Run Review: Denny O'Neil

The late-70s/early-80s are oddly forgotten for most Spider-Man fans, and my mission has been to discover why this is the case. In Run Review: Len Wein, I discussed how Len Wein’s tenure on Amazing Spider-Man contains solid storytelling but lacks influential creative decisions to make it notable. However, Marv Wolfman’s subsequent run contains many interesting ideas that are often undermined by inconsistent execution, as I explored in Run Review: Marv Wolfman. In the last installment of this trilogy, I will analyze writer Denny O’Neil’s short, strange run.

Like Wolfman and Wein, O’Neil has gained prominence for his other work, even if most fans forget his Spider-Man stuff. His Green Lantern and Batman stories with Neal Adams are well-known. (How could they not be with Adams on art?) His run on The Question is well-regarded too, and he follows David Michelinie’s brilliant run on Iron Man to craft more tales about Tony Stark’s alcoholism. O’Neil has also had a full career of editing titles in addition to his writing. Although I haven’t read most of these stories (I’m looking for a good trade paperback collecting his Iron Man run), it’s important to prove that O’Neil certainly wasn’t an obscure creator at this time and him being chosen to write Amazing Spider-Man was not some strange accident.

While I occasionally see discussion about Len Wein and Marv Wolfman in Spider-Man forums, there is rarely anything about O’Neil’s run anywhere. Marvel only ever seems interested in reprinting the annuals with Frank Miller art, and the rest of his stories is only collected in the (unfortunately out-of-print) Essentials format. Indeed, his run is fairly short, lasting from ASM #207 to ASM #221 (with plotting credit in ASM #223 and two annuals). Even with how brief his run is, I suspect O’Neil couldn’t be happier to get away from the title. He is the only major writer of Amazing Spider-Man that Tom DeFalco didn’t interview in the excellent Comics Creators on Spider-Man, and he never appears anywhere with commentary about the character like most other writers.

This all leads to my hypothesis that O’Neil disliked writing Spider-Man. After his predecessor, Marv Wolfman, suddenly left for DC, Amazing Spider-Man was in utter chaos. Wolfman had been both writer and editor, so he left two major positions vacant in his wake. The two issues bridging the gap between the writers’ runs hurriedly tie up as many of Wolfman’s dangling plotlines as possible. In fact, O’Neil even took over editing for three issues after Wolfman departed. Al Milgrom relieved him of editing duties for Amazing once he began writing.) What likely happened is Marvel editorial was scrambling for a quick replacement, and O’Neil had little time to mull over his decision to take over the title. Amazing Spider-Man is a flagship title, and writing his adventures is a dream of many comic writers. Frankly, O’Neil was likely in a position in which he felt he couldn’t reject the offer, especially since he began editing Marvel Team-Up and Spectacular Spider-Man only a few months before Wolfman departed. Once he was writing the title, though, he found that he just didn’t enjoy writing the character or know how to craft a good monthly title for the character. Amazing Spider-Man is a title that writers happily stay with for lengthy tenures (perhaps too long in some cases) but O’Neil may be the only writer that simply couldn’t stand it. Of course, this is my theory, but it certainly explains why his Spider-Man stories are so bland and strange, which I will now discuss in depth.

When I wrote about Wein and Wolfman’s runs, I did so after reading most of them for the first time. However, I have vivid memories of flipping through the pages of many O’Neil-penned Spider-Man stories when I had just started reading comics. At one of my first conventions, I bought about five issues, and what struck me was how old-fashioned these stories seemed. I had read most of Gerry Conway’s Amazing Spider-Man, and with my small knowledge of Spider-Man, I was somehow convinced that O’Neil’s run preceded those stories. Of course, I was off by about a decade. Something felt off about O’Neil’s Spider-Man that reminded me of early DC stories I had recently read, in which Batman would find himself in a wacky predicament to overcome each issue, usually in a contrived way.

As it turns out, my comparison of O’Neil’s run to early DC stories is not entirely off. Anyone invested in the mechanics of comic book storytelling will usually learn about the major differences between plot-based and character-based stories. The latter is generally what readers will associate with Spider-Man and many Marvel characters, as Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and Steve Ditko pioneered character-centric stories by … well, creating interesting characters. These stories focus less on plot-driven events and more on the feelings and personal events surrounding the main character and their cast. For example, the Lee/Ditko Spider-Man run relies heavily on the ongoing melodrama of Peter Parker’s life and how his superhero antics interrupt his personal life. Spider-Man stories are tied to this style of storytelling and the character’s most successful writers generally center their stories on the character and his supporting cast.

However, before Marvel popularized character-based stories in the 60s, DC generally published plot-based adventures for their superheroes. Superman and Batman would often face a new scenario or adventure that focused less on their characters and more on their situations. These plots typically lasted for a few issues, and most fans remember them for their corny contrivances. If he wasn’t fighting a villain-of-the-month with their quickly-resolvable scheme, Batman faced peculiar situations such as turning into a monster or becoming a wanted man. Frankly, I’ve always found these older DC stories to be near-unreadable, but plot-based stories have experienced a recent revitalization thanks to runs like Jonathan Hickman, Dan Abnett, and Andy Lanning, all of whom craft masterful comic book sagas.

