ROSS ANDRU, MIKE ESPOSITO, JOHN ROMITA and WONDER WOMAN
By Daniel Best
H.G. Peter was a tired man by 1958. His deal with DC Comics called for a new issue of Wonder Woman each and every month and while that wasn't his biggest problem, working with Bob Kanigher was. Kanigher was well known for belittling artists and was described by Mike Esposito as being, "A tough cookie. I have to say that the better work I put together was because of Bob. I liked Bob later in life although a lot of people didn’t like him, and that includes Ross." Later in life Irwin Hansen said that Kanigher was, "...eccentric and tough. He's a very difficult man and one of the best writers in the business."* In return Kanigher termed Hansen a "...comics genius."*
Some artists were able to take the abuse, mild or otherwise. Most ignored it, some, like Ross, quietly sat and fumed. Wally Wood wasn't one to merely fume, he threatened to pick Kanigher up and physically throw him through a window after one heated encounter. Funnily enough Wood didn't work all that much, if at all, with Kanigher after that. Kanigher was also known for having a stable of his preferred artists, men such as Joe Kubert, Russ Heath, Irv Novick and, of course, Ross Andru and Mike Esposito, who worked closely with Kanigher on a variety of war stories. These artists, and more like them, were amongst the top in the industry and were the go-to men for Kanigher, his Mr Fixits in times of problems. Kanigher knew he could approach any of his artists to complete a job and not only would the job be finished, on time, but it'd look like anything but a rush job.
Kanigher inherited H.G. Peter in 1948, or, depending on how you saw it, it was the other way around. In any case ten years later in 1958 Peter was tired of the Kanigher insults and wanted an out. It wasn't as easy as he thought as he knew that by retiring he'd be breaking his contract. Finally Kanigher took the choice out of his hands. Sales of the title were starting to slip. Kanigher needed to do something to revitalise the book. One of the first thing he did was approach Irwin Hansen to take over drawing the covers for Wonder Woman. At one stage Wonder Woman was appearing in both the main title and in Sensation Comics. The latter had been canceled in 1953 as sales fell, although Wonder Woman had been removed from the title in 1952. Kanigher had seen the character drop from appearing in three books to one which now came out eight times a year. Still, in a time when superheroes were fading fast, Wonder Woman, along with Superman and Batman, remained in print. DC were one of the last companies to keep the heroes afloat.
By the time 1958 rolled around Kanigher knew that he needed to do something fast to save Wonder Woman. The first decision was to replace the artist. Kanigher had been battling with Peter over direction, he stated that the veteran artist "was like stone. He was running out of time and I was not aware of it."** Peter's art had deteriorated over the years and finally Kanigher moved. As Mike Esposito describes it, "Peter would come in and Kanigher was always yelling at him. He was yelling at him about his deadlines and Peter would take the abuse with his head down without reacting. Bob would say, 'Well if you wanna keep fishing, if you wanna go fishing then you gotta hit the deadline. C’mon! C’mon! You love to fish right?'
'Then get to work!' The next thing I know we got a call from Bob asking if we’d like to do Wonder Woman. They sent us a few covers to start with and they asked me to ink it in the style of Irving Novick. I did the same little scratchy technique that Irv had done and Bob was very impressed." The baton had been passed, the original Wonder Woman artist, Harry Peter, was out, the new artists, Ross Andru and Mike Esposito, were in.
However it wasn't going to be all plain sailing. As Esposito recalls, "Ross and I were going to get the book but Ross was scared stiff because he wasn’t very good at drawing women. He had that European look, with high cheekbones, Slavic looking. He didn’t have that smooth, silky pretty girl look. They were pretty and beautiful in a strong way, but they weren’t a John Romita type. We were in our studio and I said to him, 'Look, if you’ve got a problem with that I know a guy who looks like he’d be perfect for us if he just does the faces and we do the rest.' He said, 'Who?” and I said, 'John Romita'."
