Denny O’Neil: 1939 to 2020

Longtime, influential comic book writer and editor Denny O’Neil passed away on June 11th at the age of 81.

A journalism major, O’Neil got started in the comic book filed in the mid 1960s.  After brief stints at Marvel and Charlton, O’Neil came to DC Comics, where he made a significant impact.

O’Neil was a very socially conscious individual, and he brought his concerns about inequality and injustice to his work.  He was assigned the Green Lantern series, which at the time was struggling in sales.  Working with artist Neal Adams, another young talented newcomer interested in shaking thing up, O’Neil had GL Hal Jordan team up with the archer Green Arrow, aka Oliver Queen, in a series of stories that addressed head-on issues of racism, pollution, overpopulation, drug abuse, and political corruption.

The above page from Green Lantern / Green Arrow #76 (April 1970), the first issue by O’Neil & Adams, is probably one of the most famous scenes in comic book history.

I read these stories in the 1990s, a quarter century after they were published.  At the time I found them underwhelming.  I felt O’Neil’s writing was unsubtle, that he threw Hal Jordan under the bus to make a point, and that Oliver Queen was just the sort of smug, condescending left-winger who gives the rest of us liberals a really bad name.  As with a number of other people, I always though Hal Jordan’s response to the old black man should have been “Hey, I saved the entire planet Earth, and everyone on it, on multiple occasions!”

When I voiced these criticisms, older readers typically responded “You really needed to read these stories when they were first published to understand their impact and significance.”  I never really understood this until I started reading Alan Stewart’s blog Attack of the 50 Year Old Comic Books.  Alan writes about the comic books that he read as a kid half a century ago.  When I came to Alan’s posts about O’Neil’s early work on Justice League of America for DC Comics in the late 1960s, I finally began to understand exactly what sort of an impression O’Neil’s stories, with their commentary on critical real-world issues, made upon so many young readers of that era.

So, upon further consideration, while I still find O’Neil’s writing on Green Lantern / Green Arrow to be anvilicious, I recognize that he was attempting to address serious social & political crises for which he felt genuine concern, and in a medium that for a long time was regarded solely as the purview of children.  However imperfect the execution may have been, I admire O’Neil’s passion and convictions.

In any case, O’Neil & Adams’ work on Green Lantern / Green Arrow is yet more evidence that comic books have addressed political issues in the past, and anyone attempting to argue otherwise is flat-out ignoring reality.

UPDATE: For an insightful alternate perspective on the Green Lantern / Green Arrow stories I recommend reading J.R. LeMar’s blog post on Denny O’Neil.

O’Neil & Adams were also among the creators in the late 1960s and early 1970s who helped to bring the character of Batman back to his darker Golden Age roots as a grim costumed vigilante operating in the darkness of Gotham City.  O’Neil & Adams collaborated on a number of Batman stories that are now rightfully regarded as classics.

I really enjoy O’Neil’s approach to Batman.  His version of the Dark Knight was serious and somber, but still very human, and often fallible.  I wish that more recent writers would follow O’Neil’s example on how to write Batman, rather than depicting him as some brooding, manipulative monomaniac.  O’Neil really knew how to balance out the different aspects of Batman’s personality so that he was intense but still likable.

O’Neil & Adams, following the directive of editor Julius Schwartz, created the immortal ecoterrorist Ra’s al Ghul and his beautiful daughter Talia.  Ra’s al Ghul debuted in Batman #232 (June 1971) by O’Neil, Adams and inker Dick Giordano.

Ra’s al Ghul was certainly an interesting villain in that he possessed shades of grey.  He admired Batman, and easily deduced that the Dark Knight was actually Bruce Wayne.  Ra’s wanted Batman to become his successor and marry Talia.  Ra’s was genuinely passionate about saving the environment; unfortunately his solution was to wipe out 90% of the Earth’s population and rule over the survivors.  While Batman had feelings for Talia and sympathized with Ra’s end goals, he was understandably repulsed by the ruthless, brutal means Ra’s pursued, and so the two men repeatedly came into conflict.

Throughout the 1970s O’Neil, working with artists Adams & Giordano, as well as Bob Brown, Irv Novick, Michael Golden, Don Newton & Dan Adkins developed the globe-spanning conflict between Batman and Ra’s al Ghul, with Talia often caught in the middle of their immense struggle of wills.  These epic stories were later reprinted in the trade paperback Batman: Tales of the Demon.  It is some of O’Neil’s best writing, and I definitely recommend it.

