Comic Talk: Denny O’Neil

Comic Talk Magazine
August 1993
Issue #7

What can you tell me about what’s going to happen in Batman #500?
The only thing that I’m free to talk about is that Batman gets a new costume. It’s the first real change in 54 years. They added the yellow oval back in the ‘60’s. That was the only modification the costume had over time. Stuff like the length of the ears and the length of the cape, I tend to leave up to the artists on the theory that Batman has many costumes for various occasions. The new costume will be a result of a major upheaval in the storyline.
Right now, were about a third of the way through ‘Batman: Knightfall.’ Batman #500 concludes ‘Knightfall’ and begins ‘Knightquest.’ Out of these will come Catwoman and Robin ongoing series. They will spin directly out of the stunts we’re doing.

Is there a practical reason Batman is getting a new costume?
Yeah, it’s part of the storyline. This is a stunt that’s being driven by the story. The Superman thing was done largely the same way. That makes me very happy since I figured about three years ago that what I basically am is a storyteller. The new costume is motivated by the storyline rather than motivated by, ‘Gee, let’s put a new costume on Batman and see what happens.’
It probably won’t be the last. This one probably won’t be frozen in time as long as the other. ‘Knightquest’ will then branch off into some other books. The story will take two separate lines involving two separate sets of characters. Some of which will run in Batman and Detective Comics, some of which will run in issues #5 and #6 of Justice League Task Force. It will also appear in Shadow of the Bat in, I think issues #19, #20, and #21 and will wrap up in Legends of the Dark Knight. That will be one part of the storyline.
They’ll be parallel plots. While they’ll occasionally touch on each other, we’re trying to put this thing together carefully so that we can play fair with people who may not have complete access to all comics or may not be able to afford to buy a dozen comics.
The storylines will be called ‘Knightquest: The Crusade,’ and ‘Knightquest: The Search.’ If you follow ‘The Search,’ you won’t necessarily have to follow ‘The Crusade,’ and vice versa. However, to get the whole picture, the whole epic story we’re spinning, you should read both. But they will be self-contained enough so that you’ll get your money’s worth if you don’t.

How long will these stories run?
Approximately ten months.

That’s a long time.
Yeah, they will segue right into next year’s annuals.

What can you tell us about the Catwoman and Robin series?
Catwoman #1 comes out at the same time as Batman #498, and Robin #1 comes out September ’93 with Batman #501. In the case of Catwoman, the story spins out of Knightfall. In the case of Robin, Knightquest. But again, you don’t have to read everything in these storylines to understand. What motivated catwoman to go out on her first solo adventure is something that happens in Knightfall, but it’s explained in the first issue. If you’ve ever heard of Batman, or Robin or Knightfall or anything, you’ll still be able to read Catwoman #1 as a complete story.

Is Catwoman going to be a hero or a villain?
We’re not going to soften her a whole lot. The cover copy I wrote is, ‘When she’s bad, she’s very, very bad.’ I think that will be the tagline for the story. She has never been a black, unregenerate villain like The Joker and The Penguin. She’s been a thief and a professional criminal with her own rigid ethic, so you better not cross her.
But on the other hand, she won’t go out of her way to hurt somebody. She wouldn’t hurt anybody at all unless she was strongly motivated…unless someone significantly interfered with her life. It’s going to be a very glamorous book with Jim Balent doing the art and Jo Duffy scripting. It’ll have something of James Bond and of The Saint. And, of course, a lot of Batman. We’ll be taking her all over the world, which may give Jo Duffy a lot of good travel deductions.

Will Catwoman be pursued by any official agency?
I’m sure that’ll happen from time to time. We’ve toyed with the idea of giving her an adversary apart from Batman who would be an ongoing character in the series. It’s a little too early to dea with that because the first three issues will constitute one story. That will pretty much be Catwoman doing something she feels she has to do. It will take her from Gotham City to Santa Prisca and probably to Europe after that.

