The big event of Saturday at Baltimore Comic-Con - and really, the whole weekend - was the Stan Lee spotlight panel, featuring John Romita, Sr., and moderated by The duly appointed King of Baltimore, Mark Waid. That’s like having all the crab-cakes you can eat, then discovering you have a second stomach! Baltimore, am I right? Okay, let’s get into this.
Waid came out in advance of the stars, introing them as his “favorite creative team of all time.” Then, out came John Romita Sr, who said he’d been signing all day, “And my butt is sore!” Waid then asked whether Romita believed he’d be on a stage like this today, to which the legend said, “When I was 63, I believed comics had about five years left.”
Then Stan Lee came out, to huge applause, followed by some good natured joshing to Waid for being called “Stan,” while Romita was called “Mr. Romita.” Then the duo talked about how Romita was hired without ever meeting Lee. “I probably wouldn’t have hired him, if I met him!” joked Lee.
Romita then talked about how the two actually met. He said that he went to Stan’s office, said he wanted to meet Lee, and then Lee’s secretary came out with only a four page script for Romita to ink... So they still didn’t meet! “Your artwork was more interesting than you were!” joked Lee.
Lee then proceeded to tease Waid mercilessly about talking to closely to the mic, ending with, “I’m just kidding, I love this man - and I’m not gay!” Waid made a joke of wiping his brow with relief, but right after that? I don’t think I’ve ever seen Waid flustered. It was adorable.
A little more seriously, Lee said he still didn’t remember meeting, or how they worked with each other, but he did know that Romita doesn’t get enough credit for inventing the Marvel Age of Comics. “He was so good, I hesitated to give him his own strip, because then I wouldn’t have him around to do the emergency stuff!” said Lee.
“I’d like to point out, this means I was highly underpaid!” joked Romita right back.
Because of this, though, he decided to go to DC Comics for seven years for a period Waid characterized as, “some of the most wretched romance stories...” Romita differed, saying that some of them were okay, though he remembered working on a book where the writer had two people kissing on skis. “You can’t do that,” said Romita, to which the author replied, “I’ve done it! Just draw it!”
Lee then jumped in, saying that he had a problem with writing romance books, that he likes putting his name on things - but he can’t have a “true” confession of a girl coming from his pen. “A came up with the idea of writing, ‘As Told To Stan Lee,’ said Lee. “Even today, I sometimes get letters tweeted to me, “I saw one of your old romance books, what would make some girl tell you those things?””
Back to Romita, he left DC, considered leaving comics for advertising, and went out for lunch with Lee. “I paid for it! No I didn’t,” joked Lee. Lee, over the course of the lunch, convinced Romita to be a, “big fish in a small pond.” He gave Romita a big raise, and got him back to Marvel.
From there, Romita got a table in the production department in Marvel in order to tackle his “fear of a blank page at home,” meaning the block he felt while freelancing on his own. “From that moment on, I was a penciller again, against my own wishes!” joked Romita.
Jumping back a bit, Romita talked about working on Daredevil, and being flummoxed by Stan’s break-neck pace. But after seeing Stan’s style guide for writing comics “The Marvel Way,” he got it, and had no problem after that.
Moving to Spider-Man, Romita said that when Ditko left the book, he was so convinced that he was going to come back, Romita ended up “ghosting” Ditko’s style. “There wasn’t another artist in the business who had a three year success story,” said Romita, but once he realized Ditko WASN’T coming back, he started drawing, “big bold lines again.”
Talking about the Marvel Style of writing, Romita said that he would draw something, make mistakes, and then Stan’s script would make them work. “I’m a genius!” joked Romita. Lee, on the other hand, loved the challenge of a puzzle. “Guys like John, and Jack, and Steve Ditko were so good at telling a story visually, that when you looked at the pictures it looked like it belong. So all I had to do was put in the words to make it smooth.”
Waid clarified that at the time, Lee was working on ten, twenty page comics a month, with Lee saying that all he had to do was fill in the dialogue, so it really only took him during the day. “At night I’d go see a movie!” joked Lee. He continued that the word balloons are incredibly important, and you can’t lay over art with them. He feels that today’s comics don’t do enough to incorporate word balloons into the art.
Before they opened up to questions, talk turned to Lee’s nicknames, which Romita was always frustrated about because his mother thought he was being sarcastically called, “Jazzy.” “It was the only word I knew that started with J!” yelled Lee in response.
Then it was over to questions, with the first being about the reveal of Mary Jane Watson in Spider-Man. “I’m so glad Ditko left the strip before we saw Mary Jane, because Ditko did not draw pretty girls,” said Lee to huge laughs from the audience. He then told the whole story of Peter Parker ending with, “Can you imagine if Steve Ditko - who is a genius - drew Mary Jane saying face it tiger, you hit the jackpot? He’d slam the door in her face!”
Then a young fan asked where “Excelsior!” came from. He said that he noticed DC was using catchphrases in their books, which led him to think, “I’ve got to think of something that they won’t know what it means, and they won’t know how to spell it!” Looking at the seal of the State of New York, he found excelsior, and stuck with it.
Another young fan asked whether they missed Jack Kirby, to which Romita said, “Everybody misses Jack Kirby.” Lee then talked about working with Kirby on SHIELD, and how he put an “amazing robot” in the book that Stan hadn’t even written in the book. “Jack could take anything, and make it look exciting, and make it look believable. To answer your question, you’re damn right he’s missed,” said Lee.
Then Waid gave out three signed prints to the audience for answering trivia questions. One was about the first villain the two created together, which turned out to be the rhino. “I didn’t call him Rhinoceros because he wouldn’t know how to spell it!” joked Lee, with Romita adding, “Every month he’d put a villain on my board. Villain: Shocker! That was it.” “That was my outline!” quipped Lee right back.
And that was it! It’s rare when a living legend lives up to expectations, but here we had two, and this crowd member, at least, was very pleased. We’ll see you back here for more from Baltimore Comic-Con!