Author: Dennis O'Neil

Dennis O’Neil: PI’s

Now as I was young and easy and gentlemen still trod the Earth and politics still made sense (a little… sometimes) I held that private eye fiction was about righteous men who had the courage to be alone. I was, at the time, living by myself in a small Manhattan apartment and so I guess I was seeking identification with heroes (and maybe seeking an excuse for my isolation.) But I was, I now think, wrong.

Which fictional gumshoes did I have in mind? My two favorites were Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade and Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe and they were, indeed, solitary beings walking the mean streets seeking truth. And there were others sprinkled through the pop culture regions of pulp magazines, radio, B movies. (Comic books? Patience, please, we’ll get to them.)

If you’re looking for antecedents, cast a glance at the King Arthur stories. Arthur’s knights mostly roved without companionship on their quests for the holy grail or whatever. But they did have a whole posse of clanky buddies waiting for their return at that round table, not to mention the odd fair maiden.

And from the very beginning of detective fiction, the heroes often had assistants, sidekicks, companions, homies – you pick the terminology – and these did a lot more than wait at home for the questers return. Edgar Allen Poe published the first private eye story way back in 1841. His hero was not a cop; he was a gifted amateur sleuth and here Poe established a much-imitated prototype, and not the only one. His good guy was a Gallic dilettante named C. Auguste Dupin whose exploits were related by an anonymous narrator whose name Poe did not share… and a mere 46 years later behold!

Dr. John Watson delighting us with the wizardry of his roommate and constant companion, the world’s first “consulting detective” and by now you know that I refer to the master, Sherlock Holmes. Then, a lot of others, some lone wolves, some with healthier social lives.

Comics have not been congenial hosts to the consulting detective crowd..There have been a few, including a pre-Superman toughie named Slam Bradley who, by the way, had a sidekick, Shorty Morgan. Slam was created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the team much better known for Superman.

Superman did not have on-the-job companionship, at least not in his early days, when he was supposed to be the only survivor of a doomed planet. (That changed. Considerably.) But Batman, the character Superman’s publisher commissioned to repeat his success, though originally a loner, had, within 11 months of his debut, an official assistant, Robin The Boy Wonder. Costumed vigilantes thereafter often came equipped with young acolytes.

And that brings us to now. These days, the superheroic genre is evolving a new paradigm. There is a kind of boss hero and several attractive helpers who take an active part in the quelling of antagonists. They aren’t gathering dust at that stupid table, they’re doing stuff! This, I think, is to accommodate the needs of television, which reaches a much bigger audience than print media ever did , specifically, a certain demographic, millennials old enough to have disposable income and young enough to identify with having lots of friends and getting involved with romances and disapproving parents and such woes. Of the five comics-derived weekly shows, only Gotham violates this pattern; its creators are going with the earlier Holmes-Watson template.

And say! Did you hear about Sherlock’s girlfriend? Elly Mentary?

Yes. Inexcusable. Bye.

Dennis O’Neil: The CW’s Adventure In Time and Space


The big honkin’ four-part crossover on the CW is past and I guess we have no particularly interesting reactions to it. If I were in a mood to pick nits, I might raise an eyebrow, chuckle in the manner of one who knows he is not one of the little people, and observe that it was really only a three-part crossover. Oh sure, The Flash and his friend Cisco did pop into Supergirl’s turf at the very end of the first episode, but by then the Maid of Might and her crew had solved their difficulties and all was (temporarily) well. All The Flash and Cisco did was ask for help dealing with some of their problems.

This is a crossover? Maybe by your definition (I sneer, cocking an eyebrow). Anyway, it seems that some alien invaders were causing woe on the neighboring universe, where The Flash and company hang, and so Supergirl joins The Flash in a brief migration through – here we guess – some kind of rent in the space-time continuum and for the next three hours of programming good guys from The Flash, Arrow, and DC’s Legends of Tomorrow smite the baddies, who look like something Alberto Giacometti might have dashed off after a particularly bad night.