Returning to my point, Denny O’Neil is one of few Spider-Man creators to write primarily plot-based stories with the character. He focuses less on Peter’s supporting cast and internal struggles and more on external situations. Rarely is Peter the instigator of the conflicts of the stories, and in most cases, he could be replaced with any other hero. The clearest example of this plot-based storytelling is Amazing Spider-Man #219, in which Peter is thrown into prison. The gripping Frank Miller cover shows Peter behind bars, and readers would expect Peter’s tenure in jail to have serious ramifications. As it turns out, the prison element is just a contrived situation that the character must work his way out of in the span of the issue. Peter sneaks into Ryker’s Island to prove how simple it is for the Daily Bugle and gets imprisoned after witnessing a prison break. Reading this series of events is surreal in its stupidity. Rarely does Peter ever go out of his way simply for a Bugle story, especially in such a clearly ill-advised way. Then, he just stumbles upon a break-out on the rare instance he visits the prison. His way of getting cleared is just as contrived; he must retrieve his camera and its film (which ends up in a pawn shop) to prove he isn’t responsible for the breakouts. But, that wouldn’t quite cover him for the trespassing, would it? It doesn’t matter. Peter gets the film, the comic ends before he gets officially cleared, and nobody ever mentions the events again. O’Neil uses the prison tenure as a cheap plot device as it has no lasting consequences. At no point does this feel like a Spider-Man story; any other hero could have happened upon same series of events and the plot would be unchanged. Essentially, this feels like a silly 50s DC story repurposed for Spider-Man.

Honestly, Spider-Man’s general unimportance in his own title is what makes this run so forgettable and strange. Peter Parker and his secret identity rarely play an important role in the stories; the most personal investment he gets in his conflicts is his neighbor and the uncle of his coworker get in minor danger. He almost always comes across a situation that doesn’t involve Spider-Man whatsoever, and another hero could easily fill his place. In Mud Thing!, O’Neil literally copies the general plot of King Kong but uses a mud creature that consists of Hydro-Man and Sandman merged instead of the titular ape. I’m not making this up, but I wish I was. Spider-Man does very little to resolve this conflict, acting as a bystander while the mud monster’s life ends like King Kong’s. This plotting style doesn’t always produce such cringe-worthy situations. ASM #216 is an amusing story in which Spider-Man prevents a series of accidents from derailing a marathon while looking for hidden assassins. Although simple, the story is a classic example of the hero’s sense of responsibility propelling him to address even the smallest of perils. Could Captain America or Nova have comfortably fit in Spider-Man’s place? Yes, but this story is satisfying nonetheless. O’Neil’s reliance on stories like this reveal more than anything that he doesn’t understand Spider-Man. The character operates best in personal, off-beat stories that the writer just doesn’t deliver. O’Neil wants to write a typical superhero title, which Amazing Spider-Man just isn’t.

Part of O’Neil’s problem is he isn’t interested in developing Peter’s supporting cast for use in character-centric stories. He ignores the character’s traditional friends (which is easily the best supporting cast in comics) for other relationships that go nowhere. Debra Whitman is Peter’s main romantic interest throughout the run, but the way O’Neil develops their relationship is honestly hard to read. Peter ditches Debra in literally every scene involving the two, making him seem like a jerk, and she seem desperate and pathetic for staying with him. The clear reason O’Neil develops their relationship like this is likely to imitate Peter’s romance with Betty Brant in the Lee/Ditko era, which is problematic for a few reasons. Although his earlier relationship with Betty is mostly negative, the two occasionally share positive moments, which Peter and Debra never do. Further, Peter is actually attracted to Betty in the Lee/Ditko stories, giving their relationship emotional weight, while he could care less about Debra. Betty is integral in many early stories, getting involved in the Spider-Man aspect of Peter’s life for dramatic tension, while Debra’s only plot role is as Peter’s glorified nurse. Above all, in the span between the two relationships, Peter matures and learns how to manage a relationship by dating Gwen and Mary Jane for extended periods of time. His misguided relationship with Debra is regressive, especially when Debra finds another boyfriend and Peter becomes jealous (despite his immature reluctance to get serious with her). I would take Gwen, MJ, or even Betty again over this painful romance.

