DENNY O’NEIL: Getting Rid of Robin — Twice

It’s ROBIN WEEK — a celebration of the return of Damian Wayne, the latest Boy Wonder. But we would be remiss if we didn’t talk with the guy who kept getting rid of Batman‘s sidekick.

For the complete DENNY O’NEIL INTERVIEWS INDEX of stories, click here.

Denny was involved in getting rid of Robin — twice. In the late ’60s, O’Neil first talked to editor Julius Schwartz about writing Batman but says that he wanted to move Robin off center stage.

The last issue before Dick Grayson went to college.

The last issue before Dick Grayson went to college, written by Frank Robbins.

Dick Grayson indeed was sent packing, to Hudson University. Those early ’70s tales were written by a group of scribes, including Frank Robbins and Mike Friedrich. But it’s O’Neil‘s stories about Batman’s return to solo work that loom largest in the canon.

The famed issue where Robin moves out, written by Robbins.

The famed issue where Robin moves out, written by Robbins.

Then, in the ’80s, he was instrumental in getting Robin removed when as editor of the Batman line, he stage-managed A Death in the Family, the infamously morbid story arc that saw Jason Todd killed off by a bunch of bloodthirsty fans via telephone poll.

Denny and I talked about it at length at his home in suburban New York City.

Dan Greenfield: No interview with you is complete without talking about A Death in the Family.

Denny O’Neil: Oh, yeah.

Dan Greenfield: Now, I wanted to talk about Robin a little bit because you said you were instrumental in his departure in the early ‘70s. Now it’s the mid-80s. Again, you said, it was time to start over.

I remember I was in college at the time when this came out and I made one of the calls. (Denny stifles a chuckle) I called for him to live. And the reason is that even though I liked, to coin a phrase, the badass nature of the concept, I knew I had to take a stand. I knew I had to vote.

I’d been reading Batman forever. Batman was very important to me as a character. Very important to me as a concept. And I was also at that age where, “Oh, Batman’s only dark!” and I had rejected the Adam West idea and I was waiting for the Tim Burton movie to come out. “Batman’s gotta be tough and bad and he doesn’t NEED a Robin.”

No Robin here

No Robin here

But then when it came time to make the call, I couldn’t bring myself to call for him to die. I couldn’t do it. For whatever reason, I called to have him stay alive. I remember at the time, I remember everything that went into it and feeling surprised at the outcome. … With almost 30 years gone on it, what’s your take on it? Explain it to me.

Denny O’ Neil: Well, first of all, it came about after a retreat was over and (DC chief) Jenette Kahn and maybe Paul Levitz and I were sitting in a room waiting for our rides to arrive. The editorial work was done. This was in the mountains, maybe 50 miles north of here.

The Catskills?

Yeah, there’s a beautiful old, huge mansion up there that they’ve turned into, like, a resort. …

So, one of us — it might have been me — came up with this idea. We knew we had a problem with Robin. It was a case of something you hear about and seldom encounter: a character taking on a life of his own.

Maybe I should have been a more hands-on editor but it just kind of slipped past us and all of a sudden we had this disagreeable little snot and I thought we either had to give him a massive personality change or write him out of the series.

Jason Todd actually got a personality change after Crisis on Infinite Earths. It didn't go well.

Jason Todd actually got a personality change after Crisis on Infinite Earths. It didn’t go well.

And so somebody came up with the idea of letting the readers decide and Jenette went to work making that work with the phone company. Jim Starlin got the job of actually writing the stories as he was the Batman writer at the time. He did a good job and Jim Aparo did his usual fine job — one of my favorite artists! …

I had a number to call and a robot voice would tell me what the count was. Comes Friday night. It’s late and (my wife) Marifran and I are the only two people in the office. It’s 10 after 7. I make the final phone call and I find out the kid did NOT make it. (Executive Editor) Dick Giordano and I had different opinions about that. He thought they would not kill the kid. I thought the readers would do it just to see if we would actually go through with it.

808685

It turns out, if what I heard is true, that a lawyer programmed his Macintosh to dial the killing number every few minutes. It was only 85 votes out of over 10,000 and that may have made the difference. I have never been able to verify that story but it was a squeaker any way you look at it. And I’m like, “OK, this has been an interesting caper but it’s over and I’m gonna go home and have my weekend.”

And I got back on Monday morning. For about three days or so I answered phones. … As it turns out, I was glad that I didn’t get on television but I sure as hell got on the radio. Somebody heard me in Australia. We made the papers, especially the Daily News, and there was a fairly violent reaction. I had to take the E train down to Soho every night and I was really glad this face did not get attached to that stunt!

So it changed my mind about what I do for a living, that one incident. Some of the fan publications said we had staged a Roman circus and people were talking about the death of a kid.

808952

So I said, “Look, you understand that this is paper and ink! This is something that Jim Starlin made up in his head! Nobody was killed making this comic book!”

But they kind of treated it that way, particularly the ardent fans, and I realized that I had thought that what I was was a writer/editor in this odd little backwater of American publishing, this bastard child of comic strips and pulps. And I realized coming off of that caper that I’m a custodian of folklore. These characters, about four of them now, have been around SO long. 76 years, 75 years, 74 and Spider-Man well over 30 now.

94978

Well, it’s 50 now.

Is it 50?

Yeah.

And I knew him when he was a high schooler. (Dan laughs) But I’m sure that a lot of people who got so upset… We didn’t even kill Dick Grayson!

There’s a story that I’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of. I went to a deli on Fifth Avenue to buy a sandwich for lunch. And like Julie, I wore a little Batman pin. So the guy behind the counter leans over and he remarks on it.

I mention who I am and he’s, “Hey, dis is da guy dat killed Robin!” This is what I mean. I just wanted a tuna fish sandwich. (Dan laughs) There was really a HUGE reaction! Now, this guy probably hadn’t seen a comic since he was a kid but to everybody, these characters have been all over the place!

They have become folklore figures.

For the complete DENNY O’NEIL INTERVIEWS INDEX of stories, click here.

Author: Dan Greenfield

Share This Post On

8 Comments

  1. Batman without Robin is like Hardcastle without McCormick. Something is just missing. As a kid in the late Seventies and early Eighties I was always delighted when Robin would reunite with Batman for a story here and there.

    Post a Reply
  2. Now we have another disagreeable little snot as Robin and it seems everyone loves him.Oh,how times change.

    Post a Reply
    • It’s funny Tim. You’re not wrong. But the post-Crisis Jason was a poorly thought-out, shoehorned retcon version of the original character. Damian’s been written with a lot of vulnerability and depth. And I think that’s why he’s become so popular.

      Post a Reply
      • Well I’ll stick with Tim Drake myself,but I see your point.

        Post a Reply
        • I can see that. I’m a Dick Grayson guy, as far as Robins go, but I really like Damian a lot.

          Post a Reply
  3. as tim drake pointed out once in an issue batman needs a robin to keep him grounded and not wind up going almost joker level when fighting crime. as for damien the current robin. given how dc has already killed him doubtful they will do it again for a long long time. espically if the writting team had batman dip him in a larus pit.

    Post a Reply
  4. “A custodian of folklore”. I like that.

    Post a Reply

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. BATMAN #237: The Greatest Halloween Comic Book Ever | 13th Dimension, Comics, Creators, Culture - […] NEXT: Getting rid of Robin — twice. Click here. […]

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: