When I decided to see if I could successfully conduct interviews with some of my favorite creators I had no idea just how far it would go. It began in 2007 and somehow in that year alone, I managed to conduct 18, including the one with Denny O’Neil. Denny had done so much superlative work over the years for numerous publishers and genres and since I was an aspiring writer myself, I was fascinated to learn how that discipline worked. As the first writer I was privileged to speak with, he was more than forthcoming and friendly and I must have shown myself as trustworthy as he didn’t even request final approval on the transcript. Denny’s career speaks for itself, but I think it’s better yet that he speaks about it, too, and never loses sight of the fact that while he obviously excels at his craft, he is, first and foremost, a human being and family man who has enjoyed a life and career rich with interesting experiences.
Read part one of our freewheeling interview with Deny O’Neil here.
Bryan Stroud for Comics Bulletin: You were speaking about Green Arrow earlier. You redefined Oliver Queen, taking away his wealth and eliminating at least part of the old “Batman with a bow” comparison by turning him into an urban hero. What spawned that direction?
Denny O’Neil: Well, part of the inspiration came from the fact that Neal, in a story written by Bob Haney, gave him a nifty new look. The first Green Arrow, if you looked up “bland” in the dictionary, there he’d be. He was a really uninteresting looking guy and his kid sidekick, his costume was red instead of green, but apart from that he was pretty uninteresting, so Neal gave him this kind of macho look and mostly I wanted to introduce a kind of blue collar, street element into the stuff and the playboy whose hobby is crime-fighting was a staple of pulp fiction of the ’30s and seemed to me to be I think a pretty stale idea by the time I came along.
Stroud: Pretty cliché, yeah.
O’Neil: And also I got a Justice League story out of his losing his fortune, and then when we decided to do GL/GA, all right, well, Green Arrow was a given and we didn’t mess with his characterization much, but we needed a contrast. If this was going to be a dialogue, we needed to represent the opposite side.
Well, Oliver Queen had never had much character. I mean he was one of those superheroes, or a lot of them, in the ’40s who was defined by his powers. He was the one with the bow and arrow. Hawkman was the one with wings. The stories were plot driven, the way a lot of detective fiction at the time, locked-room mystery thing was plot-driven. Perfectly fine, but we were evolving into more characterization, and in this particular case I needed someone to represent the non-establishment point of view. Well, Green Arrow was available, he brought very little baggage, nobody had ever paid a whole lot of attention to him, there was not very much established about him, apart from the loss of fortune, which had been my story. So he was there to use, and a logical enough choice for the use to which we wanted to put him.
The same way with Black Canary. She did judo. Okay, I wonder if the people who made that up knew what Judo was. She certainly wouldn’t have worn those heels if she was in any Judo class I’ve ever taken, but it’s easy to take those kinds of cheap shots. But basically she was available, we thought we needed a female presence in the series and she brought very little baggage with her. She didn’t have a title of her own. There was not a lot of interest in her. Now I’m told she’s one of the most popular characters in the DC universe.
Stroud: Huh. That’s interesting.
O’Neil: I did an introduction to a collection of Green Arrow/Black Canary stories a couple of weeks ago and that’s when I learned that. She’s very popular now, so you never know. Spider-Man started as a 15-pager for Amazing Fantasy.
Stroud: Yeah, you just never know who’s going to really take off and make a lasting impact.
O’Neil: Yeah, maybe partially because those characters are so malleable that creative people can come along and really do something with them.
Stroud: Yeah, or adapt them to the times.
O’Neil: Yeah, let them reflect what’s outside the window, which is always one of the tricks of doing this kind of work. And the thing that’s most interesting to me about comics is the evolutionary aspect, and when I was editing Batman I came to realize, particularly after the death of Robin stunt, that what we’ve got to do is something that Julie Schwartz knew instinctively: These characters have to change or they’ll become dated. So you keep the essence of the character intact. What made him interesting in the first place? And then let everything else reflect the world outside.
Stroud: Perfect. That would be the way to ensure a degree of immortality.
O’Neil: Mainstream novelists call it magic realism. A long time before anybody made up that term, pulp writers would do it and you had a recognizable New York City, but somebody had a death ray or could turn invisible. One or two elements that are fantasy and everything else is the world.
Stroud: Speaking of the Green Lantern/Green Arrow series, that got all kinds of attention and won awards and so forth, but ultimately it got canceled 13 issues later. Do you think it was a matter of critical success over commercial failure?
