Denny O’Neil died last week. He’s best known as the writer of important and excellent Green Lantern/Green Arrow and Batman comics. Secondarily, he’s known as Batman editor, a position he held for more than 15 years. The first Batman comic I ever read, O’Neil wrote. And the second one, he edited. But for purposes of this blog, Denny O’Neil edited Marvel’s monthly G.I. Joe for a little over three years, around late 1982 to 1986. Less than a year into the series’ existence it was still establishing itself, and along the way there were some challenges, such as having six artists draw issues #35 and #36 — clearly a deadline problem that needed solving. But O’Neil and writer Larry Hama had a great working relationship, and I get the sense that in terms of plot and character, O’Neil was not a firm, guiding hand as some editors are — that he edited G.I. Joe with a light touch, and I mean that as a compliment.
O’Neil was also one of only a few people to “cross over” and work both on the G.I. Joe comic book as well as the weekday animated series, writing a single 1985 episode, “The Invaders.” If you don’t follow the show, in that half-hour, an alien spaceship kidnaps the Oktober Guard. As with many 1985 episodes, on paper it sounds silly, but its wackiness is mostly explained, and the story, believe it or not, stays pretty grounded. As with the whole Sunbow run, the action and narrative flow are great.
I spoke with O’Neil by phone in 2009. For the first half of the interview, I mistakenly had my recorder off, but I did type up notes right after. I’ve included these paraphrased notes here, in italics. Our interview was short, as neither of us got into specifics.
Q: You edited G.I. Joe from issue 7 to issue 47. Tom DeFalco preceeded you. Is there any story there?
A: [Indicates some kind of office or personality politics in taking the assignment,] but there’s not much of a story there.
Q: And Bob Harras took over after you. Any story there?
A: That was around when I moved to DC, and a lot of people were leaving Marvel then. DC made me a great offer, again, not much story there.
Q: Had you known Larry before working on G.I. Joe?
[O’Neil co-wrote a not very good martial arts novel and since the comics scene in NY was small, knew Hama and knew that he knew martial arts, and ran the book or some scenes by him, mentioned Hama may have suggested/commented on/given him throwing stars? And O’Neil incorporated them?]
–Here’s where the recorder kicks in and the transcript is accurate:
Denny O’Neil: …And I think that [Larry] edited me once or twice [in comics], and I may have edited him once or twice. But we just knew each other because as I said it was a small world back then. But G.I. Joe was the first time we were together for a long time. And I remember the first office I had at Marvel was directly across from his when he was editing the humor magazine. So I saw a lot of him. But G.I Joe was the first sustained editor-to-writer relationship we had.
Tim Finn: You also wrote one episode of the G.I. Joe cartoon and I think that was for Steve Gerber. Can you talk about how you got involved with that?
O’Neil: Again, it wasn’t anything special. Gerber took over the story editing of the cartoon and he was willing to use comic book people and that isn’t always true. And he had a list of people that he knew at Marvel that he would want to work with and my name was on the list. And I had never done a cartoon. So I said sure, I’ll be happy to. Gerber and I had also known each other. We had the same alma mater. He was I think seven years behind me at St. Louis University. And again, that very small world that we inhabited, Steve and I knew each other, and when it came [and there was an] opportunity to do something I had never done before and get paid for it I said “sure.”
Finn: It doesn’t seem that you doing that one freelance animation script immediately led to a lot of freelance animation work, is that true?
O’Neil: No, it was years and years before I did any more television.
Finn: That by choice or by circumstance?
O’Neil: I never went after it, and I think you have to do that. I am not temperamentally suited to being a television or a movie writer. And I think you have to be. I have done the jobs when they’ve been handed to me. Only one have I ever gone after. And that was when a hole suddenly opened up in my schedule so I called Harlan Ellison in L.A. and said “big hole in my schedule,” do you know of anything? And he put me onto a CBS show and I wrote one episode which was never aired. It was the last one and the show was cancelled. The show had “doom” written all over it from the beginning. [CHUCKLES] But that’s the kind of thing I think where you have to spend some time knocking on doors. And I am abysmally bad at selling myself, doing the networking thing.
Which now even seems to be part of the comic book world. So my timing was good for once. I was an active comic book writer when that kind of thing was not an element– you got your foot in the door, and if you got editors who wanted to use you or if you got a reputation for being reliable or whatever, and if you showed up at the comic book offices you usually got work. It was a very informal situation– All those Batman stories I wrote I was never the Batman writer, and I never had a contract, even an informal agreement. It was just that I would show up on Thursday morning and go to Julie Schwartz’s office and he would give me a job that was often Batman.
Finn: [We transitioned a bit and I mentioned Larry Hama.]
O’Neil: Larry is an editor’s dream. He’s focused, professional, and unsentimental. And stubborn when he needs to be.
I never met Denny O’Neil, but he was clearly one of the good guys in comics. His rules for writing became standard for many writers after him, his decade-plus in charge of the Bat-office saw an ideal philosophy for the character carried out across a myriad of titles, and he was a teacher. And he was a small part of the history of G.I. Joe. He will be missed.
3 responses to “Remembering Denny O’Neil / interview”
Always great to see you post Tim, and I’m embarrassed that (a) I didn’t realize Denny had passed away, or (b) that he edited my favorite book! I love his work at DC, so thanks so much for publishing your interview with him!
This is a nice tribute for a talented man. Thanks for sharing that interview.
Since you mention the deadline issue with issue 35 and 36, I was wondering if you know more about the back story there? I have often wondered about it. I assume it had to do with the broadcast schedule for the TV commercials, since the commercial for issue 35 was clearly originally intended for issue 30, and the commercial for issue 37 must have also been delayed, since issue 37 was originally intended to be printed as issue 34. But there’s some other weirdness going on: the cover and flashback scene in issue 32 also seem to have been created so that it could be paired with the commercial for issue 30/35 (though that’s not what ended up happening), and issue 34 is so oddly standalone, that I have wondered if it may have been an inventory story that was already in progress and got pushed to the front of the line when they needed to fill in three months of stories to accommodate the commercials.
Your guesses look good to me, Ed, but I don’t have any more specific information. I have always suspected that issue #34 was so standalone because Hama just wanted to hone in on two planes and four characters, that the story drove that, but it’s a guess.