Jack Kirby Collector Edited by John Morrow Jack Kirby Collector celebrates the life and career of the "King" of comics through interviews with Kirby and his contemporaries, feature articles, and rare & unseen Kirby artwork. Now in tabloid format, the magazine showcases Kirby's art at even larger size.

Roy Thomas Interview

Interviewed & © by Jim Amash

From Jack Kirby Collector #18

NOTE: These are just a few excerpts from Roy's interview. For the complete interview, be sure to order a copy of TJKC #18.

THE JACK KIRBY COLLECTOR: How'd you get that job working for Stan Lee, and meet Jack?

ROY THOMAS: I only worked for DC for a couple of weeks in 1965, and I jumped ship to Marvel when Stan offered me a job, because I was unhappy working for Mort Weisinger. Of course, people didn't come into the office that much, and at Marvel, much less than DC. Marvel didn't have much in the way of offices; just three or four little rooms. Stan's office was as big as everything else put together, and Sol Brodsky, Flo Steinberg, and Marie Severin were crowded into two other little rooms. There was somebody else who was working on commercial comics, who was sort of half a comics person. Steve Skeates had been working there a week or two before I came in, and was soon gone. That was really about it. There were not many people working there, so people just brought in their work. Ditko and Stan weren't speaking by that point. So Ditko would come in, deliver his stuff to Sol, Sol would take it in to Stan; it was a very weird, strained atmosphere. Jack and Stan were still getting along pretty well. They'd go out to lunch together occasionally when Jack would come in. I was introduced to him, but I don't remember "the day I met Kirby." But I was well aware of his importance, and from the first issue of Fantastic Four I was aware that he had been half of the Simon & Kirby team, even though the original credit in FF #1 was only for "J. Kirby," and Stan Lee had his whole name credited. Jack's name got abbreviated for some reason.

There were only a couple of Kirby-related incidents I really remember about that first year or two. One of them was a lunch, and I don't think Stan was there. I may have had lunch once or twice with Stan and Jack and a couple of people, but never with Jack by himself. I remember this one lunch with Jack, and probably Sol Brodsky and John Romita and Frank Giacoia; five or six of us. This was one of the relatively few times Jack had lunch with us, as opposed to Stan. The only thing I remember from that lunch, besides nice anecdotes and being with an entertaining guy, was somebody asking, "What's going to be the next big thing in comics?" Super-heroes had been going for years; what's next? Jack said, "I don't know any more than anybody else, but the one thing I can tell you is, it's not gonna be me, and it's not gonna be Stan Lee. It's gonna be two guys in a garage somewhere, coming up with something, just like Siegel and Shuster did." I think of that from time to time, when I see something like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles come out. There's a certain amount of truth to that, that these things come out of nowhere. And it's as likely to be done by an unknown as it is by an established professional.

The other incident I remember was one of the seminal problems that I know Stan has always felt led to - not exactly a final break between Jack and Stan, but heaping more coals on the fire of animosity that Jack felt, I think more than Stan, probably because Stan's position was more secure. Jack was the key artist. No one was going to replace him, but on the other hand he had no real secure situation like Stan. There was a big article in the New York Herald-Tribune, where some reporter came in and interviewed Stan and Jack. For some reason, I was called in to be a witness or whatever, because I certainly took no part in it. We're talking within six months or a year of when I started there. Stan is always "on," and he's promoting Stan, but he's also promoting Jack. I saw that, y'know? And Jack would jump in with his own pronouncements, and Stan strides around, and Jack just kind of sits there, but he was eloquent enough in his own way. And the reporter is more interested in Stan, but at the same time is talking to Jack. And then the article came out, which of course Stan didn't have any prior approval of. The article is somehow very unfavorable toward Jack. It talks about him sitting there in a Robert Hall suit, and Stan saying something, and Jack falling off his chair in glee. It sort of put down Jack in a way that made Stan very embarrassed, and Jack very upset. Stan always had the feeling that Jack felt Stan had somehow maneuvered that. And other than Stan being Stan, and Jack being Jack, and this reporter having his own agenda, I just didn't see any of that. There was no jockeying between Stan and Jack as to who was the top person, but of course Stan was the editor, and he's the person who was doing the writing, and he's a little more eloquent in speaking, maybe, than Jack was. But it was just one of those unfortunate situations that I think really did heap a lot of coals on the fire, and Stan always considered it an important turning point in his relationship with Jack. But there's no way to prove that or straighten it out. How do you say, "I didn't do it. I wasn't responsible for what this reporter wrote."?

