Today is the 75th birthday to influential comic book writer, editor and historian Roy Thomas, who was born on November 22, 1940. Additionally, this year marks 50 years of Thomas’ professional involvement in the comic book field, having started in it in the summer of 1965.
It has sometimes been opined that while Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko created the majority of the building blocks of the modern Marvel universe, it was Thomas, along with Steve Englehart, who structured them into a cohesive whole. Thomas was often the writer who was chosen by Stan Lee to take over on various Marvel series as the editor-in-chief’s workload increased and the line of titles expanded.
Some of my favorite early work by Thomas was on Avengers. He chronicled the adventures of Earth’s mightiest heroes from issue #35 (Dec 1966) thru #104 (Oct 1972). During this six year period Thomas, often working with penciler John Buscema, introduced the Vision, Ultron, the Grim Reaper, the Black Knight, Yellowjacket, Arkon, Red Wolf, the Squadron Supreme and the Zodiac.
From Avengers #89 to #97, Thomas, paired with artists Neal Adams, Sal Buscema, John Buscema and Tom Palmer, crafted a lengthy storyline of intergalactic warfare & intrigue that came be known as “The Kree-Skrull War.” In addition to establishing ties between two extraterrestrial races first devised by Lee & Kirby, this story arc set the groundwork for the lengthy relationship between the Vision and the Scarlet Witch.
Looking back on Thomas’ work on Avengers, one can see that he devised characters and stories that numerous other writers at Marvel would continue to utilize and built upon for decades to come.
Thomas was instrumental in convincing Lee and Marvel publisher Martin Goodman to approve a comic book starring Conan, the barbarian adventurer created by Robert E. Howard. Conan the Barbarian #1 debuted in 1970, written by Thomas, with pencils by a young Barry Windsor-Smith. Within a year and a half Thomas’ old collaborator John Buscema took over as penciler. Thomas also wrote Marvel’s black & white magazine Savage Sword of Conan, which began in 1974, as well as a newspaper strip that ran from 1978 to 1981.
By encouraging Marvel to publish the Conan the Barbarian comic book, and then writing so many epic, memorable stories featuring the character, Thomas played a major role in making Conan a well-known, popular character.
Another landmark in Thomas’ career was the World War II superhero series The Invaders. Thomas worked with veteran artist Frank Robbins on this book. The Invaders was Thomas’ love letter to the Golden Age of superhero comics which he had grown up reading and for which he possesses a deep fondness.
Initially a team-up of Timely Comics big three Captain America, Namor the Sub-Mariner, and the Human Torch, Thomas would gradually introduce an entire cast of costumed heroes. These were both of the genuine Golden Age variety, such as the Whizzer and Miss America, and of brand new characters he created to retcon back into the Marvel universe of the early 1940s, such as Spitfire and Union Jack.
Another aspect of The Invaders was that Thomas, Robbins and their collaborators devised a number of Axis villains. If you look back at the actual Timely comic books of the early 1940s, aside from the Red Skull there really were no major super-villains who made a lasting impact, just a number of oddball menaces who were all-but-forgotten a couple decades later. To rectify that, Thomas and Robbins introduced Master Man, Warrior Woman, U-Man, and Baron Blood as arch-foes for their heroes to fight.
Although the original run of The Invaders lasted less than five years, from 1975 to 1979, the various characters have been the subject of numerous revivals in the decades since. Thomas himself has been involved in a few of these, returning to Marvel at various points to write new adventures of his Nazi-smashing heroes.
The length and breadth of Thomas’ five decade involvement in comic books is something that I cannot even begin to do justice in a short blog post. For an in-depth look at his career, however, you need look no further than the magazine Alter Ego. Edited by Thomas, this excellent magazine has been published by TwoMorrows Publishing since 1999.
Thomas was interviewed at length by Jim Amash on several occasions for Alter Ego. Each of these examined roughly a decade of Thomas’ career, with the 1960s being covered in Alter Ego #50, the 1970s in #70, the 1980s in #100, and the 1990s in the just-released #136, with the late 1990s and beyond scheduled to be covered in the upcoming #139. I’ve found these interviews to be extremely informative. Thomas presents an honest and insightful recounting of his career.
Here’s the cover to Alter Ego #136. In the center is a humorous cartoon of Thomas drawn by veteran artist Marie Severin. Surrounding it are images taken from the covers of some of the series Thomas worked on at Marvel in the 1990s, specifically the four issue revival of The Invaders with penciler Dave Hoover, Doctor Strange, Secret Defenders, Avengers West Coast, and Thor.
I want to wish both a happy birthday and a happy anniversary to Roy Thomas. Here’s hoping for many more years to come.