What about Robin?
With Batman #501, tensions in the Batcave come to the point where Robin feels he has to leave and go out on his own. The first stories will deal with that break. We’ll follow him off on his own adventures. Chuck Dixon has been quietly building his own rogues gallery for three years now, so we’ll have no trouble doing it.
Somewhere down the line, we will probably reintegrate the two books. But for a while, Robin will be solo, not dealing in any way with Batman or Alfred…maybe dealing with Harold a little bit.

When you say reintegrate, do you mean Batman will appear with Robin in Robin?
Robin will start appearing in Batman, Detective Comics, Shadow of the Bat. It won’t happen for a while. We’ll want to give the kid his own identity. He’s cutting the chord and establishing himself as a solid character on his own.
Catwoman also. We think that they’re strong enough characters that they don’t need Batman to be interesting. I think that my creative team did an astonishing job on Robin, rebuilding the character from the ground up. He’s more popular now then he’s ever been.

Do you have an artist for Robin?
Yeah, Tom Grummett.

At the time of this interview, we’re about a third through Knightfall and it seems to be getting more and more popular…
Yeah, we’ve gone back to press with all of the books that are in the series so far. We’re bringing out the Sword of Azrael paperback a month earlier than we had originally anticipated. It’s had a much larger print run then I have ever seen for this kind of thing. That really is an integral part of the new series.

Do you think that Batman #500 will get as much attention as the death and return of Superman?
I can never predict those things. Already, I am surprised. We-sixteen months ago when we first thought of this-anticipated a lot of reader reaction, but I didn’t anticipate as much as we’re getting. We’re fairly early into it. I also didn’t know about The Death of Superman when I put this underway. Mike Carlin and I were not group editors back then. We were just editors in charge of our own line of books. As long as he wasn’t using Batman and I wasn’t using Superman, there was no need for us to compare notes. By the time that I’d found out that he was doing Death of Superman, I was well into my storyline. We had already done a lot of groundwork, and a lot of setting up of what was to come later. Neither Mike nor I had known that we were both planning big, major stunts this year. I might not have done mine this year if I had known he was doing this.

There are two major characters having major storyline changes, things changing continuity that goes back half a century. It might have been too much, but it’s not. The reaction so far for the Batman storyline has exceeded everything I could have anticipated. That’s very gratifying.

Have you heard anything specific from the fans?
I’ve heard most from my students at the School for Visual Arts, lots of rumors. I’m obviously not going to confirm or deny any of them. I can say this much: No rumor I’ve heard (and there have been a dozen different versions out there) has gotten it exactly right.

What do you think about the fact that so many people have even a hint of an idea of what’s happening in Batman #500 before it comes out?
It’s fine with me because it shows that they’re reading and that they’re interested. We all want to tell our stories to a lot of people. We all want people to pay attention, and when that happens it’s very nice.
Well, that’s exactly what’s happening. It really that doesn’t bother me that people are speculating that the rumors are true. Like I said, none of the rumors I’ve heard have been right on the money. So what it means is that my creative teams are really doing their jobs well.

How do these rumors get out?
That baffles me; I don’t know. The fan grapevine is astonishing. I think I know how they get disseminated, and that’s through computer bulletin boards.

What do you think about all of the marketing gimmicks in comics nowadays?
I think that cover enhancements and other stunts are fine if they call attention to a good story. That’s the way we use them. Every time we’ve done something like that, we have felt that we were backing it up with something that real readers buy comics for. Every reason you buy a super-hero comic; we feel we are delivering quite apart from whatever gimmicks are on the cover or in the polybag or any of that. I have no quarrel with those kinds of things provided they are used to call attention to something that you think is worth the attention. For their own sake…I’d have to question that.

