The Beat can confirm that legendary comics writer Denny O’Neil passed away last night at age 81. He had been in ill health for some time. He is survived by his son, Larry. The news was originally reported at Newsarama.
O’Neil is one of the most influential writers in comics history, his work on Batman and Green Lantern/Green Arrow with Neal Adams among the high points of ’70s superhero comics. These stories broke away from the mold of entertaining good vs evil yarns to tell stories with serious themes. Quaint as they seem now, stories about drug abuse and racism were new to comics then, and had a powerful influence on those who came after.
And Denny was a tireless champion for telling these kinds of stories. These panels from GL/GA still resonate as we confront again the blatant racism in our society.
Denny was best known for writing Batman — and creating the characters Ra’s al Ghul, Talia al Ghul, Leslie Thompkins, Azrael, and Richard Dragon along the way. In many ways, it was THE Batman, darker and more obsessive — a change from the dayglo pop of the Batman TV show. It has influenced every version of the character since, from Frank Miller to Christopher Nolan.
At Marvel, Denny hired and mentored a young Frank Miller, giving him the reins to write and draw Daredevil. Later he returned to DC, editing the Bat-books from 1986-2000. After retirement, he pursued a busy career as a teacher, including teaching writing for the comics at the School of Visual Arts.
Among his other works, The Question, with Denys Cowan, Superman vs Muhammad Ali, Spider-Man at Marvel and so much more. His body of work is unsurpassed in superhero comics.
I know other obituaries about Denny O’Neil will talk about this extraordinary work, and they should. I can only talk about Denny the man, always seen in his signature vest and turtleneck. It was his own superhero costume. He was a writer, novelist, teacher, mentor, sponsor, father, husband, activist, visionary…whatever noun you have for trying to make things better, Denny was it. He embodied the spirit of ’60s activism and social change, and I don’t know anyone who was more passionate about civil rights and the fight for racial justice in this country.
Creatively, Denny O’Neil mentored so many people, and taught them about writing, storytelling, finding the heart of the narrative, economy of dialog. My FB feed is overflowing with mentions of his kindness and wisdom. Denny was that rare real-life legend who lived up to the hype.
While we’re all processing this, I’ll quote one tribute from Denny’s collaborator on Moon Knight, Bill Sienkiewicz:
The great Denny O’neil has passed away.
Late last night. QUIETLY, peacefully, at home, with home health care nurse holding his hand.
He was a kind man with an acerbic edge, a giving soul, wickedly funny, and an incredibly talented writer who penned some of the greatest comic stories ever told.
He was also my first comic book editor on Moon Knight, which, as a fan of his work, made me up my game. More, he took time out of work life to become a friend, one who generously gave of his personal time to talk from experience and of demons, to a young farm kid from New Jersey about the path of self-destruction farm kid was heading down because of farm kid’s drinking. Not many folks will step up like that. Denny did, and I will be forever grateful.
He helped make me a better professional, and better artist and storyteller, a better person, and to take what i do very seriously as a responsibility. Of course, in doing so, he also helped create a monster who butted heads with him about any number of creative issues on MK, but in the end , he was a dear friend, a wonderful colleague and mentor. I learned so very much from him.
You will be missed, my friend. Rest in Peace.
And Paul Levitz:
Denny’s gone, brought social conscience to comics. He was a journalist at heart, and knew his obit would have Batman in the lede, but I think he’d have been prouder of this way of looking at his life. Not that he was the first, much less the only one, but damn it he was the loudest. Not personally, he wasn’t a shouter. But the stories he told and edited screamed for justice for the causes that mattered to him. From GREEN LANTERN/GREEN ARROW to SEDUCTION OF THE GUN, and in subtle moments as well as the loud ones, he set the standard for giving a damn.
He was a teacher, maybe the best of his generation teaching writing and editing in comics. He taught me copy editing, and how to parse my dialogue for comics to be effective. His disciples filled the field.
He was the most economical of writers, communicating with his collaborators in the briefest of art directions but getting great work from them, offering tight dialogue that was precisely on point.
He was a philosopher, searching for ways to make the world better…even exploring how a new religion might be necessary for a time when it was no longer about man mastering the Earth, but learning to live in harmony with it.
And having buried the lede, he made Batman what he is, writing the stories and editing others that set the tone for the post-camp Dark Knight on through everything that Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan leaned on.
Denny got a second lease on life from his marriage to MariFran, and they shared amazing years until her passing. Once she was gone, it was only a matter of time until he followed.
This is the second of my poker buddies to cash in their chips in about a month. He lived a full life, was shocked at the recognition he achieved, and leaves behind his son Larry, with whom he shared many personal and professional joys.
But most of all, and ever so relevant at a moment like this, he taught us that we could…no, we should…damn it, we must use our podiums as writers, editors and teachers to push the world to become a better, more just place.
We’ll have more reactions and tributes as they come in.
Further reading: Denny on his favorite Batman stories.
Denny interviewed by Mark Askwith at the 2019 Toronto Comicon: