SLIFER: Did you suggest this working arrangement to Joe and Berni when the Swamp Thing book began?
WEIN: Yes. They were both willing to try it. We would sit down together, I would come in with a basic plot, and we would sit down together and hash out a story. As I said, Berni and I have an incredible working relationship. He would finish my sentences as we plotted. We thought so much the same way. We could see what the other meant at all times. It worked that way. We would hash out a plot until we had something we were all pleased with. Berni would break the job down in page/panel, and we’d go over it together. It wasn’t as loose as the Marvel style, which leaves the details of the plot to the artist to go home and break down as he’s inclined. But, we would actually break it down page by page and panel by panel there at the office.
SLIFER: That’s almost never done these days.
WEIN: No, hardly at all. Then, Berni would go home and pencil it, and I would dialogue it. It made it a little simpler for me because I had all kinds of self-imposed rules about when the dripping caption would work for the Swamp Thing and what kind of balloon would go with certain characters. Working in that fashion made it easy for me to indicate specifically what sort of balloons I wanted. When I worked with a full script with Nestor Redondo in my last three issues it became very complicated because I had to write notes explaining, “Normal caption, Swamp Thing caption, this kind of balloon, that kind of balloon.” Nestor did an excellent job, considering he lived 6,000 miles away and we’d never met. He was trying to follow what had been an extremely successful act by Berni.
SLIFER: Why do you think Swamp Thing sold better than the Phantom Stranger, which had sold solidly, but was never a hot seller like, at one point, Swamp Thing was?
WEIN: Swamp Thing at one point was the top seller. Percentage-wise, it was outselling Superman. When other books were in the 40 percentile, an issue of Swamp Thing was in the 60s. I think Swamp Thing’s time was right, mostly. The Phantom Stranger never really got noticed by most of the audience because it was a mystery book, not really a character book. The Phantom Stranger was rarely the focal point of the story. He was the host, he was the interlocutor, the interjector, he just showed up at the right moment, and ran away. Swamp Thing was a character from the word go. He was a character with a built-in audience. The short story had set up people for a book. When he began, there was an audience looking for him. It also showed up in advertising, when people were all braced and ready for the comic. These days companies just throw products out to the newsstands blindly.
SLIFER: It’s my understanding that the relationships between the creative forces that shaped Swamp Thing — yourself, Berni, and Joe — were quite strained at some periods. I don’t want to delve into the specifics of the strains involved since the other people involved are not present to voice their points of view…
SLIFER: But I do want to ask … Do you feel that the strain among the creative forces of a book is necessary to create the best possible end product?
WEIN: No, I don’t think that’s necessarily true at all. In fact, I think that strain is what finally led to Berni quitting the book a number of issues before he would have quit otherwise. We had fun on Swamp Thing. Boy, did we have a great time! We looked forward to getting in there and plotting those next issues and producing the comic, and locking ourselves away and drawing and writing and having a great time. It stopped being a great time for all sorts of reasons that are nobody’s business but ours. It just ceased to be fun. It stopped being fun and it started to be work. When it started to become work, it was no longer really worth doing. That was the big problem. I think that happens to most teams. When there is that much strain, it’s just not going to last. Anything that’s pulled from both ends, the middle’s going to come apart.
SLIFER: Recently, a revival of Swamp Thing was discussed after the issues that were re-released sold very well…
WEIN: Very well. Again, I think the first one of those was the best-selling book that month.
SLIFER: Based on that, and the admiration of the book by people like Joe, and Jenette [Kahn] herself…
WEIN: The prime mover in the revival.
SLIFER: …the book was offered to you and you refused to do it. Why?
WEIN: According to Thomas Wolfe, and he’s right, you can’t go home again. It’s as simple as that. If I had come back to the book, and Berni had come back to the book, and Gaspar Saladino — everybody who had produced the first book — and produced it exactly the same way we produced the first book, and if we had produced work every bit as good as what we had done the first time out, if not better, no one would think so. You can’t compete with a memory. No matter how good, bad, or indifferent the original Swamp Thing was, it has apparently developed a mythos of its own, and people would compare it, not to the actual book we had done way back then, but the way they remembered the books we had done way back then. We just couldn’t have matched up to that. It would never have been as good. We would’ve gotten mail saying, “Oh, you lost your touch, you just don’t know what you did last time out.” And whether or not that would be true, I felt it wasn’t worth going through the tsuris to find out.
SLIFER: What was your feeling about the possibility of its being revived without your participation?
