Comics after 1960 enjoyed an amazing array of talent, many of whose names have, over time, become legendary. Not all of these figures deserve the credit that the passage of time will attach to them as the years magnify their reputations. In Denny O'Neil, however, comics has a man who has actually earned his grand reputation through accomplishments in individual stories and through his very real additions to the lexicon of the medium.
O'Neil has dabbled in prose (through several published works) and even spent some time teaching his trade at Manhattan's School of Visual Arts. That he has bothered to attempt to pass on his knowledge to another generation places him in the company of the likes of John Buscema, Joe Kubert, and Gene Colan, all of who dabbled or dabble in teaching.
His writing also incudes nonfiction and teleplays, a diversification that parallels the extracomics activities of generational peers like Roy Thomas and Steve Englehart.
Like the aforementioned, however, O'Neil's main fame comes from the things he has done
with, and done to, the comics medium.
Dennis O'Neil came from a Catholic household in St. Louis, Missouri. He still recalls from his youth the Sunday afternoon ritual where he would accompany his father or his grandfather to the store for some light groceries and an occasional comic book; in that period, he took a ken to characters such as Superman, Batman, Green Arrow, and the Vigilante. He would ultimately write for at least three of these.
By the time he had firmly entered adolescence, the superhero comic had become something of an anachronism. The loss of government contracts that came with the end of World War II killed off most of the Golden Age characters, and stores tended to shift space to paperback literature, which had a higher profit margin.
He graduated from St. Louis University around the turn of the sixties and from there joined the navy just in time to participate in the blockade of Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis. His degree centered on English literature, creative writing, and philosophy, which must have helped direct him into some dabbling in journalism during his enlistment.
After leaving the navy, O'Neil moved on to a job with a newspaper in Fort Girardeau, Mississippi. This phase of the sixties saw the renaissance of superhero comics, driven by the Marvel Revolution and DC's own Silver Age revival; O'Neil wrote occasional columns on the subject for the newspaper, which attracted the attention of schoolteacher Roy Thomas, who would eventually himself become one of the Great Names of the Silver Age.
Roy Thomas soon took work with DC in its Superman stable, but left before long to work for Stan Lee at Marvel. He suggested that O'Neil take the Marvel Writer's Test, which involved adding dialogue to a wordless four-page excerpt of a Fantastic Four comic; and his entry impressed Lee enough to offer O'Neil a job, which seemed to him interesting enough to pursue for a year or so.
O'Neil spent six months as a staffer but wanted to enter the more interesting line of the freelance writer. When Marvel's expansion made it impossible for Stan Lee to write the entire line of books, Lee passed as much on to Roy Thomas as he could, but still needed writers, so O'Neil took the reins for a short-term run of Dr. Strange stories, penning six issues while Steve Ditko still worked on his creation on the art side of the process.
The available jobs writing for Marvel petered out fairly quickly, and O'Neil, wishing to continue as a writer, took a job with Charlton Comics under the grotesque pseudonym of Sergius O’Shaugnessy. There he received regular work for a year and a half from Charlton's editor, the now-esteemed Dick Giordano.
For Charlton, he created the Byron-quoting Prankster, the gadfly of a futuristic civilization in which government had banned all humane pastimes. In an equally strange vein, O'Neil created Wander, an interplanetary traveler who dressed like a cowboy and spoke like Hamlet because he had learned his English from old Shakespearean texts. He enjoyed the solid artwork of Jim Aparo on both of these efforts.
Unfortunately for Charlton, but to the great benefit of the talent displaced, Charlton comics shut down its superhero line in the late 1960s. At DC, several superhero lines had begun to flag; management decided some new blood might solve the problems, and headhunted O'Neil, Jim Aparo, Dick Giordano, Steve Skeates, Steve Ditko (who had recently ditched Marvel), and Boyette. This involved an increase in pay for the same amount of material.
Unbeknownst to O'Neil, the Charlton talent came in in the aftermath of DC's releasing a number of old hands over a health-insurance dispute. Gardner Fox, Arnold Drake, and others created a manpower gap with their exodus and Charlton's newly-freed talent came in in a way that effectively made them scabs.
The Charlton talent came to DC from a different culture of comics. At DC, the office seemed like a snapshot from 1950, with a crowd of short-haired men in white shirts and ties. The jeans-wearing, poorly barbered Charlton crowd visibly represented a different generation.
