Nerd History (w/ Tom Elmore): Remembering Dennis O’Neil – The Unsung Hero of Comics Bronze Age

In the difficult business of comic books greatness can often be classified into two groups: Those who create legendary comic book characters, like Superman, Batman or Spiderman, and those who take established characters and elevates them to new heights. “Denny” O’Neil stood out in this latter group. While he helped shape “the bronze age” of comic books, 1970-1984, his work went beyond that.

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O’Neil was born to an Irish-Catholic family in St. Louis on May 3, 1939 and developed an interest in comic books at an early age. He attended Saint Louis University where he studied English literature, creative writing and philosophy. After graduating the in early 1960s, he joined the U.S. Navy and participated in the 1962 Cuban blockade. After leaving the navy, O’Neil returned to Missouri where he wrote a bi-weekly youth column for a Cape Girardeau newspaper.

Some of O’Neil’s pieces were about the comic book industry which was making a slow comeback. (In 2019 he reflected “I guess the country got tired of chasing hunting witches and comics made a comeback-and how!”) This column caught the attention of Marvel Comics Roy Thomas, who became a comic book legend in his own right. Thomas convinced O’Neil to take the Marvel writer’s test, which consisting of writing dialogue to a wordless four page excerpt from a Fantastic Four comic book. O’Neil did the test “kind of as a joke. I had a couple of hours on a Tuesday afternoon, so instead of doing crossword puzzles, I did the writer’s test.”

But the joke was on O’Neil. He passed the test and was given a job at Marvel as a writer. But his time at Marvel would be short lived because they could not offer him steady writing assignments.

In 1965 O’Neil went to Charlton Comics where for a year and a half he wrote under the pseudonym Sergious O’Shaugnessy. When Dick Giordano, O’Neil’s boss at Charlton, was hired by DC Comics in 1968, O’Neil went with him.

O’Neil made an immediate impact at DC. One of his first assignments was Wonder Woman, which he was assigned to both write and edit. In a still-controversial move, O’Neil in Wonder Woman #178, September-October 1968, stripped her of her powers, severed her ties with the Amazons, and took her out of the Justice League of America. She was now just Diana Prince, an un-costumed martial arts expert who fought foreign intrigue with the help of a blind Asian mentor named I Ching. The moves were intended to improve slumping sales, but instead received a backlash, especially from feminists, that caught O’Neil and DC off-guard. Years later he claimed “I’m am not ashamed of what we did, but I’m not sure I’d do it again.” The “new” Wonder Woman lasted only 25 issues.

O’Neil also revamped Superman, starting with Superman #233, January 1971. “To make the stories more possible,” the Man of Steel became less powerful. Kryptonite was eliminated while Clark Kent went from newspaper reporter to television reporter with a more modern civilian wardrobe. As with Wonder Woman, O’Neil’s changes would be short-lived.

However, his work on Batman, with began with issue # 224, August, 1970 would prove to be very influential. A Batman fan since childhood, O’Neil was fascinated by the character’s darkness. He dropped Batman’s campiness, and returned him to his dark and brooding roots. He also emphasized the fact that Batman was first and foremost, a detective. Robin was sent off to college and only made occasional appearances. The Bat Cave, and most bat gadgets were put in mothballs, as Bruce Wayne moved into a high rise penthouse where he patrolled the city using his bat ropes as opposed to the batmobile.

In addition, the Joker returned to his equally darker homicidal maniacal background. O’Neal’s return to the basics is viewed by many as an influence on Frank Miller’s 1986 epic four-issue mini-series, The Dark Knight Returns.

O’Neal and his friend and frequent collaborator, artist Neal Adams, created Ra’s al Ghul and his League of Assassins, one of the best and most important Bat-villains of all time. They also created al Ghul’s daughter and occasional Batman love interest Talia al Ghul. These characters would be featured prominently in Christopher Nolan’s Batman movie trilogy, the television shows Gotham and Arrow as well as Batman: The Animated Series.

            Arguably O’Neil’s finest Batman story was There Is No Hope in Crime Alley! which appeared in Detective Comics #457, March 1976. “A Haunting Story! The Murder That Created Batman!” read the cover.

The story revealed that every year on the anniversary of his parent’s murder, Batman visits the site of their death, Park Row, now better known as Crime Alley. While there, he visits Leslie Thompkins, who took young Bruce Wayne in after he saw his parent’s demise.

On this particular night, the Caped Crusader stops a number of crimes including a mugging of Miss Thompkins. When one of the assailants pulls a gun on Batman, he loses his temper and beats the pulp out of the hoodlum while flashing back to the night of his parent’s murder. However, Thompkins brings the Dark Knight back to reality. She tells Batman that she knows he visits her annually but does not know why, to which Batman says his annual visit is a reminder of who he is and probably his own demise.

Batman then asks her why she stays in such a horrible place and Thompkins responds by saying she once saw a double murder there committed in front of a child. She has since devoted her life to trying to prevent another tragedy and to make life better for the people who live in the area. She tells Batman, “I live for the time when you and your kind will be unnecessary.”

