|Photograph by Seth Kushner. Used with permission. Visit Graphic NYC|
Denny O’Neil is a living legend in the comic book industry.
For over six decades, the prolific writer and editor has worked on such characters as Batman, Spider-Man, Captain America, Wonder Woman, Daredevil, Iron Man, Justice League of America and The Question. At DC Comics, he oversaw the Batman titles for over a decade and worked closely with Frank Miller, editing both The Dark Knight Returns and both of his runs on Daredevil.
But, it’s his thirteen issue collaboration with artist Neal Adams on the Green Lantern / Green Arrow series that might be his seminal work. O’Neil’s nuanced writing combined with the realistic artwork of Adams was a departure from other books at the time, at the duo tackled a number of social and political issues including racism, drugs, religion, cults, corruption, pollution, and overpopulation.
Freelance writer/blogger Bob Brodsky approached me last week and offered this fantastic previously unpublished interview that with Mr. O’Neil that he conducted in 2003 where they discuss his work on the Green Lantern / Green Arrow title.
Bob Brodsky: What I was trying to do here is not so much do one of these linear type of interviews where we go through every issue and I ask you who inked #78 and that kind of thing. I’d like to just take it a little bit out of sequence and talk a little bit about the creative process.
Denny O’Neil: Yeah, I won’t remember who inked that issue. [laughs]
Oh, I know. [laughs] It’s always kind of a Catch-22, because a lot of times the guy who wasn’t there seem to know more about the project than you do, through research and everything.
Oh, yeah. But I did have the great advantage of having read Green Lantern / Green Arrow on the stands in the ’70s, and I just went through and reread everything in the last couple of days, and boy, it is great. You guys did a wonderful job on this series. It was a real blast reading it.
Going back in time to early ’70, late ’69, you had written a handful of Green Lantern issues prior to #76, and of course had fleshed out the new Green Arrow after [Bob] Haney and [Neal] Adams had introduced him in Brave and Bold, working further with the character in the Justice League. How proactive were you in bringing the new Green Arrow to the magazine and bringing about this change? Was it something that you pitched to Julie [Schwartz] and the powers that be, or did they come to you with the idea?
I think it was my idea, although it could have been Julie. I don’t think the powers that be, anybody above Julie, knew what we were doing, until we started getting publicity. There have been many versions of this story, and anything I say Neal will probably violently disagree with.
I’m just interested in your point of view.
My memory is this: we were the new kids on the block; we were the hot talent around at the time. And the book, Green Lantern, was floundering. So Julie said, in effect, as he had done with Batman, “Do you have any ideas? We want to keep publishing this title, and it’s not doing well.” I’m certain that I came up with the idea of doing the so-called “relevant” stories. I had done a few of them elsewhere. For example, “The Doomsters” in Justice League, about pollution. You read those stories now and you don’t see why they were in any way daring, but for the time, they were, a little bit. They questioned some prevailing wisdom. We made that profoundly radical statement, “The War isn’t good.” We were really on a soapbox. But at the time, nobody in comics was even saying that little bit. So I think the relevance was mine. I think Green Arrow was also my idea.
|Neal Adams’ interpretation of Green Lantern & Green Arrow|
You seemed to have a real affection for the character in the Justice League.
Yeah. We knew if we were going to go this direction, we would have to have a dialogue. Green Lantern, as he was interpreted at the time, never made any sense to me except as a cop, an authority figure. And I was having a lot of problems with authority figures at the time. [laughs] Cops in particular. I was not correct, I mean. As you tend to do when you’re young, I tarred everybody with the same brush.
That was easy to do back then.
Yeah. Anyway, we needed somebody to articulate the other point of view. So if Green Lantern was going to be, as I thought of him at the time, a cop-but the best cop anybody had ever heard of, I mean, a guy who was completely just and honest and honorable, but who did nonetheless represent authority-you needed somebody to represent the street guys, the radicals. And as you said, we had already kind of begun tinkering with Green Arrow’s character by that time, so he was just a natural for that role.
