Chris Claremont Remembers Wolverine Creator Len Wein: "He Loved the Craft"

"No one else helped define the work, and the era, to the extent that he did," says Claremont of his friend and collaborator.
Courtesy of Gil Kane/Marvel Entertainment

Chris Claremont is a comic book legend, with his tenure on Marvel's X-Men franchise spanning decades and producing material that has been mined for multiple spinoff comic books, television series and movies.

And every legend needs their start. For Claremont, his run with the X-Men all began with Len Wein, who was then Marvel's editor-in-chief, and had rebooted the franchise and co-created the new cast just months earlier.

He's remembered for bringing to life mainstays such as Wolverine, Storm, Nightcrawler and Colossus. Following Wein's death this weekend, The Hollywood Reporter spoke to Claremont about his relationship with Wein, and the creative legacy the latter creator leaves behind.

You two had a long friendship that started back in the early 1970s, when you were both on staff at Marvel.

He was editor-in-chief, I was the associate editor. Basically, the two of us ran the comics side of the company. I started out working with Marv Wolfman, who was working in the black-and-white department, and then I moved up to work with Len, who had taken over as editor-in-chief. Basically, we just concentrated on getting the books out on time, which was a challenge.

He was your editor when you started writing X-Men — which was, of course, following his own work creating the "All-New, All-Different" team of characters with Dave Cockrum in Giant-Size X-Men No. 1.

My desk was right outside his office, which was the only formal office that had a door, and I just kind of eavesdropped as he and Dave started structuring out and building Giant-Size No. 1. As they were structuring out the story, I was listening from outside the office, and then kind of wandered in. They looked up, and I was sitting on the couch and going, "Wow, this is cool." "Why aren't you working?" "Because this is cool!" Just listening to them bouncing ideas back and forth was fun.

And then I had the ridiculous good fortune of, Len ran into a problem at the end of the story: how to get rid of the bad guy, Krakoa, the Living Island? I came up with an idea that he used. That was that, as far as I was concerned; I'd just watch him and Dave have fun on Giant-Size X-Men for the foreseeable future, and the next thing that happened was that Marvel decided they didn't want to proceed with a giant-size quarterly. They wanted a bi-monthly regular-sized comic — and also, that coincided with Len deciding that he'd had enough with being editor-in-chief, and that he wanted to move on as a writer.

Being editor-in-chief, he ended up with his pick of the top four books of the Marvel line. He knew he could do four books a month, which when you think about it, is a hell of a thing — you're essentially coming up with a story a week for an artist, Stan [Lee] made it look easy, he could just go to Jack Kirby or Steve Ditko and say, 'You got an idea?' and, boom, it's Galactus — but Len knew he had to give something up, and X-Men was it. He didn't even get the chance to ask anyone, I basically tackled him and said I wanted it. Len, to his inestimable credit and probably his equal frustration, said yes.

What was Len like as a boss? So many fans know his writing, and the many characters he created. But what was he like to work for?

In certain respects, Len was very much like Stan, in that he was willing to trust whomever he was working with, but wasn't afraid to give them guidance or criticism. Stan's attitude was, if you can do the job, and you're not a pain in the ass, and you do the job on time, I can live with that. You don't have to be brilliant. With Len, it was a little less laissez faire than that. If you could do the job — and it was a hell of a job, to edit better than 30 titles a month single-handed — then that's what you did. And, at the same time, kicking around ideas, talking with writers about where they're going, settling feuds with other writers — "I want this character, no, I want this character!", that kind of thing. It was being a boss and being a den mother at the same time, and Len was superb at it.

He loved the medium, and more importantly, he loved the craft. The frustration many of us feel is that the way the industry has evolved has made it harder to assume a mentor role for younger talent. In the old days, Stan would walk in and, if there was a problem, he'd throw down the issue and you'd go through it page by page. Trust me, you didn't want Stan to tell you you had your head up your ass. Len was a gentler voice. He liked working with people, and he liked helping them achieve their potential. He also had an infinitely rare and valuable talent, which was turning you down or correcting you in a way that didn't make your hackles rise or your head explode.

You couldn't take away the enthusiasm he brought, and the frustration in dealing with people who didn't share that enthusiasm, which would happen sometimes with the business side of things. In private, he could get pissed off. He wasn't afraid of expressing himself, if he felt the situation warranted it. On the other hand, it was always from the perspective of, how to make things better. Not to leave a position unacceptable.

That's something that came across in his work a lot. He was expansive, not reductive. He tried to open things up, bring in new characters and stories.

This is one of the reasons why being an editor — and, in particular, Marvel's editor-in-chief — tended to drive him crazy. One of the seminal moments I remember as a young punk is, when Roy Thomas was doing an editorial read-through of a book before it went to press, and being so gob-smacked by it, he just canceled it right there. I mean, this was a finished — inked, colored, lettered, you have it — book, and he just canceled it right there. It was the premiere issue of the series, and he killed the issue and the concept right there, because he didn't think it was up to Marvel standards. That's the side of being a boss that all of us find very hard to do — we want to be friends, we want to have adventures, we want everybody to win, and Len was very much like that. But when you're the boss, you have to draw the line, you have to say no.

One of the things that he wasn't often credited with was increasing the diversity on the page. He co-created Storm, Nightcrawler and Colossus in Giant Size X-Men, and when he was at DC years later, he replaced the white Hal Jordan with the black John Stewart as the central character in Green Lantern. What do you think was behind that? Did he think a lot about making sure that more readers could see themselves reflected in his work?

I think it's, you write what you know. One of the distinct advantages of living in New York — which was Len's formative state — was being able to walk around the world and see cultures and peoples and attitudes without leaving the five boroughs. In L.A., you have to drive; in New York, you can do it on foot. The variety, the potential, of people is in your face. Like any good creator, you want to steal everything. And like any comic creator, you then have to deal with the next guy coming in and screwing it up, like Dave and I did with Wolverine [laughs]. This is what he had to deal with: I come up with something, and look what these other two guys do with it. I come up with Swamp Thing, and look what Alan Moore does with it. On the one hand, you're incredibly proud, on the other, I suspect it drives you absolutely crazy.

His creations went beyond the comic book page, as well — Swamp Thing, of course, but the X-Men movies in particular …

The nicest thing, at the premiere of the first Wolverine film: Len was the guest of Hugh Jackman, and Hugh got up to make a speech before the film started and said, "I'm here, and my career exists because of this man," and introduced Len. "He created Wolverine, and Wolverine was the horse I rode in on." That was an incredibly cool moment for Hugh Jackman to say this to him in public, in front of everybody — this was a big premiere — and for Len to get the attention and applause he deserves from people in a related industry where people respect and admire and benefit from his work. I think, and hope, there's an opportunity for that to happen more often. The heartbreaking thing is that he won't be around to see it.

That kind of recognition is all too rare in comics, especially for creators who are still active in the industry. Len was still working for DC right up until the end.

Len was among the best of his generation — our generation. His great good fortune was that he got to ply his craft not only at Marvel, but also at DC. He got to define not only the Marvel part of the equation, but the DC half as well. The interesting, and unique, I guess, paradigm for Len is that he straddles both sides of modern, mainstream commercial corporate comics in a way that I don't think anybody else does. No one else helped define the work, and the era, to the extent that he did. It's right that people acknowledge that and celebrate that, but we should have done it a lot sooner so that he could've enjoyed the celebration.

The silly thing in my heart is that, now I think, well, now he can team up with Dave and Bernie Wrightson [Wein's co-creator on Swamp Thing] and who knows what they'll come up with next.