Tagged: Dennis O’Neil

DENNIS O’NEIL: One Upon A Time

DENNIS O’NEIL: One Upon A Time

Once upon a time, way back, I was just a tiny bit afraid that the stepchild of American publishing wherein I labored, comics, would not be properly documented – that the right people weren’t being interviewed, the right information preserved. I needn’t have worried. Thanks largely to an army of scholars-without-portfolios – we called them fans – I think comics are likely to be the best documented art form in history. These people, and more recently the academics that involve themselves with popular culture, must have found sources of information completely unknown to me, and I applaud them for it.

Among my current sprinkling of projects is writing introductions for a collection of essays concerning what I guess we can unblushingly call the Batman mythos. More documentation and, I’d like to believe, welcome. The next intro I’ll do will be for a piece by Paul Lytle on Arkham Asylum. That name – Arkham Asylum – is familiar to Batman devotees and maybe to some folk not quite so devoted because it played a prominent part in the last mega-budget Batman movie. It is, for you who are not devotees and those who weren’t paying attention while you watched Batman Begins, the place where the criminally insane of Batman’s rollicking home town, Gotham City, are sent for incarceration and rehabilitation though, judging from results, the staff of the institution aren’t very good at either task.

But – here comes our big reveal, and I’m mostly addressing devotees, though the rest of you can stay – have you ever wondered where that distinctive name came from? Oh sure, the better read among you will recognize the word “Arkham” from H.P. Lovecraft’s tales – Arkham was the spooky burg where Lovecraft’s things went bump in the night. But who had the inspiration to associate it with the residence of Gotham’s host of loonies? I was pretty sure I knew, but, as you may remember, a couple of columns ago I trusted my memory and erred. So I sent an email. Here, in part, is the reply:

Our original conversation regarding where criminals such as the Joker and Two-Face should be incarcerated took place in March of 1974, when you and Len Wein were guest speakers at Jim Dever’s and my comics history course at the Philadelphia College of Art (now the University of the Arts). The first mention of Arkham was in your Two-Face story that appeared in Batman #258, which was cover dated September, 1974.


 – JCH


The JCH that signs the letter stands for Jack C. Harris, a veteran writer, editor, historian and, for the past decade, give or take, a comics writing teacher at the School of Visual Arts in lower Manhattan. Credit where it’s due – where it’s long overdue.

If Jack were here, I’d ask him to take a bow.

RECOMMENDED READING: Awareness, by Anthony de Mello. Those of you who look at this blather every week may have guessed that I’m not a huge fan of organized religion these days, largely because of the misuses to which it’s currently being put, and the book recommended above is by a Jesuit. Well, if the Jebbies who presided over my university years were like de Mello, I might lay some bucks on the alumni fund once in a while.

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: Saturday Noon

DENNIS O’NEIL: Saturday Noon

Saturday noon, and it still hadn’t arrived. Voldemort’s work? Or the machinations of something a bit more prosaic – book ninjas, maybe, or gremlins? But no. We fretted in vain. At about three, the doorbell rang, and there he was – Mr. Delivery Man, bearing our own copy of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

(I don’t think a spoiler warning is really necessary at this point – is there anyone who doesn‘t know Harry’s fate? – but what the hell, consider yourself warned.)

Soon, Marifran was in bed, reading – yes – the end of the novel. I asked her if Harry survives and she said that he does. Whew. The next evening, daughter Meg phoned from Seattle. She’s already finished it, all 759 pages. Do all bank vice-presidents spend their weekends reading?

What kind of people are these? What sort of mutated family did I marry into?

Me, I plan to wait for the movie. But I’m glad the book’s doing well. Better that gobs of money go to J.K. Rowling, who comports herself with some dignity, than to yet another deluded, sad young woman who calls attention to her desperate self by displaying what, in gentler times, would be seen only by her mate or her gynecologist.

Of course, not everyone is profiting by Ms. Rowling’s success. Independent bookshops, in order to compete with chains and on-line venues, are selling the book at such steep discounts that their profit is slim to none. And news reports tell us that just because a lot of kids are reading the Potter series doesn’t mean that they’ll read anything else. Apparently, Harry’s sui generis and after Deathly Hallows, it’s back to the tube for many.

But surely some kids will try other printed entertainment, once Harry teaches them that what’s printed can, in fact, be entertaining. Or so those of us who worry about the future of these United States can hope. Al Gore’s new and excellent book, The Assault on Reason (which I recommended last week) tells us that “…the parts of the human brain that are central to the reasoning process are continually activated by the very act of reading printed words…the passivity associated with watching television is at the expense of activity in parts of the brain associated with abstract thought, logic, and the reasoning process…An individual who spends four and a half hours a day watching television is likely to have a very different pattern of brain activity from an individual who spends four and a half hours reading.”