Also, Green Arrow had the advantage in that nobody else seemed to be interested in him. I didn’t have to worry about stepping on anybody else’s toes. He was one of those characters from the forties that never really had much of a personality. He was a blank slate. He was the guy with the arrows, obviously inspired by Batman. So, in terms of personality, yeah, we could make him an anarchist, because there was really nothing there to contradict. In that respect, he was a tabula rasa. So all that just kind of fell together. It helped that Neal, for the Bob Haney stories, had redesigned him so that he looked tough.
|Green Arrow as depicted by Jack Kirby and Neal Adams’ redesign|
Right. And also, aside from Haney, I think that there were really two bookends to the Green Arrow reworking. Brave and Bold #85 came out in September of ’69 with Neal and Haney. Then you followed through with Dick Dillin in Justice League #75 in November, where Oliver appears in his new costume, loses his fortune, and narrates the story, which involves him and Black Canary. So those two books really paired off each other nicely. By the time Green Lantern #76 came around, you had laid a foundation.
Yeah, but probably with no goal other than making an interesting story in mind. I imagine I got rid of the fortune for no reason more profound than there was a glut of rich guys in the JLA.
There’s also the Robin Hood side of it, Denny, where you have this archer character with the beard.
Yeah. I’m actually looking at the statue of Green Arrow right now.
Moving into “No Evil Shall Escape My Sight,” was that a landmark story for you at the time? Did you feel it was something special then and there?
Yeah, yeah. I am surprised that it’s around so many years later, and I’m also looking at that grandiose bound volume. The fact that that exists just blows me away. But yeah, we had a very clear sense that we were pushing the envelope with that one. I remember being just enormously satisfied when I had finished the script, and though this hasn’t happened much since, when I saw the finished job, I was just blown away. I was delighted with what Neal had brought to the party.
It’s just a fabulous issue, of course. When I interviewed you years ago, you mentioned how Neal could not have given you a better base sequence–the three panels with the old black man talking to Green Lantern, asking him what he’s done for “the black skins”.
Yeah. I still think that little three-panel sequence is one of the real high water marks of comics.
I agree. And there was so much in that issue. It seemed to me that you had all these things that you were bringing to the party that maybe had been bottled up—Martin Luther King references, the New Journalism point of view, and so much more. It’s all there in one issue. Were there any particular influences that stuck out?
I wonder about that, Bob. I wonder if I saw Easy Rider, the movie with Dennis Hopper, before or after I wrote that issue. Again, my memory is so fuzzy. But apart from that, no. I felt passionately about social causes, and I really had no way to express that passion. Also, I wanted to help, I wanted to do something. So along comes an opportunity to use the venue that was most readily available to me to dramatize the problems that other people were trying to deal with by protests, by politics. Some of the other artists, particularly comedians, people like Mort Sahl and the Smothers Brothers, were using the ancient and kind of threadbare art of standup comedy to talk about these problems. Of course, Lenny Bruce is the patron saint of all of those guys. So here was maybe a chance to use superhero comics in a similar way.
I don’t want to say we used Green Lantern/Green Arrow to make statements, because we were pretty careful never to offer solutions. We brought each story to a conclusion, but we never offered solutions to the big problems. The goal with regard to real life problems was to call attention to them. My theory was that, since I was in my thirties by then, it was probably too late for anybody of my generation to come up with real solutions. But if you got people thinking about these things early enough, in their formative years, in young adulthood, you might have a chance. If they’re going to be in an intellectual ferment at any point in their lives, that’s the point.
So you try to reach the generation behind mine, or even my son’s generation, call their attention to the problems, and maybe they’ll be able to come up with solutions. As for my generation, well, it didn’t hurt for them to be reminded that those problems existed.
I think that that’s a very good point, Denny. Because of your age and your background, I don’t see you as a hippie. You seem more, if anything, of the Beat generation.
Yeah, I’m much more Beat than hippie.
Even then, back in the late ‘60s, you were telling a story about another generation, in a way.
