In Memoriam – Dennis O’Neil (May 1939 – June 2020)

Article by Steve J. Ray

This is not an article I ever wanted to write, but it’s one that I absolutely had to. It is with a heavy heart that must speak about the loss of one of my idols, and the man responsible for everything I do on this website, and many others. Dennis O’Neil, lovingly known to many as Denny, has passed away, aged 81.

I’m not ashamed to say that my heart broke when I heard the news, and I was reduced to tears. Anyone who really knows me will understand why.

I have been writing for Dark Knight News for just over three years, as Editor-In-chief for 15 months of that time. I own and run my own site, Fantastic Universes, which has been going for two years. Before that I reviewed comics for the late, lamented U.K. fan site Liberation Frequency for five years, and I have been a comics fan almost my entire life. None of that could have happened, and my life would be completely different, if not for Dennis O’Neil.

When I’m invited onto podcasts, and in interviews on other amazing websites, I’ve frequently gone on record to state why I love Batman, and which comic made me a fan in the first place.

The book in question is Detective Comics #457, “There’s No Hope In Crime Alley”, which was written by Denny O’Neil. This issue may not be regarded as one of his finest, it wasn’t his first, and – thank goodness – it wasn’t even close to being his last. So, why is it so important to me?

Picture London in the 1970s. Imagine a small ground-floor apartment in the suburbs, and a young, awkward, solitary 8 year old boy. Imagine being an only child who spent a lot of time on his own, due to both parents needing to work various jobs, just to keep us all fed and warm. Imagine an old black and white TV, where he would watch Doctor Who, Star Trek, Thunderbirds, and the thrilling adventures of Batman, starring Adam West and Burt Ward.

That boy was me.

I wasn’t sporty, so I’d spend hours reading old British black & white anthology comics, that reprinted Stan Lee and Steve Ditko Spider-Man strips, alongside Dick Sprang and Sheldon Moldoff Batman stories. Oh… those comics. All the biff, bang and ka-pow of the TV show, plus robots, aliens, strange costumes and giant typewriters. Those were my first introduction to the Caped Crusader.

Then, one year, some cousins came over from Canada, bringing with them some american comics. These were smaller than the kind I was used to, frequently only contained one, long story, and – Holy guacamole – they were in color! One of them was Detective #457, the comic that changed my entire life.

This story showed me why Batman dressed the way he did, and why he fought crime. For a child who did have parents, but spent a lot of time alone, seeing Bruce Wayne’s story really hit home. Here was a boy who had no parents at all, because they’d been taken from him, right in front of his eyes. The comic came out in 1976, but I didn’t get it ’til 1978, when I was 8 years old… roughly the same age as Bruce was, when all sense left his life.

With a 20 page story Dennis O’Neil scared me, thrilled me, entertained and educated me. His words, and the dark, spooky art (certainly in comparison to the whimsical Batman I’d known beforehand) made me a comics, and Batman fan, forever. Without Denny, or ‘Tec 457, I may not have kept reading comics at all, I wouldn’t have wanted to collect them, or review them, talk about them in podcasts or share my love for them with anyone who’d listen. I wouldn’t be contributing to this website, attending conventions, meeting my heroes or writing this article.

I wouldn’t be the person I am today.

I thank you, Denny… though my long suffering, comics-widow wife probably doesn’t.

Not only was Dennis O’Neil an incredible writer and storyteller, his legacy, the works he created, and the impact he’s had on the medium cannot be overstated. His contributions to Charlton, DC Comics, and their Marvel-ous competition, is truly iconic.

Green Lantern/Green Arrow

The Shadow

The Question

Batman

Detective Comics

Doctor Strange

Daredevil

X-Men – with Batman partner, Neal Adams

Justice League

Wonder Woman

The Brave & The Bold… and so many more.

Denny brought back Professor X and Two-Face, he created John Stewart – Green Lantern – Leslie Thompkins, Ra’s Al Ghul, Talia and many others. He was instrumental in returning the Dark Knight to his street level, noir roots; taking away all the camp, glitzy, cheesy sci-fi elements of the 50s and early 60s. He introduced and commented on social issues; such as drug addiction, racism and homelessness. He educated as he entertained, and the comics of today would’t exist without him.

He is, in my heart and mind, the greatest Batman writer/editor of all time. He was group editor of the Batman books from 1986 – 2000, through what many consider the Dark Knight’s greatest era. He is as important to the legend of the Batman as Bob Kane and Bill Finger.

He created Batman: Legends of The Dark Knight, writing the first story arc, “Shaman.” His scripts for the comics adaptations of Batman Forever and Batman & Robin could fool fans that haven’t seen the films, into thinking they’re masterpieces of cinema.

He co-ordinated mammoth events like “Knightfall”, “Cataclysm”, “Contagion”, “Legacy” and “No Man’s Land.” He created Jean-Paul Valley, Azrael, the man who would take over as Batman when Bruce’s back was broken by Bane. While Azrael guarded Gotham, and Bruce travelled the world, recovering from his wounds and attempting to rescue a kidnapped friend, other writers wrote the adventures of Az-Bat, while Denny catalogued the travels, trials, and tribulations of Bruce Wayne.

As Batman group editor he oversaw the entire “Death In The Family” arc, where Jason Todd – the second Robin – was murdered by the Joker.

