Last month while I was at the Toronto International Film Festival, one of the great figures in comic book history died, and I didn't have the chance to say anything about him. I'd like to fix that.
Len Wein died on September 10. If you heard about that at all, you probably heard that he was the co-creator of Wolverine, Storm, Nightcrawler, Colossus, and Swamp Thing. That's true, he was those things, and he was also a very good comic book writer, particularly in the 1970s.
But what I want to talk about is how he was one of the five best comic book editors ever, and maybe even #2 (behind Stan Lee, with Jim Shooter, Karen Berger, and Joe Quesada being the others in the Top 5 conversation). When we talk about the history of comics, and the creators we love, it's almost always a conversation that hinges on writers and artists, and rarely on editors. But in comics (and in several publications), the major editors do so much more than just copy edit--they're the people choosing the creative arcs of the entire company. They're the people hiring the writers and artists, and essentially choosing which comics exist and which don't. They're the people responsible for recognizing and cultivating talent--which is, itself, a major talent. And Len Wein was one of the best ever at it.
If we look at the history of comics from that perspective--what existed and why--then Len Wein is clearly one of the most important figures in the medium since 1970. He might even be #1. In the modern history of comics, two dominant forces stand out--superhero franchises, and creator-owned comics and graphic novels. It could be argued (and I'm arguing it) that each of these forces derived from two single moments, 30 or 40 years ago, when Len Wein hired the right person at the right time, and encouraged them to follow their creative muse.
The first moment came in 1975. Len Wein had just relaunched Marvel's long-dormant X-Men series. The series had been cancelled five years earlier and most of the characters were barely being used. Len Wein (with artist Dave Cockrum) created a group of new members for the team (Wolverine, Nightcrawler, Storm, Colossus) and relaunched the series. When the first issue of the relaunch was a success, Wein quickly realized he didn't have the time to keep writing it (because he had just been promoted to one of Marvel's top editors), so with the second issue of the new series, Wein passed the writing reins onto a young writer named Chris Claremont, who had done a handful of fill-in work for Marvel but had never had a permanent writing assignment on any title. Wein stayed on as editor of the new X-Men title for a time and encouraged Claremont to write the characters how he wanted to. At the time, X-Men was still a bi-monthly title (meaning it only came out six times per year), and it stayed that way for the first few years of Claremont's tenure, as he slowly built an audience for the new group of characters.
Claremont would end up writing X-Men for 16 consecutive years, 1975-1991. During that time, the X-Men went from one title coming out six times per year, to, at the time of his 1991 departure, six monthly titles that were regularly shattering comic book sales records. For most of those 16 years, Claremont was virtually the only writer on any mutant titles (though he eventually ceded some of them to other writers, such as his editorial partner Louise Simonson, when he couldn't keep up with the demand for so many books). To say that the X-Men--as a franchise, an institution, and one of the biggest reasons so many kids got into comics in the 1980s and 1990s--would not have ever been what they were without Claremont is a gross understatement. He built almost the entire X-Men mythos, which led to Marvel adopting the idea of franchises built around closely connected groups of titles which would frequently crossover with one another, which is now virtually the entire superhero publishing model. And don't forget, the 2000 X-Men movie is what launched the modern superhero film craze. None of that happens without Claremont, which really means none of it happens without Len Wein hiring the right person at the right time.
And that was only the first time.
The second time happened in 1983. Wein was now at DC, and was an editor on Swamp Thing, a character he had co-created 10 years earlier. The title had relaunched the year before to coincide with a Wes Craven movie, but now sales were lagging again and the writer, Martin Pasko, wanted to move on. Wein had to hire someone else. He was intrigued by a young British comic writer named Alan Moore, who was extremely heralded. But at the time, there was virtually no precedent for a British comic creator working for an American comic company. The appetites of British and American audiences were seen as too different. But Wein hired Alan Moore anyway, and, in what was an extremely bold move at the time, Wein allowed Moore to completely change every aspect of the character--his origin, his identity, his abilities, his motivations--in just his second issue. Moore had never written an American comic book before. Not only did Wein hire him, but Wein gave this person, a total unknown to American comic audiences, complete freedom to write what he wanted, even though it all went 180 degrees against the entire publishing history of the character. Moore's brilliance cannot be overstated--that second issue of Swamp Thing that he wrote is my single favorite comic book ever. But Wein giving Moore that opportunity really cannot be overstated either.
The first page of the legendary Swamp Thing #21, Alan Moore's second issue, and my all-time favorite single comic issue
Within three years, Swamp Thing was the first American comic by Marvel or DC to carry a "Mature Readers" label. Around the same time, Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons launched Watchmen at DC, which is still regarded as the greatest graphic novel ever made. Len Wein was the editor on the series, and he's the one that allowed Moore and Gibbons the creative freedom to make such an industry-defining masterpiece. By the end of the 1980s, American comics were being flooded with a wave of British writers and artists that completely changed the medium, such as Neil Gaiman and Grant Morrison. In 1993, DC turned six of their mature readers comics (including Swamp Thing) into a new imprint called Vertigo, which led to modern graphic novels and creator-owned comics as we know them. The literary success of Vertigo books like Sandman are also what led places like Borders and Barnes & Noble to start carrying graphic novels. And again, it all happened because Len Wein hired the right person at the right moment.
So much of modern comic book history can be traced back to these two Len Wein decisions. It also so happens that my two absolute favorite comic series ever are Chris Claremont's X-Men run and Alan Moore's Swamp Thing run, and I'm eternally grateful to Len Wein for being the decision maker that provided me with so many rewarding reading experiences in my life. The creative works that Len Wein helped birth into the universe profoundly shaped who I am.
And now I'm a professional editor. Huh. I wonder who I got it from?