Yeah, when we went on peace marches and things like that, most of the people around were younger than us. Of course there were always a few old lefties, who were considerably older, but mainly it was, and I think it continues to be, a young person’s game. I don’t think I could spend all day marching around the Pentagon, get tear-gassed, and then go back into downtown Washington, DC and party until three AM. [laughter] I did at the time.
Yeah, then it was, you went to work and you came home, the evenings were okay. I guess that’s what really helped; everybody was young and didn’t give a damn.
Yeah, part of it was because it was where the action was.
Where the action was. You always have people who are attracted to that, I guess.
Yeah, and there were girls, and there’s a rumor that there may have even been drugs, and there’s–
Yeah, that’s what I’ve heard. And there was certainly a lot of alcohol around. But it’s easy to overemphasize those things, and that’s what the more staid members of our society chose to emphasize. There was also genuine idealism that lit up the whole landscape. Those kids wanted to change things, and they were right. History has proven them right. It was a bad war.
Absolutely. Otherwise, they could have been partying day and night, instead of just at night.
Yeah, they really cared. And I think they stopped the war.
I think you’re right.
I think without all that fuss, well, it would have stopped eventually, but it might have gone on longer. There might have been additional lives lost. I’m cynical enough to believe that no motive is ever pure; everything is always mixed. But you at least had a good wide streak of purity in the youth protest movement of the Sixties and early Seventies.
I was married to a woman, who was raised on a Catholic Worker farm, and many, many of my St. Louis friends, they sort of tolerated my going in the Navy, but they were involved in that stuff. Some of them were in college, and that was college in the Fifties. We were at the universities at the tail end of the Fifties, so some of them were way ahead of the curve.
I wanted to go back to something you mentioned earlier, one of the things you’re known for: characterization. When you mentioned Relevance before, was Relevance to you simply being topical, or does it also imply bringing some depth and humanity to these characters?
Now I would define Relevance much more widely.
Yeah, a story has to deal with really basic human questions, with the realities behind whatever happens to be going on in the foreground at the moment.
You were very masterful at integrating the two of them, characterization and topicality, though the topical aspect’s gotten a lot more attention over the years.
Well, comics had not done anything like that before, and it was an easy enough thing for feature writers to hang a story on.
It’s interesting to me that you covered a wide variety of issues, such as race relations, women’s rights, and the environment, but did not directly cover the Vietnam War. Was that intentional?
I think so. I ran into the same problem a couple of years ago when I did another Green Lantern and Green Arrow story. It was simply too complex to lend itself to melodrama.
A messy war.
Yeah. I mean I didn’t have a grasp of really what was going on beyond the very powerful conviction that we were wrong to be there. I just recently read a book about the Kennedy presidency. None of us really knew what was going on. A lot of it was fairly sordid, in some ways worse than we knew. On the other hand, some of the more extravagant statements having to do with certain politicians being more interested in their careers and in flaunting their masculinity than in doing what’s right, those statements seemed extravagant at the time, and they’ve been pretty much vindicated by history.
Absolutely. On the war, Denny, was the problem also the idea that complexity doesn’t lend itself to good storytelling?
Well, we had a 22-page format dealing with melodramatic characters. You wouldn’t want to try and do a comic book about the recession that we’ve been in for the last eighteen months. I think there are some topics that just don’t lend themselves to dramatization, particularly not to the larger-than-life melodrama that superheroes have to be by virtue of what the genre is.
Like talking about the national debt a few years ago. It was always such a hard thing to illustrate or make real to people.
We occasionally have that problem with environmental issues. There are some things about the environment that are pretty easy to dramatize. I did one in Justice League about a river catching fire, which was lifted directly from the headlines. And some of the stuff in Green Lantern / Green Arrow was too, but I have the conviction that basically you have to start telling people different stories. You have to change the way we view our relationship to the Earth, and that’s not so easy. I keep trying to think, “How can we do a superhero about this?”
I have an opportunity to create some new stuff for DC, and I’m at a point in my life where I don’t see any point in not swinging for the fences every time out, though I certainly won’t hit the home run all the time. But I can’t think of a way yet to take those issues and kind of push them into a superhero fantasy melodrama template. One thing we were very involved in was the land mine issue. Well, that was one of the involvements of which I’m proudest. On the other hand, it was a pretty easy one to dramatize.
