Heroes for Uncertain Times

Writing for comics over the past 40 years, Denny O’Neil has redefined the genre’s possibilities. Jason Noble, an avowed local comic book geek, interviews his hero.

A brief introduction to four decades of creativity and innovation can be tricky. Simply said, Denny O’Neil is one of the most influential writers in the history of comic books.

Working with both Marvel and DC Comics since 1965, he has redefined the possibilities of the medium while bringing an unprecedented depth and humanity to beloved characters such as Wonder Woman, Superman, Iron Man and Justice League of America. Working with legendary artists Neal Adams and Dick Giordano, and editor Julius Schwartz, O’Neil helped resurrect a struggling Batman from 1960s camp and brought us a definitive version of the character.

Years later he would become the Batman titles’ principle editor. In 1970, O’Neil introduced, for the first time, social realism and politics into the commercial comics medium with his powerful work in “Green Lantern/Green Arrow,” and foreshadowed the “mature” graphic novels of today.

O’Neil has taught writing at the School of Visual Arts in New York City, and produced the “DC Comics Guide to Writing Comics.” He has published short stories and journalism, screenplays and best-selling novels. His most recent work was a book adaptation of the film “Batman Begins.” The film’s central villain is Ra’s Al Ghul — a character created by O’Neil — who voices frightening concerns about crime and ecology.

As a lifelong comic fan, I was quite intimidated by the thought of interviewing O’Neil. But his charm, humility and generosity made it an amazing experience.


JASON NOBLE: The first question that I have deals with comics as they survived the controversies of the 1950s.
DENNY O’NEIL: Well, prior to the crash of the ’50s, yeah … A lot of comics sold between 1938 and 1954 — but then they went into a 10-year eclipse. For a lot of reasons. The one that comic fans like to give is that Frederic Wertham book, “The Seduction of the Innocent” and the Kefauver committee, which was investigating and blaming comics for juvenile delinquency. A lot of church groups and editorialists sort of hopped on the bandwagon, but I think it had as much to do with changing retail patterns after World War II. People my age bought comic books at little mom and pop shops in the Midwest where I grew up — they were called confectionaries.
Two things happened — they went out of business in wholesale lots after the war because the malls and supermarkets and things like that came along, and the ones that survived found they could use the display space that they had used for comics more profitably — paperback books, for example, which were new at the time and had a higher profit margin.
So a lot of things conspired to put comics in really bad shape for about 10 years — I think there were 40 comic book publishers in New York City at one time. By the mid-’50s it was down to fewer than a dozen.

JN: In some of the comics history written by Les Daniels, he discusses the fear of comic publishers to put anything lurid or too adult in their books.
DO: Well, they got kinda denatured because the comics code was not the easiest thing in the world to interpret. My feeling’s always been, “Tell me what the rules are and I won’t break them,” but you gotta tell me what the rules are! And it can’t change from month to month. But I think more than that it was self-censorship because comic book editors have always been in a dead heat with deadlines. If they finished a job, and the comics code sent it back and it had to be redone, it could put you in a deep hole.
One of the ironies of the field is that those early comic books guys were semeioticists — they were inventing a language, they were doing remarkable stuff, but a lot of them seemed to be ashamed of it.

JN: Sure.
DO: Even when I came in, the guys would not identify themselves as working in comics — it’s almost as if they believed what Wertham and the various editorialists said. When the Kefauver committee did its thing, Bill Gaines (owner of EC Comics) wanted to fight, to get psychologists and psychiatrists that would offer counter-testimony, and the other publishers just caved in  — mea culpa, mea culpa, “Yeah, we’re bad, we’re sinners, we’re gonna get better,” and they formed the comics code.
(Laughs) It’s hard to feel sorry for Bill Gaines — he just put all of his eggs in a basket called “MAD” and died a happy millionaire!

