The History of Marvel According to Roy Thomas, Part Three

A NOTE ON WRITING

It’s important to note that each time Thomas or Lee used the word “artist” to describe Kirby or another one of the writers, it was designed to diminish their contribution and plant the idea that someone else was doing the writing. A better term would be writer/artist, and, in one instance, creator/writer/artist. Lee the perpetual self-promoter and originator of the Marvel Method story, was getting paid the page rate1 for the writing of his writing stable: Kirby, Ditko, Wood, and anyone who wanted to continue receiving assignments from him.

In the 1998 Comic Book Artist interview,2 Thomas asked Lee whether he was writing Kirby’s “monster stories” full script or Marvel Method. This obscures the real question of whether Lee was writing the stories at all—his signature was absent at a time he was in the habit of signing everything.

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Michael Vassallo: Stan had been signing his name on everything he touched from the moment he arrived at Timely. The idea that he wrote and didn’t sign it has been rejected by myself in analyzing his career. That said, could a signature have been accidentally left out, a stat fallen off? Of course. But for the most part, for 99% of everything he wrote, he signed. He even signed paper doll pages, fashion pages, letter pages, contest pages… pages that didn’t even require a signature to identify who put it together. Yet, he signed them. So it’s a safe bet to go under the impression that if Stan wrote it, he signed it. if he didn’t sign it, he most likely didn’t write it.3

The Stan-Roy “interview” was an orchestrated response to Groth’s Kirby interview, and it brings to light an important distinction: Kirby claimed he wrote specifically the monster books, therefore Lee and Thomas specifically addressed the writing credit on the monster books. This despite no signatures, and no mention of Larry Lieber. In real life, Kirby’s monster books, even after FF #1, bore Kirby’s pencilled dialogue in the balloons, sometimes with Lee’s corrections (see life-size examples here and here); still, Lee shied away from signing them. Larry Lieber said, “When Stan saw that the strips had potential, he started writing them.”4

KIRBY: Of course it was fulfilling. It was a happy time of life. But. But, slowly management suddenly realized I was making money. I say “management,” but I mean an individual. I was making more money than he was, OK? It’s an individual. And so he says, “Well, you know…” And the old phrase is born. “Screw you. I get mine.” OK? And so I had to render to Caesar what he considered Caesar’s.5

To phrase Lieber’s statement more accurately, when Lee saw that the strips had potential, he started signing them. Kirby’s account suggests that the writing page rate he was getting on the “monster” books caught Lee’s attention; Lee didn’t sign them because, as their sales dwindled, they didn’t speak “success” to him. After Goodman was persuaded to belay the order to shut down, each new title launched from a Goodman-approved Kirby presentation had its writing rate appropriated by Lee: first with signatures, then with misleading credit boxes, then using the Marvel Method as justification.

THE MARVEL METHOD

MR. TOBEROFF:

Q. What is the — have you ever heard of the term Marvel Method?

A. Yes.

Q. What is — when you came to Marvel in July of 1965, was the Marvel Method in use at that time?

MS. KLEINICK: Objection.

A. Yes.

Q. What is the Marvel Method?

A. The Marvel Method — sometimes also called the Stan Lee Method — but it didn’t totally originated with him, but mostly arose in the — I’m not really quite sure — but it was in place by the time I got there. Because Stan became too busy to write full scripts; and Larry Lieber, who had been writing the scripts from his plots, you know, was either too busy or was doing his westerns and things and somewhat withdrawing from doing the superheros.

Stan was — became — would come up with the idea for the plots, I guess, adapting from the way he had originally done plots that Larry would turn in the scripts. And he simply would give those plots to the artists, who would then draw the story, break them down into pictures, expanding them, whatever needed to be done to break them down into pictures.

They would then turn them in, and he would then add the — he would dialogue it, which means the dialogue and captions — he would add it later — instead of writing what we call script in advance, which is the more usual method of writing comic books beforehand.

