Tangled Webs: Len Wein’s Spider-Man

When Len Wein passed away recently, there was some discussion about his role as one of the giants of the bronze age of comics, especially his part in cocreating the international X-Men (including Wolverine in a storyline of the Incredible Hulk) and his Swamp Thing run with Bernie Wrightson. Less attention was paid to his work as a key Spider-Man writer. As a bit of an example of this, when CBR readers were polled on their favorite Len Wein comics, only two featured Spidey: “The Longest Yard” from Amazing Spider-Man #153—a favorite of JR’s—in 15th place, and the Bart Hamilton Green Goblin saga in 10th place. It’s largely to the credit of his other work that this run on one of the top characters in comics isn’t a defining part of his legacy.

Len Wein was only the third writer to have a major stint on Spider-Man writer, so his run was historically significant. He had started as a DC writer, but after becoming roommates with another young comics writer in the early 1970s, he kept being offered the Marvel titles that guy left. Wein followed Gerry Conway—the second major Spider-Man writer—on Marvel Team-Up writing Issues 11-27, and then again on Amazing Spider-Man, with only the third extended run on that title. In the introduction to Marvel Masterworks Spider-Man Volume 17, Wein says that when he was offered Amazing Spider-Man, he went into the editor’s office thinking he was going to be fired from Marvel, as Roy Thomas preceded the offer with “I need to talk about something serious.”

Wein’s run represented a completely different era of the title, as it became clear that this was a series that wasn’t a passing fad, and had been able to survive the transition from the original writer to Gerry Conway. There is the idea—which I’ve written about—that the first 150 issues of Amazing Spider-Man were one type of book, and that it became something else later. It arguably became that thing under Wein.

Wein explained his take on the restrictions in a Comics Journal interview…

As a creator, I like the sense of being able to change characters, knock characters off, to change the characters within their own framework. It’s either my fortune or my folly that I end up with Spider-Man and Fantastic Four and Superman and Batman. I feel, as a professional first, that I am locked into elements that would sell those books, that have sold those books. I envy, in a way, the Steve Gerbers and Don McGregors, and the Steve Engleharts, talented people all, who don’t get on these major books, who do the transitory things that change the comic books around, and do the kinds of stories they like to see done, do them well, and go their merry way. People look at their work and go, “Great stuff. I’m glad somebody finally did that.” Unfortunately, almost without exception, in every one of those cases, none of those books sold. Comparatively, the boring old stuff that the kids out there in kids-out-there-land see every month and buy is what they want.

His Amazing Spider-Man run started strong, with one of the best-regarded Shocker stories, and a standalone about the people affected by Spidey. In Comic Creators on Spider-Man, Wein described what he did when he was offered ASM…

I just sat down and figured out what I wanted to do with the series. I made a list of the good villains to use, and new ones that I planned to create. I looked around to see if I could draw elements from any other Marvel titles into the book, and I made some general plans for the supporting cast. I also decided pretty quickly that I wanted to bring Doctor Octopus back, even though Gerry had blown him up in a nuclear explosion. I began that story by planting these visual clues in the stories. (For) about six months I started cutting to this drunk as a subplot. In this one panel, you see the guy in a hat and tattered coat, holding this cup with both hands, as an unseen third hand holds a bottle half out of the frame, pouring wine into a cup. It was a very subtle clue that the drunk was Doctor Octopus and no one picked up on it.

Presumably this was when he came up with the idea of bringing back Stegron, which I’m sure George is happy about.

Wein kicked off his first issue with Peter getting rid of the body of the clone, just to make certain that story would never be referenced again. During that act, Spider-Man felt someone spying on him, setting up a storyline introducing Marla Madison and a new spider-slayer. Wein wasn’t the first Spider-Man writer to seed later stories this way, but he went further than Conway, who had gone further than Lee.

This connected to another specialty of his: subplots with the supporting characters, some of which would eventually become the main plot of a major story. He liked focusing on multiple storylines.

One of the fascinating things about a soap opera is that there are normally something like twelve storylines going on at any given time, but you only see, say, six on any given day. You get the illusion you’re following all twelve because the other six get mentioned. (I) love that, and I like to bring that to Spider-Man in my subplots.

