Author: Dennis O'Neil

Dennis O’Neil: SHIELD, Arrow, and Superstuff

Both prime time comic-book based television series had their season finales this week, a day or two after I write this, and so any commentary on them might be premature. I mean, maybe some humungous game changer is in the offing, some gobsmacking surprise that will leave us gasping for breath, numbed and awed by the storytelling splendor we have just witnessed.

Or maybe not.

The shows I refer to are, of course, Marvels Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Arrow, and although they are, as noted above, comics-derived, they aren’t two heads of the same critter. I think that Arrow is the more… well – I’m lacking precise terminology here, so let’s call Arrow the more “comicbooky” of the two. It is all about superheroes, comics’ prime export: one such hero in particular the Arrow of the show’s title, who wears a costume and has a double identity and has tricks up his sleeve – his quiver? – that might make an Olympic archer seek another sport. And over the months he’s acquired some friends who might qualify as superheroes and some enemies that might qualify as supervillains. SHIELD, on the other hand, is a hybrid, a series that occurs in a world where superheroes exist, but which is not about superheroes per se. (And yes, o astute reader, I did exile a bunch of periods from the show’s name. Sue me.) The SHIELDers aren’t super themselves, but they’ve got some supers in their Rolodexes.

I mentioned game changers a couple of paragraphs ago. Both Arrow and SHIELD have already changed the game a bit. SHIELD, as part of a nifty crossover with a movie, has gone from being a CIA/NSA-type spook organization to being a bunch of noble folk running from the authority figures, outlawed by the baddies’s takeover of whatever agency controls SHIELD. (I confess that I’ve never quite understood who signs SHIELD paychecks. A U.S. government honcho? Somebody as the United Nations? A scientologist?)

Some of you may want to read political commentary into SHIELD’s status change. Be my guest.

Arrow’s game has also changed, on a smaller scale than SHIELD’s, but kind of drastically nonetheless. The storyline replicated some comic book stuff from years – nay, decades – back. To wit: bow-twanging hero Oliver Queen loses his fortune. He’s no longer a member of the one percent. No more rich kid. I don’t know why the television guys made the change and, after all these years, I’m not sure why we comic bookers did, either. Maybe so our archer would be less like Batman/Bruce Wayne. Maybe to give him some (fictitious) street cred. Or maybe we just weren’t all that fond of mansion dwellers. Or… all of the above?

To end on a what-the-hell-difference-does-that-make note: In the comics, the Arrow was the Green Arrow, as many of you know. I approve of the renaming. I mean, why green?


Dennis O’Neil: They Say It’s Your Birthday…

Julius SchwartzSome 75 years ago I stuck out my head, decided I didn’t like what I couldn’t quite see yet, and protested, but it was too late to go back and so I’ve been occupying space and respirating ever since.

Think 75 is a big number? Well, my component atoms popped into existence at about the time as the Big Bang, when it all began, and that was 13,798 billion years ago, give or take (and what’s a billion or two among friends?). Now, that 75 seems pretty tiny, doesn’t it? And, matter of fact, it is.

For 49 or 50 of those years, I’ve been involved in what was once a backwater of American publishing, comic books. My timing was pretty good. Roy Thomas brought me into the business just as it was emerging from a decade of disrepute, during which its continued existence was in doubt. But first the late Julius Schwartz reinvented a few once-popular superheroes and, a little later, Stan Lee concocted a new approach to writing comics. Then Roy, and Steve Skeates, and I came to New York, young guys who had grown up reading and liking the kind of fantasy-melodrama that comics purveyed, and the business evolved around us. I can’t speak for Roy or Steve, but I wasn’t thinking of a career, and that was probably sensible since no career path existed in the world of comics. I was just doing a kind of nutty fiction writing and putting food in the mouths of those who depended on me and that was pretty much that.

We’re still here, Roy and Steve and I, and so is the business.

But it’s not exactly the same business. Even those who were taking comics seriously weren’t predicting what they’ve become. The look of the product is different: the pages slicker and fewer per issue, the art style showing influences that weren’t available a half-century ago. The vocabulary is sophisticated, and the themes either more mature or more adolescent, depending on your sensibility. Comics’s usual form, the complete-in-this-issue story, is odd and rare.

