The spotlight panel for Dark Horse revealed at Comic-Con International in San Diego special guest Dennis O'Neil, in a room on the far side of the convention center at noon on Sunday, was sparsely attended, but those who ventured out had only reverence for the legendary creator.
O'Neil worked as an editor for both Marvel and DC but is perhaps more well-known as a writer, completing work on nearly every major character for both publishers. Arguably his most notable run was the legendary “Green Lantern/Green Arrow” with artist Neal Adams, but credits include dozens more. He edited Frank Miller’s myth-making run on “Daredevil” at Marvel and also edited the Batman family of titles for DC in the '90s.
Scott Peterson, an editor at DC's Wildstorm imprint and also O'Neil's former assistant, moderated the panel and only briefly mentioned O'Neil's professional life, confident that everyone in attendance knew the work of the legend before them. He had a list of questions for O’Neil assembled from mutual colleagues, among them veteran writers Chuck Dixon and Paul Levitz.
Peterson asked O'Neil about injecting realism into the superhero funnybooks, which had not previously dealt with such issues as drug use or racism, and whether or not it was a marketing scheme. O'Neil said that no, there was no hidden motive to the realism he put into his books. There were themes he wanted to pursue and situations he wanted to write about, and that usually the stories, which became wildly popular and are still highly regarded today, were only objected to once they were approved and published.
When asked if his background in journalism helped in his editing or writing, O'Neil said that being a reporter prior to becoming a comic book writer helped, but that any kind of writing, whether it is for headlines, poetry, or theater, can aid in comic book writing and writing in general. Some advice he gave for writing dialog was, “Say it aloud. Read dialog aloud.”
Asked about the use of flawed human characters in his writing, O'Neil answered with questions of his own. “What is the spine of the story? What is this about? If this guy existed, how would he be?” In his writing he asks basic questions of his creations, some that other writers might overlook in favor of action and surface details. When the basics of a story can be clearly identified then the most interesting parts of a character can be shown.
Peterson asked if comics were inherent to religion. O'Neil, a lapsed Irish Catholic, said that most people are raised to believe in the fight of good against evil and that becomes mythology for children. People as they grow can identify the conflicts of these two extremes and that can easily be applied to comic book stories. Additionally, O'Neil noted that all religions are about narratives and this can be directly influential to comics.
The writer of “The DC Comics Guide to Writing Comics” shared his views on story structure, saying it is always interesting to subvert and break down a story structure to find its most interesting details. O’Neil learned about story structure from radio plays as a kid since they always had a beginning, middle and end.
O’Neil related a story about a conversation with the late Dick Giordano and how both of them, legends for most of their careers, were motivated to do good, quick work out of fear that their most recent project might be their last and they would never be hired for work again.
Halfway through the panel’s alloted time, Peterson opened the event to questions from the audience. Very quickly a line of a dozen, sharp fans accumulated behind the microphone. The first asked if O'Neil thought there was a spiritual successor to Batman. O'Neil, who shepherded that character through most of the '90s as well as writing him in the decades before, sat back and let his mind roll around the question, finally saying that Frank Miller's current version in “Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder” is too dark. He continued that Paul Dini's version, from the animated television show at the time was his previous favorite answer, until Christopher Nolan's recent Batman movies got it just right. The writer elaborated that the films have a plot and logic that was not in the previous Batman movies. O'Neil stated that there has never been just one Batman or type of Batman, that Batman stories, even the silly ones from the '60s or the dark ones from the '80s, are right for their time and have done what they are supposed to do.
The next fan expressed his reverence for the Question, a character whose title O'Neil wrote a masterful run on in the late '80s and early '90s, then asked about O'Neil's connecting of philosophy and comics as he did in that series. O'Neil said that he was forced to take a philosophy class in the Jesuit college he attended and he hated it but later found himself attracted to exploring its teachings after he graduated. He then shared how he ended up with the job of writing “The Question,” saying that Paul Levitz offered him one of two characters, either the Question or Captain Atom, the latter whom the writer views a god-like character. O'Neil had previously written nearly omnipotent characters including Superman and Green Lantern, but found that he could do more with the Question, employing some of the background in philosophy that he had explored. O'Neil was extremely respectful of The Question creator Steve Ditko's often far-right views but he agreed to write the character only under the condition that he could change the character to fit more with his own beliefs. This was a risky move, but O'Neil would have been unable to do anything for the character if he had to leave him as he had been. O'Neil was given a great deal of freedom in this situation, including killing the hero at the end of his first issue to clearly express that this was a new start for a character who was not the same as he was in the past. Looking back at it now, O'Neil noted that he probably should have created a new character if he was going to change a character in such a significant way.
O'Neil was asked if there were more social issues he had wanted to tackle before he left his pivotal run on “Green Lantern/Green Arrow.” “No,” he said. “We had done all the stories we had wanted to do.” He noted a laundry list of the issues they explored, including a “Harpies” story that addressed feminism. O'Neil seemed content to have left the series as it was. A few questions later a tall, attractive woman asked how O'Neil could say that writing that “Harpies” story had anything to do with feminism and he succinctly quipped, “I was drinking a lot back then.”
The next question was about O'Neil's well-regarded run on “Iron Man.” By way of an answer O'Neil noted the conventional wisdom in the pre-1980s era of the medium was that comics were periodicals no one would remember down the line and they were not really important. In this way it was often just about solving the immediate problem of deadlines and getting the work out and the comics completed and published, not wondering how it would be regarded years later, if at all. Looking back, O'Neil admitted that his “Iron Man” run, which was about three years in length, probably went on too long and that he should have left it six months earlier. He regretted that the story was not as tight as it could have been.
To bring the panel to a close, Peterson asked a question given to him by writer Chuck Dixon, a monumental query that Dixon has never had the courage to ask his hero: Who would win in a fight between the Hulk and Thor? O'Neil sat back and pondered the most difficult question he'd been given at his spotlight panel. “Hmm...” he mumbled, along with some imperceptible comments to himself, and finally, confidently, stated “Thor.” With that, the attendees of the panel exited, satisfied that at least one of the world's greatest questions had been answered. After all, who would argue with a legend?