Author: Dennis O'Neil

Dennis O’Neil Don’t Need A Weatherman…

So what’ll we call today? Well, look outside. Ever see such a gorgeous summer day?

Since I (kind of) recall that yesterday the weather map guys were predicting Tuesday storms. Maybe this is national Meteorologist Mistakes Day. You might argue that such a festivity shouldn’t exist because somewhere – lots of somewheres – the weather is conforming to weathercasters’ prognostications and so there, wherever “there” is, the weather folk are dead on.

Somewhere – perhaps in your home town – the gutters are overflowing and lightning splits the sky and thunder rumbles and you are racing down the sidewalk, your windbreaker already soaked, your hair flat against your scalp and boy, was that guy on the 11 o’clock news ever right about the kind of Tuesday was darkening the clouds.

He didn’t use the word “rotten” but he should have. Damn spacey-brained weathermen!

But you’ve reached your destination. In through the revolving door, pause to let some of the weather drip onto the floor, and then your journey continues. Past the long wooden tables – that guy on the end is snoring – and on back to the stacks, thousands of books, some of which must be a hundred years old – could Mark Twain have stopped here during his rambling days to finger one of these cracked bindings when it was still new? (How old would he have to have been?)

Now, deeper into the building, past something that would have been impossible to find here when Dad stopped to return a map – family vacation coming up! – and allowed you to wander around for a while. Comic books! That’s what wouldn’t have been allowed on the premises when you first began to cultivate your library habit. More. But regardless of how they were packaged, these comic books were trash and anyone who’d never read one would have been happy to tell you so, back then.

And finally, the books shelved against the rear wall, where the fluorescent lights were somehow dimmer and a pleasantly musty odor scented the air. It was and is the library smell and it encouraged browsing, seeking treasures you hadn’t known existed until you held them in your hands.

These days, you still browsed, but it was a different kind of browsing. You looked at pictures on computer screens and if you saw something interesting, no problem. One click and it was on its way, this thing pictured on the screen. You could browse another kind of screen, a television screen, and if something caught your attention, click! And sink into the couch to be entertained. But the hard metal and glass of your home electronics devices didn’t smell like anything in particular and so something, some tiny inconsequential something, was missing from the experience and that was not a happy thing.

Ask… who? The weatherman? Okay, yeah, sure, the weatherman. Just don’t expect good information. And happy holiday.

Dennis O’Neil: Gathering of the Tribes

Was that a sigh of relief I just heard? That means you’re back. All you San Diego Comicon pilgrims. Bags stuffed with loot and a different kind of bag under your eyes because the lack of sleep will do that to you. Knees sore from being forced into space obviously meant for a Lilliputian? An autograph bestowed by your favorite demigod while you actually stood there in front of him breathing the same air!

You’re home now.

I’ve gone to a lot of these shows, probably somewhere north of 20 and my feelings are mixed, as they often are. At best these San Diego affairs are a grand gathering of the tribes, a place to re-meet professional colleagues and fellow hobbyists, folks who may not live on the same continent as you do but who share your zeitgeist and are nice people, besides.

At worst…oh my. Too much! Noise and crowds and frantic scurrying to get a glimpse of an admired celebrity before said celeb vanishes whatever alternate universe the convention organizers must make available to these Big Names to hide in between appearances… And if one of them actually speaks to you, well… oh, my! It happened to Marifran a few years ago and she might tell you about it if you ask sweetly.

For some conventioneers, it’s business. They’re looking for work and will settle for a civilized conversation with an editor, and no complaints here. And there are the editors themselves who are looking for… talent, I guess. I never actively searched for possible contributors when I attended cons wearing the ol’ editorial guise but if I found someone whose portfolio had exactly what I needed or knew that I was going to need soon, I didn’t shoo the person away.

So, some seek employment, some want to network, some might be searching for congenial company, and for some, the bigger cons – and San Diego is the biggest in the country – are a chance to don bizarre finery and compete in costume contests or be happy just to rove around looking cool. I’ve enjoyed myself just sitting in hotel lobbies watching the passing parade.

