Denny O'Neil jumped in the 1960s from writing newspaper articles to writing comic books, but he never lost his interest in the real world.
In O'Neil's scripts, godlike superheroes found themselves grounded in gritty reality.
He depowered the Amazon princess Wonder Woman into a globe-trotting martial artist in a white body suit. He returned Batman, then a campy joke reflecting the popular live-action television show, to his pulp roots as a grim urban vigilante.
Under O'Neil, Green Lantern got chewed out by an elderly black man who asked him why he battled outer space menaces while ignoring the plight of inner-city families. Humbled, Green Lantern set out with another hero, Green Arrow, to discover an America sickened by poverty, pollution and racism. Along the way, they learned that Green Arrow's teen sidekick, Speedy, was a heroin addict.
"Here was a comic that broke with all tradition," Will Jacobs and Gerard Jones wrote in The Comic Book Heroes. "Green Lantern/Green Arrow was a comic that sought to educate as well as entertain, a comic that grappled with pressing social issues. The characters not only acted as adults but were put through stories of adult concerns."
By the early 1970s, national news stories were promoting O'Neil's edgy work, and he won a loyal following among college students and adults — some of whom, now aged, bring him yellowed copies of his comic books at conventions, seeking an autograph.
O'Neil was in the vanguard of writers and artists declaring that comic books didn't have to be kids' stuff. Many of his characters and stories ended up in blockbuster movies, including the recent Batman trilogy by director Christopher Nolan. Eco-terrorist Ra's al Ghul, for example, played by Liam Neeson, is an O'Neil creation.
"When I started out, comics were assumed to be literature for the illiterate. You know, 'Ya needs da pitchers in there 'cuz ya can'ts unnerstand da woids,'" O'Neil, 74, said in a recent phone interview from his home in Nyack, N.Y.
"Well, that was never true," O'Neil said. "It was always, at its best, an art form. And at its worst, it was — well, like anything else at its worst. But the people running the companies maybe didn't realize that. And the people creating comics — creating this rich visual language with which to tell stories — were ashamed. Even (legendary Marvel Comics editor) Stan Lee would say that in the early days of his comic book work, at parties in New York, he would tell people he was in magazines or publishing, never comic books."
O'Neil's favorite of his works was a 1980s comic series, The Question, in which investigative reporter Vic Sage slapped a blank mask over his face to explore his city's corruption. The pages were full of Zen philosophy and musings over the morality of violence. Vic lost at least as many fights as he won. At the end of the series, he fled the crumbling city and let it fall into ruin.
Eventually, the entire superhero genre took a turn for the nihilistic. O'Neil edited the Batman franchise at DC Comics in the late 1980s and oversaw controversial stories in which the Joker shot, crippled and sexually assaulted Batgirl and then murdered Robin, Batman's junior partner.
Today, DC and Marvel comics are full of graphically violent content, including rape and decapitation. It makes O'Neil wistful.
He says he always thought that superheroes could be used to tell sophisticated stories, but he never wanted kids pushed out of the audience.
"I am uncomfortable with how dark the characters have become," said O'Neil, now semi-retired. "I don't read every issue of the comics they're nice enough to send me for free, so my wife, Marifran, a teacher, used to give them out as prizes to second- and third-graders. Now she has to go through them and carefully pick out which ones are actually suitable for children."