I’m oversimplifying the story, which I kind of enjoyed. But if I were inclined to further quibble, while not rising to the level of complaint, I might ask since when did Earth – our Earth in our dimension – become a way station for extraterrestrials? I gather, from recent Supergirl episodes, that our good old terra firma is teeming with ETs, Hordes of them: Hundreds? Thousands? Hundreds of thousands? And if this is the case, Supergirl’s reality sure as heck isn’t our reality, and if that’s the case, shouldn’t there be some sort of signifiers? At least something as simple as irising doors. I mean, a few aliens, sure, but armies of them?

And on a similar note: if we humans actually made contact with beings of another dimension, without wrecking the cosmos in the process, it would be the biggest of big deals – easily the most significant event in history. Questions would get answered and some of those answers would alter our reality and perhaps finally take us where we’ve never been able to go. This would be big. Maybe even bigger than the Kardashians. So would we treat it casually, even if we were superbeings? Sure, you might not want to reveal something that would risk your secret identity, but… to hell with your secret identity and excuse me, please!

At the end of the final scene in the crossover, someone gives Supergirl a gadget that would fit in her purse and that lets her travel between dimensions as casually as I travel to get the mail. Even though – yes! – we know it’s fiction, this kind of story might diminish, ever so slightly, our sense of awe and wonder and lessens our reverence for the universe and that would be a shame.


Dennis O’Neil: Crossing Over


There you are, somewhen on the far side of one of these bedeviling time gaps, at least four days in the future from when I’m typing this and – I don’t really know – you just might be squirming with anticipation because in a few hours or less – your hours – you’ll be watching the final part of the season’s megaevent, the four-part television crossover featuring Supergirl, The Flash, Green Arrow and the members of DC’s Legends of Tomorrow.

Is your breath taken?

Me, I’m sitting here in Monday afternoon, not knowing what the crossover is even about. (Of course, it’ll be in some way about the heroes mentioned in the previous 81 word! paragraph.)

So, again, tv is following behind comic books. Not a knock on the video guys: comics got there first because high speed printing was invented before video transmission – the first steam driven press debuted way back in 1825 and there’s your trivia of the day – and although television technology and print technology are vastly different, they are both what Stephen King calls story delivery systems and in that capacity deal with some of the same problems.

Among those problems: making lots of money from fictional characters. One answer occurred to mass audience storytellers when very few people had ever seen a television set and comics were in their infancy: have characters from one popular publication appear in another publication. A publisher could hope that the crossover stunt would expose readers of one magazine to the other magazine and the newbies would become regulars. So went the hope.

The ancestors of today’s two biggest comics companies were the first publishers to do the big crossover thing. (I’ll call that a coincidence if you will.) What became DC comics gave us All-Star Comics, which featured the company’s most popular heroes, and some maybe not so popular, joining together to solve various humdingers of crises and what became Marvel Comics put their Submariner in the same adventure with their Human Torch. All this in 1940, just before World War Two.

And so crossovers joined comics publishing’s tool kit and they’ve been appearing ever since.

In 1927 – yeah, that early – television was presented to the world but it took another 20 years, give or take, for the tube to start being a household fixture. Television, like comics before it, had to deliver exciting entertainment every week using the same set of characters while being careful not to kill them. Like comics. I’d like to say that it was inevitable that screen drama would start crossing over, especially since a lot of the material began as comics stories. But what do I know from inevitable? It happened and thus it’s reality and reality always trumps everything else.


Did I just use a naughty word?


Dennis O’Neil: Channels

57_channels_and_nothin_onWe switched ’round and ’round ’til half-past dawn

There was fifty-seven channels and nothin’ on

  • Bruce Springsteen, 57 Channels (And Nothin’ On)

Only 57? Well, we were all younger when Bruce Springsteen wrote those lines. Now? I actually don’t know how many television channels I can summon to the flat screen that dominates our living room and no, I’m not going to count them. Leave it at this: a lot.

An upside to tv’s heterogeneity is that we have spread before our eager eyes a veritable smorgasbord of entertainment and some of it is good and some of it is very good – and yes, I’m aware that you and I might define “good” differently. There’s no way I know of to verify my hunch that there is more good stuff on the home screen than at the multiplex where it sometimes seems that film makers sacrifice drama in their rush to serve up yet another explosion. Does what I believe is the widespread devaluation of dramatic verities that date back at least to the fifth century BCE harm the audience? Hey, I’m not gonna touch that one.

