Denny O’Neil 1939-2020

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It was only two to three weeks back that I was trying to get in touch with Denny O’Neil. Having finished up my Elektra piece, I started catching up on some other issues of Daredevil that came after that first Miller run—issues that I also hadn’t read in nearly as long as said Miller run, most of them written by O’Neil, and I discovered this plot thread that was left hanging when Frank Miller returned for the “Born Again” storyline. It involved the appearance of Black Crow, a Native American super-character, at the end of Daredevil #225 (Dec. 1985), and I wanted to know if O’Neil might recall the plans he had for the character (and how he fit into Daredevil) at that time.

Now, unless he discussed this already in some other past interview that I missed, I guess we’ll never know the answer to that question. O’Neil passed last Thursday, June 11, 2020, at the age of eighty-one.

A Storied Career

Roy Thomas helped give O’Neil his start in comics with a very brief and unremarkable run at Marvel before O’Neil made the jump to Charlton Comics. He worked primarily under editor Dick Giordano during this phase, with most of his writing appearing under the pseudonym of “Sergius O’Shaugnessy.” One memorable piece from this period was “Children of Doom” from Charlton Premiere #2 (Nov. 1967), an apocalyptic sci-fi tale well remembered by Charlton fans of the era, illustrated by Pat Boyette. The story’s view on the folly of war offered a hint of the progressive politics that would become a staple of much of O’Neil’s future writing.

A short time later, when Giordano made the jump from Charlton to DC, he took several of his Charlton guys with him, most notably O’Neil and artist Jim Aparo. This was when O’Neil’s career really took off, as he would end up the writer of several landmark issues of DC’s most iconic characters.

First, there was Wonder Woman #178 (Oct. 1968), which began a long-running storyline wherein Wonder Woman would be stripped of her super powers, forcing her to continue her battles against evil as a mortal woman with nothing else to rely upon but her own newly-learned fighting skills.

Then came the monumental “No Evil Shall Escape My Sight!” from Green Lantern #76 (Apr. 1970)—though the cover also gave billing to Green Arrow, it was a continuation of the regular Green Lantern series. This issue kicked off the “relevant” stories by O’Neil in collaboration with Neal Adams, very important work in comics history that I would catch up with via reprints in the 1980s. By the time I read them, I found myself sharing Ben Herman’s view of these stories, finding them a bit heavy handed and preachy. Now I look back and consider these books in the context of their time and appreciate how important they were.

Green Arrow offers a very heartfelt and topical speech in the pages of Green Lantern #76 (Apr. 1970).

These stories are what gave O’Neil his first taste of true fame, though this was not necessarily a totally good thing. As recounted on O’Neil’s Wikipedia page: “I went from total obscurity to seeing my name featured in The New York Times and being invited to do talk shows. It’s by no means an unmixed blessing. That messed up my head pretty thoroughly for a couple of years…. Deteriorating marriage, bad habits, deteriorating relationships with human beings—with anything that wasn’t a typewriter, in fact. It was a bad few years there.”

Around this same time, O’Neil was producing some very ecology-conscious stories for Justice League of America, as recounted on Alan Stewart’s Attack of the 50 Year Old Comic Books blog. Super-powered superheroes weren’t O’Neil’s strong suit, but once again, there was timely and important work being done here.

O’Neil would then write Superman #233 (Jan. 1971), an issue that launched a storyline intended to clean up Superman’s continuity, get rid of all the kryptonite that had infested his world, and reduce his powers. None of these changes stuck, not even for very long, but the attempted shift was, again, a landmark.

Then, once more with Adams, O’Neil gave us some changes that would definitely stick with the addition of Ra’s al Ghul to the DC Universe, who first appeared in the story “Daughter of the Demon” from Batman #232 (June 1971). Ra’s is one of the greatest adversaries in DC’s stable, and certainly one of the greatest characters to come out of this era.

But O’Neil didn’t stop here. He also gave us (yet again with Neal Adams) “The Joker’s Five-Way Revenge” from Batman #251 (Sept. 1973). This was the Joker’s first appearance in a Batman book in several years—in fact it just occurred to me that his last appearance of any kind in the DCU may have also been written by O’Neil, in Justice League of America #77 (Dec. 1969)—and this story washed away any goofy aspects of the character that may have been left over from the campy TV show, marking the return of the murderous, maniacal Joker we all know and love today, and was just a great story.

Really, if you want to call yourself a comics historian, you need to track down and read every Batman story ever written by Denny O’Neil, especially the ones that were published in the 1970s. While we might be able to debate the writing quality of the Green Lantern/Green Arrow material, there really is no room for debate regarding O’Neil’s Batman work. These Batman tales are some of the best comics ever made, and would echo down the decades on the Batman mythos as no other stories ever have or ever will. Denny O’Neil shaped and influenced Batman like almost no other writer—the only other writer you could even make a case for being more influential would be Bill Finger.