As a result, his run features some developments that had an impact on the series, such as Harry Osborn falling in love with Liz Allen, Betty Brant getting married to Ned Leeds (following an extensive engagement) and J. Jonah Jameson meeting future wife Marla Madison. These developments often tied into the A-plots. Betty & Ned’s wedding was attacked by a supervillain, while the Liz/ Harry plot fed into Wein’s final storyline, a five part epic pitting a new Green Goblin against Silvermane that was the longest Spider-Man story up until that point, and for some time after. With the Green Goblin saga, Wein ended his run with a bang, while also providing a satisfying conclusion to a status quo he had inherited from Conway, who had turned one of Peter’s best friends into one of his greatest enemies. Wein told the story of Harry’s redemption, and return to mental health.

He also had an eye for connecting Spider-Man’s adventures to Peter Parker’s world as organically as possible. A new villain attacks Betty and Ned’s wedding as part of a wedding robbing spree.  A hitman would target J. Jonah Jameson. He had the advantage of revisiting existing connections (Aunt May and Doctor Octopus, Liz Allen and the Molten Man, Harry Osborn’s Green Goblin breakdown.)

Wein created a few new villains for the series, and may not get enough credit for that. These weren’t exactly A-listers, and were often a bit generic and derivative of other Marvel characters. On the other hand, the Orb, Stegron, Mirage, Will O’the Wisp, the Rocket Racer, and Jigsaw demonstrated significant staying power, each popping up in multiple comics decades after their first appearance.

One drawback with Wein’s run is that the main character’s life was relatively dull. There wasn’t even an attempt at the illusion of change for Peter. Everything stayed the same for him, with the same girlfriend, job and school, in the beginning and the end. Compare that to then next writers. Wolfman shook up the status quo, by moving Peter to grad school, where his supporting cast changed, and breaking him up with MJ. Peter was at the Daily Globe during O’Neil’s run. Stern had Peter quit school to focus on his photography. DeFalco had a supporting character discover Peter’s secret.

Part of this could have been due to page count restrictions, which meant that Peter’s private life took a hit. An year into the run, Peter Parker the Spectacular Spider-Man launched, and that was supposed to be the title that focused on Peter’s civilian life. Unfortunately it didn’t find its footing until after Wein left, partly because it didn’t have a consistent writer for some time, which made it difficult to have the necessary subplots. The first twelve issues had five authors. Mantlo became the main writer around the 9th issue, although there were occassional fill-ins, likely to get rid of inventory issues by Maggin and Claremont. It also took a while for Mantlo to get going with his first two issues a clumsy take on campus radicalism, followed by the four part return of Sha Shan that made one list of the dumbest non-clone saga stories.

Wein had a sense of the smaller moments and quieter indignities of life, especially for a guy trying to keep a secret. Spider-Man would survive a drop from a helicopter into a dumpster full of garbage. Staying up until dawn chasing after villains meant that Peter’s hungry and tired the next day leading to a chase for hors d’oeuvres at a social occasion (a scene similar to one in Spider-Man 2.) An  issue opens with Peter realizing he has a hole in his boot. When Spider-Man lands on his own roof, the landlord thinks he’s a peeping tom.

In the introduction to Marvel Masterworks Spider-Man Volume 16, J.M. DeMatteis suggests that Len Wein still made it work.

The humanity that Len Wein radiates in both his life and his work are on display in the Amazing Spider-Man tales in this collection. Having spent many years writing the character, I know what a delicate balance these stories require: you need big action and big villains, of course, (and you’ll find plenty here as Spider-man grapples with Doctor Octopus, Hammerhead, Stegron, the Lizard and Will O’the Wisp, among others) but you also need humor—along with being one of the most psychologically complex characters in superhero comics, Peter is one of the funniest—and, perhaps most difficult, a grounded, emotional reality. We believe in Peter because he’s a reflection of all of us. He’s a flesh and blood, deeply flawed, human being, struggling—and yes sometimes failing—to do his best in extraordinary circumstances. In order for all the fantastical elements to work, we have to believe in Peter, Aunt May, Mary Jane and the rest of the supporting cast. With Len at the helm, rooting these stories in Peter’s humor and humanity, its easy to believe.

