An Interview With Denny O'Neil - The Author Behind DC's Socially Conscious 70's

Written by Bryan Stroud

 Denny O'Neil

Denny O'Neil

Dennis J. "Denny" O'Neil (born May 3, 1939) is an American comic book writer and editor (for everyone from Charlton to DC to Marvel) from the 1960s through the 1990s, and Group Editor for the Batman family of titles until his retirement.

His best-known works include Green Lantern/Green Arrow and Batman with Neal Adams, The Shadow with Michael Kaluta, and The Question with Denys Cowan - all of which were hailed for sophisticated that expanded the artistic potential of the mainstream portion of the medium. As an editor, he is principally known for editing the various Batman titles.


At last, I got to speak to a writer!  And none other than one of the masters of the genre, going clear back to his days at Charlton comics and teaming with Neal Adams on the socially conscious material in the '70s at DC.  Later, of course, Denny became the in-house Batman expert and editor and, well, just read for yourself.

This interview originally took place over the phone on June 22, 2007.


Bryan Stroud:  Historically, comic books have been aimed squarely at children and early teens and yet you seemed to write for a very different and older audience.  Why did you decide to pursue that avenue?

Denny O’Neil:  Oh I think that “children’s literature” thing has always been somewhat incorrect.  I mean comic books come from comic strips and if you look at the history of comic strips they’re clearly aimed at adults.  I think it was the preconception of the publishers and the guys in the business offices rather than the creators who believed that comics were for kids and that the audience changed every three years, which was the conventional wisdom when I came in.  And society at large, particularly after the early 1950’s thought that comics were literature for the illiterate.  If you didn’t believe the editorialists who said they were causing juvenile delinquency and everything else from falling arches to a bad economy, (chuckles) then you believe that they were for dummies, and even if you liked them, you didn’t want to admit that you were a dummy.

Stroud:  Guilt by association.

DO:  Yeah.  The truth is, my wife is a teacher, so I have run into a lot of teachers over the years and every one of them said that traditionally it’s the bright kids in the class who are the comic’s readers.  It’s always been that way.  Looking at some writing that’s been done by a guy named Jonathan Letham (who is rapidly becoming my favorite mainstream writer) and just talking to some kids who are children of friends of mine, it seems like the hip kids - maybe not the kids who got the best grades, maybe not the teacher’s favorites - but the kids who like comics were smart and literate and they like to read.  As in the case of (chuckle) so many of us, they may not have been much on the athletic field, either.

Stroud:  (laughter) I can certainly relate.     

DO:  I think Joe [Shuster] and Jerry [Siegel] set the archetype and we’ve been judiciously following it ever since.  We had a fair number of taboos.  Things that it was understood you could not do, but I never too much worried about the audience.  I guess every writer has his own approach to that, but most of us think, “Well, my audience is the idealized reader, it’s the idealized me.”  You don’t exactly write for yourself because people that do that write very private things that don’t communicate very well.

 Denny O'Neil at the 2009 Brooklyn Book Festival.

Denny O'Neil at the 2009 Brooklyn Book Festival.

Stroud:  Yeah, it doesn’t have the broad base of appeal or something everyone can relate to.

DO:  Well, it’s like a lot of modern poetry.  The symbolism is so private that you can’t read it for pleasure. 

Stroud:  Yeah, it flies right over the head or…

DO:  Or you have to spend lots of time with reference books.

(Laughter.)

DO:  When Ezra Pound gives you a line in Greek, well, you know, come on.  (Chuckle.)

Stroud:  More than correct and I’ve surely spent my share of time laboring through those for college courses and thinking, “Please, please what are you saying?”  (Laughter.) 

DO:  Yeah.  I was once an English teacher, but I wonder if literature should be taught; if it should be made a job.  I think that kind of sucks the pleasure out of it and you know, writers from Chaucer on…from Homer on have really basically wanted to entertain people, not to make them suffer.  (Chuckle.) 

Stroud:  Precisely, and I’ve often wondered who is this “Grand Council” who decides, “Yes, let’s expose young minds to this?”  (Laughter.)

DO:  Well, I mean the annals of education are full of screw-ups.  Most critics would say that Huckleberry Finn is the seminal American novel and it’s got a long history of being forbidden, and Catcher in the Rye…that kind of approach to education is never value free, so you’re going to get a real different take on what’s acceptable in Kansas and in, say, Greenwich Village.  Again, my wife is a teacher, and she’s teaching very young kids.  The people in that school can feel parental pressure.  Particularly in a relatively affluent area like this, parents are not reluctant to make their opinions known and those are things that school boards, since they’re elected, pay attention to.  But with comics, I just read a whole bunch of Batman comics a couple of weeks ago to prepare for a thing I did and I was mildly surprised to see some things that were absolutely forbidden to us even five or six years ago are now accepted.  I think ever since DC did some real marketing surveys twenty or so years ago we’ve realized that comics are not for kids.  That’s too bad, but the level of maturity and sophistication now…I mean Marifran used to love to give comic books as prizes for the kids in her classes.  It’s very hard for her to do that with mainstream comics any more, because even by our very liberal standards they are certainly not for children.

Stroud:  Oh, no, not at all.  I’m quite a fan of eBay for obvious reasons, it’s helped me to rebuild a lot of my old collection and to pursue these Silver Age things that I hold in such high esteem and one day one of the people I’d bought some stuff from had included what they called a “bonus fun pack” with some more modern titles and so forth and I had the same reaction you did, I mean I’m far from being innocent, but as I was flipping through these, I thought, “Okay, this is highly violent and thinly veiled porn in some instances, what is this?”

DO:  Yeah, and I try not to judge, I’m simply saying that it is different and again, the stuff that when my kid was little and was born in the East Village and grew up in the West Village and in SoHo, he had seen an awful lot, but he was 12 and it was pretty hard to shock him.  That was not true of his country cousins.  So it becomes a question of…parents really have to get a sense of where their own kid is at and what kind of entertainment is likely to harm that kid in some way.  But I think by almost any kind of standards a lot of the superhero stuff now is, for a lot of reasons, not suitable for children.  I mean, Marifran had to give out like a hundred comic books, so we called a friend at DC, one of the vice presidents, and she said, “Sure, I’ll be happy to get those for you, but it will take a couple of days to assemble that many Cartoon Network titles" and Marifran said, “Well, what about Superman and Batman?”  Our vice president friend said, “No, absolutely not.”  When they started sending me comps again after not having done it for five years and looking at the stuff I see, yeah she was right, that would not have been a good thing to give to a first or second grader.

Atom and Hawkman (1962) #45, written by Denny O'Neil.

Bomba the Jungle Boy (1967) #7, written by Denny O'Neil.

Shazam (1973) #2, written by Denny O'Neil.

Stroud:  Yeah, the world has changed and especially the comic book world and as you said I certainly don’t mean to cast any judgments, but…not the kind of thing I’d want to pass along to my daughter.

DO:  Yeah, and as a writer you ask yourself, “Well, what has this got to do with the story?”  In the case of sex, if it’s well done, it will bring the story to a screeching halt, because it’s such a powerful emotion, body/mind thing that the story becomes about that.  Is that what you want?  Probably not.  And if it’s badly done, it just looks silly.  Also not what you want for telling a serious story.

Stroud:  Dead end either way.

DO:   I had a character I worked on for five years and it was very obvious that he did not have a platonic relationship with his girlfriend, but there was never any need to bring that onstage.  The mature readers got it and with the other readers it really didn’t harm their understanding of the story.

Stroud:  Right, and that’s well-written material.  Otherwise you’re looking at salaciousness or…

DO:  Yeah.  Do you want to stop the story dead in its tracks while some 12-year old checks out the curves on this babe?  If that’s what you want to do, fine, more power to you.  It’s never been my goal.  If it’s not what you want to do then you have to be careful about that stuff.