O'Neil's first assignments involved two strategies for bolstering DC's sales. One approach centered on the creation of new characters, and O'Neil helped bring the Creeper into DC's stable as part of this effort. However, DC also continued to believe in the strategy that had defined its entry into the Silver Age: The reworking of old, abandoned, or flagging properties represented a potential publishing gold mine. On this front, O'Neil worked with "Bomba the Jungle Boy," an effort that does not seem to have survived to the present day.
When both of these titles failed in late 1968 or early 1969, DC replaced Sergio Aragones, of Mad Magazine and Groo fame, on Bat Lash, a title that readers, especially in Europe, kept in reprints long after its cancellation in America.
From there, DC moved O'Neil to Wonder Woman and Justice League of America. In the former title, he made drastic changes to a flagging and stagnant franchise, attempting to drag the character into the 1960s via a number of extreme character developments that took away her powers, exiled her from the Amazon community, and set her off, uncostumed, into international intrigues with her blind mentor, the dubiously-named I Ching. These changes did not sit well with fans, and O'Neil later considered that removing DC's single super-powered female might have alienated readers. In Justice League, he had more success, introducing into that title the first socially and politically themed stories and thereby setting the stage for his later work on Green Lantern/Green Arrow.
O'Neil claims that he initially had no overreaching ambition to shake up Justice League of America; his changes came from his own inability to use the formula into which Gardner Fox seemed to have slipped and which, incidentally, seemed to have exhausted its appeal to readers. The two years that O'Neil spent on Justice League of America saw changes like the loss of Wonder Woman (dovetailing events in her own title) and her replacement by the Golden Age character Black Canary, the corruption of Snapper Carr, and the resolution of Martian Manhunter's prolongued absence from the team. O'Neil attributes these developments to his own need to work with stories that did not fit Fox's model.
Following the lead set by Bob Haney and Neal Adams in a Brave and the Bold story that visually redefined Green Arrow into the version that appeared in comics between 1969 and 1986, O'Neil also made changes to the character, stripping of his wealth (and thereby forcing him away from his tendency to play the role of a second-string Batman). This redefinition would culminate in the character that appeared in Green Lantern/Green Arrow, a vehement, streetwise, socially conscious and sometimes annoyingly left-wing creation that effectively took over Green Lantern's book to use him as a foil and straw main in sounding out the political concepts that would define that work.
O'Neil still had ropes to learn in this stage. He recalls, to this day, that his changes to Wonder Woman really annoyed Gloria Steinem. That seems like a bad thing to him.
Given the popularity of the entire Batman line of books, especially since the mid-to-late eighties, one may note with some surprise that DC considered cancelling it in the late sixties. The title had flagged in the middle sixties, not really keeping up with the tastes of a comics readership that had come to relate better to the Marvel style. A brief reprieve occurred when television's trendy "Batman" hit the screen, but that fad burned itself out in about two years; the sales spike vanished as the audiences turned away from the television show.
The Batman franchise had hit bottom.
Characters at DC had a tendency to accumulate barnacles, especially in the Silver Age. Previous shakeups had rid Batman of embarrasing associations like those with Bat-Mite, a cheap knock-off of Superman's silly nemesis Mr. Mxyzptlk, and of the masked "Ace, the Bat-Hound" (he wore a mask to prevent imperiling Batman's secret identity by revealing his own...no, really.) The rising and falling stars of "pop art" and "camp" had elevated him just to cast the Batman books down below, on the rocks.
The assignment of paramedic fell to Neal Adams, who had mostly worked with Bob Haney on pieces like Brave & the Bold and Strange Adventures, and O'Neil. Together they realized that Batman, somewhere along the way, had lost precisely what made the character work in the early days of Detective Comics. The cheerful, upbeat, and often silly treatment he had received at the hands of Dick Sprang and even Carmine Infantino made him less and less like the Bob Kane/Bill Finger creation that scared villains even worse than those villains scared the helpless Common Man.
Adams and O'Neil dedicated themselves to putting the dark tone back into the character. While the style of Adams' art had not greatly changed from his run of Brave & the Bold, his depiction of Batman did; the character took to pulling angry faces, crouching in shadows, and representing an intensity heretofore not enjoyed by the character. All of these traits, sometimes in caricature, represent the Batman of 1999, which, after all, derives directly from the Batman of 1970. O'Neil, furthermore, had dabbled in literature dealing with obsessive characters, and this gave him an insight into Batman. During O'Neil's tenure, Batman became a character who did not go off duty, nor spend his time idling in Wayne manor until the Bat-signal appeared in the sky and invited him away from plutocratic indolence.
