Denny O'Neil Travels Back, Looks Forward

Denny O'Neil has been working in comics since the mid-'60s, and within a few years of his modest start at Marvel Comics and then Charlton Comics, he was making an indelible mark over at DC Comics. There was the acclaimed run of "Green Lantern/Green Arrow," which addressed social issues such as racism and drug abuse. He became one of the most influential writers of "Batman" and created one of DC's most iconic and unique villains, Ra's al Ghul. His run on "The Question" stands as one of more unique superhero titles published by a major company and a cult classic beloved by many. O'Neil worked as an editor for many years, including a long run as group editor at DC where he oversaw the Batman titles before retiring in 2000.

As part of the DC Retroactive line, Mr. O'Neil is writing two books, "Wonder Woman - The '70s" with artist J. Bone, released last week, and this week's "Green Lantern - The '70s," drawn by Mike Grell. O'Neil spoke at length with CBR News about his career, reinvention, relaunches and his current projects.

CBR News: We wanted to talk about the DC Retroactive titles that you're writing, and more broadly about your perspective on how comics and how characters have changed in the time you've been working in comics.

Denny O'Neil: The time I've been working [in comics] is almost 50 years, and the changes have been enormous. I'm tempted to say that nothing has changed as much as comic books, until I remember home computers and space shuttles and the wristwatch I'm wearing. When I was a kid, it would have taken a warehouse full of vacuum tubes to achieve the same thing. It's become a very different medium. When I started, part of the attraction for me was it was not a respectable business. I had had about zero luck with respectability at that point in my life. It was nothing that you got into thinking in terms of a career or respectability. There's a movie that Mike Uslan made a couple years ago in which he interviewed a bunch of us old fossils, and even Stan Lee admitted that back when he started Marvel he would be reluctant at parties to tell people what he did for a living. He would say, "I'm in New York publishing," "I'm in the magazine business," stuff like that. Only when cornered would he admit, "I do comic books," which he said usually ended the conversation.

It was very much the same way with us. There didn't seem to be any future in it. Of course there were people who knew that it was an art form. Eisner comes to mind. He did all the commercial stuff he had to do to survive, but I don't think he ever questioned the validity of the art form. But for most people, including the people in the comic book companies, it was birdcage liner. Instantly disposable. I think a lot of people still were under the influence of all the witch-hunting that was done at the Kefauver hearings and Frederic Wertham's book and the all the editorials that got written about how evil comic books were. The people who didn't think they were pernicious and evil, a lot of them, I think, thought they were entertainment for idiots. There were a handful of people throughout the world who saw the art form. There was a guy named Gilbert Seldes who wrote a book titled "The Seven Lively Arts," and he has a section in there on comic strips. Not comic books, but he accorded them the status of a genuine art, at least in the hands of people who were really good at it.

Now, I've spent a certain amount of time with academics. I teach at a major university. There are comic book courses in lots of major universities, including MIT. One of my main sources of information about what's going on in the business is "The New York Times," which would not have touched anything to do with comics 15 years ago. Now, two or three times a month there will be a major story. We've lectured at the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian. My goodness, respectability with a capital R.

How did you end up working on the Retroactive titles?

The same way I end up writing almost anything these days: Somebody asked me to do it. An editor at DC, someone I had not worked with and I didn't know, asked if I would do the "Wonder Woman" [one-shot] story. I said yeah because I consider the original "Wonder Woman" run one of the lesser moments of my career. I think we tried something that just flat-out didn't work. Gloria Steinem wrote [about it] in "Ms. Magazine" but was generous enough not to use my name. I will grateful to her for that, and all these years later, I can see her point. [Editor] Ben [Abernathy] asked me to do a story, and after I thought about it a while, I could see a way to have my cake and eat it, too. To get the costumed Wonder Woman into the same story with the jumpsuit Wonder Woman and make it a logical narrative. I was working on that and signing autographs in Florida when Dan DiDio came up and asked if I would also do a "Green Lantern/Green Arrow" story. It was interesting to revisit those characters again. I've done stories about Green Lantern and even a whole novel about him and one or two with Green Arrow, but not since the second "Green Lantern/Green Arrow" run with Mike Grell did I do them paired. There was no reason not to take those jobs. They were good jobs. I got a chance to revisit the past with nothing at stake.

You haven't been involved with the Batman titles in recent years since the conclusion of the "Azrael" monthly series almost a decade ago.

