The History of Marvel According to Roy Thomas, Part One

An interview with Roy Thomas appeared in The Jack Kirby Collector 74. Interviewer Matt Herring seems to have a healthy enthusiasm for all things Kirby, but is shot down by Mr Thomas at every attempt to express it.

Thomas is known as an historian, but the history he presents adheres more to the company-scripted storyline than to the events he witnessed beginning in 1965. It’s essentially the Stan Lee story, but with added speculation to fill in the so-called gaps in Lee’s memory; naturally it’s at odds with Kirby’s version. Not only was Thomas not in the room at Marvel’s inception, he was the fan-turned-employee who lived in a bubble: much of his external input was from Lee and people under Lee’s thrall.

For the same reason that Lee’s memory was as sharp as a tack for his 2010 Kirby case depositions, the story told by Thomas has been refined over the years. He accuses Kirby of “delusions of grandeur” for telling his side of the story in the Comics Journal interview and other places, but Thomas himself was never more candid than on the occasion of his own TCJ interview, when he was on the outs with Lee. For example:

“By the early ‘70s [Lee’s] balloon placement, his wording, etc., were generally perfect, but he had substituted form for substance. He’d given up on much of characterization he’d pioneered, as he cut down the number of balloons on a page in the interest of making better time as he had other demands on him. There were no surprises left, not even little ones such as you’d have seen from the early ‘60s through to the late ‘60s… The problem is that a field is no damn good as a long-time profession if you can only stay in it during your best creative period. I mean, does Stan Lee have to be kicked out of the field if you can show his best work was all finished before 1970?”1

Thomas ignores (or chooses to conceal) one of the foundational truths of Marvel history: Stan Lee was not an idea man. Lee’s story ideas came, sometimes under duress, from Ditko, Wood, Goldberg, Ayers, Toth, Orlando, and above all, Kirby. When Kirby was on a title, Lee would assign himself as its writer; when his last writer finally left the building in 1970, not coincidentally “there were no surprises left” in his work, as Thomas put it, and Lee quit “writing” comics.

Here follow some passages from the TJKC interview with comments.

THE HERALD TRIBUNE ARTICLE

THOMAS: And, unfortunately, Stan kind of took the rap for [the tone of the article] from Jack and Roz, who somehow felt that Stan was trying to grab credit away from him, and though Stan could do that, he wasn’t doing that in this instance.

Thomas is wrong: Lee was trying to grab credit. The purpose of staging the Nat Freedland “plotting session” was to present Lee as the originator of the ideas. Thomas knew the story conference was atypical by the very fact that he was invited to attend.

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Lee in the Herald Tribune article: “The Silver Surfer has been somewhere out in space since he helped the F.F. stop Galactus from destroying Earth… Why don’t we bring him back?”

“Ummh,” says Kirby.

“Suppose Alicia is in some kind of trouble. And the Silver Surfer comes to help her…But the Thing sees them together and he misunderstands. So he starts a big fight with the Silver Surfer. And meanwhile the Fantastic Four is in lots of trouble. Doctor Doom has caught them again and they need the Thing’s help. … The Thing finally beats the Silver Surfer. But then Alicia makes him realize he’s made a terrible mistake. … The Thing is brokenhearted. He wanders off by himself. He’s too ashamed to face Alicia or go back home to the Fantastic Four.”

Chris Tolworthy: Remember, this alleged plotting session must have been for Fantastic Four 55 (based on the content and the date): just five issues after the most famous Fantastic Four story ever, featuring the intro of Stan Lee’s all time favourite character, the one he would not let anybody else write! The story climaxes with the Silver Surfer being EXILED ON EARTH. That is the whole point of the Surfer’s character: he is an alien TRAPPED ON EARTH and must therefore learn about us and be horrified by our madness. But Lee thinks the Surfer spends his time out in space after the battle with Galactus. Lee does not know the first thing about the story he claimed to write, or the first thing about the characters! As soon as Lee opens his mouth he proves he is doing exactly what Thomas denies he is doing: trying to grab credit away from Kirby.2

