Author: Dennis O'Neil

DENNIS O’NEIL: Dick gets his due

DENNIS O’NEIL: Dick gets his due


Back in the halcyon Sixties, when respectability was but a distant glimmer on science fiction’s horizon (and comics were still mired in disrepute), the editor of an SF magazine asked me to review a novel by Philip K. Dick. It wasn’t my first encounter with Mr. Dick; back in St. Louis, before I’d migrated east and gotten into the funny book racket, I’d read a roommate’s copy of Man in the High Castle and found it interesting. I told the editor, sure, be happy to. The book was Galactic Pot Healer. I didn’t like it and wrote the review accordingly.

That doesn’t quite end the story. The review never got into print. It may have been a lousy review – hey, nobody’s perfect – or the fact that the editor was friendly with Mr. Dick may have influenced his decision. No big deal either way,

Cut to a decade or so later: I am in Southern California on a mission for Marvel Comics and I have run out of things to read, and for some reason, there are no places to buy books nearby, and our expense allowances for this particular jaunt do not include car rental. Oh, woe! What is a print junkie to do? Then my fellow Marvel editor and friend Mark Gruenwald comes to the rescue with a copy of Valis, by a writer I knew I didn’t like, the same guy who’d perpetrated Galactic Pot Healer. But a writer I didn’t like is better than no writer at all – remember, I’m a print junkie – and besides Mark, whose acumen I respect, recommends him. I take Mark’s copy of Valis to my room…

And have that rare and wonderful experience of finding what I hadn’t known I was looking for. Dick was writing a kind of fiction unlike any I’d ever encountered – a fiction that dealt with the malleability of reality, the impossibilities of accurate perception, the questions of personal identity and its place in a large context.

I enrolled in the Philip K. Dick Society and delved into the author’s 44 title backlist.

A year ago, someone who shares my DNA found that tattered copy of Galactic Pot Healer on a bookshelf somewhere and I reread it. I can see why I panned it 40 years ago. The writing is only okay, the plot not terribly engaging. But mostly, the book doesn’t deliver what I think I wanted from science fiction in those days, which was closer to space opera than the introspective, sui generis stuff Dick was doing. But in my new capacity as an Ancient, whose tastes have changed somewhat, I could and did enjoy it. It will never be on my Top 10 list, but I don’t regret having experienced it.

I now know that Dick wrote what was labeled “science fiction” only because nobody, maybe including Dick himself, knew what else to call it. Writing in a genre meant that folks who fancied themselves capital L-Literary would not notice the work, and may not have been able to judge its worth if they had. Back then, the rule of thumb was If it’s good it can’t be science fiction. So Dick’s brilliantly original novels were largely ignored during his lifetime.

His reputation has gradually brightened over the years because, among other reasons, his work has inspired a lot of movies, from Blade Runner, completed shortly after his death in 1982, to Next, which I saw last weekend. Now, The Establishment, in the person of the guys who run the Library of America, have further anointed Mr. Dick by bringing out an edition of four of his novels to be offered alongside productions from Twain, Hawthorne, Melville…you know, the gents whose yarns get assigned in Lit. classes. The Dick collection is edited by the increasingly ubiquitous Jonathan Lethem, which, as far as I’m concerned, is icing on the cake.

The novels in the collection are Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (which became the basis for the aforementioned Blade Runner), The Man in the High Castle, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, and Ubik. Any one would do for this week’s Recommended Reading.

Dennis O’Neil is an award-winning editor and writer of comic books like Batman, The Question, Iron Man, Green Lantern and/or Green Arrow, and The Shadow, as well as all kinds of novels, stories and articles.

DENNIS O’NEIL: The kryptonite reality

DENNIS O’NEIL: The kryptonite reality

Once again, life has imitated comics. Maybe comics should sue.

This latest instance was reported in the New York Times a couple of weeks ago and has to do with kryptonite, the stuff from Superman’s planet or origin which can lay the Man of Steel low, or even all the way down. As far as I know, kryptonite was introduced in the early 40s by the writers of the Superman radio show. Since I was only a year or two or three old at the time, I’ll forgive them for not getting in touch with me and telling me why, exactly, they introduced it. But a guess might be: to facilitate conflict, which is widely considered to be a necessary ingredient in drama, and especially melodrama.

