It was summer – I remember that clearly. It might’ve been 1973. That would make me thirteen years old, which sounds about right. Even back then, I was a huge fan of comic books – American ones, which around this part of the world, we could only get hold of when the “summer shops” opened. Some summers, they only stocked Marvel titles, others DC. And this was a DC summer.
I had always, even then, been more of a DC comics fan. Not that I didn’t love Marvel, but if I absolutely HAD to choose – it’d be DC. You see, DC had Batman. And Batman was, back in 1966, my entry point into the world of superheroes, which would become as big a part of the fabric of my life as films. Batman was everywhere in the mid -sixties, but the bubble had burst, and the craze had passed. The other kids had moved on to other things, primarily sports – which never appealed to me.
In fact, a lot of the world had moved on. They were turbulent times, societally and culturally. Things were changing. The world had lost a lot of its naivete. In the wake of the cancellation of the TV show, Batman’s popularity, which had soared only a couple of years previously, was dwindling. His adventures with largely nuisance villains had become a tired old cliché.
Until… a young team took the reins and ushered in a breathtakingly fresh era for the caped crusader. The artist was Neal Adams, one of the finest Batman artists to ever draw the character with his fine-line style bringing a photorealism to his panels. The writer was Dennis O’Neil, or as he was credited back then, Denny O’Neil.
O’Neil had been a newspaper reporter previously – and had worked the night beat. He had seen and reported on the seedy underbelly of petty crime, violent crime, and had written about the worst examples of inhuman behaviour out on the streets and alleys, taking place under cover of darkness. He never forgot his experience.
He brought his observations to his stories, and gave the superheroes whose exploits he chronicled a real-world relevance. O’Neil wrote stories that took the Green Lantern and the Green Arrow on a road trip across America, where they dealt with social issues, slum landlords, racial inequality, pollution. Incredible panels like these, whose dialogue resonates in today’s racially tense times perhaps more than it did when first written.
Batman found himself returned to the darkness, minus a sidekick. He dealt with drug pushers, domestic abusers, muggers and political corruption.
But, back to that summer of 1973.
It was the beginning of summer; those shops had opened with their spinning racks full of DC comics. Now the first thing was to go through the racks and pick out the best. The must haves. Those that they only had one issue of, and despite being told never to judge a book by its cover, a thirteen-year-old overwhelmed by a tsunami of titles certainly did. Make no mistake – it was ALWAYS Batman first, followed by Detective Comics, followed by Superman, followed by The Flash and so on. Check the cover, peek at the back to make sure it wasn’t a two-parter – if so, that other part also had to be bought on the spot if it was there. If not, abandon.
So, I found this…
To this very day 47 years later, it’s still my favourite Batman cover ever.
And that’s strange, because back then, I always felt cheated if the scene on the cover didn’t appear in the comic as part of the story. And in this story, the Joker doesn’t become giant sized. And he doesn’t manacle Batman to a giant playing card. But I was hooked from the opening page.
I had seen the Joker as a jolly, mischievous clown, committing largely nuisance crimes, as played by Cesar Romero in the series. Here was a darker, menacing Joker. A Joker for the seventies, when the gloves were off. A Joker who’d been serving time after one of his gang ratted him out. A Joker who couldn’t care less who had tipped the police off, he was going to kill them all, to make sure. The stuff of nightmares had arrived. The homicidal psychopath whose deranged plans followed whatever whim he had at the moment was here. In short, the Joker we still see today.
So had another long unseen villain, the disfigured Two-Face. Along with a returning grotesque Batman was back to his roots. And has remained so to this day.
Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams were instrumental in making my childhood and formative teens as much fun as they were, and helped instil many of the values I still hold today. Would I be here, still collecting Batman memorabilia at age sixty, and writing articles for Starburst magazine, running my site and a podcast and appearing on Siren Radio were it not for the influence of Denny O’Neil keeping my interest in comic books going when everybody else was losing theirs? I very much doubt it. O’Neil and Adams were every bit as important and influential as Stan Lee and Jack Kirby over at Marvel. They helped make me whatever it is I am today.
So last night, I was trawling through Facebook and noticed that Neal Adams had mentioned that his old writing partner had passed away, of natural causes at eighty-one. I’m sorry that I never had the opportunity to meet him and thank him for his input to my childhood. It shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that I still love to read those old stories over and over.
This morning, I was honoured to be asked to say a few words in tribute on Siren Radio’s Midweek Drive, which we were recording. That in turn made me want to write a more personal piece here.
I’ve retrieved my original copy of Batman #251 (yes, I still have that same copy from '73) from my storage, and I’ll spend the afternoon reading it and maybe a few more. My choice of t-shirt today is no coincidence.
Rest in Peace, Mr O’Neil. And thank you for everything.
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