Top Comics Pros Pay Tribute to DENNY O’NEIL

Some of the biggest names in comics salute one of the artform’s greatest writers…

Denny O’Neil, one of the absolute, all-time comics greats, has died at the age of 81.

The writer and editor was a master in the field and inspired both his contemporaries and the generations that followed.

Many of those writers and artists — including Mike Grell, Kelley Jones, Greg Rucka and more — share their thoughts below.

You can also click here for Neal Adams’ appreciation of his storied collaborator.

We’ll be updating this post as more tributes come in. — Dan

Mike Grell, artist/writer (Green Lantern/Green Arrow, The Warlord)

I’m still in shock from the news that Denny O’Neil has passed away. We were friends for almost 50 years and his death is a gut-punch that still has me reeling. He gave me my whole career, starting when I first read Green Lantern/Green Arrow when I was in Saigon in 1970. His writing woke me up to what comics could really be and started me on this path.

Meeting him for the first time was an absolute thrill, and working with him was an ongoing education. I learned more about good writing by drawing the stories Denny wrote than all the English lit classes put together. Everything I’ve done can be traced back to Denny’s influence.

O’Neil and Grell partner up

I was honored to have the opportunity to work with him one last time for the (upcoming) Green Lantern 80th Anniversary book on a short story featuring Green Arrow that he wrote especially for me. I noticed that, in the last panel, he wrote the words: THE END.

Right now all I can think of is how fortunate I was to have had him for a mentor, collaborator and friend.

He was my hero.

Mike Allred, artist/writer (Madman, Batman ’66)

We’ve lost another legend.

I only met Denny once, but he couldn’t have been nicer, or left a more powerful impression confirming his reputation as a great gentleman.

I could go on an on for hours about all the wonderful stories he wrote to inspire and entertain me. He left us all a mountainous stack of classic comic books to revisit again and again.

O’Neil and Adams

But it was the Green Lantern/Green Arrow comics he did with Neal Adams that hit me first and hardest in my childhood. One of the first times I learned the name of the writer of a comic I dug.

The impact of those wonderful stories has never left me. I encourage anyone and everyone to dig into them to understand why.

I’m gonna revisit them right now.

Greg Capullo, artist (Batman, Spawn)

I was sad to learn of the passing of legendary creator Denny O’Neil. I’ve been asked to say a few words about what he meant to me. Well, here goes: I’ve loved comic books since forever. And, since I was 8 years old, I was sure that creating comics was what I wanted to do when I grew up. I’m often asked about which comic creators influenced my own career. Well, to be sure, there were many. With rare exception do I cite specific individuals. Why? Because there were many and the list is long.

O’Neil and Adams

But, there’s a broader picture here. Denny was a true LEGEND. His contributions so substantial, so important and so integral to this medium that I love. Denny is part of its very fabric. He’s part of a tapestry of giants — folks that made a huge impact through their expression. The man was/is comics. This is how Denny influenced me. He was, is and always shall be part of this amazing universe — the universe that filled me with excitement and desire.

Denny is one of the immortals.

Dave Gibbons (Watchmen, Green Lantern)

I only worked with Denny on a couple of things: He was the co-editor of my first writing break at DC Comics, a revival of World’s Finest, and of the crossover with Dark Horse Comics, Batman vs Predator.

He was a pretty hands-off editor but I do remember a nice lunch with him and his wife in San Diego where I got to be the fanboy with him!

O’Neil and Adams

His writing on the Green Lantern/Green Arrow series was one of the things that drew me back into comics after an adolescent straying. With that series alone, he demonstrated that mainstream superhero comics could be about so much more.

Jamal Igle, artist/writer (The Wrong Earth, Molly Danger)

To say that Denny influenced my career, as well as the careers of anyone who has read a DC comic in the last 50 years would be a huge understatement. Denny’s legacy on Batman alone is still felt to this day. He wrote one of my all time favorite Batman stories, The Joker’s Five Way Revenge! In fact, when Sean McKeever and I worked on Countdown: The Search for Ray Palmer: Crime Society, we leaned heavily on that story. Both in how it was written and drawn, it’s a huge influence on what we did. Denny trained a generation of editors on how to work with artists and taught a generation of artists the fine points of writing.

Kelley Jones, artist (Batman, Swamp Thing)

The influence I felt from Denny came in full force when I started working for him on Batman projects in the ’90s. Before then like everyone else I was a fan of his comics.

Denny intimidated me because of his deserved stature as one of comics’ great creators. I never wanted to sound dumb in front of him so I didn’t say much!

When I began working for him he would always say find out who you are and put it to paper. That’s where Batman is. With that advice I was a kid in a candy shop and those years working for Denny I think it shows.

