In a medium where the spotlight is often focused on the transients and self-styled artistes, Len Wein stands out as a pillar of professionalism and competence. He is the kind of writer to whom are entrusted the fates of such characters as Superman, Spider-Man, Batman, and the Fantastic Four, and the kind of editor who has, in the course of his career, managed to secure high editorial positions at both Marvel and DC. In addition to this, Wein deserves a niche in comics history for his creation of Swamp Thing, a comic book that swept the Academy of Comic Book Arts Awards the year it was published, garnered praise from a multitude of sources (including a rare rave from Harlan Ellison), and is already being reprinted.
But even those who have made it to the top of the heap often have humble beginnings, and in this revealing, career-spanning interview Wein talks about how he broke into the industry writing such books as Hot Wheels, the problems of trying to work for more than one company at once, and how he rose, almost casually, to the forefront of today’s comics scene.
This interview was conducted in April 1979 by Roger Slifer. It was transcribed by Gary Groth and edited by Roger Slifer and Len Wein.—KIM THOMPSON
ROGER SLIFER: It’s a well-known fact that many comic book professionals today were once comic book fans. Rarely, however, do we read an account retelling such a fan’s transition. Instead, a fan curious about such a transition has to depend upon sketchy biographies and piece together clues from occasional remarks in letters pages. We’re going to put an end to that, at least in Len Wein’s case. Can you give us a brief rundown on your entrance into the professional ranks?
WEIN: Yes. It is probably public knowledge by now that I started out to be an artist. I had no real interest in comic book writing at all. I went to high school and college to learn how to draw pretty, comical-book pictures. I got involved with Marv Wolfman via a letters page in some comic, and we worked together on some fan projects. He would do most of the writing and I would do the artwork. Eventually, when we thought we had a product good enough, we put together some samples to bring over to Dick Giordano at Charlton. By the time we finished putting the samples together — proving that I’ve never made a deadline ever in my entire life — Dick was over at DC already.
The day we chose to go up with our samples, Dick happened not to be in. He was out sick or whatever. We were sitting around dejected. We ran into Carmine Infantino, the editorial director at the time, and Joe Orlando coming back from lunch and tried desperately to show them our samples. Carmine, in his gregarious fashion, put his arm around Joe’s shoulder and said, “Well, show them to my boy, Joey here, and if he likes them, then he’ll make whatever decision he decides to make.” So, Joe took our samples, went into his office, left us sitting in the waiting room for a while, and came back out after looking the stuff over, and said he thought the artwork was a little mediocre, but he liked the writing. And, if we were inclined to take a crack at doing a House of Mystery story, he would be interested in seeing what we could produce.
At that moment, I became a writer. I figured that was my only way to get in at the time. I would do anything I needed to do to get in.
SLIFER: Marv had done most of the writing on that particular story?
WEIN: Yes. I had done some fan writing here and there, but I never thought of it as actual writing. It never struck me as anything I’d intended to do.
We went home. Marv worked up a House of Mystery plot that was accepted. I also worked one up and Marv gave me a little help on it as I recall. They accepted it. I went home and wrote the script and it was bought. The first thing I’d ever tried writing!
SLIFER: It was bought on the strength of the plot, and then you went home and wrote a full script?
WEIN: No, I think I gave them a full script.
SLIFER: You gave it to Joe?
WEIN: I gave it to Joe Orlando. He bought my first professional assignment. I still have on my wall over there the note he sent me along with the check for the first story. That was 11 years ago.
SLIFER: After that, you started doing mystery stories for Joe?
WEIN: Yeah. House of Mystery. We did a couple of jobs together for Dick Giordano. Marv and I developed problems at the time that have since healed. We were both desperately struggling to be big-time comic book professionals. And you have to remember that at this point in time Mike Friedrich, Marv, myself, and I think Roy Thomas, were the first neophytes to come into the business in years. Previous to this, there hadn’t been any new talent per se in comic books in about 10 years since the mid—’50s and the time of EC. So, we were desperate to prove ourselves and kept doing all of these silly, fannish things you do to gain top billing—which one of our names went first on the plot we submitted, things like that. It caused a rift of sorts between Marv and myself that lasted for a couple of years. Dick Giordano tried playing peace-maker, good old Dick. He used to not let us come to the office on the same day.
Obviously, Marv and I got over that years ago.