Q. Are you aware that Stan Lee has been interviewed numerous times in which he has described the Marvel Method?

A. I’m sure he has, yes. I’m aware of that.

Q. Are you aware that Stan Lee, in interviews, has stated that in 1960s, under the Marvel Method, that artists were expected to plot stories?

MS. KLEINICK: Objection; states facts not in evidence.

A. I haven’t any knowledge of that. It would have, you know, surprised me; but if he did, he probably misspoke.

Q. Is it your understanding that at Marvel, artists were — part of their duties were to plot the stories through the — through their artwork and through notes in the margins and suggested dialogue?

MS. KLEINICK: Objection.

A. We didn’t use that, you know, think about that much or use that term then. But as I look back on it, and over the years and analyze it, I realize they were — I would say co-plotting the stories. I would not say plotting.

When you are given a story idea, even if it is a few sentence, quite often, and certainly if it was more, as it was in many cases, you’re certainly not plotting the story, you were co-plotting.

Q. Starting at the time you started — well, whether or not they were co-plotting or plotting — is it correct that artists were, at the time you got to Marvel in 1965, artists were expected to plot stories?

MS. KLEINICK: Objection.

A. They were expected to co-plot the stories.

Q. Okay.

A. As they — to do whatever is necessary to tell the story; that involved adding elements for the plot. So, I call it co-plotting.6

Thomas should know better than anyone alive that the Marvel Method began as nothing more than Lee’s version of a kickback scheme: the writer/artists would write the story as they drew, and Lee would take the writing page rate for filling in the dialogue and captions. Reluctance to participate was punishable by the withholding of assignments.

The supposed inspiration for the Marvel Method, Lee being too busy to write full scripts, doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. For March of 1953, the Atlas Tales website  credits Lee with 126 pages of script while he managed dozens of Timely titles. In March of 1961 Lee was allegedly too busy to write full scripts for 69 pages (46 western pages, 18 Millie story pages, 5 individually-signed Millie activity pages) while coordinating a line of eight monthly publications. We’ll leave the question of whether Lee did write scripts for another discussion, but it’s worth noting Ditko’s statement: “Lee never wrote a full script for me.”7

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Nearly forty years after the fact, it was “revealed” that Larry Lieber had written full scripts for Kirby’s monster stories, despite the stance held from 1974 through to the end of the ‘90s that Lee had written them unsigned. This new tack may not have been given sufficient thought in relation to the justification of the Marvel Method, because it would suggest Lee had been even less busy than he’d claimed.

Alternate scenario: Lee wasn’t busy because Kirby wrote his own stories. Lee added dialogue, captions, and his name to the books to divert the writing page rate. There is a grain of truth to the official story… Lee wasn’t writing, not because he was too busy, but because he wasn’t a writer. Kirby was doing the writing, and Lee had figured out how to get paid for it.

EISNER: Let me tail off this thing by going back into the technique of work. The laying out of a page. Since you write and draw, you regard yourself as I like to regard myself, as a total writer. Do you agree that this is a total dimension, that there is no separation between the words and pictures? That they’re integrated? Do you agree with that?

KIRBY: I believe that the man who draws the story should write it.8

Stan Taylor: I think that Stan’s singling out and praising the artists actually upset the artists, more than making them happy. Stan was quick to tell everyone how his artists not only pencilled, but plotted also, yet they knew they were only being paid for pencilling, and at a rate less than the competition, and getting nothing for plotting, while Stan was getting all the glory, and the big bucks for simply putting the finishing sheen on the artists stories. If it was me, I would get pretty mad about doing the work of one and a half people, while being paid less than the competitor paid just for pencilling, and then someone else takes the credit for my stories.9

Let’s take a look at some examples of Thomas’ participation in the Marvel Method.

