I was a fan of Dennis ‘Denny’ O’Neil before I even knew who Denny O’Neil was. I have to be honest. I hated the Batman TV show. I was born in 1974, well after the show’s initial run but the show was in reruns when I first showed the inkling of an interest in Batman and Batman comics. But once I did my parents assumed that I would love the campy classic ‘60s Batman they enjoyed while undergrads. I hated it. Batman wasn’t a joke to me. Batman wasn’t funny. Batman was a man devoted to the dream that crime would never affect another life like it had his own. He wasn’t an out of shape pompous ass prone to dramatic pauses or who could be winded by climbing a building. He was a master detective, a scientific genius all wrapped in the body of an Olympic level athlete. Lucky for me Denny O’Neil agreed with me. When I didn’t show an interest in the show (which I have come to enjoy, I’m not a heathen after all) my mother bought me stacks of old comics she found at garage sales and antique stores. I’d had a hard time learning to read so when I took an interest in comics my reading tutor told my mother to encourage me to read anything that interested me and luckily comics interested me. Buried in those stacks of old comics were classic Batman stories, some old enough to be influenced by the show but then I happened upon a series of comics with a Batman I could enjoy. A Batman outfitted in a blue cape and cowl, gray spandex, and the now iconic yellow and black logo. A Batman who was serious, who took to his crusade with a passion, a man capable of dealing with anything and everything thrown at him, yet he did it with the hint of a smile and a nod to the super side of being a superhero. This was my Batman. this was Denny O’Neil’s Batman and I will forever be grateful for what he gave to me.
Dennis O’Neil is a name that is synonymous with greatness when it comes to comics. First as a writer then as an editor O’Neil had a profound impact not only on comics but society. O’Neil made a name for himself as a writer Charlton and Marvel comics but he is best known for his work at DC. O’Neil began writing for DC in 1968 and by the early ‘70s he was firmly entrenched as one of their finest writers as well as being one of their most daring. In the age of the Comics Code O’Neil was willing to push the boundaries of comics and most famously did it in the pages of Green Lantern/Green Arrow. Unable to support his own book and with the company emerging from their publishing implosion DC added Green Arrow as the co-headliner of GL’s book and Green Arrow stole the show. O’Neil stripped Green Arrow of his wealth and transitioned him into the left leaning liberal icon he is known for today. Pairing him with the more conservative law enforcement officer in Green Lantern and sending the two on a cross-country road trip during one of the more tumultuous times in American history was a work of genius. Teaming with the amazing talent of Neal Adams (one of O’Neil’s longest artistic partners) these two challenged antiquated race relations and racism, the heroes bickering was reminiscent of what many families were going through as conservative parents dealt with liberal children who wanted to see true change in American society. While the topic of race was vitally important and still a worthwhile read today it was the topic of drug abuse that drew the most attention to the title, not only from the fans but also the Comics Authority, the government oversight entity that policed what could and could not be in comics at the time. In Green Lantern/Green Arrow #85-86 it was revealed the Speedy, Green Arrow’s sidekick, was addicted to Heroin. Drugs were a big no no among the Comics Code but DC was able to get the the Comics Authority to publish with the code since it was such an important topic and one that society needed to be dealt with. It was well received and for a time made O’Neil a talking point not only among the comics world but the broader world as well.
It was also in this time period that O’Neil began to write Batman, and under the guidance of editor Julius Schwartz, they removed the campiness of the ‘60s and turned/returned Batman to the dark vengeful figure he had originally been created as. Often teaming with Neal Adams, the duo was the defining creative team on Batman and their influence is still felt today. They famously create Ras Al Ghul during this time period but also, and possibly more importantly, returned the Joker to his homicidal roots and made the Clown Prince of Crime scary once again. As I wrote earlier these were the Batman comics that defined my love of the character. Whether it was Batman or Detective Comics I loved the sensibilities and characterization of Batman, Bruce Wayne, and the large supporting cast. I found the team of O’Neil and Adams to be incredible but I also loved O’Neil’s work with under-appreciated (in my opinion) artist Michael Golden on some truly great Batman Family tales, comics I read so many times that they eventually fell apart on me (granted this was before I understood bags and boards and I often traced comics panels over and over again). This Batman is the Batman of record for many fans and for many media interpretations of Batman on film and TV. One cannot watch the Dark Knight Rises, which some consider the best of the Batman films, without seeing the O’Neil version of the Dark Knight. The classic 1989 Tim Burton Batman is filled with O’Neil influence and much of the revered Batman Animated Series of the ‘90s has links back to those tales from the ‘70s. With the far-reaching influence of all these media interpretations it’s safe to say that millions of people have been entertained by the works of Dennis O’Neil.
In 1980 O’Neil moved back to Marvel where he wrote the Amazing Spider-Man, Daredevil, and Iron Man for a few years but it’s in this time period that O’Neil became better known as an editor. It’s also in this time period that he became associated with Frank Miller and was crucial in the development of Miller’s legendary Daredevil run(s). There’s no denying that Dennis O’Neil is one of the truly great writers of comics but he may be a better editor. O’Neil had an eye for talent and the ability to cultivate that talent into some of the greatest comics in history. In the wake of Crisis on Infinite Earths O’Neil returned to DC and was handed editorial control of Batman, a position he held until 2000. For 15 years O’Neil was the guiding force for the Dark Knight. He was instrumental in the Dark Knight Returns but more importantly in Batman: Year One (Batman #404-407) by Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli which defined the tone and tenor of Batman to this day. O’Neil oversaw some of the most impactful as well as great stories of the modern Batman era. Death in the Family, 10 Nights of the Beast, Year Two, Year Three, and maybe the most important of all- the Knightfall saga. It’s during this event that O’Neil’s later writing career flourished in the most unlikely of places- Azrael. Originally introduced in Batman: Sword of Azrael as an unassuming college John Paul Valley went on to become the assassin for the Order of St. Dumas to Batman and back to Azrael. It was during the 100 issue run of Azrael the Dennis O’Neil took a maligned if not hated character and turned him into a hero. It was a compelling series that saw the redemption of Valley and dealt with religious intrigue that I found highly entertaining. It is sadly underappreciated but some of O’Neil’s best later works.
We lost a legend this past week. A man who has had an impact on millions, millions who might not even know his name and O’Neil liked it that way. One cannot read or watch a Batman story today without feeling the influence of Denny O’Neil. You cannot watch a Batman film or television show without feeling the impact of Denny O’Neil. My childhood would be vastly different if it weren’t for Denny O’Neil and his work on Batman. His vision of Batman is my vision of Batman. My children will be fans of Batman thanks to Denny O’Neil. The world’s a little less bright for me today but thankfully I have thousands of pages of wonderful comics to always remind me of the greatness that was Dennis ‘Denny’ O’Neil. Rest in Peace