I thought the Justice League issues with the Doomsters succeeded very well. You had the alien enemy which existed to destroy the Earth by pollution, which created the conflict there, and then brought in the ending: “Hey, now mankind is back in the driver’s seat, but this problem has not gone away just because the aliens have been defeated.” That, to me, was pretty darned powerful.
That’s nice to hear, because that’s kind of what we were hoping we’d get out of that stuff.
That was a two-part story, so you had some room to stretch and produce excellent stories.
And an editor who knew when to let go of the reins.
Exactly. And speaking of that editor, Denny, what was the difference, say, plotting a Batman story versus plotting a Green Lantern / Green Arrow story during the same period?
Well, I was thinking of Batman as pure storytelling. We never had any axe to grind beyond turning out a good comic book, a noir kind of thing. That was kind of pleasant. It gave me a nice little dialectic in my life, which I tried to achieve whenever possible, of doing contrasting kinds of things. Journalism and comic book writing earlier in the period we’re talking about supplied some of that. They’re both writing, but they’re really different disciplines. With Batman, I was just writing stories. With Green Lantern / Green Arrow, we were trying to do something a little bigger and a little more difficult. We had an added agenda with Green Lantern / Green Arrow.
Which was harder? Where was the creative process more difficult?
Well, it was all easy back then, Bob. [Laughs] I didn’t know how joyful the act of writing stories was for me back then. I can remember having trouble writing Superman stories, and I ran out of steam on the Justice League because I just felt that my imagination was not up to doing a good job with the demands of that series, which were pretty stupendous demands. You had a bunch of these godlike characters, and at that time JLA was pretty much limited to one-issue stories. Once or twice a year we were allowed more than one issue. Then they also liked to get Batman, Superman, Green Lantern, and Flash in every issue, so you couldn’t, as some people have done since, focus on one character, which is certainly a logical way to deal with that problem. I think I realized, “Gee, this is the third alien invasion story in six months. [Laughs] Maybe it’s time to move on.”
Well, you’re selling yourself short, Denny. That was a very, very memorable run to a lot of people, and I loved it at the time. I was telling Mari Fran one time, that, even though I was awfully young, I never really “got” the Gardner Fox Justice League. I bought a couple of issues and they literally gave me a headache at the time. There’s just too much going on, very compressed storytelling, no characterization. But the first issue you wrote, the Dirty Half-Dozen issue, I just grabbed it off the stands. There was something there that wasn’t there before. You did bring that humanity to the characters, even though then you were still working it in.
And yet, some of those stories got a strongly negative reaction. Well, any time you change anything, the people who love the present incarnation are going to feel outraged and offended. And I kind of regret Generalissimo Demmy Gog. [laughs]
But don’t forget, that issue featured the conflict between the not so powerful, and the god-like JLA members. That was unprecedented.
There was a real story in there, but the character of Demmy Gog was maybe a little cornier than he needed to be.
Well, it was kind of on the edge of camp. It made sense at the time, and you told the story. I thought the conflict was really the main event. But with Julie, maybe I’m wrong, because of the generation gap, but my perception’s been that maybe he was not as involved in Green Lantern as he was in, say, Batman.
I think he’s pretty much said that in his autobiography that he just kind of stood back and let Green Lantern / Green Arrow happen. I think that’s absolutely true. I thought, initially, he didn’t trust me very much, because I was very young. I looked probably five years younger than I was. Gee, if only that were still true. [laughter] I had long hair and I didn’t wear suits and ties or sport jackets. That must have pushed a lot of warning buttons.
But after that first story that we did together, which was Green Lantern, the relationship became very comfortable. I’ve heard that eventually it became nice for him because he found he didn’t have to spend a day working out every panel, as he’d occasionally had to do with other writers. Even at the beginning, it took no more than 90 minutes. Once we got going, unless I was really having a bad month, I could come in and talk to him for half an hour, and probably ten minutes of that time was spent talking about science fiction or gossiping or whatever.