None of this is new. Alicia was in trouble in issue 16 and elsewhere. The surfer became her friend in issue 49. The Thing misunderstood that friendship in issue 50. Dr Doom captured them in issue 10. The Thing defeated Doom in issue 38. The Thing battled the surfer in issue 50. The Thing wandered off depressed in issues 50-51. Lee is simply putting together elements that already appeared. In contrast, all the other issues around this included brand new characters and brand new situations (or at least situations that had not just happened a few issues earlier). This plotting session is notable for having NO new ideas. Why? Whenever Lee and Kirby work together behind closed doors, ideas are original. But when Lee is definitely working alone, ideas are not original. Yet he acts full of energy and puts on a wonderful show for the interviewer.3

Kirby’s “Ummh” was the point where he was about to interject that the Surfer was Earth-bound. He decided against making Lee look bad by contradicting him in front of the reporter. Lee didn’t return the favour, and Freedland pegged Kirby as a spectator in the process.

The interview was just another straw. Thomas belittles the honest reaction of the Kirbys, requiring him to ignore the (at the time) very recent history of the near office revolt, when Kirby considered following Wood and Ditko out the door. We can file this under Not Thomas’ place to say.

HOW TO QUIT MARVEL

THOMAS: But the trouble is, when Jack came back, Stan didn’t have that kind of direct contact with him anymore. That bond had been broken in 1970, when Jack called him coldly one day just to say, “I’m quitting and I’ve already started working for DC.” You know, that’s not the way you would tell somebody that you’re quitting if you ever think you might want to come back.

Thomas, who speaks from the Lee side of the Marvel Method equation, is the wrong person to be expressing an opinion on Kirby’s interaction with Lee. He doesn’t acknowledge any active part on Lee’s behalf in Kirby’s departure, despite the fact that, in his own words, Lee and Marvel could be vindictive:

The thing that was truest in that article [“Roy Thomas Leaves Marvel,” Journal #56] was the analysis that Marvel has had a tendency in recent years to be very vindictive toward people who leave it to work for the competition. They go far beyond any kind of professional reaction. Stan generally has reasonably good and humane instincts, but once in a while he’ll just decide that if somebody does something, he’s never going to work for Marvel again. He did this with Len, and with Gerry, though to date he’s never said it about me.4

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As Steve Ditko experienced, there was really nothing that could be said to Lee; Lee wasn’t speaking to Ditko when he quit, so it had to be done through Sol Brodsky. From what we know of the two personalities involved, Kirby handled his departure exactly the way it should have been handled. It goes without saying that the decision had been made much earlier.

PITTS: Why did you leave the F.F. and Marvel that first time?

KIRBY: Because I could see things changing and I could see that Stan Lee was going in directions that I couldn’t. I came in one night and there was Stan Lee talking into a recording machine, sitting in the dark there. It was strange to me and I felt that we were going in different directions.5

GROTH: Did you ever talk to Stan about the application of credit?

KIRBY: You can’t talk to Stan about anything.6

Thomas maintains the fallacy that Lee was taken by surprise by Kirby quitting. Larry Lieber’s deposition contains the story of Kirby tearing up pencilled Hulk pages while storming out of a story conference, probably in late 1962. After the incident, Kirby wasn’t involved with Thor on a regular basis for seven months, and didn’t do another Hulk story for over two years. Lee was forced to come up with unlikely excuses for the Thor personnel shake-up: Al Hartley wanting to work on an adventure strip, or Kirby being late with his FF pages. He didn’t know Kirby was quitting? The working arrangement already showed signs of strain when assignments were either refused or withheld in 1963.

Mike Gartland has described subsequent deal-breaking events in the relationship, in his series, “A Failure to Communicate,” available at the Kirby Museum site. Fast forward to 1970 when, as detailed in TJKC 137, Lee vandalized Kirby’s beautiful story, “The Monster.” He had Kirby redraw it nearly in its entirety, because he could.

Then there’s the contract Kirby was offered.

Mark Evanier: There were other troubling clauses, each more onerous than the previous, so signing [the proffered contract] was out of the question. Jack couldn’t do that to himself, couldn’t do that to his family. He got his attorney involved, but Perfect Film/Marvel still wouldn’t talk to his attorney. Then a lawyer or exec from Perfect Film called Jack directly. This is Kirby’s account as he described it in 1970: The caller asked when they’d be receiving the signed contract. Kirby said he needed changes. The caller said there would be no changes; take it or leave it. Sign it or get out. Jack protested: He was too important to the company to be treated this way. The caller told him he was nuts. Stan Lee created everything at Marvel and they could get any idiot to draw up Stan’s brilliant ideas. At least, that’s how Jack would remember the conversation. Kirby hung up on him, phoned Infantino, and changed companies.8

It’s not Thomas’ place to say that Kirby’s method of quitting was inappropriate, when his own experience would seem to be a primer on how not to quit Stan Lee—his multiple attempts include the time he tried and failed to quit by phone.