Once, the absence of a household tv set or five might have indicated a family with very high standards – it’s Mozart and Shakespeare or nothing! Now, though, ‘t’aint necessarily so. If you abstain from tv watching, you deny yourself some of the best that current culture has to offer, even if you can make frequent trips to the theater and concert hall.

But there is a downside to video’s largesse and to find a precedent we have to go to nineteenth century Vienna. The late and wonderful Hans Fantel, musicologist, critic and writer, once argued that the waltz served as social glue in Vienna and was largely responsible for the city’s relative tranquility at the close of the nineteenth century

Because everyone, from the peasantry to the elite, could share in an esteem for this music. I think that the television of the mid-twentieth century did something similar.

There were no 57 channels, no sir. When I left Missouri in the early 60s, St. Louis had maybe five channels, and three of those belonged to the networks. So if a show was popular – I Love Lucy, Ed Sullivan, The Beverly Hillbillies – people often talked about it the next day. (The cute schoolteacher I share quarters with said she sometimes watched shows because she knew her colleagues would be discussing them and she didn’t want to be left out of the dialogue.

The Viennese had the waltz. We had Dragnet.

And now, the deluge. Only 57? Piff!

The United States is, arguably, more divided than at any time since the Civil War and if you think that I’m about to blame television for that… sorry to disappoint. Television did not cause the problem. But television may not be helping it, either.


Dennis O’Neil Gestures Hypnotically



Chortle chuckle yukyukyuk. O, boy ain’t we having fun hee-hee-hee here in Nyack ho ho ho ho and how about that last Tuesday wasn’t that darn day a rib-tickler heh heh gargle lipticon smoothie ha ha ha ha ha ha giggle snortle honk.

Enough – hee hee – merriment. Where were we? Oh yeah. I sort of vaguely suggested that I might continue last week’s discussion of Doctor Strange, who has been a Marvel Comics character since 1963 and currently is the eponymous star of a big screen movie, the box office champ for the second week in a row (and for a little extra coin you can see this champ in 3-D! And don’t tell me, mister, that life is not a party.

Here I’m going to mention that ComicMix’s resident film critic had a few reservations about the flick and I hereby bow to his acumen; oh and by-the-way he has become one of my favorite reviewers, which strikes me as a bit wonky considering that he’s considerably younger than my youngest child and I’ve known him all his life and a hefty portion of mine and aren’t authority figures supposed to be aged and wizened just like The Ancient One in the Doc Strange yarns and…

mandrake-gesturesHere we are, having survived another digression, back in Doc Strange turf. Yes, the doctor. A conjurer.

His ilk are sprinkled throughout the history of comic books. Before Superman jump-started the business in 1938, a comic strip featuring Mandrake the Magician appeared daily and Sundays in the paper my parents had tossed onto the lawn every day. Mandrake was created by Lee Falk, a St. Louisan, and first appeared in 1934. I’m pretty sure that when I read or at least looked at the strip as a kid I understood Mandrake’s modus operandi: the captions told me that Mandrake “gestured hypnotically” and illusions appeared to gebollix the bad guys. It was an okay gimmick as long as you knew little or nothing about hypnosis and in 1934, who did?

A couple of years later, Lee Falk created The Phantom. The “ghost who walks” – that Phantom – but since he is not a magician, we’ll ignore him.

And speaking of magicians… As a genre, they were never awfully important in comics, certainly no rival to superheroes. Arguably, the most prominent of them was another doctor, surnamed Fate. He could be mistaken for a superhero; he looks superheroish and he’s invulnerable and strong and he can fly and do other stuff. Mostly, he uses sorcery that doesn’t seem very defined, but it doesn’t have to be at long as it’s used judiciously.

About that (those) costume(s): one of the nifty things about the doctor – Strange, not Fate – is that his clothing is definitely a costume, but one that suggests magic. And there are his powers; in a way, he’s a first cousin to Iron Man as both spend a lot of time shooting energy of some kind from their hands – very visual and so very appropriate for comics and, oh heck, we’ll admit it, also to movies. Whoever Doc Strange’s haberdasher was, hooray!