In 1958 John Romita was plodding away drawing romance stories for DC Comics. He'd started drawing superheroes at the tail end of the Timely era, notably Captain America, but, needing work, he set himself to the task of toiling away drawing love stories. Later he'd bring the lessons he learnt during that time, pacing, technique, approach and dealines, to the world of superheroes once more, turning Spider-Man into a full blown soap opera once Steve Ditko left the title. Indeed John Romita is probably more associated with Spider-Man than the characters co-creator Ditko. The call was made.
John Romita was surprised to find himself talking to Andru and Esposito on the phone. Both men were asking him if he'd like to come on board and help draw Wonder Woman. As Romita recalled in 2005, "That was a funny episode. They were getting some flack about the Wonder Woman face. That was such a flattering thing, that they would ask me to help them out with it. I was scared because at the time I really wasn’t that solid in my own estimation. It was such a flattering thing that I think it elevated my ego a great deal." It wasn't to be though. Mike explained what happened as he remembered it. "Ross had never heard of John Romita at that time because John was just a kid in his 20s. Ross said, 'Ok, give him a call'. So I called John up, I knew of him but I’d never spoken to him. I offered him a deal over the phone, would he like to at least lay out the heads and Ross would take it from there and we’d pay him for it on a freelance basis. John was very nervous about it. He didn’t like the idea because he had a lot of problems with his own deadlines. He was too busy being as good as he was that he couldn’t just hack it out like other guys. John turned it down."
Romita remembers that it was Andru and Esposito who ultimately rejected the deal. "I had mixed emotions when they said that they’d decided not to do it, because I really wanted to see how it’d work but I had my doubts thinking about getting it to fit in to Ross’ style." In any case Ross and Mike would have to draw the entire book themselves, which they did, until they too were removed from the title in 1968, again to usher in a new look and direction. Before their departure the duo were forced to draw the title in the 'old style', meaning they were having to replicate the art style of H.G. Peter. Mike Esposito even attempted to give the book a scratchy kind of a feel by allowing his young daughter to take a pass at inking certain sections, but by that time the pair were were waiting for the end.
In the mid 1970s Ross Andru looked back on his time drawing Wonder Woman for a special edition of The Amazing World Of DC. "I enjoyed the sequences with her flying about. I guess it's because as a kid I used to have dreams of flying a lot. And as I got older, I flew lower ... and I had to flap my hands. And eventually I could just barely get over fences. Finally one day, I knew I couldn't fly anymore, and I quit. But the memory of the dreams was sort of retained. I remember as a kid I used to fly way above the countryside and be looking down. It was very exhilarating... I like to do characters that are flying in mid-air, because I like that feel that it has that I get from motion pictures ... that sense of vertigo when the camera's tilting from the helicopter. You get that sense of pull in your gut, and I like to convey that feeling, because of the sense of exhilaration.
"For a while we were experimenting, and for an issue or two I had done a Wonder Women that closely approximates the Wonder Woman of today in design. Her hair was not as simple on top but it was already long and more loosely flowing. She was longer and leaner looking. But they felt it was too far removed from the image, and they went back to the old image.
"We didn’t make that decision of course. The company and Bob did. That was the era, if I’m not mistaken, that coincides with the resurgence of Batman on TV. The thought was that maybe we could help Wonder Woman’s sales by going back to a nostalgia look, sort of become campy. In those days they didn’t dare take comics seriously."***
In the 1980s Ross Andru would make a return to drawing Wonder Woman, albeit on selected stories and covers. John Romita wouldn't return to the world of superheroes until the mid 1960s when he went back to Timely (now named Marvel Comics) and started work there, first on The Avengers, then Daredevil and finally finding fame and legend status as the foremost Spider-Man artist. However just imagine what could have been if the art team on Wonder Woman in 1959 had indeed been Ross Andru, John Romita and Mike Esposito.
*Wonder Woman by Les Daniels, pg #97
** Wonder Woman by Les Daniels, pg #103
***Remembering With Ross Andru & Mike Esposito; by Cary Burkett; Amazing World Of DC Volume 4, Number 15, August 1977