I’ve always admired the hell out of Denny O’Neil (May 3, 1939 – June 11, 2020). I admired his skill as a writer. I admired his ability to continually grow and hone his craft, whether in comic books or prose. I admired the simple, surefooted way he approached story and dialogue and his calm, confident style of editing, as well as his knack for explaining and teaching what he knew.

Brooklyn Book Fair, 2009. From left to right:
Bob Kahan, Ed Catto, me, Jim Salicrup, Denny O’Neil, Tom DeFalco, Marifran O’Neil, Peter Sanderson, Danny Fingeroth, Heidi McDonald, and Keith Williams.

But what I admired most about Denny O’Neil was the man he had become.

I first met Denny when I was a kid doing fanzines in Brooklyn and just starting to hang out at the fringes of the professional world of comic books. I was already familiar with his name and his pseudonym from Charlton Comics and some early DC Comics work, Sergius O’Shaughnessy (the name borrowed from a character in Norman Mailer’s The Deer Park), having been a reader since 1967’s “Children of Doom” (with Pat Boyette, in Charlton Premiere #2), 1968’s Wander (with Jim Aparo, in Cheyenne Kid), through to his groundbreaking work at DC on Wonder Woman, Batman, Green Lantern/Green Arrow, Justice League of America, Bat Lash, and others. As an aspiring comic book writer, I read Denny’s stories and despaired. How was anyone supposed to compete with somebody this good?

I won’t go into details because it’s not my story to tell, but suffice it to say, the Denny O’Neil I met in 1971 wasn’t the same man I got to know several years later, when I had myself, finally (I was 19 at the time but very impatient) broken into the comic book business. Denny had found a way by then to master the demons he had manifested in his younger days and emerged from his struggles a changed and better person. Eventually, Denny would become a sort of comics Zen-master.

It just so happens that Denny was my editor on the very first story I wrote for DC, “The Stranger,” a “World of Krypton” story for 1975’s Superman Family #182 (with art by Marshall Rogers and Frank Springer). I have no recollection of the plotting session except for being scared (as we used to have to say in those Comics Code days) spitless that I had to somehow convince the guy who had written “No Evil Shall Escape My Sight!” (Green Lantern/Green Arrow #76) and “The Joker’s Five-Way Revenge!” (Batman #251) and “A Vow from the Grave!” (Detective Comics #410) that I had a story worth telling. Looking back at the story, even by 1975 standards, I have to believe Denny was just taking it easy on a newbie.

Denny never stopped being an influence on comic books and creators. His work wasn’t about over-the-top, larger than life superhero bombast; you could almost feel his disinterest in the comic booky/science fiction/outrageous elements of superhero comics. He brought a lot to his runs on Justice League of America and Superman, but most of his contributions there were to the group dynamics and relationships between the characters.

In the mid and late-1980s, before he assumed the monumental task of overseeing the Batman line of comics as group editor, I would stop in his office on a fairly regular basis to say hello and shoot the shit. In 1986, I pitched a Phantom Stranger miniseries to Denny. Knowing my audience was a lapsed though still guilty Catholic, my verbal pitch likened the Stranger to Jesus as a character who is on Earth to suffer for humanity. I laid on the symbolism pretty thick and Denny threw in helpful suggestions to shape and build the story. Then he sent me off to write it up, saying, “Don’t think this former altar boy didn’t see what you did there.” (P.S. on PS, Denny gave me notes on the first draft of the pitch before he had to give it up to make room on his schedule; the project was turned over to Mike Carlin, who steered it the rest of the way to completion.)

Denny’s 37-issue run on DC’s The Question (with Denys Cowan) that began in 1987 remains one of the best series of its day (possibly in comics) and one of my favorite runs of any comic book. He wrote a 1994 bestselling novelization of the epic Batman: Knightfall storyline, as well as some earlier novels, and he literally wrote the book on how to write comic books, 2001’s The DC Comics Guide to Writing Comics.

Denny also wrote a bunch of DC Universe novels in the early-2000s. After reading his 2009 Helltown (featuring the Question, Batman, Lady Shiva, Richard Dragon, etc.), I asked him how the hell he was still doing it, better than ever, after all those years. Denny thought about it for a moment, then shrugged, and offered, “Practice?”

Practice that sometimes made for damned near perfect.

Rest in peace, Dennis J.

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2 Comments on “Practice?” R.I.P. Denny O’Neil

  1. Edward S. Meehan says:

    Wonderful tribute.Thank-you!

  2. Steven Commander says:

    I teared up reading this…especially about Helltown. As soon as I finished it back in 2006, I read it all over again!

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