Author: Dennis O'Neil

Dennis O’Neil: Complexly Evolving A Bible

Settle down, now.  Sure, the Oscars have got you all excited, but for heaven’s sake, try to relax.  Take some deep breaths while we return to where we left off last week.

The subject, a week ago, was how mythology and religion had more or less parallel evolutions…  Well, not exactly that: more how what could be a subhead in the mythology section evolved in parallel with another such subhead, comic books.

Both began as technology-spawned mutations of forms that already existed: (drama>movies; comic strips>comic books.)  Both began with stories that were simple, plot driven and self-contained – “this episode” was all there was to this particular narrative.  And, over decades, both changed, in storytelling technique, in the kinds of stories told, and, finally, in the content of those stories.  Heroes became flawed, villains became motivated, plots became complex and, finally, in comic books, the complete-in-one-episode paradigm started fraying at the edges, becoming almost anachronistic.  (I’ve edited comic book continuities that ran about 2000 pages, and I doubt that I’ve got the record.) (more…)

Dennis O’Neil: The Evolution of Religion and Mythology

Gotta get this sucker written tonight because tomorrow or the next day I may have to resume watching the snow fall and fall and fall and fall…

So: what some benevolent publisher should do (and surely benevolent publishers do exist) is to put put a book that examines the way mythology/religion have evolved quite similarly.  Both began with stories that were. by our standards, crude, with little characterization and virtually all the meaning carried by the plot.  Then, very gradually, the storytelling forms began to vary, the story content change, the narrative structure mutate…But hey!  Enough.  I’m not going to write the frigging book, at least not here and now.

If such a book were to exist, though, it might include. perhaps as an appendix, a discussion of how a certain kind of movie is evolving much as its source material evolved a half century or so earlier.  I refer, as you astute hooligans have already guessed, to superheroes.

The first superhero stories tended to be short – there were several of them in your 10-cent comic book – and the heroes were…well, they were the good guys.  The ones that beat the bad guys. Characterization, insofar as it existed, tended toward the sketchy.  All the heroes were white and waspy, and the minorities were small in number and often the kind of stereotypes that might make those of us with delicate sensibilities cringe – not because the writers and artists were bigots, but because they didn’t know better.  You could tell which heroes were which mainly by their powers: the Flash could run fast, Green Lantern had a magic ring, Hawkman had wings that enabled him to fly, et cetera, et cetera…Most of them also had double identities, also white and waspy: rich guys with no jobs, or scientists,or journalists – nary a trash collector or milkman in the lot.
The form – comic books –  soldiered on through good times and bad, growing more sophisticated year by year, and gradually those complete-in-one-issue stories were supplanted by elaborate serializations.  Genuine characterization entered those colored pages, and “adult” themes, and one morning I woke up and my benighted profession was being covered by the New York Times and taught in major universities and – ye gods! – I was respectable.

That was comics.

And movies?  I did mention movies, didn’t I?  Somewhere back there?

Well, yes I did.  But that topic might be a bit ungainly to be contained in the small bundle of verbiage remaining in the 500 words (more or less) I promised to deliver each week to Mike Gold back when ComicMix was in its birth throes.  Let’s table movies  until next week.  For now, some of you better get to the ATM because you’ll probably need to buy salt or to pay hardy young men with shovels because the weather people are predicting more of the same.  Then you can lie back, cuddle up with a mug of hot chocolate, gaze through the window at all that glistening splendor, and hope there are no power failures.

Next week: the cinema.

Dennis O’Neil: Tabula Ra’s al Ghul

Well now, I just don’t know.  When I finished last week’s blatherthon I thought we were al done with the al Ghuls. Excuse that and where were we… oh yeah, Talia and her sister Nyssa and their father, Ra’s. Batman’s nemeses.  The family might be worth a bit more copy.

As I observed last week, the family name is not “al Ghul” or “Al Ghul” or anything like that.  The Al Ghul label is a kind of honorific – ”head of the demon” if you must know – maybe laid on the old man by someone he wronged, kind of like “Vlad the Impaler.” It was provided by the late and great Julius Schwartz and I regret never having asked Julie where he got it.

So what’s the real moniker? (more…)

Dennis O’Neil: The Talia al Ghul I Know… and The Sister I Don’t

Talia-and-Nyssa-Al-GhulI was surprised to learn that Talia has a sister.   Understand, Talia and I go back a long way.   I first encountered her in a script I was writing for Detective 411.  I really didn’t know much about her, though I was probably aware that she had a father who would grab attention at some point.  I didn’t come face-to-face with him until I looked at a copy of Batman 322.