“Jack agreed to do it—under one condition. He insisted that I plot out the stories, panel by panel, and send him that to pencil from. And I balked at that. I could see that Jack was determined that he wasn’t going to add one incident, one thought, to the story that I hadn’t given him. And if I was going to have to do that, I really didn’t see any special value in having Jack pencil the FF at that point. I’d prefer to work with Rich Buckler or someone else Kirby-influenced. So that was the end of my attempt to get Jack to do Fantastic Four.”10

Translation: “Jack really didn’t see any special value in having me get paid the writing page rate if he was going to be doing the writing.” Nothing better illustrates Thomas’s disconnect from Kirby’s grievances or the true purpose of the Marvel Method than this story. Except for the plotting credit, Thomas has just described Kirby’s reality working with Lee; this should tell him it wasn’t solely about the credit. Yet Thomas appears to continue to be mystified that Kirby did not want to be “reined in” by a non-plotting collaborator who was paid for writing and editing.

ROY THOMAS:“The first sour note for me on X-Men came with my second issue, #21. I learned that, for reasons never made clear, Stan had told [Werner Roth] that he would be plotting the upcoming issues, and I’d be simply writing dialogue and captions for them. Now, understand: in those days, Werner wouldn’t have received one extra cent if he had plotted all the stories with no input from me; I’d have received my full script rate, then probably $10 a page. But I felt that I, not Werner, should be plotting the stories. I said so to Stan and I prevailed…”11

Barry Windsor-Smith gave some insight into just what Thomas was offering Kirby, speaking in an interview regarding Conan: “I toiled passionately on the stories and art of those early issues. In fact, I worked so hard that I barely had a social life. I couldn’t afford to eat out and I had to make do with pizza and fish out of tins. I wasn’t paid nearly enough for my commitment to the work and I wasn’t credited or paid for my stories or dialogue.”12

Neal Adams followed suit: ‘Word is kind of getting around that Roy Thomas, my great dialoguing partner, and John Buscema, had something to do with the creating of the Kree Skrull War concept at Marvel… Roy dialogued it, and according to my agreement with Stan, Roy never wrote a script, nor an outline, or even notes to me, in any way. I was free to work the Marvel Method to do the Kree Skrull War. People should gain credit for what they do, but not gain credit for what they do not do, whatever the reason. I was totally in charge of the story, and there is not one word of writing from any editorial person that gave me any direction. Let’s keep the record straight. This is not an argument. I have no argument with anyone. This is simply a statement of facts. I love the dialoging that Roy did, (except in the case of the title of the first book, which I suggested be “Three cows shot me down”, and Roy changed to “Beachhead Earth ”.’13

Thomas responded to Adams: “Put simply and as politely as I can muster under the circumstances, Neal Adams is full of crap… Neal has deluded himself for years on some points.”14

Deluded? In 2013, Thomas suggested Kirby had suffered from delusions of grandeur:

‘What’s done on pp. 48-49 of CBC #1 is not far from the kind of statement Jack himself made, during the years when he had first left Marvel, when an interviewer tried to pin him down and ask him what Stan Lee did in those stories. “Stan Lee was my editor,” was all Jack would say. Jack, who of course was and remains even years after his demise one of the greatest artists in the history of the comic book medium, was given at that stage to delusions of grandeur that went far beyond even his massive talents and contributions.’15

1998

In September 1997, Roy Thomas told Jim Amash, “even Stan would never claim for sure that he and Jack hadn’t talked the idea over before he wrote [the FF #1 plot].”16

By 1998, Stan Lee had been alerted to a perceived assault on his carefully-crafted legacy. He mobilized his resources, including his attorney, Arthur Lieberman. Correcting Thomas’ errant comment was on the agenda.

In Comic Book Artist #2/Alter Ego v2n1, Thomas printed one of the versions of the FF #1 synopsis (warranting another verbose explanation of why there was more than one), and an interview of Lee conducted in May. In the synopsis piece, Thomas’ earlier comment was disavowed word for word by Lee. Among other subjects, the script for the interview targeted specific points from Kirby’s TCJ interview.

In June, Marvel used bankruptcy procedures to void the $1 million-a-year lifetime-employment contract with Lee. That also voided Lee’s exclusive assignment to Marvel of his rights to the Marvel characters.