Everyone should have the San Diego Experience once. Maybe once will be enough, unless you have a fondness for heat and noise and traffic or you’re looking to buy stuff – a Star Trek uniform, anyone? – you might have trouble finding elsewhere, in which case, get yourself to the edge of the continent, live long and prosper.

I didn’t go this year. The convention staff has treated me particularly well in recent years, and there is fun to be had. But the crowds, the noise, that stuff… I can pass unless there’s a compelling reason not to.

This year, I’m particularly glad I skipped the trip because I would have returned to sad news. Flo Steinberg, a woman I met when she was Stan Lee’s assistant and whom I’ve known and cherished for a half-century, died of cancer. Maybe I’ll write about her sometimes, or maybe I’ll be satisfied with memories.

Dennis O’Neil’s Big Quandary

Fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy night. • Bettie Davis, All About Eve, 1950

Well, maybe it’ll be a bumpy night. I mean, I’m just beginning this column. How do I know how it’ll turn out? Do I look like a prophet to you?

Okay, onward! One confession, coming up:

I am not going to continue to duck, dodge, elude, evade, ditch or even do an end run around something I should have dealt with months ago.

But… where to begin?

Before beginning, let me present to you, at no extra charge, what I imagine my delinquency concerning the matter that may be the subject of this column – it’s still early – would look like, if it existed, which it doesn’t.

...a shard of mirror, jagged and pointed and sharp, thrust into my soul stuff…

Please don’t ask me to describe “soul stuff” I’m not even sure souls exist, much less how they might appear to us. And would they appear the same way to, say, a gehinkle from the planet Blookish in the Maxima Centaur system?

A shout from the balcony. “What’s that?” I ask, cupping my ear (because I am, you know, a bit hard of hearing.) This balcony bound creature – a gehinkle? – says that I am procrastinating! Not coming to terms with the problem that lies buried in my soul.

Well, bite your snerditch, gutless gehinkle! We shall engage the matter…pretty doggone soon.

(By the way…gehinkles really don’t have guts. Just thought you should know.)

Now, where were we? – bumpy nights… snarky aliens…improvised punctuation? Oh, wait! This thing that’s been eating my lunch these past few weeks! (Full disclosure: “eating my lunch,” as it’s used above, is a locution I swiped from that excellent novelist, James Lee Burke. {You did want to know that, didn’t you?}

Speaking of lunch – I should have some. A guy needs his nourishment! I’ll take a break and get back to you.

That wasn’t exactly haute cuisine, was it? Gourmets are well advised to give Chateau O’Neil a pass. But it keeps the stomach walls from bumping into each other and that’s all we ask.

Back to today’s topic. But before we get to the gist of it, I’m wondering if I should issue a Spoiler Alert here. What’s the protocol? Not that leaving a Spoiler Alert unissued would actually ruin anything, though I can’t be sure of that. Is it better to be safe than sorry? (Have you ever noticed that life can be difficult?)

Another quandary. Is this an appropriate place to reveal the title? (And oh my gosh! Is telling you that what I’ll get around to discussing any paragraph now has a title ruining anything for you? Have I let a cat out of a bag? I mean, if you know something has a title you can figure out that it’s not, say, a battleship. Have we narrowed the possibilities too much?)

I’ve glanced at the bottom of the screen and can you believe it? Already 438 words? I’d better not waste any more of your time,

The Perils of Captain Mighty and the Salvation of Danny the Kid.

I guess I did decide to uncork the title.

Dennis O’Neil: Beauty and the Books

The lovely Joan Lee, Stan’s wife for over 60 years, died recently and this morning Marifran learned that Leroy A. Martin, with whom we used to double date in teen years, has not been with us for a while now. Teen years and innocent years fraught with nostalgia and maybe apt to prompt somber thought.

Yep, the world sure has changed, since I met Joan in the 1960s and since Lee Martin and I drove through Forest Park on the way to… somewhere. The changes weren’t predictable, not by us, and the science fiction crowd didn’t do so well either.