He told me once you were his best writer and you were the go to guy.
Well, that’s very flattering given that he’s worked with a whole lot of good people. And it was a strange kind of rapport. He was a Jewish man from Queens, and I was a hippie from the Midwest. I don’t know to this day what his politics are. I have no idea. I mean, he jokes about, “Is it good for the Jews?”
Right. I hear that line, too.
It’s odd how little I really know him, considering I’ve known him for thirty years and at one point we were working together very closely and continuously. Whatever it was, he was the right editor. He knew when to let me go, he knew when I was in trouble and needed a little nudging. That’s what you want from an editor.
Obviously Julie was a great resource, but was it no coincidence that your ambition and your talent were running parallel here? You were at the point where you had the ambition, but maybe you had it because you had honed your skills up to then?
Well, I had been doing it for about five years. “Gee, I can really do this! Wow! Who’d a thunk?” When I came to New York, I thought this was good for a year, maybe. It was just a chance to live and work in New York, which was nothing I had ever anticipated. It was too good a shot to pass up. But God knows, I never thought it would last five years, much less 37. And I’ve said this before, Neal and I had been doing it long enough that our basic toolkit was intact. We knew how to do it, we had enough craft, and we were confident we could produce a better-than-OK comic book. The only element that was missing was maybe something that you felt was really worth telling a story about.
But it was not collaboration in the sense of two guys getting together in a room every month and working out the stories. There was very little of that. People ask me, “What was it like to work with Neal Adams?” And I don’t know what to say. I saw him a lot. Comic books were a much friendlier place back then. For one thing, we all lived in New York, so there were poker games and there were a lot of Friday night parties in the Village. Once a month there was a kind of informal thing where everybody in the comic book world would get together in somebody’s apartment. Occasionally I remember, y’know, you’re both in the office and it’s 5:30, so you might as well get dinner before going home, that kind of thing. But formal collaboration, no, almost never. I didn’t realize it at the time, but Neal and I would have been fairly at odds, I think, about a lot of the stuff.
|Julie Schwartz at DC Comics in the Seventies with writer Cary Bates (on left)|
So it was just as well that you were able to funnel it through Julie and come up with what you did.
Yeah, the way comics were done then is, the writer writes the script, and he goes away, and six months later he sees how it comes out. Green Lantern / Green Arrow was not a lot different. I did have a bit more contact with Neal. I would see him in the office fairly often, since I was going up there about once a week. Sometimes we met at parties and stuff. I had more contact with him than, say, with Jim Aparo, but not collaboration in the sense that when Frank Miller and I did the Spider-Man Annuals, we really sat down and plotted them together.
Which really would be more of a Marvel-style approach.
The young guys seem to want to attach themselves to an artist. I think that’s probably good business sense, so you get sold as a team. But I always considered myself an independent operator, and I didn’t know that Neal was going to do Green Lantern / Green Arrow when I did the first script. I was delighted, as I said, when I saw that job. I was just blown away by it. And that emotion was repeated a lot in the next fifteen months or so.
Great work, both of you. Transcendent stuff. Denny, if you were given the opportunity tomorrow, and you had complete freedom to do a sequel to the original Green Lantern / Green Arrow series, how would you approach the project? Is that something that you would even want to do?
Oh, I would have every trepidation in the world. [laughs] I also know I would not be able to resist. I know absolutely I would jump at it. I sometimes wonder if, in today’s climate, we could do those stories. One of those things that helped that series come into being, I think, was that the old ways weren’t exactly working. I mean there was no 100%-tried-and-true way to do a comic book story that you knew would sell and be commercially successful. So the powers-that-be were much more willing to let people experiment. Now, maybe I’m completely wrong, but I have a sense it would be a tougher sell.
Say you were able to do one issue with a sequel, with all the context. And it was done like Dark Knight Returns, or something like that. I think that would be a huge seller if they advertised and promoted it. Do you think you’d want to do a retro thing, or would you maybe age the characters and show them today? Have you given that some thought?
