How Len Wein Changed Comics
Reclaiming HistoryThe 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.
In June 2016, DC Comics kicked off the start of its Rebirth initiative. After a wave of criticism surrounding the way they have treated their characters’ rich histories since 2011’s New 52 relaunch, DC has decided to rebrand. They hope that by restoring their characters’ pasts, they will restore readers’ faith in them as well. Do they succeed? That’s what the Comics Beat managing editor Alex Lu, entertainment editor Kyle Pinion, and contributor Louie Hlad are here to discuss. Book by book. Panel by panel.
THIS WEEK: Louie is excited to see two monster-centric 80 page giants! Swamp Thing Winter Special #1 is a fitting tribute to the late great Len Wein, and Young Monsters in Love #1 is a different kind of Valentine treat.
Note: the reviews below contain **spoilers**. If you want a quick, spoiler-free buy/pass recommendation on the comics in question, check out the bottom of the article for our final verdict.
Swamp Thing Winter Special #1
Story: Len Wein & Tom King
Art: Jason Fabok & Kelley Jones
Colors: Michelle Madsen & Brad Anderson
Letters: Deron Bennett
I’ll tell you up front, I’m giving this book a hard buy. It’s an 80 page giant that has two original Swamp Thing stories and a beautiful tribute to the late Len Wein, who died last September. Easily the best thing on the shelves this week.
Len Wein wrote an awful lot of stuff. Look up his bibliography — it will make you suddenly feel behind schedule. My first and fondest encounter with Wein’s work was mid-1980’s Green Lantern. These were cherished issues that featured a discontented Hal Jordan and classic villains like Hector Hammond and The Shark. His stories were epic and implausible and felt like they mattered.
And then I found Swamp Thing.
The original Swamp Thing series in 1972 was a comic like I’d never seen before. It was not so much superhero sci-fi, but straight horror. As of this writing, the first issue is free on Comixology (a 100% discount off the original 20 cent price tag). In that issue, Len Wein and Bernie Wrightson created a shambling, elemental monstrosity that battled with its lingering shreds of humanity. The first ten issues are comic book must-reads. Wrightson’s art is profoundly unsettling; impish demons that are all bulging eyes and distended bodies. They will give you goosebumps and keep you up at night.
Swamp Thing at its core has always been about monsters, both within and without. Len Wein emphasized the sense of terror by using bombastic, dramatic language like “the darkness cries” and “the tragedy that has long been known as man.” It may sound hokey out of context, but it draws you in like a great campfire story. The monster speaks in broken fragments of thought, poetic and forlorn. You quickly realize that the monster is you and a happy ending is not assured.
This week’s Winter Special publishes Len Wein’s last Swamp Thing story, which was originally intended to be the first issue of a new series. It is illustrated by the ostentatious Kelley Jones, with his signature pointy-eared Batman and everything. Wein’s original script is also included in its entirety so readers can witness the master at work.
And all of that happens after page 40. The first half of this book is a harrowing tale of horror written by Tom King and drawn by Jason Fabok. A classic-looking Swampy is protecting a lost child by fighting monsters in a winter blizzard as he slowly deteriorates from the unnatural hibernation of the flora. This book is gorgeous. The colors by Brad Anderson make Fabok’s visual storytelling even more impressive, with the white of the snow drawing extra attention to the red of hot blood.
As with every great Swamp Thing story since that first debut, the plot and characters are a dark metaphor. Tom King uses winter to represent difficult times of stagnation with which we are all familiar. The characters are running from an unseen enemy, too terrified to stop and consider what they are actually fighting. The child narrates the off-scene battles as if they are haunting memories. The tension quickly builds as the story loses its own sense of time — repeatedly labeling scenes only as “later.” Time tends to slip away in the winter.
In the end, as always, the monster must face himself. Spring always comes but happy endings are never assured.
Young Monsters in Love #1
Story: Kyle Higgins, Tim Seeley, Mairghread Scott, Collin Kelly, Jackson Lanzing, Paul Dini, Mark Russell, Steve Orlando, Alisa Kwitney, Phil Hester, James Robinson
Art: Kelley Jones, Giuseppe Camuncoli, Cam Smith, Bryan Hitch, Andrew Currie, Javier Fernandez, Guillem March, Frazer Irving, Nic Klein, Stephanie Hans, Mirko Colak, John McCrea
Colors: Michelle Madsen, Tomeu Morey, Nathan Fairbairn, Trish Mulvihill, Dave McCaig, Mike Spicer, John Kalisz
Letters: Rob Leigh, Clayton Cowles, Carlos M. Mangual, Sal Cipriano, Travis Lanham, Tom Napolitano, Dave Sharpe, Clem Robins
There is another 80 page giant on the shelves this week that also features Swamp Thing on the cover and Kelley Jones art inside. This one-shot’s title plays on an obscure DC concept called Young Heroes in Love from twenty years ago. Aside from the uncanny similarity in titles, there’s no relation. Young Monsters is a Valentine’s Day themed look at the horror corner of the modern DC universe. That’s right — horror romance. There are ten 8-page tales in this special, most of which are worth the read. Especially if you enjoy the weirder corners of the DCU.
