Tangled Webs: Ross Andru

Ross Andru has developed the unique and contradictory reputation of being considered the most underrated Spider-Man artist. He didn’t make comicbook.com’s top five list, although that might be because he’s the type who would place sixth, as he did in CBR’s list.

In the profile, Brian Cronin noted that Andru’s arrival to Amazing Spider-Man was initially controversial.

There was a bit of a controversy over Ross Andru becoming the penciler of Amazing Spider-Man with #125. First off, this was really the first major departure from the John Romita style of artwork since Romita took over the book with #39 (Andru’s longtime inker, Mike Esposito, had worked on a bunch of Romita issues, but Espostio actually did not ink the first twenty issues of Andru’s run, oddly enough, so there was no real connection to the Romita era after the first two issues of Andru’s run, which were inked by Romita and Jim Mooney, who worked on a number of Romita Spidey stories). Secondly, Andru was an import from DC Comics (who had recently launched Marvel Team-Up as one of his first major Marvel assignments). So in his early years on Amazing, Andru actually got a good deal of grief over his artwork. Which is a ridiculous load of crap, as Andru was an awesome comic book artist for decades before he took over Amazing Spider-Man and he was an awesome comic book artist during his 60 issue stint from #125-185.

Modern readers would probably consider Andru to be at the very least a good artist who struck to the traditional models for the character. At the time, he was seen as a radical departure, especially with Romita Sr’s dominance as an artist and inker.

Andru’s initial work featured some important moments of the series, including the first appearances of the Punisher, Glory Grant, the Jackal and the Harry Osborn Green Goblin. Storytelling was just as  important as the spectacle. Andru’s most iconic scene was probably that first kiss with Mary Jane (the three pages are at the CBR link) but he also drew the sequences in which Peter and Flash Thompson became friends, which are worth seeing in terms of how he shows the balance between the Peter Parker side of things, and Spider-Man’s adventures.

Conway described Andru’s skill in drawing Peter Parker’s life in an interview with Tom DeFalco for Comics Creators on Spider-Man.

I started off writing fairly detailed plots for Ross, but stopped that as we continued to work together. Ross was such a good storyteller. We seemed to develop some kind of telepathy. When we talked over a story, I’d start out describing a scene, and he’d be finishing my sentences. He understood both the visual dynamic of Spider-Man, and the personal pathos of Peter Parker. He was able to break down a story wit the proper proportion of action to character.

In the same interview, he noted the research Andru brought to the title.

I was living in Manhattan at the time, and Ross used to come to my apartment to take reference pictures from my roof. Ross would take these wonderful vertigo shots. He photographed every scene that showed Spider-Man web-swinging over some fantastic canyon in the city. Ross rarely used newspaper clippings of photo reference books. He took his own photos because he wanted specific angles in order to show some really neat special effect.

Len Wein recalled Ross’s determination.

Ross had an amazing sense of design and story, and he was a stickler for accuracy. Amazing #151, my first issues, starred the Shocker, and the climax takes place on a power station that was located on a small island in the middle of the Wast River. Ross had his wife drop him off in the middle of the 59th street bridge, and stood there with a camera and a sketch pad for like an hour and a half, until he got all the reference on that power station just right.

This led to a trademark of Wein’s run in both Marvel Team-Up and Amazing Spider-Man.

I would set my Spider-Man stories around famous objects in New York because I knew Ross would get them right. One of my favorite battles was a Green Goblin story that had a big aerial fight inside Radio City Music Hall. Ross spent an afternoon there, taking photos and sketching.

I made New York a character in the book because I knew I had an artist who was capable of doing it justice. Ross gave you the real New York. We did stories that featured the ice rink at Rockefeller Center, the Roosevelt Island Tramway, and once had a climax take place in Times Square with all those Neon lights. I opened one issue with Spider-Man sitting on the wall of St Patrick’s Cathedral.

This happened in Amazing Spider-Man #153, one of JR’s favorite comics.

Matt Wilson of Comics Alliance did a spotlight on Ross Andru during a series on notable Spider-Man artists, viewing his work as a combination of two different styles.

Andru’s depictions of Spider-Man synthesized the styles of Romita and Steve Ditko. He was still muscular like Romita’s Spidey, but also had a litheness to him reminiscent of Ditko’s skinnier version. He contorted into strange positions like Ditko’s Spider-Man, but Peter Parker remained Romita handsome. And perhaps beyond even what his predecessors pulled off, Andru conveyed movement and action. His Spider-Man bounced around the page.