Some time in my second year on Batman he called and didn’t say hi, he just said, “Ah, I want you to know, I think you are doing something special. I think I should tell you.” And he said goodbye and hung up. Why he felt the need to say that I have no idea. Whatever I was doing I can’t remember. I mentioned it to no one because his comments had no rhyme or reason. If it had been attached to a page or sequence he liked or in general I might have understood the context. As it was I just let it be.

It was much, much later after more experience and many more comics under my belt that I realized what he did. He was doing for me what I think no one did for him. What he would have hoped some editor would have said to him maybe. I’m guessing, but that seems the most reasonable thing, and Denny was the most reasonable of people. At that time I was still feeling my way around and he knew that. Whether I was doing something special or not didn’t matter. That he felt the need to tell a young artist under his wing those precious words meant the world to me, and far more than now than then. I try to do that now for other creators too. Like Denny did, just let someone know.

Once I called Denny. And it wasn’t about the doing the book. If there’s a great virtue to working in comics, its that you get to talk to your heroes even if you work for them, about comics they themselves did that knocked you out at length.

I had asked him to tell me about his working on a classic story with Marshall Rogers, titled Ticket to Tragedy from Detective #481. One of my favorite stories ever in comics.

The last page is pure undiluted, unequaled Batman. Still it provides a shiver and a thrill. Still it packs a great punch. All of it pure O’Neil too.

His “Kelley, I’m really busy” went to pleasant surprise when I begged him for a few minutes, then to genuine enthusiasm and he answered all my questions happily, at least as much as Denny would show that is!

When I also said how much Rogers praised the script, he was really touched and wanted to know everything I could remember of what Marshall said. I told Denny that Marshall pulled a page he did from that job and with it demonstrated how comics storytelling is done. (I have that page by the way!)

Denny was floored by that and said he was really glad to hear it. I thought how cool it was that even in his lofty, well-deserved heights, he reacted like me if I heard something that kind from someone of Rogers’ level. But then Denny’s hallmark was writing human-type stories. Not sentimental but filled with real sentiment.

I try to do that now for other creators too. Just let them know.

Ron Marz, writer (Green Lantern, Silver Surfer)

I think the last time I saw Denny was at a convention last year. The show was not terribly busy, so we had some time to catch up. While we were chatting — at Denny’s table, in an elevator taking us to a panel room, and then “backstage” waiting for the panel to start — Denny told me stories about why I was the one who got hired to write Green Lantern when they decided to do the Emerald Twilight storyline. He also had some very nice things to say about how I handled Hal’s character. It was incredibly generous of Denny, arguably the greatest Green Lantern writer ever, to go there. But that’s who he was. Denny was comics royalty, and he had to have known it, but he always went out of his way to make you feel like an equal. Yes, our business is poorer without him in it, but the larger world has suffered a greater loss.

It’s so hard to pick one of Denny’s stories as a favorite. It’s all so good: Batman, The Question, Daredevil, and on and on. But if I have to take one story, give me Green Lantern #76. I read it years after it initially came out, of course, but it was still powerful. Which, I guess, is sad commentary on how little our society has changed for the better. Fifty years later, we’re still having the same discussion, still wrestling with the same inequities. Denny wasn’t just a writer, he was, sadly, a prophet.

Graham Nolan, artist/writer (Detective Comics, Monster Island)

Today we lost a true legend in comics and in particular the Batman world. Denny, along with Neal Adams, would return the Dark Knight to his original roots as established by the early writings of Bill Finger. I came into Batman right around that time.

I loved the gothic Batman tales of the early ’70s that had a hint of the supernatural. My favorite was a story Denny wrote and was illustrated by the underrated Irv Novick called The Demon of Gothos Mansion from Batman #227. It had all the great elements of a Batman tale, including a mystery and an incredible death trap escape!

Denny’s writing, along with Bill Finger and Archie Goodwin, defined how I would see the character of the Batman for the rest of my life.

It was a thrill for me to have been able to work under Denny’s direction and an absolute honor to have him present the Inkpot Award to me, Chuck Dixon and Kelley Jones at San Diego Comic-Con in 2016.

He WAS the Batman gatekeeper and cared deeply for how he should be portrayed. I can’t even tell my favorite Denny story. It involves him receiving a package containing a Frank Miller script for Batman/Spawn that still cracks me up. Ask me at a con some day.

Denny is now reunited with Marifran. God bless you, sir and thanks for the great stories.

Kevin Nowlan, artist

My favorite Denny O’Neil story wasn’t in a comic. More than 20 years ago, in an ancient city on the northern coast of Spain, Denny introduced us to his wife Marifran and told the tale of their high school romance and the failed marriages that followed and how they’d recently found each other again and were in the middle of living happily ever after.

