Our final piece from Baltimore Comic-Con is a very special one. BCC hosted a Q&A panel with two of the most legendary names in the comic industry, Stan Lee and John Romita Sr., and OTF was there! Joined by moderator Mark Waid (Kingdom Come) and a room full of fans, these two greats shared stories of their work together, answered questions from the audience, and didn’t hesitate to exchange the occasional friendly insult.
Mark Waid kicked off the discussion by asking John about his first time working with Stan.
John Romita: I worked with Stan through this other artist for about 7 or 8 months, and then I got drafted. I went into basic training and wound up working on Governor’s Island doing recruiting posters. I had a Class A pass and was allowed to go on the ferry, go uptown, and go to Marvel Comics, although it wasn’t Marvel Comics, it was Timely then. I’d go in, and this beautiful secretary that he always had, comes out and I’d tell her, “I’ve been working for Stan for about a year, but he doesn’t know me. Remind him of Mr. Zachary’s work.” She goes in and comes out with a 4-page script.
Stan Lee: Anything to get rid of you! [laughter]
JR: So he gave me my first job where he knew my name was John Romita, but he still didn’t meet me. There was no time for him to see me, so the girl brought it out and told me to ink it, but I had never inked before. So, after I felt faint for a while, I said, “To hell with it, I’ll fake it.” [laughter]
SL: You mean I gave you a strip and I never met you?
JR: You never met me, but you saw my artwork.
SL: Well, your artwork was more interesting than you were. [laughter] By the way, I love this man. And I’m not gay. [laughter] I’m no good at historical things. I don’t remember what his first strip was and I don’t remember how we met. But I will tell you one thing I remember. This was the greatest man to work with that you could ever find anywhere. He has received so much less credit than he deserves for the Marvel age of comics because any time anything was needed, if [Jack] Kirby didn’t bring in a job that he was supposed to and I needed a guy to finish it quickly, if [Steve] Ditko didn’t have time to finish a cover or a strip and I needed somebody to fix it, if we needed a strip that Gene Colan was doing but couldn’t do it the next month, it didn’t matter who the artist was who needed a replacement. All I had to do was give it to John Romita, and it was usually done as good or better than the original artist would have done! [applause] The only problem is, he was so good that I hesitated to give him his own strip to stay with because then I wouldn’t have anybody around to do all the emergency stuff. He could do anything! He could do penciling, he could do inking, he could do any strip at all. He could draw gorgeous girls. He could do the best action scenes, and I didn’t even like him personally! You can believe me. I have no reason to say this. I love this man!
JR: I will point out that that means I was highly underpaid. [laughter]
Mark Waid: So, John, you spent some time at Marvel in the 50s and when things started to peter out there, you went full time at DC, right?
JR: In 1958 when Marvel had to shut down to about 2 or 3 books, I called up Stan’s secretary and said that I had done about $100 worth of work on my last western. She said, “I’m afraid there’s no chance.” So, when I got off the phone, I told [my wife] Virginia, “If Stan Lee calls, tell him to go to hell.” [laughter] And I went to work for DC and I was there for 8 years.
MW: And you were doing the most beautifully-illustrated and most wretchedly-written romance stories. You did either hundreds of romance stories or you did the same exact romance story a hundred times. [laughter]
JR: Oh, they were bad.
SL: I gotta tell you something about those romance stories. I used to write almost all the romance stories, but they were supposed to be confessions. In other words, all the stories were supposed to be written by a girl confessing some terrible problem that she had in her love life. I, as John knows, like putting my name on everything I’ve done. I have this penchant for enjoying seeing my name in print! And I wondered, how can I say “By Stan Lee” if it’s supposed to be a girl who’s telling about her love life? But how can I not put my name if I wrote the damn story? So I got an idea, and this is one of the few sneaky, tricky things I’ve done in my very upright and honest existence. [laughter] I came up with the idea of writing “As told to Stan Lee.” So on the front page of every story it would say something like, “My Broken Heart, as told to Stan Lee.” Even today, I sometimes get letters tweeted to me, or faxed, or whatever it is they call it, and it’ll say, “I saw one of your old romance books. What would make any girl tell all those things to you?” [laughter] So I don’t think I really got away with it.
