Author: Dennis O'Neil

Dennis O’Neil: Slinging His Mighty Shield

Avengers 4 Cap Discovered

No, I haven’t seen the new Captain America entertainment, though I did walk past a theater that’s showing it a few hours ago. But I guess that doesn’t count.

I might be tempted to buy a ticket at that multiplex located at an outdoor mall in Nanuet, instead of the bigger, much closer 21-screener in West Nyack.

Allow me a digression.

The West Nyack theater has recently suffered some renovation that resulted in customers having to choose the seats they will occupy at the time they buy their tickets. They look at a numbered schematic of the theater’s interior, choose seats, buy tickets, enter the semi-darkness, look at the numbers on each aisle, count the seats until they reach the ones they rented in the lobby, and – glory hallelujah! – sink into upholstery and start staring at the screen, feeling, maybe, like Amundsen when he finally got to the South Pole. Then, our theatergoers can fiddle with controls on the arm rest and adjust the seat configuration from more or less upright – proper posture and all that – to virtually horizontal. This last might serve you well if you plan to nap, and considering how little joy I got from the last movie I saw there, that might have been a better use of my afternoon.

Anything not to like?

Well, for openers, I do not enjoy the search process. I catch a flick, I want to go in and find an empty seat with decent sightlines and, if I’m lucky, forget I exist for a couple of hours or so. There are occasions when boldly meeting challenges is proper, but moviegoing, I maintain, is not one of them. Then there is the matter of environment. Look, I bought my ticket sight unseen. I have no idea who, or what, will be sitting near me. A sweet grandmother who’s afraid that she’s being offensive by breathing, or a butt-cracker of a heavyweight thug who’s snacking on garlic while practicing for a belching contest, activities he has no intention of discontinuing, and if I complain, how’d I like to suck my dinner through a straw?

But whoa! Weren’t we discussing Captain America?

I’m kind of surprised that he’s still active, much less the hero of a movie (I didn’t see it in Nanuet, by the way) that, as I type this, is basking in box office grandeur. Check the stats, true believer: 181 million dollars worth of tickets sold, which makes Captain America: Civil War the fifth most profitable debut in film history. I’m surprised because I’ve long thought of Cap as belonging to a specific era. He was created at the outbreak of the second world war, obviously intended to embody the patriotism and determination the nation was bringing to the battlegrounds.

The war ended and we might have expected Cap to hang up his shield find some laurels to rest on. But he didn’t – not exactly. His monthly comic book adventures continued until 1949 when he just sort of disappeared.

According to a story that appeared much later, he spent the years between 1949 and 1964 frozen in an ice block. He was thawed and, though reinvented, has been a reigning good guy ever since.

Dennis O’Neil: Why Fix What Ain’t Broken?

keep-calm-if-it-ain-t-broken-don-t-fix-it.jpgA naked old man squatting near a small fire on a barren hillside, surrounded by children who listen as the old man’s voice enters the stillness…

A scene from a time near the beginning of storytelling as a communal activity, or hear the end, a time when myth and religion finally reunite, or a time before their sundering.

Here’s a few words from George Lucas, of Star Wars fame: “Mythology is a performance piece that gets acted out over hundreds of years before it actually becomes embedded in clay on a tablet or is put down on a piece of paper to be codified as a fixed thing. But originally it was performed for a group of people in a way in which the psychological feedback would tell the narrator which way to go. Mythology was created out of what emotionally worked as a story.”

And stories, you may not be astonished to learn, are the direct descendants of mythology or, if you care to change your angle a bit, stories are mythology. So, before theater and high-speed printing and radio and movies and television and, yes, comic books – before all the (as Steven King calls them) story delivery systems that cram our lives, performer and audience breathed the same air, exchanged responses, and in a sense, co-created the story.

