Exclusive: Take a deep dive into the history of Marvel with comic legend Roy Thomas

Roy Thomas/Stan Lee

The first thing you notice when you meet Roy Thomas is how unassuming he is. If you didn't know who he was, you might not realize you were talking with a living legend of comic book history. But that's exactly what he is: born in 1940 in Missouri, Thomas came to New York City in 1965 after spending several years in comic book fandom with the express purpose of getting into the industry. And that's just what he did: he quickly landed a gig at DC Comics, but soon hated working for infamous editor Mort Weisinger. So he wrote a letter to Stan Lee, the already famous editor of Marvel Comics, and -- after passing a writing test -- got his first job there as "staff writer." 

It was the beginning of a stretch at Marvel that saw Thomas working with and alongside Lee, Steve Ditko, Jack Kirby, Sal and John Buscema, Neal Adams and many others as the Marvel Universe expanded beyond anyone's wildest imaginations. And Thomas was right in the thick of it, doing stints on books like Fantastic Four, Uncanny X-Men, Doctor Strange, and many others. He also co-created storylines and characters (either new or updated) that are still popular today, such as the Kree-Skrull War, the Vision, Ultron, Adam Warlock, Morbius and Man-Thing. With artists Barry Smith and John Buscema, he launched Marvel's successful run of Conan the Barbarian comics (including The Savage Sword of Conan) and, finally, became the first person to succeed Lee as editor-in-chief, holding the position from 1972 to 1974 (he later played a crucial role in Marvel's launch of Star Wars comics, which arguably kept the company afloat during one tough period in the late '70s).

Since that time, Thomas has continued to write for Marvel, DC and independents, while also editing the comics history magazine Alter Ego and dabbling in screenplays. And now he's written the text for 75 Years of Marvel: From the Golden Age to the Silver Screen, a massive and incredibly beautiful book from specialty publisher Taschen (it's not just a coffee table book. it's almost as big as a coffee table itself) that tells the story of Marvel through Thomas' prose and hundreds of pieces of artwork that make up a landmark in American pop culture of the 20th and 21st century. It's a job he's uniquely suited for and one we had the great pleasure of speaking with him about when he came to Los Angeles recently to promote the book. 

The book is fabulous both in terms of its look and the amount of research and information there. Were you familiar with Taschen and how did you get involved with this?

Roy Thomas: Well I knew of them as a book company because they published a lot of quality books and I would see them. But there was only a passing connection until I got the call three or so years ago now to do a book on Stan Lee for them. That’s a huge book too and I got started into it and I was getting up to about, oh, 1950. I’d actually got to him getting married and so forth. And then suddenly they called me one day and said, "We’re calling you about the book." And I said, "Yeah, I’m working on it." They said, "No, no, no, a different book. You’ve got to stop that one and we want you to do a book about Marvel instead and then we’ll get back to the Stan Lee book." So I said I’d do the first half -- I didn’t know enough about Marvel after '74 and so forth. I mean I did but I wasn’t an expert. I wasn’t around so somebody else could do that. 

At first someone else was going to do it but he didn’t deliver his (half of the) book. So then they came back to me and asked me to do it. And I’m very glad that it worked out that way because it was a challenge. It's a different thing when you’re talking about stuff that you don’t remember or know as well. We had to rush it around a little bit when this other guy didn’t come through with his part. But I had a lot of fun with it and I think it turned out reasonably well. It’s a beautiful package I think. They did a wonderful job editing it together. I mean I just wrote the text and other people wrote the captions and I just went over them and made a few changes and so forth. 

Was there stuff that you discovered about Marvel that you didn’t know and that surprised you?