Stroud:  Very much so.  Carmine Infantino was telling me that to him a lot of the new stuff isn’t comics any more, it’s lazy scripting and just going for the shock or the least common denominator and obviously to a certain extent you’re trying to market and so forth, but…

DO:  It’s partly generational.  These kids grew up in a world where it’s very hard to believe in traditional heroes and I understand that.  A lot of the movies that are made by 30-somethings, regardless of what their subject matter is, they’re about explosions.  It’s a kind of nihilism and many of my son’s friends are very serious artists and as people they’re really nice.  They’ll come and help you move for 15 hours and do it just for buying them lunch but their work is so uniformly glum, because that’s their world.  It has very little to do with them personally and a lot to do with atomic bombs and mutated viruses and…for the last 30 years it’s been really hard to believe in politicians.

Justice League of America (1960) #75, written by Denny O'Neil.

Stroud:  Sadly true.  When you were doing some of your work did you have a favorite character or genre that you worked in?

DO:  I found out pretty early on that I liked human scaled characters.  I never had much fun writing Superman and gave it up after a year and I also walked away from the Justice League and their half dozen god-like entities.  Batman was fine:  Human scaled, human emotions, human capabilities.  In a way, one of the subtexts of Batman is human perfectibility, and making lemonade out of lemons.  Again, my interpretation of that character which is not exactly the current one.  I had more satisfaction writing The Question than anything else.  I liked Batman, obviously.  I always liked Green Arrow.  His politics bounced all over the line, but there is a kind of correlate that everybody seems to have retained.  And the rest of it was just jobs.  That sounds almost like a put-down, “It was just my job.”  It was a great job, often.  At its worst, well, every job has its lousy years, but I can’t imagine anything I might have done, given my limitations and abilities that would have been a more satisfying and interesting job than the one I did.

Stroud:  Very good.  That’s as good a coda as I can think of.  You’re the only writer I’ve had the privilege to speak to and obviously artists have deadlines, but they interpret the scripts or the words given them.  Do you think the scripter has the tougher assignment?

DO:  It entirely depends on the circumstance.  My background is journalism, so I did and do pretty much consider deadlines.  Well, at the very least, you’ve given your word that you will do something and unless there’s a really good reason, you should do it.  There’s a saying that writing is easy, you just sit in front of a blank piece of paper until you sweat blood.  I’ve never found that to be true.  If writing were that difficult, that awful, miserable, chalice of suffering that some people describe, I don’t think I’d have kept at it.  Very often it has been the most interesting thing in my life and very often an escape.  If my private life was going to hell I could escape into my work.  One of the ways I know comic book marriages are in trouble is when the creators find reasons to stay in the studio until midnight every night.  So it partially depends on who you’re going to work with, if you know who you’re going to work with.  For years I have not read published work, because if the artist misunderstands something or second guesses me and the editor doesn’t catch that, something I may have invested a fair amount of emotion in, comes out badly, I would just rather spare myself that kind of suffering.  About 19 years ago I took this sweet, innocent Midwestern school teacher and turned her into a raving fan girl and will probably go to hell for that (chuckle) and she reads things and knows my work better than I do, so if I need something for, continuity, say, Marifran can tell me where to find it or she’ll look it up herself.  So the point of all that is in the early days, I think like most writers, I pored over published work.  Now I think, coming on something that the screenwriter Sam Hamm told me, "when I’m done with it, my involvement is ended.  If it ends up to be Citizen Kane, well, that is not necessarily my doing, if it ends up to be the worst garbage ever printed, that’s probably not my fault, either".  So as Sam and some other screenwriting people have said, we as writers have the privilege of being the first ones to tell the story, and we have an obligation to the work and to ourselves to do that as well as we can.  After that, insofar as it’s possible, you have to kind of distance yourself.

Stroud:  It makes good sense; otherwise you’d be perpetually frustrated.

DO:  I mean, you don’t want to be an emotional rollercoaster all the time, as I was in my early years. 

Stroud:  (chuckle.)  That’s to be understood.  When you were working on Bat Lash with Carmine and so forth he was literally in love with that project by his own testimonial, but sales here stateside were pretty disappointing and you had a great team there as far as script and art and so forth.  Why do you think that one went down the tubes?

DO:  Well, we never knew in those days why something was canceled because nobody ever saw sales figures; I mean even editors didn’t see them.  When I became a full time editor in ’86 or whatever the sales figures were my holy writ, but I can remember other editors telling me they didn’t see them.  So you would come in and it would be canceled.  Sometimes you knew it couldn’t have been sales, because we didn’t get any kind of reasonable sales figures until something had been on sale three months back in the old pre-direct sales days, and you didn’t get really accurate figures for some months after that.  We used to joke that there’s a dart board somewhere.  As far as Bat Lash, though, that last 8 or 9 issues.  Probably sales figures did exist.  My guess is that it was ahead of it’s time.  I thought it was all way better than anything that was out there at that time, but if you were coming looking for the Rawhide Kid or Roy Rogers, the typical kid western, you weren’t going to get that.  He was a genuine character and I felt I skated on that one because other people did the work.  Sergio came up with the plots and I worked off Nick Cardy’s beautiful artwork.  I generally don’t like working off artwork, but in that case it was a pleasure to come in and be able to add words to good stories and beautiful drawings.

Bat Lash (1968) #1, Written by Denny O'Neil & Sergio Aragonés.

Bat Lash (1968) #2, Written by Denny O'Neil & Nick Cardy.

Bat Lash (1968) #6, Written by Denny O'Neil & Sergio Aragonés.

Stroud:  So that one was almost done more Marvel method then, is that correct?

DO:  Oh, yeah.  Absolutely.  Sergio, in the inimitable Sergio style, his writing was to thumbnail the story and then that was given to Nick, who did those beautiful renderings, and finally it came to me and I did the last little 10% of the work and wrote copy. 

Stroud:  Wow.  Did you prefer that method over…

DO:  In that case, yeah.  Normally I don’t. 

Stroud:  I was gonna say, that’s pretty backward to what a scriptwriter typically does, I imagine.

DO:  Well, it was the rule for years, but now people tell me that it’s very rare, at least at DC; I don’t talk to people at Marvel very much, not about stuff like this, but now it’s almost always script first.  But for a long time after Stan Lee became the dominant guy in the entire business, and that was the way he worked, and I think a lot of writers who started as fans really liked to get their hands on artwork.  I was never a fan, so my concern was, “How do I get this story told?”  Also, I didn’t like being at the mercy of an artist who…you know, if he blows his deadline I might get stuck having to pull an all-nighter, so it got to the point where I wanted to tell my story as clearly and as well as I could, and then go away. 

Stroud:  It makes perfect sense to still have a life beyond your making a living.

DO:  Yeah.  Everybody I know that got good at comics had about five years where it absorbed them.  My first wife finally passed a rule:  You can talk for 30 minutes about comic books in my living room and then somebody has to change the subject.  (chuckle.)  She wasn’t being snotty because you know if I were with a comic book friend we would talk about it until 3 o’clock in the morning, boring the living hair off of everybody else in the room.  But you get past that.  As I said, my son’s movie friends are like that.  Everybody seems to go through a period where the art form they’re working in just absorbs them the way a blotter absorbs spilled ink, but you find that while it has to have an important place in your life, there has to be room in your life for other things. 

Stroud:  Yeah, it shouldn’t be all-consuming, that’s for certain.  The Creeper was an extremely different character at the time.  How was it working with…I know Steve Ditko had made the migration with you and couple of the other Charlton alumni, how was that to work with?

Beware the Creeper (1968) #1, written by Denny O'Neil.