JN: Just thinking about the people that would create, essentially, a whole language, a whole style of storytelling in this country, that some of them would not consider it art — or literature. (But) the way it’s viewed now, it’s almost this hallowed time period.
DO: Almost uncomfortably so. I lectured at M.I.T. a couple of years ago and I’m thinking, “This is the most prestigious educational institution in the country and here I am talking about comic books … because they are studying comic books!” Yeah, I worry about that having a possible bad effect on the creativity, but there’s no point in worrying about it because one way or another I can’t do anything about it.        
For me, one of the great charms in comics when I started was they weren’t supposed to be good! “Good” was not in anyone’s vocabulary — they were just supposed to be done on time, and I could handle that. I wasn’t at all sure I could ever do “good,” but “Thursday”? Yeah, that I could do!

JN: In the ’50s, it’s interesting that you have comics being considered such a counterculture or something immoral, and just before that you’re seeing comics be incredibly supportive of the government. Batman is selling war bonds!
DO: Oh, DC Comics were always squeaky clean. The company’s predecessors did some spicy stuff with the pulps, but I don’t think there was any time when the comics weren’t super-patriotic, to a point that today we might find embarrassing and, certainly, adhering to the moral standards of the time. Wertham’s name is anathema to the comics people. I don’t think he was a bad guy — if you look at his history he did a lot of good things. I think he had an enormous blind spot when it came to American popular culture, and if you don’t like something you tend to find reasons why it’s immoral or evil instead of saying, “Yeah, this isn’t to my taste.”


 JN: I guess this connects to where the next generation of creators — Dick Giordano, you — all these people coming from Charlton (and Marvel) come in. DC’s office was very conservative, white shirt, black tie, neat, proper.
DO: Oh, yeah, Steve Skeates and I were the first writers to go up there not wearing business attire. We were once told, “The mailroom is in the back.” They didn’t think we had any business being in the editorial department! When I came into the comic book business, both Marvel and DC were in those respects ultra-conservative. I came in as Stan Lee’s assistant, and I had to buy a suit — it was one of the first things I did in New York, went to Macy’s, bought a suit, ’cause I had to be dressed like that!     

I kidded Stan about it later at a time when I had an assistant who didn’t always wear a shirt to work in the summer, and Stan insisted that, although I worked in a back room and nobody saw me that, y’know, I had to wear a tie. Again, that was the way things were at the time. If you look at the movies of the period, fathers are wearing neckties to family dinner — my father did that — part of it was just the mores and part was, again, that need to be respectable.

 JN: There’s a curious side to any of the comics controversy for me because my mother taught public school for more than 30 years.
DO: Oh, really? What grade?
JN: She taught first, third and sixth.
DO: Wow, my wife teaches first (laughter).
JN: My mother knew that if I started to get into to comics, it would actually lead to all this other enjoyment of reading and — without any prompting — I would sit for hours and hours going over the same issues. She never thought it was prurient or too violent.
DO: Yeah, the teachers I talk to now say it’s the bright kids who are into comics generally.
The cliché from our generation and the one immediately following was that it’s literature for the illiterate  — it’s for dumb kids, and the reality is quite different. When I first went to L.A. to write a television show, I was told to soft-peddle my comic book connection — emphasize the science fiction short stories that I’d published. And now, my son who makes movies says it certainly doesn’t hurt him to be known as the son of a comic book guy. It would be the first thing you mention now if you went out there trying to look for work.



JN: I’m curious about your thoughts of seeing comics in films.
DO: I’m told that now they are bidding on comic books that aren’t published yet. I think all the major DC and Marvel characters are optioned or they’re in pre-production. I know they are already at work on the next BATMAN movie. Because it was obvious from the first day it opened that it was going to be a big hit, and it deserved to be.
It’s interesting, because the guys that are doing it now grew up reading comics and they understand the form — they understand what superheroes are about. I think, for example, that first WONDER WOMAN television thing that starred Lynda Carter — whoever did that just didn’t know about superheroes, just didn’t get it.

I thought Sam Raimi was a great choice to direct SPIDERMAN — because if you look at his early work it has a very pulp, comic book sensibility. They don’t condescend to the material. Some of the BATMAN movies maybe did a little bit. But no more.

