Dennis “Denny” O’Neil is one of the most celebrated comic writers, whose talents were integral to dramatic, realistic stories. Entrusted with little editorial oversight on his most popular work, O’Neil filled stories with social challenges rather than standard superhero fodder. His passion for causes and accomplished writing skills made him a favorite among readers.
In early December, O’Neil will be honored for his accomplishments by the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library in Atlanta. On December 7-8, 2018, he’ll participate in events focused on comics and social justice, the marketplace, and his work in Batman.
Before O’Neil heads to Atlanta, Scoop talked with him about getting into comics and some of his well known contributions to the industry.
O’Neil was born into a Catholic family, who faithfully attended Mass every Sunday. Most weeks after church, he and his father would stop by a local grocery store, where his dad would get Denny a comic. Once he learned that his friends were also readers, O’Neil and the other kids started trading comics. He would fill his little red wagon with books and go through the neighborhood to his friends’ houses swapping titles and upgrading his collection.
“I remember comics being an important part of my post-toddler-hood,” O’Neil said.
He faithfully collected and read the books until he was about 7 or 8 years old. But growing up fostered a change in interests and they dropped out of his life, replaced by theater, magic, ventriloquism, and dating. By that time, his family had purchased a TV and he ended up working in the family business, so comics were set aside.
Once he’d earned a degree from St. Louis University as an English major with minors in philosophy and creative writing, O’Neil joined the Navy. He participated in the blockade of Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis and was eventually promoted to journalist.
With his service completed, O’Neil taught for a year, but decided he really wanted to write. O’Neil got a job as a reporter for a small town paper near St. Louis, MO, working on the police and hospital beat. During visits into St. Louis, O’Neil rediscovered comics and began reading again. He learned that comics were seeing a resurgence in popularity after the anti-comics fervor inspired by Seduction of the Innocent.
Stepping away from his usual topics, O’Neil wrote an article about the comics and how things were getting better. Among the readers was Roy Thomas, who would become a noted comic writer-editor and editor in chief of Marvel Comics. Thomas got in touch with O’Neil and the pair struck a friendship.
After Thomas left his teaching career to work in comics, he sent O’Neil the Marvel writer’s test – which were pages of art, minus any text, which he needed to add copy to and generate an interesting story based on the art. His work proved successful, and O’Neil headed to New York City and a life in comics.
“I thought this is probably going to be interesting. I’ll do this for a year and then I’ll go back to the real world,” O’Neil said. “I’ll get some stories to tell, I’ll have some New York adventures and then I’ll go back to the real world. Well, that was over 50 years ago.”
He joined Marvel, taking on assignments like Doctor Strange stories in Strange Tales, as well as Rawhide Kid, Millie the Model, and contributions to Daredevil #18 and X-Men #65, which revived Professor X.
It wasn’t long before he had moved over to DC Comics, scripting issues that developed new characters and writing for Wonder Woman and Justice League of America. During his days at Charlton, O’Neil had already established himself as a writer who preferred real world issues, by writing a “Children of Doom” antiwar story. At DC, he had been working for Julie Schwartz when a river in Ohio caught fire due to pollution, so he wrote a Justice League story about the incident.
The relationship with Schwartz proved very positive to the writer who said that, “Within six months, he was the best editor I ever had.”
Schwartz gave O’Neil plenty of creative freedom, challenging him to infuse Green Lantern/Green Arrow with new life. He gave O’Neil permission to write about the state of the world and important topics he wanted to cover. It ended up being one of his most significant imprints on comics. Paired with artist Neal Adams, O’Neil wrote powerful stories that dealt with real social issues and dynamics between differing social and political opinions. He tackled conflicts arising from differing beliefs, putting Hal Jordan and Oliver Queen at odds with each other on several issues, and covered topics like pollution, racism, corruption, even the Manson Family.
When asked why he chose to write about those subjects, O’Neil responded, “I didn’t expect to change anyone’s mind, but what I hoped, and what seems to have happened, is that I got smart 12-year-olds thinking about stuff.”
Seeing the positive impact comics could have, O’Neil figured, “If I write to a really smart 8th grader, he will grow up and I can make him aware of these problems and maybe he will use that awareness to do some good. People have come up to me and said that those stories introduced them to those issues.”
Their stories caught the attention, not just of the comics community, but the nation at large. The pair were invited to be guests on radio shows and talk at universities. But, after about 14 issues, O’Neil felt that he had exhausted the issues he was concerned about and didn’t want the title to become in danger of being a “cause of the week” title.
At this point, the Batman books weren’t selling very well and one was in danger of cancellation, so O’Neil and Adams were tasked with – as he described it – “a rescue mission on the titles.” In a situation like Green Lantern/Green Arrow, he was asked to do something with Batman without specific instructions.
Doing some homework on the character, O’Neil and Adams went back to what Bob Kane and Bill Finger started with – an obsessed guy who’s life was shaped by the tragedy he witnessed. He wrote a gothic story “Secret of the Waiting Graves,” which is considered a turning point for the character, then within a few months Batman became a father figure.
There was no character bible so there hadn’t been any consistency for the character. One of his first tasks was to create the Batman bible to ensure that anyone who used the character kept him consistent with other contemporaries.
“Batman was an exercise in pure storytelling,” O’Neil said. He was allowed to make changes to strengthen the character and improve the overall titles.
O’Neil returned to Marvel for a period in the 1980s, working on The Amazing Spider-Man, Iron Man, and Daredevil. He and John Romita Jr. introduced Madame Web and Hydro-Man in Amazing Spider-Man then co-created Obadiah Stane, later the Iron Monger, in Iron Man. In Daredevil he introduced Yuriko Oyama, who would become Lady Deathstrike.
Once O’Neil returned to DC, he became the editor on various Batman titles. In reference to that period, O’Neil shared that he recently realized that he had the best job in the world for 17 years. “They gave me the best storytelling tool I can imagine. Batman enables you to tell any kind of story you want to tell without violating the essentials of the character,” O’Neil said.
In reference to his time at Marvel, O’Neil stated that working with Mark Gruenwald was one of his favorite experiences with the publisher. The pair and their assistants would get together to discuss plans for stories, and O’Neil described him as being one of the most knowledgeable people in comics. Another favored memory of working with Marvel was experiencing Stan Lee, who O’Neil described as “friendly and lovable.”
“I was given, probably, more freedom than anyone who worked at Marvel or DC at the time,” O’Neil commented. That freedom manifested in compelling and engaging storytelling that entertained readers and made them think about the world around them. Now, his contributions will be lauded at the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library where his fans can learn more about his storied career in person.