DO:  Well, I think Steve was upset, because I wrote it kind of tongue-in-cheek and Steve is not a tongue-in-cheek kind of guy.  When I talk about full script vs. Marvel Method, I’ll always make exceptions for a half dozen artists and Steve is one of them.  It was always great working off his artwork because, like Kirby and a few others he had a strong sense of visual narrative.  He knew that it was about telling the story in pictures.  Unfortunately some artists don’t know that.  So when the Marvel Method works, the artist will do about half your work for you, figure out the pacing and make sure that there’s room for all the exposition and get all the characters in, things like that, so working off Ditko’s artwork was always great.  I think we switched to full script and I’ve never spoken with Steve about this, but I have a sense he was not happy with the way we interpreted the characters.  I can’t blame him.  Later that same problem arose with The Question.  I really felt guilty about that one, though at the time it just seemed to me, “Well, they want me to write this, and I cannot do Ditko’s material, so I have to do something else.”  I basically liked the idea of the character.  Many years later colleagues asked me, “Why?  If you were going to change it that much, why didn’t you just make up a new character?”  The lame answer I gave was that it never occurred to me.  But he has a point.

Stroud:  True.  Of course everything we do in life we learn from, whether positively or negatively…we can turn negative things into something positive.  That’s why they call it experience.

DO:  I have great respect for Steve and there’s probably nobody on the planet that I disagree with more politically and socially.  That’s horse racing.  I’m not making a judgment, but I can’t do his kind of stuff.  That’s not where my head’s at. 

Stroud:  Understood.  Now when you worked on the Wonder Woman title it got taken in an extremely different direction for comic books.  An old and established hero[ine] was suddenly made non-super.  Was that your idea or a collaborative thing?

Wonder Woman (1942) #180, written by Denny O'Neil.

DO:  Talk about spectacularly bad ideas, I think that one wins the prize.  (Chuckle.)  We’re raking up all my failures.  Again, later, Gloria Steinem, bless her, without mentioning my name, wrote an article about that and after the fact I saw her point, absolutely.  At the time I thought I was serving the cause of feminism by making this woman self-made and then I immediately undercut that by having her have a male martial arts teacher.  Then I compounded that sin by naming the martial arts teacher after one of the five classic books in Chinese culture, thereby kind of making fun of it.  I was on a real streak that week.  (Laughter.)  My heart was pure, but I now see Steinem’s point.  To take the one really powerful [female] character in the comics pantheon, and take away her powers was really not serving the cause of feminism. 

Stroud:  Perhaps not.  Carmine was telling me it sold extremely well. 

DO:  Oh, that’s news to me.  It was taken away from me without anyone telling me.  I just eventually figured out that I wasn’t doing Wonder Woman any more.  (chuckle.) 

Stroud:  (Laughter.)  Just unceremoniously relieved, huh?

DO:  Not even that.  That was a problem in those days.  You often didn’t get the news first hand.  That’s a problem in television and in media in general, but I eventually figured out, “Oh, I’m not doing this any more.  I’m not editing it and I’m not writing it.  It’s somebody else’s project.”  You kind of got used to that.  As Paul Levitz says, it’s probably good to tell those stories because people can realize how far we have actually come.  That would not happen today.  It’s not a possible scenario. 

Stroud:  The industry has certainly evolved.  I know Neal [Adams] told me some wonderful stories about his battles in the trenches over artist’s rights and so forth.

DO:  He even got chrome yellow added to the color palette because whenever artists asked about it…it was part of Marvel’s arsenal, and I don’t understand this stuff at all, but apparently the addition of that hue/yellow gave you several other colors if you mixed it and it had been told that “it can’t be done,” until Neal actually investigated it and called and the guy on the production end said, “Yeah, there’s no problem with that, it won’t cost any more.  We’re happy to do it for you.” 

Stroud:  (Laughter.)  The question just had to be asked, huh?

DO:  Yeah, but comics got no respect from a lot of the people who were working in them and I think it was easier just to say, “No.  It’s too expensive,” or “We can’t do it,” than to actually investigate.

Stroud:  Yeah, I’ve certainly worked with my share of people like that, and they weren’t even creative types, just…entrenched.  (Laughter.)

DO:  Yeah, they want to get through their 20 or 25 years and they want to be able to leave at 5 o’clock every day and they think it’s important to wear neckties. 

Stroud:  Let’s not evolve whatever we do.  (chuckle.)

DO:  Yeah.  A friend was in the aircraft industry who had very similar stories to tell.  They don’t understand people who are not career oriented.  I was discussing this with my kid yesterday regarding movies and other kinds of businesses.  There are people who, given a publishing industry, will look at the system and try and figure it out and try and figure out how to benefit from it, and what they’re there for is career advancement, and that’s not necessarily bad.  Then there are other people where career advancement isn’t on their radar.  They’re asking, “How can I make some really neat books?”  Or “How can I solve these problems?”  And that’s what they’re interested in.  Unfortunately those are the people who generally make the stuff that the other people profit from and I think if you’re a business oriented person you don’t understand the scruffy guy who comes in with torn blue jeans and he needs a haircut and we’re paying him how much? 

Stroud:  (Laughter.)  Doesn’t fit the mold.

In-house ad from DC announcing the winners from the Academy of Comic Book Arts awards.

DO:  When I went and did a ghost-writing job for IBM, IBM being a very strait-laced company, but the guys down in the lab were a lot more casual than the business guys, it seems to almost be a truism.  Comic books, every once in awhile, like every five years or so, some business guy would walk through and see all these jokes on the wall and all this bizarre stuff and say, “Oh, that’s ruining the paint job.  We can’t have that.”  Okay, for a week, we’ll take the stuff down.

Stroud:  (Laughter.)  We’ll conform, just for now.

DO:  Yeah, until the guy goes away and forgets about it and that won’t take long.  Creative people kind of need to do that goofy stuff somehow.  I just finished reading Walter Isaacson’s monumental biography of Einstein, and he said, “Well, I visualized what it would be like to ride a beam of light, or I’d be out sailing and I’d get this idea.”  And then later he’d do the math and figure out if in fact it really works, but what we’re taught is you do the math first and you be very conscientious and very methodical and that’s how you achieve things and the reality is that it’s never been that way.  The right brain comes up with the idea and then you have to do the left brain work to see if it really works.

Stroud:  That puts me in mind of a quote by Stephen King in one of his novels where the character was a writer and I suspect he was channeling himself a little bit.  He says, “People always ask me ‘Where do my ideas come from,’” and he says, “How do you describe a series of mental farts?”

DO:  (Laughter.)  That’s very good. 

Stroud:  Can you tell me a little bit about when you worked with Mike Sekowsky?  I’ve heard a lot of pro and a little bit of con about him.  What was your take?

DO:  I didn’t work with him.  It was one of those situations where I wrote scripts and they left my hands and X months later there was a comic book.  I knew Mike almost not at all.  I mean I would know him to say hi to him, but as so often in those days I didn’t really work with those guys.  I did my job and they did theirs.

Stroud:  Okay, so there weren’t little bull sessions?

DO:  No.  Now it seems like artists want to buy a package, a writer or his package, but I was “working” with Jim Aparo, one of my favorite artists for about a decade before I was in a room with him.  The first issue of Green Lantern/Green Arrow, I didn’t know Neal was going to do it, in fact I assumed that the regular Green Lantern artist would do it.  I was very pleasantly surprised when I saw the job, but the only artist I’ve ever really worked with in that way is Frank Miller, at Marvel, where we had lunch several times a week and we walked around Greenwich Village and we really talked out the story.  And that’s a wonderful way to work if you can find somebody who’s on your wavelength.

Stroud:  Makes perfect sense.  I know when I talked to Gaspar Saladino that was one of the things he said, he said he liked hanging around in the bullpen because he said when you’re there with your artist it becomes more a “we” kind of project and everybody benefits, so that corroborates that very nicely.

DO:  Yeah, but those collaborations never last for some reason.  You can probably think of the same list that I can.  After a few years one partner becomes disillusioned.  Gilbert and Sullivan apparently didn’t like each other.  Abbott and Costello had big problems and Laurel and Hardy apparently didn’t always get along.  It’s a very unstable molecule, the writer/artist collaboration.

Stroud:  Yeah.  It’s not exactly the same thing, but for a long time there the Everly Brothers couldn’t stand the sight of each other.