O’Neil: Again, we were told sales, we were always told sales…I don’t know.
Stroud: A convenient excuse.
O’Neil: Yeah. I once asked Julie Schwartz, “How did you get away with doing continued stories in Justice League when conventional wisdom was that you couldn’t do continued stories in comics?” What he said in effect was, “I did them, I didn’t bother to ask anybody.” Stan of course made it a policy, but Julie just said, “Well, yeah, once a year I did them.” I think that the big splash that Green Lantern/Green Arrow made probably came as a big surprise to the executives at Time-Warner.
The first newspaper article, which was in the Village Voice, which was sort of my community newspaper, didn’t mention Julie, Neal, or I, so I had the impression that the guy who was interviewed didn’t exactly know what to say and so when we did get all that favorable attention and the Mayor of New York, the Honorable John Lindsay commended us, then Neal and I, particularly; Julie less so, but that’s because there’s no justice in the world, began to get attention. Now every company has a Public Relations department. There was nothing like that back then. It was just individual reporters or university guys seeking us out and it has really put a lot of money in my pocket since, but at the time I got the same page rate as I got for writing Super Friends. It was, on one level, just a job.
Neal and I realized after awhile, it was a helluva job, and that we were pushing the envelope, but if someone had said, “Yeah, and in 30 years they’ll bring out a hardcover edition that will cost $75,” I’d have said, “Yeah, right. Can I have whatever it is you’re having?” As I said, conventional wisdom was that comic books are forgotten in 3 years and we thought, yeah, they’ll still be remembering this stuff a year or two after we stop doing it, and it’s certainly interesting and fun to be doing it while we’re at it, but such a long afterlife? No.
Stroud: Yeah, just no concept of the legs it would have.
O’Neil: My first wife said that with both with Superman and with that my timing stinks because I did it before royalties. I mean the changes I made in Superman, if that had been done 30 years later, there would have been a major publicity campaign, yadda, yadda, yadda, and at the time, as I said, it was a $15 a page job.
Stroud: Yeah, just hacking out a living and going from there.
O’Neil: And trying to work honorably, trying to do the best job you can, because it becomes awfully boring if you don’t.
Stroud: Yes. Now, was it over at Charlton that you were using the alias of Sergius O’Shaughnessy?
Stroud: You know usually when you go to write or something you’re trying to gain some notoriety, what was with the alias?
O’Neil: Well, notoriety and comic book writer were an oxymoron back then.
Stroud: Ah, of course.
O’Neil: The world knew Stan Lee and didn’t know anybody else; I mean most of the DC comics didn’t carry bylines. I think it was okay with Dick if we wanted to sign them, but I was doing a fair amount of straight journalism and I was working first as a reporter or as a feature writer and then as an editor for a business magazine, yeah, hippie me. (chuckle.) Tie-dye Denny.
Stroud: (Laugher.) That is a little hard to feature.
O’Neil: And doing an occasional straight reporting job for a magazine and I just wondered, maybe these business guys would not be comfortable with a comic book writer working for them. I was doing some work for Stan and wondered if he…I don’t think he would have objected, but I didn’t know that at the time, and while I wasn’t doing much work for him, I didn’t want what I was doing to go away.
Stroud: That clears that one up. Speaking of clearing things up, I have wondered forever and a day, would you please tell me how to pronounce, is it “race” or “Roz” al ghul, how is that pronounced?
O’Neil: Well, my daughter went to the language department of UCLA about 15 years ago and she was told “Rashe.”
Stroud: “Rashe.” Okay.
O’Neil: Yeah. That was Julie’s contribution.
Stroud: Oh. He named it?
O’Neil: Yeah. In effect, he said, “Okay, here’s this name, it means ‘Head of Demon,’ gimme a character to go with it.” That is my memory of how it went. Again, I mean I’m 68 years old and 4 years ago I was subjected to massive jolts of electricity and I wasn’t taking notes anyway. So we tend to have somewhat differing memories of what happened, but I am prepared to say — Julie says pretty much the same thing in his autobiography — he came up with the name, and Neal and I ran with it.
Stroud: Okay, somehow I missed that. I just recently read that within the last few weeks and I must have skipped over that part.
O’Neil: I think it’s only one line somewhere in the middle of the book.
