The Last Spider-Man Newspaper Strip Runs Today – Its Writer, Roy Thomas Looks Back
Roy Thomas writes for Bleeding Cool, via his manager John Cimino,
Sometime in the first few months of 2000, I dropped Stan Lee a line saying I'd love to do some work for Stan Lee Media, Stan's well-publicized and multi-staffed dot-com company, if he could ever use me. He replied that, while he'd like to work with me again, I would've had to be around Los Angeles to work for SLM, but that, by coincidence, he really needed a writer to work with him on the Spider-Man newspaper comic strip… to plot out and do the first-draft script of the seven-days-a-week King Features strip. I said that sounded fine to me (even though I'd never really been wild about writing Spidey compared to the FF, Avengers, Conan, etc.). He replied with a chuckle that maybe I should wait till I heard his offer, because the money was so minuscule… just $300 a week. I laughed, and told him that he had no idea how little money it cost me to live on my 40-acre place in the middle of South Carolina. The mortgage and both our vehicles were paid off, so Dann and I had no expenses except what we spent month-to-month. So a deal was quickly struck, and I went to work, with my first strip (a Monday, of course) appearing on July 17, 2000.
As it turned out, although I never got a raise in 18 1/2 years, I basically ghost-wrote the strip (though, until recent years, with his often hands-on editing), it was a great gig. I spent maybe two days a month writing four weeks' worth of strips, and another day 2 or 3 times a year doing outlines for upcoming storylines.
After Stan cut back his activities a few years ago, following installation of his pacemaker, etc., I worked primarily with his longtime assistant, Michael Kelly, with some indirect verbal input from Stan, and in some ways I liked that even better, since Stan and I were only about 80% on the same page as to what made a good comic strip. Despite his well-known (and correct) views on how important the writing was to the success of Marvel Comics from 1961 on, he would often talk about how it was the artwork that sold the strip. I didn't think that reflected the realities of the situation, particularly after John Romita left the strip a few years after it began, and as the printing of the strips grew smaller and smaller. Stan's brother Larry Lieber was a good journeyman penciler (and Alex Saviuk considerably better), but the artists didn't really have the scope, especially in the dailies, to do the kind of artwork that was going to excite readers the way, say, Milt Caniff once had in Terry and the Pirates. The sight of Spidey or Dr. Octopus in a strip might draw people in, but the writing had to bring people back, day after day, since Spidey and Peter and MJ and Doc Ock would always look basically the same, squeezed into small panels–with no "full-page spreads" like in the comicbooks. And yes, I wrote a bit more text and dialogue than he did… but that was partly because, otherwise, I wasn't sure people could really follow the strip from day to day… or at least, no new readers would be brought in if it was hard to start reading the strip at any given point.
Mostly, though, Stan and I got along fine. For the most part, he liked what I submitted, accepted most (not all) of my ideas for stories… and until a few years ago often "suggested" (or insisted upon) alterations in them. For some years, he would rewrite a panel or balloon here and there, or even more… while other dailies or Sundays would sail through without a single word change.
The major change I tried to effect, after the first Spider-Man movie, was to go back to a time when MJ and Peter weren't married. Stan agreed, and seemed halfway enthusiastic about the change at first, and we did one whole storyline (involving Electro) that way. But then Stan changed his mind, and I saw at once that I wouldn't be able to change it back. So I wrote a Dallas-type scene in which Peter woke up (after going to sleep in Aunt May's apartment as a single young man) to find himself married (again) to Mary Jane… and that's the way we kept it from then on. Actually, I was increasingly happy with that, as an alternative to the bouncing around of the comicbooks, in which MJ and Peter totally forgot each other and their marriage, and who-knows-what occurred. Left increasingly to my own devices, and building on MJ's modeling career in the comicbooks, I gradually took her from working in a computer store to becoming a Broadway star and movie actress, playing a super-heroine called "Marvella" (before the female Captain Marvel was a big deal, or maybe even was around at all)…but I kept her and Peter, somewhat incongruously, in their relatively small Manhattan apartment (except when they were in LA, of course)… although they occasionally shopped around for something bigger.
In recent years, I had taken increasingly to using guest stars: Wolverine, Iron Man, Thor, Black Widow, Ant-Man, most recently Iron Fist and Luke Cage. We never bothered to try to follow the current Marvel continuity, which Stan didn't want to do… the more so, I suppose, as from time to time it was given increasingly to violent wrenches and re-starts, such as when MJ and Peter were abruptly uncoupled. If there were eventually several Spider-Man universes in the comics (with different Spider-Men, a Spider-Girl, whatever), well, our comic strip universe was yet another one… just about the only one, in recent years, in which Peter and MJ were a married couple, continuing the original direction of decades of the comicbooks. We were all kind of proud of that.
When the strip died (i.e., was killed), the Mammon Theatre where MJ's hit play was running was shuttered by damage (in a Spidey-related fight, of course), and Marvella II had flopped, so the two of them took off to Australia for a vacation, and I wrote a couple of weeks of a continuity (along with a full outline approved by Michael Kelly) involving the villain the Kangaroo. Then Marvel decided to kill the strip and not print the final couple of weeks, and I declined to rewrite the last published strip or two to turn it into a "goodbye" strip. My feeling was that I had accepted the snuffing of the strip, and didn't take it personally… it was just a business move (although when I was told the strip was being killed I wasn't told—perhaps because those who informed me didn't know–that Marvel was planning to either revive the strip with a new team or to start a new strip that might not be a Spidey strip per se, but more the equivalent of DC's latter-day successor to its Superman strip, The World's Greatest Heroes, which had featured the whole panoply of DC heroes). I felt that I had written what I had written for the strip, and they were welcome to do whatever they wanted to with the script (as long as I was paid for what I had done, naturally), but I preferred never to touch it again. When I'm done with something, I'm done with something.
Alex Saviuk, bless him, graciously reworked the final strip to show the two of us in it, and to add a "'Nuff Said!" headline on the Daily Bugle. He was perhaps a better sport about things than I was… and I admire him for that, since he had spent well over two decades penciling the Sunday Spider-Man and then had only recently been promoted to seven-days-a-week penciler… only to see the strip almost immediately canceled so that he was out of a regular gig. I hope he finds one. He deserves it.
Naturally, I was sorry to see the strip end (the more so because it signaled the finale of the only long-lasting adventure strip launched in the past half century), just at the time when I could finally have begun to receive on-strip credit for the work I did… although of course I did have that for two years on the Conan the Barbarian comic strip at the end of the 1970s. But at least, once Stan wrote vaguely, maybe a decade ago in his introduction to the hardcover volume Marvel Visionaries: Roy Thomas, that I "help[ed]" him with the Spidey strip, everybody with half a brain knew what I was contributing to the strip anyway. That didn't bother Stan, and it didn't bother me. The strip was Stan's, and I was happy to co-write or write it under his name… although I wouldn't have been willing to go on writing it anonymously once he had passed on, had that alternative been suggested to me.
Working with Stan and Michael Kelly (as well as with Larry, Alex, and the ever-amiable Joe Sinnott–with Joe spelled occasionally by Jim Amash or Terry Austin) on the Spider-Man strip was an enjoyable experience, and I'm grateful to Stan for offering me that "pittance" back in 2000. The strip became the last of our many collaborations of one sort or other, which began when, in early July of 1965, I inherited a Modeling with Millie story that he had previously talked over (I suppose) with penciler Stan Goldberg.