Len Wein On Harlan Ellison, Garcia-Lopez And ‘Batman ’66: The Lost Episode’ [Interview]
On November 19, DC Comics will release Batman '66: The Lost Episode, a bookshelf-format one-shot by writer Len Wein and penciller José Luis Garcia-López -- superhero comics legends, both -- adapting a previously-unknown story that Harlan Ellison wrote for the classic Adam West and Burt Ward TV show: the introduction of Two-Face. The project is a very special companion to DC's popular and critically acclaimed digital-first Batman '66 series. In addition to its prestigious veteran storytellers, the book also features inking by Joe Prado, colors by Alex Sinclair and cover art by Alex Ross, all industry leaders in their disciplines.
At New York Comic Con this past weekend, we had the opportunity to sit down with Wein and discuss the origin of the project, his friendship with Ellison, and the experience of adapting an unfilmed television episode into the comic book format.
ComicsAlliance: So, what exactly is this project Did you work from a full script, a pitch that never got used for the series…
Len Wein: It is an adaptation of a lost outline. Harlan Ellison – the legendary Harlan Ellison, I should say – had done an outline for this show back in the '60s, which for reasons not important here, never got produced, and he'd put it in a drawer and forgotten about it.
So, several months ago he was cleaning out his files and went, "Oh my god, this old thing… Hey wait, DC's doing a book on this [Batman '66], maybe I can sell them the outline!" And he called up and said, "I've got this outline for an episode, are you guys interested?" and they all went, "Sure, yeah, uh-huh!" because, after all, it's Harlan. So he sold them the outline, and called me up – Harlan's my oldest friend, we've been buddies for forty-odd years – and he told me what I just told you, and said that now they needed to get somebody to script it. And I said, "I'm available!" So he said great, he called DC, they called me up and said, "you wanna do this?" and I said, "you bet."
And then my dear old friend [José Luis] Garcia-López, one of the great artists in the history of the biz, got involved as penciller. And it started to snowball from there, it became this A-List thing. Joe Prado called up and said, "I hear there's a Garcia-López job that needs inking" and we went, "sure, it's yours." Alex Sinclair called up and said, "I hear there's this special thing going on that needs coloring." And then Alex Ross calls up and goes, "You mind if I paint a cover for this?" And it just became this insane project.
CA: Well, I can only speak as someone who's interviewed him, but any chance to work with Harlan Ellison is a chance not to be missed…
LW: It's a very singular experience! I say this as someone who loves him like a brother, as I said, he's my oldest friend…and in the forty-odd years we've been best friends, there has never been a boring moment in our relationship!
CA: I can imagine having him in your corner, pushing for you to script this project, was all you needed.
LW: Yeah! Also, though, I work with DC all the time, so it was easy.
CA: How developed was the outline? Was there any dialogue, was it just a plot…
LW: It was a finished outline. It was just what you'd do for a television show. I mean, I made some adjustments and additions and deletions to make it fit the page count, and to make it a better Two-Face story – Harlan's outline was wonderful, but there are very specific idiosyncrasies to Two-Face, which he had missed in some spots, so I put 'em back in.
CA: Were there elements that you had to tone back or punch up to better suit the comic medium?
LW: I made a couple changes for visuals. There was one scene he had which I'm working on and thinking, "I'm not sure how that could have been filmed," so I made some changes there. You'll be able to tell, because as part of the special edition – I don't know how many pages the book is now – they are reprinting Harlan's original outline. So you'll be able to compare.
CA: Getting a chance to look at one of Harlan's rough work, that's really exciting. I mean, he's a massively influential figure as a writer.
LW: And as a human being! He has two different personas that the world perceives: the public one that they all think they see, and the personal one. People who don't know the personal one always ask me, "How could you be his friend, after all the things he's said?" and I say, "Put it this way – I've been in the hospital twice in the last decade for various reasons, and when I've come out of the anesthesia and woken up, there are three faces looking down at me every time. My wife, Harlan, and his wife. That's why."
CA: You've known Garcia-López for quite a while and worked with him a lot, so I'd guess that at this point your collaboration is, if not automatic, at least very comfortable and natural?
LW: Yes. I love working with him every time I get a chance, and he loves working with me, so I'm a happy guy. As far as I'm concerned, he could probably draw everything I write for the rest of my career and I'd be happy.
CA: Were there moments on this project where you had to either adjust your script to fit what he brought to the project, or you had to give him notes and ask for changes?
LW: No. I know exactly what José will give me. I mean, he did a half-dozen different character studies on Two-Face before he even started, and asked: "Which version do you want? How scarred do you want the face? Which suit do you like? This, this, this, or this?"
CA: Are there things you have to watch for when working with a Batman '66 story, where you have rights to use the likenesses of some, but not all the cast?
LW: Yes, there are some… Commissioner Gordon now wears glasses in the comic, which he did not in the show, because we don't have the exact license to [the TV series actor] Neil Hamilton. So there are those we can make exactly on-model, and those where we have to make slight adjustments.
CA: So, after decades of the comics industry disavowing and distancing themselves from the Batman TV series, and struggling to break away from the public's perception of that portrayal of Batman, it's interesting to see how the pendulum has swung back, and the 1960s Batman is being embraced. And it seems from talking to you that you were a fan of the series?
LW: I was! I mean, I had my problems with it, like everyone did. I wasn't crazy about many of the original villains that were created for the show. I never could figure out King Tut, for example – why is there a middle-aged fat man playing a guy who died when he was in his teens?
CA: Yes. And Egghead was mystifying on so many levels…
CA: So working on this, did you enjoy having the freedom to play around in this universe?
LW: I had a great time working on this. It was – I don't want to say silly, because there was a little more serious intent than that, but – it was a lot of fun. And I hope that comes across!