Hosted by actor/producer/director/screenwriter Liev Schreiber, Superheroes: A Never-Ending Battle, airing on PBS, is the first documentary to examine the dawn of the comic book genre and its powerful legacy, as well as the evolution of the characters who leapt from the pages over the last 75 years and their ongoing worldwide cultural impact. Among the talent in the film are Stan Lee, Adam West and Lynda Carter, along with various comic book writers and artists. The companion book, Superheroes!: Capes, Cowls, and the Creation of Comic Book Culture by Laurence Maslon, tells the story of the superhero in American pop culture, featuring interviews, character biographies, and over 500 illustrations.
During this recent exclusive interview with Collider, comic book writer Len Wein – who has served as editor-in-chief of Marvel Comics, Disney Comics and Top Cow Comics, as well as senior editor at DC Comics, and has written extensively for nearly all major comic book characters – talked about what it’s like to see characters he’s created brought to life in so many different mediums, the first time he saw someone play one of his characters, his proudest career accomplishment, how he came to be writing comic books, whether he prefers to write the hero or the villain, and just what a fanboy geek he is himself. Check out what he had to say after the jump.
LEN WEIN: I’m still a fanboy geek. I always will be. In many ways, if my work still resonates with the audience, it’s because I’m still writing from the point of view of the fan, so I’m geeked out constantly. Three Oscar winners have portrayed my characters, and Oscar nominees, and Tony Award, Golden Globe Award and Emmy Award actors. It can make your head explode. At least, it does with mine!
Are you ever surprised that so many people respond so strongly to the characters?
WEIN: I’m always stunned and always thrilled that that’s the case. I remember the day that Paul Levitz called me up, when they were doing Batman Begins, to tell me they had cast Lucius Fox. I said, “Oh, really, who?” And he said, “Morgan Freeman.” I went, “You couldn’t get a good actor?! Morgan Freeman?! Oh, my god!” I met him at the premiere of the first film, and he’s every bit the gentleman you imagine he is. He danced with my wife, who hasn’t talked to me since. She was like, “I danced with Morgan Freeman. I don’t need you.”
What was the first time you saw someone play one of your characters?
WEIN: I guess the first time was probably Swamp Thing. The late Dick Durock, god rest him, played Swamp Thing. He was a charming, very lovely man. I met him on the set, and he was wearing the bottom half of his Swamp Thing costume because he was trying to breathe. We were in one of the Carolinas, I forget which. I have been blessed by the number of good people that have played my characters, even when they gender switched and Matt Cable became Alice Cable, in the first movie. At this past Comic-Con, I was sitting with Adrienne Barbeau and we were signing advanced copies of the new Blu-ray of Swamp Thing, and she’s a lovely woman. And half-way through our session, some young lady wanted her picture taken with me, and I said, “Sure, come on around.” I usually wear a baseball cap and some t-shirt with my characters on it. I basically wear my resume to Comic-Con, every year. So, the young lady came around the booth where we were sitting, and started to pose with me, and Adrienne looked at me and said, “Take off your head, so they can see your eyes and your hair!” I said, “Yes, dear!” She went, “Huh?!,” and I said, “You sound exactly like my wife, who does that to me, all the time!” She was lovely and charming. I had a great time!
WEIN: Well, that’s it. I wrote a screenplay for a Swamp Thing feature, for Joel Silver, about a decade ago now, and the one thing he said to me, when we sat down together for the first meeting, was, “I’ve got one rule on this project. If we’re doing this, we’re doing it right with a big budget and CGI.” I said, “Twist my arm.” People treat these things with a lot more respect than they ever did. The curse of comic book adaptations, when I was younger, was that the director or producer would go, “Don’t worry about it, it’s just a comic book.” And the second they used the word “just,” I knew the project was doomed. They treated it with no respect, whatsoever, thinking that no one else did, and not being aware that the people who do these things care about what they do, very strongly. So, it’s an interesting process. We’ve inherited the earth. All the producers now grew up on these books and they want to do them as they remember them.
Could you ever have imagined that people would make The Avengers, and a Superman and Batman movie, and possibly a Justice League movie?
