Inside His Head: Lenny Schwartz draws his plays from infamous comic book history

Local playwright Lenny Schwartz has made a name for himself with his award-winning Daydream Theatre Company and such plays as Co-Creator, Subject 62, The Scarecrow, The Inside of His Severed Head and many others. His screenwriting credits include everything from dark drama (The Assassination of Western Civilization, Higher Methods, Long Night in a Dead City, Normal) to horror (Murder University) to musicals and a little holiday treat called Scary Little Fuckers. His biographical plays have covered the lives of Lucille Ball, Charles Schultz, The Marx Brothers and more. But it is his background as a comic book fan — and Forces of Geek comic book reviewer – that brought us to chat with Schwartz for our Comic Con issue.

Marilyn Busch: When were you first introduced to comics?

Lenny Schwartz: I first started comics because I was in love with the Transformers. I bought everything I could with them. That meant comic books. In issue three of the Transformers, Spider-Man appeared in his black costume. I thought it looked so damn cool, so I used my allowance on Amazing Spider-Man #282. I loved reading it. Suddenly, I was hooked. I then had to read every Spider-Man tale right from the beginning. Luckily, Marvel Tales were doing all of the reprints at that time, so I was able to.

MB: Are you a DC or Marvel fan? Can one BE both?

LS: I’m both for sure, though in the beginning I was a Marvel only guy. They had the best characters and the better storylines for a kid. However, the 1989 Batman movie changed all of that. Suddenly I needed every Batman comic. I was 13 then and came across a lot more of the independent books. Bratpack. Madman by Allred. I read The Crow right off the racks, which I loved. I read The Sandman while it was coming out. Bone. I had a paper route and I bought EVERYTHING. I even worked at a comic store a few times a week called Adam Pinhead’s World of Comics. The owner introduced me to a ton of comics I should not have been reading at that age (Faust, anyone?). It was there, from the owner, that I first heard about Bill Finger, the uncredited co-creator of Batman. Little did I know that 25 years later I would be writing and directing a play about him.

MB: How many plays have you written over the years?

LS: Well, in 1996, I put on a play called Lost In a Daydream. It was universally hated. I didn’t chance it again until 1999 with The Scarecrow. And people liked that one. Basically, it was two a year until 2008. Then it was two in RI and one in NYC a year — sometimes more, sometimes less, sometimes I would get licensed elsewhere.

MB: Your play Co-Creator is a biography about the comic book writer Bill Finger, the man who helped Bob Kane create Batman but was denied credit. In an interview you called it “a 76-year-old crime that deserves a better resolution.”

LS: Yeah, I still feel Bill got screwed over and his story needs to be told to a wider audience. It is great that DC made an amendment to have him listed as a co-creator and it’s great that Athena [Finger, granddaughter of Bill Finger] is getting the recognition she deserves. The lion’s share of the credit goes to Marc Tyler Nobleman, author of Bill the Boy Wonder: The Secret Co-Creator of Batman, for his incredible research and perseverance.

MB: Any plans to bring any of your comic bio plays to the big or little screen?

LS: Co-creator actually started out as a screenplay. I’m happy I got to do the play version of it. The production was part of a movement of a very small group of people who I was lucky to be a part of because of the play. I still get a ton of people who ask me about it. It’s nice to hear people responding to it still.

So, the answer is yes, of course. A play is rather easy to do in comparison … with film and bio pics there are a lot of family members around and I don’t fit the studio model with my writing, which I say proudly. They want to make money, and I get that, and comic book creator biographies can be a tough sell. But I think if done right? It’s the biggest untapped market in film. We just need one.

MB: What’s next on the docket for you and Daydream Theatre Company?

LS: Ditko, opens November 8 at The Rise Playhouse in Woonsocket. The play tells the story of Steve Ditko, a comic book illustrator virtually forgotten by the masses, but celebrated by comic book fans everywhere. Ditko was instrumental in Marvel’s success by co-creating two of comic’s most iconic characters, Spider-Man and Doctor Strange. Ditko created DC’s silver-age icons, Hawk, The Dove, Shade the Changing Man and The Creeper. Ditko also worked for virtually every other publisher of note, co-creating other iconic characters like Mr. A, The Question and Blue Beetle. The play examines Ditko’s deep devotion to the work of Ayn Rand and how those beliefs consumed not just his work, but his life.

MB: Ditko is another artist whose legacy has been overshadowed by a co-author’s name – in his case Stan Lee. What draws you to these underdog stories and your quest to publicly right these wrongs through your plays?

LS: Every play I write changes me, sometimes in a small way or sometimes in a very big way. For a year in 2013 and 2014 I wrote a play called The Social Avenger and it changed my outlook on life. I’ve had some very relatable experiences as Finger and Ditko in life, and I think most people have. I mean, nothing compares to that of Finger. He was gone and forgotten. Something had to be done.

MB: Has there ever been a script you’ve written but haven’t been able to produce?

LS: I’ve never had a show that I wanted to produce and direct that I wasn’t able to. There’s a script or two that people didn’t want me to do and basically told me I couldn’t and shouldn’t. That usually turns out to be a very funny situation where they really think that will stop me from doing them.

I love writing plays and I’m passionate about it. If you like the show or not, I stand behind what I do 100% and it’s my heart. You can’t stop that. So, there will never be a script for a play that I won’t produce if I want to do it. Life’s too short.

Ditko, the newest play written by Lenny Schwartz, tells the story of comic book illustrator Steve Ditko, virtually forgotten by the masses, but celebrated by comic book fans everywhere. The show’s cast includes Derek Laurendeau, Geoff White, Emily Lamarre, Samantha Acampora, Nick Tvaroha, Dave Almeida, Tonia Klemp, Michael Capalbo, Christopher Ferreira, Mindy Britto, Jonah Coppolelli, Timothy DeLisle and Anne Wareham Bowman. Performances are November 8, 9, 10, 15, 16, 17 2018 all at 8pm at the RISE Playhouse, 142 Clinton St, Woonsocket. Tickets can be purchased at smarttix.com or at the door.

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