How about the Robin mini-series? As good as any one issue was, wouldn’t you hope that the latest issue of Detective Comics is just as good? But only on anniversary issues are the enhancements used.
Well, Sure, we try to hit a high standard of storytelling every time out. That’s what we do, but some stories are, by their own nature, events. That’s when it seems to be appropriate to use a gimmick.
On Batman #500, we’re using an enhanced cover. There’s a major storyline and it’s only the fourth comic book to hit that number, which, in itself, is an event worth paying attention to. And then, it’s the last of the Jim Aparo Batman and the first of Mike Manley’s, so there’s a major change in creative personnel.
With the Robin thing, each of them was a strong story. Each of them helped solidify and reshape a character that had been in existence since 1940. We thought if what you like is pulp action and adventure with real characterization, that’s what we’re delivering. Hence I had no objection when other people in the organization suggested enhanced covers. Each of them, I would argue, was an event.

You mentioned an artistic change in Batman #500?
Yeah, half of Batman #500 will be done by Jim Aparo. At a natural break in the story, Mike Manley will take over the pencils.

Is Jim Aparo gone for good?
Not for good, he’s going to be doing Green Arrow for Scott Peterson and he’ll do occasional Batman projects. In fact, I’m going to be giving him a script either today or tomorrow after I get around to looking at it and doing whatever minor editing is necessary. It’s a Batman story; it’ll probably appear sometime in the next year. He is one of the quintessential Batman artists. I would not like to think that I would not be working with him again. I will look for projects that we can do together.

Is the personnel in Detective Comics lined up now?
Yeah, I’m not really able to talk about it because I don’t edit it. I’d much rather you talk to Scott Peterson about what’s going on in Detective Comics.

Does that mean that the crossovers between Batman and Detective Comics are going to stop? Will they still have the close continuity that they have always had?
It’s going to be, for a while, a very very tightly integrated continuity. Then after that, we’ll revert to maybe a slightly tighter version of what we’ve been doing lately.
We have been accused of not doing continuity between our books in print and I’ve never gotten around to replying to that. I would argue that it’s absolutely not true. For about three years, we’ve been doing the kind of continuity where, at the end of the year-if you want to sit down and bother to make a timeline, everything will fit. Except for the things that we specifically label as being outside of continuity, which includes some of the graphic novels and some of the stories occurring in Legends of the Dark Knight.
It’s just that I haven’t done the thing like Mike has done with Superman-where a story ends in Action Comics and ten seconds later in comic book time, it picks up in one of his other titles.
But all of the major events-the death of Robin’s mother, introduction of Harold, introduction of Jean Paul; they haven’t been simultaneous. It’s a different kind of continuity, but I would argue that it’s no less integrated. It’s just structured differently.
I do that for practical reasons and some for aesthetic ones. I hire people who are strong storytellers; it’s one of my criteria. I want to give them as much autonomy as possible. Also, to really do that, you’ve got to get everybody together in a group a lot, and one of my writers lives sixty miles outside of London. We do get together about three or four times a year, but we can’t do it every month. However, I do think that we’ve achieved as tight a continuity as anyone could want. I’ve got it on my computer as we speak. A timeline. I can tell you by looking at this computer screen when any one thing happens and how it is reflected in the other books.

Since we’re talking about continuity, how about the concern that fans have about Batman appearing in Justice League and guest-starring in something like Starman or Black Condor where it has no relevance to Batman or Detective Comics?
In Justice League, no comment. The others…Usually those guys show me this stuff and if they have Batman doing something he wouldn’t normally do, I change it or ask that it be changed. We could probably fit that into continuity. Those are never appearances that in comic book time, take weeks; it’s usually like one day or one afternoon or a one-night appearance. We can show that it happened, like on a Monday Batman got done fighting the Joker, on Tuesday he’s with Black Condor, and on Wednesday a Penguin story started. Something like that.
They’re not in our continuity, but they don’t contradict it. What’s important is that the characterizations are consistent.
In the old days at DC, editor A and editor B both did Batman. They did radically different versions where only the costume was the same and some of the props. That’s one of the things that we’ve managed to eliminate. Anything that involves continuity with Batman has to be okayed by me. Any borrowing of Batman or any of my cast of characters I have to okay. I tend not to be too stingy about it because Batman is usually an enhancement to any story he appears in.

