A Conversation with
Roy Thomas (Part 4)
Part 1 | Part 2
| Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 |
While editor-in-chief at Marvel Comics from 1972-1974, what were your most important decisions?
My main accomplishment was our clobbering of DC. It wasn't all me, but I had a hand in it.
My goal, occasionally working in concert with Stan Lee, was an emphasis on adding new directions to the comics field, which at that time was already in danger of becoming stultified to almost nothing but super-heroes. Now, I like super-heroes, God knows. But that is why I pushed for
Conan and Savage Tales. Marvel tried a science-fiction magazine that featured new and adapted science-fiction stories. We tried a black-and-white humor magazine. Some worked better than others did. Stan was in favor of all this, too.
My aim was to find new ways to reach a new audience. To some degree they worked, but even today it seems it is the super-heroes that keep everything going—to the extent that they ARE going.
I'd say those were successes, despite what's happened in the interim. Care to comment on Marvel's failures during your tenure? Did Marvel "miss the boat" on anything?
I'm sure there was something we missed, but I like to think we stayed on top of the trends.
Due to my overseeing the storylines of several dozen books a month, I didn't have the "hands on" connection that I would have liked. I was very reluctant to create a lot of editorial fiefdoms like DC had done. I don't think those have been entirely good for comics-pitting editor against editor to try to get the best artists. I didn't want to see Marvel get into that. Marvel had avoided that in the 1940s and 1950s with a comparable number of monthly titles, [and] I saw little point in starting that approach in the 1970s.
Of course, that happened soon after I left. Whether that was for good or ill is for someone else to say.
Do you recall some of the more outlandish concepts you were pitched during your years as editor-in-chief?
I remember one guy tried to pitch me on a
Lawrence of Arabia comic. I thought it would be fun, but I didn't see a big market for it. I nixed that one. I think another publisher eventually bought the idea.
I remember Marvel tried a line of titles with heroines in starring roles—like
The Cat, Night Nurse, and Shanna, Queen of the Jungle. Those were all pitched as one- or two-sentence concepts. We were trying again to reach out to a new audience of females. We hired women to write them to ensure a woman's viewpoint. I think they worked in some ways.
You've said that Stan Lee primarily ignored the competition while editor-in-chief at Marvel. Was that your approach?
I read the competition's books. Many of them were sentimental favorites of mine. I will always check out stories with Green Lantern, Flash, and Hawkman. We just didn't consciously imitate them.
I'm leading you toward commenting on Atlas Comics. Atlas launched during your tenure, correct?
Atlas launched during the end of my time as editor-in-chief. Martin Goodman [former editor-in-chief at Marvel, who launched Atlas] was paying these outlandish page rates in an attempt to entice Marvel's talent into going over there. In some cases, Atlas was offering 50 to 100% more money; that's hard to fight.
All I could do was tell the people to feel free to do it, but don't sever your ties with Marvel. Marvel would not hold a place for them if they wanted to come back. There were no guarantees. We certainly understand the money, but if you sacrifice your loyalty to Marvel, Marvel will sacrifice their loyalty to you if you leave. Marvel wasn't interested in punishing anybody. We would let the individual make the decision, but they would have to be prepared to live with it.
I do, however, remember one case: Stan got angry with one of Atlas's editors in particular, whom Stan felt was hiring away people from under us. Stan gave me a message to tell that person that if he continued to try to steal our people, he would never work for Marvel again. I didn't deliver that message. I knew Stan would forget about it later—somewhat like the people that used to handle Nixon.
And he did forget about it, as a matter of fact.
That's a new comparison to Stan Lee we haven't heard.
Well, not Nixon entirely—just in the way that sometimes folks say some things that, you know, they will think differently about later. You know he's just letting off steam, so you just ignore it.
Larry Lieber ran Atlas, right?
For a while, he ran it. Someone else ran the color comics, and then Larry took over later. Larry was a special case; he had the advantage—and in some ways the handicap—of being Stan's brother. Larry will discuss that in an upcoming
Alter Ego. Larry was allowed to come back to Marvel after Atlas's demise.
How about Archie? Did Marvel ever address the Archie market?
When Archie got started, Marvel had a lot of similar teen books. By the time I was there, that market was tapering off.
Millie the Model was still going, with artist Stan Goldberg, who became a major Archie artist. We felt that was a genre Marvel could never break into. DC had some success at it, but as the price of the books went up, the sales just disappeared on them.
Swing with Scooter, Sugar & Spike, Binky?
Yeah, they were doing fine until DC raised prices about a nickel. DC hit that imaginary cut-off point, price-wise, in which the kids who were buying it were priced out. Archie still has the kids, because Archie is Archie. Marvel later tried kiddie comics in the '80s [Star Comics] but never had much success with them.
Whose idea was
Stan wanted to do a book like
MAD. He talked to MAD veterans Harvey Kurtzman and Will Eisner about handling it, but those talks didn't come to anything. So we decided to do it in-house. I did some writing. I had a lot of fun working on
Crazy. It was a lot more work thinking of all those gags. Because Marvel paid comic book rates, I always lost money.
I did some good work: "Nixon-land," that was a take-off on Disneyland but with attractions chronicling events from Richard Nixon's Presidency.
There was "Rosemary the Amazing Pretzel Lady," performing Amazing Feats while erasing 18 1/2 hours of audiotape!
"The Six Crises of Nixon! See Ehrlichman twisting in the wind!"
I think the material was strong. Our artists ... [and] our writers were good enough to have worked for
MAD or Cracked but were being paid a fraction of what MAD was paying at the time. Sales were never that strong, but good stuff.
Which was first,
Crazy or Plop?
Crazy was probably after
Plop, but we weren't competing with PLOP. We wanted it compared to
MAD and Cracked. Plop was a different format, and it was never a hit. We weren't interested in going in that direction.
Marvel did try a color humor comic,
Spoof. Among my favorite Spoof stories that I penned was a Tarzan
and a Dark Shadows take-off. Stu Schwartzberg, Marie Severin, and Herb Trimpe did wonderful work for that book.
Not Brand Echh got more attention because the satire was dedicated to our own super-heroes. Humor was another of the non-mainstream things that I wanted to do because I wanted to do it, not because I could make money at it.