Lee and Lieberman, along with their friend Peter Paul, formed a company called Stan Lee Media. Paul put in $500,000, while Lee assigned the company all his intellectual property rights, including his hypothetical rights to the Marvel characters.

BARRON’S: “It turned out that in November 1998 – a month after assigning his intellectual property to Stan Lee Media – Lee had gone to Marvel claiming half-ownership of Spider-Man, the X-Men and other characters, since Marvel had cancelled his previous rights assignment in its bankruptcy. Lee got a new contract for up to $1 million in annual salary and 10% of movie and TV profits, assigning Marvel his rights in those characters.”17

Thomas recently stated he’d started writing the Spider-Man newspaper strip around this time. He and Larry Lieber (who was already working on it) presumably agreed to the same Marvel conditions Herb Trimpe described in his New York Times article.18 (Similar wording appeared in the 1985 multi-page agreement Kirby refused to sign to get back his original art.)

Alter Ego v3n2 contained Thomas’ interview of Lieber (undated but printed in 1999) naming him as the writer of full scripts for Kirby’s monster stories. This is the revelation Thomas characterized as “repeatedly over the years,” and he thought he got the scoop for this interview. Lieber had earlier mentioned it in print in 1997’s Marvel Vision #20.

The change in the story is significant. Lee in Origins (1974): “Jack and I were having a ball turning out monster stories…” Although Lieber’s own 1975 Atlas bio doesn’t mention monster stories, it does contain this: “…Stan himself (who taught me that dialogue is more important that captions, and pay vouchers are more important than either).”

LieberAtlasBio

THOMAS AND THE EARLY ‘60s

Q. In the 1960s to early ’70s who decided which books or series Kirby would work on?

A. Stan Lee.

MR. TOBEROFF: Objection to 1960s again. We have a standing objection. 1960s means —

MS. KLEINICK: It’s a standing objection.

MR. TOBEROFF: — after July 1965; is that correct?

THE WITNESS: I always meant it to be.

MS. KLEINICK: You made the standing objection.

MR. TOBEROFF: I understand, but I don’t want the record to look like he’s talking about the early 1960s when he wasn’t there.

MS. KLEINICK: You made your objection.

THE WITNESS: I understand it as being from ’65 on, because I wouldn’t know anything about an earlier period. I wouldn’t have been paying as much attention.

Thomas admitted to Kirby lawyer Marc Toberoff that he had no first-hand knowledge of the years 1958-1963 (the period targeted by Marvel’s suit against the Kirbys) on account of his not actually being there. The information he hopes comes across as unbiased is single-sourced from Lee, with no room for interpretation in light of other eyewitness testimony. His encounters with “synopses” fail to place the documents in Kirby’s possession in time to inspire creation, but his arrival in 1965 and subsequent proximity to Lee are meant to be sufficient proof for anybody.

Reflections on leaving Marvel…

“There were times at Marvel when I couldn’t say anything because it would be taken away from me and put in another context, and it would be lost—all my connection with it would be severed. For instance, I created the Silver Surfer, Galactus and an army of other characters, and now my connection with them is lost… You get to feel like a ghost. You’re writing commercials for somebody and… It’s a strange feeling, but I experienced it and I didn’t like it much. “It wasn’t recognition so much—you just couldn’t take the character anywhere. You could devote your time to a character, put a lot of insight into it, help it evolve and then lose all connection with it. It’s kind of an eerie thing; I can’t describe it. You just have to experience that relationship to understand it.” –Kirby19

“It was that kind of shitty treatment on the part of Marvel which made me decide to do what I had avoided in 1974 and at other times–to talk to fanzines about Marvel Comics and my feelings about it… My point again, to reiterate what I said earlier, is that if your value to the company is subject to this kind of re-evaluation… if you can spend 15 years selling comics for the company and helping guide its direction… and then be turned on the way I was turned on, then why should anyone care about that company past making sure his next check is good? And the answer, really, is that you shouldn’t, because you’re not building anything.” –Thomas20

