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Sunday, June 21, 2020

From The Warp of Dennis O'Neil

Sure, there's a lot of Batman, Question, Green Lantern, Daredevil, Iron Man, Spider-Man, Superman and others of that ilk in Dennis O'Neil's oeuvre that you'll hear a lot about, often from me, but here are a few others from O'Neil's over half-century in comics.

Frank Miller draws O'Neil's story "Philistine" in BIZARRE ADVENTURES #31 [1982], a short lived anthology title from Marvel that O'Neil also edited. Miller and O'Neil's paths would cross often in comics, with O'Neil writing the first Batman story Miller drew and two memorable Spider-Man annuals, O'Neil editing most of Miller's first run on Daredevil, including Miller's transition to writing the book in addition to drawing it, working together on a short bit on Will Eisner's The Spirit "jam" story and O'Neil editing the "Batman Year One" story.  The theme of this issue was "Violence", and this story delivers with a clever conceit of a silent traveler in an art museum where the pieces come to life and attack him while the curator narrates.

Speaking of Will Eisner's creation, as briefly mentioned before, O'Neil wrote the character two more times in addition to the "Spirit Jam" contribution, when DC was publishing new stories of the character. In THE SPIRIT #13 [2008] we have "Family Treasure" with art by Ty Templeton, very much an old-school Eisner take on the feature, with the Spirit helping a woman who is trying to find a hidden inheritance from her uncle ahead of some thieves. O'Neil would come back to the character one more time for a more frantic take with Bill Sienkiewicz artwork a few years later.

THE UNEXPECTED #195 [1980] features "Deadly Homecoming", a long 25-page Madame Xanadu story with artwork by Johnny Craig, about a pair of soldiers making along delayed return from Vietnam, but may have brought something more sinister back with them. It's a nice sort of Twilight Zone story, or maybe like an old EC story with room to breathe (which is appropriate, given the artist).

While working for Marvel early on, O'Neil also picked up some work for Charlton, using the pen-name "Sergius O'Shaughnessy".  One of the most memorable is "Children Of Doom", a full-length story drawn by Pat Boyette in CHARLTON PREMIERE #2 [1967].  Set after a global catastrophe that killed most of humanity and left some of the survivors with mutant powers. A very thoughtful story with a lot of levels, and really elevated by Pat Boyette's artwork, which uses a lot of black and white sections to good effect (apparently this was partly a production issue as the story was a last minute substitute for another one that fell through, but whatever the reason it works visually).

SPACE ADVENTURES #2 [1968] is another Charlton story by "Sergius", and actually a sequel to a story published the previous year in SPACE ADVENTURES #60.  Yeah, that's Charlton for you. The three part story is illustrated by Jim Aparo (the page shown), Steve Ditko and Pat Boyette, three remarkable artists that Charlton somehow got with their low page rates and didn't do justice to with their sub-par printing. The story involves Paul Mann, a reporter who gets mixed up with warring time-travelers from the year 4000 AD.  Quite memorable, and each of the artists gets a few points to really shine visually.

REAL WAR STORIES #1 [1987] was an anthology edited by Joyce Brabner for the Central Committee For Conscientious Objectors and published by Eclipse, presenting various biographical and journalistic stories about war and its effects on actual people. O'Neil wrote and Steve Leialoha drew "The Decision - Andy Mager's Story" based on the case of a man who was tried and convicted for refusing to register for the draft. O'Neil's biography in the back reads "I've written a lot of comic book stories - something over 700. The one included here is a kind of atonement for some others I'm not proud of".

O'Neil co-wrote a novel, DRAGON'S FISTS, in 1974 with Jim Berry, introducing the character Richard Dragon. The novel was later adapted by O'Neil for a comic book series at DC and then continued after that, with the character eventually becoming a regular supporting character in various books. RICHARD DRAGON, KUNG FU FIGHTER #5 [1976] is the first issue after the adaptation of the novel, drawn by Ric Estrada and Wallace Wood, and is notable for introducing Lady Shiva, who became a regular in the book and a major supporting character in other DC books years later. It's a pretty fun series, overall, a bit uneven at times (especially as the page count gets down to 17 pages an issue).