We’ll end with what you can consider another digression, a couple of lines from Lord Byron:

And if I laugh at any mortal thing

‘Tis that I may not weep.

Chortle chortle?








Dennis O’Neil: Strange Tidings


Doctor Strange and I go way back. He was the first superhero Stan Lee asked me to write when I was a fuzzy newbie, just beginning a long stretch of years in the comic book business, working as an editorial assistant at Marvel. Maybe there’s some synchronicity here: I’d fooled around with magic as a kid and here I was writing about a magician. And more: this conjurer lived in Greenwich village, notorious hotbed of art and creativity and nonconformity, all of which were of powerful interest to me.

And now, more than 50 years later, along comes the Doctor Strange movie, and a satisfying afternoon in the multiplex it is, not least because one of my favorite actors hits all his marks. It is also, no surprise here, a box office success, the fourteenth in a row for the Mighty Marvel Movie Manufacturers.

But, for the moment, let’s not laud the Master of the Mystic Arts. Maybe later. Maybe as early as next week.

Why not now?

Do you know what day it is? Look outside: it’s a beautiful autumn Tuesday. Bright sunshine, crisp air, glorious foliage. The kind of day that gives me reason to live where I do. 140The date, when I exist, a bit earlier than when you exist, unless you’ve traveled into the past and have taken up residence in my computer, is November 8. Ring any bells? Yeah, voting day.

One of those turning points that jolts America every so often, I think, the end of the longest and nastiest political campaign in our history. Listen, I’m no flag waving naif. I know that the past was not glorious and our founding fathers were not noble. (After all, the venerated Thomas Jefferson paid contemporary journalists to write bad stuff about his rival for the presidency, John Adams.) But mostly they got the job done. After the ugly ordeal that ends today, regardless of who was pronounced the winner, it will no longer be possible to believe that politics is, in any way, about good governance. It is about money and power and ego and the squirmy satisfaction of vanquishing the enemy – that is, the guy who sits across the aisle and attends a different caucus.

Abraham Lincoln made his rivals members of his cabinet. Probably couldn’t happen today.

I don’t think that all politicians are Uncle Scrooges. I’ve had a pleasant conversation with one senator and worked on a charitable project with another and I can think of several more who seem to be genuine altruists. But because of how the system has evolved, it seems that even the best politicos spend more energy on fund raising and getting reelected than on dealing with the intricacies of an increasingly complicated civilization.

The current congress is, by virtually every standard, the worst in history.

So let’s let Doc Strange rest, wrapped in his cloak of levitation, while I go upstairs and eventually turn on the television and, I don’t know…try to decide if I’m depressed?

Dennis O’Neil: Tooth-Rotting Superheroes!


Feeling of anxiety in my torso as though some malevolent, weaselly little troll’s taken up residence there. Gonna pop out into Marifran’s face, like the little bastard in the first alien movie? No, but if it did at least it would be gone. Been snarking around for months. Why? What have I got that it might want?

Could the time of year have some relevance here? When I sat down to write this, it was Halloween, the holiday that, according to some savants, the barrier between the living and he dead becomes porous and allows those Who Have Passed Before Us to visit the realm of the breathing and… I don’t know – give the finger to the girl who dumped you in high school? Scare the living hell out of granny? Reap mountainous profits?

Ah, that last one. Like virtually everything else, Halloween, which began as a modest little wingding with religious roots, has become monetized and so parents buy loads of tooth-rotting sweets to hand out to the neighbors’ offspring and costumes for their own cuties to wear as they foray onto the block in quest of rotten teeth.

Sometimes the costumes are kind of traditional – ghosts, witches, princesses – but, it seems to me looking through the wrong end of the telescope, that more and more trick-or-treaters are opting for outfits adapted from the garb worn by the superheroes of movies, television and, and – what am I neglecting? Oh sure – comic books for those who prefer a touch of the archaic in their entertainment. Profits a’waiting, for sure.