DO:  Yeah, and we know what happened to the Beatles.  (chuckle.)

Stroud:  You walked into some pretty big shoes when you did take over Justice League as you were mentioning earlier, from Gardner Fox.  Did that intimidate you at all?

DO:  No.  Thank God I didn’t know I was doing anything special.  I was so dense that years later I realized there was a kind of pecking order in the comic book business, that the guy who was doing Spider-Man was higher in that order than the guy who was doing Iron Fist.  We didn’t really know why DC had hired us.  I put this in print 15 years ago and I asked Paul Levitz about it.  Basically in our infinite childish ego Steve [Skeates] and the other Steve [Ditko] and I and a couple of other guys thought that those people at DC are seeing the wonderful work we’re doing at Charlton and they can’t wait to get us into their stable.  Well, it was really that they were having a conflict with the old line guys and I’m reasonably certain they wouldn’t have known us if they’d run over us and maybe not even recognized our names.  I needed the money.  The money was triple what we were getting at Charlton and I was working occasionally for Stan [Lee], but irregularly and I had an infant son and an unworking wife.  So I didn’t know I was a scab and I don’t know what I would have done if I had known, but it was years and years and years later before we found out.  They had some holes they wanted to fill and they hired Dick [Giordano] and I don’t know if they suggested he bring people with him or if it was his idea, I suspect it was his, and off we went.  I remember very clearly I would meet with Dick on Thursday morning in an office that Charlton rented on 5th Avenue and one of those Thursday mornings he said, “How would you like to do exactly what you’re doing now at three times the money?”  I said, “Yeah, sure, talk me into it, you eloquent devil.”

Thunderbolt (1960) #60, written by Denny O'Neil.

Worlds Finest Comics (1941) #199, written by Denny O'Neil.

Weird Worlds (1972) #9, written by Denny O'Neil & Howard Chaykin.

Stroud:  (Laughter.)  Tough decision. 

DO:  I had never tried to get work at DC.  I think a lot of us had the impression that it was a really closed shop, and it may have been up until that time.  Marvel had the image, partly illusory, of being this loosey-goosey kind of creative shop and DC was the old line, your father’s comics, and all of a sudden, there we were, working for DC without really having, it was never part of my plan.  I talked to Steve Skeates; I don’t think it was ever on his radar either.

Stroud:  I had actually read somewhere, Carmine had interviewed somewhere online, allegedly he said that you were the one he was especially interested in recruiting from Charlton along with Skeates and Jim Aparo and referred to you as “a terrific dialogue man.”  Had you ever heard that before?

DO:  No.  I saw Carmine about three years ago at the big Atlanta convention and we had a very pleasant exchange, but I guess I haven’t really talked to him in 20 years.  So if that’s true, and it might very well be then I’m wrong and it’s really kind of good news.  It’s very flattering.  (chuckle.)  I hadn’t thought of Carmine as the one who recruited us, but maybe he was.

Stroud:  Well, I think he had just been elevated up to publisher at that time or maybe he was on the cusp, I don’t know which, but when we talked there were some memories that were eluding him, but I mean he just turned 82, so he’s entitled.  I just found it interesting that you were apparently the crown jewel when he pulled the personnel over from Charlton and of course Dick Giordano told me the same thing.  What was the wonderful phrase he used?  He said, “Charlton to DC was as a weed to a flower.”  He didn’t elaborate, but he said he’d had some disappointments at Charlton.

DO:  Well then cancel what I said 5 minutes ago.  (Chuckle.)  I’ve never heard that before.  It’s very nice to hear. 

Stroud:  Well, I just thought I’d pass it along for what it’s worth.

DO:  It is true that some of the old line guys, particularly the writers, were having trouble getting work and there was some conflict.  Again, the particulars I thought I knew chapter and verse, but then I had a conversation with Arnold Drake a few months before he died and I realized I don’t know as much about it as I thought I did. 

Stroud:  Yeah, I sure would have loved to pick his brain a little bit.

DO:  Oh, me, too.  We were at a little tiny convention in New Jersey.  I had seen Arnold Drake.  I’d been in a room with him once or twice, but at this convention they set up a thing where he and I just talked in front of an audience and he was a wonderful guy and we made promises to get together again and it never happened, but yeah, a treasury of information about comics’ early days.

Stroud:  Yeah, I was very anxious to speak with him, but that was right about the time he got hospitalized and well, that was just one of those things. 

DO:  He was one of the last of the original group.  I was thinking of who might be left.  Eisner’s gone, Stan, I guess was around at the beginning. 

ALL NEW COLLECTORS EDITION (1978) #C56, written by Denny O'Neil. SUPERMAN VS. MUHAMMAD ALI COVER BY NEAL ADAMS.

ALL NEW COLLECTORS EDITION (1978) #C51, written by Denny O'Neil. COVER BY NEAL ADAMS.

Stroud:  Yeah, but other than that, you’re right, I mean Haney’s gone and I was going through them in my mind recently and was coming up dry every which way I turned.

DODitko was not in at the very beginning, but I guess he was early 50’s, and again, Steve seems to have dropped out of sight.  I’m delighted to see that his name gets on the Spider-Man movies.

Stroud:  Yeah, I paid particular attention to that when I went to see Spider-Man 3.  I thought, “Oh, good, good, there he is.” 

DO:   Yeah, and when I did a “How to write comic book” book some years ago, and there were about three paragraphs that had to do specifically with Stan Lee as to the craft of writing comics and I e-mailed them to him as a courtesy, fact-check thing, and what he wanted me to change was to give Ditko more credit for co-creating Spider-Man, which I thought was very nice of Stan and certainly nothing he had to do.

Stroud:  Oh, yeah.  That’s a far cry from Bob Kane and Bill Finger.

DO:  (Chuckle.)  Yeah, eons away.  I had lunch or dinner with a guy who goes to Bob Kane’s autobiography some years ago in California and according to him he’s the reason there’s as much Bill Finger in that book as there is.  I actually haven’t read Cavalier and Clay, but I know enough about it to know that it doesn’t cover…I mean that’s the great comic book story that has to be told, how people lose their creations.  It’s happened again and again and again.  Even to me in a small way, and I’m not angry at anyone because I signed that contract.  Okay.  I was very young and dumb, but I signed it and I was over 21 and nobody had a gun to my head.  And the same is true of everybody else who has similar and worse stories to tell.  Still, it’s kind of sad and it’s especially sad when people who don’t pay any attention to the characters end up having sizeable fortunes and somebody like Bill Finger will die in poverty.

 Denny O'Neil - noir.

Denny O'Neil - noir.

Stroud:  Yeah, there’s a cosmic wrongness to that that’s hard to take.

DO:  Yeah, I don’t think it means anything it’s just that to those guys it was product.  Bob’s use of ghosts is well-known and Mark Evanier came up with a defense of that that’s pretty good and it’s that what those guys knew were comic strips and with comic strips, since comic books hadn’t existed yet, it was a given that you would use ghosts, so it was a very common practice.

Stroud:  Ah, okay.  I hadn’t considered that.  That’s true. 

DO:  So to Bob it’s like he wasn’t doing anything wrong and I’ve talked to Shelly Moldoff and he said, “Well, frankly I was glad to get the work.” 

Stroud:  Yeah, I exchanged a brief call with Shelly and the silence was kind of deafening he said, “I don’t care to discuss Bob Kane.” 

DO:  He wasn’t on many people’s Christmas card lists.

Stroud:  (Laughter.)  And Joe Giella was telling me how when Bob had his T.V. show not a lot of people realized that when he would knock out those caricatures of his characters for people he was going over lines Joe had laid down for him.

DO:  Yeah, as far as I can tell he really didn’t work on Batman much after 1947 and had used ghosts from very early on.  Shelly and Jerry Robinson apparently.