Mr. Waid then opened up the floor and took questions from a few lucky fans.
When Steve Ditko introduced the character of Mary Jane Watson in Spider-Man, she was always obscured behind flowers or curtains, and it wasn’t until John Romita took over the comic that she was finally revealed. What was the inspiration behind finally revealing her?
SL: I am so glad Ditko left the strip before we saw Mary Jane, because Ditko could not draw pretty girls very well. [laughter] It was so essential that Mary Jane look gorgeous. Only Johnny Romita could have drawn that panel. If you remember it, it was the last panel of the story. Peter Parker did not want to meet Mary Jane because his aunt had always said to him, “There’s this very nice girl next door. I’d like you to meet her.” Now, no teenage boy wants to meet a girl who his aunt or mother says, “Oh, she’s a very nice girl.” [laughter] Teenage boys are not looking for “nice girls.” So, Peter had been avoiding her all the time. I was planning there would be one time where you get a look at her and she was dynamite! So we did that as the last panel is a strip. Peter couldn’t help himself. He had to open the door and see Mary Jane. And there is one of the greatest pretty girl drawing Johnny ever did. And she has the line, “Face it, Tiger. You hit the jackpot.” [applause] Can you imagine of Steve Ditko, who is a genius in his own right, had drawn the girl and she said that? He’d slam the door. [laughter]
Where did your phrase, “Excelsior” come from?
SL: I used to write little editorials and columns like “Stan’s Soap Box” and things, and I would end them with little expressions like, “Whatever you do, wherever you go, hang loose!” or “Face front!” or any little expression I could think of. Little by little I saw some of those expressions cropping up in DC books and I had to think of something that they won’t know what it means and they won’t know how to spell it. [laughter, applause] So I happened to notice that the great seal of the state of New York, where I lived, has the word Excelsior on it, so I looked it up. It’s an old English word which means, “Upward and onward to greater glory.” I mean, what could be better?! So I started using that and they still don’t know what the hell it means. [laughter]
Do you ever miss Jack Kirby?
JR: The whole world misses Jack Kirby.
SL: He answered it for me. Jack is so missed. Nobody could tell a story visually the way Jack could. Nobody could take a simple situation and make it look exciting. Nobody could put as much drama in a panel. And nobody could come up with such concepts and costumes. When I was writing S.H.I.E.L.D., I had an idea for some villains or robots or something and I told Jack, and he created a group called Advanced Idea Mechanics, A.I.M., and they created some sort of a cyborg. It was so great the way he opened the story with that robotic figure. Jack could take anything and make it look exciting and make it look believable, and to answer your question, you’re damn right he’s missed. [applause]
To close out the panel, three questions were posed to the audience and three lucky fans walked away with a print of John Romita’s famed Spider-Man art, signed by both Stan and John. Even when wrapping things up, one trivia question prompted a story and jokes from the duo.
Following the question, “Which Spider-Man villain was the first to be co-created by the pair?” (The Rhino, in case you were wondering), Stan didn’t hesist to lob a jibe at John.
SL: I didn’t call him Rhinoceros because he wouldn’t have known how to spell it. [laughter]
JR: He used to pin a card to my drawing board every month. Usually, it was a one-word request. Villain: Rhino. Next villain was Shocker. Didn’t tell me anything else, just gave me a name.
SL: That was my outline. [laughter]
To say it was an honor to share this time with these two great men would be an understatement. John Romita is a legendary talent of comic art, and Stan Lee is…well…Stan freakin’ Lee!
Be sure to check out the rest of OTF’s coverage from Baltimore if you haven’t already!