You know, that’s a neat idea. What if we did a Dark Knight Returns with those characters?
I think it’d be fascinating, and you could account for what they have done over the last three decades.
The problem would be that Green Lantern and Green Arrow have been in continuous publication, more or less. But then, Batman was in continuous publication when Frank did the first Dark Knight. It would be very interesting. You would have to get exactly the right artist, one who was very interested in telling the story. As we’ve been talking, I’ve been making sort of a mental list, because I really don’t think there’s any possibility that Neal would work with me or anybody else.
|A look at Green Arrow in the future via Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, edited by O’Neil|
Right, I wasn’t even thinking of Neal. I was thinking more of you as the writer and who would make sense as an artist, and gosh, it’s a short list.
Well, it would be nice this time to do it with somebody who was as involved in the issues, and involved in the same way as I was. Norm Breyfogle springs immediately to mind, because he’s not high profile anymore, but he really works on the storytelling. I’ve continued to have really interesting conversations with him about social issues. At one point he sent me six months worth of Jerry Brown’s radio show out of Oakland.
Oh, I used to listen to that, I loved that show. I used to listen to it all the time in California. Isn’t it called United We Stand, or We The People?
Yeah, We The People. And he really gets into the material. In that graphic novel, Batman: Birth of the Demon, at one point he called me and said, “Denny, do you realize that on page such and such, you’ve got earth, air, fire, and water in the same shot?” “No, Norm, I didn’t realize that. [laughs] Thanks for calling it to my attention.” I mean, he gets that far into it. There’s probably other guys around I could work with, too. It would be a fascinating project. Actually, after the new contract, I’m going to owe DC about 88 pages that we haven’t accounted for yet. I could suggest it. I wonder how they would feel about that.
And I’ve found in doing the prose novels that Green Lantern can be a more interesting character than I’d ever given him credit for.
You always treated him with respect, I thought.
I liked him. I didn’t agree with him as much as I did with Ollie.
He’s a good guy.
Ollie shoots from the hip, and he can be a little less sympathetic at times. Did you see yourself in either of the characters, or both of them?
A little bit of both. Probably much more Ollie. But I think the part of me that grew up Catholic in north St. Louis had volunteered for military service. Though that’s not as big a step as it sounds, because I probably would have been drafted if I hadn’t. But the middle-class Eisenhower mentality, when it’s untainted, is not bad, and that was Hal. He’s like that Navy officer I knew who would occasionally join me on the fantail of the ship and we’d talk about literature. He was a Navy officer, and he would jump all over me if I screwed up. But he was basically a good guy, and had interests outside his career.
Yes, that’s Hal. It’s interesting how, as the series went on, his hair got a little longer, he got a little hipper, and he got more sympathetic. Whereas Ollie, until he started to have some problems in his psyche with the drug issues, was almost unsympathetic, because he always had the answers.
I think most of that was unconscious, but it’s also pretty accurate. It’s one of the basic tools of drama that’s normally denied comic book guys, or people who do series of any kind: in classic drama, the protagonist is changed by the events of the story. I guess we were letting that happen a little bit. Those characters were changed. How much of it was conscious, I don’t know.
It’s fascinating sitting down and reading the series in one sitting. I know what Green Lantern / Green Arrow means to me and fans like me who have read the books. Have you ever seen the comments on Amazon.com?
You should check them out, they’re very, very praising. There are very nice comments, where the reviewers are the readers–
Yeah, I know how that works.
If you go in and check “Dennis O’Neil,” you’ll see a ton of stuff in there; I think 33 books.
Oh my God! [laughs]
And Green Lantern / Green Arrow‘s one of the first. They only have one copy left, by the way. They bring up all the reviews, and they’re great.
I’ll look at it. We’ve got Amazon.com on our favorite places because we buy a lot of books from them, but I’d never thought to look at the reviews. Plus, I had never thought to look for my name!
The trick is, you put in “Dennis O’Neil.” “Dennis” gets you 33, I think “Denny” gets you seven or eight. I know what the series means to me and people like me. What does the series mean to you?