These guys – I assume they were guys – and their comic book counterparts were facing a fairly unique problem: how to get their hero in trouble and thus create conflict/drama, and do it not only once, but several times each month, or even more often.

Oh, sure, there had been superhuman characters in world literature and myth before Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, but they were in self-contained stories, and not many of those, and the problem was pretty limited. But with Superman… well, here was a fellow who was faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound – and that was when he was in his infancy. (For the record: Superman is only a year older than me. That is, he appeared only about a year before I did, though I gestated for the customary nine months and Supes took a leisurely four years to progress from the imaginations of Joe and Jerry to the public prints. He was a slow developer, but once he got started…) And he literally become more powerful with every passing year. And he had to have a lot of adventures.

So, okay, how do you get this guy in trouble, often, and thus create suspense and interest? The question has been answered in many ways, many times over the years. Kryptonite was one of the earliest of these answers. According to the mythos, it is a fragment of – I guess mineral – from Krypton, where Supes was born. Something in the gestalt of our planet makes kryptonite dangerous to natives of Krypton. (All of which you almost certainly know, but we do try to be thorough here.)

We thought it was fictional. Some of us, of the professional writing ilk, further thought that it was neither more nor less than an answer to a plot problem and at least one of that ilk thought it was overused and temporarily retired it. But now, a Chris Stanley, of London’s Museum of Natural History, analyzed a substance some of his colleagues discovered and, according to the Times, “found that the new mineral’s chemistry matched the description of kryptonite’s composition in last year’s film Superman Returns.”

It is not known whether or not anyone collapsed near the stuff.

At this point, you can either shrug and get on with your life, or pause, and engage in some pretty wild speculation about the nature of reality.

Be warned: We probably aren’t finished with this topic.

RECOMMENDED READING: The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins.

Batman, The Question, Iron Man, Green Lantern and/or Green Arrow, and The Shadow, as well as all kinds of novels, stories and articles.

Dennis O’Neil is an award-winning editor and writer of comic books like

DENNIS O’NEIL: On triskadekaphobia

DENNIS O’NEIL: On triskadekaphobia

Do my hands tremble as I type these words? Are there creaks and groans coming from the room behind me? Is the air chill and sticky?

What could be happening?

Ah, I think I have it! Triskadekaphobia – that must be it! And what is triskadekaphobia? My computer’s dictionary defines it tersely and simply: An irrational or obsessive fear of… (that number between 12 and 14.) (Parentheses and paraphrasing mine.)

This is the that number of these whatever-they-ares that I’ve written and that, my friends, is scary. That it is also irrational goes without saying, at least to the non-believers among you.

My irrational fear of… that number is not exactly new. If you look at any of the comics I’ve written in the last dozen (nor baker’s dozen!) years or so, you won’t find the dialogue balloons and captions on any single page totaling that number unless the editor added or subtracted or conflated something, in which case it’s on his or her head. And if I’m doing a script and reach the end of page 12, I either quit or make myself charge on until I get to page 14, even if I run out of steam half way through that page.


DENNIS O’NEIL: Tribute to a true master

DENNIS O’NEIL: Tribute to a true master

Kurt Vonnegut is gone.

I’d like to say that I was a bit ahead of the crowd in discovering that, while he was a science fiction writer, he was also much more, but by the publication of Cat’s Cradle in 1963 a lot of people had found this wise, sad, funny man – particularly disaffected young people.

He was often likened to Mark Twain and the comparison’s apt. But while I unstintingly admire Mr. Twain (maybe such admiration is in every Missouri-born writer’s DNA), I think Vonnegut’s quality average may be a bit higher. True, he did not write as much as his predecessor – Twain was astonishingly prolific – but he always seemed to be at or near his best. I can’t remember reading any Vonnegut piece that I thought was second-rate.

He was pessimistic without being sour, famous without egotism, and he had compassion completely devoid of sentimentality. Like Mark Twain, he could voice unpopular opinions without offending those who disagreed with him.


