Roy Thomas on Life at Marvel in the 1960s (Guest Column)

Stan Lee's successor as editor recalls what it was like to work with the legendary comic creator.
Courtesy of Audi
Stan Lee's successor as editor recalls what it was like to work with the legendary comic creator.

Roy Thomas was hired by Stan Lee in 1965 and succeeded him as Marvel editor-in-chief in 1972 when Stan become the publisher. He knows more Marvel history than just about anyone. Here he recounts what life was like at Marvel with Stan during the go-go years of the 1960s.

Today, primarily thanks to the big-screen adaptations of Marvel Comics’ heroes — and to his string of eagerly awaited cameos therein — Stan Lee has become the closest thing to a “household name” that comic books have ever produced. Sure, one can argue (and, in fact, I would) that a bare handful of Marvel artists, particularly Steve Ditko and the late and very great Jack Kirby, deserve similar recognition and celebration … but the fact that Stan’s two most important collaborators aren’t as well-known outside the comics field as he is says more about the power of the silver-screen image than it does about anything else.

Of course, it could be said I’m prejudiced, because I had the good fortune to become his writing and editing protégé in 1965, being offered a job 15 minutes after I met him. By then, I’d already been a fan of Stan and Marvel since the summer of ’61, when, as a spanking-new college graduate, I’d purchased Fantastic Four No. 1 off a comics shelf. That day in ’65, I’d been unhappily working for two weeks as editorial assistant to DC Comics’ Superman editor (don’t get me started!), so I accepted his offer … and over that weekend I wrote the dialogue for a romance-lite comic starring a blonde called Millie the Model. Within a few months I had my first steady gig — Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos — and not long after that, The X-Men and my dream team, The Avengers. Along the way, I also wrote tales of Captain America, Iron Man, Dr. Strange — all the guys.

Although I’d previously been a high school English teacher for four years, working for/with Stan Lee was my real education.

Stan was a man who knew what he wanted — from his artists, and from his small but talented staff. Since his method of working was to give an artist the bare bones of a plot and have him/her flesh it out with exciting drawings, to which he would then add dialogue, he used every trick at his disposal to inspire them to tell the most visually exciting story they could. He’d race around his office like Quicksilver, or bound into furniture like the Hulk, or brandish a yardstick like Thor’s hammer, to get across what he wanted to see on a page. If a hero or villain was angry, he should look really angry, with teeth clenched and eyes ablaze and fist smashing into something.

Several days a week, I stood on his left (with the production manager on his right) before the oversize drawing-board in his Madison Avenue office as he went over the scripting he’d done the day before — the artwork, and any changes he might want made on it — or my scripts, and what was wrong (and right) with them. It was like taking a several-year course in How to Create the World’s Most Exciting Comic Book, while getting paid reasonably well for the experience.

From first to last, Stan proofread every story he wrote, not just to catch lettering errors, but as a last opportunity to improve his wording in some individual dialogue balloon. The production manager would be mentally tearing out his hair while Stan explained how this verbal tirade he’d written for Dr. Doom didn’t have quite enough punch, so he’d scribbled a new one in the margins, and could somebody please just white out the old one and letter in the new one. Nobody would’ve dared suggest to Stan that it was “only a comic book” and who’d notice the difference? To Stan Lee, the visual image and the written word were the two sides of the comic book coin. Powerful pictures might pull in a first-time reader, but it was the words he read on the page, as much as the artwork, that would bring ’em back the next month.

Unlike many editors I knew, Stan was free with his praise — for artists, for writers, for whomever. If he saw something he liked in your art or script, you’d hear about it. And if a penciled background or a line of dialogue didn’t ring true to him, you’d hear about that, too.

He was The Boss — there was never any doubt about that — but he made those of us in the office feel we were part of a team — a winning team — the Marvel team, that was going to take over the comics world or die trying.

The proof of the four-color pudding was that, in 1972, Marvel finally surpassed DC as the best-selling comics company in the world, and it’s never looked back. So strong was the foundation Stan established in the 1960s and ’70s that Marvel even survived Chapter 11 bankruptcy at the turn of the 21st century and came roaring back to become a greater phenomenon than ever.

While many talented people have contributed to Marvel in its three-quarters of a century of existence, and particularly since the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, the Hulk, et al., burst onto the scene in the first half of the 1960s, nearly everything that Marvel movie fans are thrilling to these days has its deep, firm roots in what Stan, in tandem with Kirby and Ditko and a few others, laid down more than half a century ago.

  • Roy Thomas