Speaking with…LEN WEIN PART ONE

Len and I broke into the business at about the same time, helped each other in our early days then proceeded to fight like bobcats over the last piece of meat from then on. Len’s friend, Ron Fradkin, called after seeing a letter I wrote printed in Mystery in Space. Ron said he lived in Levittown, Long Island and by the kind of coincidence writing schools will tell you never to commit to print, I was heading out to Levittown the very next day to spend a week with my sister and brother-in-law. Ron and his friend rode their bikes over to my sister’s house and we spent the day talking comics. When they left, Len got on his bike, started to ride away, turned to wave goodbye and promptly smashed his head into a tree branch, knocking him out. That should have been a warning.

What has Len done: If you’re reading this you probably already know. Len co-created Swamp Thing and along with Roy Thomas and Chris Claremont, the New X-Men, including Wolverine which he first put into The Hulk. Len also created Christopher Chance when he rejiggered a story that appeared in DC’s old 1958 “Gangbusters” comic called “The Human Target.” Len’s run on Justice League of America and The Phantom Stranger are considered by many the definitive versions of those books. He’s also written Spider-Man, Fantastic Four, Batman, Superman and many, many others. He is currently writing The Victorian and his new Elseworlds mini-series, Batman: Nevermore will be at your comic shops later this month. Be sure to pick it up. I’ve seen the art and it looks great.

Our parents didn’t know each other, never even met if I recall, but I’m positive that somehow, in some alternate dimension – one I probably destroyed in Crisis – that we were actually supposed to be brothers, and not just friends, which would actually explain our inextricably intertwined lives. So, as they say in Elfquest, here’s the interview with my brother in all but blood.

MW: HOW DID YOU BREAK INTO THE BUSINESS?

LW: God, you should know this almost as well as I do. I was a very sickly kid. While I was in the hospital at age seven, my Dad brought me a stack of comic books to keep me occupied. And I was hooked. When my eighth grade art teacher, Mr. Smedley, told me he thought I had actual art talent, I decided to devote all my efforts in that direction in the hope that I might someday get into the comics biz. I became an art major, took every art class my school had to offer. In college, I majored in Advertising Art and Design. And then, of course, when I was eleven, I met you through a letter you had published in Mystery in Space #75.
I was living in Levittown, New York, at the time (a town that also spawned Zippy the Pinhead creator Bill Griffith, Batman editor Bob Schreck, and Mr. Monster creator Michael T. Gilbert, by the way). You were living in Flushing, Queens, about 20 miles away. By one of those amazing coincidences that only occur in comic books or an Aaron Spelling show, you were coming out to Levittown that very weekend to visit your sister. We met, connected, and we’ve been best friends ever since.

Together, we were among those who helped found comics fandom. Both of us published fanzines that brought us to some small attention from various comics editors, Julius Schwartz not least among them. In fact, your character The Man Called Nova evolved out of one of our fanzine characters.

About one Thursday a month, both of us would cut school to take the weekly tour that DC Comics then gave of their offices, thus becoming somewhat familiar faces to the people who worked there.

In our late teens, we decided to try working together to sell something professionally. Technically, our first professional sale was a story called “The Conjurer and the Man Called Armageddon” that we both wrote and drew and which was published in an issue of Calvin Beck’s Castle of Frankenstein magazine. But since Beck essentially paid us in fish and copies of the magazine, I prefer to think our first real sale came later.

In the late ‘60s, Dick Giordano was publishing a line of action heroes at Charleton Comics. We decided to put together some samples for Dick to see if we could sell him something. By the time we finally finished our samples, Dick had moved over to DC Comics, so samples in hand we went up to the DC offices one day to see him. Professionals that we were, we had made no appointment, just showed up at the office, only to discover that Dick wasn’t even in the office that day. As we stood around, looking, as the late, great John D. MacDonald once described, like Smokey the Bear watching all the forests burn down, then-editorial director Carmine Infantino and editor Joe Orlando returned from lunch, and wondered what the hell we were doing there. When we explained we were looking for work, Carmine said,” Well, show your samples to my boy Joey here. If he likes you, you’re in.”