Well mostly I think it was that in the last 10 or 20 years it seems like every few months they start a series and they run it a while and then they start it all over again. It’s a whole different kind of continuity from the kind that started when I was in my 20s, that I first read for a few years and then got in and helped with in the 60s and the 70s. Nowadays the continuity isn’t quite as important. They've got the characters so they just take them off in all sorts of weird adventures and if one series is running down a little they just stop it and start another one. It was a challenge to write about that because it was harder to find a thread through it. But it doesn’t mean that the books aren’t just as good in their own way or better. It’s just that every different period gets its own comic books, just like it gets its own movies. I mean it evolves slowly and a few things happen and the next thing you know, you look around and say gee, comics or our movies or television is a lot different than it was five years ago. You don’t exactly see it happening when you’re in the middle of it but later you realize that these are different epochs. And I feel I have been part of an epoch or two. It’s interesting to deal with all these and it was interesting to try to pull it together into a book that shows the whole progression. 75 years is a long time. I don’t think that anybody thought -- not Stan, his publisher Martin Goodman -- nobody was thinking about comics lasting 75 years. No one was thinking about multi-million dollar movies. We didn’t dream about the possibilities of the way the movies could look. We thought, "Well you’ll never be able to do these comic things in a movie because it would cost hundreds of millions of dollars." Well it turns out now they spend hundreds of millions of dollars on them.

I love the connection you made in the early part of the text and then in the timeline, about how storytelling has always been done visually starting with the earliest art right down to the way people are reading comics now.

At one time back when I was 21, 22 I was going to be an Egyptologist. I didn’t know much about it but I was accepted at the Oriental Institute at University of Chicago and I had studied hieroglyphics on my own. So I was just aware of that and I’d see pictures in the old Egyptian drawings of like a mouse lording it over a cat, and I immediately would think of Krazy Kat and Ignatz the mouse. I remember the first time I saw some of these pictures where you’ve got this bird-headed man. Is he flying? Is he dead? Is he alive? I mean, it was Hawkman, the DC comic hero. Somebody at the beginning was thinking about a guy with a bird’s head. I mean you had imaginative people from the beginning. There’s no reason to think that people 30,000 years ago were less imaginative than we were. They couldn’t express it as well and we don’t have many records of it but that doesn’t mean they weren’t as good as Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. They just didn’t have the printing presses going for them.

People now call superhero books our modern mythology

Back in 1966 there was a reference in one of the first pieces on Marvel in a major magazine, Esquire magazine, and one college student said we think of you as our generation’s Homer. That’s what he and the artists became. And of course Stan likes this because while only having a high school education because that was the tail end of the Depression, and you had to go out and get a job, he loves Shakespeare and always did. He could quote a lot of passages of Rubaiyat of Omar Kayyam and just soaked up what he could and had a good ear, and then could translate that into comics. 

You and Stan are doing a book signing event today, and someone said earlier that it was the first time you and Stan have seen each other in a while.

Well we actually did for five, ten minutes in Houston this summer. He was taking pictures and signing autographs. I went up and said, "I’d like your autograph, Mr. Lee, but I won't pay you." But certainly tomorrow will be the first time we’ve been on any kind of program or anything together in, it must be 20, 30 years. Because, you know, he was always doing his own stuff and I’m doing something separate. We’ve never had a reason to be on the same stage. Stan doesn’t need anybody on the same stage with him. But I’ll be there anyway and I’ll try to step in if he forgets something. That’s always been my thing is to try to be his memory of a sort.

You were the first Marvel editor after Stan and were part of some very critical storylines during that period of time.

I was lucky being around just at the right time to kind of get a chance to do these things.

What are your memories of starting with the company and working there?

It was a golden time. I mean, it was grueling and there were good memories and bad memories. I mean, you can’t work with people without some bad things happening too. But mostly it was just golden. I had come to New York to work for DC comics. Didn’t like my editor, Mort Weisinger, much and so I just wanted to meet Stan. I wasn’t thinking about quitting because I’d come to work there and I had made it and so forth. I loved those characters. But I was aware that Stan was writing the best comics and, of course, I loved Jack Kirby since (he worked with Joe Simon) back in the '40s. And I loved Steve Ditko even before Spider-Man. I’d been reading Captain Atom at Charlton. I knew they were doing the best comics even if I loved the DC characters. I wanted to meet Stan and he had me take this writing test because he didn’t want to meet me particularly. He knew who I was but he didn’t care to have a drink or anything. And 10 or 15 minutes after we met he just looked down Madison Avenue and said well, what do we have to do to hire you away from National, which is what they called DC then. And I said, "Well, just offer me a job." So he did and that was it. The best decision I ever made since meeting this one I guess (gestures toward his wife).