WEIN: I was enthusiastic about the initial choice for a new writer — Marty Pasko. I was really interested to see what Marty would do with it because he was doing some really nice things with the Superman book. I felt if he could capture as much of the human quality as he’d gotten into the Superman-Clark-Lois relationship, he would do an excellent job on Swamp Thing.
SLIFER: The reason I asked that question is because I think that fans would resent a new writer on Swamp Thing and that they would harbor resentment against the revival and a new creative team.
WEIN: I think that’s part of the problem with comics fans. They assume too much. They assume that because they want something some way everyone else involved in the project wants it the way they do. It never ceases to irk me that when a person leaves a feature, either a writer or an artist, the mail comes in going, “Oh, you took so-and-so off that book. I’m going to stop reading your books!” We started getting mail like that on Detective and other features. They never seem to understand that 95 percent of the time a writer or an artist hasn’t been thrown off a book or tossed off a book against his will. It’s usually because he came in at the beginning of the week and said, “If I have to write or draw another issue of that book, I will kill you! I don’t want to look at it anymore!” They almost always leave of their own accord. There are occasions, certainly, when someone is removed from a book or trades a book for something else. But, fandom tends to believe that things are the way they perceive them. They believe that because they’re so happy reading a particular book, it’s not possible for its creators not to be just as happy producing it. And that’s often not true.
SLIFER: You left the Phantom Stranger, the first DC series that you wrote, of your own volition.
WEIN: I just got tired. I have a very short attention span … no, that’s not necessarily true. When I was doing Spider-Man and Thor I could’ve stayed with those books for many more years. Although, I did last only about 47 issues of the Hulk before my brain went bad.
SLIFER: Forty-seven issues is a sizable chunk. I think the way a lot of people tend to compare runs like that is to runs like Stan Lee’s on Spider-Man and Roy Thomas’s on Conan. The long runs are certainly appreciated and help form a consistency, but I think it’s underselling to a degree, to say that “only” 47 issues is not a long run. I think it’s quite admirable that someone can turn out that many issues.
WEIN: Well, I gave up the Phantom Stranger because I had just started running out of ideas. Toward the end, I even used a couple of plot ideas sent in by readers and took those for springboards for stories. The Phantom Stranger is limited in character. I had done his “human” side in the Cassandra Craft stories, and I felt having put an end of sorts to that relationship, there was not all that much more to do that interested me. It would have started to become redundant.
SLIFER: It has been asserted by Paul Levitz that the Justice League of America was a strip that “made your reputation” in the comic book professional circles. Do you agree with that?
WEIN: No. That’s the first I ever heard of that. I never quite understood that. I went to the DC Supercon several years ago when I was still exclusively employed at Marvel. This was about the time Jenette took over — in fact, that was where I first met her. And, all through the two days of the convention, people kept coming up to me and going, “When are you going to do Justice League again? It’s the best thing you ever did! Why don’t you do a new JLA? Why did they take you off it?” And I’d sit there slack-jawed. I always felt … it was there, it was a fun book. I did 14, 15 issues, and I never felt it was special. I was real happy to have done a competent job, following on the heels of Gardner Fox, who had written 64 issues of the book. I had fun. I played games with myself — what new teams haven’t I done? I used to team the JLAers based on such things as how would the characters’ costumes look together and whether the different color schemes would mesh. I just messed around with them. I had a good time, and after 14 issues, I just got tired of looking at them and left the book. People, including professionals, have come up to me and said that I did a great job on JLA, and I just kind of look at them and say, “Thank you … I think,” and walk away.
SLIFER: I think you expressed dissatisfaction with both of the team books you wrote, both the JLA and The Defenders.
WEIN: I thought it was quite competent, professional stuff. The characters moved, I felt I got some personality into them … Maybe that’s what people like, after 100 issues of the characters saying, “Everything’s wonderful, we love each other,” they started bickering, and they became a touch more human. Maybe I simply kept them more in character with the way they were in their own books since I read all of their own books. I never felt the JLA was special. Neither did I think The Defenders was special. I did nine or ten issues of that book and left it under duress. Roy didn’t want me to quit. He asked me to stay. Apparently, the book never sold as well as the issues I did. The one thing I’m proudest of in the Justice League, speaking of sales, is that when I took the book over it was bi-monthly and on the verge of cancellation and by the time I left it, it had become a monthly book and was one of the top of the line. I’m proud of that aspect, but not necessarily of the quality of the work. There’s nothing wrong with it. I’m not denigrating it at all. But I didn’t see anything special about it.