I’m certainly glad that we did it. It was, in terms of my career, probably the high-water mark. I think I’ve done better writing since, but nothing that was as much fun, and nothing that had as big an impact as that. At the time, Neal and I were going on talk shows, and comic book people didn’t do that. So it had a kind of immediate effect on the world beyond what you might expect from comics.
A lot of people have told me that it enlarged the possibilities of the comic book form, and if that’s true, that’s very flattering. That’s because we dealt kind of seriously with characterization, and with real problems. Whether or not they were “relevant,” they were real. I think we did something that was reasonably significant in the history of the form, and it’s very nice to have done that. I try not to think about it too much because it’s so long ago, and that’s a trap that us old guys can fall into, harking back to our glory days.
Oh yes, we all do it.
There have been careers, I think, that have been stunted by “Yeah, don’t you remember, I created__?” But that was in the past. I’m not being articulate in answering your question because I had never thought about it for one second beforehand. It was a high-water mark in my personal career. I think I learned things from it that I have used pretty constantly ever since. If it helped show later creators some way to go, then that’s very nice and very flattering to think that we might have been able to do that.
I know it influenced people like me, Denny, as a reader. I can’t tell you how much that series affected me, and continues to affect me every time I pick it up. It’s amazing. It’s interesting how something that was so topical has turned out to be so timeless.
Well, that’s scary. What has hurt me about it is that those problems haven’t changed. They’ve gotten worse, particularly the environmental problems. Though people would argue with this, I think we have made some progress in race relations. But drug addiction is as bad or worse now than it was then, and as I said, I think the environment is the base problem. If we blow that, then everything is blown. I get a lot of e-mails from environmentalists, and some days I don’t open them because I know I will become depressed.
I know what you mean. It seems just to get scarier and scarier, and I personally feel less and less powerful as time goes on. It’s very easy to get beaten down these days.
In some fundamental ways, we’re losing the country. We’re losing some civil liberties, and we’re losing our woods, our trees, our streams, and our rivers. We’re losing thousands of species every year. We’re in the middle of the worst mass extinction since the Ice Age, and occasionally the Times will mention it, but nobody else will. It’s just not on the national radar.
Terrible. And so many things that are on the screen are distractions.
When I think of the dozens of column inches that the newspapers will devote to the clothes that were worn last night at the Academy Awards-and the important issues get buried on page 11A.
‘Cause they don’t sell Toyotas.
Exactly. I guess most of us get our news from television, and television is sound bites. If a story is three minutes, that’s an enormous chunk of time out of the evening newscast, and you can’t tell a story in three minutes. You can tell the story of a car crash, but not political / social / economic stuff.
And it’s such a visual medium. I remember the tragedy when JFK Junior’s plane went down, watching CNN. They basically showed you a shot of still water for eight hours. They just don’t know what to do.
Right. Or they interview each other.
Right, right. Ask each other what they thought about it, and it’s scary, because a lot of it is, at best, regurgitation.
A couple of weeks ago I was driving around the Midwest late at night. Not knowing what the local radio stations were, I just sampled. Some of the talk shows were frightening. These people tell blatant lies. I think, unless something in your life corrects those lies, then you believe them.
It’s a shame. Whoever controls the media controls the minds. You look at the consolidation, with people like Rupert [Murdoch] and the Fox thing, and how the laws now are allowing media conglomerates to own TV and radio and everything under one umbrella, having it all under lock and key. It’s really frightening. You combine that with the president and the Supreme Court, and it’s like a coup d’etat, in my opinion.
There are a few bright spots here and there, but not many. A doctor whom we respect, Andrew Wilde, has a newsletter we subscribe to, and he recommends doing a media fast once or twice a month. Mary and I are going to do that, I think.
I’m all for that. Just two more questions. Characters that came out of Green Lantern / Green Arrow, like John Stewart or Isaac: are there any that really stand out for you today, that are especially memorable?
Well, John Stewart’s on television.
