Lee Wochner: Writer. Director. Writing instructor. Thinker about things.


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Len Wein, R.I.P.

September 10th, 2017

Just before heading into the gym today, around 2, I learned from Kurt Busiek‘s Twitter feed that Len Wein had died. That made for a very thoughtful workout.

In my lifetime, I have read many, many, many comic books that Len wrote, including a landmark run of “Justice League of America” that reintroduced The Seven Soldiers of Victory and the Freedom Fighters (and which I bought again two months ago at Comic-Con), his Batman run in “Detective” and then later in “Batman,” and, at Marvel, his work on “Marvel Team-Up,” “Thor,” and, of course, “Fantastic Four.”

He was also the co-creator of many of the most significant new characters of the 1970s:  Swamp Thing, Wolverine, Nightcrawler, Storm and Colossus. Without Len, there would have been no new X-Men comics, let alone the movies.

I knew him a little bit — enough to say hello and to say, “Hey, here you are again!” That’s because I kept running into him, and not just at comic-book conventions. Although I probably first met him when I was a kid and he was a force to be reckoned with at DC or Marvel, I can’t pinpoint when I got reintroduced as an adult, here in Los Angeles.  It might have been almost 10 years ago, when my company was the sponsor of a live stage revival of “What’s My Line,” hosted by a very clever guy named J. Keith Van Straaten. Len’s first appearance on the show was as a mystery guest. The next time, I saw him sitting in the audience. Finally, he was made a panelist. To my recollection, he was there week after week in some capacity or other, because he just loved the show. If that wasn’t how I (re)met him, then maybe it was at my friend Jackie’s improv show — because Len had studied improv with her and also loved improv. And I would run into him at the theatre all the time. In early ’09, I took my wife and kids to see the revival of “Pippin” at the Ahmanson — and Len Wein happened to be sitting in front of us. That happened to me lots of times in lots of different places. He was a bit of a theatre geek.

He was also a pivotal figure in comics. Of all his achievements, these three in particular cemented his reputation:  He co-created Wolverine, who is by far the most popular comics character introduced in the past 60 years; he launched the X-Men revival, which financially carried Marvel all through the mid-1970s, 1980s, and 1990s at least; and he hired Alan Moore to write “Swamp Thing.” That was Moore’s big break — and ultimately led to Vertigo comics and the more-literate line of comics since then. Without Moore there’d of course be no “Watchmen” — but probably no “Sandman” (Neil Gaiman’s big break), no “Preacher,” no John Constantine or “Hellblazer” (another Moore invention), no “Lucifer” and on and on.

Not just in comics, but in all the areas they now touch, Len Wein was a very, very big deal. I’m glad to see all the obits today acknowledging his impact.

More about Shelley

September 2nd, 2017

Here’s the excellent obit for Shelley Berman, from today’s Los Angeles Times. Yesterday, I said that the infamous “Comedian Backstage” documentary had cost him a lot of money — note that here Shelley is quoted as saying it drove him into bankruptcy.

The piece also pays greater attention to his acting career, which was where his performing career began, than I did.

Reading this today also reminded me of something else, a side note of sorts about Shelley’s time at USC.

Eight or 10 years ago, in the graduate writing program where we were both teaching, USC transitioned Shelley into emeritus status. The university had gotten more than a few complaints from students in his humor writing course, and this would allow him to stay associated with the program and the university, and to participate in special events and seminars, while removing the rigors of an actual regular course. And, of course, it’d allow the university to stay associated with a legendary comedian.

But that left the question of who was going to teach humor writing. The dean running our program asked for a recommendation, and without hesitation, I said:  “Mark Evanier.”

At that point, Mark had been writing funny stuff for about 40 years already, and knew just about every comedy writer or comedian in LA and beyond; also, he was a generalist, which was important for a program that wanted you to write in many different disciplines. Mark had written sitcoms, jokes for standup comedians, variety shows, animation — and comic books. Many, many comic books. This was my opportunity to get a comic-book writer — someone who works with Sergio Aragones, no less! — onto the faculty. I reached out, he was interested — and he got hired. Mark proved popular with students,  just as quick on his feet as I promised he would be, and reliably entertaining for the dean.  He also had good taste:  He took immediate dislike to the new director of the writing program — who was later responsible for its collapse.

This is the same program where I got to study under Robert Pirosh, who wrote for the Marx Brothers on “A Night at the Opera” and “A Day at the Races,” and Jerome Lawrence, who co-worte “Inherit the Wind” and “Mame.”  It’s where I got to work with and socialize with Hubert Selby, Jr., the author of “Last Exit to Brooklyn” and “Requiem for a Dream.” And it’s where I got to know Shelley Berman. And it’s where I met the woman who started booking me as a teacher at writing conferences, and who talked me into starting a playwriting workshop.

