John Ostrander: Obit the Living
Obits – obituaries – are tough things to write. Their purpose is to commemorate the life of someone recently deceased, to list their accomplishments and achievements, to take note that someone has passed out of our lives. A last fanfare to the life of someone who is gone. Generally speaking, they are valedictory and complimentary.
Why do we wait until after a person has passed away to stand up and say these things? Okay, it might embarrass the person we’re talking about to hear the nice things we might say – and mean – about them but they’ll get over it. And they might like to hear them.
All of which is prelude to the fact that I am about to embarrass someone – a fellow member of ComicMix. Ladies and germs, let’s talk about Mr. Dennis O’Neil.
ComicMix readers tend to be a pretty knowledgeable lot, I’ve discovered. Unlike some comic book fans, they know their comic book history and know it extends prior to Marvel’s Civil War or DC’s Infinite Crisis. If you already know most of what I’m about to tell you, sorry – but I’m speaking for the record and for people who may not know Denny as well as they might or should.
Simply put – Denny is one of the greats in the comic book biz. One of the best writers in the field – ever. As a writer, he has helped to define what the writer does. As an editor, he has also helped shape any number of characters. He was once an editor of mine. (More on that later.) He’s been an exemplary and knowledgeable teacher as well.
At Marvel, Denny worked on Iron Man, among many others, and it was he who first put Tony Stark through the wringer of alcoholism. Marvel prided itself on being more “realistic” with its heroes – Spider-Man’s neuroses and all that. Denny actually explored a serious social condition – a disease that afflicts millions – and wrote it knowledgeably and convincingly.
It was this concept that comic books could be used to deal with serious social issues that has been a hallmark in Denny’s work and has profoundly influenced my work. Perhaps the best example was the issues that he and Neal Adams did on Green Lantern/Green Arrow. The Green Lantern book had been faltering so the Powers-That-Were decided to jam Green Arrow in there as well (I think because both Lantern and Arrow had “Green” in their names) and turned it over to Denny to do…
… whatever he wanted with it.
I should mention I was not in the business myself at that point except as most of you are – as a fan. From Denny I would later learn of the freedom that comes with taking over a low-ranking series. You generally got 6 – 12 months to turn the book around and the freedom to take it whatever direction seemed good to you. If the sales went up, you looked like a hero. If they didn’t and the book got cancelled, the general feeling was nothing was going to save it at that point and you’d done everything you could. It was a no-lose bet for the creative team. For example, Frank Miller made his name when he took over as writer and artist on a faltering Marvel book named Daredevil and put an indelible mark on it, re-defining the character to a degree that still lasts today.
What Denny and Neal did in those issues of Green Lantern/Green Arrow was to explore social issues of that day from a decidedly leftist slant – one that resonated with the late Sixties and early Seventies readers, especially those in college. The stories touched on racism, religion and politics in America, and especially on drugs in a memorable story where the self-righteous Green Arrow discovered that his own ward/sidekick, Speedy, was a heroin addict. The book did get cancelled but, oh, what a glorious failure!
What these stories taught me was comic books could be about serious issues. They opened my eyes back then to the possibilities of the medium in ways I had never considered before. Yes, I had read Will Eisner and The Spirit but not even they had the impact on me the way that those Green Lantern/Green Arrow stories had.
That wasn’t Denny’s only contribution at DC. Perhaps the most significant and lasting impact he’s had as a writer was the work he did on the Batman. It gripes my ass when I see or hear media types proclaim that the “gritty and real” Batman began with Frank Miller in The Dark Knight Returns. Taking nothing away from Mr. Miller, but that work had already been done by Denny and Neal many years before.
Thanks to the TV show with Adam West and Burt Ward, Batman had become “campy” – and that included the comic book. Full of gimmicks and arch self-knowing smirks, the Batman titles had become creatively moribund and irrelevant. It was Denny and Neal who took Batman back to his roots, stripping away the gimmicks, putting him into the shadows, having him only out at night, making him a whispered rumor rather than a cop in tights. They made Batman dangerous again and it is that version of Batman which still survives.
But wait! There’s still more!
DC acquired the former Charlton stable of heroes and, among them, was the character known as The Question, which had been created by Steve Ditko and made into a very personal exploration of Ditko’s beliefs. Trying to keep to Ditko’s version would have been unworkable, impossible, and unreadable. Denny, as the writer for the new DC character, honored Ditko by revamping the character to explore Denny’s own questions and beliefs.
I’ll leave to Denny or to Mike Gold, our E-I-C who was also the editor of that series at the time, to further discuss what The Question was all about. There’s several columns right there and either or both of them would be more authoritative than I can be about the series’ meaning and importance. You can even read those stories for yourself in the recent tpb The Question: Zen and Violence. What I can talk about is what I learned from it as a writer, something that was directly confirmed for me later by Denny himself.
A writer should be more concerned about writing a given story as a question rather than as an answer. You should have an answer for yourself – a point of view – but don’t argue it as the answer. Writing the question and letting the reader answer for themselves makes them involved in the process. If you want to preach, get a pulpit.
The Question wasn’t just a set of zen koans. It had humor, politics, great characters, and action. The first issue ended with the title character beaten, shot in the head, and dumped in the river. Now that, ladies and gentlemen, was a cliffhanger. You want to believe I was coming back next month to find out how they were dealing with that! It was great entertainment.
By the way, there’s nothing wrong with something being “entertaining”. Some treat the word as a label for work that is slight, popular, and not especially serious. Constantin Stanislavski, the great Russian theater director and teacher who created “the System” that would later morph into what Americans call “the Method” said, in a lecture, that all art should, at the very least, be entertaining. A tragedy should be entertaining. All art, by nature, is artificial; it is something that is created and, if it is to command our attention, there should be some element in it that entertains us.
Denny edited a book that I wrote of which I’m particularly proud – Batman: Seduction of the Gun. It’s purpose was to create discussion about guns and gun violence in this country. Governor Doug Wilder of Virginia actually used it to help pass modest gun control legislation that everyone told him could not be passed. When we started the project, Denny insisted that the one-shot also tell a for-real story. He told me that we could say any damn thing we wanted, make any point we wanted, make any argument we wanted, but first and foremost – at the most basic level – we had to tell a story. That’s what bought us the right to do all those other things. The readers were paying money for the book and they had a right to expect a story for their money. They had a right to be entertained first.
That’s perhaps the major thing I’ve learned from Denny as both writer and editor – that you can be both a serious writer and an entertaining one. Perhaps there were others in mainstream comics who did it before Denny but he was the first one in my awareness who did it. It’s not only the work he has done but the influence he has had and will continue to have – as a writer, an editor, and a teacher. Those he influences will and do influence others.
See? Reads like an obit. Denny may have had some health problems in the past few years but he’s still around, still writing his Tuesday column for ComicMix. When I was writing last week’s column about Del Close, I realized there were a lot of things in it that I never told Del. I decided not to make the same mistake about Denny.
Okay, Mr. O’Neil – consider yourself told.
So. What’re you writing next?
John Ostrander writes GrimJack: The Manx Cat, new installments of which appear every Tuesday here on ComicMix, and Munden’s Bar, new installments of which appear every Friday here on ComicMix. Both for free. Can’t beat that. His new Suicide Squad mini-series is out there from DC Comics, and his Star Wars: Legacy is out there from Dark Horse, both at finer comics shops across the galaxy.