Many a comic book reader was sucked into superhero comics, or any comics, by the compelling stories of one writer: Dennis “Denny” O’Neil, who passed away Thursday, June 11, fifty years after the publication of his most celebrated work. O’Neil created some of the most admired tales of our favorite superheroes. His stories ushered in an entirely new, modern era of comic books that historians refer to as the Bronze Age of comics (following on the heels of the Golden Age that introduced the first superhero books with Superman in 1938, followed by the Silver Age in 1956, which gave us new sci-fi and space fantasy stories by the likes of Jack Kirby and Stan Lee). The Bronze Age began with the “Hard-Traveling Heroes” story arc (illustrated by Neal Adams) that forever re-defined Green Lantern Hal Jordan, Oliver Queen’s Green Arrow, and Dinah Lance’s Black Canary. But it would be looked back on as much more than that.
It helps to know that the Golden Age superheroes fought off the obvious villains of real-life as well as fictional foes. It made sense, in part to help sell war bonds, for Superman, Captain Marvel, and Captain America to motivate (and cheer up) soldiers (many barely adults themselves) and kids alike, sometimes by defeating Hitler himself. The mainstream Silver Age moved more toward fantasy, but as the Vietnam War churned on the villainy in comics needed a second look. Rooting out villains–and distinguishing good from bad–wasn’t always so clear-cut.
Grab any comic book history book for the full story, but all you need to begin to see the vision of Denny O’Neil is to pick up a copy of that O’Neil and Adams’ “Hard Traveling Heroes” arc (available in numerous reprints and collected editions at your local comic shop), commencing with Green Lantern Issue #76, the 1970 cross-titled Green Lantern/Green Arrow issue titled “No Evil Shall Escape My Sight!”
Green Lantern, often a parallel for Superman and his cold brand of carrying out black and white justice, is approaching a scene outside dilapidated tenements in an inner city neighborhood. A “thug” is stealing money from an older man to pay bills. Green Lantern aka Hal Jordan turns his attention to the thief, but the crowd will not support his brand of justice. Here’s how the story unfolded:
Not one to take events at face value, Oliver investigates further and learns the truth.
And O’Neil succinctly lays out the issue in the few words of a black man on the street…
“My take on Green Lantern was, he was a kind of cop,” O’Neil would later say. “I mean, he wore a uniform, he did what he was told, he answered to bosses.” O’Neil brought in Green Arrow Oliver Queen and later Oliver’s girlfriend Dinah Lance aka Black Canary and the trio began a road trip across America over the next year, advocating social change and fixing America’s problems one town at a time. (the original Green Lantern 76 is a highly sought-after issue today, fetching thousands of dollars in mint condition).
The short series-within-a-series peaked with Issues 85-86, when O’Neil then introduced drug addiction (to the surprise of many) as the next big topic for comic readers to mull over. In one short series comics changed from the clean-cut comics of the Dennis the Menace era to the beginnings of modern comics that would later usher in a dark brooding Batman in the 1980s Dark Knight Returns mini-series.
The comics community–and readers–owe much to this accomplished and beloved writer.
C.J. Bunce / Editor / borg