Which brings us, believe it or not, to graphic novels. Back when Lee and I were cadets at a military high school – hard to believe, I know – and later undergrads at a Jesuit university, novelists were kings of the literati. Many of them wrote for readers and not classrooms, and did that job well enough for their work to qualify as literature. Sometimes their stuff hit the bestseller lists and made pretty serious money and, yes, by some criteria, a few of them were celebrities. All that adds up to Success, at least by the standards of the times. Money + Fame = Success. Add literary respectability and, well…all Hail!

As to what this inky royalty produced, these whatchamacallems… oh yeah, books – hey, bub, this isn’t your American Lit 101 class (and never will be) and so I won’t attempt to define our subject. Novels. They come in many sizes and shapes and formats and tell stories sometimes seasoned with history and philosophy and autobiography and even religion… let’s end the catalog here, okay? You get the idea. Big book. Lots of words. Amen.

Some of the heavy lifting traditionally done by novels has been assumed by other, newer media. The specialty channels widely available on television – Netflix, Amazon and the like – can deliver intricate stories that require ten or more hours of playing time and deliver them unriddled with commercials. These may have the same amount of content as novels delivered using a different system.

But let’s not lament the loss of our beloved print formats just yet. Novels are still being read, but if – due to time warp? – our teenage selves saw them we might not recognize them as novels. Because some of them, the ones with lots of pictures, are sold as “graphic” novels” and that’s pretty much what they are: stories with more complexity than what’s found in the average comic book, but narrated using comic book techniques. Even the august New York Times, a validator of respectability, is serializing an autobiographical graphic novel in Sunday editions. (For some reason, the form seems particularly suited to autobiography.)

All this is further evidence that we live in a bitter and divided nation, culturally we’re blessed. Lots to enjoy and some of it really didn’t exist when…oh, say, Marifran and Dennis took in the Friday night flicks.

Dennis O’Neil: Sherlock and Theseus’s Paradox

So there’s this ancient Greek named Theseus who builds a ship. Over time the ship needs repairs and pieces of it have to be replaced and finally everything has been replaced. Not a single splinter of the original craft remains. Which brings us to what is known in some circles as Theseus’s Paradox. We ask: Is the ship our man Theseus ends with the same one that he built years earlier? Please remember that nothing of the original remains.

Want to push this a bit further before we introduce comics characters into the discourse? Okay, I’m a ratty rival of Theseus and I take every piece of what Theseus has built and use it to build my own ship. I add nothing, I simply reuse Theseus’s materials. And now the question becomes: Whose ship is this anyway, mine or Theseus’s? (Never mind that Theseus might be a big, tough Greek able to beat me silly and take the damn ship and not bother with philosophical niceties.)

Marifran and I spent a chunk of the weekend catching up on episodes of Sherlock, the BBC’s excellent reworking of Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic Sherlock Holmes stories. In the earliest teleplays the title character is Doyle’s cold, eccentric thinking machine who has no real friends. He describes himself as a “high-functioning sociopath” and, yep, that just about says it.

Gradually, the plot emphasis shifts from Sherlock’s dazzling detective work to Sherlock himself and his private torments. The later stories are about him and not about the puzzles he solves. (Do some of you think I have completely changed the subject? Please – a little faith?) In the final chapter, he has come to admit a deep affection for his companion. Dr. John Watson, has apparently overcome his demons and seems to be a rather pleasant chap. (Full disclosure: a similar transformation occurs in Doyle’s work.)

There have been hundreds – thousands? – of interpretations of Doyle’s creation, including a teevee program, Elementary, the premise of which is virtually identical to that of Sherlock. Are any of them – the television shows, the movies, comics, novels, plays – any of these the real Sherlock? Or only those written by Doyle?

The venerated Steve Ditko created a comics character called The Question that ran as a backup feature in Charlton’s Blue Beetle title, vanished, and returned in his own DC comic that I wrote. Wrote, and completely changed the hero’s personality. It ran for several years – a lot more Question than Steve’s version. So who’s got the real Question, Steve Ditko or me?