If I were desperate for money, I might ask, but I'm in a really enviable position of being able to take the jobs that appeal to me. I don't know how I would handle the current editorial situation. I want to emphasize as strongly as I can there's nothing wrong with the current editorial situation. I'm not criticizing it. It is just pretty contrary to the way I've always worked. I've done any number of Batman stories that are out of continuity, and it's fine. Generally the company has treated me very well, and the comic book world has treated me very well. There are exceptions. There are bumpy spots in the road now and then, but Batman and everything has moved on. I may not have taken it in that direction, but when I made the changes that I made, some of the older fans thought that was wrong.

The truth is that everything has to evolve or it dies. That's the trick that Julie Schwartz taught us. You keep the essence of the character intact. Flash is the fastest guy in the world. Green Lantern has this magic/scientific ring. Batman is obsessed because of a childhood tragedy. But you have to let everything else change to reflect what's outside your window, or the stuff becomes dated and it has nothing to say to contemporary readers. The Batman stories that I remember first being exposed to probably were eight pages or so. They were probably done by Shelly Moldoff or Dick Sprang. As a kid in St. Louis, I loved them, but I don't think any current kid would get much out of them. Sometimes the characters just evolve on their own, which I think what mostly happened with Superman and Batman. Sometimes you make an editorial decision to nudge that process along a little bit. Some of those decisions are right, and some of them are wrong. But the change is not only a constant, it's necessary. So yeah, Batman has moved past what I did, and that's exactly what should have happened.

How much do you think that the characters and the nature of comics changing are just a question of being created in a new context, in a new time?

Roy Thomas and Steve Skeates and I are the one-and-a-half generation comic book guys. Silver-plated, maybe. The assumption then was that comic books were a low form of entertainment and that they were written for kiddies. We never got stuck with the kind of garbage that some children's book writers get stuck with like vocabulary lists and things like that, but the assumption was it had to be -- especially since the world was still under the influence of Wertham and Kefauver and those guys -- it had to be squeaky clean and wholesome. Whatever that means.

I think the assumption now is unless something is specifically marketed as a kids book, that the readers are mature. It's a lot more violent. It is a bit more erotic, though, in terms of costumes than any action. The main difference, which is a very mixed blessing, is that now serialized stories are the dominant narrative form. When we started, with the exception of the stuff that Stan Lee was editing, everything was complete in the issue. The way it was explained to me was that the newsstand distribution was so erratic that a given reader could not be certain of getting two issues of his favorite title in a row. If you start a story in "Detective" #234, in some places #235 would never get on display. I suspect it was not very true, but the conventional wisdom was to be complete in the issue. Julie Schwartz was making exceptions to that as early as 1960 when once a year he would do a crossover between the new Justice League and the old Justice Society. I once asked him, "How did you get away with that?" His answer was, in effect, don't ask don't tell. He just did it, and nobody ever said anything. In Stan Lee's autobiography he said specifically that he didn't want to think of so many plots. He got some synergy going that the people doing Marvel movies are doing, I think, a very good job of imitating. He was the first to do it consciously.

So it's the subject matter. It is the intended audience. It is probably a much greater sophistication in the wordsmithing, though I have problems with what I perceive as a lack of structure. The common complaint I hear from people who are not longstanding comics fans is they can't get into the stories. That was true of Marifran when we got married 22 years ago. She had been a school teacher in a St. Louis suburb, and then within a very few months she was living in New York in the comic book world, and we were socializing with all the comic book people. She wanted to like the stuff. She took, almost more than anyone I've ever met, to the medium of comics immediately. It really resonated with her. Her dominant learning mode is visual. She took immediately to it, but couldn't quite understand what was going on. And it was crystal clear then compared to now.

You have this strange situation in which comic book characters as movie characters are more popular than they have ever been, and yet comic books as a publishing phenomenon people tell me is still floundering. As it was when I quit my day job 10 years ago. A few of the franchises make money, but by and large, no. Both Marvel and DC are now owned by the movie arm of their respective corporations, which makes them R&D divisions to develop film and TV properties. That's a perfectly OK thing for them to be, but I think with a little thought and a little discipline you wouldn't scare off so many new readers. Comic book fandom is, I think, perceived as a kind of closed club. And it is because if you haven't been reading for a long time, it is difficult to find your way into the narrative. When I teach comic book writing, I put a fair amount of emphasis on structure and how meaning is conveyed not by dialogue, but by plot.

The Retroactive "Green Lantern" book you're doing is drawn by Mike Grell, with whom you've worked before on these characters.

Mike is one of the good guys.

What was it like working together?