Stroud: At the risk of sounding like a drooling fanboy, you wrote my all-time favorite Batman novel with Knightfall, which in my opinion totally epitomizes the Batman mythos and I’m going on the presumption it followed the earlier efforts that you and Neal took to return him to his dark roots. Is that accurate?
O’Neil: Yeah. That was tied in with a monstrously long comic book continuity and a BBC Radio series. It was probably the most interesting mountain I’ve ever climbed and I never want to climb it again.
Stroud: (Laughter.) Once was enough, huh?
O’Neil: Well, after we came up with the stunt, which is Batman dies, Bruce Wayne dies or is disabled, that somebody else takes over as Batman for a year…they decided since the Superman guys were doing something similar, which I didn’t know until we were well into our continuity, that there was going to be some novels and I was the only Batman writer who arguably had a grasp of the entire thing.
But I was also a working editor. I had a day job, and they insisted that the novel be at least 100,000 words long. We agonized over it for a little bit and finally Marifran said, “You’ll hate yourself if somebody else does it.” So while we were in the process of creating the comic book continuity, which ended up over 1100 pages long, I was at night subjecting myself to the discipline of, after dinner, close the door, I’d done the arithmetic I know how many words I had to do every day to meet the deadline. I would do that number of words and then stop.
In the middle of it, we were going home for Christmas and I had a portable computer with the novel on it in the back seat of a Pontiac which was destroyed when I fell asleep at the wheel and smashed into a barrier doing approximately 65, the car flipped over 3 times, we didn’t know that until later. And we spent Christmas in the intensive care ward.
Stroud: Oh, yeah, that’s right. You referenced that in the story.
O’Neil: Yeah, that was a little nudge, a little inside joke. The only thing I was worried about was the computer, and I asked the doctor on Christmas morning (chuckle) “Would you please go out to the wreckage of the car and see the computer?” And bless him, he did and he brought it back and it was still working and so I hadn’t lost the novel.
Stroud: A large chunk of your life.
O’Neil: I had some of it saved on disk, but not all, so I lost two weeks, in effect, before I could really reasonably get back to work and we went right down to the wire. The last 3 days…well, we made this arrangement where every Saturday morning Marifran and I would drive out to a big shopping mall at the end of Brooklyn and meet Charlie Kochman there and I would deliver pages to him, so he was editing as he went along.
At the end, Friday, Saturday and Sunday, Charlie came to our place in Brooklyn and we did the final line by line edit at my desk with Marifran bringing lemonade and cookies every few hours. We finished editing it Monday morning at 11:00 and I think it went to the press at 12:00. It was right down to the wire and a really interesting thing to do. “I don’t have time to worry if this is good or not. The only thing I have to do is get it done somehow.” I had a bestseller out of it, something that most writers don’t ever have a chance to enjoy. So I was really glad to have managed to accept the challenge, but my God that was a seriously work-laden six months. I think we actually did it in five and a half.
Stroud: It sounds like a terribly daunting task, but I mean the results were just absolutely phenomenal. It’s one of the few pieces of pure fiction that I’ve literally…I think I’ve re-read that thing 4 or 5 times, because when I get fed up with reading bad Batman stories, whether it was from the ’50s, anywhere from there forward, I go pick up Knightfall and I think, “Okay, this is how he was meant to be. Somehow Denny O’Neil is in Bruce Wayne’s head and understands all the conflicts and all the subtleties and just what he’s supposed to be and so…”
O’Neil: It all started with “The Secret of the Waiting Graves.” That was just a 15-pager, but there, the assignment was, “Okay, we’ve been doing this camp thing” for however long it had been. The first time I was offered Batman I didn’t want to do it. I ended up doing a fill-in story based on New Orleans jazz, which Julie Schwartz loved. Anyway, it was in the middle of the camp thing and I thought, “I don’t think I’m any good at this.”
The second time, it’s, “Well, camp is over, and we’ve got this character and we want to keep publishing it. What do you want to do?” So we came up with “Secret of the Waiting Graves.” I think it evolved from there. The basic thing was to eliminate all the bad comedy and to try and make it intelligent. The question you ask yourself is if this guy existed, how would he have to be? I got part of a cue from an essay that Alfred Bester wrote for the science fiction writer’s house organ, which is two novels, particularly the second of the first two, are about obsessed characters and he wrote this essay about how useful it is to writer’s to have an obsessed character and I thought, “Yeah, that’s Batman.” So once you have something like that in place, and you’re trying to be reasonably logical, the rest of it kind of snaps to and eventually you have a character.
