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 

35 comments:

  1. A beautiful tribute.

    This is just awful, awful news.

    Another legend gone.

    I am sincerely sorry for your loss, Mr D.


    Karlos

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    1. Thank you, Carlos. Very much appreciated.

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  2. I heard this and knew he was your friend so I am sorry for loss. I read so many things he wrote. I am glad he was here to give us his imagination. It's a magnificent thing.

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    1. Thanks so much, Douglas. And, yes, we were lucky he was here to share his imagination and heart with us.

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  3. Thank you for that.
    If there's anyone else, besides Len, that is without peer in this funny book business, it would be you, J.M.
    Pure class.

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    1. And thanks right back at you, Dallan. Very kind.

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  4. Count yourself blessed, I see you do. His work always exuded quality and care.I don't think I was ever disappointed reading a comic that had his name in the credits. May we share that shining light with everyone we meet. Peace.

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  5. Len Wein's prose was very striking, but he always knew just when to pull back and let an action or an image speak for itself. There are moments when SWAMP THING reads like a pulp fiction novel (in a good way) and then BAM! he hits you with some quiet, understated and soul wrenching moment that just breaks your heart.

    --David

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    1. Agreed. The more emotional a Wein story was, the better it was. He knew how to reach into your heart and touch you.

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  6. I never met Len Wein... and I suppose now I never will... so can't speak to him as a man. I can however speak to his talent as a creator.

    I remember being hesitant to read his Swamp Thing comics... I already loved Man-Thing and couldn't believe anything anything could live up to the hype that book got.

    Now to be fair, I do prefer Gerber's MAn-Thing, but I'll be damned if That Mossy bastard didn't click with me. He set up who that character was so easily, that after one issue I felt like I knew him. He became an Icon of 70s comics for a reason. There was so much humanity n the character, and judging from his work and the forward in that book about the character's origins, my guess is that there was a lot n the man as well.

    Its funny, I saw so many people mention his revitalization of the X-Men, and I thought, yeah that was important, but it was only like three issues, there are meatier works of his to focus on. However, his Swamp Thing run was only 13 issues (plus the Olson-Swamp Thing story). Yeah. He created a cultural landmark, a beloved and complex creature rich mythology of A character that people loved and treasured (his run specifically) in THIRTEEN ISSUES.

    His Spider-man run certainly has some great parts, but I don't want to just list all his classic works.

    So, I will talk about his final Swamp Thing story. It was really good. Not a step as missed. It showed what happens when you have talent... but also view writing as a skill. When you have that you CAN go home again.

    IN the end it was a suitable final story for one of his most famous creations. it is almost strange how good, when you consider it began less than two years ago.

    His biggest talent however, seemed to be knowing how to blend his personal voice in with what was commercially viable. Something very important when you mix art with business, too often when forgotten in favor of one or the other.

    Quite honestly, that is something many writers don't always have, both currently, and long time pros.

    I guess all I can say is that hopefully fans will hold his work dear (I know I will), and introduce new people to it.

    And hopefully, more people he mentored will step up and take the reigns as editors and mentors to help preserve the industry and the importance of those traits.

    It is also some what odd that the creator of everone's favorite muck monster passes on as a hurricane rips through the swampiest state.

    I don't know what Gerber and Wein's relationship was, but I imagine the two of them reflecting on their era and muck love.

    Either way, I'm sure wherever Len Wein is, its someplace green.

    Jack

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  7. SWAMP THING, when read in the context of comics of the time, was really like a shotgun blast. It was so different, so rich (both in the writing and the art). It was, I believe, my first exposure to Len's writing. And it's one of the reasons why, when I walked into his office in the late 70;s, I walked in with tremendous respect. That he turned out to be such a wonderful person, a true mentor and friend, was the icing on the cake.

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    1. Comic fans are the weirdest, most self-loathing people. All the time we preface things by saying "of teh time" or some such thing. As if great stories can't have the impat the did years later. Well, the truth is, only if they were EVER any good.
      I read the first 10 issues of Wein's Swamp thing over 30 years after it was written and it holds up, and grabbed me just fine. It engrossed me just fine. I grew attached to Alec Holland just fine.

      WHAt made it a shot gun blast as you say, may have in part been timing (although in all honesty most of that tone you refer to had already been done a lot at Warren)but really it was Wein and Wrihtson's voice, and thgat was going to hit you hard no matter what.

      Of course, that raises another point that may be in Wein's favor. I don't know what his relationship to Warren was, although Comic book data base says he wrote seven stories for them years after Swampys return, but he may have been the first to combine Graphic magazine style (no idea what they should be called, I made that up) with the big two.