SLIFER: Paul Levitz also mentioned that you injected a lot of movement into the series. In the 15 issues you wrote, the Phantom Stranger joined the JLA, the Elongated Man joined, and Hawkman quit.
WEIN: The Phantom Stranger did not join the Justice League. If I read that in one more letter column, I’ll scream. He did not join, not when I was writing it. They asked him to join. He never accepted. They turned around and he was gone. That was intentional. Everyone took it to mean that because they asked him, naturally he accepted. He never did. He’s not a member. The fans seem to think he is.
Same thing with Hawkman. Hawkman was never intended to be gone as long as he was. I was going to bring him back an issue or two later if I had stayed with the book, but I didn’t, and naturally other writers did other things with the characters. It was never my intention for him to be gone more than three or four issues. It was a ploy. My intention was that he and his wife go back to Thanagar with all these great police procedures they learned on Earth and discover that in the several years they’d been on Earth, things had progressed so far on Thanagar that all the stuff they learned on Earth was superfluous. They were anachronisms. They didn’t have a place on their homeworld. The only place they fit was on Earth. They would come back to Earth and become full-time Earth-people.
SLIFER: Something you mention there brings up an interesting topic to discuss. You mentioned you implemented storylines just for the sake of “movement.” This reminds me of a writers meeting at Marvel that I believe you may have attended. During the course of the meeting, Stan himself said he believed the characters were changing too much, and that the writers should strive more for the “illusion” of change. Do you think that’s a valid stance for a writer to take?
WEIN: It depends on what series you’re writing. I think it’s funny that the comment came from Stan. It was simply that he was no longer a writer. When he was writing those books when it was Stan and Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Don Heck, doing some beautiful, beautiful stuff, he essentially had a line of comics that in his heart of hearts he never believed would sell. The fact that the Marvel stuff became successful astonished him more than anybody. Spider-Man is the classic example. It was created for the last issue of Amazing Fantasy on the assumption that nobody was going to buy the book, it’d been canceled anyhow. He had been doing every kind of comic there was in his 20 or 30-odd years in the business. He’d done Westerns when Westerns were in vogue, he’d done monsters when monsters were in vogue, now superheroes were in vogue. That was a fad. It would pass. He did two or three issues of the superhero books, as he’d done the monster books, had a good time for himself. In three or four years when the superheroes were passe again, he’d be back doing Rawhide Kid, Westerns, or whatever the next big fad was.
Lo and behold, he was wrong! Superheroes in the Marvel line, the comic books he did for himself, that he would enjoy, everyone else enjoyed as well. They became successful. They became big business. Suddenly, he had people wanting to do Spider-Man toys, Spider-Man TV shows, Spider-Man movies, Spider-Man dolls, Spider-Man whatever. And it was difficult to sell characters that weren’t the same next week as they were the week you tried to sell them to people. There’d be a sucker out there in Arkansas saying, “I want to buy Spider-Man. Who’s his girlfriend?” and Stan would say, “Gwen Stacy,” and he would go, “No, no, she was killed, she fell off the roof last Thursday,” and Stan would sit there with egg on his face. That was what started to precipitate his stance of desiring the illusion of change. He cornered himself. He created a concept of comic books that are “in.” Everything changes: they grow older, they get laid, they get old, they quit, they change their costumes, they don’t bathe, they have a good time, they’re people, but people are different every day of the week. Spider-Man can’t be different every day of the week if you want to sell him to people out there who haven’t got the capacity to follow the changes. That’s when he started to take that step back and go, “Well, let’s just give them an illusion of change.” He wanted to maintain what he created in the Marvel concept, that the characters would move and progress and change, but not to do it so that he couldn’t sell them to the people where the big money came from. That was sort of how he cornered himself.
SLIFER: Do you feel the position Stan took is a valid position to take?
WEIN: As a professional or as a creator?
WEIN: As a professional, absolutely. As a professional, I am hired by whatever company I’m working for to sell their books. That’s my bottom line. Do whatever you’ve got to do to sell our books. They are paying me this miserable sum of money. “Please make big bucks for us, thank you very much.”