Superman, Batman, Swamp Thing, our newly beloved Wonder Woman, Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, the ones I’m forgetting – all underwent changes, sometimes pretty quick changes, and each version has its partisans.

And should we care?

(By the way, I regret any unhappiness I caused Steve by my rejigging his stuff. I don’t think he could have approved of what I did to it. Sorry. And is it good form to end a column with a parenthesis? Well, what kind of question is that?)


Dennis O’Neil: Wonder Woman Gives Peace A Chance

Of arms and the man I sing • Virgil

If high-flyin’ kick-ass jelly is your pleasure, sir or madam, and you haven’t yet seen Wonder Woman, well, skedaddle. Plenty of action there and you can still see it on the big screen, the way god – Zeus? – intended it to be seen. The USA Today movie maven wrote that during the last battle, the CGI seams were showing. Maybe, but I didn’t see them.

But there’s more to the film than excellent mayhem, seamless or otherwise. Melded into the reinvented mythology that constitutes a lot of WW’s backstory is an advocacy for peace. It doesn’t take much screen time and it’s played gently – this isn’t the kind of story that grabs you by the lapels, shakes you and snarls listen to me! But the message is there and it’s one that seldom encountered in mega-entertainments. War is not glorious. Violence is a last resort.

In the movie, WW’s sister warriors learn combat skills only to be able to protect themselves and their home from invasion. World War I is raging in Europe and we see enough of it to demonstrate that the Amazons’ fears are justified. WW is horrified at the carnage – the slaughter of innocents – and that’s why she gets involved. But we are given no reason to believe that she enjoys any of it.

I don’t know if WW’s pacific sentiments are registering with the popcorn crowd.

It’s not an easy sell, this peace stuff, not in a country whose president crows that we must win more wars if America is to be great. (The president adds “again” to the end of the previous sentence, but I’d rather not do that.) Not that we must strive to end the monstrous cruelty that’s war by deploying troops if absolutely necessary and recalling them as soon as possible. No, our Mr. T wants to win more wars which presumably requires starting new wars.

Let’s be fair. War and its glorification is as old as civilization (older if you count the skirmishes that must have occurred among hunter-gatherers.) It’s that ole debbil evolution again. Our ancestors developed an aptitude for savagery because that enabled them to deal with the perils of their world and, incidentally, allowed their descendants to become big cheeses. (Take a bow, you and I.) And much of our earliest narrative art deals with soldiers: you know – Odysseus, Achilles, Aeneas. That crowd.

So here we are and that which enabled us to survive now threatens to destroy us. And judging by the news media, nobody seems interested in even acknowledging the existence of options other than creating shiny new hells for our children to enjoy. Maybe someone will think of a way to make peace seem as desirable as war.

Meanwhile, we’ve got Wonder Woman.


Dennis O’Neil: Après View

So all hail, Princess Diana! For the second week in a row, she has conquered the all mighty Box Office!

You commerce-and-finance majors might consider declaring a holiday. Liberal arts dweebs like me will be satisfied with being grateful for a genuinely satisfying movie-going experience.

There’s a lot to be said for the film and no doubt a lot of it is already being said, with, again no doubt, more to come. It’s the kind of flick that prompts après theater discussion, which is kind of rare these days, especially among those of us who have logged a load of birthdays. We were so happy with the afternoon’s entertainment that we didn’t mind not remembering where we left the car.

I’d like to focus on only one aspect of it and maybe get in some opinions about superhero movies in general. And it affords a chance to blather about something that’s been bothering me for years.

Somewhere in the mists, when I was first creeping into the writing dodge, someone must have told me about the storytelling virtues of clarity. In order for the story, whether you’re experiencing it on a page or on a screen or by hearing it on a recording device, to be fully effective you must know what’s going on: who’s doing what to whom and if we’re pushing our luck, why. Where are the characters? How did they get there? Where are they in relation to one another? How did they get whatever props they’re using? How did they get the information they’re acting on?