But the comicbook/Halloween synergy isn’t all that links holiday with comics. (All hands brace for comic book trivia!) For a few years in the past century, a smallish Vermont town called Rutland staged an annual Halloween parade and encouraged paraders to dress as comics characters. A Rutland resident named Tom Fagan upped the ante by inviting comics professionals to participate in the shenanigans and – surprise! some of us did. A town full of cheerful citizens, partying with colleagues, maybe something to eat and drink and maybe even the inspiration for a comic book or two, down the line… anybody see anything not to like? Thought not.

The festivities ended somewhere north of midnight when Tom opened the doors to a big old mansion he owned and invited all and sundry to find a place to sleep. We did, and the next morning we drove through the glorious New England autumn back to the real world.

And I was scared of what, exactly? I’d encountered my share of spookies in the previous 24 hours, but they had been more likely to generate giggles rather than screams.

Dennis O’Neil: Mayor Green Arrow? Really?


What’s the pothole situation in Starling City? And the re-zoning hassle – that still a headache? And the business with the access lanes to the bridge – was that ever settled?

Since Oliver Queen’s been elected mayor, it’s reasonable to think that this kind of mayoral busyness is the better part of his days. At night, of course, he puts on a mask and hood and grabs his bow and arrows and kicks (or maybe punctures) miscreant ass. Oh, and his also training a bunch of wannabe vigilantes to help with the kicking/puncturing – and not always being Mr. Nice Guy while he’s doing it. (Maybe he’s got some marine drill sergeant DNA?)

The question is, who is better for Starling City, the politician or the archer? If you’ve been paying attention to the news, you’d probably choose the archer because obviously anybody would be better than a politician.

But that can of worms will be left unopened. Tell you what: let’s reframe the question. Who’s more useful to a storyteller, archer or pol? I guess it depends on the kind of tale being told. A story by…oh, say, Aaron Sorkin or Robert Penn Warren or Allen Drury would perhaps fare best as political drama. The kind of fantasy/melodrama/action tale we’re considering here is better with an ass-kicker as its protagonist. Which leaves our man Ollie where?

mayor-green-arrowA kind of hybrid, one who favors the arrow shooting part of his persona, is where. That’s pretty much how it has to be. Nobody with a taste for adventures – that is, nobody who’s Arrow’s natural audience – is going to tune in to watch a guy in a three-piece suit behind a desk reading policy papers. We want to see some arrows shot and some of that good martial arts action! Leave that other stuff to CNN.

Casting a superhero as a civic leader, it seems to me, strains the genre. Part of the appeal of costumed superdoers is that they can do what duly constituted authorities can’t. Where a mayor’s job ends, theirs begins. One explanation for adopting a second persona – and it’s not a bad one – is that the disguise keeps the bad guys from knowing who to wreak revenge on. The other reason for a civic leader hiding behind a costume and fighting crime is that he couldn’t do as mayor what he does as vigilante because the vigilante must break the law to do his deeds. But whoa! Don’t mayors swear to uphold the law? We got us some hypocrite mojo working here?

Another deep appeal of double-identited heroes might require some psyche excavation. The idea is, we all have more than one identity lurking within us – we behave differently in different situations – and we might feel that the real us is one of those unseen lurkers. Costumed heroes manifest this idea and also give us a hook into identifying with the good guy.

I think part pf the storyteller’s task is to make the two identities distinct and that’s often a failure. I tried and pretty much failed to convince my Batman writers that Bruce Wayne should present himself as a tough-as-nails businessman, but as a good-natured bumbler. And I never liked Clark Kent as the best reporter in town. (Didn’t he win a Pulitzer?)

Of course, as always, the secret is in the recipe, not the ingredients. If the story entertains, the creators have done their jobs and they’re free to go watch tv. Wonder what’s on the CW?

Dennis O’Neil, Bob Dylan, and Temporary Disreputability


I don’t know how or from whom I learned of Bob Dylan. My patches of memory reveal that I was living aboard an aircraft carrier. I must have gone into a city (Boston?) and bought a copy of The Freewheeling Bob Dylan, then taken it to a tiny office below the flight deck, put it on a kiddie-sized turntable somebody had brought aboard, and listened and liked.

Another memory patch: a shipmate, a kid I barely know, typed the lyrics to Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice” and put them on my desk, where I found them later. I have no idea why he did this – he owed me nothing – and I wish I’d been more grateful at the time.