As a creator, it’s a pain in the ass. As a creator, I like the sense of being able to change characters, knock characters off, to change the characters within their own framework. It’s either my fortune or my folly that I end up with Spider-Man and Fantastic Four and Superman and Batman. I feel, as a professional first, that I am locked into elements that would sell those books, that have sold those books. I envy, in a way, the Steve Gerbers and Don McGregors, and the Steve Engleharts, talented people all, who don’t get on these major books, who do the transitory things that change the comic books around, and do the kinds of stories they like to see done, do them well, and go their merry way. People look at their work and go, “Great stuff. I’m glad somebody finally did that.” Unfortunately, almost without exception, in every one of those cases, none of those books sold. Comparatively, the boring old stuff that the kids out there in kids-out-there-land see every month and buy is what they want. I don’t think Steve Englehart’s Detectives generally sold as well as the Detectives that went before them.
Steve Gerber has the same problem with much of his stuff. They’re all excellent writers, but they’re being creators before they’re being professionals, and they’re being paid to be professionals. It’s a real bummer. I almost wish that I were on more second-feature books, where I didn’t have to worry about supporting a line. Stan recently said, and I got this second or third hand so it may not be completely accurate, “Do what you’re going to do with Spider-Man. Spider-Man’s got to be terrific and well-done and excellent, and nobody but the best people should work on it because one good Spider-Man could carry half the rest of our line by itself.” The profit it makes can support all the other books where people can have a good time and mess around. I’m not on those books where I can mess around. I wish I were.
SLIFER: But if you look at the sales, percentage-wise, on Spider-Man these days as compared to the way it was in the early days, as well as the sales on all the books these days as compared to all the books in the early days, there’s been a drastic drop. Don’t you think some of that could be attributed to the lack of change in the books?
WEIN: No, I honestly don’t believe that. I think part of the problem with that whole thing is it’s changed for you, it’s changed for me. God, I’ve been reading comic books now for 25 years. We’ve grown up on the books, we are not typical readers. Julie Schwartz’s line to me, every time I said, “Well, when I was a kid reading these books, I felt …” he’d say, “Shut up, it’s not important. You’re not a typical reader. A typical reader wouldn’t be where you are today, doing the books.”
We have a different view. We take the long view. Yes, it’s boring for you and me to see Superman leap off that building again, bounce those bullets off his chest. It’s not boring for the kids who pick up that Superman comic for the first time, will read it for another year and a half, maybe two years, then go their merry ways. Comic book readership is transitory. There is nothing wrong in the great commercial scheme of things to have an element of similarity, or repetitiveness in the books because the audience reading it this month is not the audience that’s going to be reading it six months from now. Where it’s the same for you and me, it’s not the same thing for the kids. The audience has always been that way. In 40 years of comic books, the average reader has lasted about two years.
SLIFER: An argument might be proposed that if an attempt was made to continually inject more new ideas, you not only appeal to the transitory readership, but you also hold onto the initial readership longer, perhaps even for the life of a series or book.
WEIN: Comic books don’t make a big enough profit to make that big a difference. You’re not going to hold onto your average comic book reader that much longer. In two years, he’ll be out of it. It won’t make that big a difference in the sales. Most comic books’ money, these days, and it’s unfortunate, doesn’t come from the actual sales of the book. It comes from all that merchandising. It comes from selling Spider-Man and the Hulk and Wonder Woman to television. That’s where the big bucks are. The big bucks are in merchandising. I went to Ivan Snyder’s Superheroes World last weekend with Marv Wolfman, and I was awe-stricken. The entire store, a big store, was devoted to nothing but superhero-comic book related material. Thousands of things! Spider-Man bubble gum, Spider-Man underwear, Superman gym shoes. Hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of items. Every one of those items will make more of a profit than any issue of Superman will make for the company. It’s unfortunate. Comic books were never meant to be more than the cotton candy of literature, in many ways. I wish they were more. I’d like to see them more. There are people trying to make them more. Comics are television that you can pick up and read again. It’s television with, I think, a bit more conviction. If comic books are good, they’re good because the people who work on them care beyond what’s expected of them. And that’s where they’ve always gotten us by the short hairs because we care more than they’re paying us to care. We sit around and say, “We’ll fix this art, we’ll redraw this. We’ll make this script a little bit better.” That’s where they get us. They get us because we care, not because they care. They — the mysterious They with a capital “T.”
SLIFER: Eventually you left DC for Marvel. Can you explain why you went to Marvel?
WEIN: Roy stole me without my knowledge. When I first moved away from home I was sharing an apartment with Gerry Conway. He and I were roommates for a year and a half. I was doing all sorts of major features at DC, Gerry was doing all sorts of major features at Marvel.
