For the final day of Comic-Con International 2013, Marvel Comics put up a special panel to celebrate the 50th anniversary of some of its most beloved characters — including the Avengers, X-Men, Sergeant Fury and Doctor Strange. A panel from across Marvel’s history of creative forces assembled for the celebration, including Brian Michael Bendis, Frank Brunner, John Romita, Jr., Roy Thomas and moderator Mark Waid.
After introducing the panel of historic Marvel creators, Waid started the panel off with Thomas, asking about the very beginnings of some of Marvel’s most popular heroes.
“Stan, Jack, Steve Ditko — some of the great talents of the atomic age of comics relaunched an entire medium in 1961 with Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, with Hulk, with Thor — in a 14 month span,” Waid said. “It’s hard to believe that they’re 50 years gone now, 50 years along the way, but it seems like only yesterday I was picking up my first Daredevil comic. Even with that momentum, they couldn’t do it all themselves.”
Thomas discussed his introduction to Marvel, saying he bought an issue of “Fantastic Four” off the rack. He dropped a line to Marvel when he missed a copy of “Spider-Man,” and the company sent him the missing issue. “I got offered a job to be the assistant editor of the ‘Superman’ comic,” Thomas said. “I worked for DC and discovered over the next week or two that I couldn’t get along with the editor. But I wanted to meet Stan Lee. I knew that Stan was doing the best writing in comics and those were the most exciting comics. I dropped him a line asking him if I could go buy him a drink somewhere.” Lee said he didn’t socialize all that much, but told Thomas he could take a writing test that Marvel had.
“These were pages that had been penciled and written. They had taken the art stats, whited out all the balloons and put in all these simple notes,” said Thomas. “I banged them out at the hotel room, and then went back the next day.” The day after that, Thomas got a call from Flo Steinberg, who said Stan wanted to see him. Thomas said they never discussed the writing test, but spoke more about fan-oriented facts before Lee offered him a job.
Thomas gave notice at his current DC job and his editor said, “You’re a spy for Stan Lee, get out!” He stuck around for 15 years — he took the job at the age of 24.
The first major assignment Thomas took on for Marvel — a few weeks after his first day — he wrote the first Gene Colan-drawn Iron Man comic. The issue has no real credits, but Thomas said it “was about 50 percent me and 50 percent Stan.” His next assignment was the Steve Ditko “Doctor Strange.” Thomas’ first regular series was “Sgt. Fury,” before the “X-Men” and “Avengers” came across his plate.
Bendis asked Thomas about bringing on The Vision for “Avengers,” and Thomas said what he was always trying to do when he took over, “I started trying to bring in more Iron Man again. … I would sneak him in and [Stan] would take him out again. In ’68, we decided it was time for a new member — my idea, thank goodness it didn’t happen — was to bring in this Vision character. Stan said, ‘No, I want the new character to be an android.’ So I made up a character, called him the Vision and made his face red.”
“All I was ever trying to do, other than restore Iron Man and Thor, was to do my version of imitating Stan,” said Thomas. “I never went after Spider-Man. I love Spider-Man as a character, but I never wanted to write him. I wanted to write Fantastic Four.”
John Romita, Jr. worked as Thomas’ production assistant and got a chance to talk to Buscema, who said he hated doing costumes. But when his royalty check came in for “Avengers,” he was a bit more enthusiastic about doing them.
“He was possibly the best illustrator that worked in comics,” said Romita, Jr.
Waid countered by saying that Romita’s father was one of the most influential illustrators in the industry, and asked about when Romita Jr. got hooked on superheroes.
“Specifically, down to the cover, it was ‘Daredevil’ #12. When he stopped doing romance books, and was doing the Daredevil cover,” Romita Jr. said. “He explained to me that Daredevil was surrounded by all these bad guys and this Tarzan guy was going to help out with this sabertooth tiger. He spent about six hours explaining to me what a superhero was and I was hooked. He kept that cover and he said it’s mine, and I’ll pass it on to my son and send him to college with it.”
Romita is one of the few second generation creators in that he got a chance to watch comics from behind the scenes. As he got into comics, he wanted to sink his teeth into Daredevil and Spider-Man because that’s what his father had done. “Spider-Man’s almost been like a brother in the family,” said Romita. “He could take me past where Peter Parker lived. It made my day.” Romita, Jr. was first published by Marvel at the age of 18 and was 24 when he did “Contest of Champions.”
Thomas characterized Romita Jr. as “one of the handful of the best artists to come out of comics in the last two decades.”