Imagine that, you gentle and kindly millennials…no continued stories! And more than one story per issue! And text stories with nary an illustration in sight! And half-page humor strips!

AND…all in color for a dime!

Then, there are the movies. Oh,yeah, Hollywood had been borrowing material from comics since the early 40s and after the first big budget Superman flick in 1978, it was possible to anticipate more superdoing at a theater near you. But I doubt that anyone predicted superheroes becoming their own genre, a first cousin to science fiction but, nonetheless, their own thing, and that they would dominate summer entertainment. Cinema technology evolved in tandem with the ever-more-mature costumed good guys resulting in a near perfect marriage of form and content. We sure didn’t see that coming.

What next? Well, given everything in preceding paragraphs, you’ll pardon me if I pass on prognosticating.

Dennis O’Neil: Be A Villain  

x…a man may smile, and smile, and be a villain

William Shakespeare

A lovely person with whom I once shared a wedge of life told me that the bad guys in my stories didn’t get really mean until I began having frequent encounters with a colleague who would never have gotten even close to my Christmas card list had I been the kind of guy who sends Christmas cards. And later I shifted part of the writer’s duty, the part that dealt with antagonists, to the editor while I pleasured myself with parts of the continuity that, at the time, I found more interesting.

Shame on me.

You may have heard it: the hero is only as good as the villain. Grant that there may be a taste of oversimplification in there somewhere, and then grant that the statement is true. Put Superman against a pickpocket? Batman against a jaywalker? Spider-Man against a graffiti artist? You’re not squirming in anticipation of those stories, are you? There’s not much conflict or drama – not much entertainment value – in a blatantly uneven contest. The powers and abilities of both halves of the story equation – good guy/bad guy – should be roughly equal and if you’re going to give an edge to one side, give it to the heavy; we do like to cheer for the underdog, don’t we?

Maybe my friend was right about the colleague. If so, I don’t know why. Maybe I needed some sort of emotional jolt, which the colleague generously supplied. Or maybe I was too involved with the plotting, as opposed to the charactering, of the stories. Maybe I wasn’t as involved in my craft as I should have been. Maybe my sun sign was not aligned with my moon sign and when that happens…run for the hills? Or maybe I was getting a preview of how I might feel in, oh, say – forty years later?: that is, now.

I’m not churning out as much fantasy-melodrama as I once did, but if I were, villains might be a problem. Time was that the baddies existed only to give he hero grief and if the baddie discharged that duty, enough said and well done! Some people are just nasty: case closed. But the best popular fiction now gives the evildoers just about the same degree of motivation and personality as is bestowed upon the good guys. And at a certain level, it’s becoming hard for me to really believe in villainy – that is actions that serve only to rain on someone’s parade. A really good writer – Shakespeare, say – can do a bad guy whose core seems to be sheer malevolence – and make the narrative work. But we aren’t all Shakespeare.

My problem is, I no longer believe in villainy. I believe in ignorance and, to borrow an idea from my days as a Catholic, some of it is invincible ignorance and the invincibly ignorant will hold onto their ignorance until ten seconds after they’re breathed their last. But they’re not infected with some spiritual toxin that makes men slimeys. They’re ignorant.

Thich Nhat Hanh, who is as close to a saint as anyone I know of, says that, given different circumstances he would have become a river pirate instead of a monk.

I look back on eight and a half decades and see myself doing plenty of ratty stuff. But I didn’t do it because I was a villain and, in the moment, I either rationalized my acts or simply didn’t deal with their moral implications. I guess what I did might fit some definitions of ignorance.

But “ignorance” doesn’t have the same dramatic heft as “evil,” does it?

Dennis O’Neil: Mark Twain and The Seven Basic Plots

O'Neil Art 140424The day is bright, the Earth is coming back to life – Tuesday was Earth Day, even there are a flurry of birthdays in the offing… I mean, you don’t really expect me to work, do you?

So, instead of trying to be original (and good luck with that, mi amigo) we’re going to delve into the innards of the computer and see what we can haul out.

