Cartoonists Of The World Unite, by Dennis O’Neil

Dennis O'Neil

Dennis O'Neil was born in 1939, the same year that Batman first appeared in Detective Comics. It was thus perhaps fated that he would be so closely associated with the character, writing and editing the Dark Knight for more than 30 years. He's been an editor at Marvel and DC Comics. In addition to Batman, he's worked on Spider-Man, Daredevil, Iron Man, Superman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern/Green Arrow, the Question, The Shadow and more. O'Neil has won every major award in the industry. His prose novels have been New York Times bestsellers. Denny lives in Rockland County with his wife, Marifran.

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14 Responses

  1. Elayne Riggs says:

    Didn't Mark Evanier attempt to organize comic book writers and artists into a guild a couple decades back? Is this the effort you reference?I'd love to see comic book pros join already-existing unions like the Freelancers Union or the WGA or the Graphic Artists Guild. But that might dilute bargaining power specifically with the Big Two, so other than benefits like health care I'm not sure how successful that would be.

  2. R. Maheras says:

    I had a union warehouse "day job" from 1974-1978, while I was seriously developing my comic art and lettering skills, and damned if it didn't spoil me. By 1978, I had a pretty clear grasp about what it was like in the comics biz: You get paid piece work, there are no health benefits, no retirement plan, no ownership, and (then) you don't get your original art back. The slow realization that the comics biz was not as glamorous and all-around lucrative as I had once thought was a tough pill to swallow. Even tougher was the realization that without a career in comics to look forward to, I might be a union order-filler in a warehouse forever (or at least until I was eligible to retire in about 2019). I was pretty bummed out, to say the least. Then one day, on a whim, I clipped out and sent in an Air Force recruiting postcard from an issue of "Popular Science." After later talking to a recruiter, I realized that not only would the Air Force train me in a new profession (electronics), I'd get much better benefits than I did with my union (including tuition assistance), and, if I stayed in for 20 years, a much earlier retirement. So I quit my union job, took a 66 percent pay cut and signed up (the 66 percent cut is a misleading figure if one realizes that in the military, my food, lodging, medical care and other stuff was free). I did stay in 20 years, and retired in 1999.However, had I never joined a union, I may never have had the expectations that I did. And perhaps that's been part of the problem for creators in the comics biz: Low expectations. I can easily see how one can initially get caught up in the glamour of the industry — seeing one's work published, getting fan mail, getting special treatment at conventions, making decent dough (IF one is working), etc. The problem is there's no guarantee any of it will last. An artist may be “hot” for a few years and then phone calls from editors suddenly stop. Also, if one starts a family, the whole benefits issue suddenly looms much larger.And because there are always 10 bright-eyed entry-level creators to take the place of every seasoned creator who, as years pass, may start thinking seriously about things like benefits and job security, the comics industry has developed into a young person's game. "You don't like the status quo? There's the door, buddy." To be fair, the big publishers have made a number of significant concessions to creators since I became disillusioned with the industry in 1978. But there are still plenty of creators like Herb Trimpe out there who were loyal workers for years, and then suddenly found the door to their only source of livelihood slammed shut for no particular reason except “your style doesn’t grab us anymore.”In a union, Herb Trimpe would have had seniority, and would be the last person shown the door under any circumstances.

    • Mike Gold says:

      Good point, Russ.During the 2006 Mid-Ohio Con, Mark Evanier and Tony Isabella told me Dave Cockrum had just died. I had a reaction that, as it turns out, was similar to a lot of others when they heard the news: overwhelming sadness, followed by repressed anger. Dave should have had decent health care; anybody who works on corporate-owned characters should have it. Let alone anybody who happened to save the X-Men from commercial oblivion.

      • Rick Taylor says:

        Mike,Question – Being a Vet, didn't Dave Cockrum receive healthcare through the VA?My only reason I'm asking is from experiences my Dad had with the VA in getting treatment for a couple rounds of 2 kinds of cancer he's faired quite good. He's gotten first-class treatment an access to some very expensive drugs he would not have been able to afford otherwise. I realize this may not have been the case with Dave's illness but I seem to remember him getting some treatment having been a vet.

        • R. Maheras says:

          The VA has a limited budget, so there is an 8-tier priority system in place, based on things like service-related illnesses and disabilities, one's economic status, etc. It could very well be that when Dave was working, he may not have been able to get care or had to co-pay for all of his care because he "was making too much money." In the case of Dave's chronic illnesses, for example, his health may have deteriorated to the point that by the time he was out of work and could get VA care at no cost/low cost, it was too late. He also may not have been near enough to a VA facility to get the regular care he needed. Plus, one doesn't just walk into a VA hospital and walk out again — especially if one has to travel far to get to it. One appointment may have been an all-day affair for him. And if he could not drive himself, his wife may have had to take him — meaning if they were living on her income and she was working, they'd even be worse off. I don't know the details of his situation, so it's really hard to tell. And what about Dave’s wife? She wouldn’t be covered under the VA system, so what would have happened if she had an accident or got ill? The cost of just one week’s routine stay in a hospital can easily cost $20,000 – $30,000. I believe Mike’s point is that with what Dave had done for Marvel, he should not have been in such a situation in the first place.Now I do agree with the perennial argument that Dave, like other creators from his era, had a fair idea what the score was going in, and accepted it. The problem is, once an artist has committed himself/herself to such a career as a young person, when the graying of the temples start, and priorities and realities have shifted, it’s often too late do anything about it. Young people never think they are going to get older, but damned if it usually happens. And if, as an artist, one’s faculties start to fail (eyes, back, joints, etc.), or one has a stroke affecting one ability to draw (ala Wally Wood), the artist can no longer scratch out a living like he did when he was younger. Then what? Creators need to band together to make sure everyone has a basic parachute to catch them if/when the unthinkable happens. It could mean a union, it could means an association of some type, or it could just mean a widespread, aggressive, ongoing effort with publishers to address these issues in some fashion, ala The Hero Initiative.