Stroud: So I suppose that’s obviously the logical progression that led to when you reintroduced the classical homicidal maniac of The Joker. That was just the next logical step.
O’Neil: Absolutely. I wondered if the Comics Code would let us get away with that many murders in a story, but again, you could never predict the Comics Code. We didn’t hear a peep from them. But there’s no point in doing a maniacal clown who isn’t maniacal. Then you’ve just got a clown. Big deal. And the Joker had started out, no matter who had created him; three people have claimed him (chuckle), but it was a great idea for a villain. I think in all of the trickster characters, in all of the literature of the world there is no better one than The Joker, but he had to be homicidal and insane for it to work as a story. So that’s what we did.
Stroud: Yeah, and did a beautiful job. In fact I suspect that on the strength of that reintroduction…to my knowledge that’s the only villain, at least during the time period that got his own title.
O’Neil: Yeah, and now we could do justice to that baby, but at the time, “Okay, you’ve got a homicidal maniac and he has to be the protagonist 12 times a year.” I was never satisfied with the work I did for that. Given the Comics Code there was just no way to make it work. He had to be Hannibal Lecter in order to be consistent and logical and be The Joker, and he couldn’t be that back then. Now with the freedom comics guys have they could probably make it work.
Stroud: I seem to remember reading in the letter column once, I’ve actually got that entire 9-issue series in my collection, that the Code at the time required the villain to be captured and punished at the end of every story, so that really put some limitations on.
O’Neil: Yeah, exactly. It was just impossible. In terms of good writing, good plotting, it couldn’t be done. It was the same problem that the movie guys had. When I teach writing I use the movie The Bad Seed as an example of that; where it was adapted from a Broadway play about this angelic little girl who kills people wantonly any time she doesn’t get her way, and the way the play ended, she’s gonna get away with it. “Oh, my God, she’s going to grow up!” (chuckle.) In the movie, because of that requirement, the last minute she walks to the end of a dock and lightning strikes her dead. So God takes care of it. God handles what the cops couldn’t, and nothing in the story sets that up. It’s not the writer’s fault; I mean they had to do it that way.
So that was the problem with The Joker, you couldn’t be logical and consistent and do that character as a protagonist.
Stroud: So was it more the writing difficulties that signaled that one’s demise or was it another…
O’Neil: I have no idea.
Stroud: Sales. (Laughter.) Of course I realize you weren’t involved clear up to the end.
O’Neil: No and I don’t really remember why I stopped being involved, whether it was Julie’s idea or mine, but, well, you know our lives are littered with things that for one reason or another didn’t work. I think the guys in the big offices don’t ever take things like that ever into consideration. “Exactly how is this going to work, dramatically?”
Stroud: Yeah, just throw something up on the wall and see if it sticks.
O’Neil: Yeah, or they look at figures. “This issue of Batman featuring this character sold well, so maybe we should do a book about this character,” without realizing, well, no, maybe you shouldn’t. (chuckle.) Maybe it can’t possibly work.
Stroud: The gorilla theory. (Laughter.)
O’Neil: On the other hand, sometimes those kinds of assignments make you rise to the occasion and you figure out a way to make it work. I wish there were rules for doing this work, but there isn’t.
Stroud: (Laughter.) Still very much a crap shoot, it sounds like. Did your background as a reporter…do you think that was a help or a hindrance?
O’Neil: Oh, I would recommend that any professional writer put in time as a reporter because it gives you discipline, it teaches you that your precious little words are not made of diamond.
Stroud: You learn to deal with editors.
O’Neil: Exactly. And it teaches you that you could be wrong. Maybe the editor is right. But mostly I think one of my strengths was I did always regard it as a job, as I said, a splendid job, but my background was, well, this is why you write. There are these two mouths on Second Street in the East Village that need to have food in them. Dick and I once shared one of our secrets; we are both so insecure that we felt, “If I screw this up, I’ll never get another job. So I don’t dare blow this deadline.” And even when we were well-established, and logically you know that’s not true, there’s a part of you that says, “I don’t dare screw up.” Well, it probably interferes with proper digestion, but it does make you a good professional. (chuckle.)
Stroud: (Laugher.) A good sense of discipline. That’s irreplaceable. I’m not sure you can actually inculcate discipline into someone. I think they have to come with it, for the most part.
