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Batman looms soberly over the image of a lone mansion, on the cover of Batman #227, DC Comics (1970). Image: Neal Adams/DC Comics

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Batman’s most influential writer, Denny O’Neil, dies at 81

The writer and editor redefined the Dark Knight for all time

Susana Polo is an entertainment editor at Polygon, specializing in pop culture and genre fare, with a primary expertise in comic books. Previously, she founded The Mary Sue.

Denny O’Neil, co-creator of Ra’s al Ghul and editor of DC Comics’ Batman titles for over 15 years, died Thursday at the age of 81. His legacy as a writer and editor of superhero comics is wide-ranging and difficult to overstate — he may have been the most influential Batman writer since the character’s creation.

News of O’Neil’s death was originally reported by Newsarama.

Entering the comics workforce in at the age of 27 in 1966, O’Neil was a part of the second generation of superhero creators, the first to grow up reading superhero stories — but he was also of the hippie generation. And while perhaps not 100% hippie-identified himself, he once explained that he took his first comics writing job in New York City after agitating the police so much that he had to leave town.

“I was a journalist who had managed to alienate virtually everybody who was an authority figure in the small town where I was working,” O’Neil said during a panel about comics in the year 1968 at New York Comic Con 2018. He continued:

This is a very ultra conservative town. I wrote a phony Associated Press release about how Martin Luther King was coming to Cape Girardeau and gonna do some demonstrating and I slipped that onto the clipboard that all the cops had to read before going on duty. Then I went around about my beat — hospitals, firehouses — got back to the office and the guy across the street who worked for one of the two radio stations said “I don’t know if you had anything to do with that Martin Luther King business, and I don’t want to know, but if you did, don’t admit it, whatever you do, do not admit it.”

So I went about my day and I was walking back to the little shack I rented and there was the chief of detectives coming out. Thank god none of my hippie friends left any drugs there. And I was taken off the beat the next day, but at that point a week earlier, I had taken the famous Stan Lee writer’s exam, contest, thing. And so just as I had alienated everybody in Cape Girardeau and was about to lose my job, along came Stan and [Marvel Comics editor in chief Roy Thomas] riding over the hilltop with the job for me. It was mine if I wanted to take it.

O’Neil was at the forefront of a wave of young liberal comics readers-turned creators, who dragged superheroes kicking and screaming from post-war shenanigans into the massive social upheavals of the 1960s.

When his career is summed up for those not deeply invested in comics, it’s usually in the language of characters and moments. The enigmatic Batman villain Ra’s al Ghul is his biggest co-creation, the revitalization of the Joker and Two-Face from obscurity a close second. O’Neil also made the friendship between Green Lantern and Green Arrow indelible, and penned several famous moments in comics that, while a little hokey by today’s standards, exemplified the rapidly changing tides of superheroic tone.

There’s the sequence of a black man asking Hal Jordan why he fights for downtrodden aliens of all colors, but will not fight for downtrodden humans; Green Arrow’s sidekick getting hooked on heroin; Superman fighting Muhammad Ali. But what we can also see in those moments is a young writer grappling with what it could mean for comics to be for an audience that wasn’t just grade school kids — and the kind of clear messages that grade school kids deserved to get in their comics.

“You work for the blue skins [...] on a planet someplace you once helped out the orange skins, and you don considerable for the purple skins! Only there’s some skins you never bothered with — the black skins! I want to know ... how come?! Answer me that, Mr. Green Lantern!” an elderly Black man accuses Hal Jordan in Green Lantern #76, DC Comics (1970).
Hal Jordan confronts the blind eye he’s turned to racial injustice in a 1970 issue of Green Lantern.
Image: Denny O’Neil, Neal Adams/DC Comics

One early blunder included de-powering Wonder Woman, a move that caught the ire of no less a personality than Gloria Steinem, and for which O’Neil expressed a significant amount of embarrassed contrition ever after.

But O’Neil was always pulling superheroes down from the skies and into street level urban stories, even those who wouldn’t otherwise seem to belong there. Under his pen, Green Lantern had to face terrestrial racial politics, Green Arrow lost his fortune to fight for the common man, and then, of course, there was Batman.

After starting his career at Charlton Comics and Marvel, O’Neil began working primarily in Batman comics at the start of the 1970s, in the wake of the 1966-68 Batman television series, which had hooked America on a campy do-gooder bopping weirdo pranksters on the snoot. Batman did not leap straight from Adam West to Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns; the anti-hero Batman of the 1980s was less an extreme swing than a considered step from Denny O’Neil’s caped crusader.

Under O’Neil’s pen, the smiling crimefighter morphed into someone flawed but constantly striving to be one more inch better, a man whose intellect and physical prowess were rivaled only by his empathy for all victims of violence, everywhere. And though he might need to be reminded of that on occasions when his obsession — and general emotional constipation — got the better of him, that was the tension from which fantastic stories sprang.

And when O’Neil stepped down from writing Batman stories and moved back to Marvel, he would return, six years later, to begin his tenure of editing them. For my money, that’s where his true genius lies. The first time Frank Miller drew Batman, it was for a Denny O’Neil story. After that, O’Neil gave Miller full control of Daredevil, the book that would make the young artist famous. And after that, he edited The Dark Knight Returns and tapped Miller to write Batman: Year One, a crucial redefinition of the character for a new era. He mentored Devin Grayson, still the only woman to be the lead writer on a core Batman book, and built a Batman bullpen of some of the best talent to ever grace the character’s pages.

Denny O’Neil, at the Brooklyn Book Festival in 2009. Photo: Luigi Novi

From the pivotal post-Crisis on Infinite Earths year of 1986 through to the year 2000, O’Neil set the tone for Batman stories, editing The Killing Joke, overseeing the death of Jason Todd, the creation of new Robin Tim Drake, the rise of Bane, and the expansion of the Bat-family into a sprawling found-family soap opera.

It was O’Neil’s Batman, the character he’d written, and the stories he edited, that set the source material for every modern Batman film or TV adaptation. Without his revamp of the Joker from prankster to killer, Batman (1989) would not have had a villain. His Batman is undeniably the source for the humanist, rehabilitation-dedicated lead of Batman: The Animated Series — for which he wrote the two-part episode that introduced Ra’s al Ghul. Of the five comics that had the most influence on 2008’s The Dark Knight, O’Neil wrote, edited, or was in charge of the Batman office while they were made, for all but one.

It is safe to say that the only Batman writer more influential than O’Neil was Bill Finger, the guy who co-created him.

I was born the year Denny O’Neil began editing Batman, and while the character is as endlessly elastic as any superhero, I grew up in a world of comics, movies, and television informed by — or sometimes simply made to emulate — his specific definition of Batman. It was a definition that I have loved since the moment I was introduced to it, one that provided a foundation for my personal ethics, as well as what I believe stories can and should do for their readers.

The fact that that version of Batman could be traced back to one creator was something it took me years to discover. But O’Neil, who said that he preferred the role of editor to be of an invisible support to the writer and artist, would have wanted it that way. You only have to read the words of the creators who worked under him to know that support was no less strong for being virtually unseen.


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