16 Sep 2017

LEN WEIN RIP

Rob N: Growing up in the '70s and '80s in the UK, it wasn’t actually that easy to get hold of Len Wein’s most groundbreaking work. The first time I really registered his name (in conjunction with Bernie Wrightson) was with Swamp Thing in the early '70s but, by the time it was being touted as a must-have series, back issues were hard to come by and comparatively expensive (almost as scarce as anything drawn by Neal Adams). I remember saving up my pocket money and sending off a postal order for a couple of early copies of Swamp Thing from a back issue ad in Alan Austin's Comics Unlimited (the main UK comics fanzine at the time) only to have my money returned a week later with an apology note telling me that back copies of Swamp Thing sell out really quickly, and better luck next time.

I was on board though when Len Wein took over writing Phantom Stranger, one of the other quality mystery/supernatural comics put out by DC in the early '70s, and that quickly became a firm favourite in my teenage years. His run between issues #14 to #26 were a high point for the character in my opinion. I was also on board for some classic Batman stories, including the murder of Talia al Ghul (spoiler alert: she’s not really dead) and a rather bizarre and offbeat piece of Bronze Sge comic history – a very unofficial crossover of stories between the Marvel and DC universes in which Len Wein himself, and other comic book creators and their wives, guest-starred with established Marvel and DC heroes all attending the Halloween celebrations in Rutland, Vermont (presumably all taking place on the same night). The first that Marvel and DC knew about this unofficial crossover was when the unauthorised stories saw print. It is a sign of the innocence of the times that writers were able to get away with such things without ruffling any editorial feathers higher up in the food chain.

Once he moved on to Marvel, Len was responsible for two further ground breaking moments in creativity, and due to the patchy state of distribution Marvel comics had in the UK at the time, British readers like myself were unable to buy either of them. Early in his run of Incredible Hulk (by then classed as non-distributed in the UK so as not to confuse newsagents with the similarly titled British weekly reprints), Len Wein co-created Wolverine, and soon went on to revamp and relaunch X-Men with the Giant Size special and issues #94 and #95 of Uncanny (which had been bumbling along for close to 30 issues as a reprint comic previous to that point). Sadly, those key issues of X-Men were also non-distributed in the UK, further adding to the difficulty in tracking down some of Len’s key work, and it wasn't until many, many years later that I ever got to see them as reprints.

It’s safe to say there are few mainstream writers in comics who shaped the direction of the Marvel Universe to quite the degree Len Wein did in that single moment when he pitched a radically new concept for the X-Men. What would Marvel have looked like from the '80s onwards if his Giant Size X-Men hadn’t been given the green light?

As the 1980s rolled on, I fond myself picking up numerous comics edited by Len. Camelot 3000 was a big deal at the time when DC was bursting with new ideas, even if the Brian Bolland-led title isn’t so well remembered now, and DC’s revamp of Teen Titans echoed the success Marvel had enjoyed with their new X-Men. For a time, the '80s 'new look' Teen Titans was my favourite DC book. And proving he was no slouch when it came to writing still, he relaunched Wonder Woman with George Perez in one of the most iconic story arcs outside of Greg Rucka's work – another firm '80s favourite of mine.

And then, of course, Len edited a comic called Watchmen.

I lost track of the man as my tastes drifted into the Vertigo books but I’ve never forgotten the expectation of quality whenever I picked up a comic with his name on it, either as writer or editor. We’ve reached that time when many of the Silver Age and Bronze Age visionaries are passing on and, without any doubt, Len Wein can be classed as one of them.

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