So, my understanding of Mr. Gore is, reading is not virtuous because it’s what grandma and grandpa did for fun, but because it stimulates a part of the brain that may be both underused and useful.

Is Harry Potter our new, albeit fictional, messiah? Well, no. We don’t want to take it that far. But given the current crop of wannabe saviors, we could do worse.

RECOMMENDED READING: Understanding McLuhan, by W. Terrence Gordon, illustrations by Susan Willmarth.

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 wizard left behind”

DENNIS O’NEIL: “No wizard left behind”

At the end of last week’s exciting episode, the cute schoolteacher and I were involved in a tense debate about which showing of the new Harry Potter movie we would attend. (Yes, we media people do have lives that throb with excitement.)

We decided, and went.

The schoolteacher, who really does carry Potter devotion to an extreme, at least in one Muggle’s opinion, was enthralled. The Muggle – me – thought it was a pretty good summer flick. I’m a Muggle who can enjoy some good, old-fashioned, British Acting-with-a-capital A, and the Potters are full of A-list thespians. (There may be a pun in there somewhere, but, trust me, it’s not worth the effort needed to find it.) I think British movie acting is still partly influenced by its grandiloquent, stage-bound forebears, and that makes it appropriate to material that is the antithesis of realism, much as Brando’s naturalistic Method acting was appropriate to Tennessee Williams’s realism.

But the Pottery pleasure the teacher and I could share equally began when Dolores Umbridge entered the story. Miss Umbridge, splendidly embodied by a pink-clad Imelda Staunton, is an educational bureaucrat whose saccharine exterior conceals a heart of bile. She’s a stooge for the local politicians whose mission is to insist on a largely useless curriculum and on tests which accomplish nothing except make it impossible for real educators to do their jobs.

“No wizard left behind,” I whispered to the schoolteacher, who nodded vigorously.

I don’t know much about J.K. Rowling, Potter’s creator, but I do know that she must have been writing the novel on which the current movie is based about seven years ago, and that she works and lives in England. Those facts make it unlikely that in conjuring up Miss Umbridge she was commenting on and/or satirizing the Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind farce. So maybe art was anticipating life. Whatever the reason, Miss Umbridge could step from fantasy into the real life milieu of those involved in the president’s – ahem – educational efforts and feel right at home.

Spoiler alert!

Miss Umbridge gets hers, though it appears that she survives to be rotten another day, and I rejoiced. I think schadenfreude is a pretty crummy emotion when it’s directed toward people we know, but it’s perfectly acceptable, and maybe even expected – maybe even desirable – when aimed at creatures of the imagination. And despite what the schoolteacher might want to believe, J.K. Rowling does write fiction.

RECOMMENDED READING: The Assault on Reason, by Al Gore.

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: Do You Believe In Magic?

DENNIS O’NEIL: Do You Believe In Magic?

Here it is Tuesday evening and we’re still debating. Should we go to the 11:59 showing of the new Harry Potter flick at the local 21-plex or catch one of the early showings in the morning?  Pros and cons on both sides.  But we will see the movie within the next 24 hours; count on it.

Although I’ve enjoyed the previous films, I can’t call myself a Potter fan.  I haven’t read any of J.K. Rowling’s novels, though I love Ms Rowling’s bio: single mom writing in a café becomes hugely successful author, celebrity, and megamillionaire within about a decade, without becoming a robber baroness.  But Marifran’s read the books.  Oh yes indeed.  And so have daughters Meg and Beth.  So I’m pretty up on the Hogwarts scene and when the final volume in the series arrives in a couple of weeks, I expect my conversations with my wife to be conducted in monosyllables until she reaches the last page and learns Harry’s fate.

I’m surprised that these things are so popular, as I was surprised at the resurgence of interest in J.R.R. Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings saga and the huge success of the movies made from Tolkein’s trilogy. The reason is, I thought we were past believing in magic. 