Joe took the samples, went back to his office, left us sitting in the lobby. A short while later, he returned. He told us the art (which I had primarily done) still needed a lot of work, but he liked the writing (which you had primarily done). If we were interested in submitting story ideas to the new House of Mystery title he was editing, he’d be interested in seeing what we had to offer.

Now I had never really thought of myself as a writer; any writing I had done was just to give myself something to draw. But never being one to count a gift horse’s molars, I went home and put together several ideas. I submitted them to Joe. He bought a (thankfully still-unpublished) little opus called “The Final Day of Nicholas Toombs” and I’ve been a writer ever since.

MW: WHAT DO YOU CONSIDER YOUR MOST SUCCESSFUL WORKS, AND WHY?

LW: Well, financially speaking, it would have to be Wolverine and the new X-Men. If I had just a penny out of every dollar that property has generated in comic books, TV series, feature films, trading cards, coloring books, toys, action figures, shampoo, soap, skateboards, bicycle helmets, candy, Pez dispensers, band-aids, and God alone only knows what else, I’d never have to work another day in my or my children’s lives.

Creatively successful is a whole other question. Swamp Thing certainly was one of those occasions where everything worked perfectly in unison. My run on the Phantom Stranger is what helped to cement my reputation. But I also really enjoyed doing Incredible Hulk, Batman, Justice League, Blue Beetle, Amazing Spider-Man, Dark Dominion…God, so many. I’ve been very lucky in that respect.

MW: KNOWING WHAT YOU KNOW NOW, WHICH OF YOUR MORE FAMOUS WORKS WOULD YOU REDO IF YOU COULD. WHY AND HOW?

LW: Actually, none of them. Were there stories I wrote along the way that were terrible clinkers?

God, yes. But they were all a product of their time, and I did the best I could then with whatever I was given to work with. I think there’s something inherently dishonest in trying to go back and mess with the past. Frankly, sometimes you’re not even sure which of your stories were failures. There are things I’ve written that I thought were complete catastrophes when I finished with them that have gone on to generate some of my most positive feedback.

Art is always in the eyes of the beholder. Only posterity has the right to point out our mistakes.

MW: DO YOU CONSIDER YOUR AUDIENCE WHEN YOU CREATE A STORY?

LW: Let me tell you a story. You’ve heard me say it a thousand times, but this is for your readers.

Years ago, when I was writing The Mighty Thor for Marvel, I pursued a story line that had Thor’s human girl friend Jane Foster with him in Asgard for one of those grand adventures. For months, my feedback in the mail went something like this: “Get rid of Jane Foster. She’s so boring. Bring back Lady Sif. Dump Jane. Etc.” Months of this. Until I finally figured I was doing something wrong, and obviously annoying my audience.

So, in the very next issue I plotted, I arranged a scene where Jane was in Lady Sif’s Asgardian quarters when she was attacked by trolls, or giants, or Amway salesmen, or something. To protect herself, Jane snatched up Sif’s sword, which had conveniently been left behind. In the course of the battle, Jane accidentally struck the hilt of the sword against a wall. In response came the customary flash of lightning and thunder, and when the light faded, Jane was gone and Lady Sif stood in her place, promptly trashing the Amway guys.
“There,” I thought to myself, “That should make them happy.”

The following month, the mail on that issue started coming in. “Get rid of Lady Sif. She’s so boring. Bring back Jane Foster. Dump Sif. Etc.” Now, normally, this wouldn’t have bothered me. It was frankly to be expected. Sif had her supporters; Jane had hers. There was only one problem.

The mail was from the same damn people!

That was the moment that I realized the only thing I owed my audience was my own judgment and my own best effort.

I write my stories for me and hope that other people will like them as well. Thus far, I’ve been fortunate in that regard.

MW: WHAT ARE YOUR GOALS WHEN YOU SIT DOWN TO WRITE A STORY?

