Contributed by collector and Overstreet Advisor Art Cloos
Photographs by Alice and Art Cloos

The Society of Illustrators located in Manhattan has a long history in the Big Apple. It was founded on February 1, 1901 by a group of nine artists and one advising businessman named Henry S. Fleming. He who offered his legal staff to the Society in an advisory role and served as the Society of Illustrators Secretary and Treasurer for many years. Its purpose is to encourage high ideals in the field of illustration through exhibitions, lectures, education, and by fostering a sense of community and open discussion.

It was in August 2012 that The Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art known as MOCCA transferred its assets to the Society which has taken on MOCCA’S mission of promoting comic art through exhibitions and the MOCCA Fest which it continues.

The latest example of this new aspect of the Society’s work opened on Friday, June 9, 2017 with their first ever exhibition of original Spider-Man artwork. It features work by John Romita, Steve Ditko, Todd McFarlane, John Buscema, Ross Andru, Gil Kane, Ron Frenz, Keith Pollard, and John Romita Jr.

Spider-Man is a flagship character of the Marvel universe, created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko in the early days of Marvel’s Silver Age. He first appeared in Amazing Fantasy #15 in August 1962. Fan reaction was strong enough for Lee to decide to take a chance and publish Spider-Man as a standalone comic, with Amazing Spider-Man #1 hitting the stands in December 1962. Lee’s dialogue reflected the changes happening in both American pop culture and the wider American society of the time giving his character flaws, insecurities and more realistic personalities to appeal to a more sophisticated audience. These new style comics proved to be popular with fans, and Marvel gained readers as old as college age who would follow the exploits of these flawed but realistic superheroes. It was Spider-Man that set the template for this new style which would set the course for the rest of the 1960s.

When Ditko suddenly left Marvel and Spider-Man after issue 38 in the early summer of 1966, fans were caught off guard and wondered who could possibly replace him. That person would turn out to be John Romita, a graduate of Manhattan’s School of Industrial Art. He had worked in the comics industry since 1947 so he had plenty of experience in the field. He was worried about taking over a character that was drawn by a very different type of artist in Ditko. In the beginning, he tried to imitate Ditko’s style but quickly abandoned this approach and began to draw Spider-Man and his cast of characters in his own style. This portrayal would bring Spider-Man and his cast of characters and villains worldwide fame and multimedia acceptance.

Romita’s style soon became the blueprint for what would become the Marvel house look and in 1973 Romita would become the art director for the entire line of Marvel Comics. Romita’s impact on Marvel Comics in general and on Spider-Man in particular was deep and profound. Romita assisted Lee in doing much the same with Lee on the words, and Romita on the look of both the Spider-Man and the house line. Romita would be recognized for his contribution to his industry by being inducted into the Will Eisner Comic Book Hall of Fame in 2002.

This exhibition features art from throughout Romita’s initial Spider-Man run. Featured are twice-up pages from early in the run and their large size and clean presentation are a joy to behold. Significant pages are exhibited here for the first time, including Spider-Man’s battles with the Green Goblin, the Rhino, Doctor Octopus, and many others. There are many pages featuring Romita’s beautiful presentation of Mary Jane Parker and Gwen Stacy, including the original early finished drawings. Also featured are the first two weeks of John Romita’s Amazing Spider-Man strip run as well as several of his earliest larger Sunday strips. There are select pages from Steve Ditko, the creator who gave Spider-Man his beginning with fantastic and detailed layouts and cinematic pacing. Other featured Spider-Man artists include Todd McFarlane who rebooted Spider-Man’s look in 1988 to much fan acclaim, and notable artists such as Ross Andru, John Buscema, Ron Frenz, Gil Kane, Keith Pollard, and John Romita Jr., who all contributed their considerable talents in illustrating this iconic character.

The exhibition also includes rare art from the original Spider-Man newspaper strip, advertising and other illustrative work. It is the largest, and most comprehensive exhibition of Spider-Man art ever seen anywhere in the world.

I got to speak with Leslie Cober-Gentry, a member of the Society’s Board, who told me that she thought the opening of the exhibit was, “a wonderful and amazing night and I am thrilled to be surrounded by all this wonderful art.” Comic book writer and editor Danny Fingeroth who was a longtime group editor of the Spider-Man books at Marvel Comics expressed similar thoughts telling me that, “It’s great to be surrounded by all this Spidey awesomeness and especially having John Romita here in person.”

Indeed the focus of the art in the exhibit is the work of John Romita and there is a lot of his work to see and to admire. His being in attendance at the opening showed how important his legacy is as he was constantly surrounded by admiring fans and in return he seemed to be enjoying every minute of the night. In the midst of all this excitement he graciously agreed to an interview for this review. I asked him if he knew how important comic fans consider his work and he responded, “I’m amazed by all this. I never expected to have such a long-term effect on comics and never expected for comics to last this long. I considered it my job to make Spider-Man fans think the stories were real.” Indeed that was his dominant point in our talk, the idea of doing it for the fans and making it real for them.

The show was arranged and curated by comic art specialist Rob Pistella who told me, “I am thrilled to curate the first major exhibition of Spider-Man expert Mike Burkey’s world class collection of the art of John Romita and other Spider-Man artists. Mike has worked for a lifetime to collect this breathtaking assemblage of Spider-Man art from all phases of his career. It was difficult to limit myself to what we had room for on two floors of the museum! The entire staff of the museum was elated and excited to participate and hang such a prestigious and beautiful show. And, John Romita is such a wonderful and selfless man who’s contribution to our hobby, to Marvel Comics, and to Spider-Man is incalculable. John Romita is the real super hero of our event. I’m humbled to contribute in honoring the man and his craft tonight.”

The Art of Spider-Man exhibit runs from June 6, 2017 to August 26, 2017. The museum and shop hours are Tuesday 10 AM to 8 PM, Wednesday 10 AM to 5 PM, Thursday 10 AM to 8 PM, Friday 10 AM to 5 PM, and Saturday 11 AM to 5 PM. Admission is $15 for adults, $10 for seniors age 65 and older, and $10 for full time students undergraduate and below with current ID. Children 10 and under accompanied by an adult are free. Also free are up to 4 of the guests of members.