Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams talk BATMAN #251 — the greatest single Batman issue ever.
For the complete DENNY O’NEIL INTERVIEWS INDEX of stories, click here.
Fittingly in the year that Batman himself turns 75, one of his greatest writers — Denny O’Neil — celebrates his 75th birthday today. And I’m especially proud to announce a new recurring feature here at BATMAN’S HOT-LINE: THE DENNY O’NEIL INTERVIEWS.
Like I did with his famous erstwhile artistic partner Adams a year ago, I recently got to spend an afternoon with O’Neil in which we discussed a wide variety of topics, mostly centered on his time crafting the modern Gotham City. Over the next months, we’ll be bringing you installments of that conversation, a journey through the past that I hope will illuminate the present.
To start it off, it seemed only appropriate to sort of pass the baton, with the final excerpt of THE NEAL ADAMS INTERVIEWS merged with the first edition of THE DENNY O’NEIL INTERVIEWS.
The topic is simple: The comic book that I think is the single greatest Batman issue ever, BATMAN #251, “The Joker’s Five-Way Revenge,” cover-dated Sept. 1973.
This was the Joker’s return to comics in more ways than one. After the 1960s TV show died out, the Joker more or less disappeared from comic-book pages. By that time, he bore little resemblance beyond aesthetics to the homicidal maniac introduced in Batman #1 in 1940. So he was put in the back of the drawer while the powers at DC set about to bring the darkness back to Gotham.
After a few years, the time seemed right to re-introduce him as the maniac we all know and love today.
On a personal note, the cover resonates for me in a particularly strong way. It shows a gigantic Joker straddling what’s now the Met Life Building and, in front of it, the Helmsley Building, with Park Avenue in Manhattan coming toward you. Proof that Gotham’s really New York, as was always intended. Anyway, every Wednesday on my way to the comics shop, I walk along E. 47th street, crossing Park Avenue — right into the middle of that tableau. And I look up to my right and in my mind, Adams’ Joker is looming large over the city above me. I was happy to be able to tell both O’Neil and Adams that and I was happy they both dug it.
Maybe the people who put this poster for “The Dark Knight” together were thinking the same thing — because that’s the Helmsley Building with that big Bat-symbol torched into it.
But here’s what O’Neil and Adams had to say about the issue:
Here’s Denny first:
Dan Greenfield: I don’t think any conversation with you would be complete without talking about that specific issue and what your thoughts were on it. Because it was so incredibly influential and now every story has to be 15 parts and it’s got to have this and it’s gotta be a mini-series and this was ONE issue. One comic book. It is still the single, one-issue best comic book I’ve ever read and it holds up today unlike so many books before or since. It really stands the test of time. So, what are your thoughts on that book? Where does it rank in your own pantheon of your mind in terms of accomplishments? Lets just talk about it.
Denny O’Neil: Well, I think I understood the Joker in the way that Jerry (Robinson) and Bill (Finger) and I will add Bob Kane to this list, did. I understand the idea of a scary clown and that seemed to me a terrific idea for comics. He had been watered down, and it works if he is a maniac and is totally unpredictable. It does not work if he … steals groceries! Later, when we did a Joker book (in the mid-’70s), we were hamstrung because you had to work under the (Comics) Code.
But in that one, (editor) Julie (Schwartz) and I agreed that there is potentially a really nifty character there so let’s take a shot at doing him the way we think he ought to be done. And I just went home and wrote a script. That is (inker) Steve Mitchell by the way as Bigger Melvin. We didn’t know (Neal) was gonna do that by the way. Steve was delighted.
Dan Greenfield: When you and Denny O’ Neil took over, there were some great storylines. The Ra’s al Ghul storyline, for example. But to this day this is still my favorite issue. It’s a great story. It’s a great looking story. It is a nearly perfect single issue of Batman.
Neal Adams: And it’s got a lot of things that both Denny and I contributed. Because this was a tremendous opportunity for a collaboration. First of all we sort of decided, why don’t we bring some of these characters back. Because we had been so successful with the fans and everybody else. The question is: How do you bring the Joker back if he’s just the clown? Of course he never was “just the clown” but let’s push him a little harder. That was fine for Denny. I mean, Denny was ready to do a mass murderer. He was gung-ho.
But they still had to work around the restrictive Comics Code, Adams explained.
Adams: Denny and I had become quite good at it. I told Denny, “Look, Denny! I’m not going to let it become a problem with the Code. Just write what you have to write. Write the story.” He said, “I’ll kill a lot of guys.” I said, “Alright, we’ll see. Nobody is going to notice.” So we did this story and we got to do all these little vignettes. The scene of the Joker in the shark’s mouth. We just got to do all kinds of stuff. Yet the story was very solid. It’s this kind of terrible re-introduction to the Joker where he kills off all his henchmen. And of course, that’s how the Joker film (“The Dark Knight”) was. Right at the beginning he kills of all his henchmen. I talked to the writer of the film and he said, “Neal, a lot of people are going to tell you that we borrowed from ‘The Killing Joke.’ Bullshit. We borrowed from this.” This is the matrix of that film.
I like the outfit you gave him too.
Yeah, because it’s classic. It’s the Jerry Robinson suit. With a green vest and a tie. He looks like a gambler. Kind of slick, purple, get-down.
You went without the orange vest. It was just a straight green and purple flannel suit.
Because I can do without the orange. And I also wanted to relate to New Yorkers.
I wanted to get to that. The idea of him looming over the city (on the cover). It’s Gotham but it’s New York. And you did that a lot I noticed.
I did. I did it on a fairly recent cover. Yeah, I’m blatant about all those things. I don’t believe Gotham is necessarily Gotham. I think today, it’s New York. Right now, today, it’s New York for this cover. Because I like that image. And that’s a great image. You look down Park Avenue and you see those buildings and you go “Wow! It’s really cool!” I don’t think any other city has that. There’s lots of things and a lot of cities that don’t have a fucking Park Avenue view. And to have Joker looming over Park Avenue with Batman helpless on the cover, it’s obviously the dumbest fantasy in the world. But it puts across the point. We’re not telling you a real Joker story on the cover. We’re giving you an image like you would see on a movie poster. Like “Oh! Cool! I’m going to see the Joker do all types of shit. But I’m never going to see that scene.” Well you’ll never see that scene. It’s a stupid scene but still, it gets across the idea.
For the complete DENNY O’NEIL INTERVIEWS INDEX of stories, click here.