O’Neil of course wrote a number of other great Batman stories during the 1970s outside of those involving Ra’s al Ghul and Talia. Among those stories by O’Neil that are now considered classics is “There Is No Hope In Crime Alley” illustrated by Dick Giordano, from Detective Comics #457 (March 1976).

“There Is No Hope In Crime Alley” expanded upon Batman’s origin and introduced Leslie Thompkins, the doctor and social worker who cared for young Bruce Wayne after his parents were murdered in Crime Alley. The story was later included in the 1988 collection The Greatest Batman Stories Ever Told, which is where I first read it. It was actually one of four stories from the 1970s written by O’Neil to be included in that volume, a fact that speaks to how well-regarded his work on the character was.

In the early 1980s O’Neil went to work at Marvel Comics.  In addition to editing several titles, he wrote Iron Man and Daredevil.  On Iron Man he decided to follow up on Tony Stark’s alcoholism, which had been established a few years earlier by Bob Layton & David Michelinie. O’Neil had struggled with alcoholism in real life, and he wanted to address that in the comic book Stark was apparently white-knuckling it, trying to stay sober without a support system or a program of recovery.

O’Neil, working with penciler Luke McDonnell & inker Steve Mitchell, wrote a three year long story arc around Stark’s alcoholism.  Corporate raider Obidiah Stane, a literal chess master, ruthlessly manipulated events so that Tony fell off the wagon hard, then swooped in and bought out Stark International from under him.  Stark became destitute and homeless, and was forced to make a long, difficult climb back to sobriety, rebuilding both his life and his company from the ground up.

It’s worth noting another development in O’Neil’s Iron Man run.  Previously in Green Lantern / Green Arrow, O’Neil & Adams had introduced African American architect John Stewart, who they had become a new Green Lantern.  Twelve years later on Iron Man O’Neil had African-American pilot & ex-soldier James Rhodes, a longtime supporting character, become the new Iron Man after Stark succumbed to alcoholism.  Rhodey would remain in the Iron Man role for over two years, until Tony was finally well enough to resume it.

So, once again, the next time you hear some troll grousing about SJWs replacing long-running white superheroes with minorities, or some such nonsense, remember that O’Neil did this twice, telling some really interesting, insightful stories in the process.

This is another instance where the argument comes up that you had to be reading these comic books when they were coming out to understand that impact.  In this case I can vouch for it personally.  It was early 1985, I was eight years old, and the very first issue of Iron Man I ever read was in the middle of this storyline. So right from the start I just accepted that there could be different people in the Iron Man armor, and one of them just happened to be black.

In the late 1980s O’Neil returned to DC Comics, where he became the editor of the various Batman titles.  He also continued to write.  Among the noteworthy stories he penned was “Venom” in Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight #16-20 (March to July 1991), with layouts by Trevor Von Eeden, pencils by Russ Braun, and inks & covers by Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez.

“Venom” is set early in Batman’s career.  After the Dark Knight fails to save a young girl from drowning, he begins to take an experimental drug to heighten his strength.  Unfortunately he very quickly becomes addicted to the Venom, and is almost manipulated into becoming a murderer by the military conspiracy that developed the drug.  Locking himself in the Batcave for a month, Batman suffers a horrific withdrawal.  Finally clean, he emerges to pursue the creators of the Venom drug.

It is likely that “Venom” was another story informed by O’Neil’s own struggles with addiction.  It is certainly a riveting, intense story.  Venom was reintroduced a few years later in the sprawling Batman crossover “Knightfall” that O’Neil edited, which saw the criminal mastermind Bane using the drug as the source of his superhuman strength.

In 1992 O’Neil, working with up-and-coming penciler Joe Quesada and inker Kevin Nolan, introduced a new character to the Bat-verse.  Azrael was the latest in a line of warriors tasked with serving the secretive religious sect The Order of St. Dumas.  Programmed subliminally from birth, Jean-Paul Valley assumed the Azrael identity after his father’s murder.