Within a few years, Jack had moved out to California, as one of the first comics people to do that. His status was such that he could afford to do that, and Marvel would keep working with him, even if Stan was probably reluctant to see him leave, for the lack of personal contact. Once Jack moved out to L.A., I didn't have much more contact with him. I do have this weird memory that I'm sure about, though it's a bit vague. It was after Jack moved out to L.A. At some stage, Stan called me into his office, and told me Jack had some new characters he wanted to do, some new concepts and ideas. And Stan was very happy wanting to keep Jack on Thor and Fantastic Four. I've always had the feeling that it may have been Jack thinking of offering Marvel things like the New Gods.

It was not that much longer after that that he quit. I know Stan was very upset, and a little depressed when he called me and Sol into the office to tell us Kirby had just called to quit. When he quit, he was already working for DC. He had already set up everything else before he even told Stan he was thinking of quitting. I think this is because Jack bottled it all in, so when he quit, he had to do it as a clean, total break, with no niceties. You can see where almost anybody would be upset in that kind of circumstance.

TJKC: I take it Stan didn't see it coming.

ROY: Well, he knew there were some difficulties, but he certainly didn't see it coming that Jack was quitting, or I never got any indication of it. Ditko wasn't a great surprise, because after all, they weren't speaking, and one day Steve walked in and just told Sol he was quitting. Sol was sitting there with a memo on his desk to give Steve a raise of $5 or so a page, or whatever they could afford, so it wasn't a matter of the money. He just wanted to quit. But with Jack, he sort of bottled it up, and Stan knew there were problems, but he didn't know how deep they ran.

Some of the problems were about what should be done, or shouldn't be done, which is a matter of opinion. Some people are so rabidly pro-Jack that anything Stan does is automatically seen as being the work of the devil. (laughter) Stan is being castigated for every time he asked Jack for a correction, like it's automatically wrong. And it isn't. Stan was the editor; he was responsible for quality control. Production manager Sol_Brodsky would get very frustrated if Stan wanted Jack to do a correction, because Jack just wasn't good at corrections. The thing about Jack is, he had seen the thing already in his mind before he drew it. To him, drawing was almost like photographing the strange, realistic world that he saw inside, which was his genius, his talent. For somebody to tell him, "Can you change this facial expression?" or do a different arm or something; it's like telling Jack to forge a photograph, almost. It just wasn't the way he saw it. That's why John Romita and other people would be asked to do faces on Jack's art.

I know I was happy when Jack finally did one Conan cover for a reprint that had Conan and Elric on it. Stan had John Romita do the face over, so it still wasn't quite a Kirby drawing. It's annoying; as much as I love Romita, I wanted to have a Kirby face on that cover. I know it wasn't me who had it changed. It was usually either Stan who had a drawing changed, or Romita might change it on his own, knowing that Stan would want him to change it. John was very good at anticipating Stan, and sometimes when people thought Romita was changing it on his own authority, he was doing it, yes. But he was very good at anticipating what Stan wanted him to do, which is why he stayed art director until the time he retired.

Aesthetically it's impossible to say "Stan was right" or "Jack was right." Maybe sometimes it wasn't handled as tactfully as it could have been. Mostly, Stan would just have people do it. If Jack had been there, they might have talked. But because Jack was off in California, I think these things festered more than they needed to, because they never got together to talk it over. The distance didn't help that situation... although the fact remains it could've gone to pieces anyway. After all, Jack went to work for another company and was equally distant from them. Within a couple of years, that relationship floundered as well. Despite Funky Flashman, Houseroy, and the whole thing in-between, when I was out there in the summer of 1974 for the San Diego convention, several people - Jack and their son Neal and probably Roz and maybe someone else - got together with me to my surprise to talk about the possibility of Jack coming back to Marvel then, about a year before he actually did. It didn't quite come to anything just yet, but it was obvious that within that three or four years, the bloom was definitely off the rose at DC, too, and Carmine was now the enemy, as he was to many other people. Again, I'm not saying whether Jack was right or wrong; at some stage, when Jack got tired of trying to talk to people, or he didn't feel he could, he'd just move on to something else. And all I could say to Jack was, "The only thing between you really is that Stan was a little hurt about the way you left, but that's not a big deal. And the Funky Flashman stuff bothered him a little bit, because it seemed, to Stan at least, somewhat mean-spirited." I said to Jack, "I don't take the Houseroy stuff that personally, because you don't know me. My relationship to Stan was somewhat like what you said, and partly it's just a caricature because I was there. And the name 'Houseroy' is clever as hell, and I kinda like it." I'm even a sympathetic character because I got tossed to the wolves. (laughter) But I said, "We can get past that. Stan would love to have you back; he never wanted you to leave." The only thing is, a month or two later I left myself, and it took several more months, and I was gone by the time Jack actually came back.