O’Neil: I have a minor in creative writing. It’s a joke because really what we did for three years was write a thousand words a week. It was the way that writing classes are usually taught, you would read it aloud to the class and get a critique. I don’t know that that was valuable, but the discipline of, you’ve got to have a thousand words, three typed pages, by 11:00 on Thursday morning or whatever it was, it was good.
My son, who is obviously of another generation, has a degree in filmmaking and I asked him when I started teaching what he got from his writing classes and he said virtually the same thing. The discipline of having to do a piece a week. If you are looking at screenwriting there are all kinds of craft things you can teach. I’ve published probably close to 50 short stories and I don’t feel qualified to teach short story writing. You get an idea and you develop it. Boy, that doesn’t take a semester to communicate.
With comic book writing, with screenwriting, yeah, there’s dramatic structure and all kinds of things. So journalism gives you that kind of discipline and I don’t know if it can be taught, but it can certainly be presented as a desirable thing to achieve. I talked to a couple of editors up at DC a few months ago and said, “What’s your biggest problem?” and it was my biggest problem, too, you can’t get two consecutive issues out of people. It was a problem that Julie Schwartz had in the ’40s, and I think part of it is a kind of culture that grows up that you don’t really have to pay attention to these things. In journalism, the guy down below the editorial room is gonna push that big red button at 10:00 and that press is gonna roll, and if your story’s not on it, there’s gonna be this big white space and if that happens three times, you’re fired.
I’m often amazed that comic book guys, when they work in television they have no problem with the deadlines. When they work in comics they can’t seem to meet them. So it has to be something about the comics rather than them. And again, television is really unforgiving. They really do need the script for the read-through on Monday morning. No kidding. They really do need it. There’s tens of thousands of dollars an hour being spent, they need the script, really. So, they find a way to get it to them. A friend, Emily, who has been on CSI Miami for five years, worked on West Wing for a season, and she said that very often, having worked on all of those shows, you know Monday is when they have the read-through and they start shooting Monday afternoon, but Tuesday he doesn’t have an idea. Wednesday, he doesn’t have an idea. Thursday he doesn’t have an idea and he’s desperate and maybe I ought to get another writer, maybe we’re going to cancel the series, I don’t know. Thursday night, real late, the germ of an idea. Friday, Saturday and Sunday, at the computer. Monday morning they have the script, and obviously that was his process. He needed to put himself in that pressure cooker.
Stroud: Right in the crucible and go from there. Oh, boy…
O’Neil: But the point is that they do get it done.
Stroud: I know that they called upon you for consulting detail for the last Batman movie. Were you involved in any of the prior editions also, or was that a first?
O’Neil: Oh, I always got the scripts, and I always read them, and wrote a memo, and the things that I suggested were all pretty obvious and I’m sure that 50 people wrote similar memos and 40 of them made the same suggestions, so I never had the illusion that anything I said made any difference.
Those early movies…I got to know Sam Hamm, who wrote the first one and did the story for the second one fairly well, but I never met Tim Burton. The Ra’s al Ghul one, well they were…except for denying me a screen credit, and I don’t know why they did that, because they’re perfectly willing to acknowledge that I created the character, what I really did was consult on the video game. That was the easiest money I ever made. A very bright, smart 27-year-old writer would drive up here a couple of times a month and we’d go to lunch in town and I’d say, “Well, you know, Batman can’t say ‘goddamn.'” “Oh, okay, Batman doesn’t say ‘goddamn.'” That was the extent of my consulting. My name was there for theatrical value.
On the other thing I wrote the novel and it was a hellish job getting the script. Again, when you do these novelization things the deadline is unforgiving and I know how fast I can reasonably work and they were not willing to give me a script, so finally I went on the internet and I got a pirated one and started with that. I once interviewed a guy at the State Department. The security was considerably less to get into the State Department than to look at that script, but I kept thinking on my first read-through, “Wow, this is really good, they really get it,” and “Why didn’t I think of this? This is really a good bit.” So I was pleased. It was fun to do the novel. About 40% of it is new material, but again, I was told, “Do what’s appropriate. Give us more background on the villain, and follow the broad beats of the script and take it from there.” I added an ending they didn’t have that they complimented me on. But I didn’t really consult on the movie. I missed a chance to meet with the director. They had the premiere in Hollywood. We were invited, but there was a conflict. We couldn’t get away. So I missed a chance to meet Chris Nolan. Paul Levitz said that he had asked if we could get together. I think it’s one of the best superhero movies ever made, and by a wide margin the best Batman big-screen effort.