Stroud:  Yeah, Lew Sayre Schwartz and many others.  It’s quite an interesting story.  You were speaking about Green Arrow earlier and you re-defined Oliver Queen, taking away his wealth and eliminating at least part of the old “Batman with a bow” comparison, turning him into an urban hero.  What spawned that direction?

Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight (1989) #1, written by Denny O'Neil.

DO:  Well, part of the inspiration came from the fact that Neal, in a story written by Bob Haney, gave him a nifty new look.  The first Green Arrow, if you looked up “bland” in the dictionary, there he’d be.  He was a really uninteresting looking guy and his kid sidekick, his costume was red instead of green, but apart from that he was pretty uninteresting, so Neal gave him this kind of macho look and mostly I wanted to introduce a kind of blue collar, street element into the stuff and the playboy whose hobby is crime-fighting was a staple of pulp fiction of the 30’s and seemed to me to be I think a pretty stale idea by the time I came along. 

Stroud:  Pretty cliché, yeah.

DO:  And also I got a Justice League story out of his losing his fortune, and then when we decided to do GL/GA, all right, well, Green Arrow was a given and we didn’t mess with his characterization much, but we needed a contrast.  If this was going to be a dialogue, we needed to represent the opposite side.  Well, Oliver Queen had never had much character.  I mean he was one of those superheroes, or a lot of them, in the 40’s who was defined by his powers.  He was the one with the bow and arrow.  Hawkman was the one with wings.  The stories were plot driven, the way a lot of detective fiction at the time, locked-room mystery thing was plot-driven.  Perfectly fine, but we were evolving into more characterization, and in this particular case I needed someone to represent the non-establishment point of view.  Well, Green Arrow was available, he brought very little baggage, nobody had ever paid a whole lot of attention to him, there was not very much established about him, apart from the loss of fortune, which had been my story.  So he was there to use, and a logical enough choice for the use to which we wanted to put him.  The same way with Black Canary.  She did Judo.  Okay, I wonder if the people who made that up knew what Judo was.  She certainly wouldn’t have worn those heels if she was in any Judo class I’ve ever taken, but it’s easy to take those kinds of cheap shots.  But basically she was available, we thought we needed a female presence in the series and she brought very little baggage with her.  She didn’t have a title of her own.  There was not a lot of interest in her.  Now I’m told she’s one of the most popular characters in the DC universe.

Stroud:  Huh.  That’s interesting.

DO:  I did an introduction to a collection of Green Arrow/Black Canary stories a couple of weeks ago and that’s when I learned that.  She’s very popular now, so you never know.  Spider-Man started as a 15-pager for Amazing Stories.

Stroud:  Yeah, you just never know who’s going to really take off and make a lasting impact.

DO:  Yeah, maybe partially because those characters are so malleable that creative people can come along and really do something with them.

Stroud:  Yeah, or adapt them to the times.

DO:  Yeah, let them reflect what’s outside the window, which is always one of the tricks of doing this kind of work.  And the thing that’s most interesting to me about comics is the evolutionary aspect, and when I was editing Batman I came to realize, particularly after the death of Robin stunt, that what we’ve got to do is something that Julie Schwartz knew instinctively:  These characters have to change or they’ll become dated.  So you keep the essence of the character intact.  What made him interesting in the first place?  And then let everything else reflect the world outside. 

Stroud:  Perfect.  That would be the way to ensure a degree of immortality.

DO:  Mainstream novelists call it magic realism.  A long time before anybody made up that term, pulp writers would do it and you had a recognizable New York City, but somebody had a death ray or could turn invisible.  One or two elements that are fantasy and everything else is the world. 

Stroud:  Speaking of the Green Lantern/Green Arrow series, that got all kinds of attention and won awards and so forth, but ultimately it got canceled 13 issues later.  Do you think it was a matter of critical success over commercial failure?

DO:  Again, we were told sales, we were always told sales…I don’t know.

Green Lantern (1960) #85, written by Denny O'Neil.

Green Lantern (1960) #85, written by Denny O'Neil.

Stroud:  A convenient excuse.

DO:  Yeah.  I once asked Julie Schwartz, “How did you get away with doing continued stories in the Justice League when conventional wisdom was that you couldn’t do continued stories in comics?”  What he said in effect was, “I did them, I didn’t bother to ask anybody.”  Stan of course made it a policy, but Julie just said, “Well, yeah, once a year I did them.”  I think that the big splash that Green Lantern/Green Arrow made probably came as a big surprise to the executives at Time-Warner.  The first newspaper article, which was in the Village Voice, which was sort of my community newspaper, didn’t mention Julie, Neal, or I, so I had the impression that the guy who was interviewed didn’t exactly know what to say and so when we did get all that favorable attention and the Mayor of New York, the Honorable John Lindsay commended us, then Neal and I, particularly; Julie less so, but that’s because there’s no justice in the world, began to get attention.  Now every company has a public relations department.  There was nothing like that back then.  It was just individual reporters or university guys seeking us out and it has really put a lot of money in my pocket since, but at the time I got the same page rate as I got for writing Super Friends.  It was, on one level, just a job.  Neal and I realized after awhile, it was a helluva job, and that we were pushing the envelope, but if someone had said, “Yeah, and in 30 years they’ll bring out a hardcover edition that will cost $75.00,” I’d have said, “Yeah, right.  Can I have whatever it is you’re having?”  As I said, conventional wisdom was that comic books are forgotten in 3 years and we thought, yeah, they’ll still be remembering this stuff a year or two after we stop doing it, and it’s certainly interesting and fun to be doing it while we’re at it, but such a long afterlife?  No.

Stroud:  Yeah, just no concept of the legs it would have. 

DO:  My first wife said that with both with Superman and with that my timing stinks because I did it before royalties.  I mean the changes I made in Superman, if that had been done 30 years later, there would have been a major publicity campaign, yadda, yadda, yadda, and at the time, as I said, it was a $15.00 a page job.

Stroud:  Yeah, just hacking out a living and going from there.

DO:  And trying to work honorably, trying to do the best job you can, because it becomes awfully boring if you don’t.

Stroud:  Yes.  Now, was it over at Charlton that you were using the alias of Sergius O’Shaughnessy?

DO:  Yeah. 

Stroud:  You know usually when you go to write or something you’re trying to gain some notoriety, what was with the alias?

DO:  Well, notoriety and comic book writer were an oxymoron back then. 

Stroud:  Ah, of course.

DO:  The world knew Stan Lee and didn’t know anybody else; I mean most of the DC comics didn’t carry bylines.  I think it was okay with Dick if we wanted to sign them, but I was doing a fair amount of straight journalism and I was working first as a reporter or as a feature writer and then as an editor for a business magazine, yeah, hippie me.  (chuckle.)  Tie-dye Denny.

Stroud:  (Laugher.)  That is a little hard to feature. 

DO:  And doing an occasional straight reporting job for a magazine and I just wondered, maybe these business guys would not be comfortable with a comic book writer working for them.  I was doing some work for Stan and wondered if he…I don’t think he would have objected, but I didn’t know that at the time, and while I wasn’t doing much work for him, I didn’t want what I was doing to go away.

Stroud:  That clears that one up.  Speaking of clearing things up, I have wondered forever and a day, would you please tell me how to pronounce, is it “Race” or “Roz” al Ghul, how is that pronounced?

DO:  Well, my daughter went to the language department of UCLA about 15 years ago and she was told “Rashe.”

Batman (1940) #232, written by Denny O'Neil.

Batman (1940) #232, written by Denny O'Neil.

Batman (1940) #244, written by Denny O'Neil.

Stroud:  “Rashe.”  Okay.

DO:  Yeah.  That was Julie’s contribution.

Stroud:  Oh.  He named it?

DO:  Yeah.  In effect, he said, “Okay, here’s this name, it means ‘Head of Demon,’ gimme a character to go with it.”  That is my memory of how it went.  Again, I mean I’m 68 years old and 4 years ago I was subjected to massive jolts of electricity and I wasn’t taking notes anyway.  So we tend to have somewhat differing memories of what happened, but I am prepared to say, Julie says pretty much the same thing in his autobiography, he came up with the name, and Neal and I ran with it. 