To which Batman replies:

 

I’ve heard there’s no hope in in Crime Alley, Miss Thompkins—that’s wrong! You and those like you ..You’re the hope of Crime Alley—Maybe—The only hope our tormented civilization has left!

 

Batman kisses her on the forehead and goes back to his penthouse where Alfred finds him asleep and smiling.

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In 2019 There Is No Hope in Crime Alley! was included in a deluxe collection of stories from Detective Comics commemorating Batman’s 80th anniversary.

O’Neil cemented his place in comic book history when he started writing Green Lantern/Green Arrow in issue #76. Instead of battling a super villain, a monster or some menace from outer space, the two heroes find themselves battling Jubal Slade, a slum lord, with the law on his side, who plans to make his tenants homeless. All of which is unbeknownst to Green Lantern, who saves Slade from a mugger. Afterwards Green Lantern is confronted by an elderly African-American who is one of Slade’s renters who asks:

 

I’ve been readin’ about you…How you work for the Blue Skins…and how on a planet someplace you helped out the Orange Skins…And you done considerable for the Purple Skins!

            Only there’s a skin you never bothered with…the Black Skins! I want to know…How Come? Answer me that, Mr. Green Lantern!

 

To which Green Lantern can only say “I can’t.”

 

The issue ends with the Guardians of the Galaxy taking Green Lantern to task for investigating Slade as opposed to a needless mission around Saturn. Green Arrow, who had also been going after Slade and helped bring him to justice, rises to Lantern’s defense and tell the Guardians to come off their perch and live as a human in the real world. One of them agrees and the three set off across America in a jeep.

(Prior to this O’Neal had revamped Green Arrow, stripping his wealth and playboy lifestyle and turn him into a liberal, urban crusader.)

The team-up would last for 46 issues and would become known as the “Hard Traveling Heroes” story arch, fighting social ills such as racism, feminism, and pollution.

The series highlight was issues 85 and 86, August and October 1971 when Green Arrow had to confront drug abuse right under his nose as he learns his ward, Roy Harper, a.k.a. “Speedy” is a heroin addict.

The idea was based in part on O’Neil’s personal experiences with heroin addicts in his own neighborhood. It was an idea he and Adams (who was chairman of a neighborhood drug rehabilitation center) had long wanted to but were prevented from doing so by the outdated Comics Code Authority (CCA) which banned depictions of drug abuse or drug paraphernalia. Then Marvel published Amazing Spider-Man #96-98 which dealt with a character battling drug addiction and had no CCA seal on the cover. Soon afterwards, Marvel, DC and the CCA had a meeting and the code was revamped in less than a month, allowing for the Green Lantern/Green Arrow story to get a green light.

O’Neil chose Harper to be a drug user “for maximum emotional impact. We thought an established good guy in the throes of addiction would be stronger than we…some character we’d have made up for occasion. Also we wanted to show that addiction was not limited to ‘bad’ or ‘misguided’ kids.”

The story won industry awards and attracted national attention. New York City Mayor, John Lindsay, wrote DC a letter commending them on the story. However, fame took a price from O’Neil. “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 few bad years there.”

O’Neil also tried and failed to revive two classic heroes from the 1940s. The first was the Shadow, which debuted in November 1973. The series was O’Neil’s idea though getting it done took some doing. He based his stories on the pulp novels by Walter Gibson using the pen name Maxwell Grant, and not the classic radio show. The series got off to a great start until the original artist Michael W. Kaluta, quit after five issues. Since no one could replicated his atmospheric style, the series lasted only a year.

The other was the original Captain Marvel, a.k.a. Shazam who returned in Shazam! #1, February, 1973. DC acquired the rights to characters and hired the original Captain Marvel artist, Charles Clarence “C.C.” Beck to help relaunched the series. O’Neil was assigned to recreate the 1940s story style, but found it “too sweet-tempered…It was too naïve. It was very much a fairy tale world” which “the audience had leaped frog past in terms of sophistication.” O’Neal stayed with the title for only nine issues, though he successfully created a pseudo origin story explaining how and why the character vanished in the 1950s and came back in the 1970s without aging. O’Neil tried with minor success to make Billy Batson’s adjusting to a new reality a continuing story line. However, the captain’s comeback would be plagued with problems, Beck up and quit after ten issues and the series folded after 33 issues.

O’Neil’s last triumph of the 1970s would be the one shot Superman Vs. Muhammad Ali published in the spring of 1978.

The plot involves the Man of Steel and the Greatest teaming up to stop an invasion by the alien race called the Scrubb. To save the Earth, the planet’s greatest champion must fight the Scrubb champion, a behemoth named Hun’Ya. Superman and Ali step forward as the Earth’s champion, but Ali argues that Superman is not of the Earth and has an unfair advantage with his super powers. The alien leader, Rat’Lar, is intrigued and decrees that the two must fight it out to determine who the Earth’s champion is. To make it fair, he orders the fight to take place in the presence of a red star, which would rob Superman of his powers and make it a match to see who Earth’s best boxer is.