Batman has, in the years that followed, shifted somewhat. The driven man became, through years of hard use in stories, the drive wearing the body of a man; some treatments of the character, therefore, represent a loss of humanity that makes Batman difficult to relate to anymore. This change represents not an active process gleefully directed by malevolent editors (like, say, Dennis O'Neil), but something of a dumbing down of characterization, evidently based on the assumption that writers or readers can't handle a cast in comics that contains roles involving more than one personality trait. In fact, such an approach represents such an anti-O'Neilike approach that I refuse to allow him any blame for it.
That digression aside, O'Neil and Adams took the Batusi and other aesthetic atrocities away from the Batman franchise. They sanded away the rust and kept polishing until nothing but Batman remained, a Batman that Kane and Finger would have to recognize as their own child. DC did not cancel Batman's titles, then or ever. The Kane-Finger Batman matured into the Kane-Finger-O'Neil-Adams Batman instead, an evolution that keeps his books selling even as the millennium winds down.
In the early seventies, DC released the classic Adams/O'Neil Green Lantern/Green Arrow comics for publication in a paperback edition that bore on its frontispiece a classic Gil Kane pose of Green Lantern, embellished with the legend "Comix that Give a Damn." Posturing aside, this little blurb in a way summarized a comics editorial model that O'Neil would bring to his work in the years when he established his own status as a celebrity.
O'Neil's comix gave a damn in more places than the well-known pages of Green Lantern/Green Arrow. In the pages of Justice League of America, O'Neil used his bully pulpit as story author to inject (some might say inflict) his own awareness of real-world problems into a medium conventionally defined as escapist literature. If the delivery occasionally failed to live up to the subject matter, this in no way impugns Dennis O'Neil's sincerity. In fact, it represented a noble experiment with grafting comics fantasy with things appearing in newspaper headlines.
By the time O'Neil had moved from other titles such as Justice League and Batman to the doomed rally wherein he, Neal Adams, and Dick Giordano attempted to save Green Lantern's book from extinction, O'Neil had learned how to create a story that would grab the reader by the lapels and shake him into a forced recognition or refutation of the point he had to make.
Given the day and age of this experiment in edification-through-juvenilia, O'Neil therefore became the forefather of mainstream works that dealt with the ethos of superheroism, including (but not limited to) Who Watches the Watchmen, by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons; Squadron Supreme, by Mark Gruenwald and Paul Ryan (and others); and the much-discussed Kingdom Come by Alex Ross and Mark Waid.
O'Neil's stories, shaped by Adams' style and active input, hit on the key issues du jour as the pair recognized them. If, just as the two had perfected their storytelling model, DC cancelled the title, perhaps that saved them from descent into lame self-reference or the brutalizing effects of the Law of Diminishing Returns. O'Neil admits that this run did manage to cover the issues that O'Neil himself wished to approach. The smaller follow-up stories that appeared in Flash in the months following the cancellation involved explorations into the character of the principals rather than burning issues of social discourse. O'Neil, when discussing what might have become of the title had it survived the slump that evoked its cancellation, believes that the title woul have followed this direction.
O'Neil did not bow out at this point. DC had more for him to do. If books got canceled, this freed up the talent to beef up other pieces. By this time, O'Neil had done work on two of DC's big three - specifically, Batman and Wonder Woman. He had handled its entire front tier in Justice League of America. He had redeemed, at least artistically, the flagging Green Lantern and the chronically underdeveloped Green Arrow. Naturally enough, O'Neil next found himself dealing with DC's cornerstone, Superman.
Mort Weisinger retired from his role over the Superman books in 1970. The "New Look" Superman of 1968 -- essentially just the introduction of Ross Andru as artist in Action Comics -- had failed to live up to DC's desire to fix problems with the character and remodel him in ways that would better equip the character to compete with the more plausible creations appearing in Marvel's books.
In spite of DC's purported desire for change, inertia kept things just about the same in 1968's reform, but Weisinger's departure opened a real opportunity to make significant changes for the better in the Superman character.
Superman at the end of the sixties suffered from two essential flaws: his serene and avuncular personality negated the possibility of stories in which personal conflicts drove events; and his omnipotence, obtained piecemeal from the mid-fifties through the mid-sixties, made increasingly unlikely the premise that anything would actually challenge him. Therefore his stories had to deal in loopholes such as vulneribilities to six thousand types of Kryptonite (including everything except "crack Kryptonite") or his weakness to magic.
