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Roy Thomas: The Marvel Game-Changer

by  in CBR Exclusives Comment
Roy Thomas: The Marvel Game-Changer

Back in 1978, I might have never sought a single comic book if not for Marvel’s “Star Wars” series. And, subsequently, if it weren’t for the “Uncanny X-Men,” a pre-teen me wouldn’t have gotten as full-blown consumed with comics as I did in 1982. Both franchises remain beloved by Generation Xers, with fanbases that continue to grow exponentially. No matter how dull or bloated the “Star Wars” prequels and recent “X-Men” storylines may have been… we keep coming back for more, hoping that they rekindle with the fire they once had. They are two commercial franchises that continue to hold an arresting and influential grip on society — but what to do these two titans have in common? Well, for one thing, a talented writer named Roy Thomas crossed paths early on with both.

The X-Men were nothing more than second-tier Marvel characters when a young Roy Thomas inherited the mutant group as his first regular superhero series from his mentor and boss, Stan “The Man” Lee. The characters had potential with the setting that creators Stan Lee and Jack Kirby established in the first nineteen issues. Yet in those Silver Age days, the mutants never soared close to the heights of popularity achieved by “The Fantastic Four” or “Amazing Spider-Man.” While the team was always likable, their stories were mostly standard adventures that never quite got them past their developing B-level reputation.

Going into the series with “The X-Men” #20 (1966), Roy Thomas recalled, “I just wanted to do stories that I felt were in the vein of what Stan Lee and Jack Kirby had been doing. Of course, he [Stan] had already switched to working with Werner Roth before I came in, so there wasn’t even much of a record of a Lee-Roth ‘X-Men.’ But I was looking back at the Lee-Kirby ‘X-Men,’ rather than trying to make any great changes. I just wanted to kind of fit in to what was going on… And the way I made my mark was by making up either a new X-Man occasionally, or a new villain, as well as by means of the various storylines. That’s what I concentrated on. I did try to add an X-Man fairly soon. I wanted to add a Japanese-American X-Man, but Stan preferred that I not do so at that time. That’s more or less the character that became Sunfire later on.”

Still, even with Thomas’ inventive stories and the elegant art of illustrator Werner Roth, the title continued to struggle — other formidable artists (Jim Steranko, Don Heck and Barry Smith) and writers (Gary Friedrich and Arnold Drake) tried later to engage the public with the X-Men, but nothing seemed to catch on.

“‘X-Men’ was never a great seller,” explained Thomas, “even under Stan and Jack, and I think after both of them were gone it declined somewhat further. It was holding its own, but Werner and I together just weren’t adding up to what Stan and Jack had been. The book was doing okay, but it was always one of Marvel’s weaker sellers.”

Then Neal Adams arrived at Marvel, and without any hesitation agreed to take on “The X-Men” even though it was said to be Marvel’s worst selling title and on the brink of cancellation. Looking forward to dabbling in the Marvel Method, an approach much more appealing and looser than DC Comics’ standard way of creating comics, Adams would be paired with Roy Thomas as his writing collaborator — who was just returning to the title — and the terrific inking of Tom Palmer.

About working with Thomas, Neal Adams told interviewer Arlen Schumer (in “Comic Book Artist” #3, Vol. 1), “For me, Roy made me know that I could move forward with confidence, that I could go just as crazy as I wanted with this comic and he’d be equal to the task. You have no idea how that buoys a partnership. Because once Roy got to believe in me, we could sit and throw ideas back and forth.”

For Thomas, Adams’ “X-Men” artwork inspired some of his finest comics writing. He said, “Well, it’s just that the art was very good. We didn’t know it would necessarily sell. Later, we did have some indication that sales improved after Neal came aboard and we became a team. I had returned to ‘X-Men’ only one issue before Neal had waltzed in. Stan had asked me to come back to it, because sales had been shrinking. Recently, Jim Steranko had drawn a couple of issues, but nothing seemed to be helping terribly much. I believe Neal and I did revive the book to some extent, because if we hadn’t increased the sales of the book — I don’t remember seeing the figures at the time — Martin Goodman [Marvel’s publisher] would not have brought it back as a reprint title very soon after it was canceled. He didn’t ordinarily do that with books he had canceled; but he wanted to keep the title out there in front of people, while at the same time he didn’t want to pay for new material, so he just decided to do a reprint book. I remember that there were at least one or two issues that Neal and I did that did pick up in sales — the one with the big Ka-Zar figure on the cover, and that last one that actually Denny O’Neil ended up dialoguing from Neal’s plot. That second one actually had a Marie Severin cover. Those two seemed to have gone fairly well, and I think the general trend of the book’s sales was up… but I guess it was a case of too little, too late… or, more likely, that it was simply cancelled an issue or two too soon.”

From the first page of that very first issue in this tremendous run, Thomas and Adams brought a tone of intensity that revitalized the X-Men and changed the way superhero team heroics were told afterwards. In their first compelling tale, they basically created the storyline that defined the pathos of being a mutant in the Marvel Universe, then and now.

Intensified was the world where mutants are shamed for their gifts and dehumanized by hatred from our media and society. In these comics, the explosiveness of the art and script delivered the X-Men their first magnum opus and set the atmosphere for the future triumph that would await them in the hands of creators like Chris Claremont, Dave Cockrum, John Byrne and others. And behind the scenes, it was as Marvel’s editor-in-chief that Thomas was able to make one lasting contribution to the franchise by preparing the arrival of a new X-Men team written by Len Wein and drawn by Cockrum, back in the mid-’70s — and after that, the comics world would never be the same.