LW: Well, first to make the deadline. Or come as close to it as possible. The amount of preparation I’ve done really depends on the kind of story I’m writing.

For most of the series super-hero yarns I’ve spun along the way, I try to keep a stack of all the villain’s previous appearances (a much easier task a few decades ago) to make certain I don’t contradict or duplicate what’s been done before. I have a general sense of the story’s direction, what my ending will be, how much sub-plot I need to advance in this issue, and I go from there.

For The Victorian title I’m currently writing for Penny-Farthing Press, I usually start with the two-page single-spaced synopsis they’ve given me of this issue’s plot, and try to make sure I hit all the pertinent plot points needed to advance the story, but the general pacing is left to me.

For my new Elseworlds mini-series Batman: Nevermore, I did a whole lot of reading up on the works of Edgar Allan Poe, so I could figure out which of his classic stories I wanted to reference in the course of the series. I also kept the collected works close at hand as I wrote so I could keep referring to them and make sure I maintained Poe’s voice throughout the series.

The majority of stories I’ve written over the years came to me as I went along. I’ve always thought of myself as an organic writer, rather than a cerebral one. I feel my way along as I go, hoping I’ll get to the place I intend to reach by the end of the story. Generally, that’s the way it works out. Now and then, the characters take me to places I never expected to go. In many ways, those are probably my best stories.

MW: HOW DO YOU RECOGNIZE WHEN A STORY ISN’T WORKING AND WHAT DO YOU DO TO FIX THE PROBLEMS?

LW: That’s easy. If a story isn’t working, I’m simply unable to finish it. That’s what usually tells me something is wrong. I go over the story, try to throw out what’s clearly not working, and then put the story aside. I go out for a walk, or a trip to the local coffee shop, or to a movie, and let the story stew in the back of my mind. When the problem has worked its way through my subconscious, the solution usually pops up like a piece of toast. I know that’s not much help, but that’s the way I work.

Actually Julie Schwartz once told me years ago, “If you’re sitting at the typewriter and nothing comes to you for over an hour, get up and go to the movies.” Thanks to Julie’s advice, I’ve seen a heck of a lot of films over the years. That’s it for this week. We’ll complete Len’s interview in seven days. Thanks, Len, for taking the time to do this and I’ll see the rest of you then.

MARV WOLFMAN: WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A FIRST DRAFT AND FUTURE DRAFTS?

It depends on whom I’m working for. When I’m my own editor, there’s very little difference between the first draft and the final. It’s that same organic thing. I write what feels right to begin with. While I may diddle a little with the dialogue along the way, I rarely make any major changes in the story’s structure.

When I’m working for another editor, it’s really up to them. My job then is to make them happy. Whatever they want changed is within their right to ask for. If I disagree with the change, I’ll try to talk them out of it, but in the end, I’m working for them. Right or wrong, whatever they want, they get.

I do, however, always try to keep in mind what the great Alex Toth once said, “I spent the first half of my career learning what to put into my work, and the second half learning what to leave out.” It’s great advice and I try to live by it.

MW: HOW DO YOU GO ABOUT CREATING A CHARACTER? (Their ticks? Their needs? Their goals? How they relate to others? Etc.)

LW: I’m a neurotic New York Jew by birth. Creating characters is second nature to me. The first thing I look for is what makes the character human, what makes them tick. The powers are hardly important at all. I try to find what makes even the worst, most dispicable character sympathetic at his or her core. The single most unrealistic thing I’ve ever read in comics is when some group of characters calls themselves the Brotherhood of Evil or the Masters of Evil or anything of that sort. I don't believe that any character believes him or herself or their goals ever to be truly evil. The Red Skull really believes the world would be a better place under Nazi rule. Victor Von Doom values art over power and has frequently been betrayed by love. Check out my run on Swamp Thing and you won’t find a truly evil monster in the bunch. That’s true for every series I’ve ever worked on. In Batman, Clayface III has a disease that makes his very touch lethal, so in his terrible loneliness, he falls in love with a department store mannequin, and ultimately sacrifices his life for her. The Firebug is trying to destroy the rundown buildings he feels are responsible for the deaths of his family so the same thing won’t happen to anyone else’s family. That’s the sort of thing I try to do with every character.

