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Biographies of the Stars

Interview with Denny O'Neil (1995)

COMIC-ART.COM: Denny, to begin. What year did you start scripting Batman? Was it 1968?

DENNY: Oh, God. It was the year that the TV show went off, so I guess that would have been '68, yeah.

COMIC-ART.COM: Were you still writing it while the show was on, or...?

DENNY: No, no. It was a kind of causitive effect there. I think I'd been offered it while the show was on, and I didn't think I could do that kind of material, so I did Green Lantern instead for a while. And after the show went off, they knew that camp was a dead item and I had the impression they were foundering a little bit, so I was offered it again, with a kind of blank slate and that seemed like that was worth doing, so I mean the brilliant idea I had was simply to take it back to its origins.

COMIC-ART.COM: That was your inspiration?

DENNY: Yeah, look at the character and see...There's a fancy word, an Aristotelian word called energia that I use in my classes. It means the ideas that are inherent but undeveloped in a given premise. Well, you know, inherent in Batman is obsession and creature of the night, sort of an isolated, single-minded determination to bring about justice and also inherent is the idea of the city as a dark, forbidding gothic place, and that was all there, it just hadn't been used for a lot of years. So that's what we did. We just took the character kind of back to its psychological roots and proceeded from there.

COMIC-ART.COM: Had you seen any of the Golden Age Batman stuff from the thirties and forties?

DENNY: Well, there wasn't much from the thirties. Batman came along in 1939, May of 1939, so, yeah, I must have seen some of it. I mean I was, though if you look at the stuff, Batman started off as kind of the lone avenger but he lightened up a lot. Within a year, Robin was there. That really surprised me when I researched it a few years ago.

COMIC-ART.COM: Yeah, that's true, and you know I...

DENNY: He didn't stay the dark creature of the night anywhere near as long as I had thought it did.

COMIC-ART.COM: Well, do you prefer Batman with or without Robin?

DENNY: Oh, once upon a time I would have said without. But I have come gradually around to the idea that Robin serves a couple of very valuable functions, story functions, so Robin used judiciously, and Robin used correctly, and of course by correctly I mean my way, and somebody else would mean something very different by that. But as long as it remains a mentor/master relationship and it doesn't degenerate into too much sentiment, I think Robin is a valuable addition to the mythos, for no other reason that Batman is so dark, inherently, that it's useful to have a, something lighter in the mix.

COMIC-ART.COM: To keep the character from being too one-note?

DENNY: Yeah. And to keep the stories from being too grim.

COMIC-ART.COM: Right, right. Okay, looking back to the whole run of the character back to his origins, who are your favorite Batman writers?

DENNY: Hmm, gee. That's almost not fair. Bill Finger, of course, who was, somebody, I don't remember who, remarked, probably the first, first writer who understood what writing for comics was about, and Moench, Dixon and Grant are all very good. I mean I've emplying Grant for eight years. Miller's very limited run on Batman: Year One is certainly very memorable, and Alan Moore's very brief foray into the character was very good. Allen Brennert's, he doesn't do comics anymore, I remember his stories were good.

COMIC-ART.COM: Did you like Archie Goodwin's run on Detective?

DENNY: Oh yeah, yeah. That's one I'm forgetting. Archie is favorite editor when I'm wearing my writer's hat, and I thought he had a very, very valid and interesting take on the character.

COMIC-ART.COM: Yeah, it seemed like that whole run of stuff he did, even though it was short, it was real solid.

DENNY: Yeah.

COMIC-ART.COM: What about artists? Who are your favorite Batman artists?

DENNY: Well, because I grew up with Dick Sprang, you always love most the writer/artist team that was doing the character when you first loved the character, so, I think it must have been Dick Sprang and Jerry Robinson when I first started, and apart from that, I wouldn't want to pick one.

COMIC-ART.COM: Well, let me ask you, when you were working with Neal Adams, did Neal contribute much to the stories as far as plot ideas or things like that?

DENNY: I have to answer this very carefully. I don't recall him contributing anything, I mean, except some exceptional artwork. But people often ask me how it is to work with Neal Adams and I don't know. I never worked with Neal Adams. I wrote scripts, I turned them in. X time passed and there was something published. We never sat down to talk over stories. Not once that I can recall.

COMIC-ART.COM: Well, it really seemed on the time that you two were working together that your scripts dovetailed really well with his art.

