Monday, April 27, 2009

The Political Evolution of Denny O'Neil

Denny O’Neil shows up on a rainy day, decked out in a long trenchcoat and blazer, wearing a dress shirt and jeans, and topping it off with a large fedora and pair of dark glasses. Sporting a silver moustache, acquired after his retiring from DC Comics a few years ago, and with the exception of the peace symbol lapel pin poking out from his blazer, he looks like an extra from a film noir – or Gotham City.

O’Neil’s career has encompassed everything from restoring Batman as a dark and brooding detective, metamorphosing Green Arrow into an activist hippie and (very likely) saving the character from comics limbo, and making Daredevil more than just another Spider-Man knock off. In the eighties, he went back to DC Comics and enjoyed a long tenure as the editor of the Batman titles, working on a character that has defined and shaped the superficial aspects of his career.

“I’ve written more books in the past six years than comics,” Denny reflects. “I’m not sure how comfortable I am in the way modern continuity has gone. That doesn’t mean that I’m right and they’re wrong at all: it means that things have evolved, and have to evolve.

“The Batman that I loved at age six would not have a dozen readers today. The Batman I don’t like of all the incarnations, the one from the fifties, was right for the Eisenhower era. Sometimes people get stuck, and I’d see it all the time when I was editing Batman. The Batman that was their Batman at age fifteen ‘is the right Batman, and anything else is blasphemy.’ It was right for them at the time, but they have to evolve.”

To only credit Denny O’Neil as a writer of superhero comics is an understatement; he took the superhero comic book and, particularly in the ‘70s, forced it to evolve in ways that no one saw coming.
Denny O’Neil was born into a Catholic family in St. Louis in 1939, the same year that Batman, stiffly drawn on the cover of Detective Comics #27, burst onto the scene. After Mass every Sunday, Denny’s father took him to the local mom and pop store to pick up a comic. Like with most little boys, it was a love affair that (along with radio shows) ended when he got older and discovered girls.

After four long years in a military high school, Denny decided to join the Navy, and defeat the encroaching Communist menace.

“I bought the whole package,” Denny admitted with a hint of self-deprecation. “You know: ‘if we didn’t stop the Godless Commies in Southeast Asia, they’re going to be camping out in our backyard and would pick us out and rape and pillage their way. The Reds.’…

“Before I went in the Navy, I fell under the wicked influence of the Peace Movement, the Catholic Workers, the Civil Rights Movement, and I was totally simpatico but I thought they weren’t realistic. I thought the same thing that Cheney has been feeding to the world for years ‘You don’t understand, and you guys are too idealistic and starry-eyed.’”

It’s hard to imagine O’Neil, an infamously liberal man, with an almost McCarthy-istic leaning. While in the Navy, he was on a ship bound for the blockade of Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. He’d seen enough of the other side to form his own opinion, knowing he didn’t want to be part of it.

“By the time I’d gotten out of the military, I was leaning strongly that way, and then I did some disgraceful things and took part in peace marches. I realized that was the way to go, and was glad that I’d gone in for a few years, because that way no one could accuse me of being a draft dodger. I had paid my dues to the gods of war.”

The Catholic Worker Movement is a Socialist movement that focuses on bringing about the greater good through teachings of traditional Catholicism and on helping the unfortunate with a strong belief in pacifism, founded in 1933 by activists Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin. Having died in 1980, Day is currently under consideration for sainthood by the Catholic Church.

When Denny wasn’t spending time with his peacenik friends, he was substitute teaching long enough to decide to start pursuing writing again.

“When I had left college, I’d decided that I’d written my last fiction,” O’Neil says, adjusting the voice recorder into his vest pocket. “I didn’t understand what these people were trying to teach me, but I now understand that they were probably trying to teach English teachers how to write short stories. So I didn't set out to be a freelance writer, but a journalist, sure. I didn’t set out to write fiction, but I had done journalism in the Navy.”

The liberal O’Neil’s hunt for a job took him to working for a newspaper in the conservative town of Cape Girardeau, Missouri, hometown of current right-wing Republican loudmouth commentator Rush Limbaugh.

“One of my nightmares is that that little tubby kid must have been crossing Broadway at some time when I was driving and I could’ve killed him,” O’Neil laughs, mimicking with an invisible steering wheel and speaking through gritted teeth. “I was back there three years ago with Roy Thomas, and you’re not in town very long before you find out it’s Rush Limbaugh’s town.

“I took that job and managed to alienate the entire Police Department by playing a nasty prank on them. That was very smart: these were the people I was entirely dependent upon for my job, and I made every one of them really, really mad at me.
Probably frustrated with the philosophically opposed town, Denny showed his support for the Civil Rights Movement in a way that offended the constabulary of the town:

“I planted a phony AP story about Martin Luther King coming to Cape Girardeau to stage a peace rally. Girardeau was not and is not a bastion of liberality. I didn’t cop to it, but another reporter did call me and said ‘I’m not saying you did it, but if you did, don’t admit it. Whatever you do, don’t admit it.’”

