Previews Interview with Dennis O’Neil

Previews Magazine
June 1993
Volume III, No 6

Night Moves
Interview by Michael Smith

Dennis O’Neil, the Caped Crusader’s long-time editor and caretaker, perhaps knows this better than any other writer or artist currently associated with the character. As editor of the Batman line for the past eight years (Before which he wrote Batman stores for 15 years), he’s watched the elder half of the dynamic duo endure everything from Year One and Year Two, to A Death In The Family and A Lonely Place of Dying. Now, as Batman prepares to celebrate the 500th issue of his own magazine – from which, presumably, yet another new Batman will emerge – Batman spoke to us about where Batman’s been…and where he’s going…

Have Batman’s motivations changed since Bruce Wayne first swore to avenge the death’s of his parents?
No, that’s been fairly constant. Of course, back I the fifties – which I refer to as the ‘the daytime era of Batman,’ when he’d walk down the street in the middle of the day, wave to his fans, present medals to Boy Scout Troops, and that sort of thing – it was pretty much ignored. But it’s always been there – sometimes in the foreground, sometimes in the deep background. It will always be the reason for his existence.

You mentioned the many different, ‘Batmen,’ – one of which you and Neal Adams were responsible for creating back in the early 1970’s. Would you say that Batman is now heading into another era with ‘Knightfall,’ and Batman #500?
That may be true. I think Batman may lighten up a bit. If nothing else, the mood of the country may be improving, so maybe we’ll see some of that reflected in Batman’s adventures. Of course, this may also be false euphoria on my part, so I’ll stay away from politics, lest my notoriously liberal tendencies begin to articulate themselves. Like I said, Batman and his fictional environment may lighten up a bit. But if you’re asking whether or not we’re planning a shift in mood, then I’d have to say no. I think that we’ll stick with our current approach for the foreseeable future, simply because I don’t see any need to change it. Moreover, I don’t sense any demand on the part of our readers to change it. I could be wrong about that – my antennae may be screwed – but that’s how I see it and that’s fine with me because the kind of Batman we’re currently working with is very similar to the Batman that Neal [Adams] and I were working with back in the seventies. Of course, Batman is a little bit darker now, partially because we’re allowed to do somewhat grimmer stories. There are things that we’re doing now that we might have wanted to do back then, but because of certain implicit restrictions didn’t dare.

Let’s talk a little bit about Batman #500. We’re heard everything from, ‘It’s the Death of Batman,’ to Naw, Bane just roughs him up real good.’ Without giving too much away, what can you tell us about it?
For starters, nobody is going to die. Just because Superman died, that doesn’t mean that Batman is going to die. My plans have changed a bit since we started working on this storyline – which has been in the works for about 16 months now- but they have never included ANY significant funerals. Azrael will become Batman, at least for a while, while Bruce Wayne will endure a very traumatic period of his life. After Batman #500, the story will split into two different parts: One Following Azrael, and the other following Bruce. The Azrael arc – Knightquest: The Crusade – will appear in Batman and Detective Comics, and partially in Shadow of the Bat. The Bruce Wayne story – Knightquest: The Search – will begin in Justice League Task Force. Then we’ll do a three-part story arc in Shadow of the Bat, and we’ll wind the whole thing up in a three or four part story in Legends of the Dark Knight.

It’s interesting that someone other than Bruce Wayne will choose to adopt the Batman persona. I mean, can there be a Batman who isn’t Bruce Wayne- That is, someone who doesn’t share Bruce’s unique motivations and obsessions?
Good questions. Part of this storyline will be an exploration of that theme. It’ll be interesting to see whether or not a satisfying answer will emerge. But like I said, Batman is partly an archetype, so when we do an Elseworld’s story, for instance, the simple trick is to make the archetype work in a different context – historical, science fiction, fantasy, or whatever. But you’re right. After 54 years, the whole Bruce Wayne/Batman identification is pretty firmly entrenched. In a way, we’re taking a chance with this, and I’m sure some people will resent what we’re doing. Still, that was never our intent. The genesis of this whole storyline goes back about two or three years, when I had a sense – little more than a gut feeling, really, based on plenty of experience, that the Batman story needed something to pep it up. The idea gradually evolved from there. Pete Milligan contributed to it, as did the other Batman writers and artists. So ‘Knightfall’ is really a solution to what I perceived as a possible ‘slowing down’ of the Batman books – both in terms of story content and reader interest. We also wanted to do something that would be interesting to work on – something that we as writers and artists, would find compelling, because that’s as good a barometer as any. If the creative people associated with a character are really enthusiastic about a project, that probably means that the readers will be interested too. And that’s been the case with this storyline. I’ve had no problem convincing any of my creative people t greatly inconvenience themselves for Knightfall. As Doug Moench said a couple of days ago, this story really deserves everybody’s best effort.

