Updated: Jun 10
It must have been 1968, just before DC Comics (then known as National Periodical Publications, or just National) move from 575 Lexington Avenue, and I was a thirteen year old comic book reader making my first visit to the Manhattan offices of DC Comics. In those days, DC offered fans a weekly, Thursday afternoon tour of the offices. It was open to anyone who showed up in the reception area by the appointed time.
When I arrived with my older brother, a veteran of these tours, there were already several fans there ahead of us. My brother greeted some of them by name, including two older, college-aged guys who had made themselves comfortable, sprawled on a waiting room sofa. Finally, the inner door opened, and a man who introduced himself as Sol Harrison, DC’s production manager, lead us inside. I wish my memory of the offices themselves were better—it was all a bit overwhelming and breathtaking at the time—but I do recall Sol walking us through editorial, where we saw men like Julius Schwartz, Joe Orlando, and Murray Boltinoff at work, and a small area he called the bullpen, where that afternoon Neal Adams and Murphy Anderson were bent over drawing boards, making some corrections to stories they had brought in.
Sol outlined the entire process of creating a comic book, interrupting his production artists at their boards to explain to us exactly what they were doing. Not all of us were enthralled by Sol’s talk. The two older fans kept falling behind as they stopped to say hello or chat with this editor or that artist. Obviously, this wasn’t their first time at the rodeo. I was too awestruck to speak but these guys were exchanging witty banter with Joe Orlando and Neal Adams. I had no way of knowing that these two New York area fans, Len Wein and Marv Wolfman, were on the cusp of, or may have only recently, made their first professional sale to editor Orlando, the script for Teen Titans #18 (December, 1968).
In the mid-1980s, I was briefly on staff at DC as an editor, a temporary position while they waited for the permanent hire to become available. I wound up sharing an office at 666 Fifth Avenue with Len for those nine months. I had followed Len into the business more than half a dozen years later, but during that years, I had become a diehard Len Wein fan (his runs on Justice League of America and The Phantom Stranger from the early-1970s remain favorites of mine, not to mention his landmark work on Swamp Thing with Bernie Wrightson).
It was purely a matter of luck that I ended up in that office with Len. Everything I knew about editing comic books I knew from the point of view of the edited, not the editor. Len had ample experience on both sides of the desk, and I spent a lot of my first few months watching how he did it. Not the blue-pencil-to-the-page part of the job, or even the physical process of getting a story from idea to printed book, but to how he related to and treated the talent.
The first thing I learned was to hire the right creators for the job and then stay the hell out of their way. The correct writers and artists don’t need an editor breathing down their necks or second-guessing their creative decisions, although they do sometimes need a helping hand or some encouragement to get over a patch of bumpy storytelling. “Besides, less for me to do,” he added happily.
I can’t tell you how many of Len’s plotting sessions I overheard from my desk, but I do know what I took away from my editorial eavesdropping: shut up and let the writer tell their story. Only when and if they started to go off the rails would Len interject, usually with a suggestion prefaced with a gentle, “What if instead…” to get things back on track.
I don’t recall Len ever losing his temper. The job would piss me off a minimum of three times a day, but Len managed to maintain an even keel and his sense of humor, no matter what. I recall listening in on Len’s end of a phone call with a veteran artist who was having a problem figuring out how to handle a panel in a Batman story he was penciling.
Len pulled the script from his files and turned to the page in question: “Let’s see…‘Night. Batman is perched on the edge of a Gotham skyscraper rooftop, his cape billowing in the wind, silhouetted against the full moon.’ Okay, what’s giving you trouble? I see…right. Well, he’s on a rooftop, right at the edge, okay? That’s right, and the wind is making his cape blow all around him. Uh-huh. No, Batman’s on the edge of the roof. Like at the corner. And there’s a full moon and Batman’s in front of it. No, don’t make Batman small. Make the moon big. Exaggerate it…”
It went on like that for several minutes, Len slowly and patiently bringing the artist (a lovely and talented gentleman, sometimes better known for his draftsmanship than his mental acuity) around to where he thought he understood the art direction and went off to execute it. After he hung up the phone, Len turned to me with his patented grin and said, “You know, if he really gets it, he’s gonna draw the hell out it.”
That was Len. That young fan I met in 1968 had never gotten over his joy in having broken into the business that he loved, working with the people he loved, on characters that he loved. Despite having written virtually every character at the Big Two (on top of creating Swamp Thing and Wolverine and remaking the X-Men, among other accomplishments) and being Marvel’s editor-in-chief and an editor of influence at DC, Len never stopped being that fan and a collector. His desk was always piled high with the weekly bundles of current comics…and, in the bottom drawer was a little portable television set on which Len watched his soap operas every afternoon (thankfully with headphones) while he worked.
Len and I sometimes dealt with one another professionally as well. When he and Marv were editing the Marvel Comics Novel Series for Pocket Books in the late-1970s, they hired me to write two of the novels, despite my never having written a novel—or having published prose of any kind on my resume. Later, I would occasionally ghost-write plots or dialog a story for Len when he was up against a deadline, and in 1985, we memorably (well, at least for me) co-wrote Green Lantern Corps Annual #1, in collaboration with GL co-creator Gil Kane. Still later, I edited a four-issue Danger Trail miniseries written by Len and penciled by another comic book legend, Carmine Infantino.
It took me several years to put two and two together and realize that those two “older” comics fans I met on the DC Comics office tour that day were Len and Marv. It came to me one Friday night, at a poker game at Paul Levitz’s apartment in 1976 or 1977, by which time I’d also turned professional, writing for Charlton and DC Comics…and taking much stylistic inspiration (i.e. swiping) from several of my favorite writers, including (especially) Len Wein.
“Hey,” I said to Len, “I just realized…I think the first time I ever met you was in 1968, on the DC tour.”
Len thought about it and, with a smile, asked, “Oh yeah? What was that like? I’ve never had the pleasure of meeting me.”
The pleasure was all ours.