Thursday, May 6, 2010

Episode #125: Happy Birthday, Dennis O'Neil & Free Comic Book Day 2010!

This episode would have been the one where I highlight the 125th issue of both Action Comics and Superman. That will have to wait until next week, because this week happens to be the birthday of comic book writer Dennis "Denny" O'Neil. He was born on May 3, 1939 in St. Louis, Missouri. Denny was a prolific comic book writer and editor, who worked at Charlton, Marvel and, most famously, DC Comics. His most famous artistic collaborator was Neal Adams on both Batman and Green Lantern / Green Arrow.

Denny grew up in a Catholic household, and was exposed to comic books in the same way those of us of older generations were, spinner racks at local grocery stores. He graduated from St. Louis University early in the 1960's and joined the Navy. During his military service he was involved with the Cuban Missle Crisis. After his Navy service ended, he was hired as a reporter at a Cape Girardeau, Missouri newspaper.

His writing caught the attention of Roy Thomas, who worked for Mort Weisinger at DC before leaving for Marvel. Roy encouraged Denny to take the Marvel writing test, which for him was adding dialogue to four unlettered pages of Fantastic Four. Stan Lee hired him, and Denny wrote scripts for Millie The Model, Dr. Strange and Nick Fury in Strange Tales, and a few other titles.

After work at Marvel dried up, Denny worked for editor Dick Giordano at Charlton Comics. When Dick was hired by DC Comics, he brought some of his freelancers with him, including Denny. The DC offices bacame a contrast between its longtime staff, wearing shirts and ties, and the more informal hippie generation Dick brought over from Charlton. O'Neil worked as editor as well as writer on a variety of titles.

Denny's first DC script was for Beware The Creeper #1, a character Steve Ditko created. Among other titles Denny wrote for were Wonder Woman and Justice League Of America. He was involved in the controversial de-powering of Diana Prince, and introduced a new supporting charcter for Wonder Woman, the non-pc I Ching.

Denny had more success on the characters of Batman, Green Lantern and Green Arrow. He brought a sense of social relevance about the issues of the day to Green Lantern and Green Arrow. Denny had Oliver Queen lose his fortune and become a liberal, urban hero. He also contributed to the return of Batman to his dark detective roots. Ra's al Ghul was introduced during this time and became one of Batman's most formidable foes. Artist Neal Adams collaborated with Denny on all three characters.

O'Neil returned to Marvel in 1980, where he worked as a writer and editor. He wrote and edited Amazing Spider-Man and Daredevil, and also wrote for Epic Illustrated and a variety of other titles.

In 1986 Denny returned as writer and editor to DC, where he would eventually become group editor of the Batman titles. As a writer, he collaborated with artist Denys Cowan on The Question. I've heard some interviews with O'Neil where he stated that if he could do it over again, he would have created his own character, instead of changing the Question from creator Steve Ditko's conservative, objectivist origin. Denny felt, looking back, that changing a character so completely was not showing respect to the character as done by his creator.

Under Denny's editorial leadership, Batman had a number of extended storylines that stood out. One was Knightfall, from 1993, where the villain Bane would eventually break Batman's back. In 1998 and 1999 he edited the Cataclysm and No Man's Land storylines, where an earthquake destroyed Gotham City and the federal government sealed off the city from the rest of the country because of the devastation.

Denny wrote outside of comic books, creating a number of novels, short stories and scripts. He wrote the novelization to Knightfall, as well as to the movies Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. He would also write the DC Comics Guide To Writing Comics, which was not a write-like-me book, but laid out an excellent structure to develop one's own comic book scripting style.

In the late 1990's he taught comic book writing at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan.

Denny is the father of Lawrence O'Neil, who is an actor, writer, director and producer. He has retired for the most part, and is a member of the Disbursement Committee for the Hero Initiative, the charity which aids comic book professionals in need.

Denny O'Neil did have a short, but famous, run on Superman in the early 1970's. He wrote the stories for Superman issues 233 - 254, cover dated January 1971 - July 1972. After Mort Weisinger retired in 1970, Mort's lifelong friend and fellow DC editor Julius Schwartz was given the job of editing Superman. Julie, as he was called, made his mark on the Man of Steel as he did Batman. Not familiar with Superman, he relied on editor and assistant E. Nelson Bridwell (subject of episode #57), and his encyclopedic knowledge of the Man of Steel. Julie also called in his number one writer, Dennis O'Neil to write the stories. Denny was not excited at first, but Julie's charm wore him down. O'Neil had trouble relating to such a superpowered hero. He was more comfortable with more earthbound characters like Batman.

Julie wanted to do several things with Superman. First he wanted to reduce his superpowers so that it would not be as hard to challenge the Man of Steel. As Julie said in his now out of print autobiography Man Of Two Worlds, instead of balancing a planet on his fingertip, Superman would need to use both hands. Next, he would get rid of kryptonite. He thought it had been overused as a plot device. Then Julie wanted to get rid of all of the Superman robots. He thought it made it too easy for Superman and Clark Kent to be at the same place at the same time. Finally he would update Clark Kent's wardrobe. Julie did such a good job in Clark's closet that the magazine GQ published an article on Clark Kent's new look.

