The History of Marvel According to Roy Thomas, Part Two

1961

THOMAS: In 1961, Stan just stumbled into suddenly having the greatest comic book action artist of all time working for him for cheap wages, simply because he had been in a lawsuit with a DC editor who was so vengeful that he got him blacklisted from DC Comics. With only two or three companies in the field, Jack was forced into coming back to Timely for these cheap rates. Jack was sort of at Stan’s mercy wage-wise and work-wise… you can’t describe it any better than to say it was a “perfect storm” that happened that nobody could control, nobody could have predicted. And that’s why everybody keeps trying to explain it, because some people say it was all Stan Lee—and some people fervently believe it was all Jack Kirby, which is at least equally ridiculous.

Thomas’ account, although it began to develop within a few years of the events it concerns, is inaccurate. Lee’s future was dependent on Kirby taking action to forestall the shutdown of the comics operation, and the introduction of the Marvel Method immediately followed. The key truth in this passage is one that Thomas fails to develop, that Kirby was at Lee’s mercy. Lee didn’t have an eye for talent, he had an eye for writer/artists whose financial position meant that they had no choice but to say yes to the Marvel Method—“having the right people around him,” as Thomas told TCJ:

Stan of course, never operated in a vacuum, at least not in those early days. Jack Kirby in particular was there, and he was just the right artist—no, more than an artist, he was a person with a strongly developed story sense of his own that enabled Jack to add considerably to the material things which Stan himself might not have been equipped to do at that particular stage… Whatever he might say or others might believe, Stan, I think, always knew that he was dependent on having the right people around him.1

Let’s have a look at some actual historical details…

KIRBY: I began to do monster books. The kind of books Goodman wanted. I had to fight for the superheroes. In other words, I was at the stage now where I had to fight for those things and I did. I had to regenerate the entire line. I felt that there was nobody there that was qualified to do it. So I began to do it. Stan Lee was my vehicle to do it. He was my bridge to Martin [Goodman].2

KIRBY: I had to do something different. The monster stories have their limitations — you can just do so many of them. And then it becomes a monster book month after month, so there had to be a switch because the times weren’t exactly conducive to good sales. So I felt the idea was to come up with new stuff all the time — in other words there had to be a blitz. And I came up with this blitz. I came up with The Fantastic Four, I came up with Thor (I knew the Thor legends very well), and the Hulk, the X-Men, and The Avengers. I revived what I could and came up with what I could. I tried to blitz the stands with new stuff. The new stuff seemed to gain momentum.3

Steve Sherman: The thing is, if Joe Maneely hadn’t died, things would have been a lot different. I guess you can call it fate, destiny, random events, but Jack probably would have found something else. Yes it was early ’61 that Goodman was going to pull the plug. Don’t forget, the Marvel offices at the time were pretty small, so it wasn’t a big deal to close the office. I would guess that Goodman had not yet informed the printer or engravers, since that would have been bought ahead of time. I would guess that last issues of the books had been sent out. Jack couldn’t let them close. Jack had always been working on ideas for books. He was pretty well aware of what was being published. He always felt that “superhero” books would make a comeback. Since Goodman already had the pipeline going, it wasn’t too much to give it another shot, especially since it was Jack. He had come through before, so why not. As Jack told me, he came up with all of the titles at once. He called it a “blitzkrieg”. He felt if he put out a bunch of new books at once, it would make a splash. He had “FF”, “Spider-Man”, “The X-Men” and “Thor” and “Hulk”. You can believe it or not, but that’s what he told me.4

Kate Willaert: One thing that really surprised me was October 1961. Marvel shipped an entire month’s worth of books in the last week of September 1961 (including Fantastic Four #2), and then published nothing in October. Four whole weeks of nothing.5

Marvel published comics twice a month in 1961 (and once three times a month), but nothing from September 28th to November 2nd. According to Kirby’s account, Goodman had pulled the plug and then given Kirby’s superheroes a chance, and was convinced enough by what he saw to re-start the operation. Lee insinuated to Thomas that it didn’t happen: “I never remember being there when people were moving out the furniture. [chuckles]… Jack tended toward hyperbole.”6

