The last conversation I had with Denny O’Neil was a Very Denny Conversation. He wanted to get back to work, because he felt he hadn’t done enough yet.
"Who the hell am I?," he asked. "I’m supposed to be this great pacifist? I’m the guy talking about peaceful solutions to problems? Look at the world. We haven’t learned yet."
Very Denny. At age 81, he still hadn’t done enough. The fire was still in his belly.
Denny did more than most. Along with a small coterie of like minds in the late 60s-early 70s, Denny helped comics "grow up." It’s reductive to simply say that he "helped bring real-world problems and issues of social justice into comics," but that’s a lot of what he did. Denny had the vision to do that, but added the very human touch needed as well.
"I been readin’ about you…how you work for the blue skins…and how on a planet someplace you helped out the orange skins…and you done considerable for the purple skins! Only there’s skins you never bothered with! The Black skins! I want to know…how come?! Answer me that, Mr. Green Lantern!"
It's one thing to see the macro-problem, and to have the genius to bring it to a superhero comic. It’s totally another to bring the heart and humanity of this simple yet POWERFUL dialogue to address that problem.
Denny O’Neil did both.
Life is full of odd synchronicities—connections made and connections missed. Denny passed away a mere two days after his penultimate published story appeared in DC Comics’ The Joker 80th Anniversary book. The title was "Introducing the Dove Corps." It was a twisted Joker story ("Bonkers!," the book’s editor, Ben Abernathy, said), but had at its heart a Very Denny Concept—The Dove Corps, a UN-backed task-force that would handle peacekeeping missions truly peacefully. They carried no lethal weapons, and were pledged to never take a life.
Denny’s notion was to introduce the Dove Corps here, and start squawking to DC to do an ongoing series. Alas, that opportunity never came to pass.
Denny’s final story will appear in DC’s Green Lantern 80th Anniversary book. Spoiler alert: It focuses on one of Denny’s favorite books, Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, and what happens when the heroes start "punching too hard." Maybe there’s a better path? Again, Very Denny.
As I look at my desk calendar on June 12, 2020, item no. 9 is "Call Denny," followed by his phone number. It’s kind of pointless now. As I look back, it looks like that last fire-in-the-belly conversation I had with Denny was June 5. I’m glad I had it. Connections made; connections missed.
What has the world learned? Not many people know it, but Denny lived in lower Manhattan among Dorothy Day (look her up, people!) and other members of the Catholic Worker Movement [CWM] for a brief period in the 60s. Denny was part of that movement, and Day was a partial inspiration for Dr. Leslie Thompkins, a Batman supporting character Denny created.
Today, our culture’s memories of the CWM have been dusted off thanks to Martin Gugino, the 75-year-old protester grievously injured by Buffalo, NY police, who’s also a member of the Movement. What have we learned?
Today is my 11-year-old son’s last day of school, and in our pandemic world, his school days have been maybe three hours. I resolved to start listing out one topic a day for 30 days, things he could look up and research over summer vacation, and we’d have a discussion about them. Inspired by my conversation with Denny just a week ago, I wrote "Dorothy Day" in spot no. 7.
The circle will be unbroken, by and by. Without knowing it, Denny reached out, through a lifetime of actions and a conversation at age 81, two generations down the pike to make sure that in this world and beyond, dammit, we will learn. Sooner or later.
Denny O’Neil, you "done considerable".