It was a heartfelt and human story and it reminded me of the things I always liked about Denny’s scripts. Even if he was writing about superheroes, it was the down-to-earth, human stuff that made his work stand out. I’m thinking of Leslie Thompkins in There Is No Hope in Crime Alley and the nameless old guy on the rooftop in No Evil Shall Escape My Sight. The supporting players, regular street-level folks often stole the show from the taller, better looking über alphas with the chest emblems and the primary colors.

O’Neil and Adams

And you could see all of that in Denny’s face and his big, sad eyes when he spoke, the love of his life holding his hand and smiling with pride.

Jerry Ordway, artist

Like many fans my age, I was influenced by Denny O’Neil’s writing in the 1970s. I especially loved the Green Lantern/Green Arrow stories he produced with Neal Adams. They’re known for attempting to reflect the-then turbulent times, but the fan in me remembers the small character touches on display. When Hal Jordan is roughing it on the road, one memorable sequence has him heating up chili over a campfire, and thinking about Ollie’s idea of adding mushrooms to the kettle! Wherever that came from, Denny or Neal, it’s a small detail that made those heroes seem more real to me. It was the difference between reading a kind of generic comic story, as opposed to one that gave the reader something with a personal “voice.” And Denny didn’t do generic.

The Flash #226

On the Batman stories done with Neal Adams, Irv Novick and others, a hero becomes defined by his hatred of guns, because a man with a gun robbed young Bruce Wayne of his parents. This was an era where Batman was darker, yes, but also more interesting. In the 1980s, Denny wrote a great series with The Question, a character Steve Ditko created, but whom Denny made more dimensional.

I was thrilled to work with him in 1989, on the comic book adaptation of the first Tim Burton Batman film. As it often happens, we comic folks tend to maintain a tenuous connection with each other via comic book conventions over the many years. I was pleased to see Denny recently at Terrificon in Connecticut in addition to the Baltimore Comic Con last year, where we did a panel together, and chatted a little bit afterward. I am happy I got the chance to tell him how much his work meant to me personally. Condolences to his family and friends.

Greg Rucka, writer (Gotham Central, Detective Comics)

Denny O’Neil was my mentor, my friend, my editor, and one of my genuine heroes. He was a man of tremendous conscience, of savage, acidic wit, and of introspection that ranged throughout his work. He was an artist, despite his protestations to the contrary. He is the man who brought Batman to the Mean Streets, and the rest of the DCU along with it. He was the man who gave us nuance at a company that for so long had refused it. He wrote, advocated, and edited with courage that has all but evaporated from the industry. He championed not just the people he worked with — editors, artists, writers — but the stories that could and should be told. His compassion was legendary, and in that word is more, because his passion was often quiet, but never, ever lacking.

Detective Comics #457

I write this in an office that I have because of him. You ask me to write this about him because of him, because my career is owed to him far more than anyone I can think of in this industry. If not for Denny O’Neil, I would not be in comics today. If not for Denny O’Neil, I would not have had the opportunity I’ve had to tell the stories I’ve told. If not for Denny O’Neil, I would not have known how to tell those stories. I owe him more than I can count, and more than I could ever have hoped to repay.

We shall not see his like again, and we are lesser for his passing.

Fred Van Lente, writer

Denny was a huge influence on my work, primarily though his work on The Question with Denys Cowan. His story The Silent Parable from The Question Annual #1 is my all time favorite of his, as it is about grappling with failure — and forgiving yourself. Rest in peace.

(NOTE from Dan: Fred recently paid tribute to O’Neil’s Question run by picking his TOP 13 stories. Click here.)

MORE

— DENNY O’NEIL: An Appreciation, by NEAL ADAMS. Click here.

— DENNY O’NEIL Discusses His Greatest BATMAN Stories. Click here.

Author: Dan Greenfield

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6 Comments

  1. Rest in peace, Mr. O’Neil. Your mark on the comics industry will be remembered always.

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  2. Great words for a great man and writer.

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  3. Rest in peace , Denny.

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  4. That’s great that Denny and Mike Grell will have one more story together.

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  5. Wonderful tributes to a man who gave us so much entertainment, and so much to think about.

    Chris

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  6. I met his visiting Home-Care nurse about 14 months ago. She coordinated my request for scads of item-signatures including my beat up copy of Batman #251 ‘The Joker’s Five-Way Revenge’ story. She told me he continued to attend comic shows though he was terribly diminished after his wife passed a few years earlier. He was ‘challenging’ (put kindly) as her charge, but was also a literary, intellectual fountain and an oh-so lovable guy. RIP.

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