DENNIS O’NEIL: Who knows what evil lurks…? Part 3

DENNIS O’NEIL: Who knows what evil lurks…? Part 3

I had it easier than many comics writers. I began in the business as an assistant to Stan Lee in 1965, when Marvel was just completing its metamorphosis from obscure Timely Comics to publishing phenomenon, and Stan’s vision of what a comic book company could be was pretty much complete. Implicit in the writing part of the job was the requirement that I imitate Stan’s style – after all, Stan’s style was Marvel. That made the job simple: imitate Mr. Lee successfully and I was doing it right.

Of course, I bridled a bit at having to imitate anyone. After all, I was in my 20s and had been doing comics for about two days, and therefore, according to my lights, I was deeply wise and fully knowledgeable about…oh, name it, and don’t forget to include comics. As Bob Dylan sang, “I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.” Now, in my sexagenarian salad days, I’m grateful for my Marvel initiation because everyone begins by imitating someone, and I didn’t have to seek a model or wait for the churning of the universe to provide one – I learned the trade by having to imitate the comic book scripter who was at that time, arguably, the best.

Here are a few words from a man who is well on his way to becoming my favorite mainstream writer: “Most artists are brought to their vocation when their own nascent gifts are awakened by the work of a master… Inspiration could be called inhaling the memory of an act never experienced.” Those observations are from a Harper’s Magazine piece by Jonathan Lethem titled “The Ecstasy of Influence,” which you can read on Harper’s website. They bring us, at last and via the long way around, to the subject of this installment of the arc (or miniseries, or series-within-a-series or whatever the hell it is) that began with what we called “Who Knows What Evil… Part 1.” Those of you who were kind enough to read the earlier installments may remember that I suggested that the creators of Batman may have been…well, call it “intensely aware” of The Shadow and other popular culture creations.

Let’s assume that they were. Did that make them wicked, weaselly thieves? No, no, and again, no. Remember: everyone begins by imitating someone. As Anthony Tollin said in a phone conversation, those early comics guys (who were barely out of adolescence and in the process of inventing a medium) had no one to emulate except authors from other forms and the newspaper strip fraternity. Since they were generally not from society’s loftier precincts, with ready access to elitist amusements, their entertainment was comic strips, movies, the pulps, and maybe radio, and it was natural – inevitable? – that they’d seek inspiration in those media. Where else?


DENNIS O’NEIL: Who knows what evil lurks…?  Part 2

DENNIS O’NEIL: Who knows what evil lurks…? Part 2

Suddenly, the air was full of bats!

The “air” here is metaphorical and if you’d allow me to fully ripen the trope, possibly to the point where it emits a faint odor, it might read, The air of popular culture in the 30s and 40s was full of bats.

Let’s see.  There was a Mary Roberts Rheinhart novel and an early talkie adapted from it, both called The Bat, and there was a pulp hero also called The Bat and, a bit later, another pulp do-gooder who labeled himself The Black Bat.  Am I forgetting anyone…?  Oh yeah.  A comic book character that was introduced in Detective Comics #27, dated May 1939, as Batman.  Like an estimated eighty percent of your fellow earthlings, you may have heard of him.

And, again metaphorically, standing behind the Batman and maybe some of the others was one of the greatest pulp heroes, The Shadow.  The writer of the early Batman stories, Bill Finger, made no secret of his admiration for the Shadow novels.  He went so far as to admit that the Shadow’s influence on his batwork was extremely direct when he told historian (and author and artist and publisher) Jim Steranko, “I patterned my style of writing Batman after the Shadow.”  And: “My first script was a take-off on a Shadow story.”

Which brings us to Anthony Tollin.  Remember him?  I introduced the two of you a couple of weeks ago in this very feature. I told you that a company Anthony owns has been issuing reprints of the Shadow books. Recently, he sent me an early copy of one of those books, titled Partners of Peril, and suggested that I might want to compare it to the first Batman adventure, The Case of the Chemical Syndicate. 