There’s one more thing that made Len Wein’s run special. A few years ago, he was a regular member of the Nerdist Writers Panel Comics edition podcast, where he frequently talked about his efforts getting New York City landmarks into the Spider-Man comics, and making sure the city was a part of Spider-Man’s world. That, and anecdotes about Hugh Jackman, seemed to be his go-to topics.

One of the things I was lucky with when I was writing Spider-Man was A) I had Ross Andru who was an amazing artist, and B) it’s set in New York City, and I made New York City one of the characters in that strip whenever I needed some place interesting for something, it was New York City! There’s a fight at the Rockefeller Center ice rink in one issue. There’s a fight in the middle of the neon billboards in Times Square in another. There’s my favorite- an aerial battle inside Radio City music hall, which is that big in another issue. You could just use the city.

The ice rink was used for a cliffhanger.

Spider-Man fought Stegron in the National History museum…

…while facing Nightcrawler (a Wein creation) and the Punisher on the Roosevelt Island tram.

A Best of collection of his Spider-Man issues could be sold in New York City gift shops. That Nightcrawler team-up started in Coney Island, and may have featured the first comic book appearance of Nathan’s hot dog stand. Wein credits much of the focus on landmarks to artist Ross Andru, who may have an even greater interest in this kind of local detail (something I’ve written about before.) But maybe it’s due to the shared interest between the two. As DeMatteis wrote, “when the chemistry is there, you know: it leaps off the page, excites the pulse and the imagination. Lucky for us, Len and Ross had that creative chemistry and built on it, month after month.”

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(6) Comments

  1. Jeff Gutman

    I had the opportunity to meet Len Wein at a convention in 2014. I told him that he wrote many of the comics that taught me how to read. Some of the first comics I ever bought were the Spider-man comics he wrote when I was first learning to read. He said that he heard that a lot actually, from some fairly famous people these days. He said he was told that same things from the guy who wrote the script to the first Pirates of the Carribean movie. That guy had learned to read from Wein's comics and there was one phrase in particular that sparked his imagination. Len used the phrase "hoisted on his own pitard" in a Spider-man issue, which he got from Shakespeare. This script writer loved that phrase, and when he learned it was Shakespeare, it made him seek out more from the Bard which ultimately led him to drama and scriptwriting.Len was a really nice guy and signed everything I gave him. He loved it that I knew Mayhem in Manhattan!

  2. Andre L. Santana

    Looking back at Wein's run now, it definitely felt like a third album from any great Rock 'n' Roll band: not exactly groundbreaking, but solid and respectful to what came before.Spider-Man is the Rock 'n' Roll of comics.

  3. hornacek

    The Doc Ock as a bum sub-plot brought us the moment of greatness ... Doc Ock and Aunt May sitting on the couch eating a bucket of Colonel Chicken!

  4. Al

    Putting aside how toxic the illusion of change is in general, I think Wein gets too much hate for keeping things the same.Conways’ run changed things almost every issue for 2 years straight with a change so massive it changed comics forever.So a stability period wasn’t unreasonable after that run.

  5. Andrew C

    Besides the 'The Night Gwen Stacy Died' 2-parter (and I maintain the original Clone Saga) the 1970s were generally a pretty boring and even mediocre decade for Spidey. 'The Longest Yard' was a gem in the rough. It doesn't make my top 10 Spidey stories of all time, but I'd definitely put it in my top 30 (while that doesn't sound that high, keep in mind there's been well over a thousand Spider-Man stories and I'd wager I've read more than half).I was surprised to learn Len had created Will O' The Wisp. I was sure that had been Roger Stern. Anyway, I'd put Len in the second tier of Spidey writers. He doesn't rank up there with Lee/Ditko, Stern, DeMatteis, Peter David, DeFalco, etc., but he had a generally solid run with a couple stand-out classics.

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