Oh, sure, you don’t have to actually believe in something to enjoy stories about it.  But we do have to be able to accept it on some level. It helps the willing suspension of disbelief your English teacher told you is necessary to the enjoyment of fiction if you can allow that what you’re being told about exists, or could exist, or at least might have existed. Hero stories are about as old as civilization, and the tale-tellers always supply a reason why their protagonists have extraordinary powers.  In classic Greece, for example, and later in Rome, superpowers were explained by their possessors either being gods, or half-gods, or children of gods, or gods’ special pals.  Then plain ol’ magic, origin unknown, was used to rationalize superhuman feats in folk tales like those in A Thousand and One Nights


DENNIS O’NEIL: (Hey, Dude, ain’t he ever gonna git done yakkin’ about) Continued Stories

DENNIS O’NEIL: (Hey, Dude, ain’t he ever gonna git done yakkin’ about) Continued Stories

Last week, we were discussing the cons of continued stories, specifically what’s wrong with them, and we posited that they have a major problem in the difficulty new readers (or audiences) have in understanding the plot and characters. I said that there were remedies for this problem and now I’ll suggest, a bit timidly, that though remedies exist, nothing is foolproof.

Which brings us to the second difficulty with this kind of narrative, one closely related to the first. A potential reader who knows that the entertainment in front of him is a serial and that he’s missed earlier installments might think he’s come to the party too late, and so he won’t be tempted to enter it. Admittedly, this has more to do with marketing than stortytelling, but anyone who thinks that sales departments and creative departments aren’t entwined tighter than the snakes on a ceduceus isn’t paying attention.

There are probably more cons, but let’s let the subject rest with those two – we don’t want to beat anything to death, do we? – and proceed on to the pros.

Pro number one: Serialized stories build audience/reader loyalty. If you like the story you’ll want to learn what happens next and how the problems are solved and you’ll keep returning to satisfy your curiosity.

Pro number two (and this, to me, is the biggie): Serials present storytelling opportunities rare in other forms, if they exist at all. Continued narratives allow the storyteller to present a complex plot and a lot of subplots, as well as stuff that might not directly relate to the plot(s) but is, well, amusing.


DENNIS O’NEIL: Continued stories revisited yet again…

DENNIS O’NEIL: Continued stories revisited yet again…

In last week’s installment of what some of you may be beginning to think is an endless blather, when I was discussing movie serials I neglected to mention that serials were among the first non-comics forms to use superheroes. During that decade, lucky young popcorn eaters could see Superman, Batman, Captain America and, in my opinion the best of them all, Captain Marvel in the continued chapter plays that were a staple of Saturday matinees. (That probably doesn’t exhaust the list, but memory is not my greatest gift… At least I don’t think so…) Having seen some of the above-mentioned entertainments, and having, within the past two weeks, seen the Spider-Man and Fantastic Four movies, I realize that the serial makers were born too soon.

Because, let’s face it, some of the serialized costumed do-gooders look kind of silly. That’s because the directors lacked the technology to make them not look silly. It takes an army of costumers, model makers, CGI wizards, animators and, probably, guys whose jobs I’ve never heard of to produce, on the screen, what cartoonists produced with ink on paper in large quantities for lousy pay. Of course, we comics readers had to bring some of our own imaginations to the artists’ static, silent images, but that was okay, we could do that.

Consider the preceding two paragraphs a digression, please. And now we return to our regularly scheduled topic –

What about these continued stories, anyway? Good or bad? Pro or con?

Let’s begin with the obvious con. If you come in late, maybe you’ll have trouble understanding the story. There are remedies for this problem. The serial makers mentioned in the opening digression showed the last minute or so of the preceding chapter before getting on to new material. The old radio serials used a similar technique, and a lot of current television shows begin with a voice over intoning something like, “Previously, on Your Father’s Moustache…” and then we get brief takes of the scenes that will escort us into the new action.


DENNIS O’NEIL:Continued stories continued some more…

DENNIS O’NEIL:Continued stories continued some more…

Now, where were we…?

Oh yeah. We were discussing continued stories and I was telling you that continued characters have been around a long time, since the classic Greek dramatists at least, but continued stories were a pretty recent phenomena. You might recall my claim that Julie Schwartz and Stan Lee introduced them to comics, but they already existed in radio drama. One form I didn’t mention, but am pleased to do so now, were the “chapter plays” in movie theaters, which I suspect had some influence on the early comics guys. You can probably rent some examples of these at your local video store, but in case you don’t want to bother…

They were continued movies, these chapter plays, also called just plain serials, with a plot that played out over between ten and fifteen installments. Each segment ended with the hero or another sympathetic character in dire trouble, about to plunge over a cliff or be impaled on spears at the bottom of a pit or like that. (Check out the Indiana Jones films, which were partly inspired by the serials, to get an idea of the kinds of scrapes these folks got themselves into.) Then, the segment would end with the suggestion that you come back the following week to learn what happens. The idea was, you, the breathless kid in the front row, would just have to return to witness the good guy’s miraculous escape or, if you were a bit twisted, you hoped you’d watch him get offed.