Steve Ditko wrote about Lee using levity to redirect credit.7 This is another application of the same technique, and Lee combined it with accusing his adversary of that of which he himself was the master—in this case, hyperbole.8

Kirby on convincing Goodman: “It took all day to do that.”9

As a side note, characterizing the discussion as, “it was all Stan Lee” versus “it was all Jack Kirby” makes it easier for Thomas and others to knock down the opposing argument. The reality was that both men contributed more than half: to justify his appropriation of the writing pay, Lee was compelled to make his indelible mark on the work through misdirected meddling; Kirby was the consummate storyteller whose vision was repeatedly corrupted. Kirby turned over pages that contained a fully-written story, and Lee, through added dialogue and forced redraws, made it his own.

SYNOPSES AGAIN (previously addressed here)

Eric Stedman: I have to ask why does everyone keep using the word synopsis to mean outline or plot summary? A synopsis is a summary of a full narrative written after a story is published or a movie is already made, like the articles that appear in Wikipedia, and it confuses things at least to me to suggest that such a thing could be written before a comic book story is drawn — there will always be changes, and a plot summary could be 2 sentences long, or an outline only a skeleton of action with spaces to be filled in.10

Roy Thomas: “The synopsis is printed here. (A retyped version appeared without fanfare in the 30th-anniversary F.F. #358, Nov. 1991, even duplicating typos such as “synopses” for “synopsis”; but, to the best of our knowledge, this is the first time the actual document, including traces of the original words under the crossed-out ones and a few handwritten numbers by Stan, has ever seen print.)”11

AlterEgov2n2

Thomas couldn’t have been more condescending in his letter to Comic Book Creator, taking Jon Cooke to task for not mentioning the synopses in his article “Kirby’s Kingdom”:

Like me, you’ve seen the plot pages done for portions of Fantastic Four #1 and #8. Jack made a lot of changes and additions to the plot of #1’s origin, most notably introducing the heroes dramatically before going into the flashback origin. That action was breathtaking and wonderful… but it didn’t create the characters or the main story, which was the origin. And in #8, as I pointed out while AE was still part of CBA, Stan’s plot even went into more detail about the actions of the Puppet Master and the F.F. than I would have imagined without reading that plot…12

Cooke would have none of it: “Of course I know of the Fantastic Four #1 synopsis, and you’re right to note its existence should have been mentioned in my piece, as well as Larry Lieber’s memories. But given the Kirby-Lee method of collaboration, its presence is an oddity, unusual for a pair who reportedly confabbed verbally in those early years, and it begs for context. Was it and the FF #8 plot written to clarify Lee-Kirby story conferences?”13 He went on to quote Mark Evanier from the Marvel court case against the Kirbys (see below).

The pedigree of the two synopses is so compelling that with a number of verbose explanations they practically stand on their own. Thomas obliged by adding new material to the discussion by email to John Morrow for inclusion in Stuf’ Said. After Cooke’s response, Thomas was back to having to assert the authenticity of the documents:

“Jerry [Bails] told me he had dropped Stan a line to ask for a copy of a Marvel script to go with ones he’d received from Julie Schwartz for Justice League and the like… In 1961 and 1962, Stan was working hard to keep a number of artists busy all at the same time, so it would make perfect sense that he might make up the first part of a story off the top of his head and send it off to Jack, figuring that either (a) he’d send the rest later, (b) he’d relate the last part of the story to Jack in person or over the phone by the time he needed it, or (c) Jack would devise an ending himself. If (b), then that old Black Magic ending might’ve been suggested by Jack when they talked. It’s even possible, though unlikely, that Stan was familiar with the Black Magic story.