Stroud: I perfectly agree. Did you approve of the way they handled Ra’s?
O’Neil: Oh, it wasn’t exactly my Ra’s, but it shouldn’t have been. What they did was perfectly valid on its own terms. If I was going to quibble, I might have wanted a little more gravitas in Liam Neeson’s performance. I have always envisioned Ra’s as this enormously impressive, serious…sort of like Jupiter, the god, or Saturn, but the basic mistake comic book people make is to think that you can make a movie out of a comic book and you can’t. They’re different media, they have different requirements.
The example I’ve probably used a thousand times is you have to translate, like translating a haiku from Japanese to English. If you give a literal translation, you will have gibberish. This is not my idea, it’s Stanley Kaufman’s, you have to re-create the poem in your own language; take the idea of it and realize it in a different way, and that is exactly the problem with adapting something from one medium to another. They weren’t making a comic book, they were making a movie. I could quibble with one other bit of casting, but apart from that, I walked into the screening that we finally went to in New York City, just wondering how I would feel (chuckle) when I walked out of that theater. Because the last Batman screening we went to, poor Marifran, I couldn’t talk for an hour. I was just really, really furious. But in this case, it was a pleasure. I thought, “Yeah, they really brought this off.”
Stroud: Yeah, I was similarly satisfied and I tried to get past my own anal retentive tendencies. I mean, when they were opening the Batcave with the keyboard, I thought, “No, no, no, it’s the grandfather clock!” (Laughter.)
O’Neil: Nowhere near as serious an offense as, “Oh, by the way, Master Bruce, I’ve brought your girlfriend down to the Batcave.” (chuckle.) These guys just didn’t get it at all. I did know that director and he is one of the sweetest men, and one of the nicest people on the face of the Earth. When my kid went out to direct a movie in Hollywood he met him, and the director was not aware of the connection and Larry said he was just helpful and nice, just a new director in town. Give the kid a break. But I don’t think he got it. I keep wondering how the screenwriter continues to get work. He gets a lot of it.
Stroud: It does baffle you when something gets butchered that badly. Oh, well, I guess they don’t consult with me, either. (chuckle.)
O’Neil: Well, and I understood giving that team one movie, but why two?
Stroud: Yeah, two shots at mediocrity.
O’Neil: The director has said that a lot of the problems were that the studio insisted on maximum merchandising and I’m sure that’s true. One of Marifran’s best friends is second in command at the licensing department at DC, so we get a good look into her world and yeah, there had to be a lot of costumes and a lot of gadgets, but when I think about individual shots, the studio heads don’t mandate that. So he was not the right guy for the job. That happens. Bad casting. He told me when we were at some function together, he said, “I’m doing your Batman.” I thought, “Well, that’ll be nice, if it’s true.” (chuckle.)
Stroud: Not quite up to standard. Are you working on any particular projects right now?
O’Neil: I do a weekly column for an online thing called Comic Mix, edited by my old Question editor, Mike Gold, with the terms of the assignment that it can be as little as 500 words a week and “Yes, please get as political as you want.” And no other restrictions about subject matter. So, it’s pleasant enough. I take a walk around the lake near here on Monday afternoon and think about it and I write it on Tuesday. It’s an hour’s work unless my brain has fallen into the pan for some reason. I keep getting asked to do introductions and essays. As far as comic book writing, nothing for years. Julie Schwartz’ memorial Flash was the last thing I did. That’s fine with me.
It’s not that I would not take a comic book assignment, but I probably would not be too comfortable doing the current interpretations of the characters. I think I had a pretty good long run of staying contemporary with the audience, partially because I had a kid, who was the audience. A bright teenager. Probably the average comic book audience, or college kid, but, well, a question I asked someone the other day: “Where is the line between allowed and here? How far negative can you go with a character and still call that character a hero?” I really would love to have an answer for that. I don’t. I don’t know. I am not comfortable with the degree of anti-heroism that I sometimes see. That, I have to shout from the rooftops, does not mean it’s wrong. It means I don’t get it.
Stroud: Right. Which, of course, would make your job very difficult.