In spite of the extinction of most of the titles O'Neil had handled for DC up to this point, management like Julius Schwartz understood that they had in his person a rare talent with a new type of insight into the superhero medium. Therefore, Schwartz assigned O'Neil to revamp Superman, accompanied by Silver Age lights Curt Swan and Murphy Anderson, both veterans of a slightly older comics than what O'Neil busied himself in those days inventing.
O'Neil did the right things to Superman. First, he penned a scenario where a parasitic extradimensional alien would leech away enough of Superman's power to leave him with some actual limitations (and thus do away with the stories where Superman appeared shoving around planets in space). Second, he engineered an accident that converted all of the Kryptonite on the surface of the earth to simple lead, doing away with the tiresome stories where Superman had to find ways around some petty hoodlum's Kryptonite ring, or Kryptonite cane head, or Kryptonite heart. He did not completely remove the concept of Kryptonite from the franchise, but he tamed it by making said extraterrestrial mineral rare. Since by 1970 half of the weight of the planet Krypton had fallen to the earth in the form of green, red, white, blue, gold, and jewel Kryptonite, the stuff had become as common as quartz and a too-cheap out for villains who could not plausibly compete with a man who could do anything.
O'Neil, here, took a different tack from his reworkings of Green Arrow, Green Lantern, Wonder Woman, or Batman. He did thrust him into situations in which the ethical problems inherent in a superman forced the character into hard choices, but this represented more introspection and soul-searching than the confrontation typical of Green Lantern/Green Arrow. Nor did he take the Batman approach, which involved returning the character in some ways to his earliest concept, and exaggerating the details thereof. He made the entire Superman premise considerably more mature - and Curt Swan rose to the occasion after working in a slightly more juvenile vein through the sixties - but did not altogether strip it of an optimism that serves the franchise well and served as a foundation for later improvements to the character during John Byrne's tenure on the book some fifteen years later.
O'Neil really only missed one piece to completing the puzzle that produced the John Byrne Superman, a vision that has dominated the concept decisively since the eighties. However, the innovations brought by the movie interpretation of the character through the efforts of the charming Christopher Reeve would have to wait a few years, a period that did not pass while O'Neil remained on the book.
In the end, DC did not stand by O'Neil and his changes to Superman. His power would come back in its entirety, again rendering absurd the idea that any human villain could offer him the slightest challenge. Yet O'Neil left behind him another classic run in one of DC's major titles. In terms of critical acclaim, O'Neil's work had consistently hit the mark everywhere but in his ill-considered reworking of Wonder Woman.
Green Lantern/Green Arrow did not remain dead; after a few years of oblivion, DC tried again, and again assigned O'Neil to the task of the stories. Relative newcomer Mike Grell, not too long returned from his service as a pilot during the Viet Nam war, took the art chores here, placed again in the position of following an artist held in almost idolatrous esteem (in this case, Neal Adams; this paralleled his replacement of David Cockrum on Legion of Super-Heroes).
However, the elements that contributed to the classical Green Lantern/Green Arrow absented themselves from this run. The settings took the characters away from cities and into the science-fiction backdrops of pure Green Lantern stories. "Relevance" had become a dated element no longer welcome in the editorial model generally recognized by editors throughout DC Comics. Thus, the stories steered clear of the cities, of delvings into pathologies of American identity, and of situations in which Green Arrow could do any good. Green Arrow did not long remain in this title, and for similar reasons the character would remove himself from the Justice League in 1980.
These days, readers mainly remember this run of Green Lantern/Green Arrow as the run of a directionless book that justified itself by exposing Mike Grell to a mass audience, thus making his later career, generally with independent publishers, possible.
Today's Iron Man has a past, including elements some fans wish would go away. The allegedly dreadful "Teen Tony" storyline represents one piece. O'Neil had nothing to do with that one, but the other pestilential carryover appears in Iron Man's long-term battle with alcoholism. Dennis O'Neil introduced the man to the bottle in stories generally better than subsequent works that refer to this run. Marvel, after all, had taken things away from the character that would drive stories. They moved beyond the heart condition that defined the early take on the character, rightly assuming the time had passed for Stark either to die of a heart attack or not to have to worry about it any more. Early on, when Marvel Comics decided that it, and all of its superheroes, would oppose the Viet Nam war and anything that suggested anticommunism, Stark divested himself of much of the arms development side of his company's technological enterprises. This left him missing something that could have moved the character through difficult ethical quandaries. The real work in ethics, after all, occurs on the frontiers between value systems, not deep in the wombs of its extremes.