We may be in the process of recreating that dynamic. When I crept into the professional writing dodge, 50-plus years ago, we had feedback from our readers, in the forms of snail mail (the only kind of mail to which we had access) and, eventually, sales figures. But these responses were too slow – in the case of sales figures, way too slow – to affect our whats and our hows. By the time were were reading somebody’s angry denunciation of the hero’s new purple boots, we were working on stuff that wouldn’t be in print for months and there was nothing we could do about those damn boots except change them back and that would take additional time…

Sales figures? Look for reliable ones in about nine months.

Now, however, social media have changed the game. A reader can be complaining about those boots within hours of their debut and maybe the creative team can get them fixed before the next issue. Alternately, the team can bask in praise because, well, doggone it, those boots have made a difference!

All good, right?

Okay, maybe not all. Sometimes people don’t know what they want until someone shows it to them and if the team’s work is entirely dictated by cheers and boos, they might either be afraid of changing something that seems to be finding favor, thus inviting stagnation, or giving a fair chance to stuff yet to find its audience. Or maybe a creator’s Next Great Idea never gets out of the notebook because…heck, what we’re doing is working fine and why fix what ain’t broken?

As for those kids gathered near the fire…maybe they’re entranced by the old man’s story. Or maybe they’re just enjoying the warmth of the fire.

 

Dennis O’Neil: Forgiveness

Saul on the road to Damascus

So in last week’s exciting episode, I referred to “Saul on the road to Tarsus” and our friend Ed Newby asked if I meant Saul on the road to Damascus and of course I did. Why didn’t I simply correct myself in the space provided for such things proximate to Mr. Newby’s question? Well, anyone who’d ask that doesn’t realize he’s communicating with a fellow human hugely burdened with Crankus, the evil god of technology. In short, I was afraid I’d screw it up. And I didn’t feel like expending the energy/gumption necessary to unscrew it, assuming I could get it unscrewed and my advice there is, don’t bet on it.

Any(whew)way: here’s the Bible quote to which I misreferred, from the New Testament’s Acts of the Apostles: “As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”

“Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked.

“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.”

And if you’d like to use this in your own metaphor, it’s okay with me. Just be sure not to confuse Damascus with Tarsus. (Tarsus, by the way, is a historic settlement about 12.5 miles from the Mediterranean. It’s still there, and visitable.)

Since I just cited a passage from the Christian Bible, and since as I write this we’re in the middle of the week in which the Jewish holiday Passover is celebrated, maybe, to be fair and all that, I should quote something Jewish. We’ll save the Old Testament for later and instead give you something contemporary that I like, from Rabbi Rami Shapiro:

“Aren’t all religions equally true? No, all religions are equally false. The relationship of religion to truth is like that of a menu to a meal. The menu describes the meal as best it can. It points to something beyond itself. As long as we use the menu as a guide we do it honor. When we mistake the menu for the meal, we do it and ourselves a grave injustice.”

I got those words from Tricycle, a Buddhist magazine, and yes, if I were any more diverse I would plotz. I didn’t get them from a comic book, the titular subject of this weekly blather, but if you’ll forgive me I’ll forgive you.

And don’t tell me there’s nothing to forgive you for. What are you, a saint?

 

 

 

 

Dennis O’Neil: Names Have Power

Bill-Finger-and-his-creations-for-Batman

Chic Young. Al Capp. Jimmy Hatlo. Carl Anderson. Ernie Bushmiller. Alex Raymond. Roy Crane. Those are some names I remember, some 70 years later, with no help from Google, from the “funny side” of the St. Louis Post Dispatch, the newspaper that landed, rolled and bound with wire, on the front lawn of the four family flat where we lived until I was 10 or 11. By then I was aware that there was another newspaper, The Star-Times, the one that the O’Neils didn’t read, with its own funnyside and its own names and I may have even known some, but with the exception of Chester Gould, I seem to have forgotten these, maybe because I didn’t see them every day.

Somewhere in early grade school – ah, Sister Helen, what became of you? – I must have realized, probably gradually, that these names had something to do with the comic strips they were attached to and from there it would have been an easy step to realizing that the people these names belonged to somehow made the comic strips. And was I gobsmacked? (Saul on the road to Tarsus! Archimedes in the bath! Newton bonked by the apple!)

