A Tribute to the of

The interview I promised this time around will have to wait. I am sorry to report that the gifted Denny O’Neil has crossed the Great Divide. Back in 2007, he was the first writer who agreed to an interview [Sage #179 & 180] and what a great interview it was. Later, he was instrumental in some pieces I wrote for BACK ISSUE, always willing to spend the time to give me some behind the scenes information, including one of my most recent efforts on the history of Azrael in BACK ISSUE #117. I was thrilled to land that assignment as Denny’s prose novel, Batman: Knightfall, which introduced Azrael, was mesmerizing to me and I’ve re-read it a few times, including in preparation for the Azrael article. It was just as enjoyable that time as the times before. Denny was a true master of the medium.

As I pondered which of his many, many stories to review here, I knew it had to be a Batman tale. Denny and the Batman are inextricably linked due to his long association as writer and editor and of course his important hand in re-establishing our hero as the Dark Knight and despite his excellent work on other titles, it just seemed like the logical choice.

After a false start, I decided it might be appropriate to focus on a Ra’s al Ghul tale. After all, Denny was the co-creator of this incredibly complex and dangerous foe, the first new one in Batman’s rogue’s gallery in several years. Batman #235, sporting a publication date of September 1971 and an on-sale date of July 22, 1971 contains the Denny O’Neil written “Swamp Sinister” featuring artwork by Irv Novick and Dick Giordano with John Costanza lettering and editing by Julie Schwartz. Cover credits go to Neal Adams and Dick Giordano.

This story begins at the penthouse of Bruce Wayne. Alfred Pennyworth has just taken delivery of a large box and after prying it open with a crowbar, he and Bruce discover the grisly contents: A badly deformed body. Acting quickly, Bruce switches to the persona of the Batman and swiftly makes plans for transporting it to police HQ before working on deducing who sent it to him, but he is interrupted by a figure in the shadows who reveals himself as the sender of the body. It is Ra’s al Ghul, sporting a bandaged head. He proceeds to explain that he has need of the services of the Batman.

He points to the body and tells the World’s Greatest Detective that he had been one of his employees and there is a risk that thousands will die in the same horrible way should Batman fail. Then, the flashback sequence when Ra’s al Ghul offers the backstory, that things began in a laboratory he keeps in a mountain retreat where certain “useful compounds” are developed. A new compound had just been perfected and al Ghul discovered one of his technicians, named Striss, was about to make off with it. When confronted, Striss’ confederate, Pollard, struck a vicious blow at their employer and then slipped away. Talia, Ra’s’ daughter, found her father, not only unconscious, but with no pulse. She’d been told of her father’s suspicions regarding Striss, so promptly ordered his bodyguards to find him and seek vengeance, while others took his body to his personal physicians who were able to revive him. “…as they have so often before! Yes, it was not the first time I had tasted death…

When the Batman questions Ra’s’ need for him, it is explained that Striss believed the stolen chemical was merely capable of making molybdenum 5 “as weak as tinfoil,” but if left exposed to the air it mutates into a powerful plague-carrier and the results are in the box. Therefore, the Batman’s charter is clear: Find Striss before Talia does so that the deadly compound will not be released into an unsuspecting world. The organization under Ra’s al Ghul could likely handle things, but it would likely take weeks. That’s all the Dark Knight needs to know as he heads off into the night on his mission.

Following a hunch, our hero heads for the mansion of an eccentric billionaire, Solomon T. London, who owns one of the few significant amounts of Molybdenum 5, a perfect place for Striss and company to test the chemical. Upon arrival Batman gets a whiff of gas and after donning a tiny gas mask, goes into action, taking down three gunmen in rapid succession. Noting the Demon’s Head insignia on their jumpsuits, Batman deduces that Talia has likely arrived ahead of him.

Entering the mansion, our hero is on high alert and it’s a good thing as someone swings a fireplace poker at him. It turns out to be the French housekeeper. Speaking in broken English, she tells the detective that her boss, London, has been taken and the only clue is mention of a small stream. Well, he’s not the World’s Greatest Detective for nothing and quickly realizes that her native tongue would have heard the word “bayou” and translated it in her head to “small stream,” so with the aid of the resources of Ra’s al Ghul, Batman, accompanied by the man himself, is about to parachute from his private plane into the Louisiana swamp by moonlight.

Alfred had done some detective work of his own at the behest of his employer and located a marina at Port-au-Lac where Striss and his men had reportedly been seen. So that is the drop off point of both our hero and a small inflatable motorboat that allows the Batman to navigate the murky swamp waters toward a nearby cabin. Before he can reach his objective, however, a rifle shot sends our hero diving into the water. He takes out his would-be assassin with a mighty blow, noting once again it’s one of Ra’s’ men probably under Talia’s orders. Entering the cabin, Batman discovers it’s actually a cleverly disguised elevator likely leading to an underground shelter.