Ah, what have we here? “Seven Basic Plots.” Okay, that’ll do, but first… a small and probably totally unnecessary spoiler alert: If you’re a person who feels that looking at things like plot lists, taking writing classes, reading how-to-write books will compromise your vision or creativity or wreak some other harm… maybe you should cut out now and return, if you like, next week, when the topic will be completely different, unless it isn’t.


Dennis O’Neil: Synergy

To the best of my knowledge, it was only done once before, and that was in 1912, when audiences were treated to a simultaneous telling of one story in two media, film and print.  What Happened to Mary (a statement, not a question) was a serialized movie, the kind that was shown in sections, or chapters, stretched over many weeks, the better to lure customers back to find out what happened next. While what was happening to Mary was appearing on local screens, the a prose version of the same story was running, serialized, in McClure’s Magazine.

Voila!  Synergy, 102 years ago!

My Mary information is sketchy at best, and so I don’t know if the stunt did whatever its perpetrators wanted it to do.  Was it successful?  (A question, not a statement.) I can’t say, but I’d guess not, if only because it doesn’t seem to have been repeated, anywhere, any time.

Until now, that is.  The increasingly vast, Disney-nurtured entertainment enterprise that is Marvel, has given us both Captain America: The Winter Soldier,  which has earned $476 million so far, and it is a long way from the finish line, and an episode in the television series Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. that tells another part of the same story.  They did it right: you can see either the movie or the video alone, without even knowing of the existence of the other, and get full value.  But see them both and you experience a much fuller version of the story.

The job must have required some thought and effort and the professional yarn spinner in me would like to know exactly what the procedure was.  Outlines?  Flow charts? Computer programs?  What?  Or, oh my gosh, did the writers keep it all in their heads?  Or did the glitches get edited out post-production?

Some mixture of all the above?

The only complaint I have applies only to the movie and its a complaint I’ve offered before.  Hey, guys, ever hear that less is more?  There are so many explosions and other noisy events, and the climactic battles goes on for so long, that sitting there in the dark theater I grew a little weary.  Bang bang and more bang, beyond whatever narrative use could be gotten from all that flash and clash

I wonder: do the creators of superhero movies feel that the explosions are what the audience expects in an era where the ka-blooies of video games may be helping to shape our sensibilities? Do they think that the folk in the seats expect rackety pyrotechnics in massive doses? Or even demand them?  And if so, are they right?  I hope not.

The noise level on the S.H.I.E.L.D. episode was quite reasonable, possibly because television drama has a more modest gunpowder budget than motion pictures.  Score one for the tube.

So, was the experiment a success?  For me, it was, and I’d be happy too see something like it again.  Only maybe a little more quiet?

Dennis O’Neil Wants Credit For Captain America: The Winter Soldier

You probably don’t know this because it almost certainly isn’t in any of the books about the comic book racket and it happened before most you were born — in the neighborhood of 50 years — and even if you’d been there, in the offices of Marvel comics when Marvel was part of a parent company, Magazine Management, you might not have known about it and if you did know about it you might have forgotten by now because we are talking a half-century here, but… I once wrote Captain America and I’m pretty sure I used fewer words than are in this sentence.

And — stand aside now and watch your head — I hereby claim credit for the current, and generally excellent Captain America: The Winter Soldier, a film now playing at a theater near you, unless you live somewhere that is seriously rural.


Dennis O’Neil: What the World Would Be Like if “Noah” Didn’t Exist

Okay, let’s begin by looking at today’s Times.  Bad news, there above the fold: A U.N. panel says climate change is getting worse.  Melting ice caps, acidic coastal waters, sea life migration – all negatives caused by ecological woes that we noble humans are causing.

And did you see last week’s Vice on HBO, the story about how Greenland is literally melting?

As Bill Maher observed, in other nations conservatives and liberals disagree about how to deal with global warming, but neither side denies that the problem exists.  Not true for us.

