When I sat down to think about whether I could muster any words of remembrance for Len Wein, I found myself stymied. How do you memorialise someone who went from being a fan to doing so much so well on so many levels? Then I realised that the breadth of his work was exactly the point. Len Wein helped open comics’ horizons of possibility.
Image: Marvel Comics
Like Roy Thomas, Marv Wolfman, Jim Shooter and Denny O’Neil, Wein came to comics from the first waves of organised fandom. The older contingent of this cohort had other jobs or careers such as journalism or teaching high school. Wein was on the younger side and wound up going directly into the comics-making profession but, like his elder compatriots, he bought a sort of ambitious worldiness to his craft.
From the very beginning, Wein’s writing showed an interest in seeing how the superhero idea would play in different cultural contexts. As young 20-somethings, he and Wolfman tried to introduce DC’s first black superhero in the 1960s but were shot down by the editorial regime. His first professional writing credit for DC Comics, shared with friend Marv Wolfman, featured the debut of Starfire (whose name was changed later to Red Star), a teen hero out of communist Russia. This was during the height of the Cold War yet the character wasn’t quite a one-dimensional villain like so many Soviet characters before him. Yes, he had a political allegiance that was diametrically opposed to the American characters he met, but he was still a hero. That open-minded curiosity about how to craft characters outside of the safe, central casting template would be a hallmark of Wein’s writing.
When Marvel decided to relaunch the comatose X-Men series with an international cast, Len Wein co-created characters such as Storm, Colossus, Thunderbird and Nightcrawler with legendary artist Dave Cockrum. This was after Wein had already partnered with John Romita, Sr and Herb Trimpe to bring Canadian arse-kicker Wolverine to life. Some of the characterisations may have been egregiously broad, but imagining superheroes from other countries and cultures had a profound impact in comics’ fictional and real worlds. Readers who saw top-tier characters that looked like them and spoke their languages felt like they too belonged in heroic roles and thought that they could craft them as well.
Image: Marvel Comics
With Storm in particular, Wein helped lay the foundation that would propel the character to incredible popularity. Ororo Munroe isn’t an unsure neophyte when we meet her; she has the powers, bearing and responsibilities of a goddess. Later X-Men stories would have her cautiously adjusting to life outside the African continent in more down-to-earth fashion, but Storm’s first appearance introduced readers to a black female character designed to elicit awe. One of the most powerful characters in the series was an African woman; that was revolutionary.
Wein was a man who oversaw the reconfiguration of entire franchises, universes and sensibilities. In the 1980s, Wein was the writer who added depth to John Stewart when that character was slotted into the lead role of DC’s Green Lantern title, turning him into more than just the angry black man that readers met in his first appearance.
Image: DC Comics
He brought obscure Golden Age characters back into play in his Justice League of America tenure, strengthening the potentiality of the publisher’s multiverse conceit. There’s a clear conceptual line connecting Wein’s JLA work to Crisis on Infinite Earths, one of comics’ most important mega-events and a series he helped edit. In co-creating Swamp Thing with artist Bernie Wrightson, Wein brought a sophisticated sense of the macabre to comics, which provided an entryway for talent such as Alan Moore. And Wein edited Watchmen, the classic superhero deconstruction by Moore, Dave Gibbons and John Higgins that changed how people viewed the kinds of stories that could be told in cape comics.
Over and over again, whether he was writing, editing or creating in some other capacity, Wein broadened the possibilities of comics-making. Under his aegis, the default stentorian style of late 20th Century superhero fare found room to allow for more humanistic portrayals. Whether it was killer runs on Batman, Spider-Man or Hulk, the bravest crimefighters believably grappled with their doubts and foibles. Len Wein gave us the feeling that real people lived and breathed underneath all the brightly coloured spandex. Moreover, the writing he did himself and the work he nurtured told future generations that those heroes could — and should — come from anywhere. For me, it’s the most important part of a creative legacy that’s too wide to comprehend.