 JN: There’s a story about Sam Raimi on his early films being so amazed that he could get to make a film that he would wear a tie and a shirt on the set!
DO: (laughter)

JN: So he’s bringing back the DC and Marvel model. David Goyer (screenwriter for BATMAN BEGINS and BLADE) said in an interview that he felt that a lot of his basic ideas of morality came from reading comics — that something really clear was communicated to him as a kid. I think that the recent BATMAN film reflects your writing and Frank Miller’s (creator of the classic series THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, BATMAN: YEAR ONE and SIN CITY) most heavily of any of the films.
DO: I’ve seen Frank recently, but I haven’t really spoken to him in about 10 years.  I would suspect he and I are pretty far apart politically now.

JN: Oh, really?
DO: I’m not sure. I imagine he is a good bit to the right of me, but I don’t really know that that’s true. I mean — I thought “Sin City” was one of the most interesting movies of the year.

JN: Definitely — and it made a lot of the people that I’ve talked to about it, y’know, question what it was really saying. The fantasy element, the power of the storytelling is so overwhelming — but what is it saying about how people treat each other?
DO: Well, I think Frank’s view of humanity is very dark. I said on a DVD interview once — which was badly edited that sounded like I was insulting Frank but I wasn’t at all — that he doesn’t like heroes. And then they cut away from that and didn’t get the rest of the statement. But he has a dark view of humanity and he certainly doesn’t like the old-fashioned “rah-rah” all-purpose good guy sort of heroes.

JN: Sure …
DO: And that’s not my view, but it’s perfectly legitimate. I mean — he plays Batman considerably different than I do but he’s not wrong. He’s just interpreting differently.


 JN: I have a note here written in sharpie that says “OPTIMISM.” I think a really key difference between some of the current writers — many of which I really respect and love their work but most of the societies that are represented are breaking down, almost entirely. The thing that I’ve noticed through so many of your books is that there’s an essential belief in a sort of courage.
DO: Well, a lot of the young guys — I got an e-mail from somebody who wanted me to confirm that, “I had been lied to by the suits” — and, as a matter of fact I didn’t think I had been. But — when I was a young newspaper reporter I loved stories like that. Because I was angry — and — a lot of young men are angry because you’ve just found out that life isn’t fair. And boy, does it piss you off. I came to a point of saying, “Yeah, OK, life isn’t fair, and?…” We still have to go on — so what is that about? Of course life isn’t fair — of course the universe is hostile and indifferent — but — basically — so what? That’s nothing to base a life or a vision on — you accept that and you go on from there.

JN: In writing something like a heroic character — a person who stands up for something, they have to believe in something to be credible. In your writing, heroes are not only presented as being very courageous but they also have trials and issues that are extremely personal. It’s not just this, “I’m gonna push the earth back on its axis.” It’s like, how can I keep sane? How can I be humane still?
DO: One of the secrets to writing superhero characterization, especially if you didn’t create the character, is — if this guy were real, what would his hang-ups be? It’s something I learned from Stan Lee very early on — what would he have to be like? Then there is a 5,000-year tradition of heroic fiction in every culture I know about — in ours it goes back to the very early Greeks, and some people take it back further than that to Gilgamesh. What we’re doing are modern renderings of those basic ideas.
A hero is one who serves and protects — who is concerned with something larger and more important than himself. And I don’t have any trouble believing that — and yet, pain and problems and confusion and terror are all part of the package.


JN: There are some key political things that you’re really well known for, as far as being willing to approach subjects that were not dealt with in comics.
In particular, the notion of drug use in comics. There was a story that Stan Lee told in an interview — that he was actually approached by something like the Department of Health, Education and Welfare to make an anti-drug issue of “Spider-Man” — and he made it — and then the comics code said you can’t show people having drugs, having an overdose.
DO: Yeah (laughs), I was there for that meeting.

JN: From what I understand, Marvel said, “We’re gonna run this anyway ’cause we believe in it!”
DO: Yeah, just run it without the code (on the cover).

