16th Jun2020

A Memoriam In Four Colours: Denny O’Neil

by Ian Wells

At the end of last week we lost another of industry legend. Denny O’Neil passed away on June 11th of natural causes. He leaves behind in comics quite the legacy. Denny had a three decade spanning career that took in writing and editor duties at both DC and Marvel, as well as making stops at Charlton Comics and finding time to write novels.

If you have read a DC or Marvel comic from the 60’s to the 90’s there is a strong chance you have read a Denny O’Neil comic. His career began in 1966, after the suggestion by his friend Roy Thomas, that he take the writers test for Marvel. The test involved adding dialogue to a four page Fantastic Four comic and Stan Lee liked his submission and gave him some work. Two of his earliest assignments at Marvel were Strange Tales and Rawhide Kid. He made the switch to DC in 1968 getting writing gigs on Wonder Woman and JLA initially, before having significant runs on Green Lantern and Batman in the 70’s. The beginning of the next decade saw him return to Marvel with writing duties on Amazing Spider-Man and Iron Man, before a acclaimed run on Daredevil between two stints by Frank Miller. Also during this period he took on an editors role as well. It was O’Neil who got Miller onto Daredevil as both writer and penciller, a move that saved the series. 1986 again saw him return to DC as the primary editor of the various Bat books, as well as taking some writing roles here and there. In a nutshell O’Neil has worked all the heavy hitters Bronze Age superhero comics. But it is not just a career that has seen him wear many hats and produce a more than substantial body of work. It is a significant body of work. What I mentioned above is a whistle stop tour of his career, when you break it down further the importance of his work and his skill as a writer shines through.

At Marvel in 1970 he wrote only one issue of X-Men (#65) but it has Professor X returning from the dead. It may not have seemed important at the time but when the X-Men regained popularity and a relaunch I’m sure it made much more sense to have him around. This issue was also the first working with long time collaborator Neal Adams, whose work on X-Men went along way to making them popular again. After making the move to DC his Wonder Woman run received mixed reviews. He found his footing again on JLA and it was here it began to tell stories driven by politics and social matters. These themes would feature heavily in his Green Lantern run when he teamed him with Green Arrow. Again working with Adams the two set up the concept of the ‘Hard Travelling Heroes.’ the most famous story arc of this run is Green Lantern #86-#86 when Green Lantern reveals to Green Arrow his ward Speedy is a heroin addict. Hitting these big real world issues in super hero comics made people sit up and take note. O’Neil has battled his own personal demons including alcoholism and his take on this can be read in the loosely autobiographical book ‘The Perils of Captain Mighty And The Redemption of Danny The Kid.’ Perhaps Denny’s most critically acclaimed work was his run on Batman…

Beginning with Batman #224, again with Neal Adams as his artist, the duo were tasked with making Batman an interesting character again and taking him away from his Adam West image. O’Neil simply saw the solution as returning him to his roots as Bill Finger and Bob Kane had intended him. In their run the duo created Rahs Al Ghul. They made Two Face more inline with how he is recognised today and they breathed new life into The Joker. A lot of O’Neil and Adams’ run went into Batman: The Animated Series and most iterations of Batman on the big screen. He created the drug Venom which went on to play a role in Bane’s origin story. Bane’s biggest moment  as a Bat villain was Knightfall, edited by O’Neil and again a moment that made it onto the big screen. His contributions didn’t stop there in his second spell at Marvel it was O’Neil who first put James Rhodes in the Iron Man armour. He created Obadiah Stane, the first MCU villain. He came up with the name Optimus Prime! I mean is there anything he can’t do? As an editor he continued to push the envelope. He took a young Frank Miller under his wing on Daredevil. I already mentioned how he made Miller both writer and penciller. He wanted Miller to make the series more realistic and have the lead hero have a fighting style all his own, distinct from the rest of the Marvel Universe. This is why martial arts became such a key part of the Daredevil mythos. Other amazing work O’Neil has produced as a writer included key runs on The Question with Denys Cowans and The Shadow with Mike Kaluta. He has written novels including an adapatations of Knightfall and both Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. He has penned TV episodes both live action and animated. He adapated his own Batman stories ‘Daughter of The Demon’ and ‘The Demon Lives Again’ into the two part Batman: The Animated Series episode ‘The Demons Quest.’ A tip from me is to track down the Unbreakable DVD which includes a documentary on comic books in which O’Neil features heavily.

Denny O’Neil leaves behind a legacy of work in comics. A legacy of both quality and significant story telling. He brought a sense of realism to every character he wrote but still delivered on entertainment. My thoughts are with everyone connected to Denny at this time as he pulls up a stool to the great writing desk in the sky.

Denny O’Neil May 3rd 1939 – June 11th 2020


One Response to “A Memoriam In Four Colours: Denny O’Neil”

  • Fred A Cleaver

    Mr O’Neil’s first turn at Green Lantern with Green Arrow was revolutionary. I was literally stunned.

    He successfully undid the Batman TV show hang over.

    He un-wondered Wonder Woman, I was not a fan.

    An immense talent whose efforts are still remembered by myself.