Four historic issues written by Denny O’Neil: Wonder Woman #178, Green Lantern/Green Arrow #76, Superman #233, and Batman #251.

There was some stuff from this period that was less successful, of course. O’Neil drew the writing assignment on the revival of the original Captain Marvel in Shazam #1 (Feb. 1973), a mismatch of an assignment if there ever was one. In fact, as I’m writing this, I recall he also wrote the short-lived Isis book, which likewise was not an ideal fit. Some of his other Superman stuff, particularly in the pages of World’s Finest, didn’t quite land for me either.

My Time

As mentioned, nearly all of the aforementioned work was well before my time. My own first encounter with O’Neil’s work was Green Lantern/Green Arrow #90 (Aug.-Sept. 1976), a revival of the legendary strip he had done with Adams a couple years earlier. Now Adams didn’t return to the strip with Denny, but it did have Mike Grell, which… close enough!

Let me tell ya folks, that’s a great cover. You give the very-young me a cover like that and you’ll get my three dimes every time. They also titled this one, “Those Who Worship Evil’s Might,” a sort-of companion title to issue #76’s “No Evil Shall Escape My Sight,” as they’re both part of the Green Lantern oath—an oath I had memorized within hours of reading this issue for the first time. (Ignore the cover, which incorrectly states the title as #76’s “No Evil Shall Escape My Sight!”)

O’Neil himself would acknowledge in later interviews that he preferred writing more earthbound characters without superhuman powers, but he did well with Green Lantern/Green Arrow, as he really had the characterizations down perfectly. A few years later, O’Neil co-wrote the treasury title Superman vs. Muhammad Ali (1978) with longtime collaborator Neal Adams, another fave of yours truly. In fact a poster of the cover hangs on the wall of the home office in which I’m sitting as I type this.

By 1980, O’Neil made the move to Marvel as editor of several books (most notably Daredevil) in addition to writing Amazing Spider-Man. With this assignment, he obviously had my full attention, as I was the world’s biggest Spidey nut at that time. One sweet memory of this run was a three-parter that ran from ASM #213-215 (Feb.-Apr. 1981). As I lived vicariously through Peter Parker at this point, I was very excited by the new love interest this storyline (seemingly) introduced.

I shouldn’t have been. Two issues later, O’Neil would pull the rug out from under the naïve, young me.

I have to admit, O’Neil suckered me in with this one. Even as a kid, I remember being annoyed at how easily this storyline tricked me and that I should have seen the twist coming a mile away.

But my very favorite work of O’Neil’s that I got to experience firsthand as it came out on the racks was the two annuals he did with Frank Miller, Amazing Spider-Man Annual #14 (1980) and Amazing Spider-Man Annual #15 (1981). The first (1980) had Spidey team up with Doctor Strange against Dormammu and Dr. Doom. This one not only offers a glimpse of how Miller would have illustrated the Strange book had that actually come to pass (and the Ditko influence on Miller’s style, something that’s always been plain to Miller aficionados, really shines through in this tale), but it also has Peter Parker and Deb Whitman down in the Bowery to see Shrapnel play at CBGB’s!

The second annual (1981) had Spidey and the Punisher going up against Doc Ock. This one had some of the best characterizations of Ock and the Punisher ever; and the very best characterization of J. Jonah Jameson ever. Kids, when comics are this good, they are better than television, better than any film, even better than the sweetest music.

Fun Fact: In addition to the ASM annual in 1981, Miller also scripted the Marvel Team-Up Annual this same year (#4), “Pawns of the Purple Man,” featuring Spidey, Daredevil, Moon Knight, Power Man, and Iron Fist going up against the Purple Man and the Kingpin. Denny O’Neil had nothing to do with this issue; I just wanted to point out what a kick-ass summer this was for a comics fan (and a Spider-Man fan in particular).

There were some misses during this Marvel stint too, though. Tony Stark’s alcoholic relapse in the pages of Iron Man, as written by Denny, felt unnecessary—I feel like Michelinie, Romita, and Layton already covered this ground well enough the first time around. There’s also a nasty rumor that O’Neil made the editorial decision to push Mary Jo Duffy out as writer on Power Man and Iron Fist. If someone can verify this as true, don’t tell me, I don’t even wanna know.

As mentioned at the beginning, Denny O’Neil also followed Miller on Daredevil after Miller’s breath-taking initial run on the title ended in late ‘82—as Herculean a creative task as one could imagine, but O’Neil acquitted himself well. It certainly helped that he had the extraordinary artistry of David Mazzucchelli to work with, but even before Mazz came aboard he was doing fun and interesting things, as covered by Evan Narcisse on io9.

O’Neil would eventually return to DC to edit the Batman books, and write the updated Question series with Denys Cowan on pencils. Later, O’Neil would write some key issues of Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight, including the introduction of the super-steroid drug called “venom” and, later still, he would create the character of Azrael, who would go on to assume the cowl of Batman for a brief period.

It was an amazing career and a life well lived.

R.I.P., Denny O’Neil.

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