Roy Thomas Receives the Sergio

The Comic Art Professional Society (CAPS) is a Los Angeles social and networking club for artists and writers working in comic books, comic strips, editorial cartoonists, gag cartoonists, and all other forms of print cartoons. CAPS was founded by Sergio Aragonés, Mark Evanier, and the late Don Rico in 1977. Every year we present The Sergio Award to a deserving recipient. Previous honorees have included Jack Davis, Russ Heath, Stan Lee, Drew Struzan, and the man himself, Sergio Aragonés. This year, we are presenting the Sergio to Roy Thomas in recognition of his 50-plus years in the comics industry. Here is my tribute to Roy.

Uncanny X-Men No. 29
My gateway drug to the Marvel Universe.

My first Roy Thomas comic was also my first Marvel comic. I was a wee lad in third grade, a big devotee of the Batman TV show, and had thus far successfully badgered my mother into buying precisely one comic from the spinner rack at Young’s Market. (Justice League of America #44, if you must know). Some time later, I found myself parked on a naugahyde couch awaiting my turn in the barber’s chair, when my eyes fell upon the cover of Uncanny X-Men #29, in which the merry mutants faced off against the Super-Adaptoid, a big green android who could absorb and duplicate any hero’s super-powers. This issue was actually part three of an extended tale, but I was able to pick up everything I needed to know along the way, despite having never heard of the X-Men or the Avengers, whose powers the Super-Adaptoid had already acquired. The story primarily revolved around a truculent mutant named The Mimic, whose power was the same as the Super-Adaptoid’s, but with a limitation: he could only copy another mutant’s abilities, and then only when in reasonably close physical proximity to them.

I seriously considered liberating that comic from the barbershop, but mom was watching, so I had to use the lesser option and commit it to memory (and then buy it online some 40 years later). I’m happy to report that the story held up.

Avengers No. 57
Roy Thomas invents Ultron and the Vision.

That is a defining characteristic of Roy Thomas stories; they hold up.

After I discovered the entrepreneurial adventure of collecting and cashing in the abundant soda bottles that people discarded on the nearby beach, and was therefore able to begin buying my own comics with my own money, I quickly learned that the name Roy Thomas was a pretty solid guarantee of an interesting and exciting comic story.

Like most comic fans my age, I found Marvel stories a lot more enjoyable than DC comics (the DC books seemed condescending and formulaic, especially the Superman ones, though the books featuring some other members of the Justice League were less so, a difference I later learned was simply the fact of Julius Schwartz being a better editor than Mort Weisinger. But I digress.) Marvel was the more intelligent, more sophisticated, more compelling comic brand, and Roy Thomas was the best writer they had in the place. I read stacks of Roy Thomas stories featuring nearly every character in the Marvel stable.

Years later, when Roy went across the street to DC, I followed him. Arak, Son of Thunder was my reward for my loyalty; I reveled in the genius of a Native American viking in Charlemagne’s court (is there any part of that concept that you don’t want to read?), and I loved the deep dives into real-world history, folklore, legend, literature, and obscure (to me) pop culture history, and I ate up Roy’s work with gusto. Aside from Arak, there was also Roy’s expansive exploration of the decades-spanning alternate reality of Earth-2, where the All-Star Squadron, Justice Society, and Infinity Inc. hung out. Roy was really making his mark on the DC multiverse.

Arak No. 1
A Native-American Viking in Charlemagne’s court… oh, and magic is real. How do you not want to read that?

Then Marv Wolfman damn near killed him. Sorry, Marv; I love your work, big Teen Titans fan, and I understand and respect what you were trying to do with Crisis on Infinite Earths, but the thing that sticks in my mind 30 years later is Roy Thomas desperately trying to stitch together the tattered remains of Earth-2 to salvage a functional Golden Age history to support the handful of JSA characters who escaped limbo. There’s Roy in the pages of Young All-Stars, trying to pull a Wonder Woman doppelgänger out of thin air, frantic to rebuild some semblance of a back-story for his Infinity, Inc. cast of second-generation heroes. It wasn’t pretty.

Young All-Stars No. 1
Roy Thomas’s Golden Age reclamation project.

I think it was this quixotic mission of Roy’s that led to his reputation as being obsessed with continuity-tweaking. Well, that and the several noteworthy stories that revolved around patching up contradictions, errors and omissions in old comics that many fans didn’t even remember; an issue of Invaders included a digression to explain why Namor wore the wrong swim trunks in another story some years earlier, for example. Over time, this quirk, which I think was really just Roy enjoying the puzzle-solving aspect of reconciling these glitches in the matrix, led to a lot of fanboy snark. (But then what doesn’t engender fanboy snark?) One story that circulated, usually cited as proof of Thomas’ continuity obsession, was that he had once pitched DC on a story to explain why Jimmy Olsen and Johnny Thunder wore the same outfit: green suit, red bow-tie.

I was about to repeat this urban legend myself in a Facebook discussion a while back, when I realized that it was just a rumor I’d heard, and didn’t know where it originated; at that time I was on a mission to kill hoaxes, urban legends, and “fake news” on Facebook, so I couldn’t very well go repeating an unsourced rumor about a guy I didn’t even know. It happened that I had Roy’s email address, so I decided to reach out.

