Thursday, June 12, 2014

IT'S LEN WEIN'S BIRTHDAY!

In honor of my old and dear friend Len Wein, who turns thirty-nine today (hey, it worked for Jack Benny, didn't it?), here's an edited excerpt from an introduction I wrote for a recent hardcover collection of Len's Spider-Man work.  Happy birthday, Len.  Here's to (at least) thirty-nine more!


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In the late 1970’s, when I was taking my first, very awkward, steps as a comic book writer—until then I’d been making my living, such as it was, playing in rock and roll bands and dabbling in music journalism—I had a very simple rule that served me well:  The editor is always right.  I was hungry to work and the men and women sitting behind the desks, handing out the assignments, held the keys to the kingdom I so desperately wanted to enter.  More important:  they had knowledge and experience that they were willing to share. 

Over the years young writers have occasionally come to me for guidance and some of them, when offered advice, become instantly defensive, wasting their time and mine by explaining exactly why they don’t need to take that advice, why their stories are just fine, thank you, and shouldn’t be altered.  “Well, if it’s just fine,” I’ve often wondered, “what are you coming to me for?”  I never saw things that way.  I wanted to learn, I wanted to grow as a writer and soak in all that wisdom my editors had amassed.  If one of them said, “No more than thirty-five words per panel, no more than 5.5 panels per page,” well, then, I went home and counted every single word, averaged out my panels. If I was told that my dialogue was flat, I reworked it.  If the brilliant (in my own mind, at least) sequence I labored over all night didn’t work, I cut it.


The truth, of course, is that the editor isn’t always right—sometimes he’s spectacularly wrong—and it’s a writer’s responsibility to stand up for himself and his work and, when necessary, challenge his editors; but a neophyte writer still grappling with the fundamentals of his craft would do well to save his battles for a later date.  One thing I intuited in those early days was that no matter what the editor asked of me—shy of requesting something morally or artistically abhorrent, which, for the record, never happened—I could take it as a challenge and, more important, learn something from it.  Those early years at DC Comics were my Comic Book College:  I was an over-eager freshman and, happily, I had some superb Professors.

None better than Len Wein.

When I first began working with Len, he was—despite being just past thirty—already a legend in the industry.  This was the writer who, with the equally-legendary Bernie Wrightson, created the groundbreaking Swamp Thing  series.  Unless you were around when that book debuted, you can’t really grasp how truly revolutionary Swamp Thing was, how different from everything that had come before it.  I remember being floored by the emotional power of the art, the pulp-poetry of the language and the big beating heart at the story’s core.  You couldn’t read an issue of Swamp Thing without feeling something, without being moved. 

If that series was all Len had done, his place in Comic Book Heaven would be secure, but he was also the guy who co-created Wolverine, one of the most successful, and popular, characters in the medium’s history... resurrected and revitalized the X-Men franchise...had memorable runs on everything from Justice League to Hulk, Batman to Spider-Man...and, oh, yes, was editor-in-chief of Marvel Comics along the way.  Len could do slam-bang superhero adventure with the best of them, but the hallmark of a Wein story wasn’t the action, it was that aforementioned beating heart.  All of Len’s best work was, and remains (for he’s as vital a writer now as he ever was), marked by a deep humanity and a profound compassion. 


Which is why, when I entered his office in the spring of 1979, I counted myself among the lucky ones:  I didn’t realize just how lucky until I got to know Len.  There are some writers whose work you admire, but then you meet them and it’s impossible to make the leap from the words on the page to the person across the table:  there seems to be some great cosmic disconnect—and, yes, a great disappointment, as well.  (It’s unfair to expect a writer or actor or musician to somehow be the embodiment his art—the work alone should be more than enough—but we hope for it nonetheless.)  With Len, though, the man and the work were one.  He was just like his stories:  charming, funny, eloquent and all heart.  He extended that heart to me.  There wasn’t a hint of self-importance to the man.  His editing style was warm and welcoming.  He taught through encouragement, enthusiasm.  Even if he didn’t like a particular story—and, believe me, some of my early scripts were massively flawed—he never eviscerated the work, never bullied:  just found a gentle way to guide me out of the morass of my own inexperience and onto solid creative ground.

In a very short time, Len became not just my editor, but my friend and first real mentor in the comic book business.  He saw a spark of something special in my stories and, through his patient guidance, helped fan that spark into a flame.  There I was, an insecure, working class kid from Brooklyn, uncertain of my own talent, wondering if I could carve a career for myself in this wonderful, and hugely peculiar, business—and there was The Legendary Len Wein providing the answer:  “If you want it, you absolutely can.”  

You can’t put a price on that.

©copyright 2014 J.M. DeMatteis  

14 comments:

  1. Very nice piece JM, really makes me appreciate Wein even more. I'm gonna see him at the GeekFest here in Las Vegas next weekend...want me to pass any messages along?

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    1. No message required, Ken!

      Glad you enjoyed the piece.

      Hope all's very well...and enjoy GeekFest!