Azrael was probably the character O'Neil wrote the most in his career, starting with the co-creation of the character in 1992 with Joe Quesada, when he was introduced with the intention of temporarily taking over as Batman the next year. After that storyline (edited and partly written by O'Neil) was done the character got a solo series, which O'Neil wrote for 100 issues, three annuals and three specials, which is probably close to, if not more than, the amount of solo Batman O'Neil wrote.  I read the series on and off, tending to drift away when it got too entwined with the Batman books, but usually enjoyed it. AZRAEL ANNUAL #1 [1995] (drawn by David Ammerman, with a framing sequence by Barry Kitson, the first regular artist on the series) might be the highlight of what I've read of the series. It provides some backstory and contextualization for the first appearance of the character, exploring the last mission of his father, the previous Azrael. It neatly explains a few anomalies in the original story so well that I was always curious if the revelation in this issue was planned from the start. 

O'Neil wrote ten of the twelves issues of the mid-1970s comic book incarnation of Walter Gibson's pulp vigilante character The Shadow. Half of them were drawn by Michael Kaluta and got re-printed in the 1980s, but the rest didn't, THE SHADOW #10 [1975] features "The Night of the Killers" with art by E. R. Cruz has the Shadow go after a family of killers who have injured one of his helpers.  I remember back when I first read some of these stories I went back and read some of the original pulps, and these seemed very true to the spirit of those. O'Neil also write a Batman crossover with the Shadow in this era, which sadly hasn't been reprinted, and returned to the character with Kaluta (inked by Russ Heath) for a long story at Marvel in 1988.

CHAMBER OF DARKNESS #5 [1970] has the short story "The Beast from the Bog" drawn by Paul Reinman, about an old couple who encounter an alien creature in a remote swamp. A nice echo of the monster stories that were Marvel's bread and butter for a while a decade before, with a then-modern twist.

In his early days at Marvel, O'Neil mostly wrote for the teen books like MILLIE THE MODEL and westerns, like this story from RAWHIDE KID #54 [1966].  "The Passenger" is drawn by Don Heck and Bill Everett and features a fancy pants journalist on the Mississippi who encounters some river pirates determined to blow up a settlement across the river. It's kind of silly, mostly set up to reveal what famous historical figure the journalist is.

O'Neil's career intersected with Steve Ditko a few times over the years, in addition to some of his most memorable work being done on characters Ditko created.  Early on, O'Neil scripted the last few Doctor Strange stories that Ditko wrote and drew over at Marvel. Then over at Charlton they worked together on a handful of stories, including a chapter of the science fiction epic above and this horror story. At around the same time O'Neil was also scripting BEWARE THE CREEPER over at DC. In the 1980s they worked on an IRON MAN issue together, which is a whole other story.  Anyway, GHOSTLY TALES #69 [1968] features "Music Of Murder" drawn by Ditko and written by "Sergius" (credited in a later letter column), a story of witchcraft set in late 19th century England (and featuring a cameo by a notable detective of that era). It's a fun little example of the genre, with a lot of humourous asides and little gags featuring the host Mr. Dedd in a slightly more active role than in most of his stories. (more on O'Neil/Ditko collaborations)

Bat Lash was a roguish western character introduced by Sergio Aragonés and Nick Cardy in an issue of SHOWCASE before getting his own book for seven issues. O'Neil came aboard to do scripts over Aragonés' stories on the regular series.  BAT LASH #7 [1969] concludes the series on a high note, with Bat encountering a young man who, unknown to either of them, is his long lost brother. A nicely constructed little story that plays up the melodrama of the situation. And man, just look at that Nick Cardy art. O'Neil would return to the character once in the 1970s for an entertaining story.


  1. All well and good, but his early character WANDER, also from Charlton, deserves mention.

  2. I've heard good things about Wander, but unfortunately I only have one of the issues of CHEYENNE KID with a "Sergius" story with the character, and it's one of the ones after Aparo leavee, and I couldn't find it when pulling out O'Neil comics for this post.


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