He adapted Knightfall as a novel, and also wrote the movie novelisations of Chris Nolan’s Batman Begins, and The Dark Knight.

Denny’s Ra’s Al Ghul stories, and “There’s No Hope In Crime Alley”, were adapted for the legendary Batman: The Animated Series, and the man himself, his character and demeanour, were used to create the “villain” The Perfesser, in several issues of the Batman: TAS inspired Batman Adventures comics. This wonderful character is part of a trio of baddies that also includes Mastermind, (based on comics editor Mike Carlin) and Mr. Nice (writer and editor Archie Goodwin).

Not only has his work changed my life, but he’s revered by fans and fellow creators all over the world, some of whom have contributed thoughts and messages, here and across social media:

Derek McNeil – Writer for DC Comics News:

The main thing Dennis O’Neil wrote that affected me, was a kids book titled “The Super Comics.” I got this as a kid, and it really opened my eyes to the wider world of comics, beyond the marvel and DC superhero stuff I was reading at the time.

His Question series was also important to me. I read “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” simply it was recommended in the letters page, and that book got me interested in Philosophy. sending me down the path to a Philosophy degree.

Chris Foti  – Writer for Dark Knight News:

A lot of people think of Frank Miller when it comes to taking Batman back to his darker roots, but it was Denny O’Neil that did it first. He co-created Ra’s and Talia Al Ghul, and Leslie Thompkins. He completely revitalized the Joker and Two-Face. He was in charge of the death of Jason Todd.

Leaving the realm of Batman, he breathed new life into Green Arrow and Green Lantern. Wrote Superman vs Muhammad Ali. Leaving even DC, at Marvel he created Madame Web, Hydro-Man, Obadiah Stane, Lady Deathstrike and he friggin’ NAMED Optimus Prime!

To say he had an impact not only on Batman, but the comic book industry, is an understatement and he will be missed. If there was a Mt. Rushmore for Batman writers, I don’t see how Dennis O’Neil wouldn’t make the cut.

Eric Lee – Writer for Dark Knight News and Fantastic Universes:

Denny O’Neil brought some amazing classic Batman stories and characters to life. Under his pen, he brought the Dark Knight out of the campy 60’s and back into his more noir and gritty roots. O’Neil wrote and edited some of the most well-renowned Batman stories. His creativity will be missed.

Kendra Hale – writer for Dark Knight News, Fantastic Universes and Earth 9 DC / podcast host on the DC Comics News Network:

A master scribe. My introduction to Denny was through his books on creating comics. His vision moved me to look into other series he touched and brought to life with the power of story. His prolific run on The Question is hands down my favorite version of the character, and his work on the Batman books is instantly recognizable. He was able to bring my love for characters who don’t see enough light, like Deadman, and made them pinnacles of illumination. A man who inspired so many and will be deeply missed.

Max Byrne – Writer for Dark Knight News, Fantastic Universes, Earth 9 DC and DC World / Podcast host for the Comics In Motion network:

Legend is an overused word, but it’s not enough to describe Dennis O’Neil.

Adam Poncharoensub – Senior writer for Dark Knight News:

An incredibly important part of comic book history. He will definitely be remembered for everything he contributed over his accomplished lifetime.

Brad Filicky – Writer for DC Comics News and fantastic Universes / host for the DC Comics News Podcast Network:

This is such a blow to the comics community.

Matthew B. Lloyd – Senior writer and Editor for DC Comics News:

Denny O’Neil was one of the most important creators of his generation and indeed the history of comics. His work on Batman and Green Arrow alone ensures his place in the pantheon of the best. Denny also worked on numerous additional characters. His impact cannot be overstated.

Seth Singleton – Writer for DC Comics News and Storyteller, podcast host on the DC Comics News Network:

Denny took the baton from Bill Finger and sprinted. The result redefined Batman, Joker, and introduced the legendary Ra’s Al Ghul. He accomplished the work of many creators’ lifetimes, because he pursued original stories.

Tony Farina – Writer for DC Comics News and Fantastic Universes, Podcast host for the Comics In Motion Podcast Network:

My whole childhood is defined by Denny. I feel like he helped raise me.

I’m right with you there, Tony.

Bryant Lucas – Writer for Dark Knight News:

This is blow. I can’t overstate just how important Dennis O’Neil was to the comic book world. During the 70s he revolutionized DC – especially Batman. Without O’Neil, Batman would still most likely be a joke – a punchline from the 1960’s TV show. O’Neil brought him back to the shadows.

Denny also created the watchtower, the Justice League’s satellite base. He ushered in the Satellite Years, which are still arguably the most influential, and iconic period of the Justice League franchise.

O’Neil’s most powerful work though was his time on Green Lantern/Green Arrow. O’Neil tackled the pressing social issues of the day: racism, environmentalism, and addiction just to name a few. He also created John Stewart: the first black Green Lantern. Thanks to O’Neil, comics not only grew up, but also grew a conscience.

Godspeed Mr. O’Neil. You were, and always will be, a legend. Our love, and condolences to your family, friends, and everyone who knew or worked with you.

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Steve J Ray

Dad/husband, writer/artist, amateur chef and Bat-Fan Extraordinaire. Animal lover and fan of all things comic-book and sci-fi related. His wife thinks that he owns too many comics, books, and movies. He thinks this is an oxymoron.