Gerry and I have had a strange history until the last four or five years. We were pretty much moving along together. If two jobs were offered, one at DC, one at Marvel, he’d take the DC one, I’d go over to Marvel. Six months or a year later, we switched. He’d take over all the books I’d been writing at DC, I’d take over all the books he’d been writing at Marvel. This went on for several years, back and forth. We kept leapfrogging one another. And we were rooming together. I was doing stuff for DC as a freelancer. I still had fingers in Gold Key and other little pies here and there. Gerry was doing books at Marvel, and when he started to leave Werewolf by Night, Marvel was real worried about finding a replacement. Gerry suggested my name, knowing I liked the feel of the book. Roy called me and asked if I was interested, and I was, so I started doing that book. That’s how Roy got me there — book by book. He kept offering me books that really interested me. Marvel Team-Up was the second book I took over there. I was trepidatious about Spider-Man. That was back in the days when you had to be a top writer to write Spider-Man. It was only given to the people who had the experience, who could do him right. I was very trepidatious. I was flattered that he should give me a crack at writing everybody. At any given month, I could write whoever I was inclined to put into Team-Up. As I took the books over one by one, I kept giving up things at DC as my schedule got tighter and tighter. At DC, I had been doing the books for a while, and again, with my short attention span, I had started to grow bored.
The next thing I knew I was doing most of my work at Marvel. I was starting to get harried. I was feeling torn between both places. I liked the books I was doing at Marvel. I liked the stuff I was doing at DC. I had an emotional commitment to Joe Orlando and Julius Schwartz at DC. My health has never been the world’s greatest, and I was starting to get sick from it. On my 26th birthday, Roy called me into his office and asked me if I’d be interested in becoming his associate editor. I was the only person besides himself he could think of who would remember everything off the top of his head. I’ve got that sort of encyclopedic memory.
SLIFER: Was there any pressure from either Marvel or DC wanting you to commit yourself to one or the other?
WEIN: Nobody said, “Work for us or work for them.” Both companies wanted me, neither company, I think, was willing to press me to go to the competition by forcing me into that decision. Maybe I’m flattering myself. So, I was working for both places, I don’t think Joe Orlando was happy about my working at Marvel, but there just wasn’t all that much at DC that interested me. When Roy offered me the associate editorship, I was feeling real weary from the pressure of trying to match two sets of deadlines simultaneously. I thought it might be a lot easier. I would just take an associate’s job, something I hadn’t done, and it would give me a crack at trying a different aspect of the business. I had never taken a staff job in the six years I’d been a professional. I thought it would be a new experience. Little did I know what Roy had planned!
SLIFER: I think that some of the editors in this business, and perhaps this is true of Orlando, tend to think that if a writer is working for both companies, he must, for some reason, be unhappy at wherever he’s leaving the work, and not consider that he’s simply finding an even better opportunity elsewhere.
WEIN: Yeah, I think Orlando felt betrayed. It’s the key word. “Yes, I brought him up like a son, and look how he pays me back.” And it was really nothing like that. I never left anywhere I’ve worked with malice in my own heart. I’ve never felt, “Screw him! I’ve had it with all those assholes!” I usually left because somebody else made me an offer that interested me. I am a magpie. That’s the phrase Paul Levitz uses repeatedly. I have a habit of sitting there, perched on my branch, and saying, “That’s pretty interesting, I’d like to do that strip,” or “That’s a character I’d love to try.” It’s the magpie complex I suffer from. Everything I see that I’ve ever wanted to write I’d like to take a shot at. And that’s how I ended up with the job for Roy. I ended up full-time at Marvel almost by accident. He kept offering me more features until suddenly I was there full-time.
SLIFER: Do you consider yourself a better DC or a better Marvel writer?
WEIN: That’s a real strange question. The mail says I’m better at DC. Most of the fan reaction I’ve got in terms of letters says my style is more suited for DC. I don’t know if that’s necessarily true. I think part of it is that my work at DC appears to be better than other people’s work at DC because I brought to it what I learned doing the Marvel stuff. And the same thing applies the other way around. The structures, the regimen, I learned at DC and I tried to apply them to the Marvel stuff. This may have made my work seem to suffer in the Marvel style. I had a tendency more often than not to put more plot in my Marvel stories than is the general Marvel rule, which sometimes seems to be, no characterization, just hitting each other and having a good time. I put together a pastiche of both companies that seems to work better at one company than at the other. I personally don’t think that’s necessarily true. I really liked what I did with Spider-Man, Thor, the Hulk. I think part of the problem, again, the professional as opposed to the creator, is that I felt obliged to do them in the Marvel style, to do what Stan had done, to do my best to emulate it. And that isn’t really the way I write. I’m now trying to write more like I used to write than I had grown to write while doing Spidey and all the rest of those Marvel characters.