Not likely. My awareness that the comics were the product of human effort probably materialized slowly, over time. Somewhere in those developmental years, I must have come to similar awareness about the radio shows that occupied my late weekday afternoons and the cowboy pictures I saw on Friday nights at the Pauline Theater. (And boy! It sure took at lot more people to make a cowboy picture than a comic strip!)

Then there were the comic books. On Sunday morning, after Mass, Dad bought a quart of milk for the family and a comic book for little Denny. Later on in life, that scamp Denny learned to trade those comics with other kids’ comics and so some summer afternoons were absorbed by superhero adventures and funny animal hijinks.

Is something missing here?

The names. There must have been bylines and art credits in the comics, now and then, here and there, but I either didn’t register them or did notice them but quickly lost them to memory. Then comics vanished from my world and when they reappeared, more than a decade later, I did become aware of creators’ names, among them Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster who got credit for Superman, and in the Batman comics, Bob Kane. Just “Bob Kane.”

Something still missing?

In the comics business, it’s been a fairly open secret for decades that Mr. Kane, an artist, worked with a writer named Bill Finger. But only Mr. Kane’s name appeared on Batman comics and movies and novels and television shows and lunch boxes…The reasons are legal and a tiny bit complicated and we won’t go into them here. But we have good news! From now on, Bill Finger’s name will appear on Batman stuff. This is not accident. For years, Bill’s granddaughter, Athena Finger, and her sister, Alephia Mariotto, have been struggling to get some kind of justice for Bill and now I suggest you take note of the latest film incarnation of Batman, titled, catchily, Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice. You’ll see in the early credits this information: Batman created by Bob Kane with Bill Finger.

Dawn of justice indeed.

Artwork by Ty Templeton from Bill The Boy Wonder.

Dennis O’Neil: Superheroes in Three Dimensions

Kara Danvers

Back when days were yore and the sun was yet in the sky and I had a shining splendor of a job – could any job be better than editing Batman? – I didn’t always go film versions of comic books. Not sure why. Fear? Of disappointment? Of being shown that others were better than I was? Of just needing to get away from my day job and watching actors portray the characters who lay on my desk was not exactly getting away from them. All of he above? None of the above?

Not that I missed all the superhero flicks, but I still haven’t seen the last Christopher Reeve Superman and I caught only a few minutes, on television, of the Ben Affleck Daredevil. There may be others I’m forgetting.

Now, though, I catch ‘em all, even the ones that reflect my comic book labors, and I tend to like them, even those that are darker/grimmer than they might need to be. The most recent Daredevil – the unAffleckian version – and the quite similar Jessica Jones are not exactly jolly entertainments. In a few minutes, when I leave this computer and get in the car, I’ll be off to see the much discussed and maligned Batman vs Superman and tonight I’ll probably tune into FOX’s Gotham while recording what is, I think, the lightest and brightest of the teevee superdoers, and of course we’re talking about the lovely Kara Danvers – Supergirl.

I accused Ms. Danvers of lightness and brightness and that’s true only if you can ignore the Maid of Might’s backstory which, like her cousin Superman’s bio, involves the destruction of an entire planet, including friends and relatives. Many of the other costumed heroes have grim pasts too. Batman, of course, seeing his parents killed in front of him and Spider-Man, responsible for his beloved uncle’s death, and Daredevil whose father was killed and who owes his powers to a nasty accident and the Thing, changed into a monster by radioactivity and Iron Man and Nightwing and and and…

Are we dealing, here, with modern fairy tales? Well, there’s Bruno Bettelheim, of the renowned psychologist Bettelheims, who said said that scary fairy tales, with all those dark woods and evil witches, are developmentally healthy because they allow youngsters to face and acknowledge fears, and then reassure the kids that they will survive. And I’ve read very few, if any, comics that did not end with the good guys triumphant.

