Len Wein Teaches Me a Lesson (and, oh, by the way, Roger Stern, too)
Roger Stern started working at Marvel in December of 1975, two weeks before I did on the first working day of January 1976.
Rog came from Indiana. He had previously published or co-published a slick fanzine called CPL (Contemporary Pictoral Literature, I think.) that had been devoted to Charlton Comics. He had been hired as an assistant editor. Among his first duties, I think, was editing letter columns.
(NOTE: Letter columns were commonly put together by the writers of the individual books, who would sort through the fan mail, select letters to be printed and write the answers or comments. A few lettercols were written by someone other than the book’s writer. If that person couldn’t or didn’t want to do his or her own letter column, a staffer or other freelancer would do it. For instance, lettercols for the Kirby books were done by someone other than Jack. Writing a lettercol in those days paid $25, I think.)
I had been hired as associate editor. Rog and I both sat in the big editorial room outside the Editor in Chief’s office, which took up a corner of that room. We were the two new guys. We became friends, and remain friends…at least until he reads this.
Rog wanted to write comics. He hadn’t done any writing for DC or Marvel at that point. I don’t know whether he had any published work for Charlton. Anyway, being his buddy, his pal, I wanted to help.
(ASIDE: If Rog is reading this, right now he’s wondering “Where is that big lug going with this?” And by the way, I haven’t checked any of this with him. Rog, if you wish to rebut or correct anything, have at it. Me. Whatever.)
When I took the associate editor position, I still owed editor Murray Boltinoff at DC three Legion of Super-Heroes scripts. Editor in Chief Marv, who hired me, gave me the okay to finish that work on my own time. I had “springboards” approved by Murray, but not detailed plots. I invited Rog to kibitz on those plots and scripts. Thought maybe I could teach the guy a trick or two.
Somewhere along the way, I rented a room from Dave Cockrum who had a huge, three bedroom apartment out in Queens. I remember Rog, Dave and me hanging around discussing the stories between dinner at the Brew Burger and a pie-run to the Silver Moon Diner.
Anyway, Rog was more than a kibitzer on those LSH stories. He made some cool contributions. He’s a smart guy. Lots of ideas.
Even before we worked on those scripts, I had been coaching Rog, explaining how to approach writing a story. All through the process, I coached him, and after those scripts were done, I coached him. I talked about Aristotelean principles, the underlying philosophies, how to think about it…the linguistic roots of story architecture, the visual-verbal language, point of view, pacing, themes, counter-themes, subplots, insight, establishing characters, character development, dialogue…blah, blah, blah.
Rog listened eagerly. Or maybe he was just humoring me.
Anyway, his chance finally came. We needed someone to dialogue an Omega story plotted by Steve Gerber and drawn, I’m guessing, by Jim Mooney. Marv let Rog take a crack.
Rog delivered. I edited the script. It was…how shall I say this? Not good.
I touched it up some, as best I could with the time I had.
After Steve Gerber read the (printed) book, he flipped through it with Rog, making comments. I was within earshot. Steve was very polite, very nice, generous with his compliments. One thing he pointed out was that Rog referred to the character as “Omega” a few times. Steve made a point never to call him anything but the “caped man” or some such. My fault as much as Rog’s. Sigh.
Shortly thereafter, Len Wein needed someone to dialogue a Hulk story he had plotted, drawn, I think, by Sal Buscema. He gave Rog a shot. I heard him talking to Rog before Rog embarked on the script. Len kept saying “Do this,” and “Don’t do that.” Simple instructions. Rules.
Rog wrote the script (we used “script” and “dialogue” pretty much interchangeably at Marvel, for work done Marvel style). Again, I was in earshot when Len went over it with him. Len talked about the rhythm of the dialogue, “hearing” the voices, being cognizant of basic information that had to be delivered. “Do it like this, not like this.” I think Rog made a few, very few, corrections. Then the thing was handed over to me to edit.
It was really good.
And the little light bulb went on.
Don’t try to give new writers (or creators in general) the entire How to Write course at the get-go. Start them off with easy-to-follow instructions. Rules, if you will, until they get their feet under them. Then worry about the nuances.
And wasn’t that how I learned…? First, from the Ultimate Rule-Giver, Mort Weisinger, then onward on my own, once I felt myself on firm ground.
One story with Len helping and Rog was off and flying. And, once he had Len’s rules etched into his brain, then, all of the sudden, he could more easily grok all the complexities I had been throwing at him.
The rules describe a neighborhood in the universe of writing, a safe place, from which one can venture into the limitless possibilities when one is damn good and ready.
Roger became ready quickly. He GOT it! Just like that. Well, maybe not just like that, but he was soon on his way.
Rog is now, and has been for a long time, one of the best writers in the business. Always solid, often brilliant, capable of those moving, stick-with-you moments. Thanks in good measure to Len.
Thanks, Len, from me, too.
I got it. After that I concentrated on building foundations before erecting the spires.
Example: Early on, I made newbie Frank Miller draw a couple of stories using the Kirby windowpane grid. Strictly enforced.
He got it. Soon and in abundance. Perhaps you’ve noticed.
So, thanks again for the lesson, Len.
And I’m really sorry I dropped you on your head….
NEXT: More Strange Tales – Why I Dropped Len On His Head