Denny O’Neil, long time comic scribe and editor, is the writer most responsible for bringing Batman into the present. Shunning the cornball of previous generations, Denny made Batman an obsessed, serious crimefighter, often working with the great illustrator Neal Adams. But it is their Green Lantern/Green Arrow run in the seventies that put liberal politics front and center, in a series of shocking issues that dealt with drug addiction, the Trial of the Chicago Seven, racism and corporate pollution front and center.
Denny was my editor on several projects I did for DC. I spoke with Denny online and in person at the Denver Comic Convention.
Baron: How did you come to write Batman and Green Lantern/Green Arrow?
O’Neil: The comics were sort of half-heartedly following the campy lead of the Batman TV show. That show and the whole camp fad vanished abruptly leaving the comics with no obvious direction. Julie Schwartz asked if I’d like to have a shot at giving them one and there was no reason to refuse the gig. Year would have been, I think, 68 or 69. Re: GL/GA: Green Lantern was floundering. Sales were anemic, but Julie (Schwartz) didn’t want to kill the title. He asked if I had any ideas and I saw a chance to combine my hippie/peacenik/tree-hugging interests with work that would feed the kid. Year would’ve been 1970.
Baron: Your first GL/GA was about Speedy becoming an addict, right? What reaction did you get from the fans? I know my reaction was shock.
O’Neil: The kid didn’t get addicted until 11 issues into the run, very near the end. I wasn’t aware of fan reaction, though maybe Julie was. As you might recall, there wasn’t as much interaction between creators and audience then as there is now. (Good? Bad? I honestly wonder.) And the dudes with the carpeted offices pretty much ignored us freelancers. I doubt that Julie’s bosses even knew about the series until it began getting publicity. But as noted. I really knew very little about what was going on outside my own tiny bailiwick.
Baron: Was the press, fan or otherwise, at all interested in what you were doing with GL/GA?
O’Neil: Yeah, we got a lot of attention from the ink press and a bit from the electronic media. We also got speaking invites and the like. And, though there was relatively little fan press at the time, what there was paid us heed. A girl friend later told me that she was initially interested because I was “famous,” which was news to me. All that, plus a token, got me on any subway in town.
Baron: If you were writing GL/GA today, what would you write about? If you incorporated political themes, what would they be?
O’Neil: The environment was the biggest issue back then and it’s bigger now. A judicial system that’s hopelessly broken. Demagogic pundits. Corrupt journalism. Deviant clergy. Politicians. (No qualifier needed?) Addiction is always a winner. Gun issues? (Maybe…) Whatever was eating my lunch when work time came.
Baron: You were Chuck Dixon’s editor. How did you react when he wanted to do a pro-gun story?
O’Neil: I am not a big second amendment fan. When Chuck and Grant (Miehm) wanted to do a pro-gun story I felt I had no right to impose my politics on them. You’d have to be stupid to ignore what Chuck and Grant brought to the party. I have utter respect for Chuck as a pro.
(I sent Denny the interview I did with Chuck. This was his response.)
O’Neil: I can’t say that there isn’t a certain amount of ‘ouch!’ in the piece, but the facts are almost all square. If I wanted to mount an objection it would be that the GL/GA stuff was never meant as leftie screed, but the presentation of problems (which still exist.). I never presented solutions because I had none then and I have none now. But that’s small stuff.
Still… I sometimes wonder if sixties liberals didn’t create the atmosphere for today’s extreme politics and name calling.
Denny O’Neil May 3, 1939 – June 11, 2020