Denny O'Neill has written Batman more than most people. But this is the first time he wrote a Batman whose name was Dick Grayson.
But just like Bruce, Dick Grayson seems to always be haunted by the Joker.
In June's Detective Comics #866, the legendary Dennis O'Neill teams with artist Dustin Nguyen and tells a story that incorporates Dick's experiences as both Batman and Robin. Using a flashback to one of Dick's earliest cases as Robin, O'Neill positions the Joker as antagonist in both the present and the past.
An editor and writer for both Marvel and DC for more than three decades, O'Neill is best known for writing Batman with artist Neal Adams and editing the whole Batman family of comics during the '80s and '90s.
The writer helped establish Bruce's absence last year in a two-issue story that appeared in Detective Comics #851 and Batman #684, focusing on Gotham City without Batman. Now, he follows up the celebratory spirit of Batman #700 with a tale that incorporates more than one era of the current Batman.
Newsarama spoke with O'Neill about writing Dick Grayson as Batman and what readers can expect from Detective Comics #866.
Newsarama: Denny, I know you've written and edited Batman for many years, but is this your first time writing Dick Grayson as Batman?
Dennis O'Neill: I believe so. I don't remember ever writing him in a Batman costume. I used to read anything and everything that had to do with Batman, since I was the Batman editor for so many years, so I know the character's history. But I do think this is the first time I've written anything with Dick Grayson as Batman.
Nrama: With so much experience writing Bruce Wayne as Batman, how is it different for you, having Dick in the role?
O'Neil: Well, in my story, Dick Grayson still feels relatively new at the Batman game in a way that is freeing. Batman is not likely to make mistakes. He's a super-competent guy, so a character who is able to stumble a little bit is a little easier to write.
A lot of the story is first-person narrative, as Dick is remembering things that happened 20 years ago, and that's a pleasant way to write. And while I was doing his voice, I was a little freer with language than I would have been if it had been Bruce narrating it. Dick is a little more talkative and social in nature, and not so obsessed.
Nrama: Within the issue, we get to see a story about Dick as Robin. Is it a flashback?
O'Neill: Yes. We open on present day Dick Grayson as Batman, and he flashes back to something that happens much earlier, when he was Robin, and that involved the Joker. It's just one issue, but it's part of a much larger story.
Nrama: How is the Joker involved?
O'Neill: He's the main antagonist. He's certainly the one who sets the whole thing in motion, in both present and past.
Nrama: So we get to see present-day Joker?
O'Neill: He's behind the whole thing. Dick is following up on a case that was one of the very first he ever participated in, and he thinks an innocent man may have been blamed for a murder. And the original crime involved the Joker.
We see a lot of the Joker, and he's always a lot of fun to write.
Nrama: You mentioned that the Joker will show up during the flashback. Since you know that continuity of the past so well, will we see some other older villains and characters show up?
O'Neill: Yeah, I threw in a few things for the fans. But if you're not familiar with the continuity, it won't impede your understanding or enjoyment of the reading. And that should be the rule for all comics. If you are familiar with the backstory and continuity and history and so on, there's a little added taste of enjoyment.
For example, I throw in Azrael's father as a brief character, which gave me an excuse to put a costumed bad guy in the story. And it was a little something for people who pay attention and remember the Azrael continuity. If you don't remember any of it, don't worry -- it doesn't get in the way of the story at all. The narrative function this guy serves could have been served by, really, any guy big and bad enough to give Batman a hard time. But making it Az's dad is one of those things that might bring a smile to some readers.
I even suggested that the mansion in which a lot of the story take place be Gothos Mansion from an ancient Batman story. I don't know if the artist will go to the trouble of looking up how Neal [Adams] drew Gothos Mansion. That'll be fine if he doesn't. It won't lay a glove on the story.
And there's a character who's on for about two panels who I suggested be Alfred's niece, who was a character in the Gothos Mansion story. And again, it will be absolutely perfectly OK if it's not. I don't think I would bother to go through all that if I was the artist. [laughs] Digging through stories 40 years old to get something on a character that, as I said, is only there for two panels. But if he wants to do it, then it might be something fans will appreciate.
Nrama: This is an oversized issue, isn't it?
O'Neill: It's longer than a normal comic book story by about eight pages, which meant I had to do a little rethinking. But it probably improved it. The extra pages gave me the space to add one more plot element that I think helped the overall narrative.
Nrama: Are you aware of what's happening with The Return of Bruce Wayne?
O'Neill: Not at all. And you know, I feel like it's really not any of my business. I'm a reader now. I enjoy the stories. Other people are the editors now.
Nrama: But you said this ties into a bigger story. Did you have to deal with current continuity?
O'Neill: I did. I tackled some continuity and things I had to incorporate into the story. It was a great pleasure to get back into writing in-continuity comics. I do about two or three scripts a year. And I really liked doing this one and solving the problems that I needed to solve to make the plot work. It was stuff I used to do several times a month when I was an editor – sometimes several times a day. I found myself really enjoying the five days or so that it took to do this job.
You know, I'm thankful for this kind of work, and everything I'm able to do like this. I'm this old, retired guy, and I stay in touch with some people up there at DC. They call me three or four times a year to do a talking head thing where I go and shoot off my mouth in front of a camera. I may or may not go and talk to the editorial folks during one of those. But they stay in touch. This is a great way to live. I do just about as much work as I feel like doing, and I have very, very little pressure attached to it. I teach a little, I write a little, and I laze around a lot. It's a good life.