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Marvel legend Roy Thomas looks back on his epic Silver Age Doctor Strange run

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Jun 19, 2018

Few names elicit as much unbridled fan love as comic book legend Roy Thomas, the writer, author, and editor who followed Stan Lee as Marvel's Editor-in Chief during the mid-'70s.

The Missouri-born creator introduced the comic world to Robert E. Howard's Cimmerian warrior, and wrote career-defining runs on flagship titles like Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos, Doctor Strange, Star Wars, The Avengers, Fantastic Four, Uncanny X-Men, The Defenders, The Invaders, and the black-and-white magazines Savage Tales and Savage Sword of Conan. He also helped create or co-create a stable of classic characters ranging from Wolverine, Adam Warlock, The Vision, and Ultron, to Ghost Rider, Iron Fist, Man-Thing, and Morbius the Living Vampire.

Under Thomas' influential editorial guidance from 1972 to 1974, Marvel greatly expanded its presence in the marketplace and solidified its reputation as the premier home for superheroes of all persuasions, thanks to some of the top talent in the business.

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One of his greatest accomplishments came in the form of his solid wordsmithing on the Silver Age Doctor Strange solo title starting in June of 1968 with art by Dan Adkins, then later Gene Colan. Since his first appearance in 1963, the Sorcerer Supreme had been relegated to the monthly Strange Tales title, sharing alternating space with Nick Fury, Agent Of S.H.I.E.L.D.

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With the sale of Marvel that year, the new parent company, Perfect Film & Chemical, sought to expand their publishing line and the anthology books were first to get their own fresh series. Thomas wrote all 15 of the Doctor Strange solo stories with the Master of The Mystic Arts battling Earth-bound and interdimensional threats like Baron Mordo, Dormammu, Nightmare, Undying Ones, and Sons of Satannish.

On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Doctor Strange #169 (picking up from Strange Tales #168), SYFY WIRE spoke with Thomas about his time with the charismatic wizard, heard what he remembers about those years in the Marvel bullpen, what he thought of the Doctor Strange feature, and learned which movie he'd make first if handed the golden keys to the MCU.

What do you remember most about taking over the Doctor Strange solo gig in 1968?

Roy Thomas: Well, it was actually my second time on the strip. I had written two of the last four Doctor Strange Steve Ditko-plotted stories for Strange Tales. I would have had the honor of dialoguing Steve’s last Doctor Strange stories but I was taken off it and it was given to Denny O’Neil so I could do something else. I never had a lot of interest in Doctor Strange.

But I was never that big on magical scripts. I never really felt like I knew what the characters could do, it seemed like they could come up with a spell to get out of anything. I’d always looked at the art of Doctor Strange but never read it that carefully. Now, of course, I feel like an idiot. How could I possibly have liked the Human Torch or even S.H.I.E.L.D. stories better than the Lee and Ditko Doctor Strange stories? But that’s the way I felt when I was 22 or 23.

Dan Adkins was going to be the artist for the new Doctor Strange and I’m not exactly sure how I came to be the writer of that book. Doctor Strange was kind of an unimportant strip that you tried people out on. I suspect it was Stan who asked me to write it. I wouldn't have ordinarily picked that out myself. He wanted me to take over when it became a full book. I kinda lucked out because that first issue was a very nice-looking book drawn by Adkins, and within a couple issues Gene Colan was brought on.

Although the book wasn’t a commercial success over the next year or so and was killed, I think it was one of the best books Marvel was producing at that time.

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How did you approach the evolving narrative for that first issue?

I decided to take the whole issue to retell Doctor Strange’s origins. Maybe partly because I was lazy but mainly I thought it would just be a good idea to let people know this character, he was so odd and so alien. Maybe the best way to humanize him was to have his whole backstory made into what amounted to an entire issue.

What was your plan for Doctor Strange as the series progressed?

I just wanted to continue it along the same lines that Stan and I and a couple other writers had been doing it for the last few years. I hoped to continue a string of stories about this guardian of our world who protects it from all these outer-world forces trying to come in and take over. I didn’t have any particular great plan.

At that time, 1967-1968, and I think this was true of Stan and all of us, we were really just trying to keep out heads above water. Marvel had been sold not long before to Perfect Film and Chemical, which later became Cadence, and as a result, they wanted to increase the number of comics and decided that all these anthology books should become full monthly titles. We were just so busy with all that, I didn’t have any time to think about what I was going to do. If I had the origin retold for a whole month, it gave me a month to think about what Doctor Strange was going to do next month. He was running into an adventure with Nightmare and I had always liked that character, and I think it was almost an inevitability that I would want to do a story with Nightmare.

