Len Wein’s name may not be widely famous outside of comic-book circles the way Stan Lee’s, Jack Kirby’s, and Neil Gaiman’s are. But perhaps it should be.
Wein, who died this weekend at the age of 69, was the co-creator of two of the most enduring pop-culture characters of the past half-century: Wolverine and the Swamp Thing. As a writer, his 1970s reinvention of Marvel Comics’ "X-Men" eventually became one of the most popular comic books in the world — which then led to a film series that sparked today’s superhero box office takeover. And as an editor, he oversaw the production of perhaps the most praised graphic novel in history, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ "Watchmen."
Quietly, working in a medium that only a small percentage of the population was paying attention to at the time, Wein helped change the shape of pop culture itself, influencing how it looked and, in doing so, inviting a much wider audience to openly embrace their love of fantastical stories.
Born June 12, 1948, Wein was a sickly Jewish kid from New York who found an escape among the colorful heroes of comic books. They provided relief from days that were filled with bullies, illness, and a general feeling of not belonging anywhere. Soon, just reading comics didn’t seem to be enough: Wein and his friend Marv Wolfman were eager to turn their love of super-stories into a career. The two of them created some of the first fanzines and began pitching their work to DC Comics. They were tenacious. It got them noticed. Wein started picking up freelance work in 1968, and a career was born. Before long, he was bouncing back and forth between DC and Marvel Comics, indulging his creativity and writing some of the most popular characters in the world along the way.
It was in May 1975 that Wein helped change the game forever, though no one knew it yet at the time. That was the month that saw the publication of "Giant-Size X-Men" #1, featuring the debut of an “all-new, all-different” version of Marvel’s superhero team that would soon far outshine Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s earlier incarnation. Wein and artist Dave Cockrum (who died in 2006) created characters that are still starring in fresh new stories today: Storm, Colossus, Nightcrawler, Thunderbird. They also added to the X-Men a character Wein had created the year prior with artists John Romita Sr. and Herb Trimpe: a scrappy Canadian mutant with claws in his hands called Wolverine.
These characters had fantastic abilities and bold costumes, yes, but there was more going on with Wein’s X-Men than just super-strength and lightning-bolt powers. Nightcrawler was a deeply religious young German man ostracized for having blue skin and a tail. Storm was a proud black woman from Kenya; Thunderbird, a Native American; Colossus, a Russian who spoke in broken English. Joining them were Sunfire and Banshee, heroes from Japan and Ireland, respectively. And, of course, they were led by Professor X, a man in a wheelchair.
This didn’t look like any superhero team the world had seen before. Superhero comics were usually filled with white Americans hailing either from generic Anytown, U.S.A., or from iconic New York City locales. Take off their costumes, and they’d be right at home in a Frank Capra film or Norman Rockwell painting — a reflection of the 20th-century American myth, rather than the reality of what America and the world really looked like. With this comic, all that changed. Suddenly, we had a super-team that depicted a bigger, broader, truer cross-section of humanity.
Wein created the template that his successor, longtime X-Men writer Chris Claremont, would run with for many years to come. X-Men comics became a metaphor for the marginalized and disenfranchised. The team’s ongoing struggle as mutants trying to find acceptance in “normal” society has been interpreted over the years as representing the quest for racial equality in America, the LGBT community’s fight for acceptance, and more.
In truth, Wein didn’t intend for the X-Men to represent anything so specific. He just wanted to create a cast of interesting characters. That’s the beauty of his and Cockrum’s creation: This team of diverse misfits allowed any fan to fit themselves in between the panels, to read their own social anxiety and feelings of otherness into these adventures. For perhaps the first time, an awkward Hispanic boy from the South Bronx could find a deeply personal connection with the same thing a shy white kid from rural Iowa and a closeted teen girl from San Antonio, Texas did. They could see themselves in these stories—see themselves standing side by side with others who might not look or speak like them, but who certainly felt the same feelings of pain, alienation, love, and loss.
Len Wein dropped a stone into a pond — or, perhaps more appropriately, a melting pot — and the ripples have since echoed across the decades.
It took a long time for others to catch up, but eventually, the comics industry began to realize that the audience itself looked much like that X-Men team. Today, Miles Morales, a young black man, can be found swinging through comic-book pages as Spider-Man. Jane Foster took up the mantle of Thor; Batwoman was revealed to be gay; we learned that the X-Man Jubilee has a learning disability. And likewise, go to a comics convention in 2017, and you’ll find it’s simply not possible to pigeonhole the people there. There’s no one demographic box they all fit into, other than “comic book fans.”
Wein may not have set out to propel superhero comics toward the 21st century. Regardless, the results are undeniable. Way back in 1975, he put the pieces in place for a movement that would help change the face of pop culture forever.
"Giant-Sized X-Men" #1 didn’t just have an extra-large page count — it left a giant-sized legacy.
— BY ERIC SAN JUAN
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