Of course there are differences.  After all, the Shadow novel is probably around 50,000 words long and Batman’s debut is six comic book pages.  But there are also similarities.  I won’t even try to describe them all – see Robert Greenberger’s ComicMix article, or Anthony’s text piece in the book itself – but they are manifold.  In a phone conversation a few hours ago, Anthony mentioned the most obvious, among which are:

  • Both are about a – yes! – chemical syndicate.
  • The heroes of both get involved in the proceedings while visiting a law-enforcing friend.
  • Both feature virtually identical death traps, which each hero beats in the same way.
  • Both heroes offer the same whodunit-type explanation at the adventure’s end.
  • Both heroes spend a lot of time on a rooftop after a safe robbery.
  • The denouements of both stories are, again, virtually identical.

Et cetera.

As I wrote in the earlier column, anyone with even the dimmest interest in pop culture or comics history, or who just wants to sample the kind of entertainment that kept pops or granddad reading by flashlight under the covers, or who’s just in the mood for capital-M Melodrama combined with capital-H Heroics, might want to see if the Shadow has anything for them.

For me, the stuff has another aspect, one which is as modern as hip-hop. But that’s for next week.


Dennis O’Neil is an award-winning editor and writer of comic books like Batman, The Question, Iron Man, Green Lantern and/or Green Arrow, and The Shadow, as well as all kinds of novels, stories and articles.

DENNIS O’NEIL: No evil lurks this week

DENNIS O’NEIL: No evil lurks this week

Okay, okay, I’m sorry. I know I promised, at least implicitly, to deliver Who Knows What Evil Lurks – Part 2 this week. But that will take some time and maybe digging, to write and, honestly, I have the luxury of neither. By the time you read this, I’ll either be at or returning from Juaniata, Pennsylvania, where I’ve been invited to be the guest of Jay Hosler and maybe shoot off my mouth in public a bit. I’ve been busy doodling notes for said mouth-shooting; hence no dissertation on lurking evil.

I thought about just blowing off this whole column thing, or delaying it until I was back here in scenic Upper Nyack, and rested. But… I promised editor Mike Gold and PR goddess Martha Thomases that I would deliver a minimum of 500 words each and every week. And I made the same promise to myself. Sternly, I said to myself that I had to respect the deadline, even if the deadline in question is largely of my own making.

By the way, I don’t hate deadlines the way a lot of writers and artists seem to. Maybe that’s just because I lived with them for so long – for over 40 years, they were a constant part of my life. What can be said against them is that they can be a pain in the ass. What can be said for them is that they can impart focus to a project and they can be an impetus to stop kvetching and worrying about your ability to leave civilization breathlessly in your debt (and maybe sit on David Letterman’s couch) and just, please, get the damn thing done.

A couple of paragraphs back – I’ll wait while you check – I mentioned Jay Hosler. Doctor Hosler teaches biology at Juaniata College, is a proponent of evolution, a comics enthusiast, a writer, and a cartoonist. He’s done two graphic novels which I found educational and very entertaining. You’ll find the titles below.


DENNIS O’NEIL: Who knows what evil lurks…? Part 1

DENNIS O’NEIL: Who knows what evil lurks…? Part 1

Meet Anthony Tollin.

I did, more than 30 years ago, at DC Comics. Anthony was tall, friendly, didn’t look like a New Yorker, and wasn’t. He came to Manhattan from Minneapolis in 1973, worked a couple of jobs, and then landed at DC, where he stayed for 20 years, proofreading, color-coordinating, helping Jack Adler manage the production department – necessary chores, done well away from the spotlight, that transform the raw materials of artwork and script into a printed artifact. Along the way, Anthony got married, and divorced, moved to another state, and when he retired from DC, settled in Texas, where he lives and single-parents his lovely and gifted daughter, Katrina.

If you talked to Anthony much, you soon discovered that he had a number of pop cultch enthusiasms, not the least of which was comic books. But his real passions – I don’t think the word is too strong – were always The Shadow novels, mostly written by Walter Gibson under the pseudonym Maxwell Grant and published in the 30s and 40s in the pulp magazine format, and old radio shows, particularly the crime and adventure programs that were the first cousins of the pulps and comics. If ever I had a question about either of these subjects, Mr. Tollin was always my first go-to guy. I never needed a second.