SLIFER: Was Marvel cramping the style you learned?
WEIN: It wasn’t cramping. I was just losing my natural style.
SLIFER: I recently heard that, after you gave up Swamp Thing, you read through a Michelinie issue, put it down, and said, “So that’s what a Len Wein story is like.” What did you learn? What do you think a Len Wein story is?
WEIN: I don’t think I actually learned what a Len Wein story is, because David didn’t quite do the story I did. The plot was similar, at least on his first Swamp Thing, to the types of plots I had been doing with Berni. It was lacking what I felt was that extra little twist at the end. The plots later on took an entirely different bent. They were really nothing at all like the plots I had been doing. What I did learn from that whole thing was my writing style — it wasn’t really a Len Wein story, but he had managed somehow to capture my supposed style perfectly. I have always been more of a wordsmith than any sort of real heavy plot-oriented writer. I’ve done a lot of stories in my career, I’m sure, that are absolute turkeys. But most people didn’t notice it because I covered it up with pretty copy. And, David had managed to find my meter. He was phrasing sentences, he was structuring paragraphs and captions exactly the same way I would have. I’d said in public that the two earliest influences in my writing were Ray Bradbury, for his absolutely beautiful wordsmithing and the poetry of his work, and, God help me, Rod Serling, who’d written the old Twilight Zones. I liked his structure and his imagery and I loved his phrasing. I loved the way he structured and paced things. I did a story for Al Milgrom about a year or so ago when he was an editor at DC. Al sat down and read the first page and looked up to me, and said, “My God! It sounds like Rod Serling had written this!” and I went, “You’re right!” It’s more of a style than real storytelling, and David found a way to capture that same kind of awkward structure I used.
SLIFER: That explains a Len Wein writing style. What do you feel a Len Wein plot is?
WEIN: I think it’s more of a story. These days so many comics are not only senseless but plotless. My stories, I hope, tend to have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Someone once referred to my stories as circular stories. That’s what I try to get into the story. I try to introduce you to a cast of characters and let you follow them through whatever paces that I decide to put them through, and, hopefully, resolve some sort of conflict with the characters by story’s end. It’s the way stories are supposed to be done. Not that I necessarily do them all that well. I’m sure there are those who say, “A Len Wein plot is an old Stan Lee plot rehashed.” But I’d like to think somewhere along the line I do something that is, at least, to some small degree, original.
SLIFER: I was speaking with Marv Wolfman about your writing, and he mentioned the circular plotting. One of the things he felt was detrimental to that circular plotting was that sometimes you relied too much on coincidence, that things tied almost too neatly together. Would you like to answer that charge?
WEIN: No. Actually, he’s probably right. As I said, I’m not the world’s strongest plotter. Since I did not set out to be a writer originally and fell into it with two left feet, my plots to my own mind are often lacking. I try to cover it up with getting you so involved in the flow of the story that you don’t stop to notice, “Oh my God! There’s a hole big enough to drive a bus through!” I hope there are some stories that actually do make sense from beginning to end.
SLIFER: Are there any stories you would point to that you consider quintessential Len Wein stories?
WEIN: Several of the Swamp Things — “The Stalker from Beyond,” the story about the alien, which, by the way, for those of you who are completists and aficionados, the last nine pages of that story were inked by Jeff Jones. He never got credit on the book, but Jeff helped Berni out on that issue. And “A Clockwork Horror,” the story about the old toymaker and his town full of robot children. “Like a Ghost from the Ashes,” the Phantom Stranger story that introduced Cassandra Craft, the girl who fell in love with The Phantom Stranger. I tried to humanize him to some degree in that story. I’m doing a Deadmam story right now that I feel has all the elements of a “Len Wein story.” It’s called “Never Say Die.”
I just like to do stories where you can sit there and snivel, “Aw, that was nice.” Sloppy sentimentality shoveled on with a trowel.
