"Say, does this look funny to you?"

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Roy The Boy

I've been meaning to post this for a bit, but I figured that I'd hold it for a while until I was either ready or just couldn't think of anything to post and it looks as though today's the day. Yes, it's about comic books. My good friend Philip Schweier, who writes regularly for Comic Book Bin and now articles for Back Issue Magazine wrote a piece just or this place about the time that he and I took a road trip to meet and interview one of our favorite comic book writers Roy Thomas. I'll let you read Philip's side first, then I'll follow up with my take.

by Philip Schweier
A few years back, Sam and I had the opportunity to meet comics guru Roy Thomas. He was lecturing for a special presentation at the University of South Carolina- Columbia, and Sammy and I cruised up for the day. We left just after lunch, taking a nice liesurely cruise up I-95, then heading west into Columbia. Our Mapquest directions were a bit lacking – or maybe it was us, I don’t know – so we got a little confused and stopped to ask directions to– wouldn’t ya know – a comic book store.

It was an odd place, moreso than most comic shops. The building was round, and the front half was all glass. Methinks it may have once been a burger stand of something. Round walls make it a bit complicated when it comes to stacking long box along them, so we did a little shopping. Another thing that made it odd was that for a comic shop, they didn’t seem to concerned about the merchandise. Much of it was standing up in the windows, where the rays of the sun had turned Spider-Man purple and orange. A pity too, as much of the comics in the windows were 100-page Super-Spectaculars. These were 100-page comics from the early-mid 1970s. Originally they were 50¢, but the price eventually got bumped up to 60¢. Still they were a heckuva a deal. For instance, I recall an issue of Detective Comics which featured a new Batman story, a new Robin story, and several reprints of assorted comic detectives, such as Roy Raymond, TV Detective, and Star Hawkins. Though Super-Spectaculars were about 80% reprints, there was usually some sort of theme to tie all to the stories together. An issue of Justice League might contain a new story, and old story from the 1960s, and maybe some Justice Society material from the 1940s. That’s what really made them great, was the opportunity to learn about comics from 30 years ago. Today, younger readers have to rely on DC’s archive editions. Yeah, like your average 10-year old can afford a $50 book. Sam and I might’ve bought a few of these 100-page Super-Spectaculars, but A) the sun had faded them pretty badly; and B) even if they were so cooked, they were overpriced. Besides, he said he had a bunch in storage back home. So we got our directions, much to the dismay opf the clerk. He seemed a bit put out at having to work when such a notable comics authority was in town.

(Editor's note: That store really sucked. The back issues were over priced and looked like crap. I won't name the store either, but it seems to be the only comic book store in Columbia, S.C.. But I know I won't be going back there anytime soon unless they price their books better. I really wanted those Super Spectaculars, though. Back to the story...)

Eventually, we found our way to the beautiful USC-Columbia campus, found a parking spot, and high-tailed our butts to the show. To our pleaasure, the room was standing room only; to our dismay, it was largely fanboys whose many questions seemed to search for the inside track on what movie Marvel had in store. Apparently, they weren’t aware that Thomas hadn’t worked for Marvel for several years.

For those who’re new to comics, Roy Thomas was probably the most influential writer, second only to Stan Lee during the Marvel renaissance in the late 1960s. He launched the fanzine Alter Ego while attending Wayne State University in Detroit, and continued it while teaching high school English in Missouri. That’s when Marvel came calling. A longtime fan of the Golden Age of comics, Thomas resurrected The Vision from obscurity, and provided him a home with The Avengers. He also merged the World War II versions of Captain America, The Sub-Mariner, and The Human Torch, into a commando super-team known as The Invaders.Many of the Golden Age characters are out of place in the 21st century, but Thomas seems to have made it his mission to keep their memory alive. He also boasts a hell of a collection of 1940s-era comics. While his writing ability infused modern heroes with a sensibility unknown in the realm of comics, his expertise with the Golden Age characters enabled him to discard some of the moodiness and angst in favor of costumed heroes kicking Nazi butt. He also enjoyed a lengthy run on Marvel’s Conan the Barbarian, generating enough enthusiasm that allowed the muscled swordsman to make the leap from comic page to silver screen. In 1983, Thomas, with fellow comics writer Gerry Conway, authored the movie sequel, Conan the Destroyer.