Though he enhances the stories he’s in, don’t you think those appearances are a liability to him because they undermine his mysterious persona?
Well, in recent years, I did manage to keep him from being a daylight character. Except in a couple instances in Superman where I thought the story justified the daylight appearance. But we’ve tried to maintain the mysterious image.
In the old days, Batman would walk down a city street on a bright sunny day waving to people. I almost always insist that if he appears with other people or the characters are in a crowd scene, he’s in a shadow. Unless the story absolutely demands that he step into the light to save somebody’s life or something like that, he does remain a shadowy figure.
The other part of the answer would be that I think Batman is an important part of the DC Universe, despite the fact that he is much more independent than most of our heroes. For him to remain an integral part of the DC Universe, he does have to interact with other characters from time to time.

So why not let him be a member of the Justice League?
I had him written out of the Justice League because he is essentially a loner. He’s not a character who would be interested in working with a lot of other people.
He’s also not too interested in going outside of Gotham City. He’s the city’s guardian angel. In our current storyline, the Wayne fortune is based on Gotham real estate. He’s really in and out of that place.
I will cop out on early Justice League stories. In recent times, very, very often Batman has not been used in a Justice League story and I’ve suggested some alternative character. Sometimes the alternative character can be Robin, whom I don’t perceive as anywhere near as standoffish or as much of a loner as Batman.

Let me ask you something about the characters. Would you say that Batman has to be Bruce Wayne since Robin obviously doesn’t have to be Dick Grayson or even Jason Todd?
I don’t know. Good question. Batman is as much as anything, an archetype. Part of what the ‘Elseworlds’ stories are about is it in a different context. I don’t know, that’s an interesting question.

How would you compare the methods of Batman, Robin, Catwoman, and Azrael?
Catwoman and Azrael are certainly lacking the element of compassion. It’ not brought center stage very much in Batman, but it’s always there in an unstated way.
Robin’s modus operandi is very close to Batman’s because he is, in a way, Batman’s creature. I would say he is a lot more technologically oriented and a lot more sociable. Batman is not necessarily someone you would want to hang around with if he existed. I think anybody I know would be happy to spend an evening with Tim Drake. He’s a much lighter character. He’s much friendlier.
Catwoman is capable of utter ruthlessness if you get in her way. If her own personal code of ethics demands retribution, she will deal with you harshly.
Jean Paul, Azrael is still, to some degree an unknown entity. Because part of his character we will explore I would guess over the next several years is that he’s been brainwashed and he does not know who he is. In a way, he’s like The Question. He knows what his name is, who his father was, but he has no idea what’s at the core of his personality. What we’ve seen so far as is that he can be a very hard edged guy indeed. He does not have as many scruples as batman, or Bruce.

You’ve mentioned that Batman’s compassion isn’t seen very frequently, but I actually think that we see it quite often. Where does his mercy come from? He doesn’t have much reason to have any since he saw his parents killed right before his eyes.
It’s a yin/yang thing, Darwin. It’s the other side of the coin to his mission to stamp out crime. It all stems from that traumatic childhood experience which involved a couple of horrific and unwarranted deaths. At the same time that he has this burning passion for justice, he also believes that human life is sacred and that human beings suffer because of injustice. The compassion and the sense that human life is sacred those are really integral to the character. They’re as important to the characterization as all the other stuff-the brilliant detective work, the acrobatics. And underlying all of that, the mission is self-imposed.
Of course, I’ve explained this probably a hundred times in the past eight years. Batman is not crazy. He’s not driven. He’s certainly not psychotic and no more neurotic than the rest of us, because he understands what he’s doing. He’s in control of it. He’s made a choice and the choice is, ‘okay, this is probably the best I can do with my life. It’s certainly something that I am uniquely qualified to do. Nobody else on the planet has this combination of traits and skills and so on.’
Theoretically, he could make the choice to stop doing it, whereas if he were psychotic, he wouldn’t have that option. I think that there’s a hell of a difference between psychosis and obsession. He may be obsessed, but he’s certainly not crazy.

