Interview with Denny O’Neil

Conducted by Eric Newsom in 1998.

I e-mailed Denny via his wonderfully nice wife Marifran (I think I got their e-mail information from the defunct O’Neil Observer website, which has transformed sort of into the Denny O’Neil Message Board) in 1998, asking if he’d be willing to do an interview for my silly little website. I expected to not hear back from him at all, but Denny replied later that evening, saying he’d be glad to.

I whipped up the following batch of questions and sent them off, and got the prompt and thoughtful response that you’ll read below the next day. I’m thinking about, eight years later, sending Denny another set of questions, so maybe you’ll see a second part to this interview!

I’ve heard that you secretly wrote for Charlton Comics under the pseudonym Sergius O’Shaugnessy. Did you get your start at Charlton? Did you ever work alongside Question creator Steve Ditko there?

I didn’t get my start at Charlton. I started with Stan Lee at Marvel, first as an editorial assistant and later as a writer. Worked with Steve there, on his final Dr. Strange run. Then I freelanced for Dick Giordano at Charlton as Sergius O’Shaugnessy, though I don’t recall ever doing anything with Steve under Dick’s aegis there. When Dick went to DC, Steve and I (and Steve Skeates and Pat Boyette ) followed. One of my first DC gigs was Steve’s Creeper character. Later, when I returned to Marvel as an editor, we did an Iron Man together.

Do you have an opinion on Ditko’s Question, as seen in the back-ups of Blue Beetle and in Mysterious Suspense at Charlton?

I didn’t have any powerful opinions on the early Question stuff. Barely noticed it. They seemed (and seem) to be of a piece with a lot of what Steve was doing then–pretty close to his Mr. A, among others. Interesting, well-told, certainly bearing the Ditko stamp, but I had no reason to pay the stories much heed.

What was it that originally drew you to work on the character?

What attracted me to the Question was that after working as an editor at DC for about six months after I’d left Marvel, someone–Dick?–suggested I get back to writing. Two characters were available, Captain Atom and The Question. I’m not comfortable working with demigod heroes–really SUPER guys–which the Captain certainly was. The Question, on the other hand, was very human in scale. To sweeten the gig, I was told I could do pretty much whatever I wanted with the series–in fact, Paul Levitz advised me to push the envelope and not try to be commercial. Finally, I had a luxuriously long time to think about the character, write memos, make suggestions, whatever. Very little deadline pressure, since the book hadn’t been scheduled. And I shared an office with the editor, another luxury. Those were the days…

What led to the decision to go a different route with the character than the foundations that Ditko had laid?

Making the character my own: sigh. I knew, and told everyone, that I couldn’t do Steve’s version. I have great respect for Steve and I admire the tenacity with which he holds to his convictions, but our ideas about what constitutes a hero, while not entirely in opposition, are often at odds. I see a very different world than Steve’s. We agree about little beyond what constitutes good visual narrative. So I symbolically killed the old Question in issue #1–he’s shot, shoved in a freezing river and stops breathing–and resurrected a changed Vic Sage in issue #2. (I am not entirely happy about this. I took huge liberties with someone else’s creation, though at the time it seemed a natural, harmless thing to do. But I’ve been asked why I simply didn’t start fresh with my own character and the only answer I have is that the idea simply didn’t occur to me. Sometimes the lame replies are the true ones…) Then I was given an unprecedented amount of freedom to write the stories I wanted to write, for which I’ll always be grateful.

The series tells a nice round story from issue 1 to issue 36. How much of the story was planned before the first issue was published?

The series evolved, without benefit (or handicap) of any kind of master plan. It certainly changed over the three years of monthly publication, both in terms of writing technique and content. Again, I was allowed to experiment with both what I did and how I did it, and maybe I learned a bit. What we mostly did, I think, was all but abandon the superhero aspects, ending much closer to Will Eisner’s Spirit than Batman. (In this, we paralleled Eisner’s own evolution. The Spirit also got less and less superheroic as time passed–for example, Will got rid of the flying car early on.)

What was the collaborative process like between you and artist Denys Cowan?

We didn’t really “work together.” Mostly, I did my job–the scripts–and the art guys did theirs. As I noted in the previous post, Mike Gold, the editor,and I did a lot of talking before I started writing, and Denys and I spent a long Saturday wandering around Chinatown and Greenwich Village early on. And I think I made a few art suggestions on the first couple of jobs. But mostly, we operated solo. Which is how I usually work.

What were your main influences in writing the Question? Can you tell us definitively what the real-life counterpart to Hub City is?

My life and interests greatly influenced The Question, particularly after the first few issues–much more so than on any other series I’ve ever done. As I said earlier, I was given a wonderful and rare freedom to write what I wished. I’m not at liberty to divulge the model for Hub City.

What was the impetus behind the one-shot The Question Returns?

Alas. I don’t remember why DC decided to do The Question Returns. It may have had something to do with preserving copyrights.

Any chance the Question will pop up in your current book, Azrael?

I’ve discussed using the Question in Azrael with Mike, my editor (and overall boss) and he says okay. But we’d have to come up with just the right plot… Fingers are crossed. We won’t cross toes until/unless things get desperate…

Would you be interested in working on the character again, maybe in a new series?

New series? I’ve love to write one, but that isn’t my decision. (If, for some reason I couldn’t do the job, I hereby nominate Kelley Puckett for the gig.)

Wouldn’t mind seeing Kevin (Smith) take a shot at the character, either. He and I had a long talk about Vic when I first met him a year ago. I like his movies–even Mallrats–and I thought Chasing Amy was a fine snapshot of a corner of my world. And the guy knows and loves comics…

Denny O’Neil retired from comics after a number of years as a writer and editor, though he still occasionally writes for both DC and Marvel. He revisited the Question for the novel Helltown in 2006.

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