Azrael soon after became a significant figure in the “Knightfall” crossover.  After Batman is defeated by Bane, his back broken, Azrael becomes the new Dark Knight.  Unfortunately the brainwashing by the Order led Azrael / Batman to become increasingly violent and unstable.  After a long, difficult recovery Bruce Wayne resumed the identity of Batman and defeated Azrael.  O’Neil appears to have had a fondness for the character, as he then went on the write the Azrael ongoing series that lasted for 100 issues.

Another of O’Neil’s projects from the 1990s that I enjoyed was the bookshelf special Batman / Green Arrow: The Poison Tomorrow, released in 1992.  Written by O’Neil, penciled by Michael Netzer, and inked by Josef Rubinstein, The Poison Tomorrow had the Dark Knight and the Emerald Archer working together to prevent a ruthless corporation from using the femme fatale Poison Ivy to create a virulent plague.

O’Neil’s liberalism definitely shines through with his clear distrust of Corporate America.  In one scene that evokes “the banality of evil” multi-millionaire CEO Fenn casually discusses with Poison Ivy his plan to poison jars of baby food, killing hundreds of infants, and then to sell the antidote to millions of terrified parents across the nation.  Reading this story again in 2020, it is not at all far-fetched, as in recent months we have repeatedly seen various corporations publically musing on the various ways in which they can turn a profit on the COVID-19 pandemic.

I also like how O’Neil wrote the team-up of Batman and Green Arrow.  Bruce Wayne and Oliver Queen can both be very stubborn, inflexible individuals.  Each of them has a tendency to browbeat others into submission, so having them forced to work together is basically a case of unstoppable force meets unmovable object.  O’Neil got a lot of mileage out of the tense, almost adversarial chemistry that existed between these two reluctant allies.

The Poison Tomorrow is a grim, unsettling tale.  The moody artwork by Netzer & Rubinstein and the coloring by Lovern Kindzierski effectively compliment O’Neil’s story.  There were such a deluge of Batman-related projects published by DC Comics in the early 1990s that I think The Poison Tomorrow sort of flew under a lot of people’s radar.  I definitely recommend seeking out a copy.

O’Neil had such a long, diverse career that I have really only touched on a few highlights in this piece.  I am certain other fans, as well as the colleagues who actually worked with & knew him, will be penning their own tributes in which O’Neil’s many other important contributions will be discussed.

For example, I’m sure some of you are asking “How can you not discuss O’Neil’s fantastic run on The Question with artist Denys Cowan?!?”  Regretfully I have to admit that I have never read it.  However, if you are a fan of The Question then I recommend that you read Brian Cronin’s excellent tribute to O’Neil’s work on that series.

I was very fortunate to meet O’Neil at a few comic book conventions over the years.  Briefly talking with him while he was autographing some comic books for me, and hearing him speak on panel discussions, it was immediately obvious that he was an intelligent and passionate individual.  Those qualities definitely came through in his work.

It Came from the 1990s: Black Canary “New Wings”

A couple of years ago I sent a friend request to writer Sarah Byam on Facebook.  I had enjoyed Byam’s work in comic books in the early 1990s.  Having seen this blog, Byam asked me if I was interested in discussing her work on it.  I agreed, and she mailed me several books she had worked on.  Among these was the four issue Black Canary miniseries she wrote that DC Comics published in late 1991.  I read these back when they came out, but since then I sold off a lot of my collection.  So it was nice to once again have them.

Soon after Byam sent me those books life sort of got in the way.  I had to move into a new apartment, and find a new job, and so on.  Byam’s package ended up at the bottom of one of the countless boxes of stuff that I threw together during the move, and only recently did I finally dig it out.  So here, at last, is my retrospective on that Black Canary miniseries.

Black Canary miniseries 1 cover

Written by Byam, the Black Canary miniseries has Trevor Von Eeden contributing pencil layouts, with the finished artwork by Dick Giordano.  Lettering is by Steve Haynie, and coloring by Julia Lacquement.

“New Wings” was, according to the text piece by editor Mike Gold in issue #1, the very first solo series to star Black Canary.  This was in spite of the fact that the character had been around, in one form or another, since 1947.  Serving as a longtime member of both the Justice Society and Justice League, the Black Canary also had a lengthy association with Green Arrow, cast variously as his girlfriend, partner and sidekick.  Nevertheless, it took 44 years for Dinah Laurel Lance to finally receive how own book.

Decades are an artificial construct, and truthfully there is very rarely a sharp delineation to separate them.  That’s certainly true of the 1980s and 1990s, with the end of the former and the beginning of the later serving as a period of gradual transition.

