RC: Now Batman wasn’t the only hero you’ve had a lot of success with in your career. You helped re-imagine Green Arrow as a left-wing, socially conscious hero instead of a billionaire playboy and wrote the landmark story ‘Snowbirds Don’t fly’ that dealt with his sidekick, Speedy, addicted to drugs. Given the strict Comics Code at the time, how were you able to write such a mature and provocative story?
DO: I’m sorry about that, Speedy! We weren’t making a fun! I don’t know how strict the Comics Code was by then. There came a point where I stopped paying attention to it. As an editor I think I locked horns with them a couple of times. Once over Batman strung up on a fence in a crucified way and the religious folks got upset about that and once when I had Hitler speaking bad things about the Jews. What I put down probably would not have offended my mother and father who were strict Catholics, but the Jews were offended by it. It is their privilege, they can be offended. We wouldn’t have comic books without the Jewish faith. Everybody except one editor in that first generation were Jewish and they were working in comics because they couldn’t get work in the pulps.
RC: Batman and Green Arrow share certain similarities in their backgrounds and sidekicks, but what do you think is the main thing that would separate them?
DO: About Green Arrow, part of it was I got sick of rich guys who were superheroes. I thought enough is enough and Julie and I agreed I would write stories based on current events. I needed Green Lantern to be a hero. I don’t agree with some of my colleagues, like with certain Batman stories, where he’s a skeevy jerk. That doesn’t translate to hero for me. My problem with Green Lantern was he was an authority figure. He obeyed. He was told what to do by these people from a different galaxy and he did it. Part of my definition of hero is you think for yourself and make up your own mind. So the way I could handle him was he’s the best cop who ever existed. He is a cop, but he’s like some of the cops I saw on the Lower East Side, one of whom takes care of some of my medical problems. They are really, really good guys but, particularly back then, there are a lot of corrupt cops in New York City, but one brush does not tar all.
So Green Lantern was a guy who did good things because he was told to and I needed somebody he could talk to and create a dialogue. Nobody was paying much attention to Green Arrow. He had been around since 1940 and never had his own titles. He was kind of up for grabs. I had done a story in Justice League where he lost his fortune and it was a very short step from that to he’s a rebel, a guy of the streets. What we did to end that series was three 8-page stories about him fucking up and killing someone by accident and can’t get past that. That gave me somebody to talk about what I was seeing on the streets as I was living in a ghetto at the time. It made him a more interesting character. The rich guy version was very bland. They did well with the origin story for Arrow and linking his activities to his gangster father. That was pretty good and I thought why I didn’t think of that? I don’t like a lot of what they’ve done since, though they’ve used a lot of my Batman plots and my bank account is happy about that!
RC: Throughout your career you’ve worked as a writer and an editor. What do you think are the major differences in the roles for you of writer vs. editor? Is there one you prefer to do more than the other?
DO: I would not have wanted to give either one of them up. I was lucky in that I was hired as a hyphenate, as a writer-editor. I remember walking back from dinner with Paul Levitz one night and he said “Well you’ve worked for us for six months as an editor, when are you going to start writing?” and I said “I haven’t thought about it, what’s available?” What was available was Captain Atom and The Question. Captain Atom was another version of Superman. The problem with The Question was Steve Ditko’s politics. I thought they were wrong-headed, I think that now. I admired Steve for not giving an inch. What he believed he believed, but it was 180 degrees away from my morals. So he said “make it whatever you want it to be”. The character got a lot of credit for having a zen aspect and I didn’t know too much about zen. One of the courses I’m currently taking is about basic Buddhism. But I could do that and giving credit for being the first superhero comic aimed at adults. But Len Wein, the late Len Wein, said if I was going to change that much, why didn’t I make a new character? The subtext of that was “why did you fuck around with Ditko’s character?” Its a good question and the answer is I was given an assignment and I was used to doing assignments. It never occurred to me to change what he looked like which would have been changing the basics of the character! That’s like the third time I screwed around with Ditko’s creations. Each time it must have infuriated him because he was so adamant about his objectivism and what was right and what was wrong, its black and white, there is no grey! I guess I envied him because I’m not that committed to anything.
RC: You’ve also worked a lot at Marvel during the 80’s, namely on Spider-Man, Iron Man and Daredevil. Did you find any differences writing for those characters versus Batman, Superman and Green Arrow?
DO: Its a little hard to say and I’ve been thinking about this lately. What is the difference? One of them is that all of Stan’s characters are fantasy characters. They use some scientific jargon, but it bears no relationship to reality. It’s a problem I ran into with Batman. I thought this was the most realistic character in comics so I will make him realistic, but I couldn’t. If you think about the Batmobile, its not credible that a city of 7 million people would not see that the same very visible car goes in the same direction at 5 AM and its a countryside that it goes to, so there are maybe seven or eight estates. Surely they would figure it out! You can’t have a realistic Batman and the Batmobile! There is a college professor who argued that Batman could exist for two years and a whole lot of reasons he couldn’t do it anymore. In my personal biography of Bruce Wayne, he’s 33 now – that’s my Catholic background, Christ was 33 – and he’s going to last until he’s about 42 and then he’s going to slip on one of those roofs missing a step and dies. That’s one possibility, the other is he finds Talia, wherever she is on Earth, and they reconcile their differences and get married and have the smartest, most beautiful children ever! He uses his brains and his fortune to help humanity in different ways. Logically there’s no other way for him to end. When people do ‘this is Batman at 50’, he was just Batman. They didn’t make any allowances for ‘Gee, I used to be able to run 5 miles and now that I’m almost 80 I can’t because I’m almost 80’.
RC: Speaking of Batman at 80, is there anything you and fans could look forward to going past Batman’s 80th anniversary, ?
DO: Well I just published this story that’s a sequel to a story I published 40 years ago, ‘There Is No Hope in Crime Alley’. Once upon a time Jim Shooter said it was his favourite comic book story. I can now write in a way I couldn’t back then. It’s a story where Batman nearly punches an 11-year-old and he’s stopped by Leslie Thompkins at the very last second. She says some things to him I couldn’t write back then, I had to soften it. She gives him hell and says he’s fooling himself, he loves violence or he wouldn’t do so much of it! He has no comeback to that. I was happy to be able to write that story.
I can’t think of much else. Every once in a while I get a Batman idea and then it floats through my head and its gone. I did a Batman story that was very bad about a month ago starring The Penguin. I have never managed to do The Penguin right and hope they never publish that one! Its like when they did Crisis on Infinite Earths and I could have changed Batman, but I thought what we got is perfect. He saw his parents murdered! You don’t need any more than that to completely explain the character and I think that still goes. I don’t know why such a gloomy character is so popular. You would think logically Superman is the biggy. Well, what is ignored about Superman is he is also created by tragedy. His whole planet blows up, but they have never emphasized that very much. Spider-Man, he sees his uncle killed. Character after character, you see them in amusement parks and they’re always played for laughs and jolly bright colours, but you think “He saw his parents killed! What business does this guy have being jolly?”
Thank you to Denny O’Neil for speaking with us! He will appear at the Toronto Comic-Con March 16 and March 17.