Et cetera.

I’m particularly annoyed at lame fights. Surely, way out west, the movie crowd is aware that there’s entertainment value in well-choreographed kickass. If there’s any doubt, let them unspool some Jackie Chan or Bruce Lee, the patron saint of cinematic brawling. Many modern action movies – or maybe most of them – render action in quick cuts, blurs, blaring sound effects. Not my idea of amusement, at least not in mega-doses.

Back to Wonder Woman (and maybe we can, please, have an end to complaining?) None of what I’ve bitched about applies to WW. While in the darkness, I never found myself wondering what was happening on the screen. This, the director was kind enough to show me and thus allow me to relax into her work.

A word about the lead actress Gal Gadot: she’s extraordinarily beautiful (duh!), but her face is not only gorgeous, it is expressive – it seemed to change from shot to shot. And that quality is a blessing for a performer.

So, yeah, all hail to Wonder Woman, I don’t expect to see a better movie this year.

Dennis O’Neil: The Sensation and Me

As I sit here, Wonder Woman is wowing ‘em about a mile away to the north, at the Palisades 21-Plex where you can see a movie (or 21 movies?) and then visit the

lots and lots of stores nearby in the five-floor mall and shop until your brain congeals. I guess that if I were a real comics geek I’d be there too because here we are, five days after the flick opened and I have not as yet seen it. Haven’t even seen a preview.


Well, shame is too strong, especially since we plan to see it, and soon, especially if the guy who’s coming to fix the microwave arrives early enough for us to catch a showing. (“Our service provider will call at your home sometime between noon and infinity.”) We won’t have to grit our teeth and force ourselves into the theater, either. We want to see the movie.

A few reasons: We thought the WW sections of Superman vs Batman were much the best things about it (and if you want to say that I’m damning with faint praise I can’t stop you). Then there’s this: WW and I go way back. I can’t say that I was an avid WW fan when I was taking my first timid steps into comics at about age six, give or take. It’s possible, maybe even probable, that I saw one or two or a few because if it was a comic book, I wanted to read it. But WW didn’t have the staying power in my psyche of… oh, say Batman and Robin. She came and she went.

And I didn’t really meet her again until I was an editor at DC Comics and she was part of my work package. By then I knew that I didn’t much care for her, though I might not have been able to say why. And I fancied myself a feminist. So, weren’t the planets aligning? Wasn’t our girl due for a makeover? Off with the costume and the lasso and the bracelets and especially, ye gods, the invisible plane. Give her a chic jumpsuit. Have her learn martial arts. Make her hip and contemporary.

Ugh. What I didn’t realize, what I didn’t understand, in my male-who-thinks-he’s-a-feminist myopia, was that WW was a symbol of feminine empowerment, the only female character in comics who was the equal, in strength and prowess, of the numerous male heroes. To her female readers, she was unique and, arguably, important and I had dumped qualities that had shaped her identity and, while I was at it, a costume that served as an instantly recognizable icon. Mea culpa.

But my changes didn’t last long. WW reverted to her old self, survived and, if what I read is true, stars in the superhero movie we’ve all been waiting for.

Dennis O’Neil: Alfred Bester’s Squinkas

Read any good squinkas lately?

If you’re a comic book editor, you’d better hope you have, though, if you did, you probably called them, these squinkas, something else. Scripts, maybe.

I was introduced to the word, squinka, by a gentleman who certainly was an editor, one of the two or three best I ever worked for in a career of something like 50 years (which just goes to show you what can be achieved if you manage to breathe regularly and often. Ooops! I just let it slip – the secret of success in the writing dodge. If the writer refuses to breathe, the rest of it is irrelevant.)

Before beginning his long and illustrious stint behind a desk at DC Comics, young Mr. Schwartz was a literary agent whose specialty was peddling science fiction stories to the pulps – fiction magazines that were garish and cheap and widely available. Even after Mr. Schwartz migrated to DC, he maintained an interest in science fiction, which was occasionally manifest in the kind of comics he produced, the kinds of stories he liked to tell, and the questions he asked, often about the folk he knew from his agenting days, when imaginative tales were tainted with disreputability. They were, you know, trash.