This past summer’s “X-Men: First Class” film featured plenty of nods to the Silver Age era of “X-Men” lore, highlighted by cool appearances of characters like Banshee and Havok, characters Thomas helped to create. The writer added, “It was gratifying to see. I’d feel better if Marvel had paid me something to show their appreciation, but they didn’t even give Stan and Jack a screen credit this time, so I knew I wasn’t likely to get anything. Still, it was nice to see.”

As if being instrumental to the X-Men’s perseverance weren’t enough, Roy Thomas also ensured Marvel’s publishing survival by bring “Star Wars” to the House of Ideas. In 1975, the intergalactic property — not yet being filmed — came to Thomas’ attention when Ed Summer, a mutual friend of his and George Lucas, helped to personally introduce the legendary comics writer to Lucas and his upcoming film project, then titled “The Star Wars.” When it came time to build the “Star Wars” brand, Charlie Lippincott, Lucas’ coordinator of media projects, approached Thomas about doing a comic book based on the film after Stan Lee showed very little interest in publishing such a thing. The only real condition was that at least a couple of issues of any adaptation should be on sale before the movie’s release. Given Roy’s enthusiasm, the powers-that-be at Marvel rethought their earlier refusal and decided to take on the project. With artist Howard Chaykin illustrating Thomas’ script for the film’s adaption, “Star Wars” proved to be a colossal windfall for Marvel.

What led Thomas to think “Star Wars” would make a great Marvel title? The writer replied, “I didn’t know it would be so popular, of course, but we were getting it free. I decided to try to convince Marvel to do it when I saw Ralph McQuarrie’s ‘production sketch’ for the movie’s so-called cantina sequence, which introduced the Han Solo and Chewbacca characters — well, Chewbacca wasn’t pictured, but Han Solo was. It was a space-Western kind of feel, and it was a lot like the old pulp magazines like ‘Planet Stories’ that I read in addition to comics when I was ten, twelve years-old. And I thought this was more adventure fiction — what used to be called ‘space opera,’ really — than it was real science fiction, which hadn’t had a history of selling that well in comic books. And I thought, ‘This kind of thing might sell well, just as ‘Conan’ was kind of an unusual adventure thing, because you’ve got heroes and villains. I thought it might sell well despite the fact that rockets and ray guns and robots didn’t generally tend to sell in comic books. That doesn’t mean that I thought it would be some great Marvel seller; it was just intended to be six issues, and after we completed the movie adaptation we could continue it if we wanted to. We didn’t know we were getting onto the beginning of what would be such a huge franchise.”

In a down period, the title was vital to Marvel’s publishing survival and helped introduced the Marvel line to a generation of new readers who were clamoring for more “Star Wars” product. Marvel was one of the few companies with the franchise prior to its cinematic release — even promoting the upcoming movie and comic at the 1976 San Diego Comic-Con. The adaptation of the film arrived on the stands during March of 1977… and sold well from the start, even before the movie’s release. After the film’s release on May 25, 1977, the Marvel book exploded. It has often been stated that Marvel’s adaptation of the original film, in all its various formats, was a multimillion seller that Marvel couldn’t print fast enough to keep up with the sensational demand. As Jim Shooter told CBR News in 2000, “We would have gone out of business. ‘Star Wars’ single-handedly saved Marvel.”

Back in the ’70s, did Thomas have any idea how many new readers the Marvel “Star Wars” book brought to the comics medium? He replied, “No, but apparently enough to have Jim Shooter and Marvel’s publisher, Jim Galton, say it virtually saved Marvel’s bacon at a crucial point there.” Beyond his page rate and reprint royalties, Marvel eventually gave him a $500 bonus for “Star Wars” — but only after he asked for it!

Thomas added, “A publisher friend of mine, the late F. Scott Fitzgerald scholar, Dr. Matthew J. Bruccoli, once called me to say he’d been talking to Jim Galton in some business capacity, and when Matt mentioned we were friends, Galton said to tell me hi for him, because ‘he made me rich.’ Jim and I don’t agree on certain aspects of the acquisition of ‘Star Wars’ by Marvel… and folks I’ve spoken to who are into the history of the film and franchise have told me my version jibes more with what they’ve found… but I’m glad to have had a hand in bringing Marvel two properties — ‘Conan’ and ‘Star Wars’ — that made them a lot of money. That was part of my job, as I saw it… although with both, and especially with ‘Star Wars,’ I wasn’t really thinking of them being huge hits. Yet even the two ‘Conan’ titles, by the end of the 1970s, were making more money for Marvel than virtually any other comics we published… partly because ‘Conan’ was also in a relatively inexpensive black-&-white comic [‘Savage Sword of Conan’] that had a cover price that was several times that of a comic book. We all lucked out!”

After ten issues, Thomas and Chaykin walked away from “Star Wars” for other endeavors. Under Archie Goodwin, Carmine Infantino, Walt Simonson, Tom Palmer and other Marvel talent, the regular series would last one-hundred and seven issues, plus three annuals. These comics proved to be vital for the children of Generation X that waited for “The Empire Strikes Back” and “Return of the Jedi,” craving more adventures with Luke, Han, Leia, Chewie and the droids.

And you may ask yourself, what might “Star Wars” and “X-Men” have in common? Is it that they’re both about loyalty? Roy Thomas commented, “I think that kind of thing is something that resonates with people. ‘Star Wars’ (especially in the early movies) and ‘The X-Men’ both deal with interpersonal relationships, and loyalty, and friendship… and I think young people who are trying to find their way through life respond to that kind of thing.”

Both “X-Men” and “Star Wars” are stories full of hope, friendships and redemption. They serve as a reminder that with just a little bit of faith we can overcome and endure just about anything life can throw at us. And without Roy Thomas’ contributions to both franchises (and comics), life sure would have been a lot less spirited for all of us.

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