Batman vs Superman, currently playing at a theater near me, has a happyish ending. I know this because somewhere/when in the last bunch of words I went to a theater near me and saw the movie. Then I came home and checked the email and

had dinner. Oh, and did I like the movie? Well, that might be a topic for another time. Or not.

Dennis O’Neil: Technology Always Precedes Art

 

Archie Jughead

Let’s hop on back 40,000 years into the past and watch a fellow named Urg make marks on a cave wall with a piece of flint. We happen to know that Urg has only recently learned that he can make these marks and he is now in the process of finding a use for them. Hey, listen… he’s now making sounds. Could they be words? Can they give us a clue as what he thinks he’s doing?

URG: Ar-chee! Jug-heed! Ann-tee-loop!

And now we fire up our time traveling whatsis and behold! – we find ourselves in the pages of a comic book. The panel we’re in shows those Riverdale High funsters Archie and Jughead strolling down a sunny street. Nearby, enjoying a snack of grass, is an antelope.

ARCHIE: Hey Jug! Isn’t that an antelope?

JUGHEAD: Sure looks like one. Wonder why the artist put that in!

Okay, half turn to the left or right, depending on your political preference, and we find ourselves in the real world – that is, the world we happen to inhabit. We’ve just snuck through a back door into this week’s topic (and yes, maybe I’m being generous in calling what follows a “topic.”) In one sentence, here we go:

Technology always precedes art.

That’s really all I have to say, but I’ll expend a bit more band width anyway.

Remember Urg? He found that he could put scratches on the cave wall and then discovered that these scratches could be pictures and suddenly he was an artist! Time rushed forward and Urg’s descendants put Urg-like scratches into clay tablets and then people had both pictures and writing and then later descendants of Urg invented paint and canvas and various kinds of printing inclluding high speed presses driven by steam and photography and radio and television and silicon chips and the bank width I’m expending…

Urg sure had a lot of descendants and a number of them, maybe without realizing exactly what they were doing, put gadgetry devised by someone else to expressing themselves and amusing their neighbors and pretty soon, there stood Disneyland. And much, much more.

That “much, much more” might be a problem, unless it isn’t. Cinematic technology can put spectacular images on the screen and if we have a toy, we humans will play with it. (I saw a planet explode just the other day.) And all those explosions and chases can serve the story that contains them, but on another level, they’re spectacle. What I fear is that the spectacle is overwhelming drama and theme and the other stuff that can be put on screens and so we’re collectively losing valuable gifts the ancients knew about, things like catharsis and empathy. Am I tilting at windmills? Maybe. Probably.

The exploding planet happened in Star Wars: The Force Awakens and I’ll certainly see the next episode in the Star Wars franchise.

Dennis O’Neil: Words, Finest

the-flash-meets-supergirl-in-cbs-crossover-01

What is wrong with you people? Yesterday, I heard that CBS might not renew Supergirl for a second year, which generally happens to a television show because not many people are watching it and so I ask again, what is wrong with you? It’s not like you’ve got anything better to do with your Monday evenings! I could tell you that as this is being typed, in a few hours, Supergirl will deliver to your screens a first. (Well, actually a second, but we’ll get to that.) But you won’t read this until four days from now – unless you’re too busy to read it! – and by then what I’m about to reveal will be history. The way you young people reckon time, ancient history.

Well, fudge. I’ll reveal it anyway. The current episode of CBS’s Maid of Might entertainment will feature a crossover! The Flash, hero of another show, will visit Supergirl and… they’ll do some pretty darn interesting stuff, I bet. Probably catch a villain or two, maybe more. Now, of course, such events aren’t exactly boggling in tv these days. Just recently, the cops of Law and Order SVU, set in Manhattan, visited the

Chicago cops and… caught a bad guy. Both SVU and Chicago PD have the same producer, Dick Wolf, and appear on the same network, NBC, so although the crossover was a big deal it wasn’t that big a deal. And it had happened before and may happen again.