Right, caught him yesterday. [laughs]
But I’m told that it doesn’t have too much to do with our characterization. That’s not uncommon, maybe it shouldn’t have. It’s a different medium, a different time. Somebody sent me the John Stewart action figure. It’s kind of surprising that, again, a character that was created to serve a purpose 25 years ago is still around in any form.
But Isaac as a Christ figure, we did that kind of consciously, and I don’t think that had been done before.
He would be interesting to go back to, maybe, sometime, some way. Those are the two that kind of stick out.
Fascinating. John Stewart was just so ahead of his time. You had a well-rounded black man who became a superhero. He was the man before he was the hero.
A great character. I’m trying to explain to my son Leo when we watch the Justice League cartoon about the “real” John Stewart, kind of showing my age.
Last question, Denny. Do you keep up at all with any of the peripheral stuff that the original series has spawned over the years; everything from DC’s use of the Monastery to Kevin Smith’s Green Arrow?
Mark Waid did a nice tribute in a recent four-part special Brave and Bold.
Do you read any of that stuff?
Unless people call it to my attention, I don’t make an effort to, no. I would suspect that Kevin’s take on the character and mine would be pretty different, so I haven’t done more than glance at that book. Mike Grell, who’s a really good guy, I’ve had some good times with him, but his Green Arrow was not mine. Again, there’s no reason that it should be. To get good stuff, everybody’s got to reinterpret it. But no, I don’t make much of an effort to keep up. There’s an awful lot out there to read, and there’s an awful lot out there to learn.
So I am at DC once a week, and I talk with a lot of people, and I’m reasonably certain that anything I should know about, I do, because people, as I said, will call it to my attention. But I’m not a fan. I tend to find foreign comics more interesting than domestic comics, because they’re trying different stuff.
I thought there would be that link to the characters. Maybe the basic curiosity of, “Hey, I created this character. It’d be interesting to see what’s happening with him or her today.”
It would be nice to say that that’s the case, but I try not to look at the past too much. I’m almost 63, and that’s dangerous. But even twenty years ago, I guess I considered it old news. And then there is this, that occasionally I have to look at the old stuff, not talking about Green Lantern / Green Arrow at all now, and I’d see how badly it was done, the pictures that weren’t drawn. There are a lot of ways to make yourself miserable.
This is your old work?
Yeah. There is stuff where visual information was not included that was pretty essential to understanding the stories. Also, my own mistakes jump out and poke me in the eye. I tend not to read my stuff over again. I just published a short story, and there is a terrible screaming typo right in the middle of it. I don’t know if it’s theirs or mine.
Oh, that hurts.
But I think of the effort that I put into doing that, and it was a story that depended a lot more on language than plot, so a typo is a painful thing. You just get to the point where you’d rather not have that misery.
Exactly. You want to recall every copy.
Sometimes I’ve become infuriated, like, “How could that moron of an editor let this go by?” And then go back and look at the original script, and I was the moron. [Bob laughs] At least half the time I made a mistake, and I probably exaggerate how much that mistake damaged the story. But it’s still kind of an unpleasant feeling.
It’s certainly not fun.
One of the reasons that I’m happy to work with Charlie Kochman is that he will catch the mistakes. He will catch anything that might be a mistake. By this he is a rarity not only in comics, but also in New York editing in general. You hear a lot of complaints about how the editors don’t seem to be interested in editing. I’m talking about all kinds of publishing now. It doesn’t seem to be as big a problem in the other media, TV, movies, and so on. They have their own set of problems. But in publishing, well, the Times did a piece last year about the phenomenon of the freelance book editor, where an author will pay somebody up to $10,000 just to go through the book and do basic editing because they don’t feel they’re going to get that from their publisher. Book publishing has become about making the deal, rather than this sometimes-tedious business of going through a long manuscript line-by-line and looking for mistakes. But that’s really a lot of what editing should be about. I may change my mind when I get feedback on the novel from Charlie next week and he’s found 337 things wrong with it.
Denny, thank you for the interview, and especially for Green Lantern / Green Arrow.
|Photograph by Seth Kushner. Used with permission. Visit Graphic NYC|