Comic Book Legend Denny O’Neil Dies

To say that the world of comics (and the world in general) lost a legend today is an understatement. Dennis J O’Neil has died, and with his passing we’ve lost not only a good writer, but a good editor and a good teacher as well.

Denny O’Neil was born on May 3, 1939 in St. Louis, Missouri. He was raised Catholic and after graduating from Saint Louis University he joined the Navy. After leaving the Navy he began writing a bi-weekly column for a newspaper in Cape Giardeu, Missouri. One summer he wrote about the revival of the super-hero comics that was going on, which attracted the attention of Roy Thomas, a fellow Missourian. Thomas eventually began working for Stan Lee at Marvel Comics and suggested that Denny take the writing test. Soon Denny was on staff and writing for Marvel and that’s where his career in comics began.

Listing Denny’s credits as a comic book writer would take far longer than what this piece is calling for. In addition to writing for Marvel, Denny worked for Charlton Comics (under the pseudonym Sergius O’Shaugnessy) and in 1968 he began writing for DC Comics where he would help bring Batman back to his darker roots, turned Wonder Woman into a non-super powered mod crime fighter (a move he would later regret), and brought relevance to DC’s characters in the form of the landmark Green Lantern/Green Arrow run. While Denny worked with a number of artists it was his collaborations with artist Neal Adams produced some of his best known and most fondly remembered work.

In 1980, Denny joined the editorial staff at Marvel as well as writing Spider-Man, Iron Man, and Daredevil. He left Marvel in 1986 to go back to DC, where he would take over the editing of the Batman titles which, after a rough start and a blockbuster movie, became some of the best-selling comics for DC. His run as editor is legendary and he steered the Dark Knight’s ship through the nineties and edited such stories as Year One, A Death In The Family, Knightfall, Contagion, Cataclysm, and No Man’s Land. He also reimagined the Steve Ditko creation The Question in 1987 and created the Batman related character Azrael, who had a title that ran one hundred issues.

In terms of Superman, Denny had a short but well remembered run starting in 1970. Editor Julius Schwartz hired him to take over the Superman title and starting in issue 233 Denny began a story that was designed to modernize Superman for a new decade. Clark Kent went from newspaper reporter to television anchorman. Superman’s powers were cut in half. Kryptonite, long a thorn in the Man of Steel’s side, was eliminated in an experiment gone wrong. While these events, like most things in comics, were later rolled back, O’Neil’s brief run is a great read and the first of many times DC tried to reinvent Superman only to have most of the status quo later return.

Denny retired from editing the Batman titles in the early 2000’s, but he didn’t fully retire from comics. He wrote the occasional comic as well as the novelizations to Batman Begins and The Dark Knight and The DC Guide to Writing Comics.

What made Denny special is that, for the most part, he wanted his writing to have purpose. While some of his comics were fun detective or adventure stories, others talked about real issues. His run on Green Lantern/Green Arrow talked about over population, pollution, and, most famously, drug addiction. He explored alcoholism during his run on Iron Man. His characters felt like real people and were grounded in the real world. Denny believed that his generation was something of a lost cause, but if he could reach a smart twelve-year-old maybe that kid would later make a difference. He was a teacher, both professionally and as an editor. Denny created characters that went beyond their comic book roots and have entered the larger pop culture landscape. He leaves behind a legacy that will never be equaled and I can safely say that he will be missed.

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June 12, 2020 9:38 pm


June 13, 2020 11:58 am

What can I say? One of the industry’s greatest and legendary talent is gone….but you know what? He will never be forgotten. Ever. I feel that a part of my childhood and youth has already gone with him as well.

Flight of angels sing thee to thine rest. Thank you Denny. For the greatest stories ever told…for redifining legends into the modern day. And for being an inspiration for storytelling.

Rest in peace, sir.

June 13, 2020 3:08 pm

His and Neal Adams’ work was nothing short of transformative – in the comics industry, in our cultural icons, and in my life as a teenager. R.I.P.

June 17, 2020 8:55 am

Frank Miller often gets the lip service in comicbook press and fandom for bringing Batman away from having been campy for so long but O’Neil and Adams had already done that in Bronze Age and IMO at much less expense to the character actually being a hero. He could be the Dark Knight *Detective* and still be someone who can recognize and acknowledge his friends, including Superman.