapse. At the silliest moment, Marvel printed 25 million copies of an X-Men title, its most popular. In 1993, U.S. comic sales were worth $850 million. Six years later that had fallen by more than two-thirds, and Marvel filed for bankruptcy.

There were creative mistakes in the Spider-Man series as well. Over the decades, the web-swinger had become too comfy; he married his sweetheart Mary Jane Watson and moved into a pleasant Manhattan apartment. Romita Sr. believes this was disastrous: "If you marry a superhero off, either the wife dies or it's the end of the character."

Marvel tried to make amends, eventually revealing that the married Spidey was a clone and that the real hero -- all his life issues intact -- had been offstage since 1975. Readers saw this for the cheap trick it was, and sales dropped to a 30-year low. Two years ago the tack was changed again. A new series, Ultimate Spider-Man, was launched at a hipper readership, with Parker reborn as a hip-hop fan with blond, spiked hair who works as an Internet webmaster. (Get it?)

Writer J. Michael Straczynski, creator of the cult TV series "Babylon 5," was brought in to work with Romita Jr. on Amazing Spider-Man. To refocus the story line, Straczynski had Spidey and his girlfriend separate. Spidey has since discovered that his beloved Aunt May knows his identity. Over the next few issues Mary Jane, who is now living alone in Hollywood, will realize she misses her arachnid superhero, and romance will return.

Spider-Man's humor is also back. In an upcoming issue, a cop tells Spidey his costume smells of detergent: Is he getting ready for prime time? "Yeah, they'll make a movie out of me," says Spidey.

In another scene, a villainess says, "I like you, you're funny." Retorts the cocky New Yorker: "Don't tell me, tell Letterman. I've been trying to get on his show for years."

The big screen will not ruin the Spidey mystique, say the Romitas, especially since Raimi's film looks to stay true to the original image of the superhero. "The character's been around so long," says Romita Jr. "If it hasn't been diluted -- in books, clothing, underwear, you name it -- it won't be diluted now."

Neither of the Romitas worked on the movie, although Marvel Entertainment co-produced it and their drawings were frequent reference points. (Lee and Ditko receive screen credit.) Romita Jr. says he spent two hours chatting with Raimi before production started, but when he named his price for working on the film -- the equivalent, he says, of what he makes at Marvel -- negotiations stopped abruptly. "It would have been a novelty to have seen my tiny name scroll down the screen in the closing credits," he says. "But it was an easier decision to make than most people think."

His father laughs. Hollywood, he says, still looks down on comic books. "They see us as the Munchkins in 'The Wizard of Oz,'" he says. On three occasions, Lee tried to talk Romita Sr. into relocating to California to do storyboarding for Marvel projects. Every time he refused because, he says, he hates the culture of Hollywood.

It must run in the family. J.R. and his wife, Kathy, a blond Californian, will soon return to New York. Suburban San Diego is beautiful, says J.R., but he feels misplaced among so many fair-haired, pale-skinned people: "Out here, I'm the fly shit in the sugar bowl. I just don't fit."

A few days later, the Romitas are star guests at WonderCon, a comics convention in Oakland, Calif. The insider chat and questions are constant and earnest. During a Q&A session, J.R. wonders aloud whether the color of Spidey's hair has been changed for the movie. His son Vinnie, a kindergartener playing with a plastic Godzilla, sits beside him.

Almost in chorus, the audience tells him that, yes, Internet trailers reveal that the webbed crusader's do has changed colors on the big screen. Someone asks how he's going to feel about sitting in a theater and seeing Spidey up there, many times bigger than life.

"I'll love it!" says J.R., who once drew the X-Men and who recalls the adrenaline rush from seeing that film: "Wow, I helped create those characters!"

Web designer Mike Diaz, a slight, shy 45-year-old, is in line nearby to get a sweatshirt signed by Romita Sr. His dad worked nights when he was a kid, he explains, and comics were his escape. His favorite character is actually Superman, not Spidey, because his mother told him that when he was born the nurses said he looked like the Man of Steel.

Next to Romita Sr., who is busy signing and drawing cartoons, is Mike Burkey, who claims to have the world's largest collection of Romita Sr. artwork: thousands of action figures and sketches, recently appraised at $7 million. "The man's crazy, certifiable," interjects Romita Sr. genially.

Burkey, a 37-year-old from Ohio, wishes he could fly to Los Angeles for the world premiere of Raimi's film. He can't, and will simply leave work early on Friday to catch the first screening. A skinny young kid rushes up and interrupts him: Is Stan Lee here? When told no, he says, "Oh, shit," and melts back into the crowd.

Burkey tells Romita Sr. that he's just added a new treasure to his collection: a 20-by-30-foot "Spider-Man" film ad that cost him $850 on eBay. He's hoping to display it at his wedding in June but, in true Peter Parker fashion, hasn't told his fiancée about it yet.

By Ros Davidson

Ros Davidson is a frequent contributor to Salon.

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