He was the character who had fought Doctor Strange in the very first story when he was introduced in Strange Tales and I always felt he was the kind of foe, even more than Baron Mordo, that Doctor Strange had been created to oppose.

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And then from thereon I was naturally matching him up and getting him involved with the Dread Dormammu who had become a major villain of late. Remember I was also writing two, three, or four other books at that time so I had to try and think about these books as little as possible, and tried to come up with something, ship it off to an artist, and write up the dialogue when it came in. We still had a pretty small staff back then, everything was kind of freelance, people were always in and out. There weren’t that many artists and maybe three or four writers doing all the superhero material. DC was paying better rates so people were coming over to Marvel but not beating down our door because we didn’t pay as well.

Are you surprised at the resurgence of Doctor Strange comics and the popularity of Marvel’s feature film starring Benedict Cumberbatch?

It’s hard to tell what’s popular or not in comics anymore; after all, some characters like Fantastic Four that were once very popular aren’t even in the comics right now. Others like Sub-Mariner, they come and they go. I haven’t seen many new comics in the last few years. I did enjoy the movie though.

I’ve never figured out quite what it is that my wife Dann and I and artist Jackson Guice did to get our names in the credits. Obviously it was something that came from that run of Doctor Strange: Sorcerer Supreme we did for a year or two. I thought Cumberbatch made a good Doctor Strange. It didn't have all the violence and collateral damage that most of these movies tended to have.

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Dann seemed to enjoy that movie better than any of the other Marvel movies she had seen to date. One of the weirdest things was seeing a dozen or so names in the final credits of those who had contributed and three of the names in alphabetical order were myself and my two wives. The character that Rachel McAdams played, Dr. Christine Palmer, originally came from the Night Nurse comic back in ’72-’73 that I edited and my first wife Jean wrote with the artist Winslow Mortimer.

Why do you think Hollywood can’t make a decent Fantastic Four movie and what would it take to get it right?

I think they came fairly close with those first couple of movies but it didn’t quite work out. They weren’t quite as bound to the original material as the Marvel Studios became a little later. It wasn’t quite the right team. It looked pretty good. It was close, but no cigar. The same was true of the second one. The third one, let’s forget about that one! Something that bugged me was why couldn’t they have a Reed Richards that looked a little older and not make him quite so young? Maybe to not make him look like a dirty old man with Sue. (Laughs) And I didn’t like the version of The Thing because he’s too small. I don’t think he needs to be as huge as the Hulk is in the Avengers movies but The Thing is a big guy and that bugs me right away.

And I didn’t mind the fact that Doctor Doom was put in there, he was the best villain, but is it absolutely impossible to make a Fantastic Four movie without Doctor Doom? They’ve had three of them now, not even counting Roger Corman’s, and every one of them had Doctor Doom in it, as if there’s nobody else the Fantastic Four can face except him! The Fantastic Four series never had as many straight villains perhaps as say Spider-Man did, but they had the Skrulls and Mole-Man and Galactus, and a number of other characters over the years. Why does it have to be Doctor Doom all the time?

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Which element of your tenure at Marvel or DC are you most proud of and hope to be remembered by?

I’m happy with the various characters I’ve had a hand in creating over the years like Iron Fist, Wolverine, or The Vision, but the things I most enjoyed was when I could create and handle a whole world on my own that was my little corner. So the two things I really enjoyed were the Conan world that I introduced in 1970 which I could shape the way I wanted to and did for ten years. The other was All-Star Squadron at DC where I had my own version of World War II with a mixture of history and superheroics. That worked out more to my satisfaction than The Invaders had at Marvel.

I always loved it when I had a nice run on a book and I could feel it coming together so that when people picked up the book every month they were happy to see what the next adventure was. And I think that was true with Conan and The Avengers and some of the others. The best thing was working with great artists like Neal Adams and John Buscema and it pleased me to work with some of the new stars too. I enjoyed the whole thing, that several decades of work and plunging in every month to see what I could do. I found it a very nice way to make a living. Kind of a strange way for an adult man to make a living, but I enjoyed it anyway.

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If you had the directorial keys to make any Marvel movie you wanted, what would you choose?

I think I’d probably want to try and make a really good Fantastic Four movie myself. And my second choice would be The Invaders in World War II. Wait. In fact, I might actually reverse that and make The Invaders first. (Laughs)