Comic book legend Dennis “Denny” O’Neil turns 75 today. O’Neil is a popular comic book writer and editor, having contributed at both DC and Marvel from the 1960s to the 199os, and would later become Group Editor for DC’s Batman family of books. He is widely known in the comic book world as a long-time writer of Batman with artist Neal Adams, and for the popular Green Lantern/Green Arrow series, both of which were highly acclaimed for expanding the level of storytelling inside the comic book industry. He’s also credited with being the person who named Optimus Prime. Today, he sits on the board of directors of The Hero Initiative, the first federally recognized non-profit organization that helps comic book creators, writers, and artists in need, providing them with health, medical, and quality-of-life assistance.
Denny O’Neil was born May 3, 1939 in St. Louis, Missouri. He graduated from St. Louis University with a degree in English Literature, with studies in Creative Writing and Philosophy. Upon graduation, he joined the U.S. Navy just in time to participate in the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. After leaving the Navy, O’ Neil found work at a newspaper in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, and wrote bi-weekly columns about the revival of the comics industry. These columns caught the attention of one Roy Thomas, who was working at the newly christened Marvel Comics alongside Stan Lee, and who would himself later become a legend in the industry . Thomas brought him on board and had him take the Marvel writer’s test, which involved adding dialogue to a drawn but otherwise empty page of a Fantastic Four comic. O’Neil had never really considered writing for comics prior to the writer’s test, and he was quoted as saying that he had done it, “as kind of a joke. I had a couple of hours on a Tuesday afternoon, so instead of doing crossword puzzles, I did the writer’s test.”
When Marvel’s popularity began to soar, and Stan Lee realized that he wouldn’t be able to write all of Marvel’s current line by himself, he passed as much of it as he could to Roy Thomas. But Marvel was still desperate for writers, so Thomas put O’Neil to writing six issues of Doctor Strange in Strange Tales. He also wrote issues of The Rawhide Kid and Millie the Model, as well as the last 13 pages of dialogue for a Stan Lee-plotted Daredevil #18 after Lee went on vacation. And it would be O’Neal and artist Neal Adams, who would later work together at DC on one of the most memorable Batman runs in history, and who would revive Professor X in X-Men #65. But O’Neil would later leave Marvel after writing jobs became scarce, and he took a job at DC after Dick Giordano was hired as editor. There, he worked on Wonder Woman, and then Justice League of America. He would be more successful with his work on Justice League of America, where he would lay the groundwork for his popular, hard-travelin’-heroes saga in Green Lantern/Green Arrow.
After other writers gave Green Arrow a new look in a Brave and the Bold issue, O’Neil took a step even further and stripped Oliver Queen of his wealth and status, causing him to be the urban hero fans know today, similar to the events in the CW’s hit series Arrow. Neal Adams would team up with O’Neil again for Green Lantern/Green Arrow, which was a sounding board for the political climate of the time. And it was during this period that the best-known Green Arrow story, which still causes ripples across the DC Universe even today, appeared in Green Lantern #85-86. The story that reveals that Speedy, Green Arrow’s ward, is a heroin addict. It was this story that catapulted O’Neil from obscurity to popularity, almost literally overnight. He would say that the sudden popularity cost him a lot socially: “deteriorating marriage, bad habits, deteriorating relationships with human beings – with anything that wasn’t a typewriter, in fact. It was a bad few years, there.”
But it was his work on Batman in the 1970s that would truly make him a household name among comics fans. O’Neil returned the Dark Knight to his darker roots, after a period where the campy TV series was popular, and every iteration of Batman you see today is influenced by O’Neil’s work on the book. Neal Adams would join O’Neal on his mission, and together they would go on to write some of the more memorable issues of Batman and Detective Comics. The story “The Joker’s Five-Way Revenge,” as told in Batman #251 (Sept. 1973), returned the Joker to his homicidal maniac roots who murders with a smile on his face and a song in his heart. O’Neal and Adams would also create the character of Ra’s al Ghul and Talia al Ghul in “Daughter of the Demon” in Batman #232 (June 1971). O’Neil and Dick Giordano, who sometimes helped with the inking chores, created the supporting character Leslie Thompkins in the story “There is No Hope in Crime Alley” from Detective Comics #457 (March 1976). And it was the dynamic duo of O’Neil and Adams that brought us the Superman vs. Muhammad Ali story from 1978.
He later returned to Marvel and scripted The Amazing Spider-Man for a year, in which he introduced Madame Web and later, Hydro-Man. He wrote Iron Man from 1982-1986, and introduced the character Obadiah Stane, who would drive Tony Stark to alcoholism, which would put Jim Rhodes in the Iron Man armor. During his time on Daredevil, he would introduce Yuriko Oyama, who would later become X-Men villain Lady Deathstrike. And he helped with the concept of the Transformers, and is indeed credited for naming Optimus Prime.
He’s even appeared, sort of, in comics. In The Batman Adventures, a spinoff of Batman, The Animated Series, O’Neil appears as The Perfesser, one of a trio of inept, screwball criminals that include The Mastermind, a caricature of fellow comic book writer and legend Mike Carlin, and Mr. Nice, a caricature of another comics legend, Archie Goodwin. The Perfesser is seen as a tall, pipe-smoking, absent-minded genius who often forgets to give his friends crucial information to plan their their heists.
Denny O’Neil’s many years in the comic book industry have garnered him several awards, including Best Continuing Feature for Green Lantern/Green Arrow, Best Individual Story for “No Evil Shall Escape My Sight” in Green Lantern #76, Best Writer of Drama in 1970, and Best Individual Story for “Snowbirds Don’t Fly”, from Green Lantern #85, and he was honored in the book Fifty Who Made DC Great.
He is married to Marifran O’Neil and they have a son.
And appropriately, Denny O’ Neil celebrates his birthday at the same time comics fans celebrate Batman’s 75th Anniversary. It’s really only fitting.
Happy birthday, Mr. O’Neil. Thank you for your time and for sharing your talent with the rest of us. You are the reason so many of us love comics, and you are a god in the comics pantheon.
Michael Brown is a comics nerd and a father who lives in small town Tennessee. When he’s not making his players mad in his “Shadowrun” RPG or experimenting with new and inventive uses of duct tape on his children, you can find him checking out the latest comics and movies for SCIFI.radio!