Rather than relating to Kirby, Thomas decided vindictiveness wasn’t so bad and joined the attack on Kirby’s claims after his death. Thomas’ own delusions of grandeur allow him to accuse Kirby of delusions of grandeur, and to minimize the part Kirby played in Lee having a legacy worthy of having Thomas as its guardian. Thomas and Lieber are the only ones left who can shed light on the truth of that legacy. Until that happens, a Thomas interview in a Kirby publication says it’s fine and well to extol Kirby’s contribution, but the company version needs to be given equal time.

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back 1 Stan Lee deposition, 13 May 2010, Filing 102, Exhibit I, Page 17, Justia, Dockets & Filings, Second Circuit, New York, New York Southern District Court, Marvel Worldwide, Inc. et al v. Kirby et al.
back 2 “Stan the Man & Roy the Boy,” A Conversation Between Stan Lee and Roy Thomas, Comic Book Artist< #2, Summer 1998.
back 3 Dr Michael J Vassallo, Stan Lee (1922-2018) – The Timely Years, Timely-Atlas-Comics blog, December 8, 2018.
back 4 Larry Lieber interviewed by Roy Thomas, Alter Ego v3n2, Fall 1999.
back 5 Jack Kirby interviewed by Gary Groth, conducted in summer of 1989, The Comics Journal #134, February 1990.
back 6 Parts of Thomas’ deposition can be found in declarations by Randi Singer (Filing 65, 18 February 2011) and Marc Toberoff (Filing 77, 25 February 2011), Justia, Dockets & Filings, Second Circuit, New York, New York Southern District Court, Marvel Worldwide, Inc. et al v. Kirby et al.
back 7 “Creative Crediting,” The Avenging Mind, © 2008 S. Ditko.
back 8 “Shop Talk,” Jack Kirby interviewed by Will Eisner, Will Eisner’s Spirit Magazine 39, July 1982.
back 9 Stan Taylor, Kirby-L, the Jack Kirby Internet mailing list, 6 November 1999.
back 10 Roy Thomas, “The Terrific Roy Thomas,” The Jack Kirby Collector #74, Spring 2018.
back 11 Roy Thomas, Alter Ego #24, May 2003.
back 12 Barry Windsor-Smith interviewed by Wally Monk, Paint Monk’s Library, June 30, 2018
back 13 Neal Adams, response to Roy Thomas’ letter to Bleeding Cool, December 14, 2018.
back 14 Roy Thomas, response to the Adams response, Bleeding Cool, December 15, 2018.
back 15 Roy Thomas, Letter to the editor, Comic Book Creator #3, Fall 2013.
back 16 Roy Thomas interviewed by Jim Amash, published in The Jack Kirby Collector #18, September 1997.
back 17 Bill Alpert, “The Rage Offstage at Marvel”, Barron’s, June 30, 2008.
back 18 ‘May 17: Got a package from Marvel today, a pile of termination agreement paperwork. I’m supposed to sign forms swearing that I won’t talk trash about Marvel, won’t reveal any superheroes’ secret identities, won’t say anything mean about Stan Lee, won’t make a fuss, and other legal mumbo jumbo. If I don’t sign, I don’t get termination “benefits.”’ Herb Trimpe, “Old Superheroes Never Die, They Join the Real World,” New York Times, 7 January 2000.
back 19 Jack Kirby interviewed by Tim Skelly, “The Great Electric Bird” show, WNUR-FM, Northwestern University (Evanston, IL), 14 May 1971; later published in The Nostalgia Journal 27, Aug 1976.
back 20 Roy Thomas, interviewed by Rob Gustaveson, The Comics Journal #61, Winter 1981.

All other Roy Thomas quotes are from “The Terrific Roy Thomas,” The Jack Kirby Collector #74, Spring 2018.

The History of Marvel According to Roy Thomas, Part Three