The editor and nitpicker in me complains that some of the feature characters aren’t technically monsters. Etrigan is a demon being tormented in hell and Raven is a gothy teen who happens to be the daughter of a demon. Deadman is definitely a ghost. For that matter, I’m not sure all of these characters are young either. I’m guessing the marketing department pushed back on the title “Young (and Some Old) Monsters (and Other Esoteric Spooky Things) in Love.”
The good news is that this isn’t one of those trial anthology books designed to give new creators their first crack at the industry. Some well-known talent is represented here: James Robinson, Phil Hester, Paul Dini, Frazer Irving, Guillem March, Brian Hitch. Kelley Jones draws both Batman and Man-Bat in a Kyle Higgins fable about addiction and self-love. Tim Seeley and Giuseppe Camuncoli show Frankenstein and his bride bonding over a typical day at the office (battling satanic butler robots) only to go home separately, their love forever unconsummated.
Plenty of these short stories end in heartbreak rather than joy. The Swamp Thing and Etrigan endings are especially tragic, as we are reminded that monsters don’t always get what they want. Solomon Grundy spends his Valentine’s Day remembering all he has lost and the Creature Commandos relieve their amorous frustrations with good old-fashioned violence. Love, like horror, is not for the faint of heart.
One of the most unlikely and intriguing comic book romances is between a superintelligent gorilla named Monsieur Mallah and a human brain named, um…The Brain. It’s hard to explain. Mallah and the Brain are a tragic pair of lovers whose evil aims aren’t usually all that evil. They just want to be left alone to enjoy each other’s strange, strange company. I have to admit I find myself pulling for the weirdos.
This comic might not be for everyone, but then again it might just hit your sweet spot. It’s filled with short tales that spotlight the odder character concepts that rarely get a long form exploration. The theme of love is addressed from multiple angles, some heartwarming and others heart wrenching. You’ll have to be honest with yourself — how weird do you like your love?
- Forgive me for being late to the party, but the second chapter of Milk Wars this week was my very first introduction to Mother Panic. I didn’t feel knowledgeable enough about the character and history to write a proper review but I will offer my impressions. Sub-bullets!
- First and foremost, the issue (Mother Panic/Batman Special #1) is a great product. It’s well written and interesting, with a stylized dialogue for the Gather House inhabitants that is fun to read. The layouts are playfully creative and the art matches the tone of the story perfectly. The cover was done by Frank Quitely and of course it is magnificent.
- The first page gives you a quick recap of everything you need to know. Jumping in cold was no problem and I never felt like I was missing context. You could even read this comic before reading chapter one and I don’t imagine it would matter. Maximum accessibility. Thank you, DC.
- Mother Panic seems to be a story about a young woman who grew up Catholic and was left with some emotional scars. A lot of us feel that way, though few of us would go so far as to burn the church down.
- Or wait, maybe it’s about standardized education and how it transforms kids into complacent sidekicks. The children at Gather House are taught “drugs are bad” and to watch your language.
- Actually, I’m pretty sure the story is about the homogenization of comics and constant resets back to “normal” versions of the characters. This could be seen as a rebuttal to Rebirth as a whole.
- But it could be about sugar?
- Alex and Kyle have already written glowing reviews about the current Justice League run by Priest, but I’ll heap on another thumbs up. The beauty of the approach to me is that the book’s not about super fights, it’s about the team. The main stage is the headquarters rather than the battlefield. In that way it resembles the 1980’s Justice League International, when Guy Gardner was flirting with Ice and Blue Beetle was goofing off with Booster. Missions are the background — this is a study on team dynamics. I like that Batman and Wonder Woman don’t get along (why would they?) and that Simon Baz has a chip on his shoulder. Now if we can just get Martian Manhunter back…
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Louie is a freelance writer, editor, and desert dweller. He manages TimeIsBroken.com where he writes about comics, meditation and football. When he’s not reading Green Lantern, he is likely to be found crying over the Cleveland Browns.
Filed Under: DC, Reviews, Top NewsTagged With: DC, DC Comics, DC Reborn, Len Wein, Monsters, review, Reviews, Swamp Thing