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.

Star Wars convention sketchbook: the new movies

Four years ago, to celebrate the release of The Force Awakens, the first Star Wars movie from Disney, the contributors of Super Blog Team-Up each wrote pieces dealing with various aspects of the SW phenomenon.  My contribution was to showcase ten of the best pieces of artwork I had gotten drawn in my Star Wars theme sketchbook.

Now here we are four years later, and the final installment of the new trilogy, The Rise of Skywalker, will be out in theaters next month.

Star_Wars_Logo

The movies produced by Disney have inspired quite a bit of disagreement among fandom.  However, I think it is very important to point something out: They have been very popular with younger fans, and with newcomers to the series.

It’s crucial to recognize that just as my generation who grew up on the original trilogy were fans of Luke, Leia, Han and Chewbacca, so too has that happened with the subsequent releases.  Kids who watched the prequels in the early 2000s grew up with Padme and Anakin.  A few years later another group of kids had their first exposure to SW with The Clone Wars animated series, and for them Asoka was probably their hero.  And now in 2019 you have kids who are growing up watching the adventures of Rey, Finn and Poe.

In any case, even as a 43 year old I am able to look at the new movies and enjoy these new heroes.  I think they are great, and I’m happy younger viewers are connecting with them.

Here are the sketches I’ve gotten in my SW book over the past four years of some of these great new characters:

Finn by N. Steven Harris

Finn by N Steven Harris

This really detailed sketch of Finn from The Force Awakens was drawn by N. Steven Harris in June 2016 at the White Plains Comic Con.  Harris penciled Aztek: The Ultimate Man for DC back in the mid 1990s. He’s recently been doing great work on the creator owned series Ajala and Brotherhood of the Fringe, and on Michael Cray for DC / Wildstorm.

Rey by Russ Braun

Rey by Russ Braun

Russ Braun draws great convention sketches, and he also does such amazing likenesses. I was very happy with this sketch he did for me at New York Comic Con in October 2016 of Rey from The Force Awakens. He really captured actress Daisy Ridley’s features, and her character’s personality, in this piece.

BB-8 by Nik Virella

BB-8 by Nicole Virella

This was a quick sketch of the adorable BB-8 by artist Nicole “Nik” Virella, who drew the fan-favorite droid in the first Star Wars: Poe Dameron annual published by Marvel Comics in 2017. Virella had previously drawn some really funny, wacky Deadpool stories, but she really demonstrated her versatility with that SW annual. She did great work on it, and I hope that one day soon Marvel asks her to return to a galaxy far, far away.

Jyn Erso by Glyn Dillon

Jyn Erso by Glyn Dillon

After a short career in comic books Glyn Dillon became a storyboard and concept artist for movies and television. He was a concept artist and costume designer for the SW movies The Force Awakens, Rogue One and Solo. Dillon was sketching at New York Comic Con 2017 to raise money for the Hero Initiative. He drew this sketch of Rogue One protagonist Jyn Erso in my book. Dillon did a wonderful job capturing the likeness of actress Felicity Jones. It was cool getting someone who actually worked on the movies to contribute to the sketchbook.

Vice Admiral Holdo by Lynne Yoshii

Vice Admiral Holdo by Lynne Yoshii

The Last Jedi provoked some really divisive reactions among fandom, and the character of Amilyn Holdo, portrayed by Laura Dern, definitely epitomized that. People either seemed to love her or hate her. My girlfriend and I both liked Holdo a lot. In any case, I had the idea that Lynne Yoshii would do a really nice sketch of Holdo. Yoshii draws beautiful convention sketches with very vibrant colors, so I felt she would be perfect to draw a character with lavender hair. Yoshii drew this at the Diversity Comic Con held at Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan. She did a wonderful job capturing both the character’s personality and distinctive appearance.

That’s all for now, but hopefully I will have future opportunities to obtain sketches of the other great characters that have appeared throughout the Star Wars universe in its myriad incarnations.

New York Comic Con 2015

I was originally not planning to go to New York Comic Con this year.  Then about a week before the show my old friend Mitchell Lampert contacted me to let me know he had two extra tickets for Sunday.  Thanks to Mitchell’s very kind and generous gift, my girlfriend Michele and I were able to attend the show.

As usual, I was on a limited budget, although I did manage to raise a little extra money at the last minute.  Even so, seeing all of the amazing creators who had tables in Artists Alley, I did wish that I could have afforded a few more sketches.  Well, there’s always the future.

Erik Larsen NYCC 2015

When we arrived at the Javits Center on Sunday morning, I immediately headed over to Erik Larsen’s table in Artists Alley.  Larsen is the creator of Savage Dragon from Image Comics.  I’ve been following it from the very beginning, over two decades ago, and for the last few years it has been my favorite ongoing series.  Larsen has been a guest at NYCC several times before, but somehow I’ve always missed him.  I did meet him quite a few years ago, but he had a long line then, so I really did not have the opportunity to talk with him.

