Brainiac On Banjo #088: With Respect To An Old Friend

“Yes: I am a dreamer. For a dreamer is one who can only find his way by moonlight, and his punishment is that he sees the dawn before the rest of the world.”
― Oscar Wilde, The Critic as Artist

Let me tell you, writing obits and remembrances of old and dear friends is hard work, but after a few decades it gets a great deal worse. So, please forgive me that, this time, I’m going to start out with a Fun Fact about Denny O’Neil.

He had an extra sinus. Really; we’ve got eight, but Denny had nine.

Growing up in the St. Louis / Cape Girardeau humidity, Denny had a hard time getting enough oxygen. This might very well have had an enduring impact on his heart. So the doctors (I presume) drilled him an additional sinus cavity. I don’t think they do that so much anymore, but, hey, Denny breathed like a sumbytch.

When I started at DC Comics in 1976, my office was next to Denny’s. I had been deeply impressed by his writing since Charlton Premiere #2, 1967 – “Children of Doom” showed me a completely different way of looking at allegorical science-fiction in comics. I had never heard of a comics writer named “Sergius O’Shaugnessy” but I was aware of a Norman Mailer character with the same name, in a short story published in 1959. Glomming the reference was pretty damn cool. I kept an eye out for his work, and by the time the Dennis J. O’Neil by-line popped up I was a devoted follower.

And now I had an office next to his? That was breathtaking. Denny and I each left the company in 1978, and we both returned at the beginning of 1986. DC had a large office at the end of a tributary hallway, complete with a couch, and both became ours. Given that we each had a significant background in political activism, it’s kind of weird that we rarely talked politics. We did loathe the same people, so I guess there wasn’t all that much to discuss. “Hey, Reagan sucks, huh?” “Yup.”

However, we did deploy that couch for about three years to plot The Question, a series for which I remain very proud. That project required a bit more effort from us all — Tatiana Wood was our color artist, and she and I would go through every page of Denys Cowan’s magnificent artwork along with Denny’s scripts, panel by panel, because she always kept her eye on the subtext. I think it showed in everybody’s work, and even if I didn’t get a couple of great friendships out of the deal I would still think of The Question as one of my grandchildren.

I also edited Denny’s weekly column over at ComicMix, and that was a whole different challenge. I believe that, among our many columnists, he alone also went to journalism school — we both had that experience years before it was reduced to a Ponzi scheme. But Denny, like most J-school victims, learned the Associated Press style guide. Being a Chicagoan, I learned the rules of the word from the University of Chicago’s “Chicago Manual of Style.” This could have led to conflicts that would make soldiers in the middle east scream “lighten up,” but it was the source of a lot of killer good natured baiting for the two of us. You see, unlike me, Denny was a gentleman.

He was a lot more than simply a gentleman. In addition to being a very good writer and, in my opinion, one of the very best writers ever to grace the four-color pamphlet, Denny O’Neil was a class act in every sense of the term. In conversation with Denny and others I would often feel the ambiance of the hallowed literary salons of the 1930s. In fact, that atmosphere has been recreated annually at Martha Thomases’ annual Hanukkah donut party.

Denny, back in the day. Painting by Mark Wheatley. © 2020 All Rights Reserved.

I’m going to step out onto the apron to explain that her much-honored party was not a religious event, and there is no such prescribed confection as a “Hanukkah donut,” although there should be. The party is a gathering of mostly comics people with a bunch of pacifists tossed in, as well as a few “normal” people… more or less. The donuts are great, the sammiches are wonderful, but the conversation is even better. Martha’s party is the type of place where Langston Hughes might have discussed Steve Englehart’s Silver Surfer run with Larry Hama.

Of course, as everybody’s father has said, none of us are getting any younger. Each year that party gets a little bit smaller. Covid concerns aside, I hope Martha holds it again this year. It should be held in Denny’s honor.

I wish everybody could have a friend and a mentor like Denny O’Neil. This planet would make a lot more sense. I am so damn lucky to have had him in my life.

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