Andru also had a real eye for comedy. In case you were wondering, yes, he did design the Spider-Mobile, and while it’s considered one of the low points in Spidey history, it was more or less played for laughs from the get-go. The notion that Spider-Man had this goofy, toyetic car was supposed to be an on-its-face silly notion. That’s partially evident from Conway’s dialogue, but it’s confirmed again and again in Andru’s art.

Andru’s run included the first appearance of the Spider-Mobile, as well as a rematch. He featured a traditionally muscular superhero, but embraced the ridiculousness, a great fit for a series about a hero self-aware enough to realize how weird the situations he’s involved in can be.

Wilsom noted Andru’s biggest project may have been the first crossover with Superman.

Speaking of DC, Andru was also notable for penciling the first Marvel/DC superhero crossover, 1976’s Superman vs. The Amazing Spider-Man.

Andru and writer Conway were two of only a handful of creators who had worked on both characters, and thus pulled it together (with some help from Neal Adams, who redrew some Superman figures, and Romita, who helped with some Marvel character faces). The book paved the way for the numerous company crossovers that would occur over the next 30 years.

The 1970s were a weird time for Spider-Man. After a decade of immense popularity, writers were beginning to try anything to find a formula for continued success. For years, Ross Andru was there to do whatever he could to make those ideas work. Without him, who knows what would have happened.

We take it for granted that Spider-Man is one of Marvel’s most prominent series, and it’s been that way since the 1960s, when Amazing Spider-Man and Fantastic Four competed for Marvel’s top spot in the sales charts (with the Lee/ Kirby Mighty Thor in third place.) While there are a lot of things that work well with the series (the rogues gallery, the supporting cast, the power set) it does require consistent talent. If the artist during this particular chunk of the 70s (shortly after the death of Gwen Stacy divided the fans) hadn’t been as interesting, it’s possible that Spider-Man would have faded from the spotlight, overtaken by the X-Men in the 1980s, Ghost Rider in the 1990s, or whatever sells well at a particular moment. There would still likely continue to be a monthly title, but it wouldn’t be Marvel’s top priority. There would sometimes be creative teams that merit attention and bring renewed interest to the character, like John Byrne with The Fantastic Four, and Walt Simonson with Thor, but the series might return to relative obscurity when those guys left.

So, why is Ross Andru so underrated? I think part of the problem is a lack of great material from the writers of the time. He didn’t have a “Night Gwen Stacy Died” on his resume, and his tenure coincided with a reduction in the amount of pages which reduced the ability of the writers to do compelling stories with a character who is supposed to have an interesting private life in addition to the superhero side of things. While he drew pivotal moments for Peter Parker in the Gerry Conway run, Peter’s life was relatively stable during the Len Wein run. He left early into Wolfman’s run, before things got cooking with the Death of Spencer Smythe, and the Burglar saga.

He didn’t draw many of the covers, which meant that the most prominent images of the decade were produced by others. The John Romita Sr. cover for Amazing Spider-Man #151 was just going to be seen by more people than most of Andru’s work, even if the interiors were quite good.

He passed away in 1993 at the age of 66. This meant he wasn’t able to be a spokesman for his work just as comics were gaining in respectability. A Ross Andru who had been interviewed whenever a new Spider-Man movie came out, celebrated at the New York Comic Con, and produced occasional highly promoted covers/ work would have a higher profile.

His work was unique at the time, but the parameters have shifted. Compared to later artists, he’s not as radical as Todd McFarlane’s focus on modern fashion and spectacle, or the Ditkoesque stylization of Marcos Martin (or Ron Frenz- for that matter.) Due to his blending of Ditko’s grit and Romita’s dynamism, Ditko hardliners might prefer him to Romita and Romita fanatics might prefer him to Ditko, but he won’t quite be those reader’s favorite artist. He’s consistently reliable, and that can lead to being unappreciated.

After reading multiple commentaries about him, you might think he’s a fine artist and that he is properly rated. Or perhaps he has even become overhyped. It’s not a view I share, but I’m interested in reading what you guys think. Does anyone have strong (or weak) feelings about him? Are you a fan of his?  If so, what is it about his work that speaks to you? And, what are you favorite stories by him?