SLIFER: Speaking of sloppy sentimentality, some people have said — and this is also from your sometimes-cohort Marv Wolfman — that it is impossible for you to write a truly villainous villain. Your villains tend not to be of the malevolent sort or the truly sinister type. You did a Calendar Man story for Batman just recently in which Batman and the Calendar Man were struggling, and it had been some time since they’d fought…
WEIN: Twenty-eight years.
SLIFER: … and during one of the scenes you attempt to give the reader some background by having the Calendar Man say to Batman, “It appears you’ve brought your weaponry up to date,” and then he proceeds to say, “Unfortunately, so have I.” This struck me as odd, since obviously if the villain would benefit from having updated weapons, he would not refer to it as “Unfortunately.”
WEIN: Well, it meant “Unfortunately for you [Batman].”
SLIFER: That may be, but I thought it indicated that Len Wein was incapable of identifying with the villain in the story. Even when you’re writing the villain’s dialogue, your heart is still with the hero.
WEIN: Possibly. When I was writing The Defenders, Jo Duffy wrote a letter to that book complaining about that tendency, the fact that I couldn’t write villains that are wholly villainous. I can’t relate to them, I think. I try. Recently, for example, in a “Mr. Freeze” story I did a few months back for Batman, I tried to make Mr. Freeze’s girlfriend as evil as possible. Specifically, just to prove I could write somebody who was downright rotten. Sure, I have done out-and-out villains, but most of the villains I picked up were from Stan or somebody else — Magneto or Dr. Doom. Rarely did any of them have any redeeming social value, certainly not the Red Skull, who is rottenness incarnate. Generally, I’m hard pressed. I tend to think people are nice and believe in the ultimate goodness of mankind, and I hate to believe anybody is entirely foul and rotten. I’m really hard pressed to put more rotten people in my stories.
SLIFER: That leads into my next question. Do you have any specific moral philosophy you try to inject into your characters?
WEIN: Oh, yes, completely so. I’m not a religious person by any means, but if I have any particular philosophy it’s the ultimate divinity of man. I think man’s got the potential to pull himself up by his bootstraps and get his ass out of the mire. He doesn’t often do that. Much of my own philosophy of life I am loath to admit — I suppose, because it doesn’t say much for my input socially in my formative years — comes from the comics I read as a kid. Good is better than Evil, and in the end, Right will make Might and justice will triumph. I’m a pretty honest person, as honest as the next guy, hopefully, more so. And if I’ve got a philosophy, it’s much born from that. It’s all the stuff that we all used to believe in back before Watergate when the world kind of went, “Nah, nobody’s trustworthy anymore.” I’d like to think that isn’t true.
SLIFER: Have you ever written a character and then after a period of time found that your philosophy had changed and that that made it impossible to write the character?
WEIN: No, I don’t think that’s ever happened. I’d like to believe that my characters are more a reflection of me than I am a reflection of my characters. If my personality changed, or if my opinions or morals changed in any way, shape, or form, I assume that the characters I was writing would change along the way with me. I like to believe I control them far more than they control me, although occasionally it hasn’t been proven true. I’ve written stories that did not end at all the way I had intended them to end. The characters said, “No, no, you can’t do that, you’re absolutely wrong.” A Phantom Stranger story, specifically, the Flying Dutchman story I had done, where I had intended the Flying Dutchman to be destroyed in the end and the Phantom Stranger would save the girl who had fallen in love with the Dutchman. But, at the end of the story, she sails off with him into the mists of time. They wouldn’t let me write them the way I had intended to because that’s not the way the relationship developed in the course of the story.
SLIFER: Some of the characters — Batman specifically — are vengeance-motivated, very much vigilantes. But, vigilantism always had a possibility of going astray. If you became opposed to vigilantism, would that obstruct your ability to write, say, Batman?
WEIN: I don’t think that’s likely to happen. I don’t think I consider him quite as much vengeful as obsessive. He doesn’t go out through vengeance, he goes out to revenge, and there’s a difference. I like what Denny O’Neil does with Batman in Detective very much. I think Denny, in many ways, conceived the definitive Batman back in the late ’60s. But I feel he’s gotten too far into that vengeance trip you mention. There was a sequence in a story several months ago where Batman’s trying to get some information from a crook, and he sits behind the guy in a car and he discusses very calmly and very precisely that it requires exactly 75 pounds of pressure to break the average human bone, and I just didn’t like that. That is not a hero. The big difference is not that Batman is vengeful or a vigilante, but he’s a hero. My own particular rules of the game will not allow me to write a hero that’s anything less than that. If he’s not a hero, then he’s not worth looking up to, he’s not worth following.