O'Neil must have faced a difficult problem in trying to give the character depth and direction. What things, after all, could plague a carefree millionaire playboy? Stark really represented the last untroubled playboy in comics, after Batman's makeover as a mirthless and relentless soul and Green Arrow's complete loss of fortune. Having played a central role in reworking the former and bringing to earth the latter, O'Neil decided to pull the third, Iron Man, down further than a superhero had previously fallen.
O'Neil sent Tony Stark on a binge of boozing that lasted six straight months. Imagine, if you will, waiting for each month's new issue of Iron Man and seeing the starring character do nothing but rebound from gutter to gutter in the same dirty tuxedo. Years later, O'Neil recognized that this first binge lasted way too long, but he still managed to pull out the occasional trademark gut-punch that he once had injected into his Green Lantern/Green Arrow work.
Back in the hard-hitting category, O'Neil penned an arc in Iron Man in 1984 that had Stark, once again, wandering around drunk in a dirty tuxedo, panhandling for change, and blowing money someone gave him for an overcoat on a bottle instead. Stark spent the night, in that story, with a pregnant woman from his AA group, in an alley as a blizzard hit New York; staying with her as she died delivering a child and forced to confront the need to save the child's life forced Stark, finally, to act again as a hero even when a strong temptation inclined him to lie down and allow himself to die.
O'Neil here touched on themes that transcend narrow political viewpoints and jab a
finger into the key points of the human condition. Redemption represents a basic, unifying,
and inexhaustible human theme; Robert Graves suggested it as one of the criterion themes
of poetry he would dignify with the epithet "true." The scribe himself might deny quite
so broad a reach for this story, since he tends to self-deprecate when discussing his
role in an industry he has done much to define; but I doubt that he would deny that this
piece belongs in the category of "comix that give a damn."
O'Neil's history and particular gifts give him singular qualifications for DC's Batman and related books. That DC should assign him the role of group editor for the Batman books, which sometimes number upwards of a dozen titles, seems a commonsensical decision.
His writing assignments for DC in the middle to late 1980s often had him working with DC's small stable of urban superheroes. Green Arrow, as redefined through Mike Grell's reworking of the character, had remained intense but less squeamish about methods and ends and therefore fit well with O'Neil's talents as demonstrated during his run on Batman titles at the turn of the 1970s. With DC's acquisition of the old Charlton superheroes, they assigned O'Neil the task of handling the Question, a Ditko character who served as the prototype of Rorschach from Watchmen (and represented the penultimate step from Ditko's development of the character who would most represent his own philosophy, Mister A).
In 1989, O'Neil had the opportunity to work the three of them into a single story, one of the line of annuals DC had returned to printing in the 1980s, in a characteristic piece where personalities collided. O'Neil in interviews has acknowledged his willingness to follow up with another piece grouping the three like-themed heroes, and perhaps DC's barely-mentioned resurrection of Oliver Queen will make this possible.
At the end of the 1990s, though, O'Neil remains group editor of the Batman titles, as prestigious a role as one might enjoy serving as director of X-titles for Marvel. Thus he gets to shape the franchise he saved almost thirty years ago such that books with all the post-Crisis Batman characters, including Nightwing, the Huntress, Robin, and the occasional Batman villain who reforms, all continue to bear his stamp.
Web rumors suggest that O'Neil may intend to retire soon. In other industries, people retire after twenty or twenty five years, a point O'Neil would have passed around 1990. Given that he celebrated his sixty-seventh birthday in 1999, he may have reached a point where retirement appeals to him more than continued output as a writer or editor.
Comics readership might prefer that he continue to work in perpetuity, even if this involves a gradual curtailing of output (such as ninety-year-old Will Eisner's continued presence within comics as its Official Elder Statesman).
Before we selfishly force the man to work past the point that he can enjoy or even stand to continue, however, consider that just anthologizing his output would produce enough material to occupy existing and new fans for years. While DC prefers to anthologize by story line (except for Kirby works), and, furthermore, the industry tends to anthologize by artists rather than writers, O'Neil's work deserves treatment as a thing unto itself, just as do the efforts of figures from the next generation of comics like Alan Moore.
With talents ten years older than O'Neil still working in the industry (see "Gil Kane"), we may assume that he hasn't completely played himself out yet.Return to the Quarter Bin.