I have almost never worked with an artist. Coming off of the way it was done in the '40s, I write a script, I hand it to an editor, or in the case of that second "Green Lantern/Green Arrow" run, I think I was the editor, in which case I mail it to the artist and wait for him to do his job. Then the editor takes the pencils and hands them to an inker and hands them to a letterer and photographically reduces them and gives them to a colorist and then mysterious arcane things happen in printing shops and then a few months later you have a comic book. I have almost never collaborated in the sense of being in the same room and talking about this stuff. The exceptions are some Spider-Man stories that I did with Frank Miller where we actually went to lunch once or twice a while or walked around Greenwich Village and talked out the story virtually page by page. We were very much on the same wavelength back then. That can be a very pleasant thing to do, but mostly what I did was close the door behind me and write a script. I didn't see the finished product usually until I saw proofs or not until I saw the complete comic book.

My sense of Mike's work is that he always served the story. He had an alternative idea for the arrangement of scenes in the job we just did together. He suggested it to me, and I had what I thought was a pretty strong valid reason for doing it the way I did. I explained my reasoning, and that ended it. It was fine with him. He saw a way he thought would improve the story, and that's great. And he had the courtesy and the professionalism to check with people first. I get upset when the artist changes the story without consulting me or the editor. Often in those instances I have never seen the thing until it was in print, and I suspect the editors the job probably came in too late for any significant changes. That, I think, is a legitimate gripe that I have. But the way Mike did it, it's perfect. It's what you should do.

I did want to ask about two characters, one that you reinvented and one that you created and has gone on to take a life of his own. First, the one you reinvented, the Question.

I have one tiny pang of regret about that series, which overall was the best fun I ever had writing comic books. I think everything about it was dead-on, including when it ended. We told our story. There was no need to drag it on further. I did take tremendous liberties with Steve Ditko's characters. I told the executive who offered me the job that I can't do that character. I'm not being judgmental, but it goes so much against what I believe to be true, and I would rather not lie. Of course, all fiction is lying, but [I didn't want] present things I don't believe in for money. That's the way you earn the title "hack." The executive in question said, in effect, "Well, do what you want with it." It was a choice between that or Captain Atom, and I have never been comfortable with demigods. I gave up Superman after a year or so because it was just so damn hard to write. I was doing Batman stories in about three days, and Superman stories took weeks. In this case I was given carte blanche.

Len Wein once asked, "If you were going to change it that much, why didn't you just create a fresh character?" I think that's a valid question. The only answer I have is it just never occurred to me. They said, Captain Atom or tQuestion. I hadn't done any for about six months at that point. These are the two characters that are available. Because I've always been more comfortable with human-scale characters, I picked the Question. I could not agree with Steve's Ayn Rand-ian politics, and again, I'm not judging. I have to keep emphasizing that. It's my disagreement. But I felt strongly enough about it to say I can't do that in good conscience. I was sharing an office with Mike Gold, the editor, and I had about a six-month lead time. There was no killer deadline pressure. And I went ahead and did the stories I would have been writing had I been writing movies or novels or television or any other medium. Deep bow and humble apologizes to Steve Ditko. It must have boiled him to see that if he did see it. I certainly meant him no disrespect. It just didn't occur to me, and it certainly was not on anyone's radar at that time to do original characters for Marvel or DC. What was interesting was that walking back from dinner one night, I was walking with Paul Levitz, who was at that time the guy in charge of the money aspects of publishing. He said, "You used to push the envelope, and then for the last seven or eight years you've been doing good solid middle-of-the-road stuff at Marvel. Why don't you push the envelope again?" And I thought, "Well, this is remarkable. This is a publishing executive telling me I don't have to worry about profit."

We killed Vic Sage in the first issue. And revived him in the second, but I was being a little literary there. It was symbolically, yes, we are killing off the previous version of this character. I think I did enough research [for] the way he was revived. I think I had him dead for about 10 minutes. I myself was dead for two or three minutes about nine years ago. Lying dead on a restroom floor. Once again I wrote something that predicted my own life, which is a little spooky.

The editor, Mike Gold, and I, being very much on the same wavelength politically and with that much freedom, we were off and running. I think the thing found an audience in other countries before this one. When I would go to conventions in Mexico I would see collections of "The Question" that hadn't yet been collected here, so it was getting disseminated.

And it was one of the things I used to court Marifran. We were childhood sweethearts who didn't see each other for 30 years. She got in touch with me, and on a visit to St. Louis I had a date with her and then I sent her the run to that point of "The Question" so she could see what I was up to. And she liked it. So it did help.

For many people, the philosophy, the ideas presented, dealing less with crime than with endemic corruption and what that meant, I don't think there's been another comic that's dealt with these issues from the big two.