TJKC: There was a mention in Rocket's Blast ComiCollector that Jack was thinking about coming back as early as 1972, and would take over X-Men.

ROY: Well, it could be. I was at two early '70s conventions in San Diego, one in 1972. The Summer of 1972 was just about the time I became editor-in-chief, so it could've been '72 instead of '74. I won't swear to it. Whatever it was, it didn't come to anything for awhile, and I'm not certain which of the two years it was.

By 1975, when Stan would talk about him coming back, one or two of the editorial people there weren't sure it was a good idea. I was delighted; I thought it was a great thing to have happen.

TJKC: Do you have any idea what triggered the Funky Flashman thing?

ROY: No. I knew nothing about it until it came out. I think it was just the resentment Jack had built up, some of it based on the differences between his personality and Stan's. Each of them would find the other to be an alien being in some way; they were so different, y'know? This is true with many partners, and Stan and Jack were such different people; they had such different lifestyles, such different outlooks on things. Of course, Stan had a higher position, so Jack would see him as not only being a partner, but his superior, and he didn't like that. He remembered Stan as some kid who, when he was eighteen years old, inherited the editor's job because Simon & Kirby left Timely. I think there was some resentment coming out, and I think it was an unfortunate thing that didn't need to happen; it might have been better left undone. As much as I admire Jack, even I was a little bothered the first time I saw the Houseroy thing, because it's a reading of me that's only partly true; sure, I was Stan's right-hand man, a flunky. Maybe he would've tossed me out the window to save himself. (laughter) But Jack was such a gentleman, such a nice person, and I hated to see what a lot of us felt - not everybody, some people thought it was greatly justified and clever as hell - what I felt was a cheap shot at Stan, and I would've felt that whether Houseroy existed or not; because I felt the Funky Flashman stuff was just so obvious. If it'd been a little more disguised, you might've put it down to something else. Jack of course said, "Well, y'know, I was just making stories" when I talked to him that time, but we all knew it was a little more than that. But we all do things like that; sometimes we regret them later, sometimes we don't. I have no idea how Jack came to feel about it later. Stan said he never let it bother him, but the relationship was never quite the same. Stan, as much as he admired Jack's talent, would never again think of him as the automatic number one guy artistically, because by that time John Romita was working there, John Buscema was popular. Jack would come in and be respected and be admired and be liked, but it wasn't going to be the same as it had been up to 1970.

TJKC: We've all seen interviews where Stan and Jack maybe both claimed more of the credit than they deserved.

ROY: I think once Jack left, there was a natural tendency to mentally downgrade his contributions, just from a practical viewpoint. Otherwise, you're giving a competitor credit. I won't say how much of that was conscious and how much was unconscious, but it's a natural tendency. At that stage, you're doing it for hype, for publicity purposes, and to do that, you don't necessarily play up the guy who's quit and gone to the competition.

TJKC: A lot of people were really upset about Origins of Marvel Comics, because it seemed like Stan had really downplayed Jack's contributions a lot there.

ROY: The problem there may also have been the legalities. Back in the 1960s, both Joe Simon and Carl Burgos initiated lawsuits, about Captain America and the Human Torch. They never came to very much, and Jack of course made some depositions on behalf of Marvel about Cap at that time when he was still there. It led to Bill Everett, who had created the third big 1940s character - Sub-Mariner - being given a loan by Martin Goodman that wasn't going to have to be paid back, so he wouldn't sue, which he never intended to do, anyway. I don't know how the Burgos thing was settled, but it was probably settled reasonably amicably. But once these things happen, you don't necessarily want to play up the other person. Stan would always talk about Jack as being this great artist, but he didn't always play up Jack's other contributions. Yet from the very beginning, he's always been clear about the fact that Jack invented the Silver Surfer, and just tossed him into a story where Stan had not suggested any character like that. I know for a fact, having seen the pages in pencil when they came in, that the character was just called "The Surfer" in the border notes, not "The Silver Surfer." The name "Silver Surfer" at the very least was Stan's, and the speech patterns.

I remember Stan and I got into a good-natured argument ten years ago in L.A. I wasn't even working for Marvel at the time, and we had lunch. He talked about people like Stephen J. Cannell and television, saying if Cannell comes up with a general idea, and wants a few people running around doing this and that, and calls them the A-Team, he's created that. It says "Created by Stephen Cannell." And I said yes, but that's a function of power, not of creativity. It means Stephen Cannell has the power to say he created that thing alone, and other people buy into that by agreeing to sell their work for work-for-hire, or for other financial deals. But it doesn't mean he really created the whole thing just because it says so on paper. That's a legal thing. It's caused by his power; you either play by his rules or you don't play. It doesn't mean he really created the A-Team all by himself.