DENNY: It's weird phenomenon that I don't understand. Neal and I are just absolutely different people. I don't think there's a single thing we agree on. But, in doing the work somehow, probably on some preconscious level we were in perfect synch, at least for a while. Yeah, I mean, it was always a delight for me to pick up the published book, because what he gave me always exceeded what had been in my head when I was writing the script. And his real contribution, I think, is in his visual interpretation of Batman. I think everybody after Neal has been influenced by it. And he once explained it to me, as that he drew him as though he were a shark, like if a shark is lying in the bottom of the boat, you have every reason to believe it's dead, you're still not going to get too close, because it might just have enough life left to chew your leg off. That, and the artistic liberties he took with the costume, to, you know, to interpret the character to give it, to take the psychology and give it a visual form. That was all wonderful stuff. Occasionally he did a piece of storytelling that was exceptional. One that I always use as an example in class is in my favorite Batman story, "Bow From the Grave", where I had a scene where a giant is got a kid and explaining to the kid: `Well, you saw me commit the murder and I've got to kill you and I'm sorry. I love you but you've got to die.' And then he throws the kid off a tower and Batman swings down and saves the kid, swings up and confronts the killer. When I wrote it I thought the swinging down and catching the kid would be the big scene on the page. That was the big action. And Neal realized that that was routine. The big moment was the confront--, the one panel two-shot of the giant and the kid. That's the emotional heart of the story, so he gave that a lot more room and emphasis than anything else. It was an absolutely brilliant interpretation of my own script that I didn't see. So, he did that kind of occasionally that really knocked me out and I think it was really very, very good comic book storytelling.

COMIC-ART.COM: I think Neal was also good at the kind of nuts and bolts aspects of the character as far as how he would actually engineer one of his fantastic escapes. Neal made it seem real.

DENNY: Yeah, well Neal, there's a word that Spanish-American novelists use: Magic Realism. And I think that describes Neal's artwork. He gave the illustion that no matter how fantastic the material was, that this is solid, this exists.

COMIC-ART.COM: Yeah, that's true. That's true. Well, Denny, how long have you been the editor on Batman now?

DENNY: Oh, I think just about ten years.

COMIC-ART.COM: In the last six years what do you think are the major changes that have occured in the character. I'm familiar with the Knightfall and Knightsend storyline. But aside from that, what do you think are the major changes?

DENNY: Well, we've greatly increased the supporting cast. We have all those cops and city employees who were mostly created by other people. We have, I think, really re-defined in a very good way, Robin. Robin is really a good, solid, interesting character. We, even if he wasn't associate with Batman, Robin would be one of the most popular DC characters, added little things like Harold. Oh, and we've made Gotham City a real place. We have, you know, at one point I commissioned some drawings from the guy who designed the first movie, Anton Furst, and we hand those out to artists when they come on the book, and say, `Take your visual cue from this.' This is what the place looks like. And most of them have been very good about sticking with the visual style that Anton established, so Gotham City is really a recognizable place now instead of a bunch of generic tall buildings as it once was.

COMIC-ART.COM: Denny, would it be possible to get copies of one or two of Furst's drawings to run with the piece?

DENNY: Oh, yeah, sure. Call Jordan Gorfinkel and...

COMIC-ART.COM: Jordan Gorfinkel?

DENNY: Yeah. What is his extension? 5573.

COMIC-ART.COM: 5573. Okay, thanks. Okay, well let me end with a question I think, is, might be a tough one, but I think it needs to be answered. What is it about Batman in particular that's just made him so enduringly popular?

DENNY: Yeah, it is tough and any answer I have would be a guess. I think that he speaks to the concerns and preoccupations of the audience. He is, by definition, a dark character. He was born in tragedy, and the engine that drives him is the death of his parents, you know, like when that happens when you're eight years old, that is one of the great horrible fears realized. He's also very urban, and I think that the dynamic works something like this. You have a character who is, looks like a devil. You, in the middle ages, look at those paintings of demons and devils and they're guys with batwings and horns. So, I don't think Bill and Bob Kane intended this, but what they've succeeded in doing is taking a really dark archetype and then standing it on its head, and sort of coopting this figure to the service...(TAPE SIDE A ENDS/BEGIN SIDE B)...You have some, a tacit recognition of something that is dark and scary, but then it's put to the use of the common good, so in the end Batman is a very reassuring character. It's sort of like confronting everything that's dark and ugly in our human nature and in modern life, which is essentially city life, but then delivering the reassuring message that, yeah, despite how scary this is, ultimately everything is going to turn out all right, that these things can be ultimately used for good, even though they seem evil. So, it's, he's a character, unlike Superman, he's a very nighttime character. He's a very dark and scary character, and I think that pretty much provides a, boy, I'm as articulate as that potted plant over there this morning, I think that the world is pretty pessimistic and we're scared of a lot of things. I think Batman reflects that fear, while, at the same time, as I said, offering some hope that courage and basic decency, and especially reverence for human life, will ultimately prevail. One of the things that Knightfall was about was the old-fashioned concept of hero versus what we thought of as the new take on heroes. We looked around and saw that heroes were guys who seemed to be capable of committing wholesale slaughter and making wisecracks about it. That does not square at all with what my idea of a hero is, and I wondered if my ideas, and the ideas of my co-workers were not like hopelessly outdated. So, part of what Knightfall was about was an attempt to explore that question rather than ignore it. We took a character who had no reverence for human life and put him in the Bat-costume. I don't know what we would have done if the response to Azrael had been overwhelmingly positive.

