Thursday, September 14, 2017


Legendary comics writer and editor Len Wein passed away a few days ago after a long series of medical ailments. I don’t use the term “legendary” lightly. Seriously, what other adjective could better describe the creator of Swamp Thing, Wolverine and dozens of other characters or the editor who championed Alan Moore’s reinvention of Swamp Thing?

Len was a friend, albeit a friend I didn’t get to see as often as I would have liked. I’m more than a little jealous that all Len’s other friends have better Len stories and tributes to share with you than I do. Yeah, I know. Poor me. But I include this smidgen of whining because I know it would have made Len laugh and that he would have made some hilarious joke that got an even bigger laugh from anyone around him. That photo at the top of today’s bloggy thing? That’s how I have always thought of Len. He had the best smile.

Len was an important influence on my writing even before I met him at a Detroit Triple Fan Fair in the early 1970s. As much as I loved and read thousands of comic books, there are only four writers that I can honestly say that I studied. Stan Lee is the one that needs no explanation. Roy Thomas because he was one of the best and the smartest writers of my formative years. Robert Kanigher because he had a terrific visual sense and such great emotional content in his stories. And Len Wein...because Len was one of the finest wordsmith in the history of comics.

Len’s writing was poetry. I read his Phantom Stranger stories over and over again. I read his Swamp Thing stories over and over. The man just had a knack for words which, coupled with his ability to create characters and tell wonderful stories, made him a writer I knew I could and did learn from. We’ll get back to that in a while. I’m trying to keep this as linear as I can because I need that kind of focus to overcome the weight in my heart.

I met Len (and Marv Wolfman and Bernie Wrightson) before I went to work at Marvel Comics in 1972. We met at a convention and they were all exceedingly kind to me and everyone else they met. They weren’t superstars back then. They were relatively new to working in comics  professionally. But, what made me admire them and, as we all got to know each other better, love them was that they never essentially changed. Occasional bumps in the road aside, they were good friends from the moment I met them and stayed that way.

When I went to work for Marvel...

Pause. Okay, I know this tribute to Len is coming off more “me, me, me” than I would like. I already warned you that all Len’s friends have better Len stories than I do. We didn’t live in the same state for more than a couple years and, after that, I only saw him every now and again. I have to work with what I have.

When I went to work for Marvel, Len was writing for both Marvel and DC. We hung out at Marvel and after work. He was always fun in an impish sort of way. In later years, he claimed to have participated  in an epic prank or, to put it another way, a clear case of abuse of a fellow employee. He wasn’t there, but he took such delight in telling people he was there I never called him on it. At least not to his face.

Marvel was moving from one floor of the building to another floor where we would have more space. Don McGregor and Marv Wolfman put me in a huge box, taped it shut and said they were going to ship me to Abu Dhabi or some such. Sol Brodsky came in, doubtless rolling his eyes at such hijinks, and told them to release me. He needed me to finish an issue of The Mighty World of Marvel or another British weekly. Len wasn’t there, but let the record show my firm belief that, if he had been there, he would have gleefully joined in this prank and/or abuse.

Getting serious for a moment...

My first comics writing job for Marvel was a disaster. I’d pitched a seven-page plot to Roy Thomas for one of our color horror comics. Roy wanted me to cut it to three pages and, instead of writing it full-script as I would have preferred, write a plot for the artist. The artist was an industry veteran who did a frankly terrible job on it. I suffered massive writer’s block, took way too long to do what should have been the work of an hour or two tops, and did an awful job. I didn’t think I was going to get any more writing gigs from Marvel.

Len had added Vampirella to his already heavy load of assignments from DC and Marvel. He asked me to come up with and write a rough draft of a Vampirella story following from whatever had come before in the series. I threw myself into that job, doing my best to ape Len’s style in doing so.

Writing that script taught me an important lesson. It’s much easier to imitate a great writer with a distinctive style than the cookie-cutter lightweights so prevalent in comics then and now. It didn’t teach me a lesson I still am struggling to master, but we’ll get to that in another paragraph or two.

Len loved what I had done. It was more than he expected and he paid me more than the rate we had agreed on. When he turned the script in, he hadn’t rewritten it to any great extent. I was so proud of that vote on confidence and amazed at what Len (and Marv) did next. They went to Roy, told him what a good job I had done and suggested he give me another shot on writing comics for Marvel. He did and I ended up writing a lot of comics for Marvel.

The bad news about this story came later. One of my friends saw me working on the script at my apartment. He asked what it was and I told him. I didn’t realize he was doing occasional production work for James Warren, the publisher of Vampirella and other black-and-white comics magazines.