But The Flash and Supergirl? Here’s what makes this a socks-knocker: the shows appear on different networks! Those of you who read comics – there are still some people who read, aren’t there? – may be aware that comics publishing’s two Giant Gorillas, Marvel and DC, have been staging print intercompany crossovers beginning, I think, with Superman vs Spider-Man in 1976. There have been others since – I’m not sure how many, but some. That’s print, an ancient technology of which you may have heard. But television? Count the palling up of Supergirl and the Flash as revolutionary.

Or maybe not. Way back, characters from two lawyer shows, The Practice, broadcast on ABC, and Fox’s Ally McBeal, met on each other’s turf. Both programs were created by David E. Kelley, so maybe the stunt wasn’t earth-shaking, but it was unprecedented. And it set a precedent which I, at least, will witness at eight tonight. You? Well, you don’t seem much interested in watching Supergirl. You certainly don’t watch it enough to keep it on the air. Is what’s on C-SPAN really all that enthralling?

Dennis O’Neil: Return With Us Now To Those Thrilling Days…

Justice Society

The Second World War had not yet started, at least not for the United States, when I drifted through a wall and into office space in one of the Manhattan business buildings. Anyone seeing me would assume that I was a man in his thirties, but actually I was less than a year old. Astral reality, as you might know, proceeds via different reality routes than Other reality, particularly as regards time, which would explain everything, if only you could understand it. I should also mention that I’d done a Chronological Slurp, jumped ahead a half century or so and spent a nanosecond – your time, of course – acquiring knowledge I wouldn’t learn for – your time – decades.

jsaI was in a conference room the likes of which were in dozens of New York offices. Long wooden table, chairs, little else. A meeting was in progress. I recognized none of the men present – they were all men – but the guy over near the door might have been a very young Sheldon Mayer and the man at the far end of the table could have been Vin Sullivan. Sullivan, or whoever he was, glanced at me, paused, and returned his gaze to the yellow legal pad in front of him. My guess is, he saw me, immediately repressed the fact that the back of my chair was plainly visible through my body, and maybe thought I was a newcomer who belonged there. After all, this was a new company plying a new product and there were probably strangers continually wandering in and out.

I listened to the editors (for surely that’s what they were) discussing the success of Superman comics and the forthcoming Superman radio program, and the newer Batman, another winner. Then a bald guy asked about All-Star Comics, just that week making a newsstand debut. I gathered from the ensuing conversation that All-Star was a comic book anthology: short stories, each featuring a different hero. The bald guy seemed to think that All-Star’s multi-heroed format had no staying power and was doomed to early extinction. The rest of the group didn’t seem to know what they thought.

“Why not have the heroes all working on the same problem?” I asked everyone. “Fighting the same villain or group of villains. Make it a team effort. Don’t Americans love teams?”

“If they’re the Brooklyn Dodgers,” somebody muttered.

“It’d be a production nightmare,” the bald guy said.

The guy who may have been Sullivan said, “No, we could make it work. Interesting idea.”

That started a fresh dialogue that may have lasted until Christmas.

A few months later, All-Star Comics #3, featured The Justice Society of America, with a bunch of heroes, some of whom appeared in their own comics, gathered together to battle evil. Wonder Woman didn’t join until issue #8, but she was just a girl.

By then, my astral self was long gone. While the editors were still deep in discussion, I drifted away, into the Clutchesphere, where my astral self morphed into a neutrino and joined the cosmic dance.

My other, one-year-old self, wet his diaper.

Dennis O’Neil: The One Right Way!

Sound Effects

Splat! Splibble! Ghosh!

Uh oh, here comes another one.

KLATLAM!

Okay, let’s close the metaphorical door…no, let’s slam the door on my cutsey way of sneaking up on an answer to the question I posed last week, which was something like: If I can’t teach writing — and I admit that I can’t — why do respectable institutions pay me to teach writing?

We’ll get to that gibberish at the top of the page in a bit, but first, let’s make a distinction between writing and creativity. I don’t know of anyone who has sussed out a reliable procedure for teaching creativity and I’m sure multitudes are trying. So let’s just drop the subject.

