Thursday, June 18, 2020

The Late, Great Denny O'Neil

Legendary comic book writer Denny O'Neil, who also worked under his given name of Dennis O'Neil, died on June 11 2020 at the age of 81. The cause was cardiopulmonary arrest. Mr. O'Neil was best known for returning Batman to his roots as the Dark Knight and bringing social relevance to comic books through Green Lantern/Green Arrow.

Dennis O'Neil was born on May 3 1939 in St. Louis, Missouri. His father ran a grocery store, while his other was a housewife. Like most children of the era, young Denny O'Neil read comic books. He listened to such radio shows as Adventures of Superman and Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy. He attended St. Louis University and received a Bachelor of Science in 1961. After graduating from college he enlisted in the United States Navy and took pat in the blockade of Cuba that took place during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Following his service, Mr. O'Neil returned to St. Louis where he worked as a substitute teacher for a year. He then took a job with a newspaper in Cape Girardeau, Missouri as a reporter. There he worked on a bi-weekly column on youth. Noticing the increasing popularity of comic books, he wrote some articles on the medium for the column. These articles came to the attention of comic book superfan and an editor at Marvel Comics Roy Thomas, whose parents subscribed to the newspaper. Roy Thomas asked Mr. O'Neil to take the Marvel writing test, which consisted of adding dialogue to four pages from the Fantastic Four Annual (illustrated by Jack Kirby). Stan Lee then offered him a job at Marvel Comics.

At Marvel Comics, Mr. O'Neil worked on such titles as Daredevil, Strange Tales (featuring Doctor Strange), Millie the Model, Rawhide Kid, and The Two-Gun Kid, Chamber of Darkness, and X-Men. It was on The Uncanny X-Men that he first worked with artist Neal Adams, with whom he would work on Green Lantern/ Green Arrow and Batman. It was Messrs. O'Neil and Adams who returned Professor Xavier to the pages of The Uncanny X-Men no. 65 (February 1970) , after the character had been killed off in The Uncanny X-Men no. 42 (March 1968).

Dennis O'Neil then took a job with Charlton Comics, using the pen name Sergius O'Shaugnessy. He worked under editor Dick Giordano. At Charlton, he worked on the titles Thunderbolt, Abbott and Costello, and Space Adventures. Mr. O'Neil worked at Charlton Comics for about a year when Dick Giordano was hired by National Periodical Publications (now known as DC Comics). Mr. Giordano took several of Charlton's writers with him, including Denny O'Neil. Among his earliest work at DC was on the title Beware the Creeper, featuring the character The Creeper created by artist Steve Ditko. Denny O'Neil then worked on Wonder Woman, on which he made the controversial decision to strip Wonder Woman of her powers, cut her off from Paradise Island (home of the Amazons), and turn her into an international adventurer. Stripping Wonder Woman of her powers would prove very unpopular with the character's fans.

Fortunately, Mr O'Neil found more success at Justice League of America. He began introducing stories with social and political themes. Following  introduction of the character's new costume, designed by Neal Adams, Brave and the Bold no. 85 (September 1969), he also revamped The Green Arrow as a liberal, socially aware crusader on behalf of the underprivileged. He also worked on such titles as Bat Lash, Green Lantern, and Showcase.

It was in 1970 that Denny O'Neil and artist Neal Adams returned Batman to his roots as the Dark Knight following the camp approach that had come about with the classic 1966 TV show. Robin was sent off to college, so that Batman once more operated solo. He introduced archvillain Ra's al Ghul and his daughter Talia. He revived the villain Two-Face, who had been absent from comic books since 1954. After the character had become a practical joking clown, it was also Dennis O'Neil who returned The Joker to being a homicidal psychopath. It was during this period that Bruce Wayne also moved out of Wayne Manor and into the penthouse of the Wayne Foundation Building. Denny O'Neil and Neal Adams's retooling of Batman as something closer to the original Dark Knight would have a lasting impact on the character. Without Denny O'Neil and Neal Adams, there might not have been Frank Miller's graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns (which Mr. O'Neil edited), Tim Burton's two Batman movies, or "The Dark Knight Trilogy."