Maybe not. As I said, Mike Gold was the editor, and one of his claims to fame was, you're probably way too young to know about this, the Chicago Seven. They were seven hippies/yippies who were busted during the Chicago demonstrations at the Democratic political convention [in 1968]. It was kind of a gaudy showcase trial. Mike Gold, who was a DC editor at the time and my officemate, was part of the group that included Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin who were in the Chicago Seven and put on trial after demonstrating at the Chicago Democratic convention. Mike was never busted or put on trial himself, but he was part of that circle at the time.

The other character I wanted to talk about, who you created, is Ra's al Ghul.

I hear he's going to be in the next movie. My bank account rejoices. [laughs]

That's another way the business has changed. It used to be that we got nothing for the use in other media of stuff that we created. Beginning with the TV series that ran on Fox ["Batman: The Animated Series"], if they adapted one of our stories, we got the money they would have paid a TV writer for coming up with a plot. For "Batman Begins" I got a very handsome check, nowhere near as handsome as the one that Bob Kane's widow got, but given the business' history of really screwing the creative people, that was a great big step in the right direction. The following year, Marvel gave me money for creating Obadiah Stane. Little by little, justice is beginning to happen.

Ra's is a big character who's really taken on a life of his own, but he's also a very different kind of Batman villain.

I thought that was the one totally original thing I'd ever done. It came about because Julie [Schwartz] and I decided it was time for a new Batman villain. A major villain. We had gone to the well too often with the standard rogues gallery. [Julie] had a name he wanted to use, which he said meant "head of the demon," and my assignment was to go home and flesh that out. A lot of comic book characters are created incidentally or accidentally. In this case, we actually set out to create a major character, and pretty soon into the creating process I saw a chance to ride one of my own big social concerns, the environment. So we can make this a good bad guy. I think that he's right and Batman's wrong. I just think that his methods are a little questionable. That's how it started, and a big bow to Neal Adams, who didn't make it just another guy with a cape and a tights and red mask. He thought out what would this guy really look like, and his renderings gave him a gravitas that was unlike any other comic book villain ever. I was always seeing Talia similarly, not a chorus girl but a statuesque beauty. The art really served the story, and if you know ahead of time that you're going to get great art, I think it does affect the quality of the writer's work. Neal did not do the first Talia story, which was the month before we officially introduced the character, but I knew he was going to do the longer story I wrote. To say he did it justice is to understate.

And yes, he did take on something of a life of his own. Later people have changed the dynamic of Batman-Talia-Ra's. In my mind it was obvious that the only two people on the planet who should unite in matrimony are Batman and Talia. The tragedy is they can't because she won't let go of her father, and he won't let go of his obsession with lawbreakers. I thought that was one of the things that made it interesting and unique. Nothing like that had ever been in comics. As I said, other writers went in different directions with it, and God bless them.

You edited Mike Barr and Jerry Bingham's "Son of the Demon," where they didn't get married but got together and had a son.

[Laughs] That's what I had in mind. And that child of that union is now a character.

Another book that you edited is the Alan Moore and Brian Bolland graphic novel "The Killing Joke."

It was the first or second day I had the job, and I was handed this script which had been in house for a year unedited from a guy I didn't know, Alan Moore. I read it, and if you're reading the average comic book script, if you've done it as much as I have, it takes 20 minutes, half an hour. That took most of an afternoon [laughs], because when Alan writes a script, he writes a script. But I remember going to the boss and saying, "Well, we either run this as it is, or we give him a kill fee. I think this is brilliant. I think that if we're in the business of telling good stories, this is what we ought to be doing. And I don't think I ought to edit it to make it conform with continuity niceties." The boss completely agreed. I completely stand by my original decision.

The mistake we made was I thought that the price point would keep it out of the hands of kids. What I didn't reckon on was that grandparents knowing Batman from Saturday morning cartoons would see this as a little something to give Jimmy when I see him after Sunday mass, and it's got a woman having her spine shattered and there's nudity and a suggestion of rape. It's strong stuff. Five dollars was serious money back then. But I was completely wrong.

I'm curious because from a reader's perspective, it felt like back in the '80s and '90s, many one-shots, graphic novels and miniseries weren't designed to be in continuity.

Continuity was very much on our radar. I felt that as the Batman editor, it was part of my job to maintain story continuity, and I always hated myself when something got past me. Continuity is now the absolute ruler. Part of that is because comic book shop owners grew up with it, and to them it's the right way to do comics. I think I may have been the last editor of a major superhero franchise not to have ever been a fan. The idea of a one-issue story is alien to a lot of people, but it was not alien at the time you're talking about, though continuity was already a major player. If a piece of continuity was ignored, it meant that somebody screwed up.