This miniseries certainly straddles the two periods.  In one respect it is very much rooted in the mid to late 1980s of DC Comics, which saw both the aftermath of Crisis on Infinite Earths, with its revisions to long-term continuity, and the one-two punch of Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns, which motivated a shift towards “grim & gritty” street-level characters.

It’s also very much of the early 1990s, when the comic book market was experiencing a huge boom, resulting in both DC and Marvel flooding the market with new books.  As a result of those market conditions, the Black Canary miniseries got the green light, something that might not have occurred a few years earlier.

The 1987 miniseries Green Arrow: The Longbow Hunters by Mike Grell had revamped Oliver Queen as a traditional archer, an urban vigilante based in Seattle, WA.  That story had also seen Dinah Lance brutally tortured, causing her to lose her “Canary Cry” sonic scream.

Although taking away Dinah’s superpower was undoubtedly an attempt to more realistically ground her alongside Green Arrow, in retrospect it is also an example of the “Women in Refrigerators” phenomenon, in female characters being reduced to helpless victims.

Black Canary miniseries 1 pg 10

The “New Wings” miniseries has Byam picking up those threads.  Dinah is still recovering from the trauma of being victimized, and of losing her powers.  She has also growing tired of constantly being in the shadow of the headstrong, arrogant Green Arrow, of playing the role of responsible adult to Ollie’s hotheaded thrill-seeker.  Angrily tossing the accounting ledger at Ollie’s head, Dinah at last asserts herself.  She informs him that it’s his turn to figure out how to pay the rent & bills, while she goes off to the mountains of Washington State in an attempt to find herself and regain her inner peace.

Visiting her “Auntie Wren” at the Quinault Indian Reservation, Dinah is introduced to Gan Nguyen, a reporter, radio talk show host, and social activist.  Gan’s activities fighting against Seattle’s drug dealers have made him very unpopular with certain powerful people.  On the trip back to the city Dinah is forced to change into her Black Canary identity to save him from a pair of racist assassins.

“New Wings” is, in certain ways, a very prescient piece of writing.  The drug operation that Dinah and Gan are pitted against is run by rich, powerful men with connections to both politics and private industry who utilize the people from poor rural communities to do the dirty, dangerous work.  The center of the cocaine distribution network is the town of Sandbar, which Byam describes thus…

“Sandbar is one of those quaint little seaside towns, too sleepy even for tourists to bother with. A little too ‘Mayberry’ for some, it’s a good place to raise your kids. A safe place.

“In Sandbar, people love the Fourth of July, and the old men press up their uniforms every Veterans Day.

“How does a town like that go bad? Stagnate? Lose its sense of purpose?

“Traditions of protecting freedom, of sacrificing, son after son, becomes traditions of protecting property, sacrificing truth after truth…

“Because the only thing more terrifying than the enemy… is change.”

Sandbar sounds very much like one of those Red State communities that in the last few years have wholeheartedly embraced Donald Trump.  Their economy is in ruins, devastated by trickle-down economics and corporations shipping jobs overseas.  Yet instead of recognizing who is actually exploiting them, they are all too easily distracted by the racist dog-whistles that scapegoat minorities, immigrants and non-Christians as the causes of all their problems.

Byam was clearly observant enough to perceive this burgeoning phenomenon way back in 1991, in the years immediately before the GOP, the Koch Brothers and Fox News would commence to enthusiastically fuel the fires of racism, xenophobia and paranoia among white rural communities over the next two decades, eventually bringing about the rise of the Tea Party and Trump.

Black Canary miniseries 1 pg 24

There are a couple of reasons why I have now finally got around to spotlighting this Black Canary miniseries.  One is the emergence of the hatemongering “Comicsgate” trolls in the last couple of years, angry white male fanboys who claim that diversity is destroying comic books, who want to return to the time when the industry was supposedly apolitical.  There is innumerable evidence to disprove their lies.  This miniseries, published in 1991, is certainly one example of how very wrong they are.

“New Wings” features a female character, Black Canary.  It introduces a Vietnamese American supporting character, Gan Nguyen.  It is written by a woman, Sarah Byam.  It is penciled by a black man, the Guyanese-born Trevor Von Eeden.  It is an extremely political story, tackling complex issues of racism, economic injustice, drug dealing, gun control and political corruption.  It raises some difficult, uncomfortable questions.

