Exclusive: Toronto Comicon Guest Denny O’Neil Discusses His Legendary Career in Comics

Recently, I had the unique pleasure to speak with comic book legend Denny O’Neil in advance of his appearance this weekend at Toronto Comicon. I have to say I was a floored and a bit nervous when the assignment was offered to me. How was I expected to talk to a comics luminary with a body of work that consists of literally hundreds of comics I’ve read for my entire life?

Armed with a list of questions and a request to keep the interview to about 15 minutes, I was given Denny’s number. I ended up chatting with him for about 45 minutes and he could not have been more generous with his time and I was positively in awe with the stories he shared with me. What follows are some excepts from the conversation I had with him.

Denny O'Neil

On the work he’s most proud of

There have been a lot of them. I’m told I’ve published a thousand stories by somebody who pays attention to things like that.

The two that probably did the most good for the world were Batman: Death of the Innocents and Batman: Seduction of the Gun. That was a Batman story that came about because the son of a colleague whose apartment phone wasn’t working so he went down to the corner of James Street in Greenwich Village to use the pay phone and he was shot dead. It’s been 30 years and it’s never been solved. It was one of those pointless New York crimes. It’s not as bad now as it was then. 

Death of the Innocents was the one about land mines. I didn’t know we had a landmine problem on the earth until I got invited to a meeting by Jeanette Kahn, who was our leader at the time, and I walked into the conference room and there were a lot of guys in suits and ties. Obliviously this wasn’t a comic group. 

Land mines were a terrible problem for a lot of countries. They’re things about the size and shape of shoe polish cans. Often bright plastic they’re aimed at children, If one of them loses a limb that make them a liability to their parents and they’re a terrible problem in a lot of countries. We divided the work into two parts, the Superman guys did a how to book, showing this is what a landmine looks like, this is what you do if you see one, and translated it into the appropriate languages. And I did a Batman story in which he goes to one of those countries… and he’s too late. The little girl was blown to bits. 

So we did those and the guy that deals with landmines from a civilian perspective said it was the best propaganda he ever had. 

In terms of just storytelling, people tell me that a A Vow from the Grave was a turning point in the Batman franchise. When it started being about semi-comical villains, it started being less about what Bill Finger probably had in mind when he wrote the first story. 

You may have seen a storytelling credit that had “Batman created by Bob Kane” but that ain’t necessarily so. Bob Kane had a father that was a lawyer and DC was fighting a lawsuit with Superman, they didn’t want to fight two of them. So because of the legal technicality, Bob Kane got the credit for creating Batman. After Superman was a big honking success and a surprise they were looking to repeat the success.

So they picked Bob at random and said, “Duplicate Superman.” Bob came back with a thing…the character was flying, had a domino mask, dressed in bright colours, and had a bright-coloured cape. I’ve never found out why the editor rejected that. I mean if the assignment was find another Superman, that very much fit that bill. 

Bob then teamed up with a writer who is about the same age… Bill Finger.

On Superman

How do you write a story about a guy who can blow out the sun like a birthday candle? Well, that was Superman at his strongest and I did Superman for about 12 or 15 issues. 

As comic book jobs go, it was a plum! I was not aware that there was a pecking order. There was Superman at the head of it along with Spider-Man. It was just a job that Julie Schwartz offered me and I had no reason not to take it. The first thing I asked was, “Lets de-power him,” because it’s been established he searches every home in the city in a second and how exactly are you, the criminal, going to get away from him?

Let’s take it not quite all the way back to where Joe and Jerry started with, but back to “Faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, leap tall buildings in a single bound.” And though the original Superman did not fly, my version could. It was just really hard. What we’re doing is fantasy melodrama, and it could be called heroic fiction. Heroes are interesting in that they can get in and out of trouble. How do you put a guy who searches every room in the city in a second in trouble? You gonna put him against jaywalkers or what? So I stuck it out for 15 issues or so and then very apologetically went to Julius said I don’t think I can continue doing this. It was one of three jobs I quit in 40 years of writing comics.

On Will Eisner

The guy who was the very best serious comic book guy we ever had was  Will Eisner and he was about 18 when he was doing this stuff.

If you go back and look at it you think, “Wow if I could only write for comics this well” I was at the same party as him once and I didn’t dare approach him. I thought, “He’s a god in my world and I’m just a schlubby little guy from Missouri.” So I didn’t talk to him. 

About a week later I got a magazine assignment to interview him, so a friend and I went up to where he lived on 59th and Madison and spent the day with him. And he was absolutely charming and erudite and everything you would want a writer to be before you knew any writers. We’re generally not like that. 

I was on television later with him and my wife was off camera with him while I was on camera. By the time I walked off the stage Eisner was coming to dinner at our house. She introduced him to the fact that vegan cuisine does not taste like grass and is, in fact, very delicious. He became a family friend. When I heard that he had a heart attack I had had sent him a letter and it crossed in the mail and I received a letter saying that he had died in the hospital.

So every year on his birthday the comic book community gets together and does something. There are probably 7 or 8 of us that knew him pretty well. We do a TV thing or have a Will Eisner panel somewhere in midtown just to acknowledge that, yes, this man walked among us and the he taught us how do the work we do.