If you have ever suffered through one of my comics writing classes, or were lucky enough to take a Robert McKee film writing course, you know that some professional wordsmiths set a lot of store by structure, and that the most reliable structure is called the three act structure. (For more, and better, on this, see the recommended reading below.) I’m not about to presume to teach a class here, but most briefly – the three-act structure: 1, Something happens to cause the hero to act. 2. The problem gets complicated. 3. The hero resolves the problem.

Obviously, this narrative strategy won’t work for a story that’s stretched out over a whole lot of chapters, with a lot of climaxes, so the serial guys evolved what I call the “one-damn-thing-after-another” structure. Which is: the good guy and the bad guy(s) have a lot of clashes, which end inconclusively until one of them doesn’t. The good guy wins, virtue triumphs, everyone lives happily ever after.

A story doesn’t necessarily need to be multi-chaptered to be one-damn-thing-after-another; you could probably use the construction for a 10-pager. And it’s not necessarily a bad structure; a storyteller with sufficient ingenuity might make it work, though I usually advise students not to try this at home. What, structurally, it has going for it is this: it ain’t dull. Something big and, presumably, exciting, happens at least once per chapter and that keeps things moving.

We’ll get back to this topic 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: Continued stories (continued)…

DENNIS O’NEIL: Continued stories (continued)…

(If) you’re…young; you don’t remember a time when continued stories were rare. But until Stan Lee made them standard procedure at Marvel in the 1960s, they were next to unheard-of.

Those words seem familiar to you? Certainly not, unless you read this department’s blather three weeks ago, when I began a discussion of continued stories in comics, where they – the words – appeared in a slightly different form. And in reprinting them, in a column which is – let’s face it – a continuation of a previous one, I’ve tried to deal with a paramount problem writers face when doing continued narratives: clueing in readers who either don’t remember the earlier stuff or are new to the series.

There is a difference between continuing characters and continuing stories. Continuing characters have been with us a very long time. Even if you ignore the many tales of the various gods and goddesses, those rascals, you can find a continuing character as early as 428 BC, give or take a few years, when Sophocles followed up his smash hit Oedipus Rex with a sequel featuring the same poor bastard, Oedipus at Colonus. Then, over the centuries, there have been various adventures of King Arthur’s knights and other heroes. But these were not continued stories, not exactly. An adventure or episode ended and the characters went into Limbo and reappeared to solve new problems and encounter new hassles. That kind of storytelling continued through the invention of high speed printing, which made books relatively cheap and accessible at about the same time that a lot of people were learning to read.

Which brings us to the pulp magazines, a publishing form that began about 1910 and was one with the dinosaurs by the middle 50s. A lot of these cheaply produced entertainments featured continuing heroes. (We’ve discussed perhaps the greatest of them, The Shadow, in this department earlier, and I won’t be surprised if he gets mentioned here again.) Meanwhile, over in another medium, movies were also featuring continuing heroes, ranging from that loveable scamp Andy Hardy to a legion of bad guy quellers, including noble cowpokes and suave detectives. And…in yet another medium, that newfangled radio was presenting weekly dramas about cowboys and detectives and police officers and even federal agents, like the movies only more often. And…here might be an appropriate place to mention comic strips, which began doing stories, as opposed to daily jokes, in 1929 with Burne Hogarth’s comic’s adaptations of Edgar Rice Burroughs Tarzan, and since the introduction of Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy in 1931, were sometimes stretching plots over many weeks.

Those were continued stories featuring, of course, continuing characters. But there were others…Oh my goodness, look! We’re almost at the limit of our allotted word count and we have so much more to discuss. I suppose I could go on for a couple of paragraphs more, but that wouldn’t begin to exhaust the topic, so I guess we’ll just have to – yes! – continue this next week.

RECOMMENDED READING: The Creators, by Daniel J. Boorstin

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.

Artwork copyright Tribune Media Services. All Rights Reserved.

DENNIS O’NEIL: A Superman For Our Time

DENNIS O’NEIL: A Superman For Our Time

When we’re in a somber mood, which is an easy kind of mood to be in these days, we hope that Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster were not prophets. Joe and Jerry were, of course, the creators of Superman, and way back in 1938 they told what’s become known as Superman’s origin story.

Surely you’re familiar with it; it’s been retold and edited and redacted and emended and amended and recast in comics, in movies and books and on television, and probably video games, for these past 68 years, and I wouldn’t be surprised if some earnest young writer is, at this moment, reworking it yet again. But in the event your long-term memory is gebollixed for some reason, I’ll give you the trading card version.