SLIFER: Was there a lot of stiff competition between you and all the other new writers as well, or were you all separated by the fact you were working for different editors so that the sense of competition didn’t affect you that much?
WEIN: DC was in its last days of its old regime, where each editor had his own little kingdom and his own staff of people who worked for him. It was pretty much autonomous, so it wasn’t a problem. We had a lot of people really support us, especially Jack Miller, rest his soul, and Dick Giordano. Joe Orlando was very enthusiastic, trying to bring us in. A lot of people — probably more than we deserved — tried to help us along because we were a new creature. “Oh, look! Young comical book people! We must teach them!” It was a lot easier — I think we had a lot better background and a lot better training ground than anybody coming into the business today.
SLIFER: Did the older professionals during that period begin to realize that it was imperative to start training some new talent soon, because the people that were in the field were getting on in years, or was it just the novelty of a “younger generation?”
WEIN: It was a combination. I think at DC, at the time, half the editorial staff was the younger generation. Granted, Dick Giordano, Joe Orlando, and Joe Kubert had been in the business for years and years, but now they were suddenly editors. Most of the old-school editors like Mort Weisinger and Murray Boltinoff weren’t really interested in looking at our stuff until we had proven ourselves. Not so Julie Schwartz — Julie is always trying to help young folks along. Mort Weisinger came up to me one day, thinking I was Mike Friedrich, and said, “I heard about your stuff, and I’d be interested in seeing what you could do with Superman,” and I told him no, I wasn’t Mike Friedrich. [Laughter.]
SLIFER: Mostly, then, they were interested in building their own staffs, since they hadn’t really been in a position where they required one and suddenly they were in need of good talent.
WEIN: I think that was part of it, a sort of growing exercise for everyone. Dick [Giordano] did bring a few people along with him from Charlton: Denny O’Neil, Steve Skeates, Jim Aparo.
SLIFER: Did you know Dick before you went up to DC?
WEIN: No, I had never met him. I just knew that he was someone at Charlton who was obviously willing to give newcomers a break. They did some great strips over at Charlton. Some of my all-time favorite strips come from that period. He just looked like somebody who was approachable. I think that was the bottom line. Getting in to actually see these great icons of wisdom and talent, hidden behind the golden walls over at the old Grolier building.
SLIFER: When did you start writing for comics regularly?
WEIN: For the most part, I started doing a little fiddling around early on. I think about the fifth story Marv and I wrote was a Teen Titans we did together. We started to gain a little ground at DC at that point. They liked the first one we did. We tried an issue of Teen Titans — it was the second Titans story we did — that introduced a black superhero. I think we called the character Jericho. It was a beautiful job. Nick Cardy was drawing the book at the time. He did an absolutely lovely job on the art. And, apparently, DC didn’t know there was anything but white Anglo-Saxon Protestants appearing in comic books, and the introduction, in our story, of a black character was apparently frightening. Nick Cardy, who was part of the old school, brought that job to Carmine, and asked him, “Do you think we’re going too far? Should we be doing this? There’s a black character in here, God help us!” And, Carmine panicked, went, “Oh my God! We’re doomed! We’ll never sell our magazines in the South, anywhere south of Toledo!” They scrapped the issue, they completely scrapped the story. Neal Adams came to our defense, as Neal is so wont to do, and tried to convince Carmine that it was a good story and it didn’t need to be scrapped. And, it was a beautiful art job, one of the best things Nick ever did. I don’t think he ever really matched it. The fact that the story would not see print struck me as a real shame. But, Carmine would not be swayed. Carmine had made up his mind. It was set in cement once he made up his mind. In fact, it probably still is.
Neal ended up rewriting — over a weekend — an entirely different story featuring a character that was no longer black. He wrote it, penciled it, inked the entire 19-page story over a weekend, proving that, yes, he could make deadlines. But, it didn’t help my situation. And this happened just when I had started to gain some inroads.
DC was revamping the Metal Men at that point. I had come up with a whole new concept for the Metal Men for Jack Miller, working Marvel-style. Mike Sekowsky was penciling it, I was going to dialogue it off the finished pencils. And, Carmine, of course, decided, “No, you can’t write. Things aren’t working out,” based solely on the fact that I had introduced a black character in the Teen Titans. He took back the artwork I had just gotten my hands on — the Metal Men pages. In fact, I wrote the first 10 pages totally on speculation, like, “Please look at what I’ve done at least and see if it’s good.” But in the end, he gave the story to Denny O’Neil, who took it reluctantly, knowing the circumstances. After he had written his own, and I showed him my script, he said he thought it was a better job than he had done. It was simply Carmine’s reacting rather than acting.
