On a stage at Comic-Con International in San Diego, the dynamic duo got together again. No, not Batman and Robin, but close. Instead, it was Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams, the legendary creators who teamed in the early 1970s to rescue the Dark Knight from the camp of the ’60s TV show. The writer and artist discussed those revolutionary days during Saturday’s “Taking Back the Knight” panel, joined by moderator Mark Evanier and former “Batman” and “Detective” editor Paul Levitz.
Evanier got the panel started by asking which iteration of Batman caused each creator to care about the character. Levitz was first to respond, noting that his earliest memories of the character date back to the “last awful moments of the Jack Schiff editorial era.” That might explain, he noted, why he came to comics through Superman instead. He did say that he was of the opinion that Dick Sprang was “one of the truly great artists working on Batman in the early years.” Of course, Levitz, who would later become president and publisher of DC Comics, was still a young fan boy when O’Neil and Adams took over the book. His response when first seeing their work? “What the fuck?! This is cool!”
O’Neil’s memories of the character date back even further, though he joked some were pretty hazy after some 65 years. The writer told the audience some of his earliest memories of comics involved Batman; as a child, he found the character strange because he didn’t fly, yet he wore a cape. That said, he always found Batman easier to connect with than the nearly omnipotent Superman. O’Neil had always been drawn to noir, and “Batman was as close as we could come to noir in comics.”
Like Levitz, Adams fondly recalled Dick Sprang’s “Batman,” comics that were “drawn incredibly well.” He also enjoyed Jerry Robinson’s Robin, which he felt provided a nice contrast to the adult Batman character. But the entire comics scene changed for young Adams when his family spent two years in Germany in the 1950s. While they were gone, Fredric Wertham’s “Seduction of the Innocent” removed any trace of danger and darkness from American comic books. When Adams returned stateside, “I really didn’t pay much attention to comics, because they weren’t fun anymore.”
For Batman, the future would get sillier before getting better. Beyond the damage caused to the character by Wertham and the creation of the Comics Code Authority, the popular 60s TV show took the Caped Crusader in an extremely campy direction. In the words of Adams, “As if Fredric Wertham and the U.S. Congress weren’t enough, the ‘Batman’ TV show showed up.” The artist said he loved the show, but it just wasn’t Batman.
The artist’s goal to return the franchise to its darker roots almost didn’t happen. Adams said that every time he asked editor Julius Schwartz for a chance to do a Batman story, Schwartz told him to “Get the hell out of my office!” Undeterred, Adams eventually found a way into the character’s adventures through editor Murray Boltinoff’s “Brave & the Bold” series. Given the chance, Adams started making small changes – setting the stories at night, having Batman enter rooms through windows, adding more shadows, etc. Letters to the editor suggested fans loved it. This led to a confrontation between Schwartz and Adams, in which the editor demanded to know why the artist believed he knew Batman better than DC did. Adams responded: “It’s not me, Julie. It’s every kid in America.”
Schwartz eventually saw the light and gave Adams “Batman,” teaming him with O’Neil. The former newspaper reporter had been offered the book before, but had declined because he wasn’t good at writing camp. Now the time was right to return the character to its roots and O’Neil took to the challenge. “What I thought we were doing was taking Batman back to May 1939,” O’Neil said. Later, he realized what they were really doing was “remembering how we thought it should have been.”
For young fans of the time, like Levitz, the O’Neil/Adams “Batman” represented a sea change. “Comics had been relentlessly cheery,” Levitz explained, and this version of Batman was “a new flavor.” It changed the game for professionals, too, Levitz explained, as writers and artists began to look at each other’s work and were thus inspired to up their game. Levitz believes this marked “a moment of recovery from Wertham.”
Soon, other creators on the Batman family of books – Frank Robbins, Irv Novick, etc. – were emulating the O’Neil/Adams style. “It would be almost idiotic for those guys not to follow what Denny and I were doing,” Adams said. “It was no secret we were doing Batman right.”
This new tone for comics spilled over into other series, as well, most notably O’Neil and Adams’ other legendary run on “Green Lantern.” Adams said in the beginning, these changes happened in spite of the powers that be at DC. “I’m going to tell you a secret,” Adams told the crowd, after making sure all the doors were closed. “Editorial and management had no idea what we were doing.” O’Neil concurred, noting that early press coverage of their Green Lantern/Green Arrow stories didn’t include their names, probably because the executives being interviewed didn’t know which creators were involved. But once feedback started rolling into the letter columns, it was Schwartz who empowered O’Neil and Adams to continue on with their work. “Denny and I didn’t revolutionize comics,” Adams said. “Julie Schwartz did.”
Maybe so, but it was O’Neil and Adams who earned a standing ovation at the panel’s conclusion.