Those passions are still part of the Tollin gestalt, and now he’s found a new way to both share and make a living from at least one of them. Since July, a company Anthony started has, in partnership with something called Nostalgia Ventures, been issuing reprints of The Shadow books. The price is $12.95, quite modest considering that in one volume you get two novels and reprints of the original illustrations, a feature that’s both unusual and, I think, a real value-adder. The book that’s on the desk next to my computer would certainly be mistaken for one of the old pulps – same size, same kind of cover and font – until you picked it up and found that, in fact, both the cover stock and the interior stock are considerably better than anything that bore the original work. Inside, there are the novels, plus a couple of pieces by Will Murray, another expert and go-to guy, and an adaption of a Shadow radio show.

And as a comics fan you should care… why?


DENNIS O’NEIL: On Arnold Drake

DENNIS O’NEIL: On Arnold Drake

For a lot of years I didn’t know much about Arnold Drake beyond some minimal biography: he was a first-generation comic book writer, he had written a movie or two. Then, last summer, we were thrown together for a public conversation at a small convention and for an hour I found Arnold to be charming, witty, a good raconteur, a treasury of information about the history of our medium, and way younger than his years. When we parted, Arnold gave me his card and we made vague noises about getting together in Manhattan, some time or other. We never did, and last week an email from Danny Fingeroth informed me that Arnold had died.

When I think about guys like Arnold, I’m reminded of the final scene of Herman Wouk’s play The Caine Mutiny Court Martial. You may remember it: Defense lawyer Barney Greenwald, having just cleared his Navy officer client of a charge of mutiny and, in the process, humiliated a career Navy man named Captain Queeg, arrives at the victory party and, bitterly, eloquently, regrets what he has done. Queeg and his ilk, Greenwald says, kept the Navy going during the years between wars, when there was no opportunity for glory, maintained the infrastructure so there was something to build on when the country was threatened.


DENNIS O’NEIL: Death Dedux

DENNIS O’NEIL: Death Dedux

It’s getting so a man can hardly turn on his television set without seeing someone he knows. A couple of weeks back, there was my old boss, Stan Lee, playing a jovial bus driver on NBC’s Heroes. And a few days ago I was surfing through the news channels when I saw a familiar face belonging to Joe Quesada, once my co-creator on a comic book called Azrael and now Marvel’s editorial honcho. I caught the very end of Joe’s appearance and so didn’t hear what he was talking about. But the next day’s New York Times told me: Captain America is dead! Then, that evening, Comedy Central’s Colbert Report devoted a whole segment to Cap’s passing.

Well, okay, but before you transfer all your issues of Captain America to black mylar bags, remember that, in comics, death is not necessarily permanent. I myself presided over the termination of Jason Todd, aka Robin the Second, and these days he’s again on the scene, quite chipper. This is not even the first time Cap has returned from that Great American Legion Hall In The Sky. Some time in the 60s, Stan featured, in one of his superhero titles, a guy impersonating World War Two’s greatest hero – yes, Captain America – and, as I understand it, when the reader response was positive, did a story in which our flag-bedraped hero was found to be, not dead, as people had assumed, but frozen in an ice berg. Thawed, he was good as new.

The post-WWII Cap presented creators with problems because he was, unavoidably, an anachronism, a fact that later writers incorporated into plotlines. He was created at the outbreak of the war by two very young and patriotic men and wore his allegiance on his back, literally, in a restitching of Old Glory. There was a lot of implied chauvinism in his early adventures, and I mean that as no criticism. In those days, the nation faced a real and present enemy and everyone was ultra-patriotic except for a few fringe folk who were widely considered loony, or worse. Cap was one of a long line of protagonists for whom conventional virtue was the only virtue.

In the years before the war, some pop cultcha good guys showed signs of rebelling against conservative notions of right and wrong. The first World War, the one that was supposed to end all wars (and all may now laugh bitterly), had served up a massive helping of disillusionment which was reflected in the private eyes and rogue adventurers who populated the pulp magazines, and radio, and even movies – swashbucklers and truth seekers who knew authorities were not to be trusted. (Later, they were admired by the French existentialists as men who, living in an essentially meaningless universe, created and lived by their own morality.) They were maybe truer to reality than their predecessors, these lonely rebels in business suits; after Viet Nam and the Nixon administration; only the innocent and naive could believe that persons of authority were incorruptible.