Denny Destroys DC: A Tragic Moment in Bronze-Age Comics History


 

The illustrious Man of the Atom made his long-awaited return to bring us more deep comics lore. Picking up from last time, the tireless chronicler turned his attention from Marvel to DC.

 

At National Periodicals, Weisinger edited Superman- and Batman-related titles early in his career, and was the long term editor for Superman titles until 1970. Schwartz took over editorial duties on Batman in 1964, shifting the character back to the Dark Detective format. But the top titles (Superman and Action Comics in the lead, with Batman titles following behind both) had been falling in sales since 1950 with the rest of National’s superhero titles. There was a desire to try to re-invigorate sales, especially in comparison to the incredible sales performance of Marvel Comics between 1961 and 1968. Recall what the sales profiles of the top selling books at Marvel and DC looked like over this time.

 

 

The only word to describe that chart is: Oof.

 

While Marvel enjoyed periodic sales bumps to slow its decline – notably from Star Wars and Jim Shooter – DC’s graph looks like a timeline of Conservative culture war victories.

 

And if you’ve followed this blog for any length of time, you know those two phenomena aren’t unrelated.

 

In 1968, Charlton Comics editor, Dick Giordano, came to National Periodicals, along with writer, Denny O’Neil. Giordano was a long-term contributor to Charlton Comics as both an artist and eventually its Editor-in-Chief. In the mid-1960s, O’Neil worked for both Marvel Comics under Stan Lee and for Charlton Comics under Giordano. These two were asked to revamp a number of National’s titles to spark greater sales, and hopefully capture some of the reader engagement that Marvel Comics enjoyed. These were not the only activities of this type, but they were some of the most obvious.

 

Giordano, a man on the younger side of the Greatest Generation, brought a familiar approach to his new assignment.

 

Dick Giordano worked on re-introducing horror, mystery/suspense, westerns, and other genres to test the waters just as Marvel did in 1969-1972.

 

All of the above genres, in their traditional forms, incorporate at least some classical romance elements. It sounds like Dick was on the right track. What about his fellow Charlton alum?

 

 

Last time, MotA discussed how the Silents represented a lost generation of comic creators. Denny O’Neil was among the rare Silents to hold major influence in a Boomer-dominated age. Let’s see how his tenure at DC went.

 

The difference at National for O’Neil as opposed to Charlton and Marvel would be working almost exclusively on Superhero titles. If there is one significant writer at whose feet we can lay much of the change from “Classical Romance” to “Realism” it is O’Neil.

Consider his significant assignment at Marvel Comics after Steve Ditko’s departure in 1966: writing for Doctor Strange. The dimension-spanning multi-issue battle against the tyrannical Dormammu had just concluded with Doctor Strange’s return to his home in Greenwich Village. From the Grand Comics Database, this was Denny O’Neil’s idea for a 3-issue Doctor Strange story just after Ditko left the building following Strange Tales Issue 146. Partial plot synopsis of the Doctor Strange story from Issue 147:

Strange walks the streets of Greenwich Village and after stopping a robbery returns home to find his bills unpaid, his bank account empty, and a city building inspector informing him he has six months to bring his house up to code. He instructs Wong to sell some jewels to pay the bills, checks up on Baron Mordo, thinks back on recent events, and then contacts a theatrical agent, Hiram Barney, about a possible nightclub gig. But he’s told magic is “out”– rock bands are “in”!

[ Battle with Kaluu follows, with plotting help from artist Bill Everett ]

 

Fantasy is an ordinary man being swept into a strange new world for a whirlwind of adventure and romance. Realism is Doctor Strange returning to old New York to dicker with building inspectors and talent agents.

That tepid mess doesn’t even rise to the level of deconstruction. It’s symptomatic of a limited talent shrinking a larger-than-life character to fit his narrow vision.

 

And it didn’t stop there.

Green Lantern Issue 76 (April 1970) began the Denny O’Neil take-over of the flagging title. The book was changed to Green Lantern/Green Arrow. Plot lines featured ‘realistic’ events vice the typical interplanetary adventures. In fact, O’Neil pretty much confined GL to Earth to deal with ‘relatable problems’. Plots included the famous copycat drug stories (“Jeepers, Speedy is a heroin addict!”) in Issues 85-86 (Oct-Nov 1971), just a few months after the FDA-requested Amazing Spider-Man Issues 96-98 (May-July 1971) from Marvel Comics (with no Comics Code Authority stamp). These activist-driven issues drew positive recognition from the national media talking about how comics were ‘growing up’, but the media hype around the stories didn’t translate to sales. Issue 89, the environmental awareness issue with its cover featuring an activist crucified on a jet plane engine, was the last Green Lantern for four years.

 

Anytime a Pop Cultist laments the SJW takeover of comics and tells you the medium needs to go back to the 90s, remind him how Denny O’Neil pozzed up Green Lantern in 1970.

 

 

Being conditioned to think within a narrow Overton window is the handicap that hamstrings both Conservative politics and the various ‘Gate movements. See author JD Cowan’s extensive series on fandom to understand the sclerosis in the latter. Neither returning to the 90s, nor the 60s, nor the 40s – nor any kind of cultural revanchism, will heal Western culture. Even if such backtracking were possible, it would only slap a Band-Aid on a mortal wound.

 

As MotA, Appendix N author Jeffro Johnson, and JD have pointed out, we must regress to a point before the deviation and blaze a new trail that avoids past mistakes.

 

*****

 

 

And if horror, mystery/suspense, and Westerns – with a healthy dose of sci fi – sounds appealing to you, read my award-worthy weird adventure novel Nethereal.

 

 

Originally published here.


Brian Niemeier

Brian Niemeier is a best selling science fiction author and a John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer finalist. His second book, Souldancer, won the first ever Dragon Award for Best Horror Novel., and its sequel, The Secret Kings, became a 2017 Dragon Award finalist for Best Science Fiction Novel. He's currently crowdfunding his latest work Combat Frame XSeed: CY 40 Second Coming on Indiegogo. Read more of his work at brianniemeier.com or pick up his books via Amazon.

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