For about 25 years of my life, that program was a good thing. Shame somebody had to come along and ruin it.

Shelley Berman, R.I.P.

September 1st, 2017

shelleyandlee

 

I was sorry to learn just now of the passing of my former colleague Shelley Berman. Sorry, and not sorry.

Sorry because he was a terrific comedian and comic writer — a very clever and entertaining man who made me laugh a lot, in person, and on TV.

Sorry because he was struggling with Alzheimer’s and had stopped performing about three years ago. To the extent that I knew Shelley, he was all about performing, so I can only imagine how it felt to him to stop.

Just hanging around in our department at USC, you could pick up great writing tips from other writers. Shelley’s weren’t exactly revelations, but they sounded especially good to a playwright like me, because we knew Shelley worked in the spoken word, as we do. Here’s something I posted on this blog 10 years ago:

Tonight, as I was standing at the copy machine violating Harold Pinter’s copyright (sorry, Hal — just a few pages, I promise), Shelley came by and started sharing the advice he gives his class. The essence is this: shorter sentences are funnier, and beware of actors who add extra words to your lines. Whether or not you already know these things to be true, they sound truer coming from the mouth of Shelley. For 10 minutes I felt that I was getting a private lesson in comedy writing from an expert. Some of us see Shelley every week and we don’t think twice, and I understand that. But just this once it occurred to me that I was talking to Shelley Berman.

I had that feeling because, of course, I grew up seeing Shelley Berman on The Merv Griffin Show or the Mike Douglas Show, doing his telephone bit or some other bit of standup, and laughing my teenage butt off.

Later that year, I flew to Las Vegas to catch Shelley’s act in a casino lounge, which I wrote about here. Two things that I didn’t put in that brief profile:

One was his extraordinary anxiety. At one point, he called out from the stage for a drink. It looked to me like, at age 82, he’d lost his place (which, of course, all of us do — but we’re not on stage) — so he called out to a waitress to bring him a drink. About one nanosecond later he followed that up with, “Is it coming? Is anybody bringing it??!?!?” And I caught a flash of extreme dislike from the bartender and the wait staff that told me this wasn’t the first time this had happened. He got his drink, recovered and carried on, and finished very very well — but I at least didn’t forget the earlier moment. Which also called to mind this episode, tactfully summed up in today’s Variety obit:

In 1962, Berman participated in NBC’s documentary-style television show “Comedian Backstage,” where cameras followed him as he prepared for and performed his nightclub act. The cameras caught Berman becoming angry when a telephone backstage started ringing during his act, which dimmed his popularity for a time.

Yeah, that’s one way to put it. The way he put it — to me and to many other people, for 30 or more years — was that it was unfair treatment, that the club had been expressly told to turn off all phones (of course), and that this (temporarily) ruined his career and cost him a lot of money.

The other thing that I didn’t put into my piece here 10 years ago — and I’m surprised I didn’t — was this. I said that Shelley very kindly seated me next to his wife, Sarah, for his act. If you are an artist of any sort, the very best thing you can do in life is this:  Get an adoring spouse. An adoring spouse will make all the difference. She (or he) doesn’t always need to adore  you, but if she can adore your work, you’ve got it made. I say this from experience. Throughout the show, Sarah roared with laughter at everything Shelley said — not to shill, but genuinely. She absolutely loved his work, and loved him. Sarah and Shelley were together for 60 years, and I have no doubt that she is a very big reason he had such a long, and large, career.

 

 

Is Hurricane Harvey the result of global warming?

August 29th, 2017

“To take but one additional case study close at hand, it is now estimated that New York City will suffer ‘500-year’ floods once every 25 years. And sea-level rise is more dramatic elsewhere, which means that storm surges will be distributed unequally, too; in some places storms on that scale will hit even more frequently. The result is a terrifying, radically accelerated experience of extreme weather — centuries worth of natural disaster compressed into just a decade or two.”

Here, you be the judge.

My life with Jack Kirby

August 28th, 2017

JackKirby_selfp

In my life, I have known about a dozen MacArthur “genius” grantees — generally, very noteworthy writers and performers whose names you would know. But I think that for range of vision, for sheer scope of work and for lasting influence, Jack Kirby, who was largely unrecognized as a genius during his life, tops them all.

I was very lucky to meet him, as well. Which I’ll get to in a minute. But first, on the 100th anniversary of his birth, I have to pay tribute to his genius.