JN: I was really curious about your editors at the time — how they helped you, especially on “Green Lantern/Green Arrow”— or how they encouraged you to have that freedom.
DO: If you read Julie Schwartz’s autobiography, he pretty much says that what he did was get out of our way — and it was pretty brave of him given the still conservative climate at the time — to let us do those stories. But all he did really was to perform basic editorial services. If I was stuck on a plot problem — just a technical thing — Julie was always really good at solving those for his writers. I felt fairly strongly that as an American writer, I ought to at least sometimes use this venue that I was working in to express things that had real meaning for me, and that comic books as a medium ought to do anything they can do — they ought to try anything they can do.
Now, we were aided by the fact that “Green Lantern” was selling badly …[img_assist|nid=364|title=A cover from the 1970s series|desc=Artwork by Neal Adams and Dick Giordano/Copyright 1970, DC Comics. All rights reserved. A cover from the 1970s series “Green Lantern and Green Arrow,” the first mainstream comic book to deal with complex social problems.|link=|align=right|width=129|height=200]
JN: Right …
DO: … and they really didn’t have anything to lose. We did a lot of interviews and got invited to a lot of places, and eventually the mayor of New York endorsed what we were doing — so — (laughs) by that time it was obviously in the best interest of everybody that we be encouraged and be permitted to go ahead with it. But we were coming off of that period we were talking about earlier where comics almost didn’t dare approach anything that anybody might consider controversial and — suddenly – “voila — wow … we’re not bound by that anymore.” A slow dawning realization — “we CAN do serious subjects.”
Some of those stories are more successful than others. For me, the most discouraging part about looking at that collected edition that came out a few years ago is how little progress we’ve made. The stories are still — to use the word we used at the time — ”relevant” — pretty much — because we haven’t gotten very far as a society. In fact, in some ways I think we’ve gone backwards. I can’t believe people are still arguing about evolution!

JN: One of the things I really respond to in those (Green Lantern) stories is that it doesn’t seem leveled like you’re saying an exact right or wrong. The character Speedy (Green Arrow’s sidekick who gets hooked on heroin) has a valid point about why he has arrived there — about his logic behind it. There’s this generosity in how you presented it — there’s so many sides to it — it’s not just like, “Why are you doing drugs, you’re an evil-doer and I don’t care why.”
DO: I knew because of my own life that that issue above all the others is certainly not black and white.  I later wrote a Batman story in which he addicts himself to a drug — it was called “Venom,” I think — because he thought it would help him do his job better.
Y’know, no alcoholic I’ve ever known — and I’ve known hundreds — has said, “Well, I think I’m gonna just make a mess of my life! Keep it comin’ bartender!” You do it because it’s gonna help you in some way, gonna take away the pain — gonna make you less clumsy socially — etc. And then one day you wake up and your life is a wreck, so … I was living in a ghetto at the time, and it’s probably not a secret that I had my own battle with alcohol. So that one came directly from real life.


 JN: In preparing for this interview, I was going through a lot of your material and I read the novelization of “Batman Begins.” It brought to mind — and this is kind of a big question — the idea of villains. In particular, Ra’s al Ghul (a violent revolutionary concerned with saving the ecology and humankind). I almost have a hard time classifying him as a villain …
DO: In my mind, the secret of writing him is: He’s right and Batman’s wrong. He is looking at the large picture. You can quarrel with his methods, but there are a lot of reputable people that say there has to be mass extinction of human beings because we’re polluting the planet and we’re destroying it. [img_assist|nid=365|title=Images from the 1970s series|desc=Artwork by Neal Adams and Dick Giordano/Copyright 1970, DC Comics. All rights reserved. Images from the 1970s series “Green Lantern and Green Arrow,” the first mainstream comic book to deal with complex social problems.|link=|align=left|width=126|height=200]What Ra’s is doing is accelerating that, and by making him 400 years old we can say he has seen the deterioration of the environment. He has a much better grasp of the size of the problems. He has a lot of blind spots — I think he’s a male chauvinist pig, for example — (laughs) as somebody who was born in the 16th century would tend to be. But — he is not the standard black-hearted comic book villain. His ultimate aims are altruistic — and that comes through a little bit in some of the movie dialogue.
One of the reasons I was picked to do that book was because of familiarity with the character. I could fill in some of the back-story.