But writing? Different thing, and that brings us to the gibberish, which is supposed to be the noise information makes when it strikes a student because that, dear companions, is what I have done while standing in front of whiteboards. No, not fabricate sound effects, but hurl information at the eager faces: give them everything I know about the subject of the day, hoping that they will remember some of it and that what they remember will be useful. I’ve found that I can talk for… oh say twenty hours over the course of a semester about facts pertaining to writing – left-brain stuff that will fit into English sentences. Then, if I allow myself a little blue sky, or bring in a guest, or have responsive students willing to enter into dialogues voila! job done and where’s the nearest Starbucks?

Note: When imparting information, I never claim to be teaching the way to do anything. We have a mantra: There is seldom any one absolutely, inarguable, unimpeachably right way to do anything. There is just what’s worked for a lot of people a lot of times and maybe you’ll benefit from knowing about it.

Can I hear an Amen?

The matter of script format is sure to arise in any comics writing discussion and at first glance this seems like a no-brainer. I mean, a format is a format and all the instructor has to do is show one to the class and then take a bathroom break, right? That would indeed be the case if the subject were writing for television and/or movies. There is a widely accepted format for screenwriting and you’d best adhere to it. (But fear not: your friendly neighborhood software dealer will supply you with all you need.) Comics, though? I can’t show you the standard comics script format because there isn’t one. Every prolific writer seems to find, or evolve, a format that suits them and these range from the minimalist to the dense and detailed and I say blessings upon all. If it’s okay with your editor and with your collaborator(s), it’s okay.

We’ll probably revisit this topic, maybe not next week, but soon. For now, another amen and I’m off to play hooky.

Dennis O’Neil: Can You Teach Writers How To Write?

Typewriter Keys

It was a pretty doggone swell affair, last Saturday night at the Garnerville Arts Center – the best kind of swell affair, the kind that doesn’t require abnormal behavior or unusual threads.

Remember Thoreau? “…beware of all enterprises that require new clothes…”?

Well, nobody needed to beware at Garnerville. But I think we all enjoyed ourselves.

After the program had ended, I was approached by a young woman carrying some papers. She said she wanted to be a writer and wondered if I had any advice for her. You scriveners out there may have heard similar questions a time or two.

How did you answer?

I’d really like to know. I’ve been fronting classes with titles like “Writing for Comics and Graphic Novels” off and on for more than twenty years and I hereby aver and proclaim that I have never, ever taught anyone to write.

I’m not sure anyone ever taught me to write, either. though I have an academic minor in “creative writing.” (You could look it up. St. Louis University, Arts and Sciences, Class of 1961.) What I did to earn this credential was, essentially, to take the same course six semesters in a row. We wannabe writers were required to produce a thousand words of (sparkling? awesome?) prose every week. The professor would choose one of us to to read our work aloud and when that person fell silent the rest of us critiqued. What else? Not much. I can remember only one bit of instruction and one assignment in all those hours of sitting at a table perusing typed pages or listening to familiar voices speaking unfamiliar sentences. All in all, not a bad way to pass an hour.

Any benefit there? Yes. The discipline of producing those thousand weekly words was, I think, useful. If you’re going to write for a living, and maybe if you’re not, you’re going to have to get chummy with deadlines. I think they have value in and of themselves, but whether they do or not, they’re a part of most writing lives. I’m glad I made their acquaintance early.

And what did we do to fulfill the thousand word requirement? Little bit of whatever. Short stories. Essays. A nun who was, I think, auditing the class read from a work-in-progress about her stay aboard a Japanese ship. Poetry? Maybe, a little, though verse would probably require fudging those thousand words. I do remember handing in a bunch of haiku one week – far from a thousand words worth – and not being scolded so I guess some fudging was okay. And one student began thinking he’d be a short story writer and has become, in the fine ripeness of maturity some of us are privileged to share – that means we didn’t croak early – has become a much-published poet. Don’t know if he fudged as an undergrad.

And here we are at the end, not having answered an implicit question: If I can’t teach writing, why did they pay me to teach writing?

Next week.