“Let me talk to the kid on the panel real quick,” said Waid, referring to Bendis. “I would’ve done this job for free when it was a kid. As the ‘late-comer,’ how did this stuff get on your radar?”
“I’m a die-hard since birth,” said Bendis, who said he had a drawing he showed his father of Spider-Man that had one hand bigger than the other. When asked why one arm was so big, Bendis replied, “That’s where he keeps his webs.”
In terms of character, Bendis knows looking back that “it certainly has something to do with father issues.” “You read any Marvel comic and the father is either dead, a bad guy — it’s all father issues,” said Bendis. “I know that was the connection. These were my role models. Obviously, it sparked my imagination with every panel. I started imagining other stories, other ideas — I was excited beyond comprehension.” At the age of 6, Bendis said he was going to be the artist of Spider-Man.
Waid asked each panelist what they thought of the other two. Bendis said he’d been at Marvel for years and never felt worthy of working with Romita, Jr. “I never even asked for John because I was shooting too high. When we were coming up with ‘Heroic Age,’ I want to see you writing them and I want to see John Romita Jr. drawing them. I want to see them carved out of granite. That’s what Johnny does.”
“I was hoping you were going to do what you did with Bagley on ‘Spider-Man,’ but suddenly you explode into Cecil f-ing B. DeMille,” joked Romita.
With Thomas, Bendis described him as one of the first writers that he considers to be “torch-bearers.” “You were the first guy to pick up the torch and start running, and that’s an amazing accomplishment,” said Bendis.
Romita, Jr. said he had a blackmail story about Thomas — that he has a video of Thomas singing and dancing in Carnegie Hall. Thomas had written a few pieces — words for actors to say — and one was read by Tom Wolfe, and Thomas had the idea to do a couple songs with backup dancers. “I had sung in a band with Gary [Friedrich], back in Missouri in the roller rink. I wrote some new lyrics for Bebopalula, I don’t remember them now.”
“All we saw was a microphone stand and blonde hair,” joked Romita, Jr.
At this point, the panel opened it up to questions, and the first query was about the reach of Marvel’s distribution and whether the company considered it was reaching areas without a vast amount of entertainment. “No, because comics had always gone all over the country,” said Thomas. “They weren’t really thinking about individual places. They just did it. That’s why I came up with the idea of Wolverine because we had all these Canadian readers! I told Len [Wein], call him Wolverine, he’s short, Canadian and feisty. Everything else is up to you.”
A Marvel reader and fan from Mexico City, who hated “Civil War,” asked what the panelists felt about superheroes fighting superheroes.
“They weren’t fighting over a girl or a candy bar, they were fighting over civil liberties,” said Bendis. “I was there in the room when they came up with it, and we said if we did another event, they couldn’t be fighting over nothing. They have to be fighting for an ideal.”
“Superheroes have been fighting each other for years,” said Romita, Jr.
“I haven’t read ‘Civil War,'” said Thomas, but said that Stan Lee said it was “the most brilliant idea I’ve ever seen in a comic book” during a conversation.
A question came up about the status of Marvel during the ’60s and its position on the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War during that time, specifically dealing with those issues.
“Stan was aware of it, but he didn’t like to get into controversy,” said Thomas. “He was very interested in civil rights. Long before they did Black Panther, he was telling the artists to put people of different races in the crowd scenes and he was edging in that direction, but he didn’t want to take sides in the Vietnam war. You can only lose. … He wouldn’t compromise his principles. He wouldn’t take a stand on something he didn’t like.”
There were quite a few Doctor Strange fans in the audience, and one fan asked about his role in the Marvel Universe.
“I always look at him like a magic fireman,” said Bendis. “If the magic shows up, he shows up. That’s the base for the main Marvel Universe. He’s really the guy that would know when the magic is being used. I’m dying for a Doctor Strange movie or television show or something.”
The final question asked how creators take up the torch on established characters, and the challenge of putting their own spin on it.
“The toughest follow-up is being on ‘Daredevil’ after everyone that’s been on ‘Daredevil,'” said Bendis. “I was relieved that we did it and I’m sure you have the same feeling,” he said to Waid.
“Oh yeah, I prefer taking over books that suck,” said Waid.
“Yeah you want to get a book that’s going to tank and then not tank it,” said Bendis. “And then if you tank it, it’s not your fault.”
Romita Jr. took over from a number of different famous artists, and said, “I got death threats,” he said. “And that was from my mother alone!”
Thomas possibly had the toughest follow-up act, taking on characters that Stan Lee wrote directly before him, but said he started to deviate from Lee when he began writing Conan — not using thought balloons or sound effects, and was able to differentiate his work from Stan’s in that way.