One of your biggest contributions at Marvel was the Conan comics. You and Barry Smith and John Buscema did so much great work in those Conan magazines. Why do you think they were never able to be mined more for movie material?

Well in a sense they were. I mean, they made a couple of Conan movies.

Right, and you worked on the screenplay for Conan the Destroyer.

Yeah, and I was a consultant on the first one although I didn’t do that much. But of course then Arnold became real big and since the second movie hadn’t worked out, they just never got around to doing the third. I think it was because (producer) Dino De Laurentiis, you know, he had a wonderful head for getting good properties -- Conan, Flash Gordon, King Kong, Firestarter, all these things -- but then did rather mediocre things with them because he really just was a sausage maker. And so as a result, things got kind of stalled. But the original stories that John and Barry and I and the other people did, those still remain, and of course the original is still Robert E. Howard which is the best of anything anyway.

What was some of your favorite storylines that you edited or worked on during your stint as editor?

Well, my favorite collaborator was John Buscema, and Barry was way up there, so definitely the Conan stuff. I loved doing The Invaders because I loved doing superheroes in World War II. And anything I worked on with Neal Adams because he was such a fantastic talent. He was always late because he was over-committed but he’s so wonderful. The Kree-Skrull War wouldn’t have existed in the form it does and be reprinted all the time without him having come in so that what we did together was better than the sum of its parts. But there were many, many different things. I mean those were just the high points -- I could look at anything. I’d look at even when I was just doing Doctor Strange or Daredevil with Gene Colan, who is such a wonderful artist. And even the artists who maybe weren’t as spectacular, they were still nice to work with. I’ve only very occasionally had to write a series or story that I didn’t like. And part of that was because I was virtually my own editor from very early on, so therefore I could decide what the stories were. I didn’t have to convince somebody except for Stan about the general gist of the story. If I liked the idea I just sat down and wrote it. Some were good and some weren’t so good. But overall they averaged out all right, I guess. 

Do you remember what inspired the Kree-Skrull War? 

When I was a teenager there was a book by Raymond F. Jones called This Island Earth, which they made into a movie that I never liked. But I read the book as a member of the Science Fiction Book Club and the idea was this person’s working on things for a mysterious company. He discovers that he’s working for one side in what is a two-sided interstellar war and the idea quickly became that Earth is like one of these Pacific islands in World War II caught in the middle between the Americans and the Japanese and it doesn’t understand. We were like New Guinea or something, you know. And I thought it was a great concept and I loved that book. So then Stan had created with Jack the Skrulls in Fantastic Four #2, and just six months or a year before (the Kree-Skrull War), he and Jack had made up the Kree, and then we’d also done that Captain Marvel was a Kree and all that. So we had those two races that are out there and they’re both cosmos-conquering races -- they should know each other. They should have clashed. And so suddenly it occurred to me, that’s the situation: it's This Island Earth, only it’s got superheroes in it. So I started it, did three or four, and I was playing around with it to no great effect. It was building up a little bit with Sal (Buscema) and me. And then Neal walked in off the street and was wanting to do Avengers and so we put Sal on something else because I really wanted to work with Neal. We had worked on X-Men and Inhumans together. We would go out to lunch. Sal and I never did -- I would just write a story and then he would draw it and I just had my own input. Neal and I would go out to lunch and we’d talk and as Neal himself has said, the conversation would not necessarily seem to be about the story and yet somehow when it was all done he knew...