The other reason is the 2018 midterm elections.  This week over one hundred female candidates were elected to Congress.  This is important. It has been less than one hundred years since women finally gained the right to vote nationwide, when the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified on August 18, 1920. And, as the last few years have vividly demonstrated, there is still so much work to be done in safeguarding equal rights, in making sure that they aren’t stripped away, in protecting women from once again being reduced to second-class citizens. We need to recognize that the struggle against sexism & misogyny, as well as all other forms of injustice, is ongoing.

Black Canary miniseries 1 pg 18

In additionally to being very well written and thought-provoking, the artwork on “New Wings” is exceptional.  The collaboration between Trevor Von Eeden and Dick Giordano is extremely effective.

Von Eeden’s layouts are dynamic, superbly telling the story, both in the action sequences and the quieter conversational scenes.  The finished artwork by veteran artist Dick Giordano is beautiful, with his characteristic slick, polished work on display.

“New Wings” did well enough that an ongoing Black Canary series was commissioned.  Byam and Von Eeden returned, with Bob Smith coming onboard as inker.  Byam continued to write stories that addressed political & social issues.  She was one of those writers in the medium who very much helped my teenage self begin to broaden his perspective, to consider the intricacies of the world and the people who inhabit it.  Regrettably the ongoing Black Canary title only lasted 12 issues, but the majority of them were very well-done.

It would be another few years before Black Canary would once again gain the spotlight.  In late 1995 she was paired up with Barbara Gordon / Oracle in the Birds of Prey special, which soon led to the long-running, very well-regarded series co-starring the two characters.

Black Canary miniseries 2 pg 19 and 20

Both the Black Canary miniseries and ongoing were my introduction to the work of Trevor Von Eeden.  I instantly became a fan of his art.  I was immediately struck by both his stunningly beautiful depictions of the title character, as well as his amazing layouts & storytelling.

It’s very much worth noting that Von Eeden has been vocal about the fact that he never felt any real affinity for the character of Black Canary.  I say this because it definitely speaks to both his talent and his professionalism that he nevertheless did superb work on the series.

One other note: Whoever designed the series logo did a great job.  It looks amazing.

It’s unfortunate that “New Wings” and the subsequent twelve issue series have never been collected in a trade paperback.  However, it should be easy enough to find these in the back issue bins, or for sale online.  They are well worth tracking down.

Hopefully in the future I can offer a detailed look at the 1993 series, as well as some of Sarah Byam’s other works.  Cross your fingers!

Happy 75th birthday Neal Adams

I wanted to write a quick blog post wishing Neal Adams a happy birthday.  The legendary comic book artist was born 75 years ago today on June 15, 1941.

In a lengthy career that stretched from 1960 to the present, Adams has worked on numerous series, drawing some of the all-time greatest depictions of many different comic book characters.  At DC Comics he worked on Batman, Superman, Green Lantern, Green Arrow and Deadman.  Over at Marvel Comics he had short but extremely well-regarded runs on both Avengers and X-Men.  At his company Continuity Studios he worked on several creator-owned characters, most notably Ms. Mystic and Samuree.

Adams has also long been a vocal champion of creators’ rights in the comic book industry.  In the late 1970s he played a major role in DC finally awarding long-overdue public recognition & financial compensation to Superman co-creators Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster.  Among the other creators who Adams aided over the years were Jack Kirby, Dick Ayers and Dave Cockrum.  Adams was one of the first creators to strongly lobby publishers to return original artwork to artists.

nealadams01

Adams remains active in the biz.  Recent projects include the bizarre Batman: Odyssey for DC and First X-Men for Marvel.  Early this year he penciled a series of variant covers for DC Comics that paid homage to many of his now-classic Bronze Age covers.  On these variants Adams was paired up with a number of talented artists inking him.  Adams is currently working on the six issue miniseries Superman: The Coming of the Supermen, which features some really dynamic artwork.

I’ve only just scratched the surface of Adams’ prolific presence in the comic book biz.  Perhaps in the future I will have a chance to take a closer look at some of his works.

If you’ve met Neal Adams any time in the last few years, you will probably find yourself saying that he doesn’t look like he’s in his 70s.  Hopefully he will be with us for many more years to come, creating still more amazing artwork.