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(10) Comments

  1. Jim Loftus

    "I think part of the problem is a lack of great material from the writers of the time. He didn’t have a 'Night Gwen Stacy Died' on his resume..." Um. Nice write-up but I could not disagree with you more on that. Ross Andru and Gerry Conway pulled off one of the most epic story arcs ever in Spider-Man history: The Clone Saga. In the span of a couple of years, the Jackal hired multiple goons to kill Spider-Man... he created a Gwen Stacy clone and a Parker clone! And speaking of hiring goons... one of them was the first appearance of The Punisher!!!! Ross Andru, along with Gerry Conway, pulled all of this off beautifully.

  2. Jim Loftus

    I could literally go on for HOURS about how much Ross Andru's Spider-Man run meant to me as a kid. Most notably, as an 7-12 year-ild kid I became interested in art and design and spent most of my free time drawing my own comic books on line paper. Rossa Andru was my #1 comic book artist and IMO he was every bit as good as John Romita in his early days with AS-M... sooooooo underrated it's insane. I had no idea he was from Cleveland (where I'm from.) The man had a 60 issue run on AS-M and damn was it ever intense. Always preferred Frank Giacoia and Mike Esposito inks over anyone else's. IMO Moony and Milgrom and the others just muddied up the powerful contrast Andru always went for. Last thing: Anyone else here impressed with Andru's sense of composition? He had that down and he was also incredible at depicting Spider-Man in so many unique positions, camera angles etc... AMAZING. Yes, pun intended. RIP ROSS ANDRU, MY COMIC BOOK HERO.

  3. The Crusty Curmudgeon

    I love Ross and his work and these feelings have only grown stronger as I've gotten older. He was my first Amazing Spider-Man artist, starting with ASM #136, where he drew a fearsome Green Goblin (more details here: http://crustymud.paradoxcomics.com/?p=29). What impresses me the most, looking back, was all the work he put into the details-- something I couldn't appreciate nearly as much when I was just a dopey kid. The research he put in, as you detail in your article, is staggering. That is true dedication to craft. When I go back today and read, for example, ASM #161, it feels like you've gone back in a time machine and you are actually *in* Coney Island in 1976. Ross was one of the greats and is criminally overlooked these days.

  4. Ted Dawson

    The first Spidey comic I ever saw was Amazing Spider-Man #176 when I was eleven years old, so Ross Andru indelibly defined Spidey and Peter Parker for me. I was hooked. No other artist could as convincingly put you swinging in the skies , crawling on a wall, or changing in a back alley of New York City. When Peter was in pain, you could feel it. Great facial expressions and body language.His style was a little harsh, but it brought an intensity that was lacking with his predecessors. His art and storytelling abilities influenced me quite a bit. He made another kid love Spidey, so that I could go on to enjoy Ditko and both Romitas.Ross Andru was an amazing talent who, given more artistic freedom, would have been a rock star to readers in today's comics climate, where artists can infuse their own visions into characters are aren't stifled by the house style.

  5. Mark Alford

    I never thought of his work as radically difference than Romita's. That was interesting to hear that people at the time thought so.

  6. Jim W

    Andru's run is hands down my favorite run on Amazing. This may be due to the fact that my first issue of Amazing was near the beginning of his stint. I always felt he never received proper credit for his work. At an Akron comic show a few years ago, Gerry Conway said pretty much the same thing.I wonder how many artists today would go to the same lengths to get their reference pics? I would guess not many.

  7. BD

    I recently re-read his run and I love it. I think Andru along with Sal Buscema and Alex Saviuk are very underrated.

  8. Spider-Dad

    Ross Andru was more than capable artist for Amazing Spider-Man or any book. I was always impressed with his opening layouts, (as #153 shown above) and his ability to tell a story convincingly, whether in day in the life scenes or combat, Ross' layouts were clear.I think Ross has always been underappreciated, due to being proceeded by Ditko, Romita and Kane. Tough acts to follow. But when he was combined with Frank Giacoia, he was always enjoyable from this readers perspective.Flashy? No. Competent? Absolutely. I will take him or one of the Buscema's (Sal or John) over the current stylized artists that grace comics. At least Ross could draw heads the right shape...

  9. Javi Trujillo

    I didn't know he had passed so close to Spider-Man: Fear Itself being released! Great article! Gave me a little more appreciation for him, as yeah, I tend to favor Romita.

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