Comics Loses A True Original
♦ With the sad news that legendary comics writer and editor Len Wein has passed away, Tripwire’s senior editor ANDREW COLMAN wrote his tribute to the man’s lengthy and important career…
It’s not even been six months since Bernie Wrightson, Len Wein’s collaborator on DC’s celebrated gothic horror series Swamp Thing, passed away, and now sadly the other half of the team has left us as well. It’s hard to express or quantify Wein’s importance as far as the medium of comics is concerned – an unsung hero, or cornerstone, doesn’t quite cut it. As a ten year old in 1973, American comics fired my imagination and have refused to let it go – and half of the books I read in that halcyon time were written by Mr. Wein. He was a powerhouse, turning out excellent, thoughtful stories for both leading companies, as well as other publishers, often at the same time. As X-Men scribe Chris Claremont once averred, how different would the industry be without Wein’s input, and how much is owed by Marvel and DC to this unassuming, easy-going man.
Maybe it was his quiet understatement and contentment with being a team player that meant he was sometimes overlooked in the company of other leading lights of the Silver and Bronze Ages, and beyond. He was never one to grandstand, occasionally even belittling his own work – for example when he was editing the second series of Swamp Thing in 1984, after reading the script for Alan Moore’s “The Anatomy Lesson”, he humbly opined that he felt redundant and outmoded as a comics writer.
Like Bernie Wrightson and his close friend and fellow scriptwriter Marv Wolfman, Wein approached the medium as a long-time obsessive, who had been enmeshed in its tropes from an early age. Developing his interest at seven years old, Wein and Wolfman were fans who eventually made the crossover as professionals – in every sense, like their readership throughout their 70s pomp, they were dedicated to bringing something to the table along with entertainment, which is the very least you could’ve expected from a Wein-helmed work. Originally an artist, Wein learnt how to create a strong rapport with pencillers that would enhance such titles as House of Secrets, Adventure Comics (featuring Supergirl), The Flash and Superman for DC, under the auspices of Carmine Infantino and editor Joe Orlando. Equally deft and masterful with both superhero and horror books, he raised his profile with his tenure on Phantom Stranger, in tandem with Jim Aparo. Originally from the 1950s, the lead character was a cross between a mage, super-hero and spectral bystander, issuing cryptic advice and intervening only when necessary. Wein was adroit in creating a moody netherworld that let his skills flourish, something that was to segue into the key part of his career, which began with his work on Swamp Thing. Swamp Thing’s key strength was its versatility – each story in the ten issue run drew on separate, or hybrids of, different genres. There was straightforward horror, fantasy, dystopia, urban realism, surrealism and Southern Gothic, all thematically connected with subtext that never felt contrived or unwieldy.
Another highlight from this period was his work on Justice League of America, which reintroduced old super-teams such as the Freedom Fighters and The Seven Soldiers of Victory. The two parter in issues 111 and 112, when super-villain Libra steals half of the JLA’s powers (which forces them to revive a deadly enemy to get them back) is one of the title’s best stories.
At the same time, Wein worked continuously at Marvel Comics, mainly on the company’s flagship books, such as Amazing Spider-Man, Marvel Team-Up (the second Spidey title), Fantastic Four, Hulk, Thor and The Defenders. It was in 1974, during his time on the Incredible Hulk, that he and artist Herb Trimpe created a minor character who would end up being Marvel’s consistently hottest property for the next forty years and counting, Wolverine. Wein had a knack for creating interesting characters out of the ether that had never been intended for longevity, such as Sterling Silversmith in Detective Comics. A year after coming up with Wolverine, Wein was given the remit of reviving the hitherto dormant X-Men title, this time with more modern, relevant, or rebooted characters. In Giant-Sized X-Men 1 Wein and artist Dave Cockrum brought us Nightcrawler, Storm and Colossus, and plotted the foundations for what would be the title that kept Marvel in pole position above their faltering competition, both captivating fans and critics alike.
By the end of the decade, he was back at DC, either scripting, collaborating on or editing such titles as Batman, Green Lantern, Detective Comics, Camelot 3000, All Star Squadron, Wonder Woman, and Batman and the Outsiders, with his work on Detective Comics and various Batman miniseries and one-shots being a particular highlight. As an editor he also persuaded Marv Wolfman (who had never worked at DC before), and superstar artist George Perez to produce a Marvel-style series in the New Teen Titans for the publisher which successfully revitalized the company’s stock as a going concern and gave it momentum – a pivotal title that cannot be underestimated in terms of its importance.
Instrumental in bringing British talent over to work at National, Wein edited Alan Moore’s aforementioned breakthrough work for the publisher, and in 1986 oversaw Moore and artist Dave Gibbons’ magnum opus and media cause celebre Watchmen, which fittingly paid tribute to one of his early mentors, Joe Orlando. Many years later, he would return to the property on the Before Watchmen project, scripting the highly rated Ozymandias miniseries.
After his time at DC, Wein continued to work for other publishers such as Dark Horse and Disney, moving into animation and DVD voiceovers for event movies such as Spider-Man, Fantastic Four, several X-Men films and Watchmen, and generally adopting an emeritus role as one of the elder statesmen of comics, and convention stalwart. Always approachable and amenable to both fans and fellow industry mavens, Wein was, along with Roy Thomas, the definitive contributor and mainstay of the generation of writers and creators who followed on from the original era of the medium – as passionate as any aficionado or newcomer, and a much cherished man who exuded comics like few others. He shall be hugely missed.
Len Wein 1948-2017