Len’s Left Us, Bereft Us

I first met Len Wein, famous co-creator of Wolverine and the new X-men, in the hallway late one Saturday night at LosCon in 2003. I wore a pink satin corset with garters and a big Betty Page sunhat as I was helping BDSM friends sell corsets and floggers out of their hotel room. I’d done my author gig earlier that day, and now it was time to play. Parties abounded and Len was no stranger to them.

I winced with embarrassment when I told him I was a guest at the convention. Compared to Len, I was a baby writer, a mere infant running back and forth over the pages, leaving messy inky footprints. But he never spoke to me as if I were. Not that night.

Not ever.

wolverinekissWe kept in touch. A little, anyway. Honestly? I never knew what to say in email. “Hi, Len Wein. How genius are you today?” Because the truth was I’d had a crush on Wolverine ever since I could remember. (I crushed on larynx bruisers and bad boys. What can I say?) I thought the sexiest thing I’d ever seen was a painting of Wolverine kissing Jean Grey, her fist pressed to him as she sort of protested. I died when I saw that.

Anyway. Six years later.

In January 2009, I’d started dating a sweet Jewish man named Bret who I thought was the dreamiest of my goth girl dreams. We’d only been together a couple of months when I got a strange phone call from him. Somewhere in my daze phrases like, “Len and Chris’ house,” “digging through the ashes,” and “Harlan was here” drilled into me like lightning. Worlds literally collided. Bret knew Len. Harlan Ellison, of course, knew Len. (“My only two friends in the world are Len Wein and a dead dog,” Harlan is famous for saying.) I’d met Harlan before through mutual friends. And apparently Len and his amazing wife Chris had just lost their home and one of their dogs to a terrible fire.

We helped move them from their temporary home to the gorgeous new permanent one in Northridge. I’ll never forget those countless rows of looooong comic book boxes stacked like beehives in the living room.

Game_of_Thrones_title_card

Len and Chris then invited us to their famous annual Twelfth Night Party the following January 2010. That’s where I met and promptly embarrassed myself in front of George R.R. Martin. (I wrote about this incident for StokerCon this year. Jesus, I can’t believe I forgot to post that essay. Okay, soon. I promise.)

When “Game of Thrones” first aired, Len and Chris invited us to watch the premier at their house as part of their Super Sunday Supper Squad — a group of friends who met every Sunday evening to watch “The Amazing Race” and now “Game of Thrones.” Those friends were writers, actors, and other creative types. All wonderful people. Many of them have since become beloved friends of my own. After that night, as we wondered if it would be okay to ever come back, we were informed that once invited always invited. So, we returned.

Every Sunday night, Len sat at the head of the table, busting out the puns and Broadway lyrics. One night he sang a line from musical theater to me. My blank stare must have given away my ignorance, a palpable sin.off-off-off-broadway

“You’ve never heard that?” he said.

“Nope.”

“Remind me why we keep you around?”

“Because I’m cute?”

He nodded. “Yeah. Okay.”

We both laughed.

I cherished those Sunday nights. No matter what happened during the week — and wow a LOT happened between 2010 and 2017 — I knew I had somewhere to go where I could natter with kindred souls. Where I could eat delicious home cooked food, and someone would get my dorky jokes. However, I first had to survive the ritual of three very excited golden retrievers bombarding me at the front door. Len’s pride and joy. I loved those dogs and still do. There’s nothing more wonderful than a golden retriever bringing you a slobbery toy and rolling over, feet in the air for a belly rub. I even helped name their youngest dog, Ginger.

He couldn’t have married anyone better than Chris.  I admired her the moment I met her. She was not only the Mama Lion who looked out for him and the family, but also a gifted photographer who took photos for the Washington Post, an IP attorney, a phenomenal cook, and multiple Jeopardy Champion. God, I can’t believe the things I’ve watched her pull out of the air at King’s Trivia. We used to regularly crush the hopes of dozens every trivia night at the Paragon Bar & Grill. Between Chris and Lisa Klink (TV writer, author, and yet another multiple Jeopardy Champion), few stood a chance.

