An (old) interview with Len Wein

Hey folks. Long time, no write. I thought that with the release of Logan (which was fucking incredible) this week, I’d post an interview I did with Wolverine’s creator, Len Wein. This is from almost four years ago, so it was more about DC than Marvel but I felt this was a good time to bring it back out since the original media outlet it was written for no longer exists. It’s short, succinct, and certainly a nice little feather in the cap for a young(er than I am now) aspiring “journalist”. I hope you enjoy it.

Thank you for your time, Len. Let’s get right to it, shall we? Of all of the amazing characters you have created, the biggest and most popular of all has to be Wolverine. Where did that come from and did you have any idea that you were coming up with something that would become so beloved?

God, by now I thought everyone knew this particular story. I was writing a book called Brother Voodoo for Marvel, where most of the characters had Caribbean accents. Marvel’s then-Editor-in-Chief, Roy Thomas, called me into his office, told me he was jealous of my ability to write different accents, and told me he wondered how I would write a Canadian accent. Roy told me he had a name, Wolverine, and asked me to create a character to go with it. I researched wolverines, discovered they were short, fearless, hairy animals with razor-sharp claws who would take on other animals many times their size, and the rest pretty much wrote itself. And, no, I had no idea. Anyone who tells you they knew how their character would be received by the public is lying to you.

The Canadian aspect is interesting in context of some of your other X-creations. You wrote maybe the most important Marvel book not written by Stan Lee in Giant X-Men #1. There, you introduced, Storm (who is now known as being from Kenya), the Russian Colossus, and the German Nightcrawler. Was there a conscious effort in making the X-Men more international? They were persecuted enough being mutants without having to deal with xenophobes.

The idea to make the revived X-Men into an international team originally came from upstairs. A number of Marvel books were selling very well overseas and the powers-that-be thought they might be able to sell this new title well overseas as well. Rumors of this revival was why I made Wolverine a Canadian mutant in the first place, to give whoever might write the X revival a Canadian character to work with. Never suspected that someone would eventually be me. Unfortunately, nobody ever told Dave Cockrum and myself WHICH foreign countries should be targeted, so we picked and chose on our own.

You also wrote and created Swamp Thing and have also written Man-Thing. How did the two experiences compare?

Well, DC paid me for one, ad Marvel for the other. Seriously, that’s difficult to answer. Despite basic physical similarities, they are two very different characters; Swamp Thing is pro-active by nature, Man-Thing very reactive. My big contribution to Man-Thing is the concept that “Whoever knows fear burns at the Man-Thing’s touch.” It was a way of getting around the fact that, in Gerry Conway’s first Man-Thing story, ANYTHING the monster touched burst into flame.

You recruited and subsequently edited Alan Moore’s run on Saga of the Swamp Thing, which was his first real game-changing work for DC. Were there any notes you felt you needed to give him? Did you feel apprehensive at all with the direction he was taking your character?

If I had had any apprehensions, I simply wouldn’t have allowed Alan to do what he did. Over all, I loved his work on the book.

You also edited him on Watchmen but left before it was finished. I’m sure you have answered this a million times but how did that come to pass?

Quite simple, really. I moved from New York to California and left my editing job at DC.

You recently wrote the Before Watchmen: Ozymandias miniseries. The first issue provides a lot of interesting back story. It seemed like the purpose was to fill in gaps and it did it really well. I had read elsewhere that Ozy’s plot reminded you of an Outer Limits episode. You say as much in that issue. Was this something you had ever mentioned to Moore?

Yep, from the very beginning. When he turned in the series overview, I told him the first 11 issues were terrific, but his ending made the entire series into a redo of the old Outer Limits episode, “The Architects of Fear.”

“Alan,” I said, “This has already been done.”

“Maybe so,” replied Alan, “But I haven’t done it.” The argument continued through the whole series from there.

I thought that was a cool way to weave that in your story since Ozymandias is a genius, he would naturally believe that he would succeed where others have failed.

I am a ridiculously huge Batman fan. Along with writing some truly incredible issues, you created Lucius Fox. Of all of the characters you’ve come up with, and one that would have been thought of as obscure, is played by Morgan Freeman and is an integral part of the greatest and most successful superhero movie franchise ever. How big of a deal is that for you?

That’s a tremendous deal for me, frankly. Oddly, Lucius has become probably my second most successful creation, after Wolverine and the New X-Men.

We’ll end with a couple of quick ones. Favorite character that you created and why..

Wolverine, because, with my health, I’d give anything to have his healing factor. (Note: Mr. Wein is still alive and well, even appearing in the film, X-Men: Days of Future Past)

With everything that you’ve worked on, is there anything in this business that you want to do but haven’t yet? Any book or character you’d like to write?

Until last year, probably only Doctor Who, but then I got to write him as well.

Thank you for time, sir. It’s been an honor to converse with you.

My pleasure.