Mike Carlin told us recently that the most vigorously negative responses he received to the Death of Superman storyline came from people who hadn’t read a comic book in over 20 years. Do you anticipate a similar backlash from long-time Batman fans?
Definitely, because we’ve already been through it with the death of Robin. The anger that we experienced – aside from that of our regular readers who didn’t like the story, came from people who hadn’t read it, and who, in fact, weren’t comic readers at all. Of course, that taught me quite a bit about what I do for a living. I started in this business as a writer, not as a comics guy, so until then, I tended t think of comic book as stories – stories with very special requirements maybe, but just as stories. The death of Robin taught me that I was wrong. These characters, because they have been around for so long and have appeared in so many different media, are familiar to nearly everyone. Nuns, cloistered deep in convents with vows of silence know about Superman and Batman. So what we’re doing is working with folklore – post-Industrial Revolution folklore maybe, but folklore just the same. And as such, Superman and Batman carry psychological weight than merely fictional characters, which is another thing that makes our jobs interesting. We’re the caretakers of folk heroes. Of course, you can’t let that get in your way. I mean, if you approach the job with too much reverence, then you’re going to start turning out very dull stories. So the storyteller in me is still about 90% dominant, but there’s still 10% of me that realizes that what we’re doing is something much larger than that. So yes, we will get a backlash, which only means that we’ve upset a few people. But from where I sit, that’s ok, because if you play it safe you get dull.

So you never said to yourself at any pint during this storyline, “I don’t know. Maybe we shouldn’t be doing this?”
No, not at all. I had some reservations about the death of Robin, but with Knightfall, I think that we’re doing something that’s both significant and entertaining. It’s going to be one hell of a story, if we bring it off that is. Right now, it’s still in the process of being written. Obviously, we don’t know how successful we were until it’s over, or maybe even ten years after the fact. But so far, I have had no reason to be displeased with anything that’s crossed my desk. Again, what we’re attempting to do is very nifty because it’s something that’s never been done before. We’re working on an enormous, 30-some part story that’s broken into units. With Knightfall and Knightquest, readers and pick up any one segment and read a good, self-contained story that also contributes to a great-big, cohesive adventure about two men, their coming together, and their eventual falling out. From a storyteller’s standpoint, it’s a really interesting project. And make no mistake: this one is story driven, as was the Death of Superman. We’re not relying on any merchandising gimmicks to sell this thing. So far, the responses I’ve received, which to put it mildly – have been very gratifying responses to the story.

Why was Bane chosen as the engine to power this whole thing?
Bane was chosen, he was created. In fact, both Bane and Azrael were created in anticipation of this storyline. A long time ago, six or seven people met in a hotel to plot this thing out, and almost immediately we realized that we needed a new major villain. We didn’t want to use The Joker again because we’d used him in A Death in the Family. He’s still the best villain we’ve got, but he just wasn’t right for this story. Similarly, neither was Ras Al Ghul. So like I said, we just figured it was time to create a MAJOR new player.
Now before all this, I had done the Venom storyline in Legends of the Dark Knight, which was written long before – and therefore, quite independent of Knightfall. Since it established the existence of Venom (the experimental drug that Bane uses to ‘pump up) …well, it seemed to fit in nicely with what we were planning to do. So we co-opted elements of it for Vengeance of Bane. But I would have to say that Chuck Dixon was, in a sense, primarily responsible for Bane- even though everyone at that plotting session had a hand in it – simply because he wrote the origin story.

If nothing else, Bane seems as obsessive as Batman. How would you describe his motivations?
Bane is genetically gifted. From the moment he was born he had the potential for great intelligence and strength. But instead of a normal childhood, he was raised in a totally vicious, amoral world: a prison. So his values are those totally of a prison inmate: the need for dominance, the need to be the baddest guy on the block. I think Chuck did a great of job experimenting with it in the one-shot. Bane defeats, and then subjugates everyone in his immediate environment. Then he hears a rumor about a single man who dominates an entire city: Batman. So his ego – and buried deep beneath that – his insecurity – forces him to confront what he sees as the ultimate challenge. But because he’s cunning and sly, he devises a way to stack the deck in his favor, which is the substance of Knightfall.