While Denny O'Neil's work on Batman would prove to be influential, so too would his work on Green Lantern. It was with Green Lantern vol. 2, no. 76 (April 1970) that Mr. O'Neil teamed Green Lantern up with Green Arrow, with the later character providing a liberal point of view and a voice for the underprivileged.  It would be the first American comic book to significantly deal with the social issues of the day. Through the next several issues, Green Lantern tackled such issues as racism, pollution, income inequality, and overpopulation. Perhaps the most memorable storyline occurred in Green Lantern vol. 2 no 85 (August 1971) and vol. 2 no. 86 (October 1971), in which Green Arrow discovers his former sidekick, Speedy, has become addicted to heroin. Unfortunately, sales for Green Lantern were poor and the title was cancelled with vol. 2 no. 89 (April 1972). Green Lantern would continue as a back-up feature with The Flash no. 217 (September 1972).

Although not as well remembered as his retooling of Batman, Denny O'Neil was also involved in a revamp of Superman. Kryptonite was entirely eliminated from Earth and Superman's powers were decreased. Much of Superman's mythos was also eliminated, including  the villains Mr. Mxyzptlk, Bizarro, and Titano, as well as Superman's dog Krypto. This reboot of Superman lasted only briefly. It began with Superman no. 233 (January 1971). Superman no. 243 (October) saw the return of a more traditional Superman.

Denny O'Neil continued to work on both Batman and Green Lantern for several years. From 1972 to 1975 he had a notable run on The Shadow, featuring the pulp character of the same name. He also wrote the four issues of the short-lived Justice Inc., based on the pulp character The Avenger. In the Seventies at DC, Mr. O'Neil worked on such titles as Adventure Comics, All-Star Western, The Joker, Shazam!, Superman, Sword of Sorcery, Richard Dragon Kung Fu Fighter, Tarzan, Time Warp, and Weird Worlds.

In 1980 Dennis O'Neil returned to Marvel Comics. He worked on The Amazing Spider-Man for a year. Afterwards he worked on Iron Man for four years. Among the most significant storylines he wrote for Iron Man was one in which Tony Stark must come to grips with his alcoholism. He also wrote Daredevil for two years. At Marvel he also worked on such titles as Deadly Hands of Kung Fu, the Dominic Fortune back-up feature in The Hulk, Moon Knight, and Power Man and Iron Fist.

In 1986 Dennis O'Neil returned to DC Comics as the editor of the Batman titles. He continued as their editor until 2000. He wrote The Question as well as Green Arrow. As might be expected, he continued to write Batman stories from time to time. He worked on such titles as Azrael, JLA, and Nightwing.

In addition to his work in comic books, Dennis O'Neil also wrote several novels, including The Bite of Monsters (1971) and Dragon's Fists – Richard Dragon, Kung Fu Master (with Jim Berry, 1974), as well as novels based featuring Batman and Green Lantern. Over the years he also wrote several stories and novellas published in such magazines as Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Fantastic Stories, and Unknown Worlds of Science Fiction. Dennis O'Neil also did some work in television, writing episodes of Logan's Run, Superboy, and Batman: The Animated Series.

Few writers have ever had the impact that Denny O'Neil had comic books. With Neal Adams, he returned Batman to the Dark Knight he originally was. There have very few incarnations of Batman in various media that have not been influenced by Mr. O'Neil's interpretation of Batman. The character of Ra's al Ghul, created by Mr. O'Neil, would become a permanent part of the Batman mythos. He also reintroduced Two-Face, who had been absent from comic books for over a decade. Through Green Lantern/Green Arrow he introduced social relevance into comic books, taking what had been considered a medium for children for much of the Sixties into more adult territory.  It would be Denny O'Neil who would set the stage for everything from The Dark Knight Returns to the various Batman movies.

Here I also have to say that Denny O'Neil may have had more of an influence on me than an other comic book writer save Bill Finger and Gardner Fox. The first comic book I ever read was Batman no. 234 (August 1971). Although I didn't realise it at the time, it was a historic issue. The main story, "Half an Evil," marked the first appearance of Two-Face in 17 years. A fan of the classic TV series Batman, I found the darker character written by Denny O'Neil much more appealing. I have been a fan of the Dark Knight ever since. My second favourite superhero is Green Lantern (although these days I prefer Alan Scott to Hal Jordan), and I have no doubt that much of this is because of Denny O'Neil's work with the character. If I became an avid reader of comic books (which led me to become a writer), I owe much of it to Dennis O'Neil.

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