To credit Jack Kirby as the (co-) creator of the entire foundation of the Marvel universe — and the resultant Marvel Cinematic Universe — is to lavish him with faint praise.

Jack Kirby created entire categories, and subcategories, of American popular culture, inculcating multi-billion-dollar enterprises along the way, while bringing new thrust to his special undertaking:  the dynamic depiction of story.

Yes, Jack Kirby created, or co-created:

  • Captain America
  • The Fantastic Four
  • Thor (Marvel Comics’ version)
  • Iron Man
  • The Hulk
  • The Fly
  • Spider-Man
  • Boy Commandoes
  • The Newsboy Legion
  • Groot
  • The Inhumans
  • Black Panther
  • Doctor Doom
  • The X-Men
  • Darkseid
  • Kamandi
  • Ego the Living Planet
  • the Silver Surfer
  • Mr. Miracle
  • the Forever People
  • Ronan the Accuser
  • the Watcher
  • The Kree
  • The Skrulls
  • The Supreme Intelligence
  • The Challengers of the Unknown
  • The Eternals
  • The Celestials
  • The Avengers
  • and the list goes on and on

(And just for the record, and although I’m somewhat sad to bring this up, what did the far more glorified Stan Lee create without his primary creative partner, Jack Kirby? Just about nothing. Meanwhile, Kirby created noteworthy characters long before his partnership with Stan Lee, during his partnership with Stan Lee, and long after his partnership with Stan Lee. The only constant factor in this incredible 60-year outpouring of creativity was:  Jack Kirby.)

But Kirby also created:

  • Entire new mythological universes, as with “Thor,” and his “Fourth World” series
  • Kid-gang comics (“Boy Commandoes,” “The Newsboy Legion”)
  • the entire genre of Romance comics
  • whole strata of the DC and Marvel Universes (both the upcoming Justice League and Avengers movies directly spin out of Kirby underpinnings)

Kirby also created new methods of illustrative storytelling.

He created Kirby krackle. Here’s an example of a layout without it, and with it.

Kirby Krackle

Once you know what it looks like, you’ll spot Kirby krackle everywhere. It brings energy to the panel.

Kirby also brought forced perspective to the page. Note how Captain America seems to be leaping out at us:

Kirby forced perspective

Kirby’s work hummed with action and virility. Compared to Kirby’s, most other comics artists’ work of the time just stood there.

(For a list of even more of Jack Kirby’s innovations, click here.)

When I was a boy, I was awestruck by Jack Kirby’s work. It is hard to remain awestruck about anything in one’s fifties, but I am still awestruck by Jack Kirby’s work. That’s why it’s all the more memorable to me that, at age 11, I got to meet Jack Kirby.

At age 11, I was someone who very much did not want to be living where he was:  out in the woods, far away from the thrum of Manhattan. In Manhattan, it seemed, one could run into Doctor Strange or the Human Torch or Daredevil out on the street, because in Marvel Comics these heroes were on every street corner — recognizable street corners. Over in the pallid land of DC Comics, things happened in “Smallville” or “Gotham City” or “Metropolis” or “Coast City” — places that didn’t exist on any map. But with Marvel, it looked like you could go to the Upper West Side and walk right past Avengers Mansion. That, plus the interconnectedness of their comics, lent Marvel its verisimilitude, its uncanny shimmer that made everything seem so possible.

What I especially loved about Marvel was Kirby’s primary triumph (with Stan Lee, who provided dialogue), “Fantastic Four.” The Fantastic Four were not superheroes. Superheroes confront arch-villains, evildoers and ne’er-do-wells. The Fantastic Four were primarily science explorers (modeled after Kirby’s previous creation, The Challengers of the Unknown); as such, they explored outer space, inner space, alternate dimensions, the past, the future, and the limits of human cognition, meeting different races and different beliefs all along the way and expressing the very best of the human race in a meeting of the minds. Sometimes they did battle on behalf of their (our) beliefs — but frequently they found common cause with strange and outwardly alien people of all types.

And that’s what I wanted to do:  to get out of the woods, to meet new people and different viewpoints, to exchange ideas, and to advance together.

Maybe it’s naive, but that’s still what I want to do.

So, you see, Jack Kirby shaped my life.

But when I was 11, I was just amazed to see him in person. It was like seeing Leonardo da Vinci or Abraham Lincoln or Jesus Christ or some other enormously great historical figure in the flesh. How was it even possible?

That July, just a week-and-a-half before my 12th birthday, my father took me to the 1974 New York Comic Art Convention; this was an incredible gift, which I’m still grateful for, 25 years after his death. And there, in some little room, back when comic-book conventions were far far smaller, I stood at the back of a line of maybe 10 people waiting to meet Jack Kirby.