Back when Alan Moore was working for DC, I once asked him why he kept using so many of the villains I’d created in his stories. He replied, “You stop creating so many wonderfully twisted bastards, I’ll stop using them.”

Creating characters for team books is a slightly different matter. The first I consider is the dynamics of the group, what sort of mix of powers will the characters need, how should they interact? Then I go to work filling those needs, developing the pragmatic one, the hot-headed one, the voice of reason, the voice of fear.
The bottom line, however, always remains the same. What is the basic humanity of the character? How do I make them resonate with the reader?

MW: WHAT MAKES A STORY?

LW: Damned if I know. No, seriously, I really mean that. You and I have had this discussion a thousand times over the years. I’ve never sat down and thought about the difference between plot and theme. Frankly, to me, that’s never been terribly important.

You can sit down and read a dozen different textbooks or how-to manuals that will tell you the basic rules of what makes a story. A story has to have a beginning, a middle, and an end. The protagonist has to have some sort of character arc, in that the events of the story have to change him in some way; he has to learn a lesson. Your protagonist and antagonist both have to seek the same goal, but attempt to achieve it through opposite means. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Yadda yadda yadda. That’s how to construct a story; to me, it’s not what makes a story.

What makes a story is how well it manages to connect with the reader, the visceral effect it has. When someone writes in to tell me something I’ve written made them laugh or cry or, more importantly, think, I’ve done my job and done it well.

The rest is all semantics.

MW: HOW DO YOU PITCH AN IDEA TO AN EDITOR/STORY-EDITOR/PRODUCER?

LW: It really depends on whom you’re pitching to. When I came up with Batman: Nevermore, I pitched it to Bob Schreck at Oakland’s WonderCon with one sentence: “What if the World’s Greatest Detective was the one who taught the man credited with actually inventing the detective story?” Bob loved the idea, asked me to put together an overview (what would generally happen in each issue) of the entire series. He took it to the Powers That Be at DC, and a year to the day after I pitched it, I got the go ahead to start scripting.

In the case of our screenplay, The Gene Pool, we typed up a complete treatment (the story) of the film, and gave a copy to anyone who might be interested in producing it, until those fine folks at Solo Entertainment decided to make a deal with us.

In the case of various TV shows we’ve developed, it comes down to putting together a verbal pitch that we can take to development people at the various production companies around town. These, frankly, are the ones that I find the hardest. Writing is comparatively easy; verbal pitching is damn hard.

In general, shorter is better. If you can encapsulate your idea into a single captivating sentence, you’re halfway home.

MW: HOW DO NEW WRITERS GET THE ATTENTION OF STORY EDITORS, PRODUCERS, ETC?

LW: Well, depending on what you look like, going into a meeting stark naked with money taped to your butt sometimes works.

Seriously, in these litigious times, if you’re a beginner, it’s becoming harder and harder to get your work to the people who might actually be able to hire you. DC and Marvel now run a blurb in their books that says they will not accept unsolicited submissions.
I suppose your best bet these days to be seen by an editor at the major companies is to self-publish your work. It seems to have worked wonders for Brian Michael Bendis and several others. Cornering an editor at a convention has possibilities, assuming you don’t accidentally manage to tick them off.

Other than that, knowing someone already in the business who can recommend you to the people in charge may be a way to go. Or coming into comics as a ‘Prince from Another Land” seems to be working for J. Michael Straczynski, Bob Gale, Kevin Smith, Michael Chabon, etc.

Unfortunately, these days, it seems that if you’re not already in place, you can’t get there from here.

MW: WHAT ARE YOUR GOALS AND WHAT ARE YOU TRYING TO DO WHEN WRITING IN OTHER PEOPLE’S UNIVERSES? (novelizations, company-owned characters, episodic TV, etc.)