His relationship to his daughter was open information from the beginning and when you think about it, his having progeny is a bit odd; his biggest concern is the destruction of the Earth’s ecosphere and that includes the problem of overpopulation.  And although Ra’s al Ghul is something like 400 years old, I’m pretty sure that Talia is still a young woman – young by our standards, not just her father’s.  So this man who thinks there are already too many people adds to the number?  It doesn’t seem to parse.

But we should remember that Ra’s is a megalomaniacal sociopath.  Such a man might feel that anything he does, including adding to a crisis by siring a child, is righteous because he does it.  If you do it: bad.  If he does it: bravo.  Of course, he may have had a practical reason for becoming a parent: maybe he was looking for someone to take over the family business after he retired.  (I suppose that when you pass 350 or so, you lose a step or two and begin to consider successors.)  Or he might have been having trouble finding good help and decided to grow his own.  Or maybe he planned to begin an al Ghul dynasty.

Well. maybe not an al Ghul dynasty.  That’s not a name, that al Ghul.  More like a title.  According to the late Julius Schwartz, who contributed it, Ra’s al Ghul means something like “head of the demon.”  Surely at some other time, he was called something else, perhaps with the title “doctor” prefacing it.  He was a doctor, you know, and a scientist and perhaps a bit of a humanitarian in a country that has absolutely and vanished from history.  Not a trace left.  Nada. Zilch.  (How, then, do I know about it? That would be telling.)

About that sister: her name is Nyssa al Ghul – she obviously doesn’t know that what she’s calling herself isn’t a name, unless she does know and is being a rebel.  She showed up in a recent episode of a television presentation titled Arrow and proceeded to do some major ass-kicking. I don’t think she’s much like her sister. (Do they even have the same mother?)  My Talia has pacifistic instincts that are unfortunately often obliterated by a slavish devotion to her father.  A really expert therapist might do wonders for her.  Nyssa, on the other hand, seemed to enjoy combat and to be very good at it.  Though, I admit, we have barely met the woman and can’t really judge her motives.

I guess we should stay tuned.

Dennis O’Neil: Cold Weather Fans

O'Neil Art 140206Went into the living room this morning, looked out the big window and… what do you know? Snow! That was four or five hours ago and it’s still coming down: small flakes, but a lot of them. I guess we should be thankful that this weather wasn’t happening Sunday, because Sunday, as some of you may have heard, was the day of the Big Game, which was played at New Jersey’s Meadowlands, which is a quick drive to New York City (unless Governor Christie’s minions are conducting a traffic study) and New York City is a quick trip to where I’m sitting and so I’m guessing that the snow’s falling on the Meadowlands as it is falling here and if that had happened yesterday it might have interfered with the game. And wouldn’t that have been the worst, most horrific, most devastating, civilization-crumbling event in recorded history?

Oh sure, I guess the Meadowlands has guys who tend to the playing field and maybe they could have made it playable, but still… And imagine being a fan huddling in the stands. No matter how big your thermos full of hot coffee might be, you’d be cold! And being cold might have interfered with your enjoyment of the game and that might have wreaked psychological trauma upon you, leaving you a quivering shell of your former self.

The Broncos lost. That was the team I was rooting for, though not rooting very hard, because although I’ve visited both Seattle and Denver within the last year, I was in Denver most recently – ergo, the Broncs are my guys!

(By the way… Colorado recently legalized recreational marijuana and what happens? Their team gets clobbered in the Super Bowl. So the right wingers must be… er – right. Go ahead, quarrel with logic!)

But something’s wrong here…

Oh, wait, yes. Comic books. This column – hell, this entire website – is supposed to be about comic books. Not football, not Governor Chris Christie, not the lovely snowfall – comic books! So, could a canny blathermeister somehow mix football and comics? Well. I do believe that everything is related, but putting those two topics together in the same column might be a challenge. Comics have never been much about sports. There were a few sports-themed comics in the 40s – All Sports and Babe Ruth Sports, to name two – but not many. And later? The pickings are sparse. DC published six issues of Strange Sports Stories in 1973-1974 that, under the editorship of Julius Schwartz, conflated sports and science fiction. Let’s give it a “nice try.”

So why the de facto segregation? Maybe the stereotype is valid; maybe humans who enjoy reading aren’t often the same humans who enjoy violent contact games. Enormous generalization, sure, but maybe one with a grain of truth buried within it. Or maybe the creative folk never sussed out how to do sports in panel art narrative. Maybe the timing was never right. Maybe maybe maybe…

…I’ll write about something entirely different next week.

