While fans lined up for a photo-op with Stan Lee at Comicpalooza on Memorial Day weekend, a smaller but perhaps more astute group of fans could be found at the Roy Thomas table, where the lines had a much shorter wait to a more accessible comic book legend. The moment I found out that Thomas, the former Editor-in-Chief at Marvel Comics was making a rare comic con appearance in Houston this year, I knew immediately that I wanted to meet him and was hoping to land an interview. Thomas who took over the editors position for Stan Lee has co-created such characters as Red Sonja, Vision, Ms. Marvel, Iron Fist, Ultron, and Ghost Rider. Needless to say Thomas has had a hand in or contributed to countless titles as both a writer and editor.
On Saturday I approached his table right around 12 noon and introduced myself. He quickly agreed to do the interview, however it would have to be conducted when he had free time between signings. First up though was lunch, and since I had already eaten I offered to run and pick something up for him nearby since the lines at the concession stands were out of control. A hot dog with mustard and cheese, fries, and a Dr. Pepper was on the menu that day, which led to Thomas recalling his days at Marvel and his frequent stops at Coney Island where he would grab a Nathans hot dog for lunch.
The fact that I would have to conduct the interview in between his fans visiting and signings was a blessing in disguise as Thomas had a story for just about every book he signed. One fan presented him with an issue of Avengers #48, which prompted him to mention the time he was turning in one of the original pages for this particular issue which had been urinated on by his pet ocelot. Laughs were shared by all and then more discussion about one of his co-creations, The Black Knight (Dane Whitman) who was featured on the cover, Marvel’s third incarnation of the classic character who made is his first appearance way back in 1967.
Another popular book that was brought to the table that day was Conan the Barbarian, who Thomas is highly responsible for introducing to a much wider audience. Although he did not create the Robert E. Howard character, he understood that the Marvel comic book fans had an interest in characters like Conan. Thomas explained, “Our readers were writing to us telling us we should do characters like that, so eventually I went after the idea of one of those characters and we ended up able to get Conan.” Everything fell into place and Marvel was able to obtain the rights with Thomas as the writer. The title is now published by Dark Horse Comics which Thomas still pens from time to time.
I asked Thomas about some of the characters he co-created and his thoughts on where those characters are today as well as who his favorite might be. “One of the one’s (characters) I’m proudest of co-creating was probably ‘Red Sonja’, taking a Robert E. Howard character and putting it in the world of Conan, I thought that was kind of neat,” Thomas conferred. As far as where some of these characters are today, he fully understands that characters evolve and must be interpreted for a new generation. It was evident that ‘Red Sonja’ remains his sentimental favorite and is one of the comics he will occasionally check up on from time to time.
There was also some rather strange requests asked of him that day. One fan asked Thomas to sign a can of Spam, explaining that what started off as a joke has now become a goal of his, albeit an unusual one. He told Thomas one day when the former comic book writer and editor was no longer on this earth, he could at least have one last meal with one of his favorite writers. Thomas quickly replied, “I hope for my sake you don’t have that dinner anytime soon.”
Roy Thomas wrote a letter to Joss Whedon, the director of the upcoming ‘Avengers: Age of Ultron’ movie. “I figured since they were using some of my characters in the second ‘Avengers’ movie, it made sense that I make a cameo appearance,“ Thomas said. Of course he is referring to Vision and Ultron, who he both co-created. He mentioned how much of a delight and fun it was to write the Vision. I asked him about his thoughts on the rumors of possibly transforming Agent Coulson into the Vision. “The Vision is supposed to be in the second Avengers movie, but I don’t think it’s going to be related to Coulson, I wondered about that myself when he got killed in the Avengers movie, that wouldn’t have been bad,” Thomas replied. For the record, Paul Bettany has already been lined up to play the role of Vision. As far as the Agents of Shield show, he likes the concept but feels that there are too many young pretty people and wishes there were more old kooks’. He particularly enjoys Clarke Gregg’s acting and the Deathlok character.
Another popular topic of conversation that afternoon was the current state of the big two (Marvel and DC) and how they have both gone from just comic book publishers and evolved into media conglomerates. Thomas and others were well aware that they did not own the heroes and villains they devised, and when asked about creator-owned comics and being compensated for past work, Thomas would not go into much detail about it. He did however say that Marvel has taken some steps in the right direction by offering fair compensation to the artists and the writers if they use characters that they co-created. “It’s a lot better than having lawsuits that nobody wins, you fight and at the worst you get bad publicity. I think it’s very smart for Marvel to do this, it took a while for them to get around to it but I’m glad they are doing it now,“ Thomas said.
