Remembering Denny O’Neil: 10 Accomplishments of the Legend

by Drew Kiess

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In 1969, Dennis “Denny” O’Neil took over writing Detective Comics, who’s leading character was a fledgling relic from a comic book era that was on its last legs. That character, of course, was none other than Batman. Following the cancellation of the television series two years earlier, comics featuring Batman were not in high demand and the books were, as they were before the TV series, on the verge of going the way of the dodo. O’Neil, with artist Neal Adams, changed that. Detective Comics #395 was published in November of ’69 and the groundwork was laid for the birth of the Bronze Age of comics, an era in which O’Neil left a lasting mark on not just one, but both of the major publishing houses.

As both editor and writer, O’Neil has made an indelible mark on characters such as Professor Xavier, Daredevil, Green Arrow, and Superman, as well as the Caped Crusader. There would be no way to fully appreciate how O’Neil defined the Silver Age, but below you will find 10 highlights in no particular order that merely scratch the surface.

10. Hiring Frank Miller to write Daredevil

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O’Neil took over as editor for Marvel in 1980. One of the books he oversaw was another fledgling comic, Daredevil, which was being written by Roger McKenzie and drawn by Frank Miller. O’Neil fired McKenzie and made Miller the sole role of writer, after having worked with Miller during a brief stint on The Amazing Spider-Man. During Miller’s hiatus from Daredevil, where he wrote, among other projects, The Dark Knight Returns, O’Neil took over and created Lady Deathstrike.

9. Creation of the League of Assassins

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Wanting to add a more cerebral villain, perhaps in part to combat the colorfulness of the still fresh TV series, editor Julius Schwartz developed a concept for a villain and named him Ra’s al Ghul. From his rough concept, O’Neil expanded the world and created a DC Comics staple in The League of Assassins, which has played a multimedia role in the Batman legacy. From Grant Morrison to Christopher Nolan, this organization has become fodder from some of Batman’s greatest stories.

8. Snowbirds Don’t Fly

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With the neutering of the Comics Code Authority in 1971 following a Stan Lee story with a subtle anti-drug message, O’Neil and Adams decided to take it a step further. Snowbirds Don’t Fly featured Green Arrow’s sidekick Speedy struggling with a heroin addiction, which as even displayed on the cover. It was a major step forward in ending the heavy censorship of comic books.

7. No Evil Shall Escape My Sight!

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One year earlier in the same book, O’Neil had the hard travelling heroes take a road trip in which Green Arrow taught Green Lantern about racial unrest and disparity in American culture. The themes discussed in this book in 1970 seem disappointingly familiar today.

6. Azrael

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Denny O’Neil created Azrael in 1992 as part of the lead-up to Knightfall. O’Neil oversaw the Knightfall event as editor, which saw Azrael take over as Batman for the broken Bruce Wayne.

5. John Stewart Green Lantern

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In 1972, O’Neil created John Stewart, who became the third Green Lantern of Earth and DC’s first black superhero. Stewart would later go on to become most well known as Green Lantern through the Justice League animated series, and is still widely considered the fan favorite Green Lantern. O’Neil also fought back against Schwartz’s attempts to give him a more “black sounding” name.

4. Transformers

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In the early 80’s, O’Neil was brought in by Hasbro as part of a team to create a new line of transforming toys. His most notable contribution to this venture was the naming of Optimus Prime.

3. Teaching

O’Neil taught in the late 90s at the School of Visuals Arts. Gerard Way (yes, that Gerard Way), who would later run Young Animal DC, was among the many alumni of that era. O’Neil however was an all-time great mentor, ushering in talents such as Frank Miller, Dan Jurgens, and Chuck Dixon.

2. Superman vs Muhammed Ali

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Perhaps it’s simply a time capsule of a lost era, but this 1978 issue written by O’Neil is easily one of the most recognizable events in the Man of Steel’s history. For the record, Ali won, but threw Clark a bone anyways by telling him in the closing panel “WE are the greatest!”

1. Death in the Family

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As Batman editor, O’Neil came up for the concept behind Jim Starlin’s A Death in the Family. Inspired by an SNL segment featuring Eddie Murphy asking viewers to call in to determine the fate of a lobster, O’Neil allowed readers to call in to determine whether or not Jason Todd would survive an attack from the Joker. Todd was far from a fan favorite, but the vote came down to the wire. By a margin of only 72, it was determined that Todd would not survive, a decision which still has implications on Batman’s stories to this day.

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