Due to his poor health, Stan Lee wasn't keen on seeing anyone during the last few weeks he was alive. However, when long-time Marvel colleague Roy Thomas got in touch in November, he made an exception.
When Lee moved on from Editor-in-Chief at Marvel Comics to become the company's publisher in 1972, it was Roy Thomas, co-creator of such well-known characters as Wolverine, Ghost Rider, and Iron Fist, who took over the reins. Last Saturday, just two days before Lee passed, they enjoyed each other's company one last time at Lee's home in Los Angeles.
In an interview with SYFY WIRE this week, Thomas and his manager John Cimino shared what it was like to visit the Marvel Comics magnate for the last time. Additionally, Thomas spoke about meeting and being hired by Lee in the 1960s, taking over for him as Editor-in-Chief at Marvel and some of his favorite memories of Stan the Man over the years.
"I know, from my recent phone conversations with him, that he was more than ready to leave this Earth," Thomas said. "I'm so grateful that, by sheer circumstance, I got to spend a half hour or so with him. It was obvious that he lacked much of the old Stan Lee energy that everybody had got to know at conventions and in movie cameos, but when I asked him about future cameos, he expressed a real interest in making them, if he could find a way to do it without there being too much trouble."
In the 1960s, Thomas was an up-and-coming writer in New York City. After a incredibly short stint at DC Comics (then known as National Comics) in 1965, Thomas wrote Lee a letter in the summer of that year telling the Marvel co-creator that he enjoyed his work and wanted to buy him a drink. Lee, impressed with Thomas' work in the comic book magazine Alter Ego, invited Thomas for a writing test.
"I agree that Jack Kirby and to some extent Steve Ditko deserved more credit than they always got, partly because they both left Marvel for some time," Thomas said. "But good as those two artists were, even as writers in their way, I know full well that it was the writing in FF #1 more than the art that made me an instant fan."
"I think The Thing is my all-time favorite, both for the Kirby visuals and for the general concept, which was probably Stan's, and for the personality Stan gave him, with Jack's help," Thomas added. "I don't have one favorite story, but the Galactus trilogy stands out. Also, the page in the first 'Klaw' encounter where the Fantastic Four are trying to bust out of a trap. Reed has The Thing don a huge device that covers him so much that when Reed tells him to charge the door, Thing says something like, 'Charge it? I can't even see it!'"
Thomas said his most potent memory of Lee is still the day in July 1965 when he first met him.
"Stan and I talked for 10-15 minutes after I'd dropped off the writing test, then he walked to the window overlooking Madison Avenue and said with his back to me, 'So, what do we have to do to hire you away from National?'" Thomas remembered. "I told him all I required was a job at the $110 a week I'd originally been offered by [then National editor Mort] Weisinger."
In 1966, Thomas was hired as a staff writer, working on a myriad of projects for Marvel alongside Lee, who was still the primary writer for the company. Soon, though, Thomas was promoted to assistant editor, began work on Marvel's flagship book, the Fantastic Four and became first new writer to be embraced into the Marvel business, earning Lee's trust and working on characters like Iron Man, Dr. Strange, Nick Fury and the X-Men.
In 1972, Lee became publisher of Marvel Comics and appointed Thomas as his successor. Thomas told SYFY WIRE the process was gradual, as he was promoted briefly to story editor so Lee would retain the main "editor" title. Thomas said neither Lee, Vince Fago nor Joe Simon, had ever been called "editor-in-chief," though their positions amounted to that.
"I was part of a co-equal triumvirate with production manager John Verpoorten and newly promoted Frank Giacoia as assistant art director, with Stan still retaining the seldom-used title 'art director,'" he said. "It was only a few weeks later that, after I explained to him how that wasn't working that well, that he named me Editor-in-Chief and I had authority over the other two."
Suddenly, Thomas said, he had to start coming into the office five days a week instead of two or three -- and Marvel got a lot busier.
"Stan didn't double-check as much stuff and let me have day-to-day authority over anything he felt he could," he said. "He enough on his plate as both publisher and president."
During Thomas' time as Editor-in-Chief, he helped launch The Defenders, Marvels' What If series and The Invaders in addition to Marvel's biggest hit at the time, the comic book adaptation of Star Wars. Thomas co-created some of Marvel's biggest characters including Wolverine and his adamantium skeleton, Iron Fist, Ultron, Carol Danvers, Power Man, Morbius the living vampire, Ghost Rider and Vision.
Thomas said Lee led by example and through the years at Marvel, he picked up several lessons from Lee.