Sorry, readers, but I gotta pause here for a brief reality check. Now, I know. This is a comic book story and nothing more, but having spent time in this part of the country, I can tell you that there aren’t even any basements in the swamp country of the Gulf Coast due to the high water table. Just sayin’…

Switching scenes to the *ahem* underground complex, Talia is holding an automatic rifle on Striss and London himself. It seems this is London’s super-secret sanctum where he’d been stashing Molybdenum 5. When queried, the daughter of the demon explains that her father keeps track of those who may have items useful to him, such as the rare metal, so they knew where to find this subterranean complex. She’s about to use the grease gun on Striss when the Batman arrives. Noting the nearby flask, he asks Striss how long it’s been there uncapped and he responds that he’d been experimenting on it for several hours. Grimly, Batman reveals that it’s had ample time to transform into a plague carrier. As he tries to tell Talia to hold her fire, that her father is alive and has not been murdered by Striss, the thief strikes, hurling a large vase at her and sending her tumbling into the Batman.

Grabbing for the weapon, Striss is soon fighting for control of the rifle with our hero and a stray round strikes the flask, releasing the contents. A mighty blow from the Batman sends Striss sprawling onto the table containing the deadly liquid and it begins to take its horrible toll. The others quickly retreat into another room and London reveals that the other chamber is air-tight, designed to withstand even radiation.

Satisfied at the containment of the plague carrier, Batman leads them to the elevator. Outside, Ra’s al Ghul is waiting with a medically equipped helicopter to disinfect Talia, London and the Batman, ending this 15-page adventure and mystery.

This second appearance of Ra’s al Ghul exhibited more of Denny’s efforts to not only restore Batman to his darker roots, but to firmly establish his detective credentials and persona. I’d also suggest that Ra’s al Ghul qualifies as a “frenemy” of the Dark Knight, with his treating him like a pawn toward his own ambitions and also seeing him as a possible successor and son-in-law. It’s a fascinating and complex relationship and hats off to the master, Denny O’Neil, for his conception of the figure of Ra’s al Ghul.

Denny O’Neil had a real insight into the world of Batman, both the Dark Knight himself and in his nemeses. I remember several of the interesting comments he made during our first conversation, to include the fact that he preferred human-scaled characters. In fact, I’ll let the man speak for himself, with his usual eloquence:

I found out pretty early on that I liked human scaled characters. I never had much fun writing Superman and gave it up after a year and I also walked away from the Justice League and their half dozen god-like entities. Batman was fine: Human scaled, human emotions, human capabilities. In a way, one of the subtexts of Batman is human perfectibility, and making lemonade out of lemons. Again, my interpretation of that character, which is not exactly the current one. I had more satisfaction writing The Question than anything else. I liked Batman, obviously. I always liked Green Arrow. His politics bounced all over the line, but there is a kind of correlate that everybody seems to have retained. And the rest of it was just jobs.

That sounds almost like a put-down, “It was just my job.” It was a great job, often. At its worst, well, every job has its lousy years, but I can’t imagine anything I might have done, given my limitations and abilities that would have been a more satisfying and interesting job than the one I did.

Denny accomplished some remarkable things in his life beyond the obvious. He contributed hugely to the Batman we know and love today, along with writing mountains of scripts for myriad characters. He conquered alcoholism and had a loving marriage with Marifran, who predeceased him. I agree with the conclusion of Paul Levtiz that when he lost her, it was only a matter of time. I still have an audio file of their delightful, bantering answering machine message and he made another comment during that original conversation that has stayed with me:

About 19 years ago I took this sweet, innocent Midwestern school teacher and turned her into a raving fan girl and will probably go to hell for that (chuckle) and she reads things and knows my work better than I do, so if I need something for, continuity, say, Marifran can tell me where to find it or she’ll look it up herself.

Denny was also unimpressed with himself. There was anything but false modesty when he shared this:

…in the early days, I think like most writers, I pored over published work. Now I think, coming on something that the screenwriter Sam Hamm told me, when I’m done with it, my involvement is ended. If it ends up to be Citizen Kane, well, that is not necessarily my doing, if it ends up to be the worst garbage ever printed, that’s probably not my fault, either. So as Sam and some other screenwriting people have said, we as writers have the privilege of being the first ones to tell the story, and we have an obligation to the work and to ourselves to do that as well as we can.

Denny, you did it well and we’re poorer for your passing. He never told me directly, but I got the idea he was agnostic after being raised in the Catholic faith, but I like to think he and his beloved Marifran are enjoying a grand reunion.

Do join us again, readers, when hopefully, there won’t be more sad news to share. Feedback and questions are always appreciated and you know where to send them: professor_the@hotmail.com.

See you in approximately two weeks and…

Long live the Silver Age!

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