COMIC-ART.COM: If the fans had demanded it, would you have kept him as the regular Batman?

DENNY: Not as long as I was editor. Absolutely not.

COMIC-ART.COM: Was that sort of a philosophical decision?

DENNY: Well, it was, you know, there, I may be a whore, but I'm not a cheap whore. There are lines I won't cross, and one of the lines is the, I'm not going to promote as hero a character who is callous and vicious. There's always been a few things that I would not do in comics or anywhere else and that's one of them. I could not, I don't think I could write or edit The Punisher.

COMIC-ART.COM: Yet, in that Punisher/Batman crossover you were able to contrast the two characters.

DENNY: Yeah, and of the two, Punisher was a hell of a lot more fun to write in that. But I wasn't treating him as a hero, except in the broad definition of hero is, the character who brings about the story's resolution, in which case it's better to use the word protagonist.

COMIC-ART.COM: Yeah. Okay. Denny, before I go, let's just touch briefly on your Batman novel. How did that come about?

DENNY: Well, we had conceived of the idea of Knightfall and we had done the Azrael miniseries and the Vengeance of Bane one-shot and had all this stuff in place to do this seventy-one issue stunt, then we found out that the Superman guys were doing something very similar. We found that out too late to change our plans. One of the things that the Superman guys were doing was thinking about a novelization of this material. Chantal D'Aulnis and her people sold the idea to Bantam Books, so Roger got started on his novelization and when it was almost finished Charlie Kochman came to me with the proposal of doing the same thing for Knightfall and Charlie is an incredibly persuasive guy. And I thought: This is just not possible. I have a day job. And I'm 55 years old and you're asking for me to write a hundred thousand words in my spare time in about five months. I can't do that. I know what my limits are. But Charlie persisted and I finally went to my wife and said, you have, we have been married now about seven years. I said, `You have never lived with me when I was writing a novel. I have it on good authority that I become a selfish, narcissistic monster that nobody wants to get within ten yards of. And she said, yeah, that's probably true. Still, if somebody else does it, you'll hate yourself. So, we finally decided that, although I didn't think I could do this, I was going to try and with, enormous help from Charlie, and from Mary Frann, we got through it. It was the toughest thing I've ever done. In fact that whole year was really incredibly interesting and incredibly difficult. I was given a great gift, the gift to tell a very elaborate story in three different media at once. And I don't think any storyteller in history has been able to do that, because we were also, at the same time I was writing the novel, editing the comics, writing some of the comics, and we were working on the BBC radio adaptation of the same material.

COMIC-ART.COM: Will that stuff be aired in the states?

DENNY: You can buy it. It's, Warner's made it available on tape, and it's damn good. There's a guy named Dirk Bags, who's one of the neatest guys I've ever met, who completely understood what we were doing, was on the phone constantly, was constantly sending us audition tapes so we could you know approve the actors that he had chosen for the roles, except for the woman who plays Chandra (?), we auditioned her by telephone, transatlantic phone, from my office, listened to her voice and said, yeah, yeah, she sounds right for Chandra. Alan Grant actually has a part in it. He has about two lines. Dirk is an incredible guy who radiates energy and charm and humor and really, the same as Allen Burnett in doing the Fox cartoon adaptation, really understood what the character was about and what the story was about. So, anyway the novel was Bantam deciding that since Superman had done well, it looked like it was going to do well, that there was a chance that, as I said Batman would also become a best seller. And Charlie flattered me, and between Charlie and Mary Frann, they convinced me that I was the one to write it and that they would give me all the support that I needed, which they did. The only serious problem we had apart from the fact that I did become a selfish, narcissistic monster for five months, was in the middle of it, we were in a serious car crash on Christmas Eve, Mary and I. I managed to run a car into a wall at sixty miles an hour and flip it three times.

COMIC-ART.COM: My God, were you badly hurt?

