Dennis O’Neil returns to Batman next month, inserting some of his “socially conscious” writing approach into a Christmas story for the DC Universe Holiday Special 2017 #1.
During a six-decade writing and editing career that spanned the ‘60s to the present, O’Neil has most often been associated with Batman, having written the character’s self-titled book for years and served as DC’s Batman editor for much of the ‘90s.
A holiday-themed anthology book, DC Universe Holiday Special 2017 features stories about Superman, Wonder Woman and other DC heroes — like Sgt. Rock fighting the Nazis on Hanukkah and the Teen Titans taking on the literal ghost of Christmas past.
For O’Neil’s story, he’s uniting with veteran artist Steve Epting, a long-time Marvel artist that O’Neil actually didn’t know before this opportunity. The two are packing the eight-page story with scenes of Batman, Alfred and the classic Batmobile, but O’Neil is making sure Batman solves the problem without violence — after all, it’s Christmas.
Newsarama talked to O’Neil to find out more about his approach to the story and how an old TV show he watched as a kid informed the Batman story.
Newsarama: Denny, what got you involved in the Christmas issue?
Dennis O’Neil: Somebody from DC called me, and I’m not particularly busy — I have one show between now and New Year’s — and I’ve always kind of liked doing the Christmas stories. I’ve done six or eight of them over the years.
Nrama: So you’re an old pro at this thing. And obviously an old pro at writing Batman.
O’Neil: Yeah, it’s been more than two years since I’ve done a Batman story. Probably almost that long since I’ve done a comic book story, and I used to do about four of those a month.
So I was a little bit curious about getting back to it!
What you do with this stuff is look at the holiday and see what the iconography is. The last Christmas story I did was for Batman: Black and White, which was not a Christmas publication — I don’t know if that was my idea or the editors — but that’s been much more than 10 years.
So it was a chance to get back to it.
Nrama: How did you choose the approach this time around?
O’Neil: “Down the chimney St. Nicolas came with a bound.” That poem has become integral to Christmas. And I have never done the chimney thing. So I began to work on what can I do with chimneys?
The other requirement I had was no violence. Batman does not solve this with a punch as he often solves things, because that is the essential part of Christmas.
There was a TV show I saw when I was a kid, and I saw again a few years ago — a show called Have Gun — Will Travel, which was about this wandering gunfighter who went around taking on commissions when there was a clear right and wrong.
The Christmas story had him unarmed throughout most of it because he was staying with Quakers. And then it came to a thing where apparently the only way to solve this was by shooting somebody. And he walked over and took his gun belt off the hook. Then he realized it as Christmas and he put it back, and he ended up solving the thing by talking.
I thought that was one of the great TV Christmas stories of all time.
So that was kind of in my head.
I have been watching more television in the last couple of years than ever before in my life, and it’s fine — I think some of our best drama is on television. But there’s an awful lot of cop shows and action shows in which there’s non-stop gunfire. And as an audience, it gets monotonous. It embodies values which, in the land of Trump, I don’t think we can afford anymore.
So I’ve done a little of this socially conscious stuff before, and this was a chance to revisit that a little bit.
I actually haven’t written the last line of this story. I’ve got to do that today, and it will just be Batman slapping the gun, as opposed to punching the guy in the face or hitting him with a rock or something.
Nrama: You’re also getting to revisit the classic Batmobile and Alfred Pennyworth. Are you coming at it from a point of view of the classic Batman?
O’Neil: Well, if you’re going to hire me…
When you do this stuff with a message, he said portentously — like with the Green Lantern/Green Arrow stuff — you always do a superhero story. You always deliver what they buy the magazine for or you’re cheating the reader.
So yeah, in this case, I couldn’t work Robin in there without bending the plot, and I only had eight pages to work with. But I had no problems getting Alfred and the Batmobile.
Then I did a draft where it’s a silent page, and we see Batman climb up the wall and get in the chimney. Then I realized, this is dead air as far as the story’s concerned. We see him come out of the chimney; we know what he did. And I could use that space for other stuff. So I did a quick re-write and packed some more story in there.
I’m very careful, having been burned a few times in the last 10 years by editors and artists, so these are two guys I’d never heard of — three guys if you count the artist — and I was a little wary. But it’s been an absolutely great experience. These are the editors I could have prayed for.
Nrama: That’s good news. I’m surprised to hear you didn’t know Steve Epting’s work, but I assume you’ve seen the art now. As a former editor yourself, what do you think he’s bringing to the story?
O’Neil: I have not looked at the art closely because I’ve been a little busy. But I looked at a postage stamp sort of size and I thought, this guy should be the Batman artist.
[Batman is] a kind of tricky character because a lot of people have different ideas of what he should be. For example, Mike Barr used to emphasize the paternal aspects, which is a perfectly good way to go at it. It doesn’t happen to be mine, but that doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with it. But it’s sometimes a little tricky to get on the same page.
Here, [Steve and I] are clearly on the same page.
Steve has obviously mastered his craft. His toolkit is pretty complete.
This is turning out to be a very pleasant experience for me.
Nrama: Anything else you want to tell readers about the story you’re writing for the Holiday Special?
O’Neil: I think Batman has been a very lucky comic book character in that he has generally gotten really top-notch talent. I mean, when I was doing the editing, that part of it was easy. Movie people will tell you that half the job is casting because if you get the right actor, you will get the performance you want. Well, it works that way with comics too. If you get the right artist and writer, they do your work for you. You correct the spelling.
And in this instance, we clearly got the best artist. I think, next to Ty Templeton, this might be the artist of the current crop that I would be happy to work with again.