The biggest change for Clark Kent was his employment. Daily Planet owner Morgan Edge hired Clark Kent as a TV reproter for his station GBS. Sports reporter and ex-jock Steve Lombard quickly becme a thorn in Clark's side. Julie also added to the decor of Clark's apartment, a bust resembling his reitred friend, Mort Weisinger. In fact, when Clark would arrive home from work, he would toss his hat onto the bust's head and say, "Evening, Mort."

The "new look" Superman first appeared in Superman #233, January 1971, published on November 5, 1970. It contained 32 pages for 15 cents. The cover, showing Superman breaking chains that had been wrapped around his chest, was drawn by Neal Adams.The Dennis O'Neal story, Superman Breaks Loose, was pencilled by Curt Swan and inked by Murphy Anderson. It has been reprinted in a number of editions: Superman From the Thirties To The Seventies, Superman In The Seventies, Millennium Edition #58, Superman: The Greatest Stories Ever Told vol. II and Superman: Kryptonite Nevermore.

When an experimental kryptonite powered engine exploded, it caused a worldwide chain reaction that converted all Earthbound kryptonite to lead. The explosion also knocked down Superman. Later in the issue Clark left his job at the Daily Planet to become a reporter at TV station GBS.

As Superman chased a gang of terrorists, he happened to fly over the place where the explosion occurred. He briefly felt dizzy and his heat vision cut out. Superman assumed that it might have been some lingering kryptonite radiation. What the Man of Steel would not find out for several issues was that the blast opened an invisible portal from another dimension. An entity entered our world and created a form, resembling Superman, from the sand where the Man of Steel had been knocked down from the earlier explosion.

My first Superman issue written by Dennis O'Neal was not this issue, but Superman #240, July 1971, May 13, 1971. It also contained 32 pages for 15 cents. The cover was pencilled by Carmine Infantino and inked by Neal Adams, but it looked more like Neal's drawing style than Carmine's art. I remember my parents buying it for me when they were shopping one Saturday in nearby Leesburg, Florida. What caught my eye was the cover, which showed a group of people heckling Superman, who held a copy of the Daily Planet with the bold headline Superman Fails! The story, To Save A Superman was pencilled by Curt Swan and inked by Dick Giordano. I remember being impressed by the art. Superman looked familiar, but Girodano's inks seemed to update Curt's style. This story was reprinted in the hardcover Superman: Kryptonite Nevermore!

The story began with Superman responding to an apratment building fire. He rescued a mother and children trapped on one of the upper floors beyond the reach of the firemen, even though he had been slowly losing his superpowers. The building's sarcastic owner challenged Superman to try to save his building, but the fire had weakened the structure too much. A weakened Superman fell with the building on top of him. After he climbed out of the rubble a news photgrapher took his picture, which appeared on the front page of the Daily Planet, with the headline Superman Fails!

The Anti-Superman Gang saw it as an opportunity to take advantage of Superman's struggles. The next day, Superman walked the streets of Metropolis, which was an unusual scene in iteself. He was greeted by the heckles of a group of construction workers. A bitter Man of Steel heard an explosion a block away and fought the urge to ignore it. Unable to turn his back on his responsibilites, Superman flew to the scene of the explosion. A gang had driven a truck haling a piece of artillery to rob a bank. They shot the Man of Steel out of the sky. He had a weird vision of a golden duplicate flying overhead, sapping his powers. Superman awoke to the sound of the gang's laughter. He got the last laugh when he tore the safe door off of its hinges and wrecked the truck.

Back at the office, Clark Kent was greeted by an elderly Oriental gentleman, I Ching, who was a friend of Diana Prince, Wonder Woman. Not only did he know Clark's secret identity, but also his superpowered problem. A copy boy phoned in a tip to a member of the Anti-Superman Gang, who ordered him to find out I Ching's address.

That evening Clark Kent went to I Ching's apartment and changed into Superman. Using his mystic knowledge, I Ching called forth Superman's spirit. Before he could get any farther, some thugs break in. They quickly knocked him out, and one of them hit Superman in the head with the butt of his pistol. It raised a large bruise on the Man of Steel's forehead, but it awakened Superman from his trance. Without any powers, Superman defeated all three gangsters to conclude the issue.

The backup story was The Man Who Cheated Time, a story under the banner of The Fabulous World Of Krypton: Untold Stories Of Superman's Native Planet. It was written by Cary Bates and drawn by Mike Kaluta, but it will have to be the subject of another episode.

The Superman story would continue in the next two issues. I Ching would complete his treatment, by sending Superman's spirit to find the sand Superman duplicate and siphon off some of the powers it had drained from the Man of Steel. Superman would battle another dimensional being that had animated a paper mache Oriental demon and faced his sand duplicate. At the end of the story I Ching was able to help the two Supermen resolve their conflict. Superman declined the offer to siphon back the rest of his lost powers, and the being returned to his dimension. Superman remained less powerful for a while, but his power levels slowly creeped back up over time.

For a look at the comic books I got during Free Comic Book Day on Saturday, May 1, 2010, go to the blog My Pull List, issue #85: As of this post I have not yet written my reviews of the titles I listed, but look for Issue #86 in the next few days.

Next Episode: Action Comics #125 & Superman #125!

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Thanks for listening to the Superman Fan Podcast and, as always, thanks to Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster.

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