JN: The character is driven by a goal. It’s not a personal gratification — it’s not wealth, it’s not power. It makes the conflict of the hero and nemesis more meaningful because both of them really do believe that they’re doing something right.
DO: Absolutely. Batman is focused on crime alone — that’s really the only thing he cares about. I think he’s incapable of seeing the bigger picture. I agree with him that mass extinction of humanity — there might be another way (laughs), but I don’t think he’s thinking like that.
He’s just saying, this guy’s breaking the law, this guy’s a menace.

JN: The characters you deal with are far from the space-traveling, purely fantasy regions that a lot of characters in comics live in. I think it’s really interesting that someone can be a hero that has his own obsessive problems. That comes back to a lot of the other character traits you were talking about earlier with personal demons, like being obsessed or too focused on one side of your life.
DO: One of my favorite writers of all time was Alfred Bester. He did a piece about writing for obsessed characters, which I brought into Julie Schwartz and said, “That sounds a lot like Batman, doesn’t it?” (laughs) Julie and I agreed from then on that, yeah, Batman was obsessed. Not to the point where he had no choice, because in my personal equation of hero you have to have free will — you have to have volition. As we interpreted the character, he has made a choice to let this childhood trauma shape his life for a number of reasons.
He can’t think of anything better to do with his life. And, also — it’s kinda cool.


JN: I’m fascinated by Batman in general just because he’s had so many interpretations. People have used him for extremely right-wing agendas, and extremely humane, thoughtful agendas.

DO: I think it’s impossible to make him a real liberal and have there be any consistency to the character at all — which is one of the reasons I invented Leslie  Thompkins (a social worker in Gotham City) — to give a voice to the other side.

 JN: She’s such an essential component to that character. The closing moment in the “There’s No Hope in Crime Alley” (Detective Comics, issue #457) is that … there actually is hope in Crime Alley … she tells him stop viciously beating up the criminal. She says, “You need to stop — you’re taking it too far” — and — he rarely listens to that kind of advice.
DO: She was based on Dorothy Day, who was an enormously impressive, powerful woman who ran an organization called The Catholic Worker.
It was a conscientious objectors organization, and Dorothy was nobody you’d want to fool around with. She was a complete pacifist — “Violence is never justified ever under any circumstances.” She was a best friend to my first mother-in-law, had a fantastic life story. She was a wild bohemian girl who drank Eugene O’Neil under the table and lived in early Greenwich Village, and then became this saint. In fact, she’s up for sainthood! She’s been nominated.
JN: That notion of non-violence is a subject that been debated in comics so much, but maybe not enough.
DO: If you grew up in World War II, you believed that the only way to deal with violence was with more violence. When I went into the military, I was aware of Dorothy Day and Tolstoy and some of the pacifists, but I sort of thought they were fuzzy-headed idealists. If they understood the real situation, they’d see why we had to go out there and “stop those commies.” That’s a lot of what’s going on with Iraq now.
I now think that the only practical way to deal with this is to stop the violence — and find a common humanity — because if you continue the violence the violence will continue. We are growing terrorists every time we bomb a city over in the Middle East. We’re adding to the generation of terrorists. It also, on a personal level, galls me that so many of the right-wingers themselves were draft-dodgers — including the President.

JN: I read a number of editorials where people were saying that if you can create a character — a fictional character that is brave and even mythologically resolved — you can be a character that people believe in. You become this strange kind of war hero while people who actually went and served and have the difficulty of reconciling that — they actually get called “unpatriotic.”
DO: That’s weird. John Wayne was considered to be a great patriot, was an extreme right-wing believer in violence … HE DIDN’T GO TO WAR. His battles were all fought on the back lot of Republic Pictures. I sometimes think people don’t really know what truth is anymore.
If Jimmy Stewart made right-wing remarks — well — I said, “You’ve earned the right to do it … 50 bomber missions over enemy territory.” So many of those guys — so many of them in my personal life — it’s like, “Let’s you and him fight.” Most of the people who are militant that I know don’t have any military experience. I was probably the worst sailor in the history of the U.S. Navy, but I really did believe that I had a duty to serve.