O’Neil: Yeah. I mean, if they came and said, “Do your Batman for one issue,” yeah, I’d probably take that job. There’s a part of me that still loves the work. I quit four years earlier than I needed to for a lot of reasons. One was 12-hour workdays for years. (chuckle.) But another was I kind of sensed that it was going in a direction I wouldn’t be comfortable with. The business. And I’m sort of like their designated talking head, I’ve done a lot of DVD commentary and that kind of thing, so I get up there once in awhile, and I have a sense that I was right. It’s probably perfectly fine for 30-year-olds. I would be very uncomfortable in that situation.
The situation I had for about the last 5 years is I was the Grand Old Man after Julie retired and I was fairly bulletproof and given more autonomy than editors usually have. My job was, “Run the Batman franchise.” And any way I wanted to do that was probably okay with them. With “No Man’s Land,” I was surprised when they gave us permission to do it, and then we started it…the idea was Jordan Gorfinkel’s, I had nothing to do with it, he brought in an outline one Monday morning that he’d done by himself over the weekend, and I thought, “Well, okay, this team, the four of us, have worked together successfully for a long time. We can do professional grade comics, and we can be out of here by 5 o’clock when we’re getting a little stale, a little bored.” The way that you cure that is to undertake something you’re not quite sure you can bring off, and “No Man’s Land” was certainly that, but I didn’t think they’d give me permission to do it, and they did, and then we got no support. The sales started coming in and I went up to a retailer’s meeting in Baltimore and Paul Levitz said, “We owe Denny an apology. He was right. “No Man’s Land” is a great idea.”
Stroud: So you were validated. Very good.
O’Neil: Yeah. I was surprised that it was successful. A lot of people said, “Well, the government would never abandon a city,” and then came along Katrina and New Orleans and we weren’t terribly far off.
Stroud: Sadly, no. Was being an editor as satisfying as being a creator, or was it just a different kind of a job?
O’Neil: They’re different things. The editor satisfies your need to work with people, which I’m not awfully good at. In college, along about my sophomore year, I sort of had to make a decision. Am I going to work to major in drama or in English and I did one little professional show and I thought, “I don’t like this lifestyle.” It’s too busy, it’s too many people. The nice thing about being a writer, the good and the bad thing, is you close the door behind you for 30 hours a week. There’s no way you can get help during the job. There’s a before and after, but it is a very isolating thing, and if you’re enormously talented, but you can’t live with that, you can’t make a living as a writer.
Stroud: Yeah, it is a very solitary exercise.
O’Neil: On the other hand, there is great satisfaction in working with creative people, and the last editorial team I had, I should have paid them. For about six years it was a pleasure to go into work every day. Those guys were so good and if I had dropped dead, they could have occupied my desk and nobody would have missed a beat. Any one of them was qualified to do my job. Two of them were out here a couple of weeks ago. We have stayed in touch. So there was that real pleasure…and some of the freelancers. I always love talking to Doug Moench. Really interesting guy.
But any time there are three people together, on a desert island, two of them are going to unite against the third. Its human nature, and I have no aptitude for politics, and I really dislike it, and as that began to be some…it’s not like it dominates the entire thing, but it was rearing its head. And I thought, “Well, I’ve had a really long run at doing this.” According to Mark Evanier, the longest regularly working writer in the history of the medium. Maybe it’s time to get off the stage and to pass the torch. So I made an arrangement with Paul where for the last year, by that time I’d moved out here, I came in two days a week, I came in one day a week and finally…if that had not happened, I’d be dead now. Literally.
Stroud: Just a good outlet.
O’Neil: No, literally, dying…death…corpse. A year after I retired, September 10th, a year after 9-11, I was having lunch with a friend at a café two towns over and I literally dropped dead on the floor.
Stroud: Oh, golly.
O’Neil: The guy who owns the café is a New Jersey fireman. He knew that the City Hall next door had just gotten a defibrillator, so he ran over, got the defibrillator, on the third try got my heart beating again, by that time the paramedics were there, and from there on…the thing that Western doctors are really good at is, “Let’s cut here and reattach here,” that sort of thing, but if I had been in a New York City office building, there is no way anybody would have gotten the defibrillator or the paramedics…if I’d survived at all, I would have been badly damaged.
Stroud: Oh, gosh. I had no idea. Wow!
O’Neil: In its own way, it’s a miracle and if I had not retired, there’s no scenario that I know of that would have allowed me to survive a major heart attack like that.
Stroud: No, certainly not. Whew! Incredible.