Kirby was seated at the left of two folding tables, drawing sketches and signing autographs and chatting with whoever was next in line. To his left (my right) was his longtime inker on “Fantastic Four,” Joe Sinnott. (Mr. Sinnott, aged 90, is still with us.) Although Kirby by this point had left Marvel for DC, and I had read some of those DC comics, I was still completely enamored with “Fantastic Four” — as was seemingly every person in line ahead of me. One by one, each of them remarked upon “Fantastic Four.”

But I didn’t want to be like them. Who would want to approach the godhead and seem like just another supplicant?

So, when it was finally my turn to approach the great man, I said with as much of a squeak as I could register, in something like a high-pitched mumble filled with nervous anxiety, “I really like your work on ‘The Avengers.’ ”

Now, for the record, Kirby’s work on “The Avengers,” while displaying the same dynamism he brought to pretty much everything, was nowhere near on a par with his work on “Fantastic Four.” And I knew this. I said this only to be different. At age 11, and small in stature and frame and tiny in self-confidence in front of Kirby in particular, it was, in retrospect from 40 years later, a little brave for me to say:  “I really like your work on ‘The Avengers.’ ”

To which Jack Kirby replied, “What?”

At age 57, he hadn’t quite heard what my pipsqueak voice had said.

Fully intimidated to be in his presence, I couldn’t even bring myself to look up and see the great man sitting eight inches in front of me. I just trembled and managed to say in a quaking voice, “Oh, never mind” and stood quaking as Kirby signed an autograph for me.

I am not exaggerating this encounter.

And I have never again been so intimidated in my life. Not because of him — he was eminently approachable — but because of what he signified:  everything that was important to me.

Joe Sinnott, God bless him, saw my extreme mortification and called me over and drew for me a full sketch of the Thing, a member of the Fantastic Four, and wrote my name and signed it and I cherish it to this day and am still struck by his monumental kindness.

I got to meet Jack Kirby twice after that, many years afterward, after I moved to Los Angeles in 1988 and started attending the San Diego Comic Con (now Comic-Con International), where he was an adored guest and fixture. He was a very nice man, and, honest to God, a genius. And, it must be said, he was a true entertainer — someone who filled countless hours of my life then and now with enjoyment. I think Kirby viewed himself as a cartoonist, but when you look at the panoply of his work you see that he was much more than that. As much as Homer or J.R.R. Tolkein, or any other noteworthy fantasist, and moreso than most of them, Jack Kirby was a world builder.

And because he was also a progressive and an optimist, he helped build in me an ongoing thirst for a better world.

I’m in his debt.

 

Out of focus

August 24th, 2017

The irony of Evernote sending me this email may be lost on them. (As is the irony of my taking the time to post it here.)

And no, I didn’t read more.

Avoid focus-stealing traps: Four tips for improving concentration
Between phone alerts, social media, and tasks competing for our attention, we’re in a constant state of distraction. How can we stay focused? Read more about how focus works and get tips for maintaining concentration.

How the Millennials are killing Applebee’s and 18 other familiar things

August 23rd, 2017

I have no great love for Applebee’s (but I’d take it over the local Big Boy) — and neither do the Millennials. According to this article, their “psychological scar” resulting from the Great Recession has them attacking all sorts of formerly favorite American hangouts and activities.

Either that, or — and this is my theory — they’re so stressed for money due to their underemployment and relative low pay that, no, they can’t go hit the golf course.

A third theory:  Maybe they just need some Irish to straighten them out.

How the Germans saved Western civilization

August 22nd, 2017

On Monday, I took an old friend to lunch. He’s an old friend secondly because we’ve been friends for 11 years, and firstly because he was born in 1928. I told him I’d take him anywhere he liked for lunch, and unfortunately it turns out he likes Bob’s Big Boy.

I liked Bob’s Big Boy when I was 10, because the Big Boy had his own line of comics — “Adventures of the Big Boy” — and while they were lame, hey, at least they were comic books. Whenever our family would drive from our home in southern New Jersey the six or so hours to my mother’s birthplace of Johnstown, PA for a visit, I’d scream to stop at either the Bob’s Big Boy along the way so I could get one of those comics, or the Howard Johnson’s Restaurant (aka “HoJo’s”) because it had the most bizarre vending machine, where you could get miniature flashlights, and pocket knives, and rabbit’s feet, and other sorts of novelties and useless gadgets manufactured precisely to delight 8-year-old boys. Although five Bob’s Big Boy locations remain in Southern California, and several dozen in the midwest, they’re all gone now from New Jersey and Pennsylvania, and there is only one HoJo’s left anywhere in the universe, in snowy upstate New York.