Stroud:  Okay, somehow I missed that.  I just recently read that within the last few weeks and I must have skipped over that part.

DO:  I think it’s only one line somewhere in the middle of the book.

Stroud:  At the risk of sounding like a drooling fan boy, you wrote my all-time favorite Batman novel with Knightfall, which in my opinion totally epitomizes the Batman mythos and I’m going on the presumption it followed the earlier efforts that you and Neal took to return him to his dark roots.  Is that accurate?

DO:  Yeah.  That was tied in with a monstrously long comic book continuity and a BBC radio series.  It was probably the most interesting mountain I’ve ever climbed and I never want to climb it again. 

Stroud:  (Laughter.)  Once was enough, huh?

DO:  Well, after we came up with the stunt, which is Batman dies, Bruce Wayne dies or is disabled, that somebody else takes over as Batman for a year…they decided since the Superman guys were doing something similar, which I didn’t know until we were well into our continuity, that there was going to be some novels and I was the only Batman writer who arguably had a grasp of the entire thing.  But I was also a working editor, I had a day job, and they insisted that the novel be at least 100,000 words long.  We agonized over it for a little bit and finally Marifran said, “You’ll hate yourself if somebody else does it.”  So while we were in the process of creating the comic book continuity, which ended up over 1100 pages long, I was at night subjecting myself to the discipline of, after dinner, close the door, I’d done the arithmetic I know how many words I had to do every day to meet the deadline.  I would do that number of words and then stop.  In the middle of it, we were going home for Christmas and I had a portable computer with the novel on it in the back seat of a Pontiac which was destroyed when I fell asleep at the wheel and smashed into a barrier doing approximately 65, the car flipped over 3 times, we didn’t know that until later.  And we spent Christmas in the intensive care ward.

Fawcett Collectors of America #187, featuring Denny O'Neil (as drawn by Mark Lewis.

Stroud:  Oh, yeah, that’s right.  You referenced that in the story. 

DO:  Yeah, that was a little nudge, a little inside joke.  The only thing I was worried about was the computer, and I asked the doctor on Christmas morning (chuckle) “Would you please go out to the wreckage of the car and see the computer?”  And bless him, he did and he brought it back and it was still working and so I hadn’t lost the novel.

Stroud:  A large chunk of your life.

DO:  I had some of it saved on disk, but not all, so I lost two weeks, in effect, before I could really reasonably get back to work and we went right down to the wire.  The last 3 days…well, we made this arrangement where every Saturday morning Marifran and I would drive out to a big shopping mall at the end of Brooklyn and meet Charlie Kochman there and I would deliver pages to him, so he was editing as he went along.  At the end, Friday, Saturday and Sunday, Charlie came to our place in Brooklyn and we did the final line by line edit at my desk with Marifran bringing lemonade and cookies every few hours.  We finished editing it Monday morning at 11:00 and I think it went to the press at 12:00.  It was right down to the wire and a really interesting thing to do.  “I don’t have time to worry if this is good or not.  The only thing I have to do is get it done somehow.”  I had a bestseller out of it, something that most writers don’t ever have a chance to enjoy.  So I was really glad to have managed to accept the challenge, but my God that was a seriously work-laden six months.  I think we actually did it in five and a half. 

Stroud:  It sounds like a terribly daunting task, but I mean the results were just absolutely phenomenal.  It’s one of the few pieces of pure fiction that I’ve literally…I think I’ve re-read that thing 4 or 5 times, because when I get fed up with reading bad Batman stories, whether it was from the 50’s, anywhere from there forward, I go pick up Knightfall and I think, “Okay, this is how he was meant to be.  Somehow Denny O’Neil is in Bruce Wayne’s head and understands all the conflicts and all the subtleties and just what he’s supposed to be and so…”

DO:  It all started with “The Secret of the Waiting Graves.”  It was just a 15-pager, but there, the assignment was, “Okay, we’ve been doing this camp thing” for however long it had been.  The first time I was offered Batman I didn’t want to do it.  I ended up doing a fill-in story based on New Orleans jazz, which Julie Schwartz loved.  Anyway, it was in the middle of the camp thing and I thought, “I don’t think I’m any good at this.”  The second time, it’s, “Well, camp is over, and we’ve got this character and we want to keep publishing it.  What do you want to do?”  So we came up with “Secret of the Waiting Graves.”  I think it evolved from there.  The basic thing was to eliminate all the bad comedy and to try and make it intelligent.  The question you ask yourself is if this guy existed, how would he have to be?  I got part of a cue from an essay that Alfred Bester wrote for the science fiction writer’s house organ(?), which is two novels, particularly the second of the first two, are about obsessed characters and he wrote this essay about how useful it is to writer’s to have an obsessed character and I thought, “Yeah, that’s Batman.”  So once you have something like that in place, and you’re trying to be reasonably logical, the rest of it kind of snaps to and eventually you have a character. 

Stroud:  So I suppose that’s obviously the logical progression that led to when you reintroduced the classical homicidal maniac of The Joker.  That was just the next logical step. 

Batman (1940) #251, written by Denny O'Neil.

DO:  Absolutely.  I wondered if the Comics Code would let us get away with that many murders in a story, but again, you could never predict the Comics Code, but we didn’t hear a peep from them.  But there’s no point in doing a maniacal clown who isn’t maniacal.  Then you’ve just got a clown.  Big deal.  And the Joker had started out, no matter who had created him; three people have claimed him (chuckle), but it was a great idea for a villain.  I think in all of the trickster characters, in all of the literature of the world there is no better one than The Joker, but he had to be homicidal and insane for it to work as a story.  So that’s what we did. 

Stroud:  Yeah, and did a beautiful job.  In fact I suspect that on the strength of that reintroduction…to my knowledge that’s the only villain, at least during the time period that got his own title. 

DO:  Yeah, and now we could do justice to that baby, but at the time, “Okay, you’ve got a homicidal maniac and he has to be the protagonist 12 times a year.”  I was never satisfied with the work I did for that.  Given the Comics Code there was just no way to make it work.  He had to be Hannibal Lecter in order to be consistent and logical and be The Joker, and he couldn’t be that back then.  Now with the freedom comics guys have they could probably make it work. 

Stroud:  I seem to remember reading in the letter column once, I’ve actually got that entire 9-issue series in my collection, that the Code at the time required the villain to be captured and punished at the end of every story, so that really put some limitations on.

DO:  Yeah, exactly.  It was just impossible.  In terms of good writing, good plotting, it couldn’t be done.  It was the same problem that the movie guys had.  When I teach writing I use the movie, “The Bad Seed” as an example of that; where it was adapted from a Broadway play about this angelic little girl who kills people wantonly any time she doesn’t get her way, and the way the play ended, she’s gonna get away with it.  “Oh, my God, she’s going to grow up!”  (chuckle.)  In the movie, because of that requirement, the last minute she walks to the end of a dock and lightning strikes her dead.  So God takes care of it.  God handles what the cops couldn’t, and nothing in the story sets that up.  It’s not the writer’s fault; I mean they had to do it that way.  So that was the problem with The Joker, you couldn’t be logical and consistent and do that character as a protagonist.

Stroud:  So was it more the writing difficulties that signaled that one’s demise or was it another…

DO:  I have no idea.

Stroud:  Sales.  (Laughter.)  Of course I realize you weren’t involved clear up to the end.

DO:  No and I don’t really remember why I stopped being involved, whether it was Julie’s idea or mine, but, well, you know our lives are littered with things that for one reason or another didn’t work.  I think the guys in the big offices don’t ever take things like that ever into consideration.  “Exactly how is this going to work, dramatically?”

The Joker (1975) #1, written by Denny O'Neil.

Stroud:  Yeah, just throw something up on the wall and see if it sticks. 