SLIFER: What change has your work shown from 11 years ago, when you started writing?
WEIN: Hopefully, in the quality, in the professionalism. In 11 years, I hope that I’ve learned how to structure a sentence better, how to structure a story better, what to leave out. Alex Toth, who is one of the great geniuses of this business, commented years ago that, “The first half of your career you learn what to put in, in the second half of your career you learn what to take out.” That’s what Alex has done now. I think, perhaps, he has reached the point where he’s exceeded the limits he should have set himself. He’s no longer doing comic books. What he draws now is sheer design and sheer art for art’s sake. That’s much of what I hope I’ve learned. How to structure a scene, to say this panel isn’t necessary and this panel is. I’m putting my stories together in a more coherent fashion than I did in the beginning.
SLIFER: You’ve stated on several occasions that you felt comics were strictly a children’s medium. And children, we’re told anyway, are an impressionable lot. Do you question your role as one in the position to create the impressions a child perceives?
WEIN: I never really thought of myself as an influence. I tend to think of myself, or prefer to think of myself, as an entertainer. I think comic books are certainly an entertainment medium first and foremost. If we happen to educate at all, and I do try to put in little bits of information — I sit there with my encyclopedias by my side — and I’m writing a story about a foreign city or a foreign element, I try to put in bits of factual information. I remember that when I was a kid, I was the only kid in my 7th grade English class who knew that the closest star to Earth, as we knew it then, was Alpha Centauri. I learned that from reading Adam Strange. I can tell you all sorts of wonderful things about metals from having read the Metal Men when Bob Kanigher would fill the book with all that great information. I would rather feel I entertain and educate rather than influence. I don’t feel comic books are really that great an influence. If they are an influence on the readership, I would like to hope that I’m the same sort of influence comic books were on me: That they’ll tell one person out there that good is better than evil, that right makes might in the end, and all the other things I learned in my youth.
SLIFER: Using your own example — Kanigher’s Metal Men and the things you learned about metals — say, if you were conveying something about metals, if that were an integral part of your strip would you research it sufficiently so that you wouldn’t be misinforming some kid?
WEIN: I hope so, certainly. I would hate to think that some poor kid in English class would raise his hand and the teacher would go, “Wrong, schmuck!” because of me. [Laughter] I would hate to feel I’ve ever done that to anyone. I try not to put in anything that I haven’t checked. I’ve got a pile of encyclopedias on that side of the room, and all kinds of other reference garbage on this side and I would like to believe that anything I put in there is almost a superfluous education. The story would work as well without it — but it never hurts to tell the kid that this happens here, and this is responsible for that and that if you bang your head against a brick wall long enough you’ll cease to be conscious.
SLIFER: Since the morals of the country change, things that were true in the ’50s aren’t true now. Do you ever worry that a moral bit you put forth now you may find is not moral later or is an oversight on your part and that it may be a negative influence?
WEIN: You can’t sit around and work on a story and worry about every line you write coming back to haunt you — you’ll never write a thing. You’ll sit there all day long and stare at that white paper and it will become a shroud. You’ve got to do what you think is right at the time and press on. If you’re wrong and mislead someone, all you can do is apologize and regret it, and try not to do it again. But, to try not to do it, to begin with, is self-destructive.
SLIFER: One of the reasons I asked that question is because there is a lot of media coverage currently about people who are attempting to sue entertainment conglomerates in an attempt to prove detrimental influence. CBS is being sued over Born Innocent. Do you feel there is any validity in cases such as that?
WEIN: Not at all. There have been a number of other things … when the Superman movie was first released, there was an article in the paper that described some six or seven-year-old kid falling from his window to his death, and for a while they were saying that he’d seen Superman the day before and he was emulating Superman when he jumped, which made him look very stupid to be doing that at that age. It was later repudiated. He was actually at the window for another purpose and slipped accidentally. There was the whole Kojak trial down in Florida about a year or so ago where an attorney was putting forth the argument that his 16-year-old client, who was on trial for murder, had committed a crime because he was influenced by all the TV crime drama he had watched, and that the network was responsible for the crime he’d committed. He was a victim of his society. I think that’s garbage. I personally believe that everybody is responsible for their own actions; you can’t be influenced by television, by comic books, by newspapers, by gum-wrappers. You do what you do because you do it. There were the same crimes, the same problems facing this country and the world centuries before they invented sculpting words on rock. I don’t believe it has any validity whatever.