Writer and comic book legend Dennis O’Neil never expected to change anyone’s mind about the real-world problems he wrote about in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. But decades later, he’s considered one of the comic book industry’s leading agents for social justice for his issue-focused stories during that era.
On December 7th and 8th, O’Neil will be honored for his “lifetime of achievements in pursuing causes of peace and justice” during an appearance at the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library in Atlanta.
The writer and former DC editor will speak about “bringing change through comics,” but he told Newsarama that at the time, he didn’t expect to cause any immediate change.
“I have people come up to me and tell me that sometimes reading those stories did influence them,” O’Neil told Newsarama. “That’s good news, because I never intended to change people’s minds about things. I don’t think you can do that. But one thing I did want to do was get young people thinking about these things. Maybe if people start thinking about it young enough and grow up with the problems, they will have a better shot at coming up with answers.”
For his appearance at the Carter Presidential Library, O’Neil will discuss his life, tracing how his discharge from the Navy led to his work in newspapers and later comic books.
“I accepted their invitation, because hell, Jimmy Carter, for my money, is our best ex-president,” O’Neil said.
The “Comic Books and Social Justice” weekend event, in conjunction with The Hero Initiative charity for comic creators in need, will also include appearances by Christopher Priest, Paul Jenkins, Christopher Herndon, Darren Vincenzo and other comic creators.
According O’Neil, the decision to attack various real-world problems through comic book stories came about because he was aware of his own addiction problems and was hanging around areas of New York where many down-and-out people congregated during that time.
“You’d probably get a different answer from Neal,” O’Neil said, referring to Neal Adams, the artist who drew many of O’Neil’s most issue-focused scripts, particularly on the series Green Lantern/Green Arrow. “Neal was on television several months ago, and it sounded like the whole thing was his idea. I’m trying not to be bitter about this, because there’s no point in my being bitter, but it did sound a lot like I was brought in at the last minute to add words.”
O’Neil said he picked up many of his story ideas – and his own political beliefs — after he left the Navy, moved to New York and found himself hanging around the New York charity “The Catholic Worker,” which also published a newspaper of the same name. O’Neil became such good friends with the organization’s co-founder, Dorothy Day, that he based the Batman character Leslie Thompkins on her.
“The Catholic Worker was a building down on the Bowery where, if you were starving, you could get a cup of soup and you might be able to get a place to sleep overnight,” O’Neil said. “Dorothy helped found the organization, and they had a newspaper that talked about the issues facing people on the streets. The TV show Gotham has an actress who plays Leslie Thompkins, and that actress had only one speech that I’ve heard where Dorothy says what’s on her mind. Like, no, war is never any good; there is never any excuse for war. That’s Dorothy.”
O’Neil said he thinks his stories stood out during that time period — when many other publishers had issue-oriented storylines of their own — because of he own passion about the subjects he wrote about.
“Back then, when we were doing it, people saw that as a trend, and they tried to do it,” O’Neil said. “The big secret I had was I believed in this stuff. I felt that I’m no good at sermons or fiery oratory, but I do have comic books.”
O’Neil said he doesn’t think the comic books written as part of a “trend” worked well because their authors didn’t believe in them. “Our own late and much missed Stan Lee, I think his drug story was obviously written by someone who didn’t have any strong feeling about drug use,” O’Neil said. “I did because of where I was living. And later, I had my own fight with it.”
Looking back, O’Neil now wonders how much long-term impact he had, because some of the problems he exposed have persisted. “The issue that I felt most passionately about is one that has gotten worse: The environment,” he said. “And it astonishes me that we can still have racism.”
O’Neil said the biggest issue with the environment in the ‘70s was the pollution of the water table by industry. “We actually put that on stage,” he said. “I don’t think Neal believed in it very much. But I did.”
As a writer and later editor, O’Neil said he was aware that only certain issues made sense for comic books. “I don’t think I could do an effective advocacy story about, say, the budget, because there’s just nothing to draw pictures of,” he said. “But yeah, pouring pollutants into the river, that we could do. And it was about the time that the river in Ohio actually caught fire. That’s almost perfect for comic books.”
O’Neil said it was also important that all the “advocacy”-type stories were, first and foremost, superhero stories. “If you were buying this because it had some guys in a funny suit with a power ring on, you got what you were expecting. I gave you full value for your superhero dollar. If you were able to perceive that there was another layer to the story? OK, great, that means we have really succeeded.
“But our first job has always been to deliver what the customer is buying,” O’Neil said. “You cheat them, and you pretty much guarantee that they won’t read your next relevant issue.”
O’Neil and other comic creators will appear at the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library for programs on Friday, December 7th at 7:00 p.m. and Saturday, December 8th at 11:00 a.m. and 1:00 p.m. For specifics on the topics and creators involved in each appearance, see the Hero Initiative webpage.