ROY THOMAS on the Highs and Lows of STAN LEE & JACK KIRBY


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There’s no better way to get a regular Jack Kirby fix these days than to pick up TwoMorrows’ magazine Jack Kirby Collector.

Issue #74 is out 5/23 and it has the usual excellent collection of interviews and features.

Just dig the table of contents:

What jumped out at me most was Roy Thomas’s frank conversation with Matt Herring of the Secret Identity podcast at last year’s TerrifiCon in Uncasville, Conn. They covered a wide range of topics but particularly compelling was Thomas’ view of Kirby’s tempestuous relationship with Stan Lee, Thomas’ mentor and Kirby’s erstwhile creative partner.

Here’s an EXCLUSIVE excerpt, starting with the period when Thomas met Kirby:

Matt Herring: About what year was this?

Roy Thomas: This would have been 1965, because I went to work there in the summer of ’65, and somewhere in that first two or three weeks I would have met Jack.

Herring: So that was in the time when he and Stan still had the good working relationship. He was still kind of “the guy” at Marvel.

Thomas: When I came in there—of course, other things were on the stands, but some of the first stuff that I was seeing (in terms of original artwork around the office) was those stories that were slowly introducing the Inhumans. And it was right before, two or three months before the Galactus Trilogy started, and even more before Black Panther. So things were really beginning to build to a real high.

Not that I, necessarily, or anybody knew that at the time, but it was really coming close to the peak of their work. Obviously, there were strains, and within a very few months, I saw those strains, especially when this article came out at the turn of 1966 in the New York Herald Tribune, where the reporter made it look as if Stan was everything, and made Jack look like just some clown—mostly because Jack didn’t say that much, the reporter somehow assumed that Jack wasn’t contributing that much to Marvel, and he was just some guy who did whatever Stan told him to do. And, unfortunately, Stan kind of took the rap for (the tone of the article) from Jack and Roz, who somehow felt that Stan was trying to grab credit away from him, and though Stan could do that, he wasn’t doing that in this instance.

Herring: When you look back at that—.

Thomas: I was in part of that conference. I was a firsthand witness to some

of it, and the way the guy described it was just his interpretation. I don’t think it had any objective reality to the situation.

Herring: And, obviously, you were there, we weren’t. And when we read about it years later, you know, Stan Lee, as we all know—and I’m a marketing major, and Stan Lee is one of those guys—you look at, like, Gene Simmons of Kiss. They know how to market what they’re doing. It could be garbage, and you know what? Gene Simmons is going to put such a big spin on it.

And, like you said, it seemed like Jack never—if you don’t say anything, you’re basically not getting any credit for what you did, and it definitely—you read it now and you’re like, “Huh. I can see where the misconception happened, where the disconnect happened,” but it’s such a sad time.

But, at the same time, after that, he went to DC and sort of unloaded a lot of books that weren’t really that popular at the time, but nowadays, DC would not have their mythos if not for what Jack set up with the New Gods and all of that stuff. And, on the outside, what were your thoughts of seeing Jack’s work at DC?

Thomas: I wasn’t that wild about it. I mean, I obviously admired the artwork and the inventiveness of his coming up with all these concepts and characters, but it just seemed like a mish-mash to me, very disorganized. Just throwing out so many things. There was genius in it, but the thing that was wrong with them was that he didn’t have anybody in charge of it. Before, he had Simon, who was a talented enough guy on his own. He wasn’t Jack Kirby, but he was a talented guy, he was the business guy. He kind of reined Jack in.

And Stan was sort of like that. Stan himself was just a wild man. I remember, for example, and this relates to the New Gods, so it’s not unrelated: There’s a S.H.I.E.L.D. story (1966’s Strange Tales #142) that, somewhere in the first couple of pages—you probably remember this; I don’t know if it was a full page or two-thirds of a page panel of some S.H.I.E.L.D. robot in the story that Jack penciled that was called “Wild Bill” or something.

It was just some multi-armed robot spinning around doing crazy stuff. And you turned the page wanting to see more of what this robot does. Nothing. Jack just drew one panel of this robot, got it out of his system, and never drew it again. It might as well have just been a page that he threw in that he had done twenty years before.

And Stan was always going crazy with it, because Jack would throw these things in and then he wouldn’t develop them. And Stan knew that you need to develop something and really make readers want to see more of it, and then show them a little more of it. And when he got to DC, he had nobody to rein him in. They were just giving him his head. They had decided, in their own minds, that the genius, the sole genius of Marvel was Jack Kirby, that Stan was—of course, maybe Jack believed this, and of course they played it up to Jack, that he was the whole show, and Stan was simply riding him and taking all the credit. Of course, Stan’s promoting himself a lot, sometimes more than the artists for various reasons—partly personal, partly because, if you promote one artist, the other artists then feel kind of put aside.

So there were maybe some good reasons for some of that. But then Jack is just throwing out all these ideas. He’ll throw out four or five ideas in one story, the Deep Six and this or that, and then the next issue you don’t see any sign of them. You see a bunch of new guys.

And it doesn’t work that way, as I discovered when I was doing All-Star Squadron. I’d get bored with doing a couple of characters and I would do somebody else, and as a result, the readers don’t grab onto the characters as much. But at least I was kind of doing it on purpose. I think Jack was just throwing it all out there because he was an elemental force. But there was nobody to rein him in, and I think he needed some reining in. But they were brilliant things in their own way.

