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.

Alas: Bernie Wrightson RIP


Most people will be mourning the loss of Chuck Berry, a rock’n’roll legend, but for me the sadder news is the death of comic book artist, Bernie Wrightson, aged 68, after several years of illness during which he was unable to draw.

I’ve read very little of Wrightson’s work, but enough to recognise him as a major artist. He was one of those ultra-bright sparks of the early-to-middle Seventies, an instantly recognisable artist whose work was on a higher level than the generic art you got. Wrightson’s work took its inspiration from an older generation of artists than his contemporaries: Frank Frazetta, and EC’s Graham Ingels in particular.

His work had depth, passion and detail, and his forte was horror, and he wasn’t going to last, like the other ultra-bright sparks, because he needed time to draw, to make art, and the soul-crushing, intensely-pressured and dirt-cheap comics of the era, where every expense was spared to make the package cheaper and nastier, more inimical to quality, as long as it was cheap, was no environment for Wrightson and his ilk.

He produced an illustrated edition of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the only time I’ve ever read the novel, with full-page, intensely detailed drawings that looked like engravings of a fineness way beyond anything Marvel or DC could have produced.

But Berni (as he then styled himself) Wrightson’s legacy is his co-creation, with Len Wein, of the Swamp Thing: a ten page short which is one of the most perfect short stories ever done, and the first ten issues of a series that is the foundation of an astonishing character, alive to this day and beyond.

He was a great.