It was a storytelling tool. It helped suspend disbelief. It helped create illusion of a real place and real people. I did not believe that it should ever dominate or that a story should be done simply to serve continuity. Something that happened in 1945 in some issue of some old comic book didn't make sense, and it has boiled in the soul of some fan turned writer and he gets a chance to correct it. That's a fine thing to do, provided you don't have to have read the earlier story and provided you get a good story out of it. That was always the litmus. But as far as the rest of it went, I felt this is a tool that's in our kit and we should not ignore it, but the important thing is to deliver a good narrative, not to serve this kind of pseudo-historicity.

I'm not sure how much you know about it, but do you have any thoughts about the DC relaunch this fall?

There's a right way and a wrong way to do it, historically. Some of the attempts to relaunch characters have not been very successful because only cosmetic changes were made. What Julie Schwartz did, not consciously as far as I can tell, he figured out what made this character unique and popular in the first place. We leave that intact, but does it make any sense for a character called Green Lantern to be wearing a red shirt? No it doesn't, so we change the costume. Science fiction was at that time, pre-Harry Potter, a more congenial genre than fantasy, so we give him a science-fiction reason for being. Having been successful first with the Flash and then with Green Lantern, Julie went on and recreated most of the DC pantheon in the same way, and he did it right.

And something that I have to always emphasize is that you can't ignore the commercial aspects of it. It is their ball, it is their bat, and their daddy owns the ballpark. It is about turning a profit. I had great freedom in editing Batman. For 15 years I think I only heard from executives once or twice, but I'm not kidding myself that that was due to my dazzlingly brilliant editing. It was because the books were making money. In a way we had our cake and ate it. We found ways to tell stories we wanted to tell, but [made] them commercial enough to find and even augment the Batman audience. If the new launch can do that, they will have succeeded. Of course, people will have complaints. Anybody who had their favorite character changed will complain.

For years, Green Lantern as Hal Jordan was a character that seemed to be beloved by the fan community, but he wasn't selling very well. So one night after work, Kevin Dooley, Eddie Berganza, Archie Goodwin and Mike Carlin and I went to an Italian restaurant on 52nd Street, and four hours later we went back to the office and started making calls. We had come up with a new Green Lantern. And Kevin, poor Kevin, though he was only partially responsible for this heinous deed, got loads of hate mail. And sales went up. It was a case of the fans thought that they liked Hal Jordan, just not enough to buy enough copies to justify continuing to print it. And the role of Kyle Rayner proved to be a very popular character. I always felt when I was doing day-to-day editing, I was walking through a mine field. You could never tell how you were going to get in trouble. Who was going to be pissed off and know enough about how publishing works not to complain to me but to complain to my boss?

You mentioned before that you had just finished a novel. What can you tell us about it?

I don't know how to describe it. It came about because about five years ago or so an editor who I worked with very successfully when he was at DC -- he edited my first Batman novel [1994's "Batman: Knightfall"] which became a bestseller. Take that, all you people back in St. Louis who never thought I'd amount to a hill of beans. I worked with him on a Green Lantern novel [2005's "Hero's Quest"]. He quit DC to go to work for a book publisher and suggested I do something about the comic book business. At the same time, my son, who is now a middle-aged screenwriter and teaches screenwriting, made a similar suggestion.

After a little while, and a number of false starts, I thought I saw a way to do it. Not to make it just another story about a drunk -- that was me for 10 really bad years -- but to incorporate that into something that would be about the comic book business. Sort of "Kavalier and Clay: The Next Generation." It's experimental in a lot of ways. I played with structure. I've written 10 or 11 novels, but they were always because somebody came to me. A guy I knew from Marvel was made the editor of a paperback line and said, "Write me a science fiction novel." All the others have been Batman novelizations or stuff involving DC characters. That's a kind of novel writing where it's basically a dramatic structure. It gives you a lot more elbow room than writing a play or a comic book or a screenplay, but the hero is presented with a problem, hero encounters opposition, hero overcomes the problem. Then you figure out how many words they want and figure out how to deliver on deadline. I had never written a novel that was written the way I thought novels were written when I was a creative writing minor in college: starting from scratch, not exactly sure where you're going and basing a lot on stuff that that really happened.

I hope we get the chance to read it soon.

Well, thank you. I hope you get a chance to do that. One of the things I'm aware of is that I'm 72, and I've had a very, very long run. Apart from a heart attack nine years ago, I'm in pretty good shape for an old fart. I just keep wondering how long I'm going to be able to keep up this very interesting life I lead. We'll see. It's nothing I have any control over.

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