Seen Noah yet?  Me either, but apparently some religious folk are upset because the filmmakers have taken liberties with the source material.  Maybe somebody in a film seminar someplace will tell us how one could avoid taking liberties with that particular source material.  I mean, there’s not a whole lot of source material to take liberties with and… hey, I’m not going to enter the debate about the literal truth of scripture — I’m old and I don’t need anyone else hating me — but two of every living creature?  Every one?  In one boat? At the very least, that needs some explaining, and since no such explanation is given in the source material, any such explanation would be taking liberties and… you can see the problem.

Why did Darren Aronofsky,  who does not deny being an atheist, decide to direct this particular flick?  Maybe if I see it, I’ll have a clue.

I wonder: could it have something to do with our American monomyth?


Dennis O’Neil: Meet Lenny Grimmish

Doonesbury photo

So that snot-nose college boys thinks he’s putting one over on me, hah?  Foreign bastard.  I mean, look at his name.  I don’t even know how to say it.  True Dough?  Tree dee- you?  First name Garry?  Yeah, sure it is;  Prob’ly something like Garovitchsky.  You see what he’s doing with his comic strip…did I say comic strip? What I meant was commie strip. Anyway, you see today’s paper?  This Tree-dee-you is reprinting crap he did I don’t know how long ago…twenty, thirty years!

Now, in the first place, I don’t pay for crap that’s that old.  If I read the news section, I wouldn’t want to read about stuff that happened twenty-thirty years ago.  You feed me stuff that’s twenty-thirty years old, what you’re doing is stealing my money ‘cause I don’t pay for stuff that’s twenty-thirty years old.  It’s like them sissy-boys and their wine…just shows how stupid they are, plunking down fifty-sixty dollars for wine that’s fifty-sixty years old.  Not that I seen ‘em do it.  Fella on the train told me about it.  Anyway, his Tree-dee-you is too lazy to do new commie strips so he’s feeding us old stuff, thinks we’re too dumb to notice.

But that ain’t the worst of it. See, the old stuff don’t even look like the new stuff and so what the snotnose is telling us is that his commie strip has changed.  Sure it has.  Damn well told it has.  ‘Cause he changed it!  What he’s trying to do is, the sneaky sonuvabitch, he’s trying to make us think that stuff changes.  Planting the idea in our heads.  Planting the idea in our kids’ heads! So pretty soon we’re going to believe that the earth is way old and not just the six-thousand years we know it is and that evolution is right and holy scripture is wrong and all that dumb type of stuff.  Did I say dumb?  Just look out the window.  See anything changing?  When was the last time you seen your Aunt Sadie change into a monkey?  When did you see a monkey change into Aunt Sadie?  Boy, they sure must think we’re stupid.

Know what I bet Tree-dee-you watches on the teevee?  I bet he watches that Cosmos thing that on Fox on Sunday night and how come it’s on Fox anyway when Fox usually knows better?  Anyway, it’s full of stuff about everything changing and some of it doesn’t even look like anything I ever seen.  Prob’ly whoever’s making the pictures is taking drugs.  Not that I really watched it ‘cause I got better things to do with my time but it came on one night and before I could find the remote I accidentally seen some of it and boy-howdy, I tell you it made me sick.

I gotta go now, but remember, they’re watching you and they’re out to get you.

Photo by NCMallory

Dennis O’Neil: Veronica

Well, my friends, here we are, home after a weekend of adventure down south in horse country.

That’s a lie.

We intended to spend the weekend in Lexington, Kentucky, but we never got there.  Friday/travel day, we got up at the crack of eight a.m., which for us is pretty early, and arrived at the Westchester airfield on time.  The line in front of U.S. Air’s counter seemed unusually long and, after a fidgety while, we were facing an airline employee and learning the reason for the long wait: the flight had been cancelled and no other flights to our destination would be leaving that day.  The best the very accommodating agent could do would require us to drive through New York traffic to another airport, change planes somewhere in the journey, and arrive in Lexington after the con had closed.  We didn’t know about travel the following day, but assuming it was possible, we wouldn’t arrive until the con was, in all likelihood, mostly history.  So I made one of those snap decisions we often regret and cancelled the whole trip. Then I spent much of the ensuing three days wishing I’d pushed harder, tried harder, mostly to assuage my conscience. I hate not doing what I’ve said I’ll do – would I have succeeded in politics? – and I felt I owed the Kentuckians something, which is a long story not to be told here.

