Project: Comic Con Panel With St. Louis Native Denny O’Neil
By Kurt Bali, Walrus Contributor
They say it’s rarely a good idea to meet one’s heroes. They say it usually ends in disappointment when the object of affection/respect turns out to be rude, boorish, or merely human. In the case of St. Louis native and legendary comic book writer Denny O’Neil, they (whomever “they” may be) could not be more wrong.
The man who revitalized the Batman franchise in the 1970s after its campy, kitschy TV show-inspired run the decade prior was the main attraction at the recent Project: Comic Con at Westport. O’Neil was there to sign autographs and sit on a panel to discuss, of course, the world of comics, specifically how the past has lead to where the industry is now.
I expected him to be mobbed with fans, with security at his table, and signs informing the rabble they could only get one item signed, and that pictures weren’t allowed, etc. Nothing could be further from the truth. He spoke to everyone. He signed everything put in front of him (including all four variant cover issues of Legends of the Dark Night issue No. 1 that I brought), and talked about his characters as though they were real, which is what fanboys like me want. He was never condescending and seemed truly appreciative of his followers’ adoration.
The 73-year-old is, at least to me, best known for Batman, but also changed the creative direction of several characters, most notably Green Lantern and Green Arrow. O’Neil has been a part of some of the biggest plot lines in comic book history, including the introduction of Bane to the Batman series and the outing of Northstar as a homosexual man in 1992. The latter is especially relevant as the comics world and the world of pop culture were rocked when Northstar married his longtime partner, Kyle, last week in the immediately collectable Astonishing X-Men No. 51.
Given Batman’s popularity, especially since Chris Nolan and Christian Bale, along with the late Heath Ledger, reintroduced the Dark Knight legend to movie goers worldwide, it’s hard to believe the Caped Crusader was considered a joke at one time and that he was almost killed off. That’s when O’Neil and Neal Adams came in.
According to O’Neil, the genesis of Batman’s sagging popularity was the TV show of the 60s. While Adam West’s portrayal of the character may have been great for kids of that era, it turned the comic book hero into a punch line reflecting the most stereotypical parts of the decade. “No one wanted to be a part of the book,” O’Neil said. “There was little artistic integrity to it. It was offered to me and I figured I would work on it until something better came along.”
Fortunately for Batman and his fans, O’Neil was that something for them. When artist Neal Adams joined O’Neil, the duo created some of the best story lines in the history of comics and returned Batman, and his Rogue’s Gallery of villains, to the dark and gritty atmosphere comic fans are used to now. Having saved Batman’s legacy, O’Neil continued to work in the industry until the early part of the 2000s when he retired. He still keeps up with the world of comics and understands his legacy will be forever tied to Gotham’s chief protector, evidenced by O’Neil’s wife and high school sweetheart, Mary and her Batman earrings. That being said, I was surprised O’Neil wasn’t aware that fellow Batman scribe Grant Morrison stated in an interview with Playboy that he had always thought Batman was gay. O’Neil, the Navy veteran and self described liberal, did say that “If you think being gay is a bad thing, which I don’t, I would say Batman is worse – I would say he’s asexual. Bruce Wayne is the fake identity while Batman is his true identity….I’ve always thought he [Batman] would retire someday, around 40, and finally find a romantic relationship. In my mind, he’s always been 33. If it’s good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for Batman. I would like to think at 40, he passes off the Mantle of the Bat and runs off with [daughter of nemesis Ra’s al Ghul and mother of Batman’s son, Damien] Talia.”
I followed up on that question by asking his thoughts on DC outing an established character despite saying in recent years they had no plans to do so (the character being the newly-revamped Silver Age Green Lantern in the new Earth 2 book) and, of course, the Northstar’s marriage. “I look at it this way,” he said. “My eyes are blue, and I’m straight. Someone else’s eyes are brown and they’re gay. That’s it. It is what it is. When I was editing Alpha Flight in ’92, we always knew we were going to have a gay character, but we weren’t sure which one. As things progressed, we started to understand who it was and the fans knew, too, so it wasn’t all that shocking.”
Denny and Mary live in his old apartment in Greenwich. Denny is a fixture on the convention circuit. Project: Comic Con will return to St. Louis in 2013 with dates and location to be announced.