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Interview: DENNY O'NEIL
Wednesday, October 18, 2006
Gregg Bray

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On Wednesday, October 4, 2006, Denny O’Neil gave a lecture to my class about writing for visual media, collaborative writing and writing content across media, including transposing content from one media to another. He also addressed some of the Batman films—first at dinner, and then with the class. Denny, and his wife Marifran, are two absolute class acts. They were warm, genuine, and down to earth people. Having read much of O’Neil’s work over the years, I thought it might be difficult not to behave like an overexcited fan-boy. After all, this is a fine writer, editor, and mentor to other writers in the industry. Plus, he moved Batman beyond his camp persona of the mid-1960s, into the grim avenger most of us recognize today. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Please divulge me as I give a little context to our meeting.


For those of you who may not know me, I’m a Lecturer in the Department of Communication and Media at SUNY New Paltz. This is a stuffy way of saying I’m a college teacher who gets to do what he loves. I teach a number of video and audio production courses, and media writing courses. My side work is all media based—I write, I produce, I direct, and I’m below the radar.

I’m married to a beautiful woman, Nadine, and live quietly in the Hudson Valley area. One day, Nadine and I were visiting her Aunt, Uncle, and cousin who live closer to the city (NYC). I wore a Batman shirt (one of my favorites—button down in the front, with a looming specter of the dark knight shrouded in his cape). During the visit, Nadine’s Uncle mentioned, “My daughter’s school teacher is married to a Batman writer,” and asked, “Would you like to meet the O’Neils?”

“DENNY O’NEIL!!” I leaped out off the couch and was mid-wikipedia monologue-ing on Denny O’Neil’s achievements before I took a breath.  The short answer was, “Yes, I’d love to meet the O’Neil’s.”


Shortly after, Nadine’s uncle sent an email that was carbon-copied to Marifran O’Neil. It was an introduction. She and I began corresponding over the summer, just pleasantly chatting about Nadine’s cousin, and also Denny’s work. I invited them both to come up to New Paltz for dinner, and for Denny to address a class.


We arranged a date to hold the class, as well as a place and time to meet beforehand. Nestled just under Mohonk Mountain’s array of autumn splendor is the humble dwelling, New Paltz, NY. It’s a college town, and consists of two main roads, and small roads which are more or less tiny tributaries with mom and pop shops, esoteric knick knacks, vintage clothing stores, and the like.

But we have a Starbucks (or as my colleague Tom Herling calls it, “Fourbucks Coffee“). So, there is some sign of corporate civilization. There’s a patio adjacent to the shop, and we met on the patio. The first thing I noticed about Denny O’Neil was his smile. He wore mostly black. His glasses, black hat (brim a bit too wide for a ‘fedora,’ but not wide enough to be a ‘cowboy hat’…I wish I had a better grasp of hat styles), and a peace button on the right side of his leather vest. In other words, his smile had a great deal of competition in terms of accessories. His wife had the aura of your favorite grammar schoolteacher. We made our introductions, and headed off to dinner.

Of course, Batman came up. I asked Denny what he thought of BATMAN BEGINS. “The best of the live action Batman films, by a wide margin,” was his immediate response. He felt the filmmakers really understood the character they were translating. Denny was also quick to defend the previous filmmakers, and mentioned that Joel Schumacher (the bane of many comic book fans) was actually one of the nicest people he’s ever met.

I mentioned how much I enjoyed Tim Burton’s expressionist use of the characters, and Denny nodded, then added “but he always had a difficult time tying his visuals to story.” Denny complimented his visuals, and we agreed that ED WOOD is probably Tim Burton’s best film to date. He also said something that he would reiterate later at class. “Not to say any particular version of Batman is wrong.”


Dinner was pleasant. We spoke about our families, our jobs, writing, a bit on politics, our kids’ accomplishments and then back to the topic of comics.

“Are there any writers out there whose work you actively seek out? Denny nodded, “Alan Moore.” He then paused a moment. “Frank Miller’s also interesting…he was a protégé of mine, and real great guy. But his world outlook is a bit bleaker than mine.” Denny recollected about Frank -- an eager young comic book writer whom he grew to have a bond with. We briefly touched on the newfound respectability of the comic writer. His GREEN ARROW/GREEN LANTERN comic has been commemorated on a stamp. The Arlo Guthrie quote about his father’s stamp came to mind: “For a man who fought respectability his whole life, this comes as a final and staggering defeat.”

THE NEW YORK TIMES runs a story about comics at least once a month -- major comics by Marvel or DC, so it has become an art form. -- much to my chagrin.” He would later add, in class, “The attraction to comics to me was that it was so disreputable, quality was not in the vocabulary, THURSDAY was in the vocabulary. Have it in Thursday, and you are a good writer. I’m over simplifying it by not by a whole lot.”

Eamon (my fifteen-month old son) stood on a chair beside Denny, and helped himself to some of Denny’s pasta. Denny patted Eamon on the back and said with a grin, “Well, at least it’s not going to waste.”


Gregg Bray is a longtime BOF'er as well a contributor to the site.
Gregg is a lecturer in the Department of Communication and Media at SUNY New Paltz in New York state.

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