We have lost one of the most significant voices in comics, as writer and editor Dennis “Denny” O’Neil passed away from natural causes on June 11th, at the age of 81. O’Neill wrote for both DC Comics and Marvel, but his biggest contributions to the comics medium are without a doubt those he made to the Batman mythos. In fact, it’s safe to say we have the current popularity of the Dark Knight as we know him thanks to O’Neil’s contributions.
O’Neil was born in May of 1939 in St. Louis, MO. Interestingly enough, the same month and year that the first Batman comic hit the stands with Detective Comics #27. After college, he got a job writing columns for a newspaper, and soon after got his start at Marvel Comics. O’Neil was one of the first generation of writers and editors who grew up as comic book fans first before going professional.
During his time at Marvel, he wrote issues of various series like Strange Tales, Rawhide Kid, Daredevil, and X-Men. Soon he would leave Marvel for Charlton Comics, and eventually at the age of 29, he came on board at DC Comics. There, editorial asked him to bring in some new ideas and youthful energy to titles like Justice League of America and Wonder Woman. It was his idea to remove Wonder Woman’s powers and costume in a drastic makeover, an idea he later said he regretted.
But the characters who changed the most under O’Neil’s auspices were Batman, Green Arrow, and Green Lantern. In the early ’70s, after the rise and fall of Batmania surrounding the 1960’s TV show, sales on Batman and Detective Comics took a massive dive. The show had turned the iconic hero into a joke, and DC didn’t know what to do with him post-Adam West. Together with his artistic collaborator Neal Adams (with whom he worked on X-Men at Marvel), O’Neil championed bringing Batman back to his gritty, “avenger of the night” roots. He’s never left since.
Under O’Neil’s guidance, Bruce Wayne became the obsessive and brooding vigilante we think of today. Among his most significant contributions to Batman lore, he co-created the iconic Batman foe Ra’s al Ghul and his daughter Talia, brought back Two-Face after years of not being in the comics due to being “too gruesome.” Most importantly brought The Joker back to his homicidal original incarnation. The character of Leslie Thompkins, who was a mother figure to Bruce Wayne, was also an O’Neil creation.
Shortly before revitalizing Batman, O’Neil and Neal Adams transformed the character of Green Arrow. Originally just a Batman knock off in Robin Hood style, O’Neil gave the character a drastic makeover. He took away Oliver Queen’s fortune, and made him an socially conscious hero. As a member of the hippie generation himself, O’Neil sought to give Green Arrow an angle that would make him relatable to younger readers at the time. Starting with issue #85 of Green Lantern, he gave that book a huge shot in the arm, teaming up G.L. Hal Jordan with Green Arrow. The book became Green Lantern/Green Arrow, and was unlike anything being published in comics at the time.
With Green Lantern/Green Arrow, O’Neil tackled contemporary issues in a way most comics of the time didn’t – especially DC Comics. He used his two lead characters to talk about racism, sexism, wealth inequality, and most notably, drug addiction. One of the most shocking additions to the DC mythos was when O’Neil revealed the Green Arrow’s sidekick Speedy (Roy Harper) was a heroin addict. Drugs were a very taboo subject in comics at the time, and this issue gave O’Neil incredible mainstream attention. This one issue changed that character forever. Because of O’Neil’s contributions, the popularity of the Green Arrow mythos would eventually lead to TV’s Arrow.
After a few years at Marvel, where he made some major contributions to the character of Iron Man. He introduced Obidiah Stane, the Iron Monger, and also revealed Tony Stark’s alcoholism – all ideas that informed the MCU Iron Man movies. It was also during his time working on the character that James Rhodes became War Machine. During a brief stint on The Amazing Spider-Man, he introduced the characters of Madame Web, and the Hydro Man. It was he who came up with the name Optimus Prime, when Transformers was developing as a comic for Marvel.
In 1986, O’Neil returned to DC Comics, where he became the editor of the Batman titles, a position that he would keep until the late ’90s. This was the period that saw a dramatic surge in the Dark Knight’s popularity, thanks to Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and the 1989 Batman movie. While group editor of the expanding Batman line, he oversaw the death of Robin (Jason Todd); readers decided his fate by calling a 1-800 number. He also co-created the character of Azrael, who would go on to be a main supporting hero in Gotham City for years, and even replace Batman for a time in the Knightfall crossover. During his return to DC, he also revived the urban vigilante heroes The Question and The Shadow.
Along with writing and editing, O’Neil taught at New York’s School of Visual Arts, was on the Hero Initiative’s Board of Directors. The Jimmy Carter Presidential Library honored O’Neil after his retirement, giving him key speaker status at its “Comic Books and Social Justice” weekend in December 2018. The city of Phoenix, AZ declared May 25, 2019 “Dennis O’Neil Day” in recognition of his incredible impact to the comic book industry.
Featured Image: YouTube / The Comic Book Archive