Murray Boltinoff got a little shy over several plots I had approved for Tomahawk and Challengers of the Unknown. Suddenly he had no use for either. Marv and I were abruptly non-entities for six months or more and started to look for work elsewhere.
SLIFER: How did you finally make your inroads back?
WEIN: Good question. I’m not sure if I remember. We started doing stuff elsewhere. Marv sort of faded out of comic books. He moved out to Lake Ronkonkoma on Long Island.
SLIFER: What year was this?
WEIN: This is 11 years from ’79 … it was about ’69. I didn’t do a whole lot of work in my first year. I think I only managed to make as much at my old $10-a-page rate in my entire first year as I make on a single issue-and-a-half of Superman right now. A big difference in the rate. I started looking elsewhere. Marv got out of comic books. He had a degree as an art teacher. He taught school for a while. I sort of wandered around. I found some work at Gold Key. I started doing mystery stories for them. I ended up doing Hot Wheels and Mod Wheels and Star Trek comics. Anywhere there was some place to go I went. I did mystery stories for Marvel, for Roy [Thomas]. I learned most of my training on mystery stories. Most of the people now don’t have a chance to learn on them. Mystery stories require you to create an entire entity in seven pages, a cast of characters, personalities, problems, and resolution. It’s great training.
SLIFER: Had you held any jobs before you went to DC?
WEIN: No. I was still in college, in my last year of college. As a matter of fact, I missed classes on most Thursdays to go up to DC. I think part of how we started to get work after the first things we submitted was a willingness to be there. We let our faces be known. I used to take Thursday afternoons off from college and go up to DC to work for Milt Snappin in the foreign comics division where they had a separate staff. Stats would be made of the comic book artwork to be sent to foreign countries with the copy blocked out. I would cut up flats for him, for free, just to be there. “This is my face, remember it!” And they did.
SLIFER: Was your first series work for Gold Key?
WEIN: I think it was for Gold Key. Almost all of the stuff I did originally were one-shot mystery stories. I did one Phantom Stranger, which was mostly a mystery story. The first series I did was Hot Wheels. My God. Hot Wheels was drawn by Alex Toth. Neal Adams did a story with me. Ric Estrada and Dick Giordano penciled and inked some of those. That was the first series I did, and that was for Dick. There had been an entire market — Charlton had seven dozen hot rod and racing car magazines. I knew nothing about cars. Rather than do car stories, I did people stories with cars as the background. Conveniently enough, I had a friend who was very up on cars, so every time I had a problem, I’d say, “Listen, in this situation, what would happen?” and he would go, “Your cam shaft would go up your kazoo.” He would give me all the technical information and I’d stick it into the story, pretending I knew what I was talking about.
SLIFER: Actually, the first real noticeable mark you made was at DC. Were you back writing regularly at DC when you began writing the Phantom Stranger?
WEIN: At the time, I was writing the Phantom Stranger, I was writing regularly for everybody. I was working for DC, and I was doing some work for Skywald, Sol Brodsky’s old company. I was writing Westerns for them. For Gold Key, I was doing Star Trek and Mod Wheels, which was their answer to the Hot Wheels book I did at DC. In fact, when I took over the book, I just took the same cast, changed their names, changed their visual appearance slightly, and kept doing the same stories I was doing on the other book. I was working, pretty much, everywhere when I came back to DC to the Phantom Stranger. I was doing a lot of stuff for Gold Key.
SLIFER: Most people don’t remain at Charlton or Gold Key very long. The answer’s obvious to me, but could you tell the readers why?
WEIN: Money. You bet. No money. Their top rate reached everybody’s bottom rate. But there was one advantage … the work was regular. But it was very regimented at Gold Key. They generally liked six panels a page, 35 words per panel, tops. Simple rules. The comics were meant to be simply children’s books. Books that could be understood by the youngest audience. So, the work wasn’t difficult. It was simpler work and I had a tendency to do it quicker than the other stuff, but it just wasn’t lucrative. Other companies were raising their rates, and Gold Key was sitting happily on its laurels. They didn’t really need to raise rates to attract good people — they were making their money elsewhere.