DENNY: Yeah, we were pretty banged up. And I was working on a little Macintosh laptop, because I also knew, when I undertook to write the novel, that my job requires travel, and so a lot of that book got written in hotel rooms. Anyway, the car was demolished and we were banged up, but the computer survived, and I was able, I had to take two weeks off for medical reasons but I was able to, you know, continue, and finish it. The downside was that Charlie and I were working on the final edit like virtually the last possible second before it had to go to the typesetter. Fifteen minutes before it had to go to the typesetter he called me and asked for one more change in the afterword.


DENNY: We were working that close, but we did get it done. I just sent the gallies for the paperback to the printer the other day.

COMIC-ART.COM: How did the hardback sell?

DENNY: I don't know. It's information I would rather not have. It made several best-seller lists, not the New York Times, but it made the Wall Street Journal's list for three weeks, and it made both the Walden's and Dalton's private best seller lists for seven or eight weeks. I will see the royalty statements eventually. But, although I got a pretty decent advance, it was not a project I did for money, because if I had spent the same time and effort writing comics I would have done much better financially. It was, you know, one of those mountains that you feel you have to climb, and of course, I'd always, since the sixties, I'd wanted to write a Batman novel and realized I would probably never get a better chance to do it.

COMIC-ART.COM: You did something like that in the comics didn't you. Didn't you, wasn't there a Batman story with text and illos?

DENNY: Yeah, there were, I think, three of them.

COMIC-ART.COM: Yeah, you did that with Marshall Rogers.

DENNY: Yeah, that was the first one. That was Julie Schwartz's idea. I did a later one with Mike Gold, and I did a Robin text story for Secret Origins. I don't even remember who the editor was on that. And I've done a fair amount of, you know, I've written other novels.

COMIC-ART.COM: How many novels have you written, Denny?

DENNY: Oh, let me see, one, two, three.

COMIC-ART.COM: And what were they?

DENNY: One was published as Bite of the Monster. That was science fiction. One was, I am embarassed to recite this title, but I wrote, Richard Dragon, Master of Kung Fu, which I co-wrote with a science writer I was hanging out with at the time, and then Knightfall. It generated in me a desire to write more novels.

COMIC-ART.COM: Well, I hope you do.

DENNY: Yeah, I'm thinking, you know, like forty years ago I started out to be a writer, and I have been that, but most of my work has been collaborative, and there is a satisfaction of standing or falling on your own merit. I, however, will not re-read Knightfall. I, with the gallies Mary Frann read the novel, and I've looked at, and a little bit, re-wrote the introduction and the afterword, but I don't want to see that thing for at least five years. I know that every mistake I made will leap out of the page and poke me in the eye.

COMIC-ART.COM: Well, in general, do you find it painful to look at old work?

DENNY: Yeah, in general, I don't do it. Old work or new work. It's one of my foibles that I tend to avoid looking at published work, and it's an act of cowardice. I know it will generally be a painful experience. So, if there's a need to go back and look at something for continuity reasons, yeah, of course I'm not that crazy about it. I'll do it. But normally, I don't look at published work. Sam Hamm, who wrote the first Batman movie, about four years ago, when I was in the middle of a mini-writer's block, he said, you have, and part of the writer's block was a conviction that the story was going to get murdered after it leaves my hands, which is what happens to screenwriters constantly, and he said, `You have a right to tell your story as well as you possibly can, and then you have to walk away from it. After that, it's not yours. Whether it ends up being brilliant or awful, that has nothing to do with you, beyond that first script.' And that seemed like very good advice. It got me past that writer's block and I've kind of adhered to it ever since. I also don't look at the stuff I've written for television unless I'm forced to. I don't look at my appearances on television anymore because I see the little roll of fat around my waist, or the hair that is sticking up, or, gee, it looks like you could pack all of our belongings into those bags under my eyes, so I just spare myself that pain.

COMIC-ART.COM: Well, one more question before I go. As an editor, how long is your typical work week.

DENNY: Oh, well, theoretically, we work from ten till six or so, but it's impossible to say. One of the good things about being an editor is: there's nothing typical about it. I can work as few as thirty-five hours or as many as seventy. It just depends on what needs doing. There's a lot of travel involved. There's a fair amount of out of the office stuff, like yesterday, four of us got into a car and went over to New Jersey to work with a sculptor who is doing a Joker statue.

COMIC-ART.COM: That actually sounds kind of interesting.

DENNY: Yeah, well, I think about what I've been doing the last thirty years and I don't know of any of my contemporaries, anybody that I've grown up with that have had a life anywhere near as interesting as mine. It's also been very difficult in stretches, but it sure as hell ain't been dull.

COMIC-ART.COM: Okay, that sounds like a good place to end.

We thank interviewer Steve Ringenberg for this transcript

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