My friend told Warren that I had actually written this “Len Wein” story, which wasn’t 100% accurate as Len had, indeed, done a second draft of my script. It was still mostly my work, but Len was in there as well. Warren or someone working at Warren lost their shit. That turned out to be Len’s last Vampirella story.

Then and in later years, Len was rightfully upset with me because I violated the unspoken rule of the ghost-writer. I hadn’t meant to make my involvement public, but I did. Years later, in writing on my comics career, I mentioned this Vampirella tale, figuring enough years had passed that it no longer mattered. I was wrong. Len was still sensitive about it. I felt terrible that I had upset him yet again. Unfortunately, I still have a bad habit of telling friends too much about my writing projects and it sometimes comes back to bite me on the ass.

But I did learn never to reveal my ghost-writing clients, save for the rare occasions when those clients mentioned that I was working for them. I’ve ghost-written dozens of comic books and hundreds of daily or Sunday newspaper comic strips. Even when I got stiffed by  a client, I never revealed their names or what I had done for them. I gave up ghost-writing comic books well over a decade ago and, in the newspaper comic strip industry, I’m now doing only occasional work for just one client.

Back to Len and me...

Len was my editor for a short time at Marvel and we butted heads a few times. He said Luke Cage didn’t have super-strength and that he had only been able to punch his way out of Seagate Prison because his skin was invulnerable. I thought that was a ridiculous idea on account of it would have taken years for Luke to break through that concrete wall if he didn’t also have super-strength.

Len got upset when Ghost Rider managed to defeat the Hulk in one of my stories for the former. I thought Johnny Blaze was both clever in a desperation kind of way and very lucky. Len didn’t see it the same way. We compromised by running a funny Marie Severin cartoon of what would happen if Ghost Rider had faced the Hulk without such trickery. Think “Alas poor Yorick.” We ran the cartoon in the next issue’s letter column.

And, of course, there’s the legendary industry story of how he and Marv took my brilliant notion of a buddy book called Champions starring Iceman and the Angel...and turned it into an awkward teaming of those characters with an ex-Russian super-spy, an Olympian demi-god and a cursed motorcyclist. If you don’t know the story, you can find in my introduction to the recent Marvel Masterworks reprinting of Champions...or in any number of Champions interviews...or just by attending my convention panels. The odds are good someone will ask me about Champions.

Even when Len wasn’t my editor - this was at DC Comics - he didn’t like that I established that the Gentleman Ghost was clearly a for-real ghost. He preferred the uncertainty with which he had written the character in a Batman story. Me, I went with the origin written by Robert Kanigher, the creator of the Gentleman Ghost. In that case, I think Kanigher outranked Wein.

Yes, Len and I butted heads. To be truthful, things got real hard between Len and Marv and me when they were in charge of editorial at Marvel. It wasn’t a happy time, but that’s all water that went under the bridge decades ago. I don’t think any of us were suited for either the difficulties or the responsibilities that came with our various positions. With the wisdom of age, I think Len and Marv handled them better than I did. Those bumps in the friendship road doesn’t diminish my abiding affection for both of them.

Whenever I saw Len at a convention, we had a great time. When Marv and him were at Mid-Ohio-Con, I was delighted to see the lines of fans wanting to meet them and have them sign their comics dwarf the lines of every other guest at that particular convention.

Len’s health struggles were as epic as the stories he wrote. And I don’t want to dwell on them beyond the courage and good cheer with which he faced those struggles. The last time I saw him came after one of his dialysis treatments.

It was in January, 2014. Bob Ingersoll and I had decided to travel to Los Angeles so we could see a bunch of our friends without some convention getting in the way. At  Meltdown Comics and Collectibles on Sunset Boulevard, I did a Nerdist podcast with Adam Beechen and Len. We all had a great time.

After the podcast, Len told me how he was doing - and kept smiling even through the discussions of his health - and asked me how I was doing. I was actually in a pretty good place, having entered into a fair agreement with Marvel and even though it was well before DC and I would mend our incredibly broken bridges. I had steady work and a loving family. I had more friends all over the world than I had ever thought possible. I was a pretty happy guy. Actually, I told Len I had never dreamed I would be this happy.

Len’s face lit up. He said he was worried that wouldn’t happen for me. His smile, big as always, revealed how happy he was that I was happy. I loved him more right then than I had ever loved him before and - damn it, there’s tears in my eyes - I always thought of that moment and his smile whenever I thought of him afterwards.

Awkward or not, I hugged Len. I wished I had hugged him harder and longer. But we don’t get to see the future and we don’t know when we’re saying goodbye to someone for the last time.

Len’s legacy is an epic one and deservedly so. He is remembered for his stories. He is remembered for the countless good turns he did for others. He is remembered for being a great friend and a great human being in every sense of the term.

This bloggy thing’s for you, Len.

With thanks.

© 2017 Tony Isabella