It had been about 10 years since I’d eaten at the Bob’s Big Boy that my friend had selected, not since the time I had lunch there with Robert Patrick, who played the evil Terminator in “Terminator 2.” I don’t know what Bob had — I couldn’t quite see over to his table near me — but what I had that time would have been turned down by a vulture. Still, I was game to see my friend because I like him, because he’s my friend, and because, well, tempus fugit (remember, born in 1928). I had a hankering for fried chicken, so when we sat down, sandwiched in as we were in a booth sideways along the backsides of a row of middle-aged people in a large booth enduring the offspring of their offspring, that’s what I ordered.

My friend was eager to tell me all about a few different books he’d recently read, all revolving around the premise that it was the Irish who had won the American Revolution, the Irish who had enabled all of our advances, and the Irish who had saved Western civilization. (I should note that, shockingly, he is of Irish descent.) Not having been aware that anyone had saved Western civilization — I’ve actually been rather worried about it, especially the past eight months — I leaned in to hear more. I also leaned in to hear more because, while my hearing is pretty good, the Big Boy’s acoustics are pretty bad, especially against the din of many diners. My chicken arrived, extra salty and deeply coated in impregnable roofing shingles, and as I struggled to eat any of it or the gluey mashed potatoes snuggling against it, I started to listen.

It turned out that the Irish had won the American Revolution because they stayed in the field at Valley Forge while others went home; that they had saved Western civilization because they made a secret deal with Rome to save all the best knowledge; and that they were connected to every essential advance because, I think, there was always some Irish guy around at the right time. That seemed to be the gist of it.

He offered to lend me one of the corroborating books that prove all of this beyond any doubt, but I begged off. “I have 78 books in my reading queue,” I said, which is true. By the time I would get to reading his book, we’d need some Irish to save us from the war with our own Martian colony.

“I haven’t read these books–” I started.

“I’ll lend them to you!” he offered again.

“–But these sound like they selected their facts. You know:  You decide the story you want to tell, then you choose the facts that fit and build your interpretation around them.”

To support my point, I said I was going to write a book entitled “How the Germans Saved Western Civilization.”

“It’s simple,” I said. “They set such a terrible example in the 20th century, what with those two world wars and all that genocide, that suddenly people had to set up systems to protect us from them! After World War II, it became clear that we needed a United Nations, and the Geneva Convention of 1949, and the Germans needed to learn the lesson of their history and teach it to future generations. Now, in our apparent absence, they seem to be the keepers of the flame of Western democracy. Thank God for the Germans!”

(Perhaps I should note that I am of German descent.)

After lunch, I dropped my friend off to the dentist. He is able-bodied, but was in for a painful procedure. Looking on the bright side, I told him he was lucky he still had his teeth. (We’ll see how well I do, 35 years from now.)

Tonight, while at the gym, I was reminded of our lunchtime discussion of the previous day. While I was working out, Republican President Donald Trump — and that’s what I’m going to keep calling him, to make a point and to keep making it — Republican President Donald Trump came on the television with remarks from his campaign rally in Phoenix. I had gone to the gym to lose weight, and wound up losing my mind instead, suffering through this insufferable speech against the backdrop of 30 minutes on an elliptical trainer set to level 10. Trump went on and on about how the “fake news media” had inaccurately reported his comments about Charlottesville, VA — but then carefully elided the words that got him into deservedly deep water:  “on both sides.” He kept reading, and rereading, the sections where he condemned the actions of people in the event, but never once read three words:  “on both sides,” as in condemning the violence “on both sides” and blaming people “on many sides.” He seemed to find all the words surrounding those words — all the others that sounded better — but left out the precise ones that everyone else, particularly Klan leader David Duke, heard and seized on. To support his latest version of the argument, he had selected only the words he wanted.

Ah, I thought, I recognize this sort of argument. It’s a sort of fake news of itself — the selective use of facts, leading to selective interpretation. Kind of like how the Germans saved Western civilization.

 

I’ll save you the money

August 6th, 2017

“Dunkirk” is overly loud and underly plotted, with artsy time-shifting that does more to confound than to explicate, while deserving of a Best Actor nomination for Tom Hardy’s left eye, which is all we see of him behind goggles throughout the movie.

Why you may not have seen this post

August 4th, 2017

Because, as of this writing, there were 3.6 million other blog posts today.

We have to figure at least a few of them were more interesting than this one.