Jor-El, a scientist, tells the poobahs of his civilization on the planet Krypton that their entire world is soon to disintegrate. The poobahs refuse to believe him and – oops – the darn world does blow itself to bits. Jor-El does manage to get his son away in a spacecraft before the final blooey. The kid lands on Earth and becomes a mighty champion of justice, etc. etc.

If I were to rewrite this familiar story, I might consider making Jor-El an environmentalist who’s worried about, let’s say, global warming. And maybe, in this version, the poobahs are politicians who take Jor-El’s carefully reasoned and scientifically unimpeachable work, which Mr. El has presented in the form of a document, and had someone with negligible scientific credentials edit Mr. El’s writing so heavily that it’s meaning is altered.

I mean, my suggested revamp isn’t really too far from the original, is it? What’s scary is that it isn’t far at all from some recent real-life history. And that’s why, despite my great respect for Messrs. Siegel and Shuster, I hope they’re lousy prophets. Remember how their story ended? The poobahs insisted they were right and Jor-El was wrong, despite plenty of contrary evidence, and – Blooey!

If we were to redo, once again, what Joe and Jerry began with, we might consider expanding it to allow a look at the poobahs. The trick in doing this kind of thing is to ask, if these fictional characters were real, what kind of people would they be? Not conventionally “evil;” at least, they wouldn’t think of themselves as “evil;” no one does.

But arrogant, certainly: so sure of their own unchallenged superiority that they feel they don’t have to listen to, much less heed, anyone else. And prisoners of their own egos, which would not allow them to admit ever, being wrong. And not only greedy, but able to rationalize their greed, if there were a profit to be made from their acts.

All that would congeal into deep, impenetrable ignorance. Not lack of education, nor stupidity, but ignorance, which, in this context, we might define as a refusal to acknowledge the truth that’s available to them.

I’d like to read that story. In a comic book, not in a newspaper.

RECOMMENDED READING: The Selfish Gene, by Richard Dawkins.

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.

Artwork TM and © DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

DENNIS O’NEIL: Two-Fers, part two

DENNIS O’NEIL: Two-Fers, part two

All hail to thee, Pulpus. Praised be thy name.

What? You don’t know that you’re Pulpus, god of popular culture? Well, if I were you I’d get next to Shrinkus, god of psychotherapy, and do something about your identity crisis. Meanwhile – there are some questions I’d like to ask you.

I assume that part of your duties involve helping the content, as well as the venues, of popular narratives evolve. Now let’s say – we’re just blue-skying here – that there’s a cheaply published vehicle for a certain kind of heroic fiction. Call the vehicle… oh; I dunno – “funnybooks” and the central characters of the fiction… lemme think for a second – “superheroes.” Let’s further suppose that for a long time a lot of people who fancied themselves “respectable” thought that the words “funnybook” were a synonym for illiterate tripe.

Okay, carry our supposition a step further and say you’ve done your work well and both funnybooks and superheroes have become – here’s that word again – respectable. Say that the funny book-inspired kind of fantasy melodrama has become a mainstay of the world of motion pictures. So – as part of the form’s evolution, wouldn’t you want to eliminate the elements that gave “respectable” people an excuse to excoriate these funnybooks? Creative Writing 101 stuff like an overdependence on coincidences, not establishing elements crucial to the narrative, not showing and/or explaining how the good guy accomplishes what he accomplishes…

Being, as you are, the god of popular culture, you would be aware that the funnybooks were occasionally guilty of these sins against what is generally considered good fiction writing, for a number of reasons, including extreme deadline pressure; a lack of sophistication on the part of the funnybook creators, some of whom began in the business when they were quite young; the fact that funnybooks are an extremely compressed kind of storytelling; the further fact that funnybooks developed erratically, without anyone connected with them trying to really understand what they are and how they might best be employed, at least not until pretty recently; and, finally, the disrespect given them even by people whose living and lifestyle – sometimes a very handsome lifestyle, indeed – depended on them, which meant that nobody associated the word “quality” with them, not for a long time, and so nobody tried to define what quality in this context might be.

That was a painfully long sentence. But you’re a god, you can handle it.

Anyway, what I guess I’m asking is, even if certain narrative glitches have often been a part of the funnybook world, may even have contributed to funnybook charm, should they be carried forward and exported to other media doing funnybook-type material? Or would evolution demand that they be eliminated?

Beg pardon? You want to know if I’ve been to the movies recently? Matter of fact, I have. But what has that got to do with anything?

Oh, yeah, I almost forgot…All hail and praise be thy name.

RECOMMENDED READING: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert M. Pirsig

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.