Do you think that Batman’s commitment to working within the system and being merciless effects his effectiveness?
Yeah, if these fictional worlds were real, probably The Shadow would have been a more effective crime fighter then Batman. He’s not exactly in the system, it’s just that he does not violate it. He doesn’t work in it, but he doesn’t destroy it either.
I’d say that if The Shadow existed, he’d have to be a wanted fugitive. It’s like the Guardian Angels here in New York. They are obviously a force for good and they probably prevent a lot of subway crimes. Yet they’re mistrusted by the establishment because they’re not in the establishment and don’t exactly play by the rules.
Well, Batman is a guardian angel times a hundred. Most cops on the beat don’t trust him and certainly not most police officials. Then there would be a few who would say, ‘Yeah, he’s helping us, he’s a good guy.’ And poor Gordon, caught in the middle, right on the fence.
Another concept that I haven’t been too successful in communicating to our audience: Does Gordon now who Batman is? If so, why doesn’t he do something about it, and if not, why not? Again, I think it’s a choice. I’m very big on existential choices.
He’s a very smart cop and he’s had more contact with Batman than anybody, so he could figure it out. He chooses not to. I think that that was a misunderstood part of Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One. Yeah, he could have looked up on that bridge and he could have seen who was riding that motorcycle. He chose not to. He chose to blur his vision because it’s better for him not to know.
Even if he suspects, it’s better for him not to know. If he knew, it would have to change his behavior. That would ruin something that is very important to him both personally and professionally. Basically, he’s got a good thing going and he doesn’t want to mess with it.

How do most of the people in Gotham City feel about Batman? Do they have an underlying fear of suspicion of him, or are they grateful that he’s around to go head-to-head with guys like The Joker?
Both. If I were a citizen in Gotham City, I don’ think I would want to hang around with Batman. I don’t think I would have anything to talk to him about. I think politically we are pretty far apart. On the other hand, if I was walking home alone from the subway at 3AM, I’d be very happy to have him around. It’s the same way that a lot of people feel about law enforcement in general. They don’t like cops per se, but they’re very glad to see the cop walking down their block after dark.
The character is evolving. All comic book characters that last evolve to some degree. He’s evolving more into a nighttime character. That does not necessarily equate to grim-and-gritty and more violent, but darker. Very gradually, we’re taking him out of situations where he’s on television, for example.
It’s a creative decision. He would go a long way to avoid being in front of a television camera. So there are probably some citizens in Gotham who don’t know that he exists or are not sure. Probably, most of them don’t even know what they think about.
We’re not completely consistent with this because, as I said, it’s a process. One of the great secrets of editing this stuff is to allow the process to happen and not make changes for their own sake. If you see a tendency and it seems right, then let it step back and occur.

What kind of story do you prefer –  the kind that Jim Starlin did where Batman is the only supernatural force and the crime is like what we read in the paper, or the one’s like Alan Grant’s where you have a grandiose villain with a nickname and a gimmick to match his personality?
One of the things that attracted me to the character as a writer years and years ago was that he’s protean enough that you can tell a lot of different kinds of stories. With most super-heroes, the range of story you can tell is really pretty limited.
With Batman, you can do everything from…well, one shouldn’t use the word ‘realistic,’ but…say, ‘magic realism’ in the sense that South American novelists use it. You can do those kinds of stories or you can do the flamboyant super-villain kinds of stories.
The character, as we define him, will accommodate both, so I don’t necessarily have a preference. I can qualify that by saying grotesque villains, I think, are an essential part of the appeal. And as long as I’m driving this particular bus, there will always be stories about characters like The Joker, and the Penguin and so on.
The other is an occasional change of pace, sure. As an even more occasional change of pace, stories might deal with supernatural things that go bump in the night. We overdid those a couple of years back. I think they should be once or twice a year. A change of pace is not the norm.
Essentially, what the character is about is humanity. It’s about human perfectibility. Another thing that seems to me integral to Batman as he has evolved is the idea that he is a detective. He uses his brains as much as he uses his muscle.
It’s just that since a guy sitting there is not dramatic, sometimes that happens off stage. Though occasionally, we put it on stage to remind people that it’s more than a guy crashing through a skylight.