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  2. Oh, and as for the Jack Benny line...I tend to ask people which anniversary of their 39th Birthday they're celebrating...

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  3. I remember when Swamp Thing first came out. You nailed it. He was, in a sense, one of several artists and writers who started a new generation of books (like O'Neill, and Byrne, in art). They were much more "real-life emotion" driven than the earlier books where gimmickry was used to drive plot.

    Your stuff reads the next generation, and it logically follows Wein's work. Terrific stuff. Rick

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  4. Sometimes it's hard, if not impossible, to look at work in the context of its time, Rick. Sort of like the difference between experiencing the Beatles in real time and discovering them now. Both experiences yield rewards, but being at ground zero when something new and exciting impacts the culture is an experience that can't be duplicated.

    You're right about that next generation. There was a wave of amazing work in the 70's that kept me, as a reader, continuing with comics at a time when I might have left them behind: GREEN LANTERN/GREEN ARROW, Kirby's FOURTH WORLD (perhaps the one "old time" creator who kept up with, and often surprised, the new generation), Jim Starlin's evolution of Kirby's cosmic comics with CAPTAIN MARVEL and WARLOCK, Steve Gerber's astounding body of work, Englehart's CAP, DOC STRANGE, BATMAN and JUSTICE LEAGUE, Moench's MASTER OF KUNG FU, Wolfman's TOMB OF DRACULA and on and on. Stan and Jack were the Big Bang of modern comics and the Wein generation created whole galaxies within that whirling mass of creativity.

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    1. While I date that era from the Green Lantern/Green Arrow books, I think the new X-Men set the pace for what followed. It then shifted into a more ambiguous heroic direction again with Miller's "Dark Knight."

      While comics may have been revitalized, they have lost the sense of wonder they had when I was young. Perhaps that's a necessity of these times where people can effectively run video games and actually be the characters instead of reading about them. Still, I wish it wasn't so.

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    2. I wonder how much of that is, once again, context. You talk about the sense of wonder when you were young and there's something to, again, discovering a comic book or a band for the first time, looking out through those eyes of wonder.

      I'm suspect there are plenty of readers out there approaching today's comics with that same sense of wonder. Nothing will ever do for me what a Lee-Kirby FANTASTIC FOUR did for me when I was twelve; but if I was twelve today, it might be some Grant Morrison comic book blowing my mind wide open.

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    3. There's that sweet spot somewhere between eight and sixteen where everything you discover magically becomes yours and yours alone.

      --David

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    4. And very few things in life can every compare.

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  5. I think there's something more to it. When my youngest son saw Star Wars for the first time, he fell in love with it. But, he's been surrounded by tech toys, cartoons and shows since before he broke his first Transformers toy. Star Wars is a great series (well, at least the original 3). It created a sense of wonder. Too much of the new stuff is high on tech (or, out-and-out viciousness) and low on emotional resonance. Rick

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    1. Well, there IS that, as well, Rick. In action movies, especially, the rise of hi-tech has led to a kind of creeping (and very noisy) soullessness. (I've always maintained that one of the reasons the original TWILIGHT ZONE remains classic is that they didn't have access to these kinds of effects. They had to suggest instead of show and play to the imagination. And that's where the sense of wonder is born.)

      At the same time, I'd think that kids growing up in this Golden Age of Superhero Movies have had their sense of wonder split wide open.

      Do you think part of the problem is that the geeks have inherited the earth? Fantasy, science-fiction, superheroes are EVERYWHERE. Have they lost some of their magic because of their omnipresence?

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    2. I think when we become aware of the forces at work behind the scenes, it's increasingly difficult to surrender wholly to the storytelling experience. You begin to see the creator, creation and audience as forces working in opposition rather than harmony.

      It begins with that first time you realize that you like the Story, but you wish that one thing had been done differently...and if we're not careful, we can reach a point where we enjoy tearing down what we don't like about stories more than experiencing them. (Incidentally, I don't think it's wrong to break stories down for better and for worse, but there needs to be a balance.)

      I don't think omnipresence itself is an issue, except that twenty movies that feel the same are more obvious than ten.

      Just to pull an example off the top of my head, we had quite a few movies within a five year span where a villain getting captured was secretly his plan all along, and they were spread across franchises that should feel very different (AVENGERS, STAR TREK: INTO DARKNESS, SKYFALL, and THOR: THE DARK WORLD). It didn't ruin the films, but it was an odd connection. You never ran the risk of confusing Hackman's Luthor with Nicholson's Joker.

      On that front, GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY looks very promising, in that I think it will have a different feel than the films falling under the Avengers banner. (Also detect a Giffen/DeMatteis JLI vibe.)

      Time will tell!

      --David

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    3. I think there's a point, David, when we reach a certain age and stories tend to melt into stories. Everything echoes something we've seen before.
      Which makes the book or comic or movie that suddenly spins something fresh all the more precious.

      Everything builds on what's come before in some way. As creators we have to try to bring our own perspective, our (hopefully) unique POV to bear on the material and make even the oldest story seem new.

      And, believe me, it's not always easy!

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