That calumny didn’t seem to bother SF partisans much. Writers continued writing, editors continued editing, artists continued picture-making and gradually, the taint faded and then, somehow, the aficianados began to number in the millions and the production costs of the film versions of this trash climbed into the eight-figure neighborhood.

Rewind back to comics’ youth, when the medium was week-by-week and month-by-month inventing itself and creators might not have their tool kits in order. To be specific: they might not have had industry-wide formats or even names for everything they produced.

Motion pictures had been telling stories for some 35 years and had developed a vocabulary – necessary to facilitate communication, if for no other reason. But these here funny books? They were the new kids on the block. Their ancestors were arguably the aforementioned movies, newspaper comic strips and those naughty pulps, all of which shared certain similarities with the comic books. But they weren’t the same, not by a stretch.

So, I’m guessing, somebody saw a hole and decided to fill it. Neologisms anyone?

But the new word wasn’t very healthy. It didn’t last long. I never heard anyone, in or out of comics, use it. By the time Roy Thomas brought me into the comics herd, it had come and gone. I wouldn’t know that “squinka” had ever existed if I hadn’t stumbled across it in a collection of stories, articles and essays by Alfred Bester titled redemolished. Bester was, among other things, the recipient of the first Hugo, an award given to the creator of outstanding works of sf and, believe it or not, one of Mr. Schwartz’s clients. And a comic book writer; Green Lantern comes to mind.

I don’t know if Mr. Bester ever said “squinka” in his dealings with comics editors. Now days, nodding to his television colleagues, he might just say “script” and run for the subway.

Dennis O’Neil: Snoggle

Got one for you.

There’s this little dog, see. Lives with a family in a big house surrounded by acres of grass. Cutest little dog you ever saw: white, bright-eyed, tail always wagging, friendly as anything. But nobody knew what kind of dog he was. Didn’t seem to be important, but still… nobody knew. Then, one day, the family hosted a musical event and one of the guests forgot to pack his instrument. Left it laying on the couch. Well, the dog padded over to it, put the end of it in his mouth, blew and… what the heck do you know! The dog was making music and not just any music – great music. And finally, the family knew what kind of dog they had.

It was, of course, a Trump pet.

If you say that what I just perpetrated was inexcusable, rather than go through the tedium of a trial I’ll just plead guilty. (Actually, I’ll nod guilty. I’m alone in this room with nobody to plead to.)

Unless it was a snogglefritz. A snogglefritz, for those of you who attended the same schools as I did, must be perpetrated by someone with an IQ so high it cannot be measured. But we’re not talking just ant IQ here, this kind of IQ can never be detected. By anyone. Ever. Its proprietor doesn’t seem any brighter than the next guy. In fact, maybe a bit dimmer. He displays no talent. No wit. No special abilities of any kind. For him, the sound of chewing is conversation. He has no idea that massive intelligence lurks in his cranium.

This massive intelligence – hereafter MI – knows a secret. He knows of a… call it an entity because what else can you call it? The secret can be expressed in a single English sentence and once the secret is known, all the world’s questions will be answered. Every single one of them, from how to park in midtown Manhattan to what constitutes the unified field theory. Psoriasis – gone! Commercials – gone! Global warning- gone! Robocalls – gone. Every blamed thing that has ever annoyed anyone, or could ever annoy anyone – pfffft. Like it never existed.

The MI encodes the secret and hides the encoded secret in an ordinary sentence which the host will speak somewhere, sometime, with no awareness that he has also, simultaneously uttered a secret. This encoded secret is the snogglefritz. If someone detects and decodes the snogglefritz, that individual will have what is needed to salve mankind’s woes without even a single election. If the snogglefritz remains undetected?

Too bad, I guess. Check today’s headlines.

I don’t know what to do with this information, but maybe there’s a religion in there somewhere…