WEIN: It blows my mind! The Avengers, especially. The realities of the film business, in particular, are very different from the comic book business. You want to put The Avengers together in the comics, the artist draws six characters. If you want to put the six characters together in a movie, that’s $10 million for him, $20 million for her, $15 million for him, and their schedules. Can you even afford to make the movie, before you start shooting? I guess they found a way, with The Avengers, to do that. They pay them on the back-end, as opposed to the front-end and, as a result, Robert Downey, Jr. makes $50 million for the movie. That’s nice work, if you can get it. They also picked the right guy. Joss [Whedon] is as talented a writer and director as anybody, and he loves the source material.
WEIN: I hope they will always be there. I think they are a cultural landmark, like jazz. I think jazz and comic books are probably the two uniquely American art forms. Other countries have usurped them, and they certainly have traditionally been more respected in other countries, like Japan and Europe. But now, they’re finally starting to get the respect they deserve at home. Any way we can find to maintain that business is to the benefit of the culture of the country. I’ve been collecting comic books for practically 60 years, and over the years, I’ve had people suggest to me that I should sell my collection, but I wrote some of those books. They say, “Just keep your books and sell the rest,” but I can’t. It means so much more to me as part of a greater whole. Even if it’s digital, at least it’s some form of the printed page, and I think that’s important.
What is your proudest accomplishment, in your career?
WEIN: Still being in this business and still having a career, after 45 years. There are very few of us, who reach my advanced age, who are still working in the business, as writers. As artists, people can hang out longer. I consider myself the luckiest man in the world. I have spent a lifetime doing what I love. How many people get to say that? And they pay me for this! I’ve never had to work out of the arts. I’ve always either been a writer or an editor, or something where I’ve made my living from doing what I love. You can’t get any better than that.
Did you always have the goal of writing comics?
WEIN: That was an accident. I was going to be an artist. My father brought me my first stack of comics, when I was seven years old and in the hospital. I was not a well child. And that’s where my love for comics began. When I was in the eighth grade, back in the days when high schools still had music and art, and all those things that are now disappearing and stifling generations of potentially creative people, on some level, I drew a picture of a shark and my art teacher looked at it and said, “You actually have real artistic talent. That’s a great picture. You could be an artist.” I said, “Are you serious?,” and he said, “Absolutely!” I said, “Then, I can be a comic book artist.” And I became an arts major, the next day. I took every art class at my school, and I studied to be a comic book artist. When I submitted samples, I had only written stories to give myself something to draw. I was told, “The art is good, but not quite professional yet. But, I like the writing.” I’ve been a writer for almost a half a century now. It’s very cool.
What was it that interested you in comic books, specifically?
WEIN: I opened my first one almost 60 years ago, and I just loved what you could accomplish in a comic book. I thought Batman was cool. Most of the comics at that time were probably DC books. Marvel, as such, didn’t exist yet. There was a lot of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman. I just fell in love.
Who do you think most had an impact on comics?
WEIN: I think Stan Lee was a critical factor. When Marvel comics came to be, he made you think you were part of a special club and an insider, by being a comic book fan, as opposed to being an outsider and a geek. He started making you feel like you were special, as opposed to riding the short bus special. You were a very special person because you understood. You got the cool things that they were doing. It was brilliant marketing.
Do you have a character or storyline that you’ve gotten the most resistance for wanting to do?
WEIN: No. I’ve always been the audience that I wanted to reach, so I write for myself. I know, just instinctively, before I knew professionally, what you could and couldn’t get away with. So, I never went looking for stories to get around things or sneak things in. It’s just not my personality.
Do you prefer writing the hero, or writing the villain?
WEIN: Wow, that’s a great question. They’re both fun. The villain is always more entertaining because he has fewer limitations. The hero is bound by honor, by justice and by the law, sometimes. The villain, especially if it’s The Joker, is bound by nothing. They go, “Oh, it’s Tuesday, I’ll kill people.” So I suppose, in many cases, the villain is the cool character, especially the great villains, like The Joker and Doctor Doom. Most people want to be the hero. When you walk around Comic-Con, there are a lot of heroes, but probably proportionally as many villains. They are also three-dimensional characters.
Superheroes: A Never-Ending Battle airs on October 15th on PBS.