SLIFER: I heard at one point that Gold Key tended to buy strips in bulk at a particular time during the year. They’d buy stories for two or three months and then, suddenly, a lot of people would be left without work for another six or eight months. Did you ever run into that situation?
WEIN: No, that never happened to me. Paul Kuhn, whom I did most of my work for, liked me and liked my stuff. I probably sold more stuff at more companies than anyone else. I got away with a lot more at Gold Key — I was designing my own covers for George Wilson to paint, some of the Twilight Zones and other things I did. I got a lot more leeway and a lot more out of it. The big problem with Gold Key is that they work about a year and a half ahead, I would write a story in January of one year and it would show up June the following year.
SLIFER: Not much instant gratification.
WEIN: Hardly at all. But I got away with a lot. I managed to get them to do a lot of revamping on the Star Trek book, which they’d gotten totally screwed up. It had very little relationship with the TV series. They let me get away with murder. When they ran out of things to do, they found other things for me to do.
SLIFER: How did you start writing the Phantom Stranger?
WEIN: What happened, very simply, was that Marv and I were the people behind the revival of the character. I had found the half-dozen issues of the original Phantom Stranger in some collection back a few years before I started working for DC — that was back when comic books were cheap, you could buy all those issues for 50¢ — and fell in love with the character. I was always a big Shadow fan, and there was a lot of the Shadow in the Phantom Stranger. So, DC was looking for another mystery book because the mystery books at DC were doing very well. We suggested the Phantom Stranger to Joe Orlando, and Joe remembered aspects of the character. After about six months they finally decided to go ahead and revive the Phantom Stranger and Marv and I were ecstatic.
Then they gave it to Mike Friedrich to write!
Although Mike was following the progress of the book’s conception, we felt it was pretty unfair since it was our suggestion to revive the book. They went through four or five issues of Phantom Stranger, doing it mostly as reprints of the original Stranger stories and reprints of the old Ghost Breaker stories with frames of new material around it. Mike Friedrich did a couple, Otto Binder did one. I don’t recall who did the others, but there were a number of people. Then, at about the fourth issue, Bob Kanigher took over the writing, and they decided to revamp the book entirely with all new material. Neal Adams drew several issues of the book, and after about the ninth or tenth issue, Joe Orlando was becoming less and less enamored of what Bob was doing with the book and was trying other writers. I thought, “Aha! A vulnerable spot!” I submitted a plot, and Joe liked the plot. We worked on it, back and forth, and that became my first Phantom Stranger story — “The Man with No Heart.” Joe, at that point, decided that Bob and I would alternate issues, as he was not completely dissatisfied with Bob’s work. Bob did one issue, I did the next issue. In between my first and what was going to be my second issue, Bob submitted his next issue and it was not acceptable at all to Joe. Joe called me up and said, “Hello, it’s an emergency! Can you do the next issue, after all, and the issue after that and forever?” And I said, “Oh, sure!” And that’s how I took over the book.
SLIFER: Wasn’t there also an issue that you and Marv did together?
WEIN: We had done one of those framework issues — issue three of the book; it wasn’t really a whole story. We also ended up doing my last issue together since it was a team-up of the Phantom Stranger and the Frankenstein character.
As a footnote, I ultimately ended up taking that story of Bob Kanigher’s that had been rejected and keeping, just barely, the premise and rewrote it entirely. I think it was “And a Child Shall Lead Them.” It ended up as part of my Dark Circle series.
SLIFER: What series did you do after that?
WEIN: I started doing all sorts of things about the time I got back into the Phantom Stranger. I was doing “Zatanna” with Gray Morrow for Adventure Comics, which Joe Orlando and Mark Hanerfeld were editing at the time. At about that time, DC got the rights to publish Burroughs material, and I was doing Korak, Son of Tarzan with Frank Thorne and “Carson of Venus” with Mike Kaluta, and “Pellucidar” with Alan Weiss. I started doing a whole mess of things for DC at that time. I started working for Julie Schwartz, too. I did the Elongated Man, a couple of the Flashes, some Superman stories.
SLIFER: I assume they were full-length stories?
WEIN: Yeah, the lead story for the most part. I did a couple of backup stories — “The Private Life of Clark Kent.”
SLIFER: Was it unusual in those days, not having been in the business very long, to write a major feature such as Superman? How did you feel about that?