Batman: The Killing Joke

Batman-The-Killing-Joke-2016-movie-poster

Sometimes, you have to separate your feelings to see things for what they are. Your personal attachment to something is obviously and understandably going to skew your opinions. This is the case in religion, politics, and definitely something that really matters: Batman.

I preface this way because I, and the legion of other Bat-fanatics, have an immense fondness for Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s telling of the Joker origin in The Killing Joke. Generally speaking, DC Animated does well by the source material when adapting the Batman classics. They barely put a word out of place with their treatment of Frank Miller’s Year One and Dark Knight Returns (the latter is probably the second best Batman film ever, next to Nolan’s The Dark Knight). With The Killing Joke, the creators acknowledged that the original graphic novel didn’t provide enough material to make a feature length film. You’d expect them to flesh out the story a bit. You wouldn’t expect a full-on prologue comprising a quarter of the running time that didn’t really lead in to the main story. It didn’t detract from it but the stakes weren’t raised by having it. What is “it”? Well…spoilers.

Comic veteran and current Dark Knight III: Master Race writer Brian Azzarello’s script begins with a voiceover that, while trying to soften the blow by acknowledging “This is probably not how you expect this story to begin…”, does exactly the opposite. Barbara Gordon’s narration makes sense in the fact that she, more than any other character, comes out of The Killing Joke most permanently altered. In the graphic novel, Barbara’s alter ego, Batgirl, does not make an appearance at all. In the film, she is shown to be smart, talented, capable, and an otherwise young woman with feelings. These are feelings she struggles with as they pertain to her mentor. She doesn’t like being put on the sideline. Her greatest fear isn’t defeat but that a defeat could disappoint Batman.

Unfortunately for Barbara (and those three words will come up again), respect for him begins to feel like something more intimate. And in a moment of weakness (Batman’s), a legion of fanboys screamed, “No!”. Look, as I said, Barbara is immensely gifted and that is bound to be attractive to anyone, especially someone who is the object of her affection. But Batman is a total dick here. He knows that he should not have gotten involved romantically with her but chooses to ignore her post-coitus to admit that he made a mistake. To do so could shatter her view of him.

I understand that this entire storyline was created to deepen Batman’s and the audience’s reaction to Barbara’s becoming shot and paralyzed but The Killing Joke isn’t about that. The goal of the Joker in the book and the film is to drive Commissioner James Gordon crazy. The act of shooting his daughter in front of him, kidnapping, and torturing him isn’t affected by us knowing that Barbara and Batman had sex. At all. It’s an awful yet kind of interesting juxtaposition to the explicit images of a prone, disrobed Barbara shown in front of Jim during the musical number. But it is, in many ways, gratuitous.

The rest of the movie is told nearly identical to the graphic novel, which is great. The problem being is that we just sat through twenty minutes of superfluous narrative before getting to those all familiar raindrops. If they were looking to make the film longer, they could have been better served to let certain scenes breathe a bit. Batman’s discovery that the Joker has escaped could have been drawn out a bit. Maybe add in places where he uses his damned detective skills. Just give Kevin Conroy more lines!

Let’s not mistake things. The fact that The Killing Joke is the story adapted is, in and of itself, amazing. That Conroy’s Batman and Mark Hamill’s Joker are facing off again for the first time in many years (outside of video games) is the real attraction. Conroy could have had more to do. Hamill, however, is a tour de force. The aforementioned musical number has no reference point to turn to in the book but the composers and Hamill brought to life in a way that finally makes sense.

The best scene in the film is the final one. The Joker, cursing, sits defeated in water. Batman attempts to give him one last chance to stop on their path to mutually assured destruction, as he wanted to in Arkham. Hamill’s performance here is wonderful as his Joker actually contemplates this and gives his nemesis a no with no hint of psychotic mania in his voice. It’s a tone that says he would have liked to, if this had been his previous life as failed comedian and widower. A life before crime, chemicals, and a Caped Crusader altered his life’s trajectory and pointed it toward madness at warp speed.

Aside from the climactic final scene and ambiguous ending (no, we still don’t know for sure if Batman kills the Joker), the adapted part of the film seems rushed. The prologue and mid-credits sequence aren’t abhorrent story details by any stretch, but they would have been perfect for an animated Batgirl/Oracle or Birds of Prey story. Barbara Gordon is a great character and deserves to have her tale told. However, the thread does not serve the purpose of deepening the viewers’ sadness for Barbara’s fate. As bad as what happened to her is, this was never about her. If anything, her Oracle turn puts an inappropriate happy face at the end of a veritable horror story that didn’t need additional content or context.

The Killing Joke is the definitive origin (and possibly final) story of the Joker. Why it is that is there is no definitive origin. One bad day turned a good man mad. What actually happened or who he was before doesn’t matter as much as the narrative he sells. We aren’t meant to know for sure, just as it wasn’t meant to last. The Joker wouldn’t have it any other way.