Then some years when the misfits and rebels were constructing a counter cultural matrix from activism, folk music, rock and – yes – comic books. Not a lot of it was openly seditious (except for some of the politics) but virtually all of it was anti-establishment. The nonconformists were not looking for a corporate ladder to climb, nor a cozy nest in suburbia, nor a wife who would supply an acceptable number of scrubby offspring. Whatever that was, we didn’t want it, though I’m not sure why. There were probably a lot of different reasons; everyone carries their own burden. But sometimes the burdens can be shared.

Always, there was Dylan, sometimes figure, sometimes ground, but always, one way or another, present. He acted in a western and was the subject of a documentary film, he performed on Saturday Night Live, he published a memoir, and he wrote songs and made records and toured. He refused to be labeled the voice of his generation, but, I’m sorry, that’s what he was to me and myriads of others.

Now, we rebels are aged, not as spry as we once were, maybe not as attuned to whatever’s revolutionary these days..

I was a comic book writer and editor, content enough to be a bit disreputable in a somewhat disreputable business. But disreputability is temporary and ours faded over the decades, and eventually, without my much noticing it, comics had parity with other narrative forms. And Dylan’s combination of music – some folk, in there, some country, some rock – and his inimitable lyrics, found a home in the tonier venues. Comic books and Bobby D, occupying separate spheres, but related by time and circumstance.

Last week, Dylan was awarded the ultimate establishment accolade, the Nobel Prize. Does this mean that, at long last, we rebels have succumbed to respectability? Maybe. Probably. I guess that the answer is blowin’ in the wind.

Dennis O’Neil: More Mighty


So here I am, this slightly chilly afternoon in October, Columbus Day, as a matter of fact, not celebrating slavery, racism, the exploitation of indigenous peoples, imperialism – those are the values the sailor man represents, aren’t they? – just sitting in my (as always) messy office, thinking about Mighty Mouse.

marvel-mighty-mouseGuess we didn’t finish with the Mouse last week.

Maybe I’ll never finish with the Mouse, though I have no intention of writing a story about him nor will I be buying a DVD that presents his adventures, assuming such a thing exists. I mean, I can still remember him after all these years, so why would I forget him now?

Maybe it was his costume that drew my approval. It was pretty generic – tights, cape, little under pants worn on the outside, just like Superman and Batman – but it was the suit sported by an animal and, to my seven year old self, that made it special.. Oh, I enjoyed the other talking animals that cavorted across my neighborhood theater’s screen – Bugs and Daffy and Woody and Porky and Donald (the duck, not the politician) and another mouse, Mickey and maybe some others. But Mighty Mouse was something different: I might have called him, a bit inaccurately, sui generis, if I‘d ever encountered the term and had any idea what it meant.

I must have been aware that the costumed rodent was very, very similar to another kids’ entertainment, the comic book heroes. That caped clothing – it could have been an early version of what Superman wore. One way in which MM differed from Superman: the mouse’a outfit costume was restyled at least twice… although Superman’s threads did, in fact, change over time, I think we weren’t supposed to notice.

A person looking at Mighty might also be reminded of Captain Marvel and his family which included a creature mighty close to Mighty, Hoppy the Marvel Bunny. But the young me probably considered Hoppy a second stringer; he didn’t have his own comic book and he never made it into the movies. Yeah, nice enough but definitely an also ran.

Like his human counterparts MM eventually had a secret identity – Mike Mouse. He also had, over the years, three girlfriends, though I’m sure he saw only one at a time and accepted blame for the breakups. (Heroes are not cads.)

He was never a superstar, our Mouse, but he was fairly long-lived. He bopped around pop culture for decades in diverse venues: there were the 80 or so movie shorts, beginning in 1942 and ending in 1961 and a comic book, and in 1987 a Saturday morning television series. I assume that MM’s image also graced lunch boxes, maybe t shirts and pajamas, but I don’t really know – I was never lucky enough to own such treasures, if they existed.

Will Mighty again come to save the day? I guess it’s possible. But let’s agree that we can let him rest in limbo, at least for now.