TJKC: How did Stan react to your point?

ROY: I think we agreed to disagree in a friendly way. He knew I always felt he got a raw deal from the more Kirby-oriented part of the press. I sometimes felt they just didn't want to listen to his side of it. He didn't like to be vocal about it, because he felt no one could win that kind of argument. Not that Jack was a small man, but it's the old thing about "never fight anyone smaller than you, because if you win you're a bully, and if you lose you're a bum." Here, fighting Jack was fighting the guy who left Marvel Comics and did not own a piece of these characters. To the extent that Stan ever said anything, he looks like he's trying to bully Jack, or take advantage of his position; and if Jack got the better of him, then he really looks bad. (laughter) I think he really just preferred to keep out of it, but I know he was hurt by the situation sometimes because of his admiration for Jack. I'm sure that sometimes he was resentful, too. Neither Stan nor Jack were perfect human beings. Neither were any more godlike than the currently-deified Princess Di.

TJKC: Right before Jack left Marvel in 1970, he finally got writing credit on the Inhumans (Amazing Adventures #1-4) and a couple of mystery stories (Chamber of Darkness #4-5). How did that come about?

ROY: I think he probably wanted to write these stories, and Stan was trying to keep him happy, even though he wasn't as enamored of Jack's writing as of his art. But he thought, "We've got other people writing, let's see what Jack can do." Jack had certainly written a lot of great stories in his day; there was no doubt about Jack's talent as a creator. He'd written stuff that back in the '40s and '50s was well above the level for the field. It didn't seem to traffic quite as well in the '60s. Certain aspects of it did. There's a certain poetry about Jack, in concepts and phrasing. Other things could be a little bit clumsy, but you just take them all together, and they make a very interesting read, especially his Fourth World stuff at DC. I'd look at it, and I'd see these words in quotation marks, and weird things that bothered me, but at the same time there's this kind of poetic feeling. He wasn't the only person who'd go to the Bible and other places for inspiration. Stan did, I did, we all went to the classics for inspiration. But Jack was certainly one person who did that. He was a sensitive guy, a poetic guy, an intelligent guy; and that was bound to be reflected in the work.

His work wasn't tremendously successful sales-wise his second go-round at Marvel, but that doesn't necessarily mean it wasn't good. A lot of things that were very good failed at various times: Conan almost, the early Silver Surfers, Neal Adams' and my X-Men, and Steranko's SHIELD didn't do that well.

TJKC: Should the Marvel characters be equally considered co-creations of Stan and Jack?

ROY: It's hard to divide things and say "equal." Sometimes it's 50/50, sometimes it's not, but they are co-creators of almost everything they did together. Sometimes if there had to be only one creator listed, it would have to be Stan, because he probably came up with the idea of the Fantastic Four and the characters. If you had to say there was one creator of the Silver Surfer, it was definitely Jack. But look at the Human Torch; was that created by Jack Kirby? Stan Lee? In many ways it's just a revamp of the Carl Burgos character. In collaborative mediums, the credit that says "Created by..." is usually some sort of legal lie. (laughter) But if you had to choose one creator, quite often Stan would have to be that person, simply because he got there first, and said, "Let's do a character called Thor," if that's what happened. It wouldn't make any difference if Jack had once done a character named Thor at DC. But that doesn't mean Jack shouldn't be credited with co-creating the character. It's very rare that things are nice and neat and simple. I think what happens is, the people that like Marvel or Stan will say Stan was the main creator, and the people that buy into Jack's particular situation will say it's all Jack. The truth is not always, but usually, in-between.

These guys were so talented and so valuable to the company; it's really a shame some of these things had to happen. They were both indispensable. I don't think Stan would've created Marvel Comics - and certainly it would not have been created in the same way or taken off the way it did - without Jack being there to realize these early stories; Ditko too, but especially Jack. On the other hand, there's no evidence Jack would've done this by himself either. It was a collaboration. Stan was maybe the man on the spot, and the guy who guided it, but... is it the jockey or the horse that wins the race? (laughter) What you really want is for the jockey and the horse to become a centaur, but the centaur is a very unstable life form, (laughter) who'll slip back into being a jockey and a horse.

TJKC: How would you describe the legacy Jack leaves behind?

ROY: Jack was one of the giants of the field, and he continues to cast a long shadow. I don't think you have to worship him in a way that says he was always right, and Stan or whoever was always wrong, in order to do him justice and give him proper respect. If there are a handful of people in the comics business in the last half-century who deserve the title of genius, Jack would definitely be in that very small grouping. How much more can you expect from anybody?

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