JN: Hopefully I’m getting the time frame right, but you were actually in the Navy during the Cuban Missile Crisis?
DO: Yeah, that’s my little claim to history. I think we were the first ship out there. We didn’t really know what was going on until it was all over — we just knew that we were battle stations 24 hours a day. Our pilots were flying continuously. I was on an aircraft carrier and bringing back thousands of pictures. And then, when it was all past we found out what we had been doing out there.

JN: The idea of being that close to another World War or a nuclear war … then, at what seemed like the last moment — negotiation actually worked. It was a trade-off of who’s gonna give up what  …
DO: Yeah — basically, “OK, we’ll pull our missiles out of Turkey — you pull yours out of Cuba.”

JN: It seems like if you were to look at it from some distance — that any right-thinking person would say, “That’s a far better solution than what looked imminent.”
DO: We came real close. And you wonder if a Bush instead of a Kennedy had been in the White House how it would have come out. Kennedy believed in negotiating — and was a smart man. Bush apparently doesn’t.

JN: Right. Well, negotiation and debate is in some ways the most difficult thing to do as a person — especially a person with any kind of authority.
DO: Yeah, because your ego pops up again — it becomes about you not losing face.

JN: I ‘m interested in this kind of mythic treatment of characters.
DO: Mythic heroes have always been warriors. If I believe in anything, it’s evolution and change. And probably that was a good idea 1,000 years ago — warriors were needed,  maybe a lot more recently than that — but you get into trouble when you don’t realize it’s a new ball game.


 JN: I have a question I’d like to ask before we conclude the interview — although I’d love to talk all day! I really wanted to talk for a moment about the idea of race and ethnicity in comics. You’ve always treated your characters that are not white males with a lot of dignity. That was something Stan Lee (in the introduction to your book on writing) cited as the primary example of your worldview. He noted the “Green Lantern/Green Arrow” story where an older African-American man says “You’re helping the purple and the orange and the blue people but …”
DO: “But what about the black skins?”

JN: Yeah …
DO: The best picture Neal Adams ever drew — that guy’s face is unbelievable.

JN: It’s beautiful. That was included in a book that I just saw — Fredric Stromberg’s “Visual History of Black Images in Comics,” it was considered a really significant sequence. The idea that in the “Green Lantern” comics — the GL that kids know right now … is your character, John Stewart (an African-American).
DO: That’s really very pleasing. I had a long talk with Phil Lamar, who does the character’s voice for the animated series. I  hadn’t realized John Stewart had superceded both Kyle Rainer and Hal Jordan … and before him Alan Scott — it’s terrific !

JN: That happened in IRON MAN. It’s just part of the story that Tony Stark has a black colleague that he trusts — that he asks to carry on for him when he can’t continue. There’s a beautiful sequence where James Rhodes — who’s the second Iron Man — sees Tony in the hospital. The first thing he offers, he says, “Do you want this back? I’ll give this back to you … I can give up this power …” And the first Iron Man declines. He says, “I’m not ready yet!” I read that issue when I was probably 12 — I bought it at the drugstore and took it home, and it was Iron Man and I was excited. But when I look at it now, I realize there’s this — there’s a feeling of real dialogue and real humanity — and even real friendship instead of this “up ’n’ at ’em” dialogue that a lot of heroes would say to each other …
DO: Good — thank you — that’s what we tried for.

JN: It’s something I think has a lasting effect on people that are now my age. I think the people that are now doing comics, they read those same books, and they learned a lot about what they could actually express — it’s a real gift. I know that’s like you’re getting an award or something — it’s just, when people talk about your work, it comes up over and over.
DO: (laughs) That’s very nice! Comics are a big subject. As you said — we could talk all day!

The writer thanks Mark Steiner (Great Escape), George Melton (Empire Comics) and Mark Chasteen for their help in preparing for this interview.