Moving on to the safer position of District News Editor, Denny latched onto the resurgence of comic books a couple of times, catching the notice of fanzine editor and future comics writer Roy Thomas. The 1960s produced legions of comic book fans, in the first organized fandom since the sci-fi geeks of the Amazing Stories pulp era of the ‘30s. Alter Ego, the first (and best) fan magazine of the time, edited by Dr. Jerry Bails and Thomas, led the pack in organizing this new fandom. An amount of them would go on to become the third generation of comics professionals.

“Driving back to the Cape with my girlfriend one afternoon, I stopped in to interview Roy and was entranced for two hours,” Denny remembers. “There was this whole world I didn’t know existed. So, I did a story about Roy, and we started hanging around, when I had Tuesday afternoons off. He was teaching English, and was offered a job as Mort Weisinger’s assistant, and he took that. I did a story on him, kind of a ‘Local boy makes good’ story.”

Mort Weisinger was the brilliant editor of both the Superman and Legion of Superheroes comics for DC. A genius in editing, Weisinger was reputed as a verbally abusive bully, who constantly berated his talent. The relationship with Roy Thomas didn’t last, as Thomas quickly jumped ship and defected to Marvel Comics.

“A month later, I was back in the office, later than usual, had covered some kind of crime thing, and the phone rang. Roy had gotten hired away from Stan’s after two weeks at Mort’s,” Denny says. “He sent me the Marvel Writer’s Test, which was four sample art pages, minus copy and my audition was to submit the word balloons. Then one evening, he called and said that I could have a job [as an assistant editor]. I did one of the lousiest things I’ve ever done in my life. I was with another reporter, when my girlfriend called from Boston. There'd been a problem with her fellowship money and she had no money to buy food with. There was her situation and Roy's offer--everything seemed to be leading me to the East Coast. Arlene, the reporter, listened to me go on about everything for five minutes. She said ‘Stay here’, and an hour returned with my car loaded up and I left Cape Girardeau in the night and was on my way. That was the ratty thing. An editor, my boss, who had done me no wrong suddenly needed a new reporter the next day. At 23 to 24, you can be that irresponsible.”

And so, Denny O’Neil, former Navy man/substitute teacher/erstwhile journalist was on his way to become a professional comic book writer, something he just happened to fall into.

“I lost my transmission somewhere in Ohio and had to hitch hike across the country. I got to New York to be a comic book writer, to find out that Marvel Comics wasn’t open, nor was anything else on Madison Avenue. It was Monday, and I went ‘What the hell?’

“It was a Jewish holiday. So, I called the only name that I knew: [Marvel’s secretary] Flo Steinberg. I found her number in the phone book and called her. It’s now 46 years later and she’s still a great friend. She put me in touch with Roy, and I became the third roommate in this tenement on Second Street.”

“I thought I would only do this for a year, because it was too goofy not to do, and then go back to the real world,” Denny says, not knowing at the time that the real world would come knocking on its own. Before much longer, Denny married his first wife and had their son, Larry and with roots established, found himself a full-time freelance writer of comics and whatever else came his way, including a small book on presidential elections.

“I don’t think anyone thought of having a comics career,” Denny admits later. “There was no such thing as a comics career. I think I have reached seventy without having a career: I’ve had a bunch of jobs, and a lot of them were interesting. We were signing away all the rights to everything. We were a bunch of directionless kids… Comics were the default position for people who couldn’t get into other venues for a long time. I really questioned my talent and intelligence. I knew that I wanted to write; that and acting seemed to be the only things I was good at. I’d seen enough show business to think that I wouldn’t like that life. So, what do you do? You do journalism, and then this thing opens up where quality is not on the radar, but Thursday is on the radar. Because of my journalism, I knew I could do Thursday.”

Denny was different from the other writers of his generation, this breed who started as die hard fans. While Roy Thomas, Marv Wolfman, and Len Wein came in for the sake of working on comics, O’Neil just fell into it with a handful of real world experience at such a young age. Smoking a pipe like a campus intellectual, O’Neil must have served in contrast to his friend Thomas, whose passion about comics still results in his talking hours on end about the subject.

“We were hippies,” O’Neil says of he and his first wife. “I was a little old for a hippie and hippies had a bit more fun than we did because we were married – maybe peaceniks would be a better word. We walked on the marches to the Pentagon, and our social outlet was the Catholic Worker, so we were hanging around with all the radicals. I wrote a book on presidential elections, did some magazine journalism, and whatever else a freelance writer did.”