DO:  Yeah, or they look at figures.  “This issue of Batman featuring this character sold well, so maybe we should do a book about this character,” without realizing, well, no, maybe you shouldn’t.  (chuckle.)  Maybe it can’t possibly work.

Stroud:  The gorilla theory.  (Laughter.)

DO:  On the other hand, sometimes those kinds of assignments make you rise to the occasion and you figure out a way to make it work.  I wish there were rules for doing this work, but there isn’t.           

Stroud:  (Laughter.)  Still very much a crap shoot, it sounds like.  Did your background as a reporter…do you think that was a help or a hindrance?

DO:  Oh, I would recommend that any professional writer put in time as a reporter because it gives you discipline, it teaches you that your precious little words are not made of diamond.

Stroud:  You learn to deal with editors.

DO:  Exactly.  And it teaches you that you could be wrong.  Maybe the editor is right.  But mostly I think one of my strengths was I did always regard it as a job, as I said, a splendid job, but my background was, well, this is why you write.  There are these two mouths on Second Street in the East Village that need to have food in them.  Dick and I once shared one of our secrets; we are both so insecure that we felt, “If I screw this up, I’ll never get another job.  So I don’t dare blow this deadline.”  And even when we were well-established, and logically you know that’s not true, there’s a part of you that says, “I don’t dare screw up.”  Well, it probably interferes with proper digestion, but it does make you a good professional.  (chuckle.)

Stroud:  (Laugher.)  A good sense of discipline.  That’s irreplaceable.  I’m not sure you can actually inculcate discipline into someone.  I think they have to come with it, for the most part.    

DO:  I have a minor in creative writing.  It’s a joke because really what we did for three years was write a thousand words a week.  It was the way that writing classes are usually taught, you would read it aloud to the class and get a critique.  I don’t know that that was valuable, but the discipline of, you’ve got to have a thousand words, three typed pages, by eleven o’clock on Thursday morning or whatever it was, it was good.  Okay, my son, who is obviously of another generation, has a degree in filmmaking and I asked him when I started teaching what he got from his writing classes and he said virtually the same thing.  The discipline of having to do a piece a week.  If you are looking at screenwriting there are all kinds of craft things you can teach.  I’ve published probably close to 50 short stories and I don’t feel qualified to teach short story writing.  You get an idea and you develop it.  Boy, that doesn’t take a semester to communicate.  With comic book writing, with screenwriting, yeah, there’s dramatic structure and all kinds of things.  So journalism gives you that kind of discipline and I don’t know if it can be taught, but it can certainly be presented as a desirable thing to achieve.  I talked to a couple of editors up at DC a few months ago and said, “What’s your biggest problem?” and it was my biggest problem, too, you can’t get two consecutive issues out of people.  It was a problem that Julie Schwartz had in the 40’s, and I think part of it is a kind of culture that grows up that you don’t really have to pay attention to these things.  In journalism, the guy down below the editorial room is gonna push that big red button at 10 o’clock and that press is gonna roll, and if your story’s not on it, there’s gonna be this big white space and if that happens three times, you’re fired.  I’m often amazed that comic book guys, when they work in television they have no problem with the deadlines.  When they work in comics they can’t seem to meet them.  So it has to be something about the comics rather than them.  And again, television is really unforgiving.  They really do need the script for the read-through on Monday morning.  No kidding.  They really do need it.  There’s tens of thousands of dollars an hour being spent, they need the script, really.  So, they find a way to get it to them.  A friend, Emily, who has been on CSI Miami for five years, worked on West Wing for a season, and she said that very often, having worked on all of those shows, you know Monday is when they have the read-through and they start shooting Monday afternoon, but Tuesday he doesn’t have an idea.  Wednesday, he doesn’t have an idea.  Thursday he doesn’t have an idea and he’s desperate and maybe I ought to get another writer, maybe we’re going to cancel the series, I don’t know.  Thursday night, real late, the germ of an idea.  Friday, Saturday and Sunday, at the computer.  Monday morning they have the script, and obviously that was his process.  He needed to put himself in that pressure cooker.

 Denny O'Neil holding an Eisner Award.

Denny O'Neil holding an Eisner Award.

Stroud:  Right in the crucible and go from there.  Oh, boy…

DO:  But the point is that they do get it done.                    

Stroud:  I know that they called upon you for consulting detail for the last Batman movie.  Were you involved in any of the prior editions also, or was that a first?

DO:  Oh, I always got the scripts, and I always read them, and wrote a memo, and the things that I suggested were all pretty obvious and I’m sure that 50 people wrote similar memos and 40 of them made the same suggestions, so I never had the illusion that anything I said made any difference.  Those early movies…I got to know Sam Hamm, who wrote the first one and did the story for the second one fairly well, but I never met Tim Burton.  The Ra’s al Ghul one, well they were…except for denying me a screen credit, and I don’t know why they did that, because they’re perfectly willing to acknowledge that I created the character, what I really did was consult on the video game.  That was the easiest money I ever made.  A very bright, smart 27-year old writer would drive up here a couple of times a month and we’d go to lunch in town and I’d say, “Well, you know, Batman can’t say ‘goddamn.’”  “Oh, okay, Batman doesn’t say ‘goddamn.’”  That was the extent of my consulting.  My name was there for theatrical value.  On the other thing I wrote the novel and it was a hellish job getting the script.  Again, when you do these novelization things the deadline is unforgiving and I know how fast I can reasonably work and they were not willing to give me a script, so finally I went on the internet and I got a pirated one and started with that.  I once interviewed a guy at the State Department.  The security was considerably less to get into the State Department than to look at that script, but I kept thinking on my first read-through, “Wow, this is really good, they really get it,” and “Why didn’t I think of this?  This is really a good bit.”  So I was pleased.  It was fun to do the novel.  About 40% of it is new material, but again, I was told, “Do what’s appropriate.  Give us more background on the villain, and follow the broad beats of the script and take it from there.”  I added an ending they didn’t have that they complimented me on.  But I didn’t really consult on the movie.  I missed a chance to meet with the director.  They had the premiere in Hollywood.  We were invited, but there was a conflict.  We couldn’t get away.  So I missed a chance to meet Chris NolanPaul Levitz said that he had asked if we could get together.  I think it’s one of the best superhero movies ever made, and by a wide margin the best Batman big-screen effort.

Stroud:  I perfectly agree.  Did you approve of the way they handled Ra’s? 

DO:  Oh, it wasn’t exactly my Ra’s, but it shouldn’t have been.  What they did was perfectly valid on its own terms.  If I was going to quibble, I might have wanted a little more gravitas in Liam Neeson’s performance.  I have always envisioned Ra’s as this enormously impressive, serious…sort of like Jupiter, the god, or Saturn, but the basic mistake comic book people make is to think that you can make a movie out of a comic book and you can’t.  They’re different media, they have different requirements.  The example I’ve probably used a thousand times is you have to translate, like translating a Haiku from Japanese to English.  If you give a literal translation, you will have gibberish.  This is not my idea, it’s Stanley Kaufman’s, you have to re-create the poem in your own language; take the idea of it and realize it in a different way, and that is exactly the problem with adapting something from one medium to another.  They weren’t making a comic book, they were making a movie.  I could quibble with one other bit of casting, but apart from that, I walked into the screening that we finally went to in New York City, just wondering how I would feel (chuckle) when I walked out of that theater.  Because the last Batman screening we went to, poor Marifran, I couldn’t talk for an hour.  I was just really, really furious.  But in this case, it was a pleasure.  I thought, “Yeah, they really brought this off.” 

Stroud:  Yeah, I was similarly satisfied and I tried to get past my own anal retentive tendencies.  I mean, when they were opening the Batcave with the keyboard, I thought, “No, no, no, it’s the grandfather clock!”  (Laughter.) 

