Dennis O’Neil, who wrote and/or edited Batman comics for 30 years, passed away Friday at the age of 81. As a writer, he was responsible for countless classic comics, both in Gotham City and around Marvel and DC. As an editor, he oversaw several industry-moving shifts and nurtured new talent that set high water marks for comics. And outside of comics, he wrote several novels, as well as some fan-favorite episodes of Batman: The Animated Series.
Nowhere is O’Neil’s influence on comics more evident than his influence on Frank Miller. O’Neil took over Batman comics in the 1970s, following the bright camp of the television series, and turned the Bat to the Dark Knight, adding edge and brood to a previously colorful character. O’Neil introduced Ra’s al-Ghul and Talia, Leslie Tompkins, Richard Dragon, and later Azrael to Gotham. He gave the world the Joker that we recognize today in “The Joker’s Five Way Revenge,” and revived Two-Face. And he wrote Miller’s first Batman story in a 1980 Christmas short. O’Neil then went on to Marvel, where he introduced Madame Web to the Spider-Man mythos; put Jim Rhodes in the Iron Man armor; and edited Frank Miller’s eternal classic run on Daredevil.
But while his impact on comics may have been greatest through his influence on Miller, his greatest works as a comics creator came elsewhere. He and Neal Adams worked together on seminal DC books – from Superman vs. Muhammad Ali to the Hard Travelling Heroes era of Green Lantern/Green Arrow, pitting the space lawman with the magic wishing ring and the Robin Hood knockoff with boxing glove arrows against new enemies like heroin and racism. He also reportedly gave Optimus Prime his name.
Arguably his greatest work, O’Neil teamed with Denys Cowan and Rick Magyar on a revival of The Question. This was a dense, cerebral noir about a city collapsing under the weight of its own corruption, and was accompanied in single issue format (and not yet recreated in digital form) by reading lists for each issue that went well beyond the world of comics.
O’Neil later taught at the School of Visual Arts, influencing even more generations of comic creators. He served on the board of the Hero Initiative, a charity dedicated to taking care of comic creators in need. And in late 2018, he was honored by the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library as the keynote speaker at their “Comic Books and Social Justice” event.