Tonight, I had the honor of being at the Writer’s Guild of America West, Animation Writers Caucus, Awards Ceremony to posthumously honor Len Wein with a lifetime achievement award. Len Wein was a legendary comics writer whose credits include Amazing Spider-Man, Fantastic Four, Justice League of America, Swamp Thing, Wonder Woman and X-Men. He also co-created Wolverine, which Hugh Jackman brought to the screen, with such success. The award was very graciously accepted by his wife, Christine Valada.
I want to share this night’s experience with you, because it embodied so much of what we aspire to as writers. Len was writing what he loved since he was 7 years old – comic books and animation – and bringing humanity to the superhero and beast characters he created. I’m not a comic book fan – my husband is, and he works for DC Comics – but the presentation and the reverence in the room for this writer helped me understand that Len was a writer’s writer. I was moved to understand, through others’ reflections on his life and work, what he contributed, and how important a role writers play.
Not surprisingly, Len had fans among accomplished and talented people.
Neil Gaiman chimed in via video to talk about reading Swamp Thing Issue #9 and understanding, right then and there that he wanted to write comic books when he grew up. Neil Gaiman went on to write The Sandman and novels Stardust, American Gods, Coraline, and The Graveyard Book. He ended his tribute by thanking Len, and saying eloquently, “without you, I’d never have been me.”
Actor, producer and singer Hugh Jackman recorded his message of gratitude for the man who gave him Wolverine, a career-defining character that he played for 17 years.
Ben Acker and Ben Blacker – hosts of the podcast, Thrilling Adventure Hour, spoke of their early thrill of reading Len Wein comic books. When Len and Christine became regulars at their monthly performances of the podcast in LA, the Bens were honored to know that Len – whom they had long revered – was a fan of their work! Thrilling Adventure Hour included an eclectic cast, three of whom – Marc Evan Jackson, Mark Gagliardi and Annie Savitz gave us a live performance of Len’s work – the eight-page comic book, Swamp Thing, Issue #1.
As these performers gave life to Len’s words and world, so much was clear. His language was concise and powerful. The emotions were strong as the central characters were introduced to us all, in what was basically the “pilot” of this comic book serial. The character and comic book debuted in the 70s, spawned 2 movies and two television series and is still one of the most reprinted books in the DC roster. In just those first eight pages, Len laid it all out. (Spoiler Alert – Swamp Thing kills Damien, who was about to kill Swamp Thing’s love interest.) This line and image stays with me a full day later…
“Slowly — certainly — I forced the life from Damien’s blackhearted body — a life he does not deserve…”
The current co-publisher of DC Comics, Dan DiDio, who presented the award, said it was Len’s versions of Justice League of America (Issues # 100 – 114) and Superman and Batman that were the stories to beat. They were each the definitive characterizations and plotlines that people take as their favorites for each of these beloved franchises.
Dan also lauded Len for his editorial capacity. He didn’t just write, he edited and taught other writers how to assess their work and edit it down to be powerful, human and emotive in the 32 pages of a typical comic book.
From my Deliberate Creativity perspective, I can see that Len was divergent – able to reach into the clear blue sky and find innovative characters like Swamp Thing or Wolverine – and convergent – able to select and perfect the perfect language, the most concise turn-of-phrase. He was able to deliver a big new world with well-turned word balloons and captions. He understood dialogue, and mastered plot and suspense. As Len said,
The hero has to win every time. The villain only has to win once.
And lastly, his wife Christine Valada got up to accept the award, and even as she teared up – Len’s only been gone a couple of months – she shared the most intimate view of Len, the writer. She’d been with him for all of these great arcs and opportunities. And as she said, “So, I know his process.”
Isn’t this what we all want to know? We were at the Writer’s Guild, for heck’s sake, we all leaned in.
As she portrayed it, he would get an assignment, and his first response was deeply-held self-doubt. I can’t write it. People are finally going to figure out I’m a fraud… find out my best years are behind me. And then he’d get an idea and settle in to write it. There’d be more doubt as he waded in, but then triumph as he got the script to work as he’d hoped.
A writer always writes. Period.
As writers, we hope to overcome dread and doubt and write something satisfying. We hope to be loved and admired. We’d like to get awards and have talented people be fans of our work. And by god, we hope we can create something that lasts in people’s imaginations. Slowly — certainly — we must write what we imagine.
RIP Len Wein. It was wonderful to share this evening with you and yours, and feel what good writing meant to you. And to your fans. Thank you.