In the 1970s, Justice League/Justice Society team-ups were an annual event at DC. When they decided to give the Golden Age heroes a book of their own, his passion for the Golden Age heroes made Thomas the natural choice to spearhead the project.The All-Star Squadron revived many heroes from not only DC’s past, but also those that DC had aquired from other now-defunct comics publishers. By the mid-1980s, the DC pantheon of heroes and villains had become cumbersome, with intersecting lines of continuity. In an effort to streamline their universe, the publisher launched a 12-issue maxi series, Crisis on the Infinite Earths, which resulted in the demise of DC's parallel universes and timelines. With the merging their 50 year backlog of heroes into a single line of continuity, DC no longer had a place for The All-Star Squadron on their print schedule.The victim of DC’s literary housecleaning, Thomas then launched his own creation, a Golden Age tribute entitled Alter Ego. Published by First Comics, one of the earliest publishers that allowed creative ownership. It depicted forties-style superheroes vying against Nazis and Nazilike powers across multiple realities in a contest that risked the future survival of at least one world. Thomas later returned to Marvel, where he and his wife Dann scripted new incarnations of previous titles, such as West Coast Avengers.

Today, Thomas’ fanzine
Alter Ego still has a devout following, thanks to widespread circulation in comic shops. It is a vital source of comics history, featruing interviews and articles on creators who may have sadly passed on. A recent issue included a long-forgotten interview with Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel. Though no longer directly associated with Marvel, he holds a special place in the history of comics, as an author, editor, and historian. Many of the Golden Age characters are out of place in the 21st century, but Thomas seems to have made it his mission to keep their memory alive. He also boasts a hell of a collection of 1940s-era comics, which were in abundance in the display cases (No, Sam, those are NOT free souvenirs).

Thanks, Philip. I really did want those old comics they displayed in the case. I told Philip to drop to the ground and fake a seizure while I made my way to break the glass. I'm tellin' you, could have gotten away with it and no one would have been the wiser.

Anyways, I know I had a great time. Roy basically gave a rundown of the history of comics for those not in the know. I remember there being alot o folks in the room, including a bunch of suits from the school and a pack of tweens. I think Philip and I where the only real people there who knew and understood what Roy had done in the past, other than his wife Dani. Philip and I decided to sit in the front row to show our support for the man. What happened next after Roy's rundown was almost straight out of Saturday Night Live. You know that bit. The one where William Shatner had to face questions from the crowd af a Star Trek convention?

It was q&a time and Roy opened the floor for anyone who had a question. Philip and I decided to hold off on asking anything since Philip was going to try to interview him there for a story later. So, we watched as the crowd began to ask what I thought was the dumbest questions ever. Like, "Ummmhey, do you know if Todd McFarlane is ever gonna draw 'Spider-Man' again?" Or, "What the heck is going on with Superman? He maried Lois Lane. What's up with that?" It was
like asking Ted Williams now what the hell is going on with the Red Soxs these days. He wouldn't know because he's not there anymore and besides, he's dead now. Roy politely explained at least five times I recall that he's no longer involved with either DC or Marvel comics and that they would have to ask the companies themselves. From the front row, Philip and I could see the exasperated look on the face of the man, but Roy was very polite about it. Still, I just wanted the man to look at the ones who asked the dumb questions and say "Please, GET A LIFE!" Then again, that could be directed at me and Philip for driving all the way from Savannah to sit in a room for only two hours to see a man who made our childhoods more exciting. Thanks, Roy.

We need another road trip like that again soon, Philip.

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