He taught me what visual narrative was. We were having an argument at a party and I said, “Comics are limited. There’s certain things they just can’t do. For example, Hamlet’s soliloquy.” And Will just kind of nodded. Six months later… Will Eisner’s Hamlet soliloquy which he did with body language!

This is what comic book story telling is about. You do tell the story with body language and if these people existed you catch them at the nanosecond that they’re at their most expressive and that’s what you put on the page. You need the words but they’re not the primary vehicle for the story. 

Good artists who are smart enough realize that art is not about a guy in a cape crashing thought a brick wall. It’s about a guy by himself trying to figure stuff out. You make that interesting and you’re doing a good job.

On Batman

So about that same time things are really happening in comic book land, the comedic version of Batman was a big hit on ABC television. I walked into Julie’s (Schwartz) office one morning and he said that the television show with the monster hit particularly with the sophisticates. I would walk into a Greenwich Village bar that was a hangout for writers and poets and NYU professors and they would all be riveted by the television on the back wall of the bar. 

So it was a huge success in year one and was successful enough to guarantee its continuance in year two. And it bombed in year three. So Julie Schwartz told me were obviously going to continue to publish Batman but not Detective, it shakier than you might have thought. So he asked me, “What have you got, my boy?”

For years from lecture platforms and in classrooms I told people this is what I had, “Let’s take it back to what Bill Finger and Bob Kane started with. The first Batman story, The Case of the Chemical Syndicate was patterned directly after a Shadow story. In fact, Roy Thomas found a copy of that story and sent it to me…it’s a direct lift. Not even inspired by. Aside from the fact that one is an 8 page comic story and the other is a 40 or 50,000 word novel, it was that kind of story that Bill was interested in, that kind of character.

Batman wasn’t a Shadow clone for very long, maybe a month or three. Within eleven months he was a surrogate father. He had this kid, Robin who, as a storyteller, gave me problems. I understand the need for him and why I had to use the character. I’m not going to fight that particular city hall.

There were no such thing as story bibles back then, continuity had not yet entered the vocabulary. And you didn’t hear about things like structure and plotting. Well, you don’t hear about them will you take college english classes either. So what we did, Neal Adams and I, is take it back to what we thought it should’ve been. It was kind of a false memory. I have to emphasize whenever I tell the story that we could not have done what we did without Bill Finger‘s work. Bill gave us a direction and a foundation and then we took it from there.

If writer X was writing Batman he could be kind of a cheerful fellow and then next month when writer Y got him he was gloomy. There was very little consistency. This was trash this was birdcage liner. A comic book had a shelf-life of about a month. Later on when we did Green Lantern and Green Arrow, I realized we were pushing the envelope. And I said, “OK three months.” Now it’s been more than 20 years and they’re still republishing the stuff and it just amazes me.

I don’t think I’ve ever met a comic book artist who didn’t want to draw that icon, that cape and cowl, that mask once. They all want to do their version of Batman. It was the genius of Bill Finger, that nobody knew how to write comics because there had been no original comics earlier than Superman. They were published as reprints of newspaper strips. It was a very different form. Superficially the same… but the discipline was different. Bill had a sense of how to do visual narrative and so did Jerry Siegel for Superman. So they were doing it better than anyone.

Frank Miller, for example, does a much darker version of Batman than what I do. I would not be comfortable writing his Batman because one of the things I think I have to preserve is the idea of hero. But Frank is right to do it his way. 

There is no right way to do this character. The right way is the way that works. I can’t read the stuff from the 50s with any enjoyment. But it was right for the 50s. The lesson that Julie Schwartz taught us all is that it has to be contemporary. It has to reflect what’s outside the windows. 

There’s one thing that makes the character unique: Batman is not a healthy dude. He is hanging on to a child hood tragedy. Flash is a guy that runs real fast, Hawkman is a guy with wings. They all have their uniqueness. And that’s what you save when you reinvent these characters, you make everything else contemporary. 

On Writing

When I started, comics were disreputable. My first mother-in-law would not tell anyone what I did for a living. 

Here’s the secret of how I’ve earned my living for almost 50 years. I said this on Canadian television last year and I stopped and realized I believe what I’m saying – this was the best job in the world given who I am and what my limitations were. There’s a lot of things I can’t do but I can write, I can edit, I can be a detective.

I realized I work with clever, funny people, get to travel all over the world to places I wouldn’t even think about going. I make my own hours, I have as much freelance work as I can do, the money is getting to be pretty good. It was a job I love doing.

I think Hemingway said, “Being a writer is easy. You just sit in front of a piece of paper until you begin to sweat blood.” And I say, come on Ernie get over yourself. Sitting in an air conditioned room in front of a piece of paper is not like working on an assembly line, or unloading a ship or driving a cab. It is a pleasant job and sometimes it’s hard. Or sometimes everything is hard. It is not terribly hard and demeaning day after day, year after year.

Denny O’Neil will be appearing this weekend at the Toronto Comiccon. Find out more details here.

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