Hi Mr. Thomas,

I hope you’ll pardon the intrusion. I’m a friend of Scott Shaw!, I scanned some of his art for you a few years back, so I still had your email. A quick question…

I had heard a long time ago that you once wrote a story based on the fact that Jimmy Olsen and Johnny Thunder wear the same green suit and red bow-tie; is that an urban legend, or does that story actually exist? If the latter, what’s the reason why they dress alike? (Aside from the color limitations of golden and silver age comics production.)

Thanks much,

Jim MacQ.

The answer I got back was the most quintessentially perfect I could ever have hoped for. It is the pure, distilled essence of Roy Thomas:

Hi Jim–

I’m afraid that not only is that story a myth (so far as I can recall), but Johnny Thunder NEVER wore a red tie, until sloppy colorists decided to treat him like Jimmy Olsen.  His bowtie was invariably yellow in the Golden Age comic.

Roy

I firmly believe that if Johnny Thunder had dressed the same as Jimmy Olsen, Roy would have written a story to explain it. I further know that I would want to read it, and that it would be unique and clever and thoroughly entertaining, and would involve some fascinating element of history, science, or folklore, that I’d never heard of before, because Roy Thomas puts in the effort to build stories that hold up.

Thanks for 50 solid years of great entertainment, Roy!

The Sergio Award
The Sergio Award

17 Comments

  1. M-Wolverine

    Roy seemed to always be the young kid guy in the times the Bullpen was put to page. But he also seemed like one of the few true descendants of Stan Lee and that next gen of writers. We’ve discussed before how being a good writer doesn’t necessarily make you a good comic book writer. Roy Thomas was a comic book writer. And where elsewhere that might be an insult, to me that’s a high compliment. He understood the medium, didn’t try subverting it, he just made it better.

  2. The earliest comic I remember buying was one of Thomas’s – Infinity, Inc. #4. It’s a comic that interweaves an old nine-page Hawkman tale by Gardener Fox and Joe Kubert as part of the story itself, and yet it totally works. I loved Infinity as a kid, and the first ten-issue arc still more than stands up today. But as you say, Crisis destroyed the whole concept, several of the characters, and ultimately the title itself.

  3. Edo Bosnar

    Oh, hell yeah, I’m all for honoring Roy Thomas!
    I love that e-mail exchange you had with him, and I totally agree with you: that Jimmy Olsen/Johnny Thunder green suit story would have been awesome. On that same topic of his apparent obsession with continuity and (over-)explaining everything, a personal favorite story of mine is from World’s Finest #271, an anniversary issue which ties together all of the ‘first times’ Superman and Batman teamed up. That was apparently one of those stories that was the butt of much fanboy snark – I loved it, though, and still recall it fondly.
    There’s one other aspect of Roy’s career that shouldn’t be overlooked: the fact that he brought Conan to comics and was the most productive writer of Conan comics. I don’t Conan would have ever become as popular if the character hadn’t been introduced to generations of comics fans from the early ’70s onward.

    1. frasersherman

      I didn’t know that story got snarked at–I loved it too.
      Someone once suggested Avengers #55 is the first sign of Thomas’ future interests: a trip back to the Golden Age, use of old continuity (Doctor Doom’s time machine), resolving a minor question (why was Cap in civvies when the missile blew up). But it’s also a good story — the scenes where Cap has to watch Bucky die again is really painful.

      1. That’s true of lots of people; I think Robert Jordan did something like double what Howard did, And I think de Camp and Carter at least equaled Howard’s output. The thing that can’t be overstated about Roy is that his Conan was easily the BEST of the pastiches; when he hit his groove– about when John Buscema came on board– it was the best writing of his career. The backstory he gave Belit, the worldbuilding he did with the whole concept…. it cast such a huge shadow that every comics writer on Conan that came after could only try to match that level of quality. I think Kurt Busiek’s the only other one in comics to come close and none of the prose novelists have hit it. Even comics fans who didn’t care for what Roy Thomas did on superheroes have been blown away by Roy’s Conan.

        1. frasersherman

          Roy definitely got Conan (and double-definitely Belit) in a way most prose writers didn’t. And he showed the same kind of detailed attention to trivia points and retcons that he did with superhero books, for example, introducing characters who’d crop up in Howard years later.

  4. frasersherman

    As Avengers was one of the few Silver Age Marvels I read with any frequency, my first would have been one of Roy’s. Nice to see him getting some respect. I just finished rereading All-Star Squadron and it does indeed hold up (and for retcons, his explanation in one issue for Dr. Fate’s godawful half-helmet period of the Golden Age was wonderful). Ditto Arak (reread a couple of years earlier)—a fine job of historical fantasy indeed.
    I think it was Omar Karindo back on CBG who suggested once that Roy Thomas was one of the big differences between Avengers and JLA: the League was always defined by Gardner Fox but Roy managed to put his own stamp on the Avengers.
    And yes, the damage COIE did to all Earth-2 related material (much as I like the series) is a sad thing. Although it wasn’t just Crisis, but DC management apparently deciding all that Earth-2 stuff was yesterday’s news and should be ignored as much as possible.