So, instead of enjoying the bluegrass turf, we came home and eventually did a movies-on-demand viewing of Veronica Mars. I used to call Veronica’s television show a guilty pleasure.  But why guilty?  It was, in retrospect. a perfectly acceptable mass entertainment, maybe a cut or two above most of its kind. I didn’t miss the explosions or car chases – there were none – and the violence was well-choreographed, but fairly mild, and not overused.  The plot was multi-layered and reasonably complex, but again, is this something we want to complain about?  The ending left the sequel door wide open, but hey – this is the twenty first century media and am I not contemplating a sequel to my grocery list?  (Bet there’ll be one, too.)

Which brings us to today.  March 17. St. Patrick’s Day. Our annual bacchanalia.  The first bacchanalia was begun in early history to honor the god bacchus.  Our version is, as I type, being celebrated about 25 miles to the south, in Manhattan, among many other places, and presumably exists to honor a Christian saint named Patrick who allegedly evicted the snakes from Ireland, though a skeptic might say that the snakes symbolized the so-called pagans.  That might include some of you, but not to worry: you almost certainly don’t live in fifth-century Ireland.

If you live in twenty first century Manhattan, well…maybe being a pagan is the least of your worries.

Dennis O’Neil: How Long Can You Go Without Faking It?

Story ideas are pretty malleable. I once presided over/rode herd on/sweated out an 1,100+ page continuity that began as a plot for two 15-pagers.  Hemingway is credited with writing a story in only six words.  (Go on. Google it.  I’ll wait.)  I did something a while back, just a bit over 500 words, that, I think, qualifies as a story, though some might disagree, (and because we cherish the First Amendment, if for no other reason, we welcome their dissent.)

Slick magazines, back when my mother was reading them, featured stories complete on one page.

Superman’s origin, which, you might recall, involved an exploding planet – we’re not talking small, here – was originally told on one page and the first Batman story ran a mere six pages, but it was very close to a Shadow novel that must have been in the neighborhood of 45,000 words.

[[[The Great Gatsby]]], often cited as a great novel, is 47,094 words. [[[War and Peace]]], ditto on the great novel label, goes 587,287.

So, is there a point to all this?  Let’s try to find one.

Story ideas, and literary forms, might be malleable, but that doesn’t excuse scriveners from the labor of plotting and structuring. You can’t just plunk yourself down at the keyboard, decide you’ll do an 1,100-pager and begin to perpetrate the opening of this Sahara of a continuity. No, check that: you can begin the aforementioned perpetration, but a prudent person might advise against it. The danger is that, toward the end, you might find a lot of loose ends that defy knotting, or you might have given your characters problems that they can’t solve and still stay true to whatever else you’ve established.  Or you might just run out of plot. Then, you begin to improvise. You fake it. You pad. Are you, by now, boring the reader? Admit the possibility, anyway.

It happens.  A person far wiser in the ways of Big Media recently confirmed what I’d read somewhere.  Sometimes, writers and producers of television entertainment begin a protracted and complicated storyline with no clear idea of how they’ll get from A to B. They make it up as they go along.  Sometimes they get away with it.  Sometimes.

I know that some Nineteenth Century literary luminaries – Charles Dickens and Fyodor Dostoyevsky to name two – serialized their novels before publishing them in hard covers.  I wonder: did they make it up as they went along?  Did they do outlines?  Plot summaries?

What we did, my comic book colleagues and I, was make pretty detailed outlines, in consultation with our freelancers. We all knew what story we wanted to tell and had a reasonably firm idea of how it should end.  There was a few small disagreements: some of my merry men wanted the outline to be detailed; I wanted to leave wiggle room and preserve the option of someone having a better idea along the way.  But we generally knew where we were going and how to get there.

One more thing: that outline assured us that we had enough plot to justify the number of pages we were planning to occupy.  We could and did permit side plots to run in parallel with our central story, but we wanted none of that padding stuff.

Is here any padding in the preceding 551 words?  Well…