There are a lot of amazing people that make and have made great comic books. Some of the people who made the comics of my youth are now friends, if not, at least, acquaintances. There are however some people whose names are inscribed in the mythical pantheon of comic creators. Names like Kirby, Lee, Ditko, Toth, Raymond, Wood, Eisner, Adams, Buscema. Another name that is included in that list is O’Neil.
Dennis J. “Denny” O’Neil passed away last week. A couple of years ago, I got to meet Denny at the Baltimore Comic Con and spend some time with him. I want to share what I learned from him, but first I need to explain what he meant to me.
As a young student of comics, (I mean, I wrote the first research paper in my life about the history of comics when I was in seventh grade.) I learned about O’Neil and [Neal] Adams‘ critical run on Batman and later Green Lantern & Green Arrow. There was a level of realism that they brought to comics that seemed to counteract the turn that DC made towards camp in the 1960s. That realism mirrored what Lee, Kirby, and Ditko had done at Marvel, but was also quite unique.
I don’t want to call Denny’s writing dark or gritty. I kind of have the feeling that he wouldn’t like that. His characters were flawed, like all humans, and despite great wealth or power, they had to find solutions to problems like the rest of us. His characters were nuanced and multidimensional in a way that set them apart and inspired later creators.
The first book that I remember reading new from Denny was The Question. I had read some of his Iron Man earlier, but I wasn’t as aware of creators at that point. The Question, written by Denny with art by Denys Cowan, inks by Rick Magyar, colors by Tatjana Wood, letters by Gaspar Saladino and later Willie Shubert, and shepherded by Mike Gold, lit my hair on fire. It was a story full of mystery and pain and a struggling hero just trying to do what was right. My mind was opened by the complexity and brilliance of the art and the richness of the stories. It made me understand the vast breadth of storytelling that was possible in comics and it, along with Mike Grell‘s The Longbow Hunters, was the story that pushed me intellectually as a comic reader.
I think most of us have that time where we step away from comics. Whether it is intentional or not, there is a time as we hit adulthood that we stop buying new comics and focus on other things. That happened to me during college.
By mid 1990s I was married and had a job. You know. Adult stuff. One day in late 1995, I saw a comic book on a newsstand that caught my eye. It was Nightwing Volume #1 Issue #1. It was my favorite character in his very first solo series, and that Brian Stelfreeze cover was exquisite. I had to buy it. I loved it. It was written by Denny and immediately captivated my imagination. I remembered how much I loved comics and began to slowly start collecting and reading again. Denny brought me back to my passion.
Denny O’Neil was a legend to me. I could not imagine the concept of actually meeting him with anything other than a sheepish grin and an outstretched hand gripping a comic that I would want him to sign just a little too tightly. Then, I went to the Ringo Awards in late September 2018 at Baltimore Comic Con.
My wife and I were assigned to sit at a table whose number I forget, but the company at the table I will never. We get there, and my wife sits down next to Denys Cowan and his guest. Holy Cow! Also sitting there is Marc Andreyko, who didn’t really want to be there, but was told he needed to come to the awards banquet as he did not know that he would be receiving the Humanitarian of the Year award that night. After we were seated. Denny O’Neil walks over to the table and sat down next to me, and my head exploded.
What very few people in the room knew was that later in the ceremony Denys would introduce Denny to accept the Heroes Initiative Lifetime Achievement Award. Denys’ speech was fantastic and highlighted how much Denny had taught him about his art and his profession throughout the years. If that had been the extent of that experience, I couldn’t have asked for more, but there was more.
I was sitting next to this legend. I couldn’t pass up this opportunity. With all the consideration I could muster and fuelled by a few happy hour cocktails, I took my chance. I had a conversation with this man that had changed the medium that I love, and he couldn’t have been more gracious.
He seemed to enjoy the conversation. I mean, I, of course, dropped that I knew Mike Gold and tried to make sure he knew I wasn’t a stalker, but he engaged me in stories throughout the event and answered my questions. He spoke to me as if I was someone he had known for years. He was a gentleman in every way.
At this point, I need to share some of the things that Denny told me that night, because some are historically significant and some are just perfect to understand who he was.
If you don’t know, there is this legend that Denny O’Neil gave the name to the leader of the “good” Transformers, the Autobots. There is some uncertainty to this claim that he named Optimus Prime. So, here he was. I asked him. He said that he has heard that story. He said he really only worked on the comic for a few days, and he may have had something to do with it, but he didn’t really remember it being as important as it has come to be.
The story about Optimus caused him to remember another interesting nugget about his legacy. He said that he remembered being around a bunch of creators, and they were ribbing him a little about the names he used for the characters he created. He remembered someone saying, “What is Denny’s next villain going to be called? ooobeedooobeedoo?” And that, my friends, is how we got Obadiah Stane.
Throughout the event, Denny sat and listened to people speak about the current comics of the day, and he really didn’t know what they were talking about. The concept of webcomics was foreign to him. I was reminded by Katie Cook about something that he told me while she was delivering her inspired keynote address about perseverance and her success writing Gronk and later Nothing Special. He told me that he had no idea what she was talking about, but she seemed very passionate about it. I found out after he passed that he found Katie after the ceremony that night and told her the same thing.
Iron Man and Joe Q
The highlight of the night was went he leaned over to me and began to tell me a story. “I really enjoy that all of our heroes are in all these movies lately. Marifran [his wife and the love of his life who had passed the year before] and I would go to the local theater and watch them all. They are great fun. I remember really enjoying when the first Iron Man came out. I went home and I wrote a card to Joe Quesada.”
Congratulation on the movie. Marifran and I are so thankful for the money that we received from the use of our character. We have been able to upgrade from the lower class cat food to the premium one. The tuna flavor is quite nice.
Ok folks. At this point, I am floored, but he continued. He said that Joe Q. sent him a letter back apologizing, and that they did not realize that Denny had created the character of Obadiah Stane and not credited him, and he promised to make it right. Denny stated that it took a few months, but eventually a check showed up, and he was happy with the result.
This last story is what I remember most fondly about my encounter with Denny O’Neil. If the story is true, good for him for standing up for his craft and legacy. If it is not, or even if it is embellished, that is great too, because it shows more than anything that even at that point in is life that man knew how to tell a hell of a story.
Godspeed Sir, and thank you for more than you know.