LW: The first thing I always try to remember when I’m playing in someone else’s sandbox is that I’m only a caretaker. These characters don’t belong to me. They don’t actually even belong to the companies as far as I’m concerned. They belong to posterity.

I try, wherever possible, not to violate what came before me and to leave lots of wiggle room for those who will follow. Sadly, that doesn’t seem to be much the case anymore with most people working on the books. When I was a reader, I always wondered why the creators of certain comics didn’t do the story where… (you can fill in the specifics. You thought about it, too, when you were a kid; you know you did). As the years went on, I had a chance at various times to write every one of those titles where that story had never been done; that story, of course, being different in every case. I figured I’d do the stories myself, but in every instance, when it came right down to plotting that story, I looked ahead and realized the chaos doing that story would wreak with the future of the series. “Ah,” I’d think to myself, “So that’s why it’s never been done.” And I wouldn’t do it either.

Unfortunately, in the years since, various other writers whose only concern was how good they could make themselves look on a title actually did those stories, and the inevitable chaos ensued. There’s a reason so many titles have needed rebooting in the past few years, and that’s a major one of them. People who were more concerned with themselves and looking good to their readers then they ever were with the characters who had been given into their care. People who sacrificed a series for the sake of a story. People who simply didn’t care about the future.

MW: WHEN YOU ARE IN CHARGE AND OTHER WRITERS EVER WRITE YOUR CHARACTERS (NOVELIZATIONS, TV SHOWS, COMICS, ETC.) WHAT ARE YOU LOOKING FOR AS THE EDITOR AS WELL AS THE CREATOR?

LW: Consistency and ingenuity. Have they remained true to the spirit of the character while finding new places to take them? I can’t count the number of people who’ve come up to me over the years to ask me what I thought of what Alan Moore did to Swamp Thing while he was writing the book. What most of them fail to realize is that I was the editor who hired Alan to write the title and watched over him while he worked. If there was ever anything I disagreed with, I wouldn’t have allowed Alan to do it. But Alan looked at Swamp Thing with a new eye, saw things I’d never imagined while I was writing the book, and took the title to new heights as a result. That’s the kind of thing I’m talking about.

When I got my first glimpse of Hugh Jackman as Wolverine, his back to us in that fighting cage, my breath caught. In that single instant, he was Wolverine. I didn’t care that he wasn’t wearing yellow spandex. I didn’t care that he was over six feet tall. He had captured the spirit of the character perfectly. When people ask me about the size differential, I just tell them that Jackman played the character as short. Wolverine worked perfectly on screen, Storm not quite so much because Halle Berry, magnificent as she is to look at, didn’t capture the regal quality of Ororo Munroe. Rick Springfield made a suitably-tormented Human Target. Dick Durock was fine as Swamp Thing in the features and series, but the writing wasn’t up to the right tone for the character.

In the end, it’s always a crap shoot.

MW: HOW DO YOU DEFINE YOUR RELATIONSHIP UP FRONT WITH YOUR
EDITOR/STORY-EDITOR/PRODUCER/THE WRITERS WHO WORK UNDER YOU?

LW: It’s all about who’s where on the food chain. When I’m the story editor, I expect my writers to follow my vision of the stories and series. When I’m working for another editor, I’m obliged to follow their vision. I’ve had editors over the years who improved everything of mine they had input into, and editors who couldn’t find a clue if it was stapled to their butt. I went out of my way to do as much work as possible for the former, and as little as possible for the latter.
The bottom line, however, is that the job is the job and, in the end, it all depends on which side of the desk you’re sitting on.

MW: WHAT IS YOUR GENERAL ADVICE TO WRITERS AND WOULD-BE WRITERS?

LW: A writer writes. Period. No matter if someone is buying your work or not. If you can be talked out of being a writer, then you should be. It’s a hard, easy, gratifying, frustrating, joyful, joyless chore.

And I wouldn’t trade it for any other job in the world.I want to thank Len for the first part of his interview (as well as the second since I’ve already read it). Be sure to return next week to read part two. Also, don’t forget to send in your questions.

See you in seven
Marv Wolfman

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