SPEAKING WITH LEN WEIN PART TWO

A few notes before we continue our interview with Len Wein. First, I’ve been asking for you to send in questions, but so far no one’s asked anything. There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch, people. Get to work.

And now…

As I said last week, I’ve known Len since I was 13. Len and I worked together on fanzines and broke into professional comics a few months apart. Len’s worked for most of the companies: He wrote Twilight Zone and Star Trek for Gold Key before coming to DC to work on Wonder Woman, Superman, Batman, Phantom Stranger, Swamp Thing and others. He went over to Marvel as Roy’s assistant editor and soon became Editor-in-Chief of Marvel’s color comics. While there Len wrote Spider-Man, Fantastic Four, Hulk and Thor – at the same time. Len left Marvel in the late 70s to return to DC where he edited Batman, Camelot 3000 and brought Alan Moore on board to write Len’s own creation, Swamp Thing. When Len moved out to Los Angeles he became Editor-in-Chief at Disney Comics, served for a time as Editor at Top Cow and last year co-wrote The Gene Pool, a live action movie script with partner Marv Wolfman. This year, besides working on The Victorian and Batman: Nevermore, which should be at your comic shops any day now. 

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

LEN WEIN: t 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?

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 despicable 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.

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

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?

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?

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 taking the time to answer these questions. Ignoring Stan Lee and squeaking in just ahead of me, Len has had more of his creations translated into animation, TV and film than any other writer of our generation. Whether his characters are good or bad (hero or villain) they all have some sort of redemptive quality to them. Take a look at his Batman: Nevermore mini-series on sale any day now.

See you in seven
Marv Wolfman

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