          • Mike Gold says:

            How true, Russ.Lucky, and finally, we have The Hero Initiative to help ( They can only do so much, but they do an awful lot. They've got a lot of good people helping guide their efforts — including our pals Denny O'Neil and Dick Giordano. They do a GREAT job, and I urge everybody to check 'em out.

  3. Marilee J. Layman says:

    Unions are a good thing for many reasons. What do you guys think about universal single-payer health care?

    • Linda Gold says:

      I think it's way past due and hope Americans wake up to the fact soon. We are the only industrialized country without it and it's shameful.

      • Roberto Barreiro says:

        first at all, it is great to be here =)second on the universal health care…I live in South America (chile to be exact, but i was born in Argneitna and lived there until five years ago) . In both countries there are a universal health care, not wonderful (this is the Third World =), but who happens to save lives. And helps to the functioning of the society.So, to me is a given. Ad you know what? It works! The people lives better with the system. My sister have been dead at birth if not operated in a public system. My fmaily would be destroyed without this sistem (an example: my mother developed benign cancer in the thyroid glands – it is rightly written? – She had to extirpate them. The operaiton, resti n the hospital plus the chemicla sessions were provided by the social care. Cost? The local equivalent of U$S 100 (in a time where 1 Argenitne peso equaled U$S 1 )So, that the state puts some universal health care to me is almost a necesity to get a healty and viable society.Hope that in the uSA someday you get thst kind of health care

  4. Rick Taylor says:

    Guys I understand all of the above.It just came off as Dave didn't have any insurance at all. No argument that given Dave's contribution to the New X-Men alone should have bought him that ticket.No one understands the VA better than me given my Dad's journey with cancer over the last few years. His VA status has afforded him service he couldn't afford.It's sad that publishers have lately offered positions to creators a defensive measure to avoid litigation instead rewarding them for contributions made to the company. I remember being told to let Jr people go because the 'could afford the insurance.I'm with you that these guys deserve more and the Hero Initiative is the place to start.

  5. Mark Badger says:

    Let me post a petulant, long drawn, left wing fucking whiney scream of pain.The frigging Graphic Artist Guild affiliated with the United Auto Workers, the UAW paid for organizers, normal organizers from political/union jobs bombed in the role. I was getting booted out of the comic book biz for stylistic deviations, so I took the Guild's organizer job, I had put in a bunch of years organizing with the Central American movement and then three or four working with the Norther-California Graphic Artist Guild group as a volunteer , passing on what I learned in grassroots organizing to artists. Illustrators and Graphic Designers were amazingly easy to organize and great members doing all sorts of wonderful things. I saw lots of people like Denny go to meetings, enjoy meetings and go off and do volunteer work for the Guild.Nor-Cal went from 100 to 300 people in two or three years, re-wrote Ca. Sales tax law for artists benefit, and put ontons of educational events. On staff I helped other chapters around the country duplicate that kind of growth and activism. I put forward a plan to organize comic book people with the Writers Union, also a member of the UAW. The plan was to focus on creative rights and health care. They wouldn't even talk to me about it.I got dismissed because the officers and the Executive Director wanted an organization that put on trade shows/parties, not to organize people and take political action. Under their leadership the Guild dismissed the UAW, has lost membership and hasn't updated their web site in a year now. Our local chapter has collapsed into near non-existence. Unions or any kind of political work takes organizers, people who don't think their ideas are the greatest thing since sliced bread, but are willing to get people to work together. We don't have a union because a couple of arrogant white guys thought they knew best. Unfortunately the Guild publishes the Pricing and Ethical Guidelines which gives it a cash cow that keeps The Guild limping along.Other Unions have expressed interest in organizing artists and writers but they don't want to steal "the Guilds" territory.For a couple of years as a volunteer and staff with Nor-Cal Guild I saw how cool an artists organization could be and how a couple of dicks can really screw an organization.I'm gonna go drink now.And by the way as independant contractors one of the things we're not allowed to do is share prices or set prices that would be a violation of anti-trust if we did it when working with Time Warner who own like half of the media world or so.

    • Martha Thomases says:

      Preach, brother!

    • Howard Cruse says:

      Someday someone will write an account of the rise and disintegration of the noble Cartoonists Guild in the late 1970s. I was persuaded to take a leadership position just as its Executive Director took ill with cancer and rival factions rose to the surface and splinters split off and it all began to fall apart. We finally managed to negotiate its absoption into the Graphic Artists Guild, but the GAG's support for its new cartooning branch was ineffectual. (Maybe it's better now.)The thing is: while its final dissolution was painful to be part of, at its best the Cartoonists Guild had made magazine editors accustomed to routinely underpaying and screwing the cartoonists in their magazine's pages sit up and take notice. It was cool to watch it in action.

    • Mike Gold says:

      I've had mixed feelings about the UAW for some time now. I've had friends there, including their long-time media director, and our mentor Jerry Bails was tight with the highest of the high there. But recently they started organizing the youth social services fields, and while folks like Head Start teachers certainly need and deserve representation, you just can't organize that field the same way you organize General Motors. For one thing, the "clients" can't afford higher fees — even if you could legally pass them along. For another, upper management doesn't receive seven, or even six, figure salaries. A Harvard PhD running a local Head Start / School Readiness program earned $99,000 — a lot of money by the teachers' standards, but a wisp of smoke for people of her experience. So the UAW organized, and in order to make ends meet they had to lay off staff and cut 60 kids out of the program."We don't have a union because a couple of arrogant white guys thought they knew best." Mark, that is so true of so many noble efforts.