    1. I had the opportunity to talk to Marv Wolfman at the Sergio Award banquet. I apologized for saying he tried to kill Roy with COIE. He told me the following:

      1. Right from the moment the Crisis was proposed, Roy Thomas was the one editor who was completely on board and fully supportive of it;

      2. Marv made a promise not to kill off any characters who were in existence in the early 1940s, and he did not. Some other editors killed off characters in their own books while tying into COIE, but none of them died in the main series.

      The biggest problem with Crisis was that it ended up not being the clean slate they had intended. Several editors decided to try to retain their little corner of continuity rather than doing as Roy did and building a new one consistent with the new “single world” premise, and they did it without consulting each other, immediately introducing new contradictions and retaining old ones, continuing to burden both writers and readers with 50 years of convoluted back-story and rendering the exercise pointless.

      1. Le Messor

        “The biggest problem with Crisis was that it ended up not being the clean slate they had intended. Several editors decided to try to retain their little corner of continuity rather than doing as Roy did and building a new one consistent with the new “single world” premise, and they did it without consulting each other, immediately introducing new contradictions and retaining old ones, continuing to burden both writers and readers with 50 years of convoluted back-story and rendering the exercise pointless.”

        *cough*Nu-52*cough*
        *cough*Rebirth*cough*

        Not sayin’ I’m seeing a pattern here, but…

      2. frasersherman

        According to Roy Thomas (and the A-SS letter columns he wrote as COIE approached confirm it) he was on board because he thought it would be “all on one Earth going forward from this point,” not “always only one Earth” which he was understadnably not keen on.
        I think another part of the COIE problem was that DC responded to fan criticism by insisting very loudly that Continuity Doesn’t Matter Except To Obsessed Fanboys. And then they acted like it was true. Someone wants to reboot a character from scratch two years after COIE? Sure, why not, nobody cares about the continuity! Which as you say tangled things even further.
        I was really struck rereading Infinite Crisis how fricking much of the book was devoted to infodumping about the pre-Crisis multiverse, the Crisis itself and the post-Crisis changes. It was so continuity top-heavy it felt like a parody of continuity obsessed wankery.

  5. Le Messor

    Roy Thomas is highly deserving. I have a big pile-up of comics-to-read on the coffee table behind me, and Behold… The Vision is the lead story in the trade I’m currently working on. (And I have that X-Men story, too.)
    I also gave an issue of Infinity, Inc a shot, just for the sake of it – it was really good.

    They snarked his continuity? Really? That’s one of his strengths!

    Jack Davis, Russ Heath, Stan Lee, Drew Struzan

    TBH, I only know two of those names (though Russ Heath makes me think about Mac Heath… did our boy do something rash?) and one of them only for posters – did Struzan ever work on comic books?

      1. Le Messor

        I also gave an issue of Infinity, Inc a shot, just for the sake of it – it was really good.

        … And I just bought five more.
        I wanted to say to Drancron that #4 was one of them, but unfortunately it wasn’t there.

        Drew has done some comics covers, but we honored him because he is possibly the biggest influence on comic cover artists over the past 30 years.

        Come to think of it, I think I heard about it at the time.
        Next: Michelangelo for his Pieta. 🙂

    1. The Sergio is pretty awesome. And heavy. You could kill somebody with it.

      As the new President of CAPS, I have to decide who will receive the 2018 and 2019 Sergios, so I’m taking suggestions. (I think 2018 is settled, but you’ll have to wait for the announcement).

      It’s a lifetime achievement award, so the nominee needs to be somebody who has either been at it a good long while or has made significant contributions to the comics field. At this point, that means somebody whose career began before about 1970, or somebody who dramatically impacted the industry in a notable way. Ideally, it’s somebody who is still working in the field.

      That field includes comic books, comic strips, editorial cartoons, gag panels, children’s book illustration, pretty much any form of cartooning for print media.

      Many of our members work in animation, but we don’t generally give the Sergio for animation work (the rare exception was June Foray, who was a CAPS member and huge supporter of comics and cartooning). We’ve also occasionally honored people with only a tenuous connection to comics, based on their stature and influence in the field despite not actually doing a lot of work directly in comics, such as Ray Bradbury and Drew Struzan, so there’s definitely a little wiggle room if a good case can be made.

      We don’t award the Sergio posthumously (at least we have not yet done so) , so we’d need a really compelling reason to do so, one that will get people to pay money to come to a banquet in that person’s honor. Otherwise, we’ve be booked up into the 22nd century.

      For similar reasons, we very much prefer to have an honoree who is able and willing to attend the banquet, though we did honor Gene Colan remotely via Skype, so it’s not outside the realm of possibility, though time zones limit that somewhat.

      And personally, I’d like to get away from the “pale male” candidates and give it to a woman and/or person of color, though the unfortunate historical realities of the industry limit the candidates there.

      If you have an opinion for who should receive the 2019 Sergio Award, I’m all ears.

Leave a Reply