I asked Thomas what it was like replacing Stan Lee as Editor-in-Chief and about their relationship. He made it clear that he never really “replaced” Lee. “Stan was still there and in charge, but it was really just a case of doing a little more of what I was doing for several years anyway, the worst difference being I’d been able to come in just two or three days a week and now I had to come in five days a week,” he joked. As for his relationship, he admitted that they weren’t friends but they got along okay. Thomas continued, “He was sort of my boss, he was sort of my mentor and I had sort of become his protege. The only other person he ever worked as close with training to some extent was his brother Larry, but Larry was never really involved editorially, he just did writing. I was involved as a writer and as an assistant editor, every morning the production manager (Sol Brodsky) would stand on Stan’s right and I’d be on his left and he’d be going over the art and the stories he’d written or the correction he was making, explaining the stuff to us, so it was a real education being there with him, you know not the only way to do comics but into his way of doing comics, it was obviously quite successful“.
While on the subject of Stan Lee, a fan brought a copy of X-Men #28, “The Wail of the Banshee” over to get signed. Thomas remembers this particular issue well and that the Banshee villain was originally written and illustrated as a female character, as a Banshee (a female spirit in Irish and Scottish mythology) should be. “Stan did not like the idea of five male X-Men (as well as Jean Grey) fighting a female villain, we wanted to keep it a female character but Stan insisted so it was changed. I was always getting people coming up to me correcting me and telling me that the banshee was not male, it was embarrassing,” Thomas explained.
You might be surprised to know that one Thomas’ favorite single issues he worked on was 1993′s The Secret Defender #1 (Marvel). “This single comic book sold around 750,000 copies, thanks to the comic book speculation craze of the early nineties, it brought me more money than any other book I worked on,” he stated proudly. This book was among the most popular comics brought to the table that weekend, as well as All-Star Squadron, Ghost Rider, and Iron Fist. Fans presented him not only with books that he wrote or co-created, but also comics where is credited as the editor which provided us with countless conversations on a wide range of books and characters.
Arak, Son of Thunder was the first comic book series I actually collected and read religiously as a kid. When I mentioned this to Thomas, he joked “So you’re the one who bought those issues.” Thomas along with Ernie Colon co-created Arak which was set in 800 A.D. and told the story about a Native American who discovers Europe, and along the way takes on mythological creatures and legendary figures. Collaborating with Thomas in the writing was his wife Dann Thomas, and I asked him what it was like working with her on Arak. “It was sort of her idea, I was thinking of doing something different and she had this idea of this American Indian who discovers Europe, kind of an interesting twist and we thought it would be a lot of fun. We set it in 800 A.D. which was sort of the last time I felt like we could almost come to a Conanesque world, but when it got much later into the medieval world it didn’t seem quite the same, so we set it in the dark ages. There was a drawback in that there weren’t many shining cities in those days like there are in the Conan stories if you’re in a more realistic world, but it was still a lot of fun to do and it was never a big hit or anything but it did alright“. The husband and wife team also worked together on ‘All-Star Squadron’ and ‘Avengers West Coast’.
These days Thomas is still working on the Spider-Man newspaper comic strip with Stan Lee, and also two online comics strips of Tarzan for the Edgar Rice Burroughs website, and has an upcoming John Carter of Mars comic strip as well. Thomas stated, “Several other people are doing strips and there are ten or so strips on there now, adapting some of Burroughs’ work or continuing it or whatever and that’s kind of nice. I always liked Burroughs, he was a big influence on me as well as on comics and science fiction. (Also) I’m writing a couple of books right now for a German publisher, one is on Marvel and one is on Stan Lee, the one on Marvel will be out this year and the one on Stan Lee will be out in the next year or two. I’m suppose to write a couple of comics for Marvel, just a couple of issues really but I don’t know what of yet, I haven’t been told. Tom DeFalco told me he would like for me to do something but he hasn’t told me exactly what it is yet because I was going away this weekend so we didn’t get a chance to talk, and I was talking to Mike Richardson of Dark Horse Comics the other day about doing something for them, but it’s not quite settled as to what, and with that and a few other projects, it keeps me busy“.
As the hours passed, fans continued to gather at the Roy Thomas table for both pictures and autographs which he was not charging for. All he asked for was a small donation (whatever they wanted to contribute) that went to the Hero Initiative, a non-profit organization that assists comic book veterans with financial assistance if needed. As our interview came to a close, I thought about how fortunate I was to get the opportunity to spend some time with a true comic book icon. Thomas mentioned that he does not attend very many conventions because of the travel and he and his wife’s pets, which left me wondering when I may get the chance to visit with him again. Besides the questions I had prepared for him and the stories I collected from the countless books that were brought to him, we also had casual conversations ranging from Dr. Pepper vs. Mr. Pibb to parties in his apartment in the early seventies with Steve Ditko. Thomas was down to earth, funny, and an absolute joy to talk to.