Sep 12, 2017

Reclaiming History: Len Wein

Len Wein passed away yesterday, at the age of 69. Len was one of the first comics personalities I was aware of, but when I racked my brain for stories that stuck out to me, I found I could barely think of any. Len was one of the writers at the forefront of the Bronze Age of Comics, which is stylistically and fundamentally my favorite era of superhero comics. But if not specific stories, what did make Len stick out to me? Let's count the ways...

How Len Wein Changed Comics
by Duy

The age of writers in comics, not counting writer/artists like Will Eisner and Jack Kirby and Carl Barks, can be clearly demarcated by one man: Alan Moore. Prior to Alan, the focus both commercially and creatively tended to be on artists. Even Stan Lee's most acclaimed works during the Silver Age were correlated to having Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko (you know, the two greatest artists of the Silver Age) being the main storytellers. Moore was the first superstar writer and paved the way for comics that tended to be more writer-focused, such as those by Grant Morrison and Neil Gaiman.

As such, it's really easy to overlook the contributions of the writers prior to Moore and that wave of writers. I think Roger Stern is better than any of them at telling a straight-up superhero story, for example, but those guys break the rules and challenge conventions so much that it's hard to convince fans, hardcore or casual, for the most part of that. The writers prior to the British Invasion worked with the creative constraints placed upon them by commercial needs, and as such what you have is a group of writers who knew what worked within the rules and exercised them as well as they could. And within that structure, Len Wein did the following things.

Len Wein co-created Wolverine. That alone should have been enough to get him into the Hall of Fame, which he did in 2008. Wolverine is the first character not created by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, or Steve Ditko to be a bonafide megastar in Marvel Comics. In fact, if we counted both DC and Marvel, he's the first bonafide icon post-1970, and he was the only one until maybe Deadpool showed up nearly two decades later. Wolverine was the perfect hero for the 1970s: someone who questioned the establishment, took no crap, and was ready to fight.

He would eventually under later writers become one of Marvel's most complex characters, a hero who embodied the issue of controlling anger in a more subtle and arguably more effective manner than the Hulk. But Wolverine wasn't a star off the bat. Created to be a Hulk antagonist and not much more, Len had too much faith in him and used him when....

Len Wein revitalized the X-Men and introduced a bunch of diversity. With artist Dave Cockrum, Len took a dying, failing franchise and breathed life into it. The All-New, All-Different X-Men was all of a sudden multiracial, including Wolverine, Nightcrawler, and Storm.

Quite frankly, I think the diversity was really the missing piece from the X-Men. This was a title that centered around persecution and oppression. Inasmuch as being a mutant was meant to be a stand-in for being a minority, the diverse cast really drove that point home. Anyone can be different — and anyone can be born that way. Under later writers, the X-Men would become the biggest Marvel title, and the sales driver when the company finally overtook DC Comics as the market leader. What's more, think about this. The first X-Men movie is a turning point in Hollywood, to which a lot of today's film landscape can be traced. And that basically owes its success to Wolverine. Who was created by Len Wein.

(Fun fact: Did you know Storm is only the third female X-Man? This is a franchise known for diversity and it took them 13 years to introduce three women.)

Len Wein wrote the most beloved era of Justice League of America pre-Crisis. The first several years of Justice League of America were, to be frank, not very good. The art was rushed, the stories were too simplistic, and it was just flat-out boring. Len was not the first writer to take over and improve on the quality of writing, but he did take over by issue #100, stayed on for 15 issues, and wrote some beloved stories, including The Unknown Soldier of Victory, teaming up the JLA and the JSA with the Seven Soldiers of Victory; Crisis on Earth-X, which teams them up with the Freedom Fighters, characters bought from Quality Comics; and the introduction of the Injustice Gang.

All of these guys would go on to inspire a young man in Scotland named Grant Morrison, who would go on to become one of the most acclaimed writers ever. Morrison's modular magnum opus, Seven Soldiers, is in many ways a tribute to Len Wein, even arguably moreso than it was a tribute to Jack Kirby. That's some rarefied air, there.

Len Wein created Swamp Thing. He wrote a bunch of comics, and some of them were horror comics, such as The Phantom Stranger and his own co-creation, Swamp Thing. Swamp Thing is Alec Holland, a man who was turned into a plant monster, and one of the greatest horror characters in the superhero genre.

So if you're keeping tabs, Len Wein created Wolverine, Storm, Swamp Thing, Colossus, and Nightcrawler, and revitalized both the X-Men and the Justice League. If someone today had that kind of resume, he'd be a superstar writer and Hollywood would be knocking on his door. Back then, they did comics. And in the process, maybe, inspired more future comics creators.

Len Wein brought the British in. Early in the 1980s, Len Wein placed a call to Northampton, England, and asked Alan Moore how he'd like to work on Swamp Thing. After several minutes of Moore not believing that it was Len Wein for real on the phone (Alan Moore was starstruck by Len Wein. Think about that.), Moore took the job, and the rest is history. His biggest work, Watchmen, was even edited by Len.

Moore's success on Swamp Thing led to DC contacting more British writers, including Grant Morrison and Neil Gaiman. These writers would form the foundation of Vertigo, DC's mature readers' imprint. Comics celebrated the writer more, and as a result, writers from prior to that invasion were somewhat overlooked. There's more than a little bit of dramatic irony there, but I'm not so sure Len really cared. He stepped aside on his own creation and gave it to someone who took it apart the moment he got it, and in the process raised the level of quality expected from comics.

I can only think of one Len Wein story off the top of my head. Everything else, I have to check to see if it's him and not another writer from that era. I can't really tell his work apart from many of the others who worked back then, which is not a bad sign because that was generally a good time for short self-contained stories. But what I remember is Len setting things up and letting people run with it. He created many characters that later writers would run with and make their name on. He wrote stories that later writers would play off of and pay homage to. He brought in the biggest influx of writing talent in the business, leading to his own work being overshadowed, even overlooked, except for the fans who were there.

Len Wein for the most part made it so that other people were in a position to succeed. I think that's his biggest contribution to comics. And there's something to be said about that.

Rest in peace, Len Wein.

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