Not everything is obvious when it happens…
UPDATED 6/12/20: The late, great Len Wein was born 72 years ago. Perfect time to re-present this piece, which I wrote shortly after Wein died in September 2017. Enjoy. — Dan
Highland Park is a little town in central New Jersey, nestled between the much larger and better known New Brunswick and Edison. It’s a nice, suburban community with an active main drag, mostly middle-class populace and an uncommonly large public park for a town its size.
I was born and raised in New Jersey and moved around quite a bit, but Highland Park is probably the place I’d most identify as my hometown.
We moved there — a borough of less than 2 square miles — in the summer of 1976, when I was 9. One of the reasons my mother brought my sister and me there was it was an exceptionally walkable (and bikeable) town. We were in the vanguard of latch-key kids and being able to get from Point A to Point B without having to rely on a working Mom was an important consideration. That and the schools, of course.
Me? I was excited to move there because it was where my friend Paul Kessin lived. And it had the first comic-book store I ever saw.
Unfortunately, the store was closed when we actually moved there but comics were plentiful in and around town, at a couple of convenience stores and the Third Avenue Sweet Shop. (There was also the Route 1 Flea Market in New Brunswick but as a younger kid, you needed a ride to get there, so that was more of an occasional thing until years later.)
By the time I was 12, I’d accumulated a decent stack of comics old and new — mostly Batman-related, of course — from a variety of people and places going back to the age of 5 or so. It was a far cry from a comprehensive collection, though. It’d just never occurred to me to time my trips to the store so that I’d never miss an issue.
That changed one afternoon in the spring of 1979 when I walked down to the Third Avenue Sweet Shop with the specific notion that from now on, I’d try to buy Batman on schedule, as each issue came out. (Of course, I’d still stop in during off weeks to see what else interested me too.)
I hit the jackpot right away. On sale was Batman #312. It had a great cover, with the Caped Crusader fighting a guy I’d never heard of: Calendar Man.
The story was a corker: Calendar Man tailored his crimes — and outfits — based on the day of the week. It was bright, colorful and exciting and I was eager for the next issue to arrive a few weeks later.
Every month that followed, I returned to the Third Avenue Sweet Shop — a jam-packed hole in the wall with a decrepit soda fountain buried under piles of old newspapers and other ephemera — with my allowance in my pocket, ready to buy the new Batman.
For six months, I was rewarded with an exciting run of issues featuring a mixture of big-time villains, like Two-Face and the Riddler, and forgotten foes dusted off for a new generation, like Kite-Man, Crazy Quilt and Calendar Man. There were also subplots involving Lucius Fox and Wayne Enterprises, and, more importantly to my adolescent mind, a romance between Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle.
I didn’t really pay attention to it at the time, but these six issues were in the thick of a run written by Len Wein, who died just a week ago.
I’ve written many times over how the stories by Denny O’Neil/Neal Adams, Steve Englehart/Marshall Rogers and Frank Miller (with and without David Mazzucchelli) had an enormous impact on me. But those six issues by Len Wein — Batman #312-#317 — were about as influential, in their own, more subtle way.
Wein wrote a number of issues before and after that stretch, but it was that six-month period that changed me from a kid who read comics to a kid who made a point of not missing an issue (though of course, there were still lapses later).
And it wasn’t really about being a collector in a completist sense — it was because those stories were so engrossing, with enjoyable art and covers by the likes of Walt Simonson, Irv Novick, Frank McLaughlin, Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez and Dick Giordano.
Wein’s Batman and Bruce Wayne — not to mention his Robin and Dick Grayson — were so accessible and relatable, it was easy for a 12-year-old kid to imagine that he lived in their world.
When I first started going to the Third Avenue Sweet Shop, the older couple that owned the place would eye me with suspicion, as they did all kids who ventured through there unchaperoned. But I’d become such a regular — never shoplifting, never standing around reading for free — that they came to regard me with a certain fondness.
It was, in particular respects, my first comics shop. And it was those stories by Len Wein that kept me coming back.
A couple years ago, I got to talk to Len about those issues — you can read those interviews here — but I never thanked him for the hours and hours of enjoyment I got out of them. Because I didn’t just read these comics once and then put them away. I read them over and over, for months, even years probably. (I just highlighted two of them over here, in fact.)
That’s the thing about being a journalist: You tend to keep yourself at a certain distance from the person you’re interviewing. I certainly thanked Len for his time, but I don’t think I thanked him for his stories.
Which is too bad because those six exciting, warmly written issues kept the kid in me engaged in a way that was perfect for that moment.
And that makes them perfect today.
— LEN WEIN: In His Own Words. Click here.
— Comics Pros Pick Their Favorite Stories by LEN WEIN. Click here.