Sunday, September 10, 2017

Len Wein: Elegy For A Storyteller

I just learned of Len Wein’s passing today, and feel the need to say a few words regarding how much he has contributed to comics and to my childhood and my desire to become a writer.

The youngest of five children, I was always surrounded by the comic books my older brothers would buy. They were one of the coolest things a young child could be immersed in, and I leafed through them long before I was able to read them.

I handled them carefully. My older siblings permitted me to look at them, but only after making sure I would be careful with them. Comics by their nature are rather fragile things, prone to ripping or creasing or water stains left from drinking cups left on top of them. So from my youth, I was taught a reverence for comic books that most kids my age never knew.

And at the age of six, it was time to buy my very first comic. On vacation, I walked a couple of blocks with my older brother to the local mom and pop store and had a look at the wonderfully over-stuffed comic book rack. I still remember the smell of them, blended with the aroma of assorted candies, popcorn, and bubble gum. Despite all the bright comics and recognized heroes on the covers, somehow my eyes were attracted to a comic with a large dark-green creature on the front. A muck-encrusted man-shaped monster, emerging from swampy waters.

I brought it home carefully, read it oh so reverently. At the age of six I could not have been able to read it all myself, and yet a comic book writer tells his story as much in pictures as he does in words. Besides, I had my older brother who read it along with me and was able to explain anything I did not understand. A legend, for me, was born. Another sympathetic creature the world did not understand, not unlike Frankenstein or many others any horror fan of the era would know. The monster who was not really a monster, who was actually more human than most of the people he encountered.

I followed the series as much as a child of my age and means permitted. I even went as far as to cut the cover off of issue #3 to hang up on my wall. But as for the first issue, I kept in as good a shape as could be expected of someone my age, always treated it as my most prized possession.

As I said before, most kids my age didn’t treat comics as carefully as I did. But if someone had a comic I wanted, I was willing to make a trade for it, even if it was not in top condition. Such was the case with Justice League Of America #101, written by Len Wein. To this day, the name Bob is on my copy of this amazing comic, the name of my best-friend’s brother. Again, the cover attracted my attention, but the story within was what so entranced me.

I had been familiar with the two separate teams of heroes, the Justice League of America and the Justice Society of America, had seen them team up to handle a crisis or two. But Justice League #101 had them searching for a third group of heroes, one whose very existence had been wiped from the memories of everyone. Second in a three issue story, this comic nevertheless became a favorite of mine. For years I sought out the rest of the story, which I eventually found in a $1 digest. It did not disappoint.

Flash forward to 1980, when I was 14. I was already reading Dostoyevsky and Hawthorne, but I still had a soft spot for comics. When I came upon the miniseries The Untold Legend Of The Batman, I already sensed it would be a classic. To this day it is still the definitive Batman story for me. It was written, of course, by Len Wein.

Wein later did some excellent work on one of my favorite comics, Green Lantern. He also turned to editorial duties when the Swamp Thing comic was resurrected to correspond with the dreadful movie of the same name. The comics were much better, beginning with very solid work by Martin Pasko, and then brought to an unbelievable level with the introduction of Alan Moore as writer.

And speaking of Alan Moore, Len Wein was there again as editor when Moore wrote the groundbreaking, seminal milestone that was Watchmen. It was an instant and widely recognized classic not just in comics but in fiction in general (I still prefer his work on Swamp Thing, but perhaps it is because I am so fond of the comic Len Wein created).

Lastly, at least as far I was concerned, Len Wein acted as editor of yet another of my favorite comics, All Star Squadron. As happened in my cherished Justice League #101, I was introduced to an entire cast of characters from the Golden Age of comics of which I’d been completely unaware. The past had come alive again, the deepest of archeological digs had taken place in order to have history’s mysteries retrieved. Generations had been bridged, and once again I had Len Wein, in part, to thank for it.

And this was just some of the work he did for DC Comics! There is a whole other story to be written about the work he did for Marvel Comics, but I’ll let someone who grew up reading those to tell you about them. I’ll just mention one name: Wolverine.

While I at some point outgrew reading comics (at least for a time), they—and most notably Len Wein—were at the foundation of my reading experiences, and you never outgrow your foundations. The vast panoramas he created, characters both sympathetic and inspirational, stories that gripped you on multiple levels, these will always loom large in the basement of my soul, the place where comic books are stored to be read on rainy afternoons. Heroism, justice, a sense of mystery and imagination, these were all things that were given to me by a man I was never fortunate enough to meet. I hope in some small way, Mr. Wein, my writing can give to others what you have given to me.

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