Could Bane ever become a hero? He seems complex enough to endure the transition.
I really don’t know. But, never say never, right? Still, I don’t anticipate that, because Bane is fundamentally vicious, whereas a character like Ras Al Ghul…well, there’s something vaguely noble about him. But I’m going to meet with my creative people next month and plot out the last third of this storyline. We know where we’re going, but we’ll discuss – in greater detail – it’s ramifications, as well as possible spin-off books. We know how the story ends. But I really don’t know what Bane’s fate will be after that.
Still, I try not to nail these things down too tightly. I’m working with good people, and because of my experience as a writer, I also know that ideas can emerge as you become immersed in a project…that the process often suggests certain avenues that you couldn’t have possibly seen on the outset. So I always like to leave things loose enough to accommodate any germinating ideas.

How will the rest of the DC Universe respond to the resolution of Knightfall?
We’ll explore that in Justice League Task Force. But I don’t anticipate that the rest of the DC Universe will be too bothered by it, apart from the fact that five of this year’s annuals – which will be done in continuity – involve Batman characters. Mike [Carlin] and I have also discussed a scene between Superman and Batman, simply to acknowledge the fact that Superman is bright enough – with a little help from his X-ray vision, of course – to deduce what’s going on. But the way we’re playing it, nobody else in the DC Universe, with the possible exception of Green Arrow, should have any reason to believe it’s anything other than business as usual in Gotham City.

That makes sense, because Batman really doesn’t ‘get around’ that much…
Right. We try to confine Batman’s activities to Gotham City, which seems restrictive, but it actually gives us more freedom then you can imagine. I won’t ‘blow up’ Gotham City, for instance, because everyone on the planet would know about it, and all the other DC books would have to reflect it. When somebody else does something equally earth-shattering, we’ll acknowledge it in our continuity, but our characters tend not to become too involved with it.

So I suppose that explains why the Justice League wasn’t contacted to help Batman round up the Arkham escapees in Knightfall.
Well, that, and the fact that without them, we wouldn’t have had much of a story now would we? But in comics there are always anomalies like that. As Mark Gruenwald would tell you – at length, and quite eloquently – one of the biggest of them is the whole notion of time. There are things in our fictional universe that we simply can’t square. Logically, the Justice League would try to solve every problem, but what fun would that be? To me, that would be a very dull fictional universe. I mean, what stories would be left to tell? Of course, I could put some more legs under that response, and say that Batman’s price won’t allow him to ask for help. And since both Tim and Alfred take their cues from Bruce…well, you get the idea.

What, if anything, have long-time Batman writers and artists like carmine Infantino, Bob Kane, or Julius Schwartz had to say about this storyline?
I recently did a convention with Julie Schwartz, and he seemed very enthusiastic about it. He cornered me and insisted that I tell him even more than I’m telling you, which tells me that he’s genuinely interested in the future of this character. He did say that we were doing things that he, as an editor, simply could not have done. In fact, I’ve often heard him say that editing comics in the 90’s is NOTHING like it was back when he was doing it in the sixties. I was writing for him then, so I know from personal experience he simply could not have envisioned a ‘macro-plot,’ like the one we’re doing now, nor could we envision graphic novels or paperback collections of our work. Comic book editing has become a very complex job. I’ve worked as both a magazine and newspaper editor, s believe me, I know: Nothing comes close to editing for our five monthly comic books!
As a would-be historian of the field, this interests me more than anything else. What we’re creating is – for lack of a better term – ‘meta-fiction,’ where you find hundreds of people contributing to what is essentially one big story (Or in our case the DC Universe). Again, something like this has never been done in almost 15,000 years of western narrative tradition. Of course, we didn’t envision it. We just woke up one morning and discovered that we’re doing something for which there are no rules…something for which nobody has had time to analyze or codify. In fact, it’s only been about ten years since anybody’s really thought about what writing for comic books entails. But nobody has examined our creative process as thoroughly as scholars and critics have analyzed our narrative forms (like dramas or novels). We’re just making it up as we go along, and what we’re creating is, in a sense, doubly interesting, because it lives two separate lives: On the one hand it’s a form of fiction that’s only supposed to provide 20 minutes of escapist entertainment; on the other hand, it’s also an immensely complex undertaking that, in some cases, leaves an undeniable mark on pop culture. As far as I can tell, the academics haven’t noticed us yet, but I think what we’re doing what make for great doctoral dissertation.

Finally, will Bruce Wayne wear the Batman costume again?
Likely, but I’m not going to give that much away. I don’t want to reveal all of my surprises…and believe me, we’ve still got plenty of them up our sleeves.

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