We’ve seen many interpretations of Batman’s origin. Not in the inspiration to become Batman, but the process afterward. Taking up with different trainers and so forth. Is there, in your set-up, a big story that various writers can take pieces of or can they make it up as they go along?
We have a very loose timeline. Our official Batman biography says that: From ages twelve to twenty-three, he bounced around the world picking up information. Not quite exactly sure what he was going to do with it. Knowing he was going to be some kind of crime fighter. Sometimes as Bruce Wayne, sometimes with disguises and assumed names.
He went all over the place. If he heard about an extraordinary martial artist in China, he’d find a way to get into China and hang out with that guy. If he heard there was a ballistics expert who was the best in the country in Michigan, he’d go find a way to go hang out with that guy. We’ve done a couple of stories where he apprentices himself out to detectives.
I would assume there are more of these stories to be told. I’ve deliberately kept it loose to accommodate any good ideas any writers have about filling in the gaps in that eleven-year period.

Are you going to be writing any Batman stories that we can look forward to?
I’m going to do a big piece of ‘Knightquest: The Search.’ I’ll do two stories in Justice League Task Force #s 5 and 6. Then almost immediately, I’ll jump into the three issues of Legends of the Dark Knight arc that will kind of wrap up that storyline. I’ve already written Legends number 50, which will be out pretty soon. That’s ‘Joker: Year One.
Somewhere down the line, Nick Giordano and I are talking about doing a series about Commissioner Gordon and I’m toying with the idea of another Azrael mini-series. That’s about it. That’s plenty for this year, given the fact that I do some outside writing and I teach two nights a week and I work here about forty-five to fifty hours a week.

What other non-Batman writing are you doing?
Oh, I’ve done a science fiction short story for an anthology that John Varley is editing. I’m about to do a hard-boiled detective story for an anthology that Max Collins is editing.
I co-wrote a piece with my wife on meditation for the new Superman/Batman magazine that Charlie Kochman is editing. It’s Robin instructing the Huntress on meditation. It’s something that I’ve been interested in for maybe twenty years. It’s something my wife teaches to her sixth, seventh, and eighth graders. And it’s something Charlie, who has a real deep interest in martial arts, thought he’d like a little piece about. That’s probably the strangest project that I’ve done in a long time, but one of the most satisfying.
I think kids should know about that stuff. I think it’s something that can keep us all sane and Marifran has a method she finds works particularly well with children.
And then there’s a possibility I may do another Batman teleplay. That depends on a lot of x-factors, among them, whether or not they need any more. The one I’ve written has not aired; that’ll be out some time next month.
Often enough, some little project or another comes along. I still like to write after all these years. When they come along, if they don’t interfere with something, I tend to say ‘yes.’

Are we going to see any more of the Question?
Yeah. Yeah, I forgot about that. As soon as I can pry open a month in my schedule, I’m going to do a 56-page Question one-shot. Archie [Goodwin] already has the cover.
I’ve got some ideas, but there are about four ways we can go because, essentially with Question issue 36, we ended that big story. But there are still a number of possibilities that are built into the character. Sometime later this year, I’ll pick out one of them and work out a story and consult with Archie and then start writing it. I imagine that it won’t be out this year, probably early next year.
It’s always a great pleasure to come back to that character. I do things that are more popular and have more readers, but I almost never do anything that is closer to what I’m really interested in.

Personally, I always thought The Question was the only logical follow-up to the Watchmen.
That’s high praise, thank you.

Honestly, after reading the Watchmen and The Question, nothing else stands up. The book meant something to me and my brother.
The people who like it really like it. It’s just that there aren’t tens of thousands of them.
It’s been the most gratifying series I’ve ever worked on. Part of the gratification was that I got to write about stuff that concerned and interested me. The other part is that the response has been really nice, even people reading all of those books that I recommended. It astonishes me that anybody would bother to do that.
So it’s a character that I like to come back to from time to time. I can’t for a number of reasons do it as a monthly anymore, but I think we can write one or two stories a year.


Leave a reply

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>