FRIDAY: Martha Thomases

SATURDAY: Marc Alan Fishman

SUNDAY: John Ostrander


Dennis O’Neil: S.H.I.E.L.D and the Long Game

O'Neil Art 140130So there it was, that kind of news item. We might once have seen something like it – a second cousin? – in the comics fanzines hobbyists published now. I find stuff like it virtually every day in Yahoo’s news section. This particular item speculated that Marvels Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., which is, as you must know if you access this particular website, a television series broadcast on Tuesday night on ABC stations, is playing a long game. (Where do I collect my tortured syntax award?)

It is maybe also common knowledge among you aficionados that the program is a disappointment in the ratings. Not doing too well, there on Tuesday night. We can speculate, as some already have, that viewers may feel that they have been prey to the old bait-and-switch gaff, promised one thing and presented with another. The TV honchos make a big deal of the show’s comic book origins, even including the word “Marvel” in the title, and prefacing every episode with the same montage of comic book images that precedes Marvel’s movies. So it’s reasonable to expect the kind of entertainment Marvel is most associated with, superhero stories. (If you’re a Marvel fan who cherishes the memory of Millie the Model, well… bless you!) But instead of superheroes, what do they give us?  An action show. No flying, no awesome feats of strength, no grotesque superfoes, not even the odd cape or mask, Just, you know, fights and guns and car chases and stuff.

Not a bad action show, actually. Decent acting and dialogue, and stunts that seems to me to be a bit better than what’s usually found on the tube. And the plots are often flavored with science fiction, which could partially justify the superhero connection.

But, at the end of the hour… no superheroes. Wonder what’s on the Comedy Channel?

So they’re playing the long game? I interpret “long game” to mean that they’ll take their time, and ours, introducing characters and plot elements that will justify membership in the superhero club.

Comics got there first.

Twice, in my years behind editorial desks, the long game question arose, though we didn’t call it that. In one instance, a previous editor had promised the writer a five-year story. Awkward. I didn’t want to disappoint the writer, a good guy, and I may have been reluctant to make my predecessor a liar. But I doubted that any comic continuity of that era could be stretched so far. That’s the kind of decision editors are paid to make and sometimes the job can be a bitch.

We struck a deal. The long storyline could continue as long as sales remained above a certain number. Lagging circulation got the title cancelled and I was off the hook, and I hope the writer bears no ill memories of the incident.

The second long game was not being played on my turf, exactly, but because I was a big honkin’ group editor I had to notice it. If memory serves (and won’t that be the day?) the scripter planned to reveal certain crucial story elements several years into the run. The book didn’t last that long. Not even close.

The lesson we can take away from all this is that the long game won’t work unless you build an audience. Give ‘em solid reasons to keep coming back, episode after episode. Promising something, even implicitly, and then putting it on indefinite hold is not a good strategy.


FRIDAY MORNING: Martha Thomases



Dennis O’Neil, Mel Gibson, Scientology, and Woody Allen

Dennis O’Neil, Mel Gibson, Scientology, and Woody Allen

So, can we still love the work of Woody Allen? For me, the answer is an uneasy yes. Because, I do. To say Ill stop would just be another lie in a situation already mired in falsehoods and overlooked facts.

So, I think we can still love the work of Woody Allen, but under one condition: This part of his story is told. No more burying the bad beneath the slightly less bad. And, certainly, no illusions that the whiny, hypochondriac charmer onscreen is anything more than a character he created. I believe Alvy Singer is an underdog. I believe Woody Allen is a child-molester.

Maybe one person writing one post on the Internet isnt going to change the tide of cultural consciousness. Still, what is cultural consciousness but a number of individuals creating a story?

If only a few hundred people make it to the end of this post, then its a few hundred people who have their own decision to make. Ill take it.

I wasn’t as conscientious as maybe I should have been in transcribing what I have just extensively quoted, and so I don’t know if Mick Gray wrote the words or was quoting someone else. In any case, I’m grateful to Mr. Gray for putting the piece on Facebook. It deals with the topic of last weeks column and deals with it far more cogently than my blather did.

Mea culpa. By now, I should know that the work should not be judged by the man. And I’m not even sure that I’ll never pay money to see another Woody Allen movie, as I claimed, because I should also know, by now, never to say never.

But I have not patronized Mel Gibson entertainments, at least not yet, ever since his storm of hate talk and his public espousal of what I consider to be a virulent form of Christianity. The logic is: Mr. Gibson’s public pronouncements are pernicious and could conceivably nudge minds and hearts into pernicious places and I don’t want even a nanocent of my money to end up in Mel’s possession, where he might use it to further his agendas.

That’s me, striking a blow for righteousness!