      Wein's impact on the industry is huge, no doubt. But I can't speak to just how deep that REALLY runs, much of that can only be told by those he mentored, edited and inspired, and who knows just how many people or how deep that is.

      All I can say is that he gave some jerk in Detroit some good times with his writing, and hope that is a fitting enough tribute to him. okay it isn't, but maybe one he would be fine with?

      Jack

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    2. I wasn't saying that SWAMP THING can't be appreciated outside the context of the time—great work is timeless—just that, within the context, it was extremely revolutionary. At least to the wide, wondering eyes of this long-time comic book reader.

      And I think knowing his stories gave anyone a good time would make Len very happy.

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    3. Well, then you are welcome for lending such an honor to your site.

      This page is one I remember Wein talking about being especially proud of, several times. And in truth it was one of my favorite Bat-scenes as well.

      https://babblingsaboutdccomics4.files.wordpress.com/2015/09/bat_307_001.png

      Jack

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    4. If you can track down a quote from Len talking about this, Jack, post it here. Thanks!

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    5. I about how great my honor to you is? I told you he and I never... oh, the comic.

      I'll look, but it was originally ona History channel sepcial about batman in 2008, that was later included in the super-groovy edition of Dark Knight.

      The pride was more on his FACE there, as he explained BAtman.

      I recall him bringing it up a few times, in interviews and such.

      Jack

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    6. This is the whole special. Wein comes in at about the 21:00 mark

      sorry I couldn't be more specific.

      Jack

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    7. I believe Wein made one of the most important (and underrated) contributions to the Spider-Man mythos by establishing "Kung-Fu Fighting" as Pete and MJ's song. If memory serves, it was a pretty funny running gag throughout his entire run! MJ claimed the song as theirs and Pete kind of had to go along with it in spite of his tastes leaning more toward older stuff (relative to the 1970s, obviously).

      I love his (very brief) X-Men run as well. He pretty much built the entire framework for the X-Men as we know them today. (By which I mean a diverse team with members from different nations.)

      But I would say SWAMP THING is my favorite work of his. The poetic language, the tragic concept, it all just gels beautifully.

      --David

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    8. Didn't remember about the song, David. That's very funny.

      And, yes, SWAMP THING was amazing. Len did lots of fantastic work, but ST remain my favorite, as well.

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    9. I remember the song being Pete and MJ's song David. Thatt WAS a great touch.

      Sorry, here is eh link, again, around the 21:00 mark

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BgpDQtD7yuQ

      Jack

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    10. You can see how proud he was of that page.


      Jack

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    11. That pride and enthusiasm is actually why I sought that issue out.

      True.

      Jack

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    12. The rest of teh video is interesting too, if you get a chance.

      However, maybe that is the final lesson Wein had for you, and ALL people in a creative field. To keep your enthusiasm and love for what brought you there, and to always talk up your work in an easygoing way devoid of ego, but still full of pride.

      Because you never know who is going to pick it up.



      Jack

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  8. Just like to add, Wein was what comic book readers want in a creator. A big enough fan that it is a passion, but dedicated enough that they give it the respect of a job.


    Jack

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  9. JM, very sorry for the loss of your friend and mentor. I've known for quite some time the tremendous respect you have for Len. To lose Bernie and Len in the same year is really tragic. It's no coincidence that Swamp Thing is my all time favorite comic book character. I know Len's been in and out of surgeries this year. May he finally rest in peace.

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    1. Yes, the fact that Bernie and Len both passed in the same years is kind of eerie. I hope they're both sailing through the universe right now, surrounded by cosmic love.

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  10. When you get a moment, go read this. It made me laugh out loud. I hope it does the same for you.
    http://www.newsfromme.com/2017/09/11/len-wein-story/

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    1. I read that this morning, Douglas. What a wonderful story. Loved it.

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  11. One last honor for the late great (even if it is pretty old)...

    http://www.cbr.com/the-greatest-len-wein-stories-ever-told/

    Here is another question, Would you take the chance to pass on those lessons to other creators?

    If MArvel or DC came up to you and Said "Hey, jerk, be an editor or we'll clobber ya" (I'm admittedly taking a huge jump in logic in how they talk to people) would you accept?

    No shame in either answer.

    Jack

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    1. Don't have a definitive answer, but I would give it serious consideration. Always up for a new challenge. And passing on those lessons is one of the reasons I started my writing workshops.

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