DO:  Nowhere near as serious an offense as, “Oh, by the way, Master Bruce, I’ve brought your girlfriend down to the Batcave.”  (chuckle.)  These guys just didn’t get it at all.  I did know that director and he is one of the sweetest men, and one of the nicest people on the face of the Earth.  When my kid went out to direct a movie in Hollywood he met him, and the director was not aware of the connection and Larry said he was just helpful and nice, just a new director in town.  Give the kid a break.  But I don’t think he got it.  I keep wondering how the screenwriter continues to get work.  He gets a lot of it.

Stroud:  It does baffle you when something gets butchered that badly.  Oh, well, I guess they don’t consult with me, either.  (chuckle.)

Green Lantern/Green Arrow (1983) #1, written by Denny O'Neil.

DO:  Well, and I understood giving that team one movie, but why two? 

Stroud:  Yeah, two shots at mediocrity.

DO:  The director has said that a lot of the problems were that the studio insisted on maximum merchandising and I’m sure that’s true.  One of Marifran’s best friends is second in command at the licensing department at DC, so we get a good look into her world and yeah, there had to be a lot of costumes and a lot of gadgets, but when I think about individual shots, the studio heads don’t mandate that.  So he was not the right guy for the job.  That happens.  Bad casting.  He told me when we were at some function together, he said, “I’m doing your Batman.”  I thought, “Well, that’ll be nice, if it’s true.”  (chuckle.)

Stroud:  Not quite up to standard.  Are you working on any particular projects right now?

DO:  I do a weekly column for an online thing called Comic Mix, edited by my old Question editor, Mike Gold, with the terms of the assignment that it can be as little as 500 words a week and “Yes, please get as political as you want.”  And no other restrictions about subject matter.  So, it’s pleasant enough.  I take a walk around the lake near here on Monday afternoon and think about it and I write it on Tuesday.  It’s an hour’s work unless my brain has fallen into the pan for some reason.  I keep getting asked to do introductions and essays.  As far as comic book writing, nothing for years.  Julie Schwartz’ memorial Flash was the last thing I did.  That’s fine with me.  It’s not that I would not take a comic book assignment, but I probably would not be too comfortable doing the current interpretations of the characters.  I think I had a pretty good long run of staying contemporary with the audience, partially because I had a kid, who was the audience.  A bright teenager.  Probably the average comic book audience, or college kid, but, well, a question I asked someone the other day:  “Where is the line between allowed and here?  How far negative can you go with a character and still call that character a hero?”  I really would love to have an answer for that.  I don’t.  I don’t know.  I am not comfortable with the degree of anti-heroism that I sometimes see.  That, I have to shout from the rooftops, does not mean it’s wrong.  It means I don’t get it. 

Stroud:  Right.  Which, of course, would make your job very difficult. 

DO:  Yeah.  I mean, if they came and said, “Do your Batman for one issue,” yeah, I’d probably take that job.  There’s a part of me that still loves the work.  I quit four years earlier than I needed to for a lot of reasons.  One was 12-hour workdays for years.  (chuckle.)  But another was I kind of sensed that it was going in a direction I wouldn’t be comfortable with.  The business.  And I’m sort of like their designated talking head, I’ve done a lot of DVD commentary and that kind of thing, so I get up there once in awhile, and I have a sense that I was right.  It’s probably perfectly fine for 30-year olds.  I would be very uncomfortable in that situation.  The situation I had for about the last 5 years is I was the Grand Old Man after Julie retired and I was fairly bulletproof and given more autonomy than editors usually have.  My job was, “Run the Batman franchise.”  And any way I wanted to do that was probably okay with them.  With “No Man’s Land,” I was surprised when they gave us permission to do it, and then we started it…the idea was Jordan Gorfinkel’s, I had nothing to do with it, he brought in an outline one Monday morning that he’d done by himself over the weekend, and I thought, “Well, okay, this team, the four of us, have worked together successfully for a long time.  We can do professional grade comics, and we can be out of here by 5 o’clock when we’re getting a little stale, a little bored.”  The way that you cure that is to undertake something you’re not quite sure you can bring off, and “No Man’s Land” was certainly that, but I didn’t think they’d give me permission to do it, and they did, and then we got no support.  The sales started coming in and I went up to a retailer’s meeting in Baltimore and Paul Levitz said, “We owe Denny an apology.  He was right.  “No Man’s Land” is a great idea.”

The Question (1987) #1, written by Denny O'Neil.

Stroud:  So you were validated.  Very good.

DO:  Yeah.  I was surprised that it was successful.  A lot of people said, “Well, the Government would never abandon a city,” and then came along Katrina and New Orleans and we weren’t terribly far off. 

Stroud:  Sadly, no.  Was being an editor as satisfying as being a creator, or was it just a different kind of a job?

DO:  They’re different things.  The editor satisfies your need to work with people, which I’m not awfully good at.  In college, along about my sophomore year, I sort of had to make a decision.  Am I going to work to major in drama or in English and I did one little professional show and I thought, “I don’t like this lifestyle.”  It’s too busy, it’s too many people.  The nice thing about being a writer, the good and the bad thing, is you close the door behind you for 30 hours a week.  There’s no way you can get help during the job.  There’s a before and after, but it is a very isolating thing, and if you’re enormously talented, but you can’t live with that, you can’t make a living as a writer.  

Stroud:  Yeah, it is a very solitary exercise.

DO:  On the other hand, there is great satisfaction in working with creative people, and the last editorial team I had, I should have paid them.  For about six years it was a pleasure to go into work every day.  Those guys were so good and if I had dropped dead, they could have occupied my desk and nobody would have missed a beat.  Any one of them was qualified to do my job.  Two of them were out here a couple of weeks ago.  We have stayed in touch.  So there was that real pleasure…and some of the freelancers.  I always love talking to Doug Moench.  Really interesting guy.  But any time there are three people together, on a desert island, two of them are going to unite against the third.  Its human nature, and I have no aptitude for politics, and I really dislike it, and as that began to be some…it’s not like it dominates the entire thing, but it was rearing its head.  And I thought, “Well, I’ve had a really long run at doing this.”  According to Mark Evanier, the longest regularly working writer in the history of the medium.  Maybe it’s time to get off the stage and to pass the torch.  So I made an arrangement with Paul where for the last year, by that time I’d moved out here, I came in two days a week, I came in one day a week and finally…if that had not happened, I’d be dead now.  Literally.

Stroud:  Just a good outlet.

DO:  No, literally, dying…death…corpse.  A year after I retired, September 10th, a year after 9-11, I was having lunch with a friend at a café two towns over and I literally dropped dead on the floor.

Stroud:  Oh, golly.

DO:  The guy who owns the café is a New Jersey fireman.  He knew that the City Hall next door had just gotten a defibrillator, so he ran over, got the defibrillator, on the third try got my heart beating again, by that time the paramedics were there, and from there on…the thing that Western doctors are really good at is, “Let’s cut here and reattach here,” that sort of thing, but if I had been in a New York City office building, there is no way anybody would have gotten the defibrillator or the paramedics…if I’d survived at all, I would have been badly damaged.

Stroud:  Oh, gosh.  I had no idea.  Wow!

DO:  In its own way, it’s a miracle and if I had not retired, there’s no scenario that I know of that would have allowed me to survive a major heart attack like that.

Stroud:  No, certainly not.  Whew!  Incredible.                                                

The Shadow (1973) #1, written by Denny O'Neil.

Superman (1939) #233, written by Denny O'Neil.

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Bryan Stroud

Bryan Stroud is a longtime fan of DC Comics, particularly the Silver and Bronze Ages, and has been published in a number of places over the last decade plus, to include the magazines Comic Book Creator andLurid Little Nightmare Makers and websites like The Silver Lantern and Comics Bulletin.  Bryan wrote the afterword to “Think Pink,” is a frequent contributor to BACK ISSUE magazine, Ditkomania and co-authored Nick Cardy:  Wit-LashHe and his indulgent wife have dined with Joe and Hilarie Staton and Jim Shooter.  He owns a comic book spinner rack that reminds him of his boyhood.