The word "legend" is bandied about far too much in today's world, but in the case of Denny O'Neil--who passed away this week at the age of 81--it fits perfectly.
A truly superb comic book writer, a dedicated editor and--by all accounts--a much-loved mentor, Denny was the driving force behind DC Comics in the 1970s. If you're old enough to remember those halcyon days in comics, fans were witness to the two industry giants waging a friendly war.
Marvel had Stan Lee and Roy Thomas writing wonderful tales of otherworldly derring-do for such titles as Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, The Avengers, The X-Men and The Hulk. Over at DC, you had Gardner Fox and Denny O'Neil penning more "realistic" super-hero fare with Superman, Batman, Justice League of America and Green Lantern.
And Denny--who started his comic book career with Marvel in the early 1960s before moving on to Charlton Comics (where I began my writing career) for a short stint before moving on to fame at DC in the late '60s--set the four-color world on its collective ear with his stories that dealt with the issues of those turbulent times.
Along with stellar artist Neal Adams and standout inker Dick Giordano, Denny revolutionized the Batman titles, returning The Dark Knight to his roots as a gritty detective and rescuing the character from the campy downward spiral fostered by the Adam West TV series.
Denny created the iconic villain Ra's al Ghul for The Batman, arguably the Caped Crusader's most dangerous adversary (with the exception of the Joker). I vividly recall that Denny always had Ra's refer to The Batman not by his familiar name, but simply as "Detective". A small touch, perhaps, but perfect and so memorable.
And, at the same time, Denny scripted the comic book he will always be associated with by fans of my age group: Green Lantern/Green Arrow. I will never understand why or how he had the idea to team up a moderately successful science-fiction hero with an almost-forgotten, second-banana hero who never had his own title before.
Again working with the incredible pencils of Neal Adams, Denny reworked both characters and forged a comic for the ages. The award-winning title changed the face of comics with stories of social consciousness, racial tensions and drug abuse. Comics had never seen tales like these before. And Denny was a master at telling them.
Denny returned to Marvel in 1980 to take over the editorial reins on Daredevil. All he did there was to put the Man Without Fear into the hands of a young writer/artist named Frank Miller. The rest, as they say, is history.
Denny would again return to the halls of DC in 1986, where he would remain until his retirement, editing the Batman family of titles. Not that he ever really retired. In the latter stages of his remarkable career, Denny taught (what else?) writing for comics at the School for Visual Arts. Oh, to have been a student in that classroom!
In a previous Hyper Space column, I chose Denny as one of my five favorite comic book writers of all time. For all the reasons listed above--and far too many others for me to go into here--he remains in that pantheon of heroes. God, he will be missed! But his legacy will always be with us. As long as people--young and old--read comics.
Read a comic book today...for Denny. I'd like to think he'll be reading right over your shoulder.
Thomas A. Tuna