Herring and Thomas also discussed Kirby’s 1970s return to Marvel. Kirby and Thomas discussed it at San Diego Comic-Con in 1974, Thomas recalled. But it didn’t happen for another year:

Thomas: … I think that, by the time he came back, Jack was just—he wasn’t running on empty, but he was just kind of coasting. And it’s not like he didn’t come up with some interesting ideas, but it wasn’t the same Jack Kirby that it had been in the ’60s.

Even though he was doing full plotting, especially on the later stuff with Stan, and Stan was happy to have it that way. He didn’t care. He just wanted the books to be good. He was happy to just do the dialogue, and if Jack did something he didn’t like, he’d tell him and they would fix it later on.

But the trouble is, when Jack came back, Stan didn’t have that kind of direct contact with him anymore. That bond had been broken in 1970, when Jack called him coldly one day just to say, “I’m quitting and I’ve already started working for DC.” You know, that’s not the way you would tell somebody that you’re quitting if you ever think you might want to come back.

Which is why when, in ’74, I had this lunch in San Diego with the Kirby family, including his son Neal—there were at least the three of us—and I didn’t know that I was only a couple of weeks away from quitting being editor-in-chief, myself, so that wasn’t a factor. But they asked to meet with me, and I said fine, and the thing I remember about it is Jack was very friendly, because I was still in awe of Jack, you know? Despite the fact that I had hit the wall with that New Gods stuff and everything. And I was just getting the feeling he wasn’t that happy at DC.

I mean, obviously, when you go to Kamandi and The Demon, this is not the same inspired stuff as New Gods was. It was a step down for Jack, even if it in some ways was maybe more successful, and he starts saying, “Well, you know, I don’t know, I just haven’t been really all that happy there,” made some mumbling sounds, and, “What would Stan think, do you think, if I were to want to come back?”

I had no question. He wasn’t really talking to me so much. I was officially the editor-in-chief, but Stan was still there and he would make the ultimate decision as the publisher. So I said, “Jack, Stan would really like you back. He obviously never wanted you to leave.”

I wanted to point out that he wasn’t given any choice, but instead I just said, “He didn’t want you to leave. He’d be overjoyed to have you come back.” I said, “The only thing in the way, really— he was kind of hurt and bothered when you did that Funky Flashman stuff in that one title, where you made a character who was a rather vicious—.” You know, I’m just honest with Jack. I mean, I didn’t know him that well, but I’m going to tell him the truth, because I knew how Stan had felt about it.

Kirby pencils from Mister Miracle #6

I said, “Now, you had this character called Houseroy.” I said, “I didn’t mind about that because I didn’t feel you were really aiming that at me. I was just Stan’s flunky and this and that.” OK, so I am Stan’s flunky or whatever. And Houseroy is a clever name. I didn’t really mind that much. And I was almost a sympathetic character. But it was such a nasty lampoon of Stan.

And Jack gives this nervous little laugh and says, “Well, you know, it was all in fun.” And I had to pretend to let that go, because if there was one thing I was sure about, it was that Funky Flashman was not “all in fun.” It was Jack, it was his repressed—as close as he had come to slugging Stan in the nose. But I just pretended to believe that it was all in fun and just let that go, and I said, “I’m sure we could arrange something.” And it took him a little while. I don’t know if Jack got cold feet….

But suddenly, several months later—by this time I’d quit (as editor-in-chief), and Stan and I were on good terms once we weren’t arguing over things anymore; so I came in one day, as I did two or three days a week to check things out, and by that time Len (Wein) and Marv (Wolfman) were the people in charge. I forget which of them it was that week. And Stan calls me into his office and says, “Listen, I’ve got news! Jack’s coming back!”

Of course, he knew I had talked to him, so it wasn’t a surprise for him to tell me that. “Well, that’s great,” I said. He said, “I think we can get him to come back. He’s interested in coming back.” So he says, “What do you think about it?”

I said, “Well, have him come back. Don’t let him write.” I didn’t mean plot; I meant write the dialogue, because he just really didn’t have it for our audience.

And Stan said, “Well, Jack says if he comes back, he has to write.”

I said, “OK, then let him write. It’s still better to have him at Marvel than it is to have him at DC, because he might do something well for Marvel. You never can tell at DC.

He just belongs at Marvel at this stage. He doesn’t belong at DC, he never really fit there. Get him back, find something for him to do.”

And Stan said, “Well, you know, that’s the way I’m thinking, but—.” He didn’t ever tell me who, but he said there were a couple of prominent people on staff, people whose opinions he respected up to a point, and “they told me that they really just don’t think I should get Jack back.”

And I said, “They’re—”. I won’t say the exact word I said. “They’re crazy!” (Laughter) I said, “Ignore them. Just get Jack back.”

He said, “Okay. Well, that’s what I was going to do.”

There’s much more to the interview in Jack Kirby Collector #74, out 5/23 from TwoMorrows. You can get it at your local comics shop or directly from TwoMorrows. (Click here.)

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Author: Dan Greenfield

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  1. Funky Flashman was a brilliant portrait of Stan Lee, told with the same flair that Jack Kirby brought to his use of Don Rickles in JIMMY OLSEN; Jack knew how to depict oversized personalities in outrageous situations, to capture their appeal and also puncture their facade, in service of a larger narrative! Brian Michael Bendis also managed to do this in his Warren Ellis issue of POWERS, but it is an extremely rare gift to do this sort of thing in a creative way 😀

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    • bsbarnes, that’s an interesting comparison between the Rickles and Flashman stories, and I totally agree with you. Having said that, can we blame Stan for feeling hurt?

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  2. As I read this, Roy is the one claiming Stan was feeling hurt by it. Have we ever heard Stan say that? (Not that I don’t believe it was true…. it WAS a stinging portrayal!)

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