Sure. Truth is, my lack of patronage makes absolutely no difference to Gibson and his cohorts. But it helps me validate my opinions and my self-esteem – looky looky what that virtuous Den is doing for his morals and maybe it offers me the illusion of having some control over my life. I can neither understand nor affect computers, home heating systems, the car parked in the driveway, Congress, the stock market, cable television, global warming, the volcano under Old Faithful that might blow and cause massive extinction, errant asteroids, why execs of chemical and tobacco companies that wreak havoc on the common good don’t have crises of conscience – all things which either bear on me, or might, but I can sure give that Gibson a reckoning! Take that, Mr. Mel.

Final note: I haven’t boycotted the work of Tom Cruse or John Travolta, both of whom are vocal supporters of Scientology which is a… what is scientology, anyway? Cult? Religion? It’s spokespersons use “religion” and that’ll do. Anyway, although I think this religion is, all around, a bad deal, it seems to harm mostly its followers. I don’t know that it’s poisoning the rest of us and everyone to his own lunacy as long as he doesn’t try to convert me to it.

And for all I know, those execs mentioned above do have crises of conscience and are just keeping mum about them.


FRIDAY: Martha Thomases

SATURDAY: Marc Alan Fishman



Dennis O’Neil: Disney, Woody and Me

Dennis O’Neil: Disney, Woody and Me

A week or two back, our own media goddess, Martha Thomases, observed that in real life Walt Disney was not the debonair and avuncular presence he wanted us to think he was. I’d heard rumblings over years, now and then, that Walt was guilty of anti-Semitism and racism and maybe sexism and that he was chummy with Nazis. I noted these rumors and then, no outrage, no anger – I pretty much forgot them.

But why didn’t I get upset? It might have been because I wasn’t a Disney fan. What he was selling was not high on my shopping list. In fact, I’m only a casual consumer of animation, which may seem odd, given how I’ve earned my living for the past half-century or so: all those comic books…

But at least the cartoons in comic books have the decency to stand still.

Understand, I don’t hate animation. I remember thinking highly of Mighty Mouse when I was in elementary school, and when Bugs Bunny appeared on my neighborhood movie screen, I enjoyed a few funny minutes. And today, I consider The Simpsons and Family Guy pop culture treasures, though I probably respond more to the writing and voice acting in those shows than to the (bouncing/hopping/jiggly) images. I could even enjoy Donald Duck and his pals. But if the Disney empire had never existed, my life would not be impoverished.

So Uncle Walt was a stinker? Well, that’s regrettable, but many things are, and I have no emotional investment in Mr. D.

That’s not true of every entertainer.

When the Woody Allen’s shenanigans with his step-daughter, Soon Yi Previn, became public knowledge, I had a twitch of distaste, because, no doubt about it, I liked Woody as a comedian, a writer, an actor, and most all, as a film maker. I’ve liked him ever since I first saw his young self do standup, probably on a black-and-white television screen, and I’ve liked and admired him ever since. The Soon Yi business? Yeah, that was regrettable. But since Woody and Soon Yi did not share DNA, no real, biological, incest was involved, and Woody did do the honorable thing and marry the lady. To quote my favorite line from Shakespeare: “Use every man after his desert and who shall ‘scape whipping?”

But now, on the occasion of Woody’s receiving a lifetime achievement award, his son, Ronin, and Ronin’s mother, Mia Farrow, claim that he once molested a seven-year-old. Sexual exploitation of children is hard to forgive, especially when it’s done by someone with whom you identify – one of your heroes. The Soon Yi affair was ugly; molesting children is monstrous.

I try not to judge anyone. But don’t expect to see me at the next Woody Allen movie.




SATURDAY: Back to our normal schedule with Marc Alan Fishman


Dennis O’Neil: Friendly Fandom Family

O'Neil Art 140109 “I don’t care to belong to any club that will have me as a member.”

Groucho Marx

I didn’t know about organized comics fandom until 1964 when I interviewed Roy Thomas for a Missouri newspaper, and that was only a month or two before, under Roy’s aegis, I became a comics professional. And I wonder: if fandom had existed in, say, the 1950s in the roughly the same way it does now and if I’d had access to it, would I have joined?

I don’t know. I’ve liked comics and science fiction and related stuff since I was a kid, but I’m a margin guy, not a joiner. If you discount a rather dismal stint in the Boy Scouts, a year in Junior Achievement, and several years as a member of my high school speech club, my organizations have either been therapeutic or professional. The Academy of Comic Book Arts burst on the scene in the 1970s and then gradually faded to black to live on only in memory and as a Wikipedia entry. I joined The Writer Guild East, and finally and briefly, The Science Fiction Writers of America – those were the professional clubs and if there’s another, I’m not remembering it.

