This year’s San Diego Comic-Con was an embarrassment of riches for the scholarly fan, with an absurd amount of programming focused on different aspects of comic book culture and history. On Sunday at 1:45, I got to sit in on the Avengers, X-Men, Dr. Strange and Sgt Fury 50th panel, which featured a multi-generational group of Marvel’s finest creators: Mark Waid, John Romita Jr., Brian Bendis, and Roy Thomas.
Despite the advertised theme of this program being the collective anniversary of various Marvel Comics characters, that topic was quickly swept aside, giving way to a bunch of seasoned pros talking shop and discussing their influences. (Which is fine, as it made for an interesting and lively hour, with the creators at ease and ready to converse.)
The panel began with Thomas talking about how he broke into the industry; moving to New York, finding work with DC, and almost immediately getting hired away by Marvel. The first assignments he was given there were all on teenage romance comics, which he didn’t particularly care for, but before long, Stan Lee moved him onto other titles (starting with a Steve Ditko “Dr. Strange” story, then “Sgt. Fury,” then “X-Men,” and then “The Avengers”). Both Waid and Bendis were quite involved in this part of the panel, peppering Thomas with questions about writing process and day-to-day life in the Marvel office.
From there, the conversation jumped to talking about the various artists working for Marvel at that time. Romita Jr. told of John Buscema and his initial distaste for working on superhero characters (“He hated drawing costumes until he saw the royalty check!”), and the entire panel spoke fondly of the high quality of Buscema’s illustration, and the kindness of the man himself.
Romita Jr. also talked about growing up around Marvel: a particular memory was watching his father (John Romita Sr.) draw “Daredevil” #12, being told about the storyline, “and then he explained that Daredevil was blind, and I think the top of my head exploded.”
Another highlight was when conversation turned to the legendary Stan Lee/Marvel concert performance at Carnegie Hall in 1972. Romita Jr. recalled watching Thomas sing “Be-Bop-A-Lula” dressed in a Spider-Man costume (with a backing band that included Barry Windsor-Smith on guitar), to the great amusement of the audience – Thomas admitted that he still has the costume in question (“I should put that on eBay”), and mentioned some of the other events onstage that evening (“Tom Wolfe read one of my poems, which was a real honor…and Stan read his poem about god waking up”).
The panel also discussed Marvel’s expansion in the ’70s: Thomas discussed getting the rights to create comics based on Robert E. Howard’s Conan The Barbarian, and also how sales of certain titles varied wildly from region to region: “that’s why I had to come up with Wolverine, ’cause we had all these Canadian readers and no Canadian characters.”
And the program wrapped up with a brief Q&A session, since, as Waid noted, Marvel has always set itself apart from the competition by inviting readers to share their opinions – it was true fifty years ago in comic book letters pages, and it’s just as true today on message boards, on Twitter, and on panels at conventions.