Last Saturday afternoon, just after 3:00, Len Wein casually strolled into the room set up for his spotlight panel at Fan Expo Canada. The co-creator of characters including Swamp Thing, Nightcrawler, Colossus, Thunderbird, Storm and Wolverine said, “I suppose I wonder what we’re all doing here.” Unsure of the format and finding himself without a moderator, Wein, who also edited “Watchmen,” decided to go straight to a question-and-answer session with the gathered comic book fans.
The first question he fielded was, “How did you get into writing?” Wein’s reply was, “I got into writing by starting to train as an artist,” meaning he never fully intended to be a writer. Wein provided more background by relating his first meeting with comics: he was sick when he was seven, and his father brought him comics to read while he was laid up in bed. The young Wein immediately fell in love with the medium. He recalled later drawing a shark at school, and receiving encouraging words from his teacher. Wein decided to try and become a comic book artist and went to art school to try his hand telling stories, both writing and drawing.
From there, Wein quickly discovered people thought he was a better writer than artist, and he decided to focus his energies in that direction. His first issue that actually saw print at DC Comics was an issue of “Teen Titans”, co-written by Marv Wolfman, who happened to be a childhood friend of Wein’s. The two of them would continue to find opportunities to work together throughout their careers.
When the next audience member asked for advice for aspiring writers, Len Wein admitted that he didn’t quite know how people got into the industry nowadays. “When I was a kid, DC would have a tour of the offices on Thursdays.” Taking the tour frequently with his friends – the aforementioned Marv Wolfman and others – people at DC got to know them. Wein was eventually able to transform that recognition into filling the role of an unpaid intern. Today, however, DC doesn’t have that tour, nor is it preferred for the artists and writers to be local, as it was in those days.
Anther fan asked what Wein’s favorite comics are these days. “‘Fables,’ ‘Secret Six’ — I like Gail Simone’s work a lot,” Wein answered. “‘JSA,’ ‘JLA,’ ‘Spider-Man.’ I don’t read the X-books any more. I don’t know what’s going on in those any more, which is weird, considering some of those are my characters.”
Wein’s favorite character that he created or co-created? “That’s like asking someone to pick their favorite kid,” he said. Wein did cite Wolverine as his most popular character (he was wearing a Wolverine t-shirt under his opened button-down long-sleeved shirt), and said that Swamp Thing “seemed a kindred spirit.” “I can tell you a character I created that I don’t like. I created a character for ‘Green Lantern’ when I was writing that book and [the character is] called the Javelin.” The crowd groaned.
One audience member asked Wein about balancing a large cast of characters, and how a writer can do that effectively. Wein said that one needs to provide a moment for each character to shine. If every character has a moment – Wein used the example of “The Lord of the Rings” – you don’t realize that they weren’t central to the action throughout the entire book.
How did “Swamp Thing” become an ongoing series when it was originally just an eight-page story? Wein said he pitched the story to editor Joe Orlando, and kept referring to that story as “That swamp thing that I’m working on.” For whatever reason, the appearance of Swamp Thing in “House of Secrets” outsold every other title from DC that month, and Joe Orlando and Carmine Infantino kept requesting a continuation of the tale from Wein and artist Bernie Wrightson. The creators didn’t want to continue the story of Swamp Thing, but Infantino and Orlando insisted that if they didn’t, other creators would be hired for the job. After some debate, Wein decided on a way to handle the character and called Wrightson. Wrightson agreed and the rest is history.
An audience member was curious as to Wein’s connection to his characters today. Wein revealed that he does get residuals from DC, but nothing from Marvel.
With respect to one of his most famous works, “Uncanny X-Men,” Wein said the diversifying of the cast and creation of a more international team was based on the premise that by doing so, the book would sell better in other countries. Wein and Dave Cockrum brought in Sunfire, Banshee and Wolverine – all characters previously created (in Wolverine’s case, created by Wein) and all from countries besides the United States. No one ever told Wein and Cockrum what countries the comics sold in, so the writer still doesn’t know if the characters were well assigned to the target markets.
The next inquisitor asked who Wein’s favorite artists to work with were, and the writer produced a who’s who of amazing comic book creators: Ross Andru – who Wein said was “one of the greatest storytellers in the business” — Bernie Wrightson, Dave Cockrum, John Buscema, Walt Simonson, Dave Gibbons, George Perez, Herb Trimpe and quite a few others. Wein cited that the processes are different for each co-worker, so he did not reveal who was his favorite of that lot.