"Every day he was in, for two or more years and to some extent event beyond, I stood at his side while he went over with the production manager and me the changes he wanted made in art he'd taken home the night before to look at, or instructions regarding art or script," Thomas said. "It was like skipping Comics 101 completely and going directly to a Master Class in editing, at least for a Marvel comic. It stood me in good stead, even though I was less dynamic and hands-on than Stan by nature."
In February of 1976, after spending some time in L.A., Thomas decided it was time to move on from Marvel and met with Lee to talk about the change.
"I informed him that I had changed my mind and would not be coming back to Marvel as Editor-in-Chief but would be moving to L.A. instead," Thomas recounted. "He didn't try to talk me out of it — he probably figured that was unlikely, since I'd told him I'd already rented an apartment there that would come open in July — but mused about how he'd like to move there himself. He dropped the usual Stan Lee mask — we all have masks to greater or lesser extent — and said some things about his own personal life that I've never shared in print... and may not ever."
During that conversation, Lee suggested that Thomas write a memo to then-publisher Martin Goodman about why Marvel should license a sword-and-sorcery character, another major turning-point in Thomas' life as he would later write the screenplay for the immensely successful Conan the Destroyer movie, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Thomas' and Lee's last meeting on November 10, two days before the original Marvel creator passed, was years in the making. While they worked together for years, Lee and Thomas' relationship was built on respect and, as Cimino explained, while comic fans might think Stan "the Man" and Roy "the Boy" were palling around every night since the swinging '60s, the truth is, they weren't that close.
"What Stan and Roy did have was a great mutual working relationship with a ton of respect for one another. Stan knew he could trust Roy and that Roy could always deliver the goods," Cimino said. "Roy had such a great mind for the business because he had a true love for the comics (which wasn't that common at the time) and he was able to apply that love into his work. Stan instantly recognized that which ultimately lead him to choose Roy as his successor."
Thomas said in the years after he left Marvel, the two had sporadic correspondence with each other. The last time Thomas paid a visit to Lee's house in Beverly Hills was in the 1980s and only for a few minutes, Cimino said.
In 2016, the two met briefly ahead of the Rhode Island Comic Con, where Lee served as the headliner. In the lobby of a nearby hotel, Thomas said, the two exchanged a few sentences before they were interrupted by a fan seeking an autograph.
"I've no idea if he gave her a freebie or not, because I figured that was the end of that conversation and I moved on with a polite goodbye," Thomashe said.
That year, Cimino said, he adamantly began trying to get Roy and Stan together but there were some roadblocks. During that time, Lee and Thomas chatted on the phone a few times. Eventually, Cimino got in touch Lee's handler Jon Bolerjack.
"Jon soon called me and told me Stan wasn't feeling well and hasn't been up for meeting anybody in some time," he said. "But when Jon told him that it was Roy Thomas, Stan made the exception. With Stan's health failing, Jon and I decided to get the two icons together as quickly as possible. I figured I could save a few bucks and make this Roy's birthday, Thanksgiving and Christmas present all rolled into one. Exactly a week later, Roy and I were at Stan's doorstep."
Driving up to Lee's house, Thomas confided in Cimino that he was a little nervous.
"You don't have anything to worry about, Stan doesn't have the power to fire you anymore," Cimino recalled telling Thomas. "He got a good laugh at that."
On the afternoon of November 10, Thomas and Cimino spent some time with Lee, recounting their time at Marvel and talking about future MCU cameos.
According to Thomas, Lee asked he about their pets and got fairly animated when talking about his battles with publisher Martin Goodman over Spider-Man.
"I opined as how maybe the one important creative decision Goodman ever made was when he commissioned Stan to create a super-hero group back in 1961," he said. "Stan seemed to get a kick out of that."
For Cimino, the experience was surreal.
"Sitting on Stan's couch in his living room and watching them talk shop was nuts. I was just taking it all in and thinking "Jeez, those are the two guys that thought up Spider-Man and Wolverine." It's like you don't know if you're dreaming or not," he said. "When I eventually walked into the room where they were talking. I told him my feelings for Roy and that I'll always have his back no matter what. Stan took my hand and said 'God bless you. Take care of my boy Roy.'"
For Thomas, Lee's death represents the end of an era.
"While the Marvel Universe would have been a bit less well off had Ditko not been there, and would have been much reduced and perhaps not have existed at all without Kirby's presence and contribution, if Stan hadn't existed, there would 100% for sure be no Marvel Universe... and, for all anybody knows, no comics industry today," he said.