Our hearts are heavy today, as we've learned that comic book storyteller supreme Denny O’Neil passed away last night from natural causes. The DC Universe would not be the place it is today without his many contributions. In honor of O’Neil’s life, here’s a brief look at some of the legendary work he created during his time at DC Comics...
In 1970 Denny O’Neil teamed up with artist Neal Adams for a run on Green Lantern. Beginning with Green Lantern #76, the series went in a direction that brought new relevance to comics. With the addition of Oliver Queen as co-lead, the title was renamed Green Lantern/Green Arrow. O’Neil elevated the superhero narrative, taking the stories beyond typical hero vs. villains stuff, and had the characters tackle real-world social issues, as they argued over racism and man's inhumanity.
One of the book's most famous scenes occurred in Green Lantern #76 when a poor black man asked Hal Jordan why he hadn’t done more for the civil rights movement. The question left Jordan, and the readers, at a loss for words.
Denny O’Neil broke down barriers, and showed the world that comic books could be as thought-provoking as any other piece of media. In Green Lantern #85 Oliver is devastated to learn that his partner and ward Roy Harper has become addicted to heroin. At the time the story was published, it was unthinkable for a kid sidekick to be facing something this controversial. But that’s what Denny O’Neil did – he pushed comic books to tackle the unthinkable. Two issues later (Green Lantern #87), O’Neil introduced John Stewart's Green Lantern, DC’s first African-American superhero.
O’Neil continued exploring real-world justice in his 1986 run on The Question. Never one to play it safe, O'Neil began his series with a bang, by seemingly killing off the title character at the end of the first issue! The rest of his run had Vic Sage questioning the nature of criminality, how society and the justice system shape the nature of criminals, and if there could ever truly be justice when the deck is stacked in favor of systemic corruption. O’Neil’s Question heavily featured Lady Shiva, a martial artist whom he introduced during his time on Richard Dragon, Kung Fu Fighter. Shiva emerged as one of the greatest fighters in the DC Universe, thanks in large part to her role in this run. For more on this series, check out our latest "Binge This".
Batman was created in the Golden Age, but Denny O’Neil, more than any other writer, is responsible for today's characterization of the Caped Crusader. O’Neil knew there was more to the Dark Knight than the camp that had defined him in the 1960s, so he brought a grounded Caped Crusader back to a moody Gotham City. The first of O’Neil's Batman tales with artist Neal Adams -- "The Secret of the Waiting Graves!" -- appeared in Detective Comics #395, launching a fan-revered era that later inspired Steve Englehart and Frank Miller, who in turn inspired Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan.
Denny O’Neil introduced Ra’s al Ghul in Batman #232, creating an essential member of the Dark Knight’s rogues gallery who continues to play a major role in the Bat mythos today. (How many comic creators can brag that they got to see one of their characters played by Liam Neeson?) O’Neil also introduced Leslie Tompkins in Detective Comics #457, an issue regarded as one of the most emotional Batman comics ever written. Batman #251 brought the Joker back after a four-year absence and updated his characterization for modern audiences. Much of what we love about Mark Hamill’s Joker in Batman: The Animated Series come from this issue's story, “The Joker’s Five-Way Revenge.” In fact, a large portion of Batman: The Animated Series takes its cue from Denny O’Neil’s Bronze Age run. O’Neil also co-wrote the show's two-parter “The Demon’s Quest” which adapted some of his classic Ra’s al Ghul stories from the 1970s.
When O’Neil wasn’t writing the Batman titles, he was still shaping the direction of Gotham City. In the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s, O’Neil served as editor of the Batman family of titles, including Robin, Nightwing, Catwoman, and Azrael (whom he'd co-created in 1992's Batman: Sword of Azrael). During this era, the titles regularly crossed over for blockbuster events like "Knightfall," “Contagion” and “Cataclysm,” with O’Neil coordinating everything. Comic-book crossovers weren’t a new concept, but O’Neil changed the game during his tenure as the man behind the Bat.
During this time, O’Neil was mindful about taking care of Batman’s legacy, and making sure the Dark Knight remained grounded in all the DC titles he appeared in. But his duties as editor didn’t mean his days writing stories were over. O’Neil continued scripting new stories, including Batman: Sword of Azrael, which introduced Jean-Paul Valley, and Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight #63, the concluding chapter to the "KnightsEnd" crossover event. He also crafted a new tale of Batman and the Joker's first meeting in Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight #50, and updated Robin's origin for the Modern Age in Legends of the Dark Knight #100. Perhaps his most ambitious project as an editor was overseeing "No Man’s Land," a yearlong event that spread across all of the Batman titles. Though his concern with real-world issues never abated, as was evident in Batman: Death of Innocents, his 1996 graphic novel examing the horror of landmines. He also conceived and edited Batman: Seduction of the Gun, a 1993 one-shot special that explored the issue of gun control.
Denny O'Neil's contributions to pop culture are incalculable. In a world without him, we wouldn't have the Batman we do today. One of the principal architects of the DC Universe, his legacy will be celebrated as long as stories are told.