GUSTAVESON: But you were saying—by 1974, you and Stan had reached a parting of the ways?

THOMAS: Yes, it seems so in retrospect. It seems inevitable, but I didn’t know it at the time, and neither did Stan. By becoming Publisher, he had gone form being creative force to total company man, which was what he wanted–but I didn’t want to follow him along that path as I had before. As he himself put it once to someone else, “Roy and I no longer see eye to eye.”

I even quit one earlier time, over the phone, and Stan talked me into staying on. But of course in the long run that was an intolerable situation for him, as well as for me.9

HOUSEROY

THOMAS: So I said, “Jack, Stan would really like you back. He obviously never wanted you to leave… The only thing in the way, really— he was kind of hurt and bothered when you did that Funky Flashman stuff in that one title, where you made a character who was a rather vicious—… Now, you had this character called Houseroy.” I said, “I didn’t mind about that because I didn’t feel you were really aiming that at me. I was just Stan’s flunky…” Okay, so I am Stan’s flunky or whatever. And Houseroy is a clever name. I didn’t really mind that much. And I was almost a sympathetic character…”

A couple of points… First, Funky Flashman was undoubtedly the most accurate portrait of Lee we’re ever likely to see, by someone who had worked closely with him but was not beholden to him. Marvel has since outlawed this kind of thing from former employees.

Second, Thomas portraying Lee as the wounded party belies the facts: Lee exited the ‘60s with all of the fruits of the collaboration. Kirby, a freelancer with a good claim on the copyrights and no contract covering the work, was a liability, hence the insulting contract. At best, Lee didn’t lift a finger to see that his longtime collaborator was rewarded or even retained by the company. At worst, he was a willing participant in running him off. (This was not an isolated incident: Lee’s loyalty was to Lee, and he displayed the same lack of respect for the man who’d kept him employed through thick and thin—until it became a life-long job—when he later displaced Goodman’s son as publisher.)

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KIRBY: And my wife was present when I created these damn characters. The only reason I would have any bad feelings against Stan is because my own wife had to suffer through that with me. It takes a guy like Stan, without feeling, to realize a thing like that. If he hurts a guy, he also hurts his family. His wife is going ask questions. His children are going to ask questions.10

HOSTILITY

THOMAS: There was a lot of hostility in him, in general and toward Stan, and before that, toward Simon, all his partners. Toward Carmine Infantino, I think, at a certain stage, too, the guy who brought him over to DC. I loved Jack, but I think he was one of these guys who, whenever he got a partner or was working with somebody, it was inevitable that before long he would just hate them.

Roy Thomas didn’t know Jack Kirby. People who did would tell you he didn’t hate anybody. Kirby was not a hostile, angry guy who hated people, even when others would believe it was justified.

Steve Sherman: Jack was not a hostile guy. His feelings towards Stan go way back. They had different work ethics. He didn’t “hate” Stan. He understood him for who he was and dealt with it as best he could… He was not one to blame others or find fault with people. If anything he could become frustrated because he was in a field that didn’t like to venture far from the status quo. He felt that comics were a legitimate story telling medium that was crippled by a bad business model.11

Jim Amash: The Jack Kirby I knew was not an angry man on the outside but he used the anger he felt to produce art… In an interview somewhere, Jack said something to the effect, “I’m a man who lives with anger.” Jack constructively channeled whatever feelings he had to the comics page and probably felt a great personal release when he did so… Jack was one of nicest, kindest people I ever knew. He was essentially a happy man and maybe he had some bitterness on how certain people treated him.12

KIRBY: Since I’ve matured, since the war itself–I’ve always been a feisty guy, but since the war itself, there are people that I didn’t like, but I saw them suffer and it changed me. I promised myself that I would never tell a lie, never hurt another human being, and I would try to make the world as positive as I could. There’s a lot of guys that might feel (laughter)… My own son feels I’m uncool but my grandson loves me. Being cool or uncool is a generational thing. But as a personal thing, I really love everybody in sight. I’d love to see Stan Lee at peace with himself. I mean, really at peace with himself. Not money-wise, not ambition-wise, not being driven–whatever drives him. But I’d like to see him at peace as a human being.13

CREDIT

In a letter to Comic Book Creator (to be discussed in a later installment), Thomas introduced the phrase “repeatedly over the years” to mean “more than once in the past twenty years.” Repeatedly over the years when he’s spoken about Kirby, Thomas has insisted that credit wasn’t important, and that Kirby didn’t demand it until years after the fact.