But being a fan might have been fun, so who knows?

What prompts this stumble down Memory Lane are the items I’ve been reading off my computer screen lately, not only about comics’ splashiest progeny, superheroes, but about comic books themselves – newsy tidbits that once would not have been fodder for the news maw but might not have interested anyone who was not a fan.

So: has fandom infected the masses?

Well, thanks for a lovely woman I once knew who had a connection or two to the world of the fan, I came to realize that this world offered much more than opportunities to immerse oneself in a cherished art form. It provided camaraderie and a private quasi-mythology for the initiates and a context in which to meet people who could become important to you, and that emphatically does not exclude possible mates. Finally, fandom provided an excuse to get out of the house and go places, mingle, party, and have an old-fashioned good time.

In other words, fandom offered some of the same benefits as religions, lodges, amateur sports, alumnae organizations, veterans organizations, yacht clubs… In some respects, fandom belongs among those groups and others of their ilk. It gives us a pleasurable way to heed one of evolution’s commandments: Find your tribe and belong to it.

But when millions share a fairly intense involvement with an art form and it has morphed into Big Business, can those millions be considered to be a tribe? Doesn’t tribal membership require some measure of exclusivity?

Wiser folk than I, please take note and provide an answer. Meanwhile, for those of you who want superhero fixes and don’t want to be part of a megahorde, may I suggest that you limit your involvement with the genre to comic books? There aren’t a tremendous number of comic book readers – heck, of any kind of fiction readers – around these days, so if it’s exclusivity you crave… don’t count on running into me.


FRIDAY: Martha Thomases

SATURDAY: Marc Alan Fishman


Dennis O’Neil: Robber Barons, Then and Now

oneil-art-140102-150x96-8313542Where have you gone, Mr. Potter? Oh – I see. You’re over there with your chums Goldfinger, Scrooge and his pseudo-doppelganger, Scrooge McDuck and, oh look! It’s Uncle Pennybags, stepping away from the Monopoly board. And what’s causing that breeze?. Somebody left the portal between fiction and history open and look who’s coming through! People who at one time actually existed: John Jacob Astor, Andrew Carnegie, Jay Gould, John D. Rockefeller… on goes the list.

That last bunch, the ones who had birth certificates, are sometimes labeled “robber barons” and now you’ll allow me to quote from the invaluable Wikipedia: “In social criticism and economic literature, Robber barons became a derogatory term applied to… powerful 19th century businessmen,,, who used what were considered to be exploitative practices to amass their wealth. These practices included exerting control over national resources, accruing high levels of government influence, paying extremely low wages, squashing competition by acquiring competitors in order to create monopolies and eventually raise prices, and schemes to sell stock at inflated prices to unsuspecting investors in a manner which would eventually destroy the company for which the stock was issued and impoverish investors.”

But really. Were these guys actually so bad? Did they deserve to have writers of both fiction and non-fiction portray them as ruthless greed-heads? Is the stereotype justified?

I’m afraid so.

According research reported by psychologist Daniel Goleman “condescending or dismissive behavior… suggest, to a surprisingly accurate extent, the social distance between those with greater power and those with less — a distance that goes beyond the realm of interpersonal interactions and may exacerbate the soaring inequality in the United States… In 2008, social psychologists from the University of Amsterdam and the University of California, Berkeley, studied pairs of strangers telling one another about difficulties they had been through, like a divorce or death of a loved one. The researchers found that the differential expressed itself in the playing down of suffering. The more powerful were less compassionate toward the hardships described by the less powerful

In politics, readily dismissing inconvenient people can easily extend to dismissing inconvenient truths about them. The insistence by some House Republicans in Congress on cutting financing for food stamps and impeding the implementation of Obamacare, which would allow patients, including those with pre-existing health conditions, to obtain and pay for insurance coverage, may stem in part from the empathy gap. As political scientists have noted, redistricting and gerrymandering have led to the creation of more and more safe districts, in which elected officials dont even have to encounter many voters from the rival party, much less empathize with them.

So ol’ Captain Leftie is doing the Mother Teresa tap dance? Not guilty. Around these parts, all morality derives from the desired survival of the race. Huggy love is fine but in the end breathing is what’s important and the Old Ones who lived long enough to pass on genes learned the value of cooperation, a value that seems to be vanishing from our 21st. century grouches.

I didn’t build the house I’m sitting in and don’t even get me started about computers.

And no, I don’t believe the poor deserve their lot, especially not the children.

Something else… Oh yeah – happy new year.

FRIDAY MORNING: Martha Thomases


SUNDAY MORNING: John Ostrander