Sunday night, I just got home from a fun afternoon at the movies and the comics shop only to discover that Len Wein passed away. I’d known that he’d had more than his share of health problems over the last few years and he underwent surgery just a few days ago, but this is still a blow. He was only 69, and that’s way too young to go. My condolences to his family and friends at this difficult time.
When I think of good comics, Len Wein is one of the first names that pops into my head. The mark he left on comics is immense. Anytime in the last 30 years when I heard that Len Wein was writing a comic, I automatically picked it up. It was just a no-brainer.
I started reading comics in the late 70s and early 80s, and Wein was already well-established in the field by then. In the early 70s he and Berni Wrightson produced Swamp Thing, one of the all-time great comic book runs, taking old monster movie tropes and updating them for a modern audience.
In Justice League of America, he added the Elongated Man and Red Tornado to the group, brought in the Phantom Stranger as an occasional guest star, started the Green Arrow/Hawkman feud, revived the Seven Soldiers of Victory, and created the Freedom Fighters:
And of course, he co-created Wolverine and the All-New, All-Different X-Men.
Yeah, Chris Claremont and John Byrne later took the team into the stratosphere, but can you imagine the shape of Marvel Comics today if Wein hadn’t gotten the ball rolling? Hell, would there even BE a Marvel Comics?
And for the record, I think that Wein’s African Goddess Storm is a million times more interesting than Claremont’s Modesty Blaise riff.
In the late 70s, Wein took over writing Batman in Detective Comics right after the instant classic run by Steve Englehart, Marshall Rogers, and Terry Austin. While you’d usually expect an understandable dropoff in quality after a run like that, Len Wein immediately stepped up to the plate with another instant classic, the two-parter introducing Preston Payne, Clayface III. It was so good that when they reprinted the Englehart/Rogers stories in the first four issues of Shadow of the Batman, they included the Wein/Rogers Clayface story in the fifth issue.
He also brought Catwoman back into Batman’s life, revived the Calendar Man, and created the character of Lucius Fox.
But if I had to pick a personal favorite thing that Len Wein wrote, it would be The Untold Legend of Batman. This thing is a masterclass in comics writing and pure craft. Wein weaved together 40+ years of Batman origin stories into one seamless whole, expertly smoothing out discrepancies along the way. Which Alfred origin story was true? They BOTH were:
Wein also peppered in original scenes throughout, showing never-before-seen glimpses into Bruce Wayne’s life. One of my favorite scenes was set during Bruce Wayne’s college years, when he comes to the revelation that the law and justice aren’t always the same thing:
Or when he revealed that the Batmobile was built by Jack Edison, a stunt driver whose life was saved by Batman:
Or this simply spectacular scene between Batman and Gordon, showing the origin of their friendship:
I have fond memories of the DC/Marvel crossover Batman vs. The Incredible Hulk, where Wein had two of his favorite characters come to blows, and Batman was at his most clever finding a way to defeat the Hulk and survive:
When Wein and Dave Gibbons took over Green Lantern in the mid-80s, they shook up the book by having Hal Jordan retire and be replaced by John Stewart, the guy who until then had only been an occasional guest star as Hal’s backup:
Hell, you want to know how inspired Len Wein was as a writer? Back in 1985, he wrote a stream of consciousness history of Arkham Asylum for the first volume of Who’s Who: The Definitive Directory of the DC Universe. If you read it, you’ll recognize the bare bones of Grant Morrison’s Arkham Asylum graphic novel in the first four paragraphs. Amadeus Arkham, his mother, “Mad Dog” Harkins, the death of Arkham’s wife and daughter, Arkham going insane and ending up incarcerated in the asylum he founded… it’s all in there, a quick little horror story with just enough detail to be memorable and evocative. Can you name any other other writer that could just toss four paragraphs off the top of his head that form the basis of a best-selling graphic novel? Who does that? That is some otherworldly inspiration right there.
