Len Wein, R.I.P.


I may not read comics much, these days, but I keep up with the news, and a couple of nights ago, I learned that the comic book writer Len Wein had died, aged 69, of complications following surgery.

Wein had been a mainstay of the mainstream comic book industry, as writer, editor and then again writer, for nearly fifty years. A lifelong friend of fellow writer and editor Marv Wolfman, the pair were among that first serious wave of fans-turned-writers/artists who began to transform the industry at the start of the Seventies,  and what’s more, the pair did it at crusty old DC, where, in 1972, Len Wein co-created the first of two iconic characters, Swamp Thing.

I’ve written about the Swamp Thing at length elsewhere, and Wein’s original version of Swampy, as a man who lost his humanity to become a monster who was yet more human than those who reacted to him, was a powerful vision, and one that Wein returned to in the last decade, writing his character again after a forty year break.

In the meantime, Wein’s original version was subsumed with Alan Moore’s revised vision, in which the Swamp Thing was transformed from a man turned into a plant to a plant that erroneously thought itself to have been a man, paving the way for a further transformation into an avatar of nature itself. Though I’d loved and collected the original series, I was and am still even more impressed with Moore’s version. But whilst Moore’s career on Swamp Thing and at DC generally is indelibly associated with editor Karen Berger, it was not she who offered the job of writing Swampy to Moore, but the comic’s previous editor, Len Wein, who had the creative generosity to allow his own creation to be torn up like that.

Wein’s other, and substantially more famous creation, came at Marvel, where he worked for most of the Seventies, and was for a time it’s Editor-in-Chief. This was an offhand creation, brought into The Incredible Hulk, just because a Canadian superhero was wanted. He was just a no-mark one-off, until Wein was asked to revive the long moribund X-Men as an international team, and Wein brought in his Canadian creation: Wolverine.

So: Wolverine and the new X-Men, on top of Swamp Thing. If Wein didn’t go on to create anyone else of that magnitude, and if each of these achieved their greatest successes under other hands, the fact remains that without Len Wein there would have been no Swamp Thing, no Wolverine, no massively successful X-Men franchise, and maybe even no career for Chris Claremont, or success outside Britain for Alan Moore.

By the end of the Seventies, Wein was back at DC, where he now worked rather as an editor than a writer. Marv Wolfman and George Perez’s The New Teen Titans is rightly credited with restoring the fortunes, credibility and morale of DC Comics after the disastrous Implosion of 1978: Wein was it’s editor. Swamp Thing‘s return after seven years in limbo was under Wein’s purview, and it was his lengthy discussions with Wolfman over DC’s complex and convoluted Multiversal history that led eventually to Wein editing another Wolfman/Perez project, Crisis on Infinite Earths.

He was also the editor who first started another landmark Alan Moore series, Watchmen.

I’m making Wein’s career highlights sound very much a thing of the past, but though he continued to work regularly, in comics and television, after leaving DC in the early Nineties, these are the accomplishments for which I, and fans of my generation, will recall. I will also remember Wein for making the Phantom Stranger one of my favourite ever characters, and for writing him, in issues 14 – 26, as far back as 1973-5, better than anyone else before or since.

There are aspects of Wein’s writing that, celebrated at the time, have come to be less respected as time went on. The original ten-page Swamp Thing story, co-created with the late Berni Wrightson, and as perfect a gem of compressed writing and emotion as I have ever read, is nevertheless ill-worn in its florid, indeed purple prose, which was so characteristic of Wein’s early style.

Nevertheless, he was a major figure, and his career was worthy of respect throughout.

But if nothing else, I owe Len Wein for a single comic. As I’ve related before, I grew out of comics in 1970, nearing my fifteenth birthday. Four years later, waiting to buy a post-haircut Mars Bar in a newsagents, I glanced at a rack of American comics and, out of mild curiosity, had a riffle. I ended up buying Justice League of America 107, which changed my life. I cannot begin to count what I’ve spent on comics in the forty-three years plus since, how many thousands have passed through my hands, the enjoyment, fascination, imagination I’ve experienced.

Len Wein wrote that comic. He did that for me. About a decade later, I met him for the only time, at a Convention in Britain. I got him to sign Justice League of America 107, told him it was responsible for getting me back into comics, and he shied away, as if I was going to ask him to pay back all the money he’d been responsible for me shelling out.

I need to thank him again today. Thank you, Len Wein. You may have acted as if you owed me lots, but it is I who owe you, even up to all the words on this blog. You started something that became unstoppable, and I thank you. We thank you. Give our regards to the Phantom Stranger as he leads you to where the good ones go.

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