In discussing the comic books of recent years, Wein said that the most critical aspect that doesn’t always find its way into new books — especially during the early days at Image, when, in Wein’s opinion, the art favored pin-ups — is storytelling. “First and foremost, that is the most critical aspect – tell the story the best way you can. Lettering, colorists, artists, they all need to contribute to the story and use their skills to aid in the storytelling. Storytelling starts with the writer, but without all of these other pieces, picking up their part of the story, things just don’t happen.”
Continuing on with the topic of modern day comics, Wein said, “I am not a fan of the grim and gritty superhero.” He got a chuckle at this, considering he created Wolverine, who some would say is the poster child for “grim and gritty.” Wein went on to say that he created Wolverine with the ability to kill someone, but what made him a hero was the fact that he – at the time — didn’t kill people.
One fan wanted to know, “Did someone ever do something with your character that surprised you?” Wein didn’t even hesitate to answer this one, saying, “When Geoff Johns came up with the other Lanterns, all of us smacked our heads. I can’t believe we didn’t think of that!”
Asked about his characters making it to the movies and what he thought of them, Wein said, “The first time Hugh Jackman showed up on screen, with his back to you, before he even turned, I went, ‘My gosh it’s him – it’s Wolverine!'” Wein said Morgan Freeman was a great choice for Lucius Fox and that Alan Cumming was great as Nightcrawler. While he wasn’t sold on Storm, Wein admitted he originally preferred the notion of supermodel Iman for Storm, but understands why people would prefer Halle Berry. With Swamp Thing, “they did what they could,” but Wein was unimpressed.
Wein then changed things up and shared a little bit about this childhood. His aunt lived next door to Mike Sekowsky. Wein, Marv Wolfman and some of his other pals went over to meet Sekowsky at the behest of his aunt, and eventually they were met a large number of comics creators. Through this chain and over time, Wein and his friends found themselves frequently visiting the Kirby household. They used to go to Kirby’s house and his wife Roz would provide the kids with milk and cookies while they watched Jack draw.
Asked about his favorite comics, Wein offered up a William Messner-Loebs issue of “Johnny Quest” from its run at Comico. The story was told from the perspective of Bandit. “One of the most wonderful stories I’ve ever read,” Wein said.
What was Wein’s biggest creative argument in his capacity as an editor? “The end of ‘Watchmen,'” Wein confessed. “I hated it since the time Alan pitched it to me. It was an episode of ‘Outer Limits.’ Eleven brilliant issues and a borrowed ending. It’s not an original ending. It breaks my heart for such an original book.”
Wein said that editors work for the creators now. “The editors give up power they don’t think they have in order to satiate the talent and keep talent around. I think that’s a problem,” he said. Editors once mandated what happened and who created it. Now, “the editors are more timid, attempting not to upset creative talent.” Wein also feels that thought balloons should find their way back to the printed pages. “I think you can do whatever you want to do in the medium. We should do things in comics that are unique [to comics].”
Who are Wein’s favorite villains to write? Without hesitation, the first one from Wein’s mouth was the Joker. “I love writing the Joker! You sit down and are sometimes surprised by what the Joker does.” Other villains include Ra’s al Ghul and “half of Spider-Man’s rogues’ gallery.” Wein considers himself lucky that in a career that includes “Swamp Thing” and “The Simpsons,” he has been able to work with both Batman and Spider-Man, adding that they have the coolest collection of villains between them.
What does Wein have going on now? His current workload includes some episodes for “Ben Ten.” “In theory I’m supposed to be writing for [the upcoming] ‘Human Target’ show,” he said.
Wein then teased the audience a bit by saying, “I have this really cool project with DC that I cannot talk about right now.” What he did reveal is that if it goes through as planned, he would be able to work with a vast amount of the “new talent” currently at DC. Wein is extremely excited about the project and mentioned a meeting with DC Executive Editor Dan DiDio would be following the spotlight panel.
Asked about the housefire that he recently endured and how he was recovering from that, Wein mentioned that reconstruction on his house is slowly proceeding. He’s thankful no one was harmed, but sad that some of the irreplaceable possessions — like original art from “Incredible Hulk” #181 — were lost. Finding a silver lining to end the panel, Wein said, “I am one of the luckiest guys in the history of the industry.” Wein said that he had the privilege to work with “the great editors” like Julius Schwartz and Joe Orlando and then worked alongside a new line of editors and eventually became one himself.
With the next panel waiting to come in, Wein found himself warmly encircled by a group of fans as the room emptied out.