Most people would say if they read it recently that the scene they remember most is where Ant-Man goes inside the vision and has like this Fantastic Voyage kind of thing. And the thing is that it has nothing at all to do with the Kree-Skrull War except it’s helping the Vision who was hurt by the Skrulls. And that was Neal just saying, "I’d like to do a story where we put the Ant-Man inside the Vision." Ant-Man hadn’t even been an Avenger for years. He hadn’t even been Ant-Man for years. And I said, "Hey, we’ve got a lot of pages to fill, go for it." So he draws the pages and I write them. So Neal helped make it and then John Buscema helped us finish it up when we had a few deadline problems and it worked out to be good. It could have been even better but, you know, I’m real proud of it. 

So many fans would love to see that story on the big screen but one studio owns the Skrulls (Fox) and Marvel owns the Kree.

They can have a real war and I’ll be caught in between (laughs). Yeah it’s a shame. And, of course, you’d have to sort of introduce the Skrulls first to the Kree. What made it so rich in the comics was the fact that the Skrulls by then had a 10-year history or thereabouts. And even the Kree had a year or so and was part of the Captain Marvel series and this and that. So it had a background. When I made them up they already existed. I didn’t have to make up two races and then bring them together. They were there and I what I seemed to have been -- I didn’t think about it consciously at the time -- but I was one of the people that would pick up the frayed pieces of the Marvel Universe and kind of tie them together because that was my particular kind of mentality. Stan was just busy like Johnny Appleseed, you know, doing this and doing that and then never thinking about it again until it was time to do the next story. I just tried to follow up. We had our different temperaments but we meshed well enough that what I did complemented what he did. What he did was much more important, but I could kind of help a little bit around the edges. 

Which artists were the best at visualizing what you saw in your head?

Well I don’t know because Neal and Barry were certainly never trying to see inside my mind. They were way too busy with their own minds (laughs). And they did wonderful things with them. But we still meshed well. They were still two of my favorites. Some of the people that could realize the things best, that I felt if I’d had a vision they’d realize it and not trying to make their own as much -- John Buscema was certainly great at that. In a realistic way Gene Colan was just wonderful because everything was so real with him. Some of the figures might be a little unreal but the emotions and the people and the faces and so forth. Gil Kane was a favorite to work with. I had plotted a new version or direction for Captain Marvel and given it to another artist and Gil walked in and wanted to do Captain Marvel. Once he took the script and did it -- we’d only met in passing a couple of times, we didn’t know each other -- we just became sort of fans of each other and we became friends and we worked together whenever we could for the rest of his life, really, when we got the chance. There were a number of other people -- Rich Buckler is another one. Everybody brought something a little different to the table and that was what was so nice. They didn’t all look just –- I mean Sal Buscema drew a lot like John. But then Gene Colan was totally different. Barry Smith was increasingly off in his own -- Neal was a little like Buscema or Kirby but it was so real in its own way. All these people went off in different directions and I would kind of tie them together. It kept it interesting for me because if I’d been working with one artist, all the books would have been more alike.

You mentioned before that you never sat around thinking these things could become movies. But now we have The Avengers: Age of Ultron coming out, featuring characters like the Vision and Ultron that you were instrumental in creating. Do you have an emotional reaction to seeing these things coming to the screen or do you have distance from it?

The funny thing is, there ought to be a distance, because they’re doing their own version of Ultron and the Vision and they could take or leave ours. But I’ve got to admit even though the real thrill for me was getting into the comics more than the movies when I wrote a few movies, the fact remains that somehow or other, you see them on a big screen and see something come alive. It isn’t exactly what I envisioned but it’s so close. And with the case of Ultron, he even sort of looks right. They didn’t change him and make him into something different. He looks like one of the various versions of Ultron. The Vision looks right. James Spader seems like an excellent choice to be the voice of Ultron. I heard a couple of things here and there. I mean Josh Whedon has the real finger on the pulse there, you know. It’s not what I would necessarily do with it but it’s just interesting to see what someone else will do with these. Ultron might have been new but otherwise I was playing with toys that other people had made -- the Vision was a new character and yet he looked like the old Kirby Vision so he was sort of new and yet he wasn’t new. And Ultron was new but he was based on other robots I’d seen and so forth. We all build on what came before and of course I was working in a Stan Lee/Jack Kirby universe. If I’d have stayed at DC I’d have been working in a different universe and I would have written probably quite differently. But I’m very lucky I stumbled into Marvel. I think I had a lot more fun at Marvel than I would have had at DC had I stayed there.