“I’m sure other scenarios of what might have happened can be easily devised by any thoughtful reader—none of which need involve the existence of a nefarious plot by Stan Lee to write retroactive synopses for Fantastic Four stories in order to rob Jack Kirby of due credit. Having experienced Stan and the way he worked from mid-1965 on, it’s inconceivable to me that he would have bothered to concoct a ‘retroactive synopsis,’ least of all in the early ’60s.”14

Thomas has given this a lot of thought. As he sees it, many explanations fit the circumstances, and the most obvious or simplest explanation isn’t necessarily the correct one. The thoughtful reader is invited to devise a scenario that absolves Lee of nefarious intent; unthoughtful readers need not apply. (Maybe there’s a No Prize involved.) Rather than making it sound sensible, the over-explanations draw attention to the inconsistencies.

For balance, Stuf’ Said includes another case of contradictory earlier testimony: “…I saw Stan’s plot for Fantastic Four #1, but even Stan would never claim for sure that he and Jack hadn’t talked the idea over before he wrote this.”15

Mark Evanier: [ FF #1] feels an awful lot more like Jack’s earlier work than anything that Stan had done to that date. So I find it very difficult to believe that Jack did not have input into the creation of the characters prior to the – that synopsis, whenever it was composed. And, also, I have the fact that I talked to Stan many times, and he told me – and he said it in print in a few places – that he and Jack had sat down one day and figured out what the Fantastic Four would be.

QUINN. And they discussed the plot before they actually – the drawings were done?

A. They discussed the plot before the alleged synopsis was done also.16

Lee in Origins of Marvel Comics: “After kicking it around with Martin and Jack for a while I decided to call our quaint quartet The Fantastic Four. I wrote a detailed first synopsis for Jack to follow, and the rest is history.”17

Steve Ditko commented on readers ignoring the contradictory claims put in print by Lee: “…someone is lying.”18

The current campaign to institutionalize Lee’s fictitious Origins story incorporating the deceptive interpretation of the document was actually precipitated by Kirby’s TCJ interview. His final word on the subject was in print the year before the “synopsis” appeared in FF 358.

“I’ve never seen it, and of course I would say that’s an outright lie.” –Jack Kirby19

tcj134

THE KIRBY CASE

THOMAS: To tell you the truth, I really don’t know much about it. I did a deposition not for or against Kirby, because, thank heaven, I wasn’t involved in the way I was in matters like Marv Wolfman on Blade, or Steve Gerber on Howard the Duck, or my friend Gary Friedrich on Ghost Rider. With Jack, I was just there as somebody who was around in 1965 and who could report on a few things. So I really don’t know much about how and when… I just don’t know anything about it. I wasn’t involved in it at all. I just went and did my deposition, and I don’t even remember what I said there. [laughter]

Thomas wants to be seen as unbiased by characterizing his deposition as “not for or against.” He was second on Marvel’s witness list after Lee, however, and his allegiance to Lee and Marvel has never been in question. Even when he “went rogue” in 1981 he couldn’t bring himself to actually place unqualified blame on Lee for any of their issues.

Marvel had large swaths of the deposition transcripts redacted, but parts of Thomas’s deposition are visible at the Justia website.20 Let’s have a look at some passages…

STORIES ON SPEC

BY MS. KLEINICK:

Q. In the 1960s — from 1965 to 1970, are you aware of any instance where a writer came in and actually started working on a new series before Stan said: Go ahead and write the series?

A. No.

Q. Are you aware of any instances where an artist began work on a comic book issue before getting the assignment to do the issue from Stan?

A. No.

Q. Did writers or artists have any authority to assign themselves to do an issue without prior approval from Stan or Sol?

A. No. No.

Q. Are you aware of any instances where an artist submitted artwork for an issue that he hadn’t been assigned to, like on spec?

A. Only new artists who were turning in samples, not an established artist, not one that was already — was already doing work for Marvel.

BY MS. KLEINICK:

Q. Are you aware of any instance where Jack Kirby submitted artwork for an issue for a series that Stan or Sol had not already assigned him to?

MR. TOBEROFF: Leading.