One of Wein’s more recent works that I loved was the special Batman ’66: The Lost Episode, where he and José Luis García-López adapted an unused treatment that Harlan Ellison wrote for the Adam West Batman series into comic book form, featuring a Batman ’66 version of Two-Face:
And that’s to say nothing of his accomplishments as an editor. Among the books he had a hand in at DC were The New Teen Titans (DC’s #1 bestseller), Batman (where he oversaw the introduction of Jason Todd), Who’s Who, Crisis on Infinite Earths, Saga of the Swamp Thing, and Watchmen — which he quit halfway through because he thought that Alan Moore could do better than ripping off the ending of an old Older Limits episode.
That’s right — Len Wein called out ALAN FUCKING MOORE at the height of his fame for hacking out the ending of one of the most acclaimed comics of all time, and he was damn right, too. Notice how most every attempt to adapt Watchmen into another medium changes the ending.
And think for a minute about Wein letting Alan Moore take over Swamp Thing in the first place. This was a character that Wein co-created, and he was cool with letting Moore re-think him from the ground up, up to and including saying that he was never a man transformed into a monster, but instead a plant that just thought it was a man transformed into a monster.
That’s a pretty radical revamp, and I can’t imagine many other comic creators letting someone else waltz in and alter their character that drastically. Wein wasn’t only cool with it, he hired Moore for the gig in the first place. That’s the mark of a great editor.
Len Wein also edited what is probably my favorite comic book of all time: Justice League of America #200.
I got to write about JLA #200 for BACK ISSUE a couple years ago, and it was a great thrill to have Wein answer a few questions about it via email. I’m just sorry I never got to meet him face to face so I could have him sign my copy.
But if you really want to know what a great writer and editor Wein was, all you have to do was read a few interviews with him. He thought this stuff through. Here’s an excerpt from Peter Sanderson’s interview with Wein in The X-Men Companion I, where he criticizes Chris Claremont’s decision to give Colossus a cosmonaut brother:
“When Chris gave him a cosmonaut brother, I wanted to strangle him. Suddenly he was not ordinary any more, and what made him work was that he was ordinary, despite his powers. If his brother’s a cosmonaut, then the KGB had to be checking out that family, there’s no way he could have been living simply in the collective. I had him out in Siberia almost on purpose. No one ever noticed him. The townspeople didn’t bother, he was good to them, and they all lived out there. The government didn’t know he existed. But a cosmonaut brother, they can’t possibly not know he existed. He really turned everything around by doing that. That’s the problem. Writers can have a great idea for a story without thinking of all the ramifications.”
And here’s Wein’s criticism of Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing plots, from his interview with Jon B. Cooke in Comic Book Creator #6: Swampmen:
“I feel Alan has problems in his works, sometimes, and I started to realize after I left the book and Karen Berger took over at that, every story was structured exactly the same way. […] With three acts. First act: Fascinating menace rears its head, all the pieces are put into play. Second act: The menace demonstrates how monstrous it is. (Think about the three-part Floronic Man story, for example, in the second act, where he’s devastating humanity.) The Third act: Swamp Thing gets wind of the problem, shows up and defeats the menace with one word or action. Literally every story was set up that way. In the case of the Floronic Man, where Swamp Thing finally shows up, and the Floronic Man is going, ‘Well, we’re going to destroy all the meat. Just the vegetables will rule the world,’ Swamp Thing goes, ‘Well, good. If you kill all the animals, who creates the carbon dioxide we need to live on?’ The villain says, ‘Oh, sh*t,’ and it all falls apart, literally. [laughter]
“In one sentence, he has no questions asked, it’s Crapper City, and that goes on with most of the stories. If you look through them, you’ll discover that each one is essentially structured the same way. So I started to get a little tired of that. But Alan’s wordcraft is never less than extraordinary. Even if every plot’s identical, the words never are. They’re breathtaking.”
Heck, Wein even had a great sense of humor about himself, as proven by his reteaming with Bernie Wrightson for a Simpsons story called “Squish Thing,” parodying their original Swamp Thing story:
I’m sure there’s a lot more books and stories I could name, but I’m rambling now and I ought to wrap this up. I was a big fan of Len Wein, and I wish I could’ve met him in person to tell him that. If you want to discover more Len Wein works, I recommend that you follow any of the Amazon links in this piece. You’ll get some great reads and you’ll send a little money the AJS’s way. It’s a win-win.
Rest In Peace, Len Wein. Thanks for everything.