Monday, September 11, 2017

Len Wein 1948-2017

One of my all-time favorite comics.
It's not fair that we lost both Bernie Wrightson and Len Wein in the same year. You've probably heard by now about his passing on social media, and everyone is reminding us that Lein Wein co-created Swamp Thing with Bernie and also Wolverine with Herb Trimpe and he re-started the languishing X-Men by making them Uncanny and creating a bunch of now-standard--and interestingly, international--characters like Colossus, Nightcrawler, Thunderbird, and of course, the Canadian Mystery Man, Wolverine himself. This is a big deal, and should be mentioned, alongside his stint as editor-in-chief at Marvel comics, and his later career writing for TV animation like the Batman Animated Series. Len deserves every once of credit for all of that, and more.

But I want to talk about Len Wein and what he meant to me. See, I was late to the Uncanny X-Men--my first issue was well into the Claremont/Byrne run (issue #119, if you must know; the second appearance of Moses Magnum). I discovered Swamp Thing later, around age 9, watching them read aloud on television with actors speaking the parts, like a book and record sort of thing. But my first Len Wein comic I ever read was an issue of The Incredible Hulk. It wasn't #180 (*First Appearance of Wolverine-cameo, last panel) nor #181 (*First Full Appearance of Wolverine, worth a small fortune these day). Nope. It was Incredible Hulk #182 (*2nd Wolverine Appearance-cameo, first page). Which, as you may well imagine, ain't worth diddly-squat, by comparison.

Comics History, Bronze Age Style
But that doesn't matter. At the age of 8, I was reading them to be reading them. You couldn't get full runs of anything in Abilene, Texas, in the mid-1970s, and I had to be content with what I could find. So I read these comics very carefully, looking for clues and connections to other comics and stories.  This was, at first glance, a random issue of The Incredible Hulk. I don't even remember where I got it. Probably bought for me by my dad, or possibly included in a stack from a garage sale. Who knows. But this seemingly-innocuous comic hit me like a ton of bricks.

In a nutshell, here' the recap: The Canadian government captures the Hulk, no thanks to their field agent, Wolverine. Hulk gets loose, as per usual, and disappears into the forest. He comes across an old black man who set up camp. He introduces himself as Crackerjack Jackson and offers Hulk some food. He plays the harmonica and they talk for a while.

Elsewhere, two convicts, an angry black man, and a racist white man, have broken out of prison, but they are shackled together, chain gang style. They are not friends, and can't wait to get free of their chains and go their separate ways. They stumble across a mushroom-headed alien and shoot him. The alien is saved by the metal in the bullets and as a thank you for the help, turns their ordinary chain into an energy tether that gives them strength and power. They rebrand themselves as Hammer and Anvil and decide to get revenge on the prison.

This comic broke my heart.
Meanwhile, Crackerjack is teaching Hulk to fish and write his name. Crackerjack tells Hulk, "A man ain't nothin' if he ain't got his name." Hulk is pleased with his results. He agrees to accompany Crackerjack to see his son.

As it turns out, his son is in prison. The very prison that Hammer and Anvil are about to take apart. Moreover, Leroy, now "Hammer", is Crackerjack's son. Crackerjack sees what's going on and tries to intervene, but Leroy is too angry at his absent father to listen. When Crackerjack reaches out to his son, he grabs the energy chain and the shock kills the old man instantly. When Hulk sees this he goes nuts and attacks the pair. They get Hulk in a stranglehold, but Hulk overcomes and tears the bio-chain apart, which stuns them both.

Before the authorities can swoop in, Hulk takes Crackerjack's body in his arms and leaps away. There, in the woods, he digs a grave for his friend, and buries him. Using his finger, he digs into a rock, carving Crackerjack's name into the makeshift tombstone. And then he leaps away.

All of that story happens in a story merely 17 pages long. And at the age of 7, it filled me with such profound sadness, such regret and loss, that it made me cry. I've since revisited the story, and it's...well, dated, to be polite...but at the time, this was great, great stuff.. I'd argue that even though it's dated now, its heart is still in the right place. And that's why Len Wein should be remembered. This wasn't high art. But he took something that could have been just another Hulk comic and made it greater than the sum of its parts.

That was the first time I noticed the writer's name, Len Wein. Two years later, when I discovered Swamp Thing, I would see his name again and the light bulb went off in my head: you could write comics! You didn't have to be an artist. Because (and I say this with all due respect) there is zero chance of mistaking Herb Trimpe for Bernie Wrightson. But the connective thread there was Len Wein, the writer.

Comics, and especially Bronze and Silver Age comics, take it in the shorts for their "simplicity" and being "kid's stuff," and while there was a schizophrenic barrage of message inherent in the way comics and comic properties were marketed in the 1970s, the people writing them weren't writing comics for kids. They were writing things that interested them, based on what they were hearing from fans, who were all ages--thirty and forty year old men and women, even back then. So the themes of casual racism, absent fathers, self-awareness, patricide, revenge, and regret--this was all fair game back then. What the critics of comics never realized, never got, never understood, is that when comics were their very best, they never pandered to the lowest common denominator. All of the best books forced their readers to engage with them at a much higher level. And that's what Len Wein did when he wrote comics.

I've lost, traded, or misplaced many of my "childhood" comics, but I still have my battered and beat-to-hell issue of Incredible Hulk #182. It was a transformative book for me, one that most certainly contributed to my path to being a storyteller. I am deeply sorry I never got a chance to tell Len that in person.

Rest in Peace, Good Sir. And thanks. For all of it.

Edited to correct an appearance error and the weird loss of a paragraph in the posting.
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