After six months, Denny left Marvel and Stan Lee’s employ and dived into the world of freelance writing. While still doing occasional jobs for Stan, he found his way to Charlton Comics in Derby, Connecticut, a bottom-of-the-barrel publisher that paid the lowest page rates in the industry (Charlton also published Thomas’ first two comic scripts a few years prior: An issue of Son of Vulcan and Blue Beetle). Only through the editorial ability of their chief editor, Dick Giordano, did Charlton manage to put out any semblance of quality comics. For four bucks a page, O’Neil cut his teeth and developed as a comic book writer in a technical sense.

“No one was thinking about anything except next month,” he admits. “I must have been aware that there could have been problems, because I adopted a psuedonym. I worked as Dennis O’Neil doing Westerns and various superheroes at Marvel, and did various things for Charlton as Sergius O’Shaugnessy. I was very grateful. The first things I did for Marvel was Millie the Model, a few Westerns, and whatever for Charlton – That did was Comic Book Writing 101. I learned the rock hard basics, one of which was to meet the deadline. Guys now don’t have a way to do that.”

Giordano left the warehouse setting of Charlton for DC Comics in 1968, bringing with him his stable of writers and artist, from Steve Ditko to Steve Skeates and Frank McLaughlin, and including the young O’Neil. It was a move that would give O’Neil his forum for reinventing superhero comics.

Green Lantern, intergalactic policeman for the Green Lantern Corps., is shown the truth about inner city living by his friend, Green Arrow. Walking through the shambles of a tenement building owned by a fatcat slumlord GL had saved from a deserved beating, Green Lantern is brought face to face with an elderly black man. “I 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 skins you never bothered with! The Black skins! I want to know…How come?! Answer me that, Mr. Green Lantern!”

Standing, his head bowed in shame at the realization of his own ineffectiveness, Green Lantern stammers out “I…can’t…”
The three panel sequence, from Green Lantern co-starring Green Arrow #76, is to comics that the final few minutes of Public Enemy is to film: iconic and often repeated. When O’Neil was given the dying Green Lantern by legendary comics editor Julius Schwartz, and paired with hot shot artist Neal Adams, he paired the space cop with the hippie archer Green Arrow. From the first issue, Green Lantern is forcibly awakened by Green Arrow to independent thought, no longer taking the word of his bosses, the blue-skinned Guardians of the Universe, at face value.

Much like O’Neil’s transformation from right wing to liberal during his stint in the Navy, GL goes from a conservative cop just following orders (“I’ve heard that line before…at the Nazi War Trials!” Arrow calls out) to a free-thinking liberal who suddenly questions the authority of the Guardians. Green Lantern/Green Arrow brought social relevance to the pages of superhero comics, paving the way for a more sophisticated crimefighter.

Shortly after GL/GA, Stan Lee published an issue of The Amazing Spider-Man that had Harry Osborn OD on drugs (but in a vanilla way: he simply popped pills and went on a massive bender), and published it without the Comics Code seal of approval.

“We had started doing the so-called ‘relevant stories’ and then I remember the Comics Code called a meeting, and I got invited as a representative of the freelance community,” O’Neil recalls. “It was about Stan’s drug issue. What they finally decided was that they could run it without the seal of approval that, after a while became a common practice and took this paper tiger--the Code--and made it even less menacing.”

Not long after, GL/GA revealed Green Arrow’s unfortunately named sidekick Speedy’s heroin addiction. Even though Speedy was mysteriously recovered by issue’s end, it was revolutionary in the cover alone: Speedy’s shown with a syringe hovering about his arm, about to shoot up, while Green Lantern and Green Arrow burst in.

Shortly after, the Comics Code revised their policy, allowing monsters and horror to once more inhabit the pages of comics.
Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams also reinvigorated Batman in 1970 by returning the character to his original roots as a pulpish detective and crimefighter, introducing characters like Ra’s Al Ghul, Batman’s own personal Moriarty, and Al Ghul’s daughter Talia, the true love of Batman’s life. Along with stints writing (and later editing) Daredevil at Marvel, O’Neil landed back at DC Comics by 1986 and became editor of the Batman comics, a position he would hold for over a decade.

Under O’Neil’s tenure, Batman was revamped in the Batman: Year One origin story by Frank Miller and artist David Mazzucchelli, Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s violent The Killing Joke graphic novel put a darker twist on his archfoe, and Robin the Boy Wonder was killed off. O’Neil has impacted Batman more long-term than anyone since the character’s co-creator Bill Finger.

“He’s had five iterations and subsets,” O’Neil says of Batman. “That’s why Batman is still viable and the Shadow isn’t…But Batman, Superman (and to a lesser degree), Wonder Woman, and Spider-Man (for forty years plus) have been allowed to evolve.

“A good example of Batman is giving him more characters to work with. For a long time, I thought Batman, Alfred, and Robin (if we needed him for a story) were it. The secret of being a successful comic book editor is the same as being a successful movie director: you hire the right people.”

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