“We weren’t worried about the credits, because there wasn’t any money involved.”14

Evidence shows that actually it was the credits that determined who got paid, so this is a misrepresentation.

“For years, Jack Kirby didn’t care that he wasn’t being listed as a writer. Later on when something becomes successful, then everybody starts saying, ‘This percentage of it’s mine!’ ‘That percentage of it’s mine!'”15

“…of course, at that time, it wasn’t occurring either to Stan or to Jack to claim such credit. They were both too busy just getting the stories done and collecting their paychecks.”16

A couple of dissenting opinions were registered in Stuf’ Said, published in 2019:

KIRBY: “…when I began asking for a little more credit, say, a writer credit, he cut the horse up fine and said it was ‘plotting.’ And no matter what I said, he was the publisher’s relative and Goodman was big on family.”17

John Morrow: When asked if this credits change was the result of Kirby actively asking for it, Jack’s wife insisted: “Of course! He used to ask for it all the time…We always asked for a lot of things all the time, and finally they put down ‘Produced by…’ because it’s just ridiculous, you know.”18

Thomas’ insistence that no one was interested in credit at the time contradicts earlier and thus more reliable testimony—from Roy Thomas:

GUSTAVESON: Didn’t Marvel promote art by bringing back the idea of credits in comic books?

THOMAS: Yes, though almost solely, I think, because of Stan Lee’s own well-developed and for the most part deserved ego. Remember, those early credits read “Stan Lee and J. Kirby,” and did you ever know Jack to sign with an initial? It’s just that Stan had obviously decided, after two decades in the field, to make his mark… and there was no sense in hiding his light under a bushel.19

NEXT: 1961

back 1 Roy Thomas, interviewed by Rob Gustaveson, The Comics Journal #61, Winter 1981.
back 2 Personal email from Chris Tolworthy to me, 23 June 2018.
back 3 Personal email from Chris Tolworthy to me, 27 February 2019.
back 4 Roy Thomas, interviewed by Rob Gustaveson, The Comics Journal #61, Winter 1981.
back 5 Jack Kirby interviewed by Leonard Pitts, Jr., conducted in 1986 or 1987 for a book titled “Conversations With The Comic Book Creators”. Posted on The Kirby Effect: The Journal of the Jack Kirby Museum & Research Center.
back 6 Jack Kirby interviewed by Gary Groth, conducted in summer of 1989, The Comics Journal #134, February 1990.
back 7 See the PDF preview at http://twomorrows.com.
back 8 Mark Evanier, Kirby King of Comics, 2008.
back 9 Roy Thomas, interviewed by Rob Gustaveson, The Comics Journal #61, Winter 1981.
back 10 Jack Kirby interviewed by Gary Groth, conducted in summer of 1989, The Comics Journal #134, February 1990.
back 11 Steve Sherman, personal email to me, 28 June 2018.
back 12 Jim Amash, Kirby-L internet mailing list, 18 March 2000.
back 13 Jack Kirby interviewed by Leonard Pitts, Jr., conducted in 1986 or 1987 for a book titled “Conversations With The Comic Book Creators”. Posted on The Kirby Effect: The Journal of the Jack Kirby Museum & Research Center.
back 14 Roy Thomas interviewed by Jim Amash, published in The Jack Kirby Collector #18, September 1997.
back 15 Roy Thomas, Robert Kirkman’s “Secret History of Comics” Episode 1, 2017.
back 16 Roy Thomas, e-mail to John Morrow, September 2018, printed in Stuf’ Said
back 17 Village Voice interview with Jack Kirby, December 8, 1987, quoted in Kirby & Lee: Stuf’ Said! November 2018.
back 18 Roz Kirby interview conducted by John Morrow, December 12, 1995, for Jack Kirby Collector #10, quoted in Kirby & Lee: Stuf’ Said! November 2018.
back 19 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 One