Damn, I have smart friends.

Len and Chris visited my condo on my birthday just after my mother had passed away. Once again, I cringed with embarrassment because in my grief I’d forgotten to put away the two Wolverine figurines I kept in my office. Still, Len kindly signed my Watchmen book. I think I only have one other thing he signed. And very few pictures taken with him except this:

ssss

I think this was a timer photo of our Sunday Super Supper Squad. That’s me and Bret standing behind Len on the right.

I made so many incredible friends at Len and Chris’ house, like David Gerrold and Steven Barnes. I (re-)met Larry Niven, have had several conversations with Melinda Snodgrass, and befriended Chris’ sister, T, a fabulous actress. I even live-tweeted a food fight there between Harlan Ellison and Emo Phillip’s wife, Kipleigh Brown, at David’s birthday party. Earlier that night, I’d been in a bouncy house on Len’s front lawn with both Emo Phillips and David Gerrold, which meant only one thing: I had to dream a new dream.

swampthingcharlesvess

Swamp Thing by Charles Vess. Used with permission.

When Len’s health started to seriously deteriorate, I silently panicked. Well mostly silently. I sent Neil Gaiman increasingly crazed messages. “Come see Len! He’s stopped eating! He’s talking to the guy with the scythe RIGHTFUCKINGNOWGETOVERHERE!!” I stopped bothering him because I didn’t want him to feel guilty for not being able to be here.

I tried to see Len in the hospital whenever possible, toting PBJs made his special way (creamy peanut butter, grape jelly, white bread, no crust) when he stopped eating. Towards the end, he was as paper-thin and fragile as an autumn leaf. He reminded me so much of my mother in her final weeks. Unlike my mother, however, his mind remained extraordinary. He died with open contracts for work on his desk, a powerful storyteller to the very end. His body might have failed him prematurely — from diabetes and other ailments — but his mind would have continued to generate lights bold and brilliant for many years to come. Len the punster, the ineffable weaver, splicer and dicer of words. Singer of All The Songs. Giver of hugs and encouragement. Ever gracious, kind and consoling.

And funny. Jesus, he was funny. (Of course, right now I can’t think of any Len jokes. Instead, I’ll just sit here, makeup running down my face, looking like Alice Fucking Cooper.)

logantimeI cried my head off while we were watching Logan because Len was in the hospital at the time. Again. Logan reminded me that even Wolverine would leave this earth someday. And I didn’t want that to happen. Ever.

(By the way, Logan was the best X-men movie. Fight me.)

Anyway, some of our mutual friends are saying that, while we can’t ever hope to have the cultural impact that Len did with his work, we can certainly emulate his kindness, generosity, and good humor. They’re right. But goddamnit, I’m going to try to make the best impact possible. Even if I never succeed, I’ll know I’ve done my best. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that my work won two Bram Stoker Awards and was nominated for an Anthony Award since I became friends with Len. His presence in my life was profoundly inspiring.

And like I said, he never for a moment spoke to me like I couldn’t make an impact like his, even if it isn’t possible. That kind of gentle spirit is precious. That’s really what made Len a treasure. Not just his coterie of fantastic characters — Wolverine, Lucius Fox, Storm, and Swamp Thing to name just a few — but his utter sweetness.

His Len-ness.

Just before the funeral, we gathered our cars at the foot of the hill at Forest Lawn, anticipating the procession up to the grassy hillside overlooking the DC Comics corporate building. Bullet gray clouds thickened in the sky. Chris had asked us to wear some “comic flair.” While others wore capes and comic book t-shirts, I drew the signature black swirl of Neil’s Death under my right eye and carried a black parasol. Seemed fitting. One of our mutual friends hugged me tight and said in my ear, “You know he was proud of you, right?”

“No,” I whispered, taken aback.

“Seriously?” she replied. “He talked about you. He was very proud of you.”

wolverinekatanarain

Goodbye, Len. It meant more to me than you could have ever known to be a part of your life. And please don’t worry about Chris, Michael and T. We’ve surrounded them in love.

As you did us.

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