Words from Roy Thomas that I needed to hear

Roy Thomas autograph signing in Jackson, Mo, February 23, 2019

Last weekend, I had the honor and opportunity to meet legendary Marvel Comics writer and Jackson, Missouri native, Roy Thomas. He was in Jackson for the declaration and celebration of Roy Thomas Day, and to receive the key to the city. He also did a lengthy autograph signing for hundreds of fans who came out to meet him, myself included. It was a longer wait than I expected. Fortunately, local comics dealers Mr. Bill Drake and Travis Quertermous were in line right behind us, so we were able to pass the time in line swapping stories about comics, Roy’s work, and comic conventions.

I felt kind of silly. It was a recurring feeling throughout the experience, for a variety of reasons. For one thing, I didn’t have anything for Roy to sign. Here were Mr. Bill and Travis with some choice, significant Roy Thomas works in hand, and I had nothing. What kind of a fan was I? The thing is, I mostly only read comics in digital form, these days (I talked a little about that here with regards to purging a lot of personal possessions), and having very few physical comics in my possession kind of complicates the act of bringing a comic book to be autographed. Luckily, the volunteers from the Uptown Jackson Revitalization Organization came to my rescue by handing out old Marvel trading cards for Roy to sign. Roy didn’t create either of the characters on the cards I got (Domino and Gambit), so it felt a little like getting a photograph of Sean Connery signed by Roger Moore. Nevertheless, I appreciated the gesture and not having to feel quite as awkward upon reaching Roy’s table.

I still felt a little silly, though. I have this long standing fear of approaching the celebrity guests at comic cons, and that fear extended to this event, as well. It’s not because I’m overwhelmed by their greatness; I kind of just don’t want to bother them, you know? I want to believe they are just regular people who have found themselves in an extraordinary situation, and I just want to let them be. However, this was one of those rare instances in which logic and rationality overcame fear. Roy Thomas wasn’t forced to come meet and greet the fans, so I should go meet and greet him, already! Geez!

via GIPHY

But no, I still felt silly—aside from Roy’s early issues of X-Men, his two issues of Iron Man, and the Marvel comic adaptation of Star Wars, I honestly haven’t read a lot of his work. I’ve probably read more works that he’s edited than I have works that he’s written, and I’ve certainly read many comics starring characters he had a hand in creating. Still, I felt like a great big phony, the guy in line who gets to the table and makes a big deal out of being there, exclaims (loudly, so everyone can be impressed) “Oh my God, I love your work,” when he hasn’t actually read any of it. Yes, these are the sorts of things I worry about. But hey, it turns out I’ve read more of his work than I originally thought, so it’s fine.

However, since I wasn’t confident in my knowledge of his work, I decided that when I reached his table, I would ask him a question about writing. I like to fancy myself a writer—a comics writer, in particular—and who better to ask for advice on writing comics than a guy who has written many hundreds of them. I asked Roy about one of my biggest hang-ups in writing: planning ahead. How much backstory did he plot out before starting a project? How many details of the story arc did he know before diving in? I don’t know where I went wrong, but somewhere along the line, I got it in my head that I have to know everything before even starting a story. Every character’s origin, every twist that could ever possibly happen, all of it. All in great detail. And if I didn’t know all of that, I wasn’t doing it right, and my stories would be bad. I think I listened to too many writing podcasts and got too caught up in the minutiae, rather than just writing and enjoying writing.

Fortunately, Roy’s answer was encouraging. I can’t remember exactly what he said, so I’ll paraphrase:

We planned ahead when we could, and it works better to do it that way, but usually we were so busy that we only had time to work issue to issue. Stan [Lee] might want a monster’s hand clawing its way out of the ground at the end of an issue, and then would forget about it by the end of the next issue, and I’d say, “Stan, wait! What about that monster at the end of the last issue?” So sometimes it took a while to get to that resolution, and we always got there, but a lot of the times, it was by the seat of our pants.

Roy Thomas Marvel writing test, 1964
Roy Thomas’s Marvel Writing Test, 1964

It meant so much to me to know that even the professionals don’t always have a plan. And think about it: comics often have thirty or forty years or more of continuity built up, so it’s not like the writers in 1965 were thinking about what was going to happen in 1995. That’s just unrealistic. I also learned recently from this interview that Larry Hama, known for his work on G.I. Joe, Wolverine, and Bucky O’Hare, always worked issue by issue and never had a grand narrative in mind. I definitely like to do some work on backstory and world-building and so on ahead of time, but it definitely sounds like I can plan ahead to a degree that I’m comfortable with, which is reassuring.

So I’m glad I met Roy Thomas. It was exhilarating to shake hands with a comics legend and to pick his brain about something that has been a struggle for me. It not only put to rest some of my pre-writing hangups, but also my misgivings about pestering the celebrities—I didn’t feel so silly anymore as we left Jackson. Really, that whole “just relax” resolution I made in my last blog apparently needs to carry over to this one, too. I’m gonna figure this out.

Thanks for reading!

[Note: I didn’t get a picture of myself with Roy. That would have made too much sense, but they also needed to keep the line moving.]