Uncompleted Stories: Swamp Thing 1


Wrightson’s Swamp Thing

Though he’s been around for over forty years, and enjoyed a high esteem for long periods during that time, DC’s Swamp Thing is unlikely to be familiar to the non-comics reading public (with the exception of fans of early Eighties Horror B-Movies).
Like many other DC characters, Swamp Thing has been through several incarnations down the years. Let us begin with a bit of historical perspective.
Swamp Thing was conceived by writer Len Wein and artist Berni Wrightson for an eponymous ten page horror story, published in House of Secrets 92 in 1971. The story was set in an isolated house on the edge of the Louisiana swamplands, in the first decade of the Twentieth Century. Damien Ridge and Linda Olsen Ridge are at home, on the six month anniversary of their marriage, and someone – or something – unseen is watching them from outside.
This is Linda’s second marriage: her first husband, scientist Alex Olsen, Damien’s partner, was killed a year ago in a laboratory explosion. Damien comforted, and subsequently married her, but what Linda does not know is that it was Damien, out of jealousy over her, who sabotaged the lab and dumped Alex’s still-living body in the swamp.
Though he has what he wants, Damien is alert to a little cooolness on Linda’s part, seeing it as her inutuiting his role in all of this. Rather than let her begin investigating, and uncover him, Damien prefers to kill her. He is about to plunge a hypodermic into her neck, unseen, when the viewer outside untervenes.
Linda sees a terrifying monster, vaguely man-shaped, draped in the rotting vegetation of the swamp, burst into the house and horribly kill her husband: widowed twice at so young an age. She screams in terror as the silent monster stares at her, before it shambles out into the swamp, never to be seen again.
What she does not know, because the creature has no voice with which to speak, is that the monster has acted not out of rage or mania, but out of love. The Swamp Thing is, or was, Alex Olsen, transformed out of all recognition but unable to stay away from the woman he loves. By saving her life, he has severed any faint hopes of returning to her. As he turns towards the swamps, his misery is compounded even further by the fact that his vegetable body cannot cry.
“Swamp Thing” was not formally promoted in any way, but word swept rapidly and House of Secrets 92 sold in incredible numbers. I have heard it claimed that it was DC’s best-selling comic of the month, but given the publishing conditions of the early Seventies, I find that very difficult to believe. Certainly, there must have been a considerable sales-spike: more than enough to have DC  pressing Wein and Wrightson to convert the Swamp Thing into a series.
Both creators demurred. In part, it was the desire not to spoil their experience on a story with (rare) personal significance and satisfaction, but in even larger part it was the knowledge that contemporary page rates were nowhere near enough to enable them to do the necessary research for a series set seven decades earlier.
They were, however, willing to revise the character in a contemporary setting. Thus the second Swamp Thing made his debut in the first issue of his own series, set in 1972. This first Swamp Thing series would last 24 bi-monthly issues.
Drs Alec and Linda Holland, biologists, are on the point of completing a Bio-Restorative Formula that could potentially refoliate the Sahara. The Government has moved them to a laboratory in the Lousiana swamplands, disguised as a deserted barn, under the watchful eye of DDI Agent Matt Cable.
However, the Conclave, a criminal organisation, has learned of the Formula and tries to buy it. When the Hollands refuse, the Conclave decides to kill them, rather than allow anyone else to use the formula. Alec is knocked out and left in the lab whilst a bomb is planted: at the last moment, he comes to, only for the bomb to explode in his face, coating his body in the burning chemicals of the formula.
Out of reflex, Alec bursts from the lab and hurls his burning body into the cooling water of the swamps. A month later, the Swamp Thing, seven foot tall, man-shaped, draped in the rotting vegetation of the swamp, rises from the water.
Unlike the first Swamp Thing, Linda is soon killed herself. This gives the ongoing series two points of impetus. First, Holland is seeking a means by which he can restore his humanity, and secondly he wants revenge for his wife’s murder.
Wein, very much a purple writer at that time of his career, structured the series around a parade of classic monsters and horrors, though the main theme was that Man was the true Monster. Wherever Swampy went, trying to mind his own business, meaning no harm to anyone, the moment anyone saw him, they went mob-crazy on his big, green butt.
The series went well under its original creators, but Wrightson left after issue 10, and Wein three issues later. And though replacements as like for like as could be found were conjured up, sales began to decline.
So a decision was taken that, with effect from issue 23, Swamp Thing would be re-positioned as a superhero, instead of horror series.
Outgoing writer, David Michelinie, was kind enough to drop Swampy, at the end of issue 22, not in Louisiana but, improbably, California, on the doorstop of Alec Holland’s heretofore un-mentioned elder brother, Edward.
The new direction was remitted to Gerry Conway. He began by introducing a new, more flambuoyant crime syndicate after the Bio-Restorative Formula, as represented by the former Commander Zero.But whereas Zero, who was supposedly dead, had been a meek, unassuming, be-spectacled man in a suit, Conway put him in a skin-tight costume and, in place of his crushed right hand, affixed a scythe, a la Marvel villain The Grim Reaper.
So Edward Holland hears his brother out and decides that his transformation can be reversed by repeating it. And despite Zero’s attempts to intervene, it works, and Alec Holland was once more human.
This state persisted into issue 24, during which Conway started assembling plot-lines. Edward Holland’s beautiful, red-headed protege is far too impressed with the younger, more handsome Alec: Edward, enraged at being overshadowed yet again by his brilliant younger brother, plots to make him regret it. Alec has another encounter with agents of the syndicate and finds himself wishing he still had Swampy’s strength and invulnerability. Tellingly, his body suffers crippling cramps and stresses…
Issue 25 was advertised as guest-starring Hawkman. But this never appeared as the series was cancelled abruptly due to plummeting sales. The ‘superhero’ Swamp Thing never appeared.
And I have to say that that’s a tremendous relief, since the new direction was utterly ludicrous and wholy implausible even by the standards of Seventies’ comics. The series even had foisted on it a new logo,which, prophetically, was the single worst, most clumsy and ugly logo I have ever seen in comics.
So many things were wrong, or at best wholly cliched by this change that even at the time, continuity-based fans wanted to find a way to obliterate it. To begin, the change of scene to California (Conway had recently moved to LA, and was dragging all his series to the Golden State) was wholly wrong for a swampland creation.
Then the introduction of a new crime syndicate on an infantile level, as opposed to the plausible Conclave and, worst of all, placing the aforementioned Commander John Zero into tights and scythe!
Then the introduction of a new red-head to become Holland’s girlfriend, the trite jealousies of an elder brother who’d shown no interest in his late brother for years, the diminution of Alec Holland’s all-pervading longing to regain his humanity by suggesting that he’d avoided asking his brother’s help out of pride!
The cliché of Edward Holland getting jealous so fast that he was prepared to betray his own brother by undoing a scientifically advvanced procedure that demonstrated him as a genius.
Had issue 25 been published, I have no doubts as to its contents. Alec Holland would have been attacked again, requiring Hawkman’s aid to escape. Red-headed protege, fearful for his safety, would have kissed him. Edward Holland would have snapped and kick-started his plan. And on the final page, Alec would have reverted, no doubt painfully in body as well as in mind, to beingSwamp Thing.
Except that henceforth he would be able to occupy both forms, transforming from Holland to Swampy in the same manner that Bruce Banner becomes the Incredible Hulk. The only question up for debate is whether the transformation would be voluntary or, to extend the Hilk parallel,  uncontrolled and caused by stress of some kind.
Though the story was uncompleted, Conway did get a chance to deal with one of his dangling plot-threads. A few months later, in a short-lived revival of Challengers of the Unknown that lasted eight, guest star crowded issues, Conway chose to put one of the Challs in need of desperate aid from noted biologist Alec Holland.
Though he is working desperately against time to prevent his body reverting permanently to the Swamp Thing (for no given reason), Holland cannot refuse his aid, and ends up losing his battle, thus restoring the status quo in a very cheap manner.
Nobody regretted not seeing this fatuous story through to its conclusion. Edward Holland, Red-Headed Protege and the syndicate disappeared without trace or any kind of second thought, and following Crisis on Infinite Earth in 1985, and the wholesale revision of DC’s history, this little episode ceased to have ever ‘existed’.
It had, in any event, already been obliterated, by writer Alan Moore’s transformation of the Swamp Thing in 1983, which silently revoked any validity in Conway’s two issues.
Nevertheless, this disastrous idea was not to be the Swamp Thing’s only experience of an Uncompleted Story, as we shall see next.