Dennis O’Neil passed away last night at the age of 81. There is a lot being written about the man, mostly revolving around praise for the various high profile runs he produced or oversaw in his time as a writer for Marvel Comics, and as a writer and editor for DC.
In many ways, O’Neil was the most important author working in comics during the 70’s and 80’s, which is ironic considering he only got into writing comics on a lark, famously passing Stan Lee’s writing test by crafting dialogue for the Fantastic Four. He worked form Marvel, DC, and for a brief time Charleston Comics (home of characters like Blue Beetle, Captain Atom, and a character he would later get very acquainted with, The Question).
O’Neil, along with Neil Adams, teamed Green Lantern with Green Arrow in a run that forever redefined both characters. He took away Wonder Woman’s powers, and made Green Arrow’s sidekick a heroin junkie. He reinvented Steve Ditko’s objectivist hero The Question as a reporter turned struggling crime fighter. He co-created Ra’s Al Ghoul, Madame Web, and Obadiah Stane. He turned Tony Stark back into an alcoholic, and made Jim Rhodes Iron Man. Perhaps most famously, along with a team of other writers and artists, he broke Batman’s back and replaced him with his new character Azrael.
While O’Neil gained a tremendous amount of praise for his work, not everything he came up with was a success. As mentioned above, his run on Wonder Woman is generally considered a low point for the character, and his depowered Diana was received poorly by fans and feminists alike, a fact that he himself later agreed with, but regardless of the success or failure of his stories what they all had in common was a drive for change. O’Neil refused to accept the status quo when it came to his writing. He wanted his characters to grow and evolve, and he wanted the issues they faced to mirror the real-life struggles of everyday people. Yes, there were still supervillains, but the real evils of the world increasingly became the centerpiece for his stories.
He took away Oliver Queen’s wealth and made him a crusader for the downtrodden, and then further forced him to recognize his own limitations with the fall of his sidekick Speedy. He forced Hal Jordan to question his roll as a hero by showing him the limitations of his own personal philosophies, and the dangers of too much allegiance to power. The Question fought corrupt politicians instead of super villains, and failed as much as he succeeded. His Batman became the obsessive Dark Knight we think of today, and the Joker stopped being a goofy clown and instead reverted to a murdering psychopathic reflection of the world he lived in instead.
It’s this drive to shake things up is the reason we still know O’Neil’s stories today. He redefined characters in a way that made them interesting, relevant, and different, while at the same time true to their personal natures. He had a keen, cutting insight into the hearts of the characters he wrote about, and that insight was so powerful that his vision continues to influence the way we look at these characters today 30 years later.
If there are any lessons for modern day writers to take away from his legacy it is to not be afraid of change, to challenge the status quo, and to let your own heart be your guide when it comes to what you feel should define your characters. Yes, there will be stumbles along the way, but in the long run you’ll be measured more by your successes than by your failures.
Dennis O’Neil was a visionary and a pioneer for comics, a writer’s writer, and a personal hero. He will be missed, but never forgotten