Fortunately on Sunday, while there was steady traffic at Larsen’s table, it never got very crowded, and so I was able to spend a few minutes talking to him, asking him questions and telling him how much I enjoyed his work.  Larsen is definitely a friendly, cool guy.

I was able to obtain a couple of sketches by Larsen.  He did a quick free sketch of Malcolm Dragon, and then I paid for him to do a detailed Beautiful Dreamer in my theme sketchbook. Larsen is a huge fan of Jack Kirby, so for a while now I’d hoped to have him contribute to the sketchbook.  I’m happy I finally had the opportunity.

Russ Braun NYCC 2015

Next I headed over to see Russ Braun, a very talented artist who has worked on such series as Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight, Battlefields, The Boys and Where Monsters Dwell.  I met Russ at a signing at JHU Comic Books a few months ago, where he did a nice drawing of Beautiful Dreamer for me.  Since then we’ve corresponded on Facebook.  Russ is definitely a class act, one of the nicest comic book pros I’ve ever met.  It’s always a pleasure to see the new artwork he’s posting on FB.

I picked up a copy of Russ’ 2015 NYCC Sketchbook, which contains some amazing illustrations.  A lot of these are pieces he’s shared on Facebook in the last few months, and it was nice to see them complied together.  Russ drew a sketch for me in my Avengers Assemble book.  He drew a pretty obscure character named Masque, who you might recall if you were reading the Avengers comics in the mid-1990s.  I will be the first to admit that “The Crossing” storyline was a huge mess.  However, there were certain characters and elements to it that I thought had potential, and Masque was one of those.  Anyway, Russ did a great job sketching the character.

Sovereign Seven original artwork

I was pleasantly surprised to meet Christopher Ivy, an artist I know from Facebook.  He is an extremely prolific inker who has been working in comic books since 1988.  Ivy had some original pages for sale.  I was just browsing through them out of curiosity when I came across one of his pages from Sovereign Seven penciled by Dwayne Turner.  As I’ve written before, S7 was an interesting series.  This one leaped out at me because of the beautiful drawing of Lucy the cat by Turner & Ivy.

Yes, as regular readers of this blog will know, I am definitely a huge cat lover.  So I immediately knew that I had to buy this page.  Fortunately it fell within my budget.  Michele thought it was a nice page, as well.

Chris Claremont NYCC 2015

Chris Claremont, the writer of Sovereign Seven, had a table in Artists Alley.  I brought the page over to get his autograph.  Claremont was pleasantly surprised by this, and he appeared genuinely happy to see it.  I always thought the series had a great deal of potential.  Even though it was published by DC Comics, the characters were owned by Claremont.  I told him that I would enjoy seeing him write them again, if not in comic books then perhaps in a prose novel.  I get the feeling that given the opportunity Claremont would like to revisit his creations.

I spent most of the day in Artists Alley, mostly because it looked like the main floor was very crowded.  Around 3:00 Michele and I decided to give it a try.  And, yep, it was completely packed!  It was almost impossible to move in places.  I felt like we were on the NYC subway during rush hour.

After elbowing out way through the crowd and making our way from one end of the floor to another, we finally arrived at the Action Labs booth.  Unfortunately by that time the creators of the Hero Cats series had left for the day.  Well, maybe next year!

Paris Cullins NYCC 2015

Inching our way back the other was, Michele and I came to the Papercutz booth.  Paris Cullins was there to promote The Zodiac Legacy, the new series he’s working on with writer Stuart Moore.  Cullins asked if I would like a sketch.  He then proceeded to draw Michele and myself!  I think that I look sort of weird, but the drawing of Michele was of course beautiful.  It was a very nice gesture on Cullins’ part.

I met a number of other creators at NYCC.  Among them were Joe Staton, Bret Blevins, Jan Duursema, Tom Mandrake, Joyce Chin, Mike Lilly, Bob McLeod, Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez, Joe Prado, Fernando Ruiz, Jamal Igle, Jim Chambers and Joe Martino.  I hope I’m not forgetting anyone.

There were, of course, some really amazing cosplayers at NYCC.  Michele took a whole bunch of pictures.  Here are a few of my favorites…

Sabine Wren from Star Wars: Rebels
Sabine Wren from Star Wars: Rebels

The Rocketeer
The Rocketeer

Hot Pepper
Hot Pepper

Doctor Strange and Zatanna
Doctor Strange and Zatanna

Peter Porker, the Spectacular Spider-Ham
Peter Porker, the Spectacular Spider-Ham

I really admire many of these cosplayers.  They obviously possess a great deal of talent to be able to create such amazing costumes, as well as the self-confidence to wear them at huge gatherings of fandom.

I’m happy that Michele and I were able to go to New York Comic Con this year.  It was fun.  At the same time, I’m glad that I only went one day.  Any more than that and I would have been completely worn out!