Adams drew the cover, considered one of the best in comic book history, which featured numerous real-life celebrities watching the fight. The book has been reissued several times and is one of the biggest selling magazines ever published by DC. Ironically, at the time of the magazine’s release, Ali was no longer the world’s heavyweight boxing champion, having lost his title in February 1978 to Leon Spinks.

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O’Neal returned to Marvel Comics in 1980. In his six years there he worked on The Amazing Spider-Man, Iron Man and Daredevil, and is often credited with saving the latter from being cancelled.

Arguably his most significant work was on Iron Man. He turned Tony Stark into an alcoholic who was so bad off that he could no longer function as Iron Man and Jim Rhodes had to become the superhero. To make a bad situation worse, Stark loses his company and becomes a vagrant on the street. O’Neal created Obadaih Stane and his alter ego the Iron Monger who try to kill Stark both financially and literally.

Prior to leaving Marvel, O’Neal wrote the original character concepts for the Transformers and is credited with coming up with the name Optimus Prime.

O’Neal returned to DC in 1986 and stayed there until his retirement in 2000, editing the various Batman titles. His most notable, if not infamous, achievement during this period was the death of the second Robin, Jason Todd, in A Death in the Family which appeared in Batman #428, December 1988. Robin’s death was the unexpected result of an experiment O’Neal suggested. Use the new “900” number to conduct a poll on what readers would like see done in a comic book. Company president Jenette Kahn liked the idea but there was agreement that it had to be on something significant.

The choice was surprisingly easy. “I had a Robin problem,” O’Neal later admitted. “We could have simply lighten the character, or had some event happen to him that made him change his act.” He further added that Robin was “an arrogant little snot…We reached the point where we were going to have to do a drastic character revision on him or write him out of the series.” Though O’Neil that he was partially at fault for the mess, he decided to let the fans decide what should happen.

After the polling began, O’Neal, who voted for Todd to live, “realized that I had set myself up for an enormously difficult editorial task if the kid didn’t survive.” Still O’Neal thought Todd would live, but wrote two stories just to be safe.

Two 900 numbers were featured at the back of Batman #427. One to let Todd live, the other to let him die. Each call cost 50¢. Over 10,000 calls were made and when the votes were tallied, much to the surprise of many, people who favored Todd’s death won by a narrow margin of 5343 to 5271.

In 2005 O’Neil theorized that hundreds of votes to kill Robin came from one man. “I heard it was one guy, who programmed his computer to dial the thumbs down number every ninety seconds for eight hours, who made the difference.” In commentary for the 2010 DVD Batman: Under the Red Hood O’Neal offered more specifics saying it was a California lawyer using an Apple Macintosh. Though he admitted that he had no hard evidence to support this claim, in O’Neil’s mind “that guy killed Jason Todd.”

The death of Robin created a lot of controversy. “When we did the deed, we got a blast of hate mail and negative commentary in the press.” The controversy was so great that O’Neal was urged to lay low. “They reacted as if we had killed a real person,” O’Neil recalled.

When not working on comic books, O’Neal wrote numerous novels and novellas, including the novelizations of Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. He also wrote a number of non-fiction books, essays and articles including 2001’s The DC Comics Guide to Writing Comics. His television writing credits included Batman: The Animated Series and G.I Joe: A Real American Hero.

He also spent time in the 1990s teaching Writing for Comics at Manhattan’s School of Visual Arts.

Nineteen years after his retirement O’Neal wrote his last Batman story for Detective Comics #1000, Return to Crime Alley a dark sequel to his 1976 classic as well as an essay for the Detective Comics: 80 Years of Batman Deluxe Edition. He also contributed to Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Was Not an anthology of short stories where Sherlock Holmes teams up with doctors who are not named Watson. In O’Neil’s case, it was famed Wild West gunfighter, Doc Holiday.

Over the years O’Neil received almost every major honor the comic book industry has to offer. In 1985, in conjunction with the company’s fiftieth anniversary, DC Comics placed him in their commemorative book 50 Who Made DC Great.

In private life, he was married to Marifran O’Neal who died in 2017. He also had a son from a previous marriage, Lawrence “Larry” O’Neil who has been a filmmaker and a professor. He died on June 11, 2020 from natural causes at the age of 81.

In 1995 O’Neal reflected on his career, “Superman and Batman have been in continuous publication for over a half a century, and that’s never been true of any fictional construct before. These characters have a lot more weight than the hero of a popular sitcom that lasts maybe four years. They have become postindustrial folklore, and part of this job is to be the custodian of folk figures. Everyone on Earth knows Batman and Robin.”

 

Personal Note: This writer has been reading the works of O’Neil for decades and can honestly say he is my all-time favorite DC writer. Rereading some of his stories for this piece has been like revisiting an old friend. Thank-you Denny for all the great stories, characters and moments you have given us. May you rest in peace!

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-Tom Elmore
Staff Writer/Resident Historian
Nerd Nation Magazine

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