WEIN: I wasn’t sure. I thought it was neat. It was the chance to work on a character I’d always liked. Julie and I fell in together — I’m not quite sure how. I had been doing some work for DC and trying to sell a Lois Lane story to Nelson Bridwell, who was editing Lois Lane at the time. Bridwell shared an office with Julie. I was sitting in the guest chair in Nelson’s office, waiting for Nelson to come back from a meeting and Julie Schwartz stalked into the office, looked at me and said, “You! Why are you in here?” And I said, “Uh, uh, I’m waiting for Nelson.” He said, “No, you’re not! You’re writing the Flash! Get up, over here” — and he sat me in his guest chair. Apparently, he had just had a big fight with the previous Flash writer, who shall remain nameless, but from whom I also took over the Phantom Stranger, and it was his opinion that nothing could be worse than what he was getting, so that even I, who looked nothing like a writer — because my hair was too long and I wasn’t dressed in a suit — could probably do a better job. So, we sat down and plotted a Flash that afternoon. I went home and typed up the plot. I came back and we re-plotted the Flash. I took it home, typed up the plot. After the second or third try, I got an acceptable plot. In the meantime, I ended up doing several Elongated Man stories for him and sort of fell into working for Julie. We became friends and I’ve been working for him pretty much on and less off ever since.
SLIFER: Your relationship with Julie has been one of your best relationships?
WEIN: Oh yes. Far and away. I get along well with Joe and Dick Giordano, but Julie’s something special.
SLIFER: There were two strips you worked on for DC — the Phantom Stranger and Swamp Thing — which, to my mind, bear more than any other the indelible mark of Len Wein. Which strip, especially considering the fact that they were both sort of mystery-oriented strips, do you feel was the more successful from a writing standpoint?
WEIN: It depends on who you ask. Marv Wolfman has always said I did much better work on the Phantom Stranger than I ever did on Swamp Thing. I tend to think Swamp Thing was better than the Stranger. It certainly was more commercially successful than the Phantom Stranger ever was. And I felt more emotionally fulfilled doing that particular strip. Steve Englehart pointed out to me last year sometime that Swamp Thing was probably the penultimate and consummate Len Wein strip, where the character faces all kinds of adversity and still plugs on regardless, which has to do with my own personal history. [Laughter.] I guess I related to the character more. Also, I do better mystery stories than superhero stories because left alone, I tend to write so damn purple that it doesn’t bother a mystery book as much as it tends to bother a Superman or Batman story. Of Phantom Stranger and Swamp Thing, I prefer Swamp Thing, but as I said, it depends on who you ask.
SLIFER: I’d like to digress and discuss the method you used in writing the Phantom Stranger and Swamp Thing. From my understanding, the Phantom Strangers were all done full script, and at least the first few Swamp Things you worked in what is called the Marvel style. Why the change from full script on Phantom Stranger to the Marvel style approach with Berni [Wrightson] on Swamp Thing?
WEIN: Well, first of all, I really hate calling it the Marvel approach because it was a concept that was used in the business many years before Stan first started using it, for expediency’s sake, at Marvel. When I came back to DC recently, and I started pushing that particular plot, art, then script fashion on my artists, guys like Irv Novick and Murphy Anderson, who’ve been in the business since before I was alive, would go, “Oh sure, we used to work that way back in the ’40s at this company and that company.” They mentioned the company’s name, which I don’t remember, unfortunately. I think Fiction House worked that way, and St. John’s. So, it’s not really the “Marvel” style.
But I’ve always believed that particular approach creates the best comic book. It, for the most part, reduces redundancy. You don’t have to have a caption that goes, “As he leaps across the room …” because you know the picture shows him leaping across the room. I’ve always taken the position, and this is nothing detrimental to the artists I’ve worked with, that if it is possible to misinterpret something and screw it up, it will be misinterpreted and screwed up. It’s just that two different people see things two different ways. I would also tend to write my scripts allowing for the fact that, yes, it would be messed up somehow, and covered the end product by writing more captions than necessary. My art descriptions tended to run a half a page for a single panel, just describing the scenes to the artist in the tightest possible detail, so he couldn’t mess up what I had intended. Working the other style, I see what’s there and I write copy to suit it. I’m very flexible. I can adjust the copy I’d intended for an individual panel based on what is drawn. It gives you a nicer flow. You get the panel-to-panel flow. You know how the pictures are telling the story. It just produces a better comic book.