How do you think the arrival of the Marvel Cinematic Universe has changed the context of the comics or their place now in pop culture?

It’s a little hard to say because there’s only been a few years of it, but I think it brings it to a new prominence in a way and people want to see the way that the two are alike and not alike. It’ll maybe draw some attention to the comics, but we’ll have to see how that all plays out. I do think that the so-called Marvel Cinematic Universe taking its cue from the Marvel Universe of the comics is an excellent idea and it’s hard for me to imagine what a surprise it seems to have been for some people, because they’d seen the Spider-Man movies and there had been X-Men and Fantastic Four and a Hulk or two, you know. And then suddenly they get to an Iron Man movie and here’s NIck Fury walking in. And suddenly here’s Thor’s hammer stuck somewhere in there. I don’t think until they saw it most people would ever have thought in terms of bringing those heroes together. Each one was a separate world just like every movie is a separate world. You rarely see them come together.

They’re doing a really excellent job of catching up with what Stan sort of drifted into, working by the seat of his pants back in the '60s primarily because he was the main writer. There were only a handful of artists and, of course, Jack Kirby was the main one doing almost everything and Ditko was doing what he didn’t do mostly and one or two others like Don Heck. What Stan drifted into, simply because he was the only writer, suddenly became a way of life. But it was just an accident. If there had been more writers writing those comics it might not have happened quite the same way. If Stan had been the editor and three other people had been writing them, the Marvel Universe might have had more trouble coming together. By the time I got there it was already created, so we could start to play around with it. Stan had co-created all the great characters. He and Jack and Steve had this tremendous creative explosion for about four or five years in the '60s and we’re still living off the ripples, you know. Who knows how far they’ll go off in the future. Instead of getting smaller as they go off they’re growing bigger with the films. And the comics are still going strong.

Now you’re back to work on the Stan Lee book?

Well yeah. Right now I’m doing research. I keep saying next week I’m going to actually start on the writing. We’re having all these conferences so when I go back in the next week or so I’ll be going back to the writing. I’m up to just about '47 or '50, you know. My wife says that Stan’s living his life faster than I’m writing about it and that’s definitely true. I was out at POW! Entertainment (Stan's current company) the other day and they were talking about all the new stuff Stan’s into that I didn’t know about in addition to all the others. I said gee, he’s getting ahead of me. I’m standing still trying to get ready to write and he’s moved on to four or five new projects in the last few months. They said, "Don’t you think Stan’s a dynamo for 92 (years old)?" I said Stan’s a dynamo for somebody who's 47.

Will the Stan book be another big book like the Marvel one?

I don’t think it will be the exact same size. They were talking about it being a little thinner but maybe even bigger pages for the art but who knows what they’ll finally come up with. It’ll be big. It’ll be heavy and maybe reasonably expensive I suppose.

What do you want people to take away from this book?

Just an appreciation of the fact that this is a growing, living art form and that it started out to be one thing in 1939 and on the one hand it’s grown and it’s changed and it’s evolved into this whole universe. And at the same time you can look at those earlier stories with the Torch fighting the Sub-Mariner and see the beginning of it even back there. It had its start and stops and everything but it’s just been kind of growing and maybe somebody could look back and say it was inevitable but, you know, it shows the genius in particular of Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko plus a lot of other talented people along the way. It’s just those three in particular who are the most important, and maybe Joe Simon who co-created Captain America. These are the really super important people that, without really trying, created a Marvel Universe and it’s going to go on longer than any of us probably.

Roy Thomas/Stan Lee photo credit: Dalmiro Quiroga

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