THE WITNESS: No.

Thomas’ recollection disregards the physical evidence that still existed in the office while he was there. Kirby used concept sketches to present his characters on spec. As he related separately to Groth and Sherman, this is the way he introduced his Marvel characters to Goodman in 1961.

Even with the rambling Nick Fury creation tale Lee told in his May 2010 deposition online and visible to the public, Marvel Executive Editor Tom Brevoort endorsed Kirby’s MO when interviewed for Marvel’s website in 2015:

“Jack Kirby first broached the idea of doing a modern day strip with Nick Fury, and he produced a two-page ‘pilot sequence’ to show to Stan Lee, titled ‘The Man Called D.E.A.T.H.,’” he says. “Stan liked the idea of a modern day Fury strip, but reworked the basic concept with Kirby to create NICK FURY, AGENT OF S.H.I.E.L.D. And that two-page pilot story was never used. In fact, when Jim Steranko turned up at Marvel looking for work, Stan gave it to him as an inking test, which is why those pages are inked by Steranko.”21

Brevoort’s statement is backed up by the physical pages. Surely Thomas had access to historical artifacts like these or the Spider-Man presentation page Jim Shooter encountered22, yet he fixates on a “synopsis” that can’t definitively be placed in Kirby’s possession before FF #1 was created and written.

fury

NEXT: THE MARVEL METHOD

back 1 Roy Thomas, interviewed by Rob Gustaveson, The Comics Journal #61, Winter 1981.
back 2 Shop Talk, Jack Kirby interviewed by Will Eisner, Will Eisner‘s Spirit Magazine 39, July 1982.
back 3 Jack Kirby interviewed by Gary Groth, conducted in summer of 1989, The Comics Journal #134, February 1990.
back 4 Steve Sherman e-mail to Patrick Ford, February 2018.
back 5 Kate Willaert, Early Days Of Marvel – Release Schedule, Kirby Without Words.
back 6 “Stan the Man & Roy the Boy,” A Conversation Between Stan Lee and Roy Thomas, Comic Book Artist #2, Summer 1998.
back 7 “He Giveth and He Taketh Away,” The Avenging Mind, © 2008 S. Ditko.
back 8 “The cleverest trick used in propaganda against Germany during the war was to accuse Germany of what our enemies themselves were doing.” Joseph Goebbels, Nuremberg, 1934.
back 9 Ray Wyman, The Art of Jack Kirby, 1992.
back 10 Eric Stedman, Marvel Method group, 27 November 2018.
back 11 Roy Thomas, “A Fantastic First!, Alter Ego v3n2, Summer 1998.
back 12 Roy Thomas, Letter to the editor, Comic Book Creator #3, Fall 2013.
back 13 Jon B. Cooke, response to the Thomas letter to the editor, Comic Book Creator #3, Fall 2013.
back 14 Roy Thomas, e-mail to John Morrow, September 2018, quoted in Kirby & Lee: Stuf’ Said!, November 2018.
back 15 Roy Thomas interviewed by Jim Amash, published in The Jack Kirby Collector #18, September 1997.
back 16 Mark Evanier deposition, 9 November 2010, Justia, Dockets & Filings, Second Circuit, New York, New York Southern District Court, Marvel Worldwide, Inc. et al v. Kirby et al, Filing 65, Exhibit 8.
back 17 Stan Lee, Origins of Marvel Comics, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1974.
back 18 A Mini-History, “Wind-up,” The Comics v14n11 © 2003 S. Ditko.
back 19 Jack Kirby interviewed by Gary Groth, conducted in summer of 1989, The Comics Journal #134, February 1990.
back 20 See 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 21 Tj Dietsch, “C2E2 2015: S.H.I.E.L.D.,” Comics News blog, Marvel.com, 26 April 2015.
back 22 Jim Shooter, Writer. Creator. Large mammal. blog, Monday, March 21, 2011, and comment on Wednesday, March 30, 2011 post, left August 30, 2011.

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 Two