Wednesday, September 20, 2017

GERBER DAY

Today's the birthday of one of the comic book world's greatest writers, the late Steve Gerber. Here's a short tribute I wrote a few years back.


***
Steve Gerber was a mold-breaker. He had an individual voice at a time when many of Marvel’s writers—even the very best of them—were burying their individuality beneath a layer of Stan Lee-isms. He stepped into the Marvel Universe, looked around at the towering structures that Lee, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko had erected, bowed in deference to their collective genius, and then started kicking those towers down with ferocious glee. His work on Defenders (where he injected a Monty Pythonesque lunacy into the superhero genre), Howard The Duck (the first overground underground comic book) and Man-Thing (his most impassioned, and compassionate, writing) ranks among the best work of the 1970’s. Hell, it ranks among the best mainstream comics work by anybody ever. 
I wouldn't be the writer I am today if I'd never encountered Steve Gerber's work. Every Gerber story I read—the ones that soared and the ones that went down in flames—was evidence that mainstream comics could be so much more than I’d ever imagined. That there was no creative door that couldn’t be kicked in, no creative wall that couldn’t be torn down.


©copyright 2017 J.M. DeMatteis

Sunday, September 10, 2017

REMEMBERING LEN

Len Wein has passed away. He was my editor, my mentor and my friend. I am saddened beyond words.
A few years back I wrote the following tribute to Len as part of an introduction to a hardcover collection of his Spider-Man work. 
Heartfelt condolences to Len's wife Christine and to all his family and friends.

Love you, Len. Safe travels.






***


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 HulkBatman 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 2017 J.M. DeMatteis