If it weren’t for Denny O’Neil, we would likely still be reading about and watching a version of Batman whose greatest strength was his flair for extravagant capes. O’Neil didn’t fully do away with those aspects of Batman as a character, but he fundamentally made the world understand just how deeply troubled, unhinged, but ultimately heroic a hero Batman was.
Though O’Neil’s work at DC Comics is what most people know him for, his influence on the comics industry as a whole truly cannot be overstated. His work as a writer on Batman (alongside artist Neil Adams) is iconic, bringing Bruce Wayne to a dark place after the camp highs of the post-Batman ‘66 era of the world’s greatest detective, returning Batman to his brooding roots and creating the Ra’s al Ghul family of villains in the process.
But it wasn’t just at DC that O’Neil had a remarkable impact. He also developed the concepts for Marvel characters like Madame Web and Hydro-Man, both of whom have gone on to become rather significant parts of the current age of superhero movies we’re all living through. And his run on Daredevil, taking over from the iconic Frank Miller, brought a nuanced, textured tragedy to Matt Murdock’s melancholic life as a vigilante hero, once again providing the basis of an understanding that we’ve seen throughout our modern day world of superhero adaptations.
Beyond his personal contributions to the comics, though, O’Neil was a beacon to others working in the industry who all, in different ways, were influenced by both his work and his very personal brand of kindness and understanding. The humanity that O’Neil brought to fictional characters was reflective of the kind of person that he was—caring, compassionate, and deeply understanding of the complexities that make people human. O’Neil’s approach to realizing characters, giving them complexity grounded in the messiness of the real world, is his ultimate legacy, and it’s something that anyone who’s ever picked up a cape comic or watched a superhero movie has benefitted from.
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