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.

Remembering Murphy Anderson: a look back at The Atomic Knights

Silver Age comic book artist Murphy Anderson passed away on October 23rd at the age of 89. Anderson was an incredibly prolific inker who worked on numerous series for DC Comics from the 1950s thru to the 1980s. His embellishments wonderfully complemented the pencils of Curt Swan on Superman, Carmine Infantino on The Flash and Batman, and Gil Kane on Green Lantern and The Atom.

Less often Anderson also did both pencils & inks, turning in excellent work on Hawkman and The Spectre. He was the co-creator of the sci-fi hero Adam Strange and of the sexy magician Zatanna.

Anderson’s friend and colleague Todd Klein recently observed on his blog “I loved his precise style and crisp inking.” Reflecting on Anderson’s art in a tribute at 13th Dimension, Dave Gibbons commented “His inks brought a crispness and finesse to the work of so many great Silver Age artists. Stories always seemed to gain an extra magical dimension under his painstaking hand.”

Strange Adventures 144 cover

Among Anderson’s vast body of work, one of my personal favorites was the wonderfully weird Atomic Knights feature which he created with writer John Broome and editor Julius Schwartz in the Strange Adventures science fiction anthology series. The Atomic Knights made their debut in Strange Adventures #117 (June 1960) and appeared in every third issue of the series thru #156 (Sept 1963) with a final installment running in #160 (Jan 1964).

Set in the then-future year of 1986, the Atomic Knights stories by Broome & Anderson depicted the adventures of a group of heroes seeking to restore civilization to a post-apocalyptic world devastated by World War III. Oh, yes, and they happened to wear Medieval suits of armor and ride around on giant Dalmatians!

The first time I ever heard of the Atomic Knights was back in the early 1990s. My high school library had a copy of The Encyclopedia of Monsters by Jeff Rovin.  One of the entries was on the Mole-Creatures.  It included a black & white image of the cover to Strange Adventures #144, which featured two of the armored Knights atop their giant Dalmatian steeds about to be ambushed by the Mole-Creatures.  The concept was just so far out and crazy that it immediately stuck in my mind.

DC reprinted the entire Atomic Knights run from Strange Adventures in a hardcover collection in 2010. Since acquiring all of those old issues would have been a difficult and expensive task, I picked up the book so that I could finally read this oddball series.

Atomic Knights collection cover

The story begins in late 1986, some weeks after the Great Atomic War has decimated nearly the entire globe. Wandering through the ruins of the town of Durvale, ex-soldier Gardner Grayle learns that the area is under the oppressive thumb of the self-proclaimed “Black Baron.”  Gardner befriends teacher Douglas Herald, and the pair discover six suits of armor in the remains of the Durvale Museum.  Somehow the energies of the nuclear war have transformed the metal, giving it radiation-resistant qualities.

Gardner and Douglas, along with Douglas’ sister Marene, the scientist Bryndon, and twins Wayne & Hollis Hobard, don the armor and attack the Black Baron’s fortress.  They capture the tyrant, liberating Durvale.  The armor-clad sextet decides to remain together as a group, “to represent law and order and the forces of justice in these terrible times.”

Throughout the course of the series, the Knights have a variety of unusual adventures. They explore the post-apocalyptic Earth, encountering a succession of bizarre monsters created by nuclear radiation, as well as human adversaries attempting to seize power.

Atomic Knights collection pg 35

It’s important to remember that these stories were published in the early 1960s. There are aspects that by today’s standards are dated.  The most obvious is how Marene, the only female Knight, is more often than not sidelined.  She is usually left in Durvale to care for another member of the Knights who has been wounded in battle, or to guard the town while the rest of the group goes out on a mission.  The apparent rational behind this is that Marene is “just a woman.”  At least she does finally have the opportunity to play a crucial role in the last story.

The character development of the heroes is minimal. We know that Gardner and Marene have a mutual attraction that they never seem to get around to taking to the next level, and that the Hobard brothers are huge fans of Jazz music, among other nuggets of information.  But mostly Broome is interested in just getting the characters from point A to point B, introducing the story’s menace and coming up with a resolution.

The science is also wonky. Radiation-resistant armor and dogs the size of horses is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to scientific implausibility.  Then there’s Bryndon, one of those typical 1960s comic book scientists who apparently knows everything.  There doesn’t seem to be any area of science or technology of which he doesn’t possess at least some knowledge.  We eventually learn that he is literally a rocket scientist, but even so the guy is almost an encyclopedia on legs.

Perhaps the most blatant scientific unlikelihood is that all of the plant life on Earth was destroyed during World War III.  If that was the case, there wouldn’t be any plants to convert carbon dioxide back to oxygen, and humanity would have died out.  Fortunately our heroes soon find samples of fruits & vegetables on the lost island of Atlantis (yes, really) and are able to revive farming & agriculture in Durvale.

All kidding aside, writer John Broome was scripting these comic books to entertain young readers, not to meet a standard of inquiry from Scientific American. Given that fact, the dodgy science can more or less be excused, as these pulp sci-fi adventures are fun and delightfully offbeat.

It’s noteworthy that the Atomic Knights stories take place over a period of several years, with the final installments set in 1992. This enables Broome to show the gradual rebuilding of civilization.  That’s one of the more interesting aspects of the series, and it gives the stories a nice feeling of continuity.

Atomic Knights collection pg 45

The art by Murphy Anderson on the Atomic Knights stories is absolutely beautiful. I observed a quality to his work here that is reminiscent of some of the great newspaper comic strips of the 1930s and 40s.  Gardner is heroically handsome & strong, Marene is beautiful & sweet, the villains are sneering fiends, and the monsters are bizarre, menacing beings.

Anderson admirably succeeds in illustrating the fantastic elements of these stories in such a way that they seem grounded in real life.   No matter how weird or impossible the monsters of the stories, Anderson gives them a weight and gravity, be they walking trees, electrical beings, or a giant crystal monster with a head that resembles a disco ball.

Anderson renders the spectacle of an armored knight riding a giant Dalmatian and makes it look perfectly plausible.  For example, on page 85 of the collection, we see the Knights astride the Dalmatians charging into battle.  The immense dogs kick up clouds of dust in their wake, their ears are flopping, and their tongues hang out of their mouths.  Anderson’s depiction of this scene makes it very easy to imagine the sounds of giant paws thundering across the ground, of the heavy pounding from the canines drawing in gasps of breath.

Atomic Knights collection pg 85

Between the offbeat writing of John Broome and the superb artwork of Murphy Anderson, the Atomic Knights was an engaging feature. It’s no wonder that it became something of a cult classic.  Although the series was written out of continuity for a time, later on the characters were brought back into the DC universe in various different forms.  Most recently the Atomic Knights were featured prominently in Convergence: Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes written by Stuart Moore.

That the Atomic Knights have fondly endured for all these decades in readers’ minds is undoubtedly at least partially due to Murphy Anderson’s stunning art. His work on the feature is, in my estimation, among the best he did in his lengthy and impressive career.  The Atomic Knights is but one of the many wonderful legacies that Murphy Anderson has left us.