Back to the Bat - Denny O'Neil on his Return to Batman

For legendary writer Denny O'Neil, his two-part story in December issues of Batman and Detective Comics is a chance to get his hands back on the characters he helped define for so many years. For DC Comics, it's an opportunity to have "Gotham City without Batman" defined by a man who knows the city well.

Batman #684
Batman #684
Bat signal.

"Batman really isn't in the story," said O'Neil, explaining that he had to focus on other characters in the Bat-family as he explored what Gotham City is like without the Caped Crusader after “Batman R.I.P.” "Batman is the great unseen presence in the story, the way that Hamlet's father is the great unseen presence (except for a few minutes in Act I) in that story."

Featuring art by newcomer Guillem March (Joker's Asylum: Poison Ivy), O'Neil's two-part story in Detective Comics #851 and Batman #684 will be a follow-up for Grant Morrison's “Batman R.I.P.” event, which is due to wrap up in November. It will also precede January's "Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?" story by Neil Gaiman and Andy Kubert.

"After fussing with it for awhile, I think it's my chance to do a type of story I've only done once before, and that was Batman and the House of Mystery in Brave and the Bold," he said. "It's always been one of my favorites of the old work I did because it had an unconventional structure."

Fans of O'Neil's work will remember the story from Brave and the Bold: Vol. 1, #93. "It was a team-up book. And the challenge was, how do you team up Batman with a house?" O'Neil said of the issue, which featured art by another comic book legend, Neal Adams. "And I got to play with the narrative and to do a story that is kind of based in folklore with some real science."

O'Neil said he took that idea of narration representing a house and applied it to a story about Gotham City.

"What was interesting to me about the structure I finally arrived at was personifying Gotham City as a once-beautiful actress who's been disfigured, and now she totally identifies with the city. And it's her narration. She's the narrator," he explained. "We don't know if she's really managed to somehow totally identify with the city, or if what's happened to her has caused her to go crazy. But she, more than any one thing, is the narrator, and it gave me a chance to comment on the city in a way that wouldn't be appropriate for a third-person caption. So I got to play with narrative more than usual."

Batman to the rescue.

Titled "Last Days of Gotham," the story focuses on a city O'Neil knows well after his decades as both a Batman creator and editor.

"I've described it hundreds of times," O'Neil said of Gotham City. "I've even been quoted in a history book. It's New York City, late November, 3 a.m., Little Italy/Soho area, and you're walking home, and you hear footsteps behind you. And there's nobody around. It is, in effect, a huge gothic mansion full of shadows and bad architecture. I look at it as a place with a lot of looming walls and very few windows. And it's scary. And it's a little dangerous.

"I remember walking through that neighborhood in New York at 3 a.m. and seeing a truck that said, 'Eisner Produce.' And I remember thinking, yeah, this is appropriate, isn't it?" O'Neil said. "By contrast, Metropolis is New York City, Central Park, June 25th, with birds singing, sun shining and kids throwing Frisbees. It's a nice place."

O'Neil said with Batman's absence from Gotham, his story features characters like Nightwing, Oracle and Alfred, who he calls a "Merlin" figure.

"Alfred has evolved from a goofy, comic-relief character into this grand old man, or wise old man of mythology," he said. "I also hearken back to the great Gotham City earthquake, which was the last really big thing I did before retiring... oh my God, it's been seven years. Sometimes I miss it. There's a lot about being an editor I don't miss. It's one of the really stressful jobs. But I do miss interacting with creative people and dipping into that mythos that I helped create, with lots and lots and lots of help."

Batman on the Batpod from 'The Dark Knight'
Batman on the Batpod from 'The Dark Knight'
Batmobile Motorbike.

As for the excitement from fans to this upcoming return of the legendary writer to the Batman titles, he finds it amusing. "I don't see what the big fuss is about. I'm a freelance writer, and this is a job. It's a really nice job. And I'm flattered people are glad to see me writing it. But we're not curing cancer here!" he laughed.

O'Neil said he was contacted by Batman editor Mike Marts to do the story and was thrilled to get his hands back into the Batman comic book universe, although he'd never really left the characters because of other related projects. "For me, this was an editor I'd never worked for calling and asking if I'd want to do a couple of jobs. Mike Marts told me what purpose this would serve in the continuity. He set out the parameters, and it sounded fun," O'Neil said. "I'm reasonably busy, but not very. So this was a welcome bit of work. I really enjoyed the job. But I haven't been entirely absent from Batman. I did a novel this year, which was the novelization of the current movie. And I've done other jobs with Batman. But this was a good chance to get back to the comics. And I'm pleased with the story I got to tell."

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