Thursday , February 29 2024
"It used to be that we were dumb, semi-literate and maybe corrupt. Ah, those were the days..."

Interview With Dennis O’Neil, Author of Helltown

I was probably the wrong guy for this assignment.  Since Helltown is part of a series by DC Universe I figured, incorrectly, it was a graphic novel, with illustrations. But instead it was a straight novel, only with superhero characters. I didn't know quite what to make of it and still don't. The book has received mixed reviews. 

Helltown provides the back story to the character The Question as he deals with problems in Hub City. I have to admit to being pretty ignorant of this genre. That said, despite questions which bordered on the rude, he was a pleasant enough fellow in this e-mail interview:

Scott Butki: First, what’s the best part about writing books about superheroes?  

Dennis O’Neil: You have more freedom, usually, than you do in writing comics. It’s also a chance to undo some of the comic book mistakes you may have made, and a chance to delve a bit deeper into pure character.

What’s the worst part? 

Thinking, when the project is finished, that you could have done a better job.

Do you feel limited or constrained by using a character, like The Question or Batman, in that his history has been written by others? Or does that make it more interesting in that you get to build on an already well-developed character? 

In the case of the characters you mentioned, I did a lot of the developing. So in some ways, it was like rewriting myself, which is a pretty neutral experience.  I use the version of the characters I’m most comfortable with and that serve the story best, and trust editors to correct any howlers.

Batman TV series: campy classic or something you’d rather forget existed? 

There’s no right and/or wrong with this stuff.  Camp humor is not my humor, but for those who do enjoy it, blessings.

In preparation for this interview I googled The Question and found this Wikipedia review of him. That brought me to this stinging review, by a writer who isn’t crazy about Helltown. How do you respond to critics like this fellow? In particular how do you respond to this remark? “The novel is a mildly entertaining distraction that does a disservice to the character. O’Neil is better than this; I’ve seen it.” 

Guy’s entitled to his opinion, and that pesky First Amendment gives him the right to express it. 

The Googling also brought me to this fascinating interview with Alan Moore. Reading that made me realize that the creator of The Question, Steve Ditko, was right-wing, Moore was very left-wing. Where do you fit on that spectrum and did that affect how you portrayed, in comic books and this novel, The Question?

I’m not as far left as Alan, but I’m definitely a liberal, more so now than eight years ago.

Also, did you ever – like Moore – get tired of writing about superheroes? 

When I did tire of the capes and tights guys, I wrote something else, usually a short story.

What did you hope to achieve with this project and did you succeed? 

I don’t know.  I really don’t know what I think about the book and may not for years, if ever.

What’s next for you? 

Weekly column for ComicMix, a guest-editor gig, maybe some teaching (and maybe not) and whatever else the universe presents.

What’s the biggest misconception of superhero writers and readers? 

I don’t know that there is any significant misconception currently.  It used to be that we were dumb, semi-literate and maybe corrupt. Ah, those were the days…

About Scott Butki

Scott Butki was a newspaper reporter for more than 10 years before making a career change into education... then into special education. He has been working in mental health for the last ten years. He lives in Austin. He reads at least 50 books a year and has about 15 author interviews each year and, yes, unlike tv hosts he actually reads each one. He is an in-house media critic, a recovering Tetris addict and a proud uncle. He has written articles on practically all topics from zoos to apples and almost everything in between.

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