While the love affair goes nowhere, the rest of the supporting cast, while extremely unremarkable, isn’t bad. The running joke throughout the run is that Peter’s apartment neighbor is a horrible singer that practices at the most inopportune times. O’Neil doesn’t reveal the singer’s identity at first, leading Peter to believe his neighbor in Western attire is the culprit. In typical Spider-Man irony, a short, well-dressed man named Lonesome Pinky is actually the dreadful vocalist. Pinky gets a large role in ASM #221, in which he must pacify crazed, poisoned onlookers while Spider-Man searches for their cure. Through the duration of this issue, he must learn to abandon his awful Western music and sing from the heart. This is honestly the most character development anyone receives in O’Neil’s entire run. In the writer’s last issue, he plots the introduction of Roger Hochberg, perhaps the most obscure Spider-Man supporting character of all time. Roger overcomes his social anxiety in ASM#223, a low stakes story involving the Red Ghost. J.M. DeMatteis deserves much of the credit for scripting the issue and later using Roger in his often-forgotten but entertaining Marvel Team-Up run. Still, Pinky and Roger rapidly fade into character limbo as subsequent writers rediscover Peter’s superior, traditional supporting cast.

With such an unremarkable supporting cast, one must at least wonder what the typical characters were doing during these sixteen issues. After all, O’Neil goes out of his way to return Peter to the Daily Bugle. In Amazing Spider-Man #210, Peter’s job at the Daily Globe, a rival newspaper he began working for only a few issues earlier, implodes during the worst story of the run. In the most complicated bid for power I’ve seen in comics, Circulation Manager Rupert Dockery hires actress Belinda Bell to impersonate Publisher K.J. Clayton and verbally give him publishing power in front of the newspaper staff. Then, Dockery’s hired goons kidnap Belinda and plan to kill her, which she was unaware of before taking the job. Meanwhile, Dockery confronts the real K.J. Clayton, an old recluse, and plans to kill her as well. Spider-Man discovers all of this thanks to a convenient advertisement for Madame Web that Belinda drops while being kidnapped. After saving Belinda, Spider-Man rescues Clayton from her burning office atop the Daily Globe and quickly prevents Dockery from escaping on the streets below. In the end, Clayton retires, and the Globe terminates publishing. Even at first glance, this plot has more holes than swiss cheese. (How can a simple elevator escape prevent Spider-Man from stopping Bell’s kidnappers? Why would anyone believe well-known actress Belinda Bell’s corpse was K.J. Clayton’s with DNA testing? How is an unofficial announcement about ownership enough to convince everyone that the obviously-shady Dockery should become publisher? Why would the Globe stop publishing simply because Clayton retires? I could go on forever, especially about Madame Web’s role as a lazy plot device.) Even with this messy story finished, O’Neil barely mentions the Daily Bugle once Peter rejoins, making the entire endeavor seem pointless. I know some consider this among the worst Spider-Man comics of all time, and I would honestly have to agree with them.

Along with O’Neil’s odd choices for the supporting cast, the villains he showcases are weird. While Wein and Wolfman tend to use more traditional Spider-Man villains, O’Neil decides to bring more unconventional antagonists into his plots. He opens his run with Mesmero, a hypnotist that retaliates against those who criticize his Broadway show. This is certainly a strange story to begin O’Neil’s run, and the plots only get odder. Fusion is a freak of science that consists of two brothers (who happen to be little people) merged together. O’Neil’s longest story (three issues, which would be considered short by today’s standards) centers around the Frightful Four. Ultimately, the trend for this run is unconventional villains, which is certainly not a bad idea. After all, O’Neil’s successor, Roger Stern, uses this concept as well. The main difference between these writers’ approaches is Stern’s thoroughness in choosing his villains and convincing readers that they are both interesting and powerful enough to battle Spider-Man. O’Neil is not so careful. Low-tier villains like Mesmero, Fusion, the Red Ghost, and Ramrod feel like wastes of time, never making a case of why they should be feared. Even the Frightful Four are fairly pathetic in their story. Not every villain can be the Green Goblin or Doctor Octopus, but I fail to understand O’Neil’s strategy in bringing other heroes’ D-list villains to fight Spider-Man. At no point does the hero ever seem threatened in this run, and these odd villains only contribute to the overall feeling of bizarreness during this period.

Despite this often unsatisfying showing from preestablished villains, O’Neil’s creations during this run have been at least slightly influential. In ASM #209, the creation of Calypso, a manipulating voodoo priestess, elevates a regular Kraven story. She plays an interesting role in goading Kraven into battle despite his better judgement, and she becomes more important following her lover’s death. ASM #210 heralds the introduction of Madame Web, an austere, old fortune teller that acts mostly as a lazy plot device to quickly set up conflicts. O’Neil introduces personal tension to their relationship when Madame Web reveals she knows Peter’s identity, a facet of the character that better writers like Roger Stern later emphasize. With ASM #212, O’Neil creates Hydro-Man in a rather bland story during which the villain hunts down Spider-Man, whom he blames for turning him into a freak. Frankly, Hydro-Man is a mediocre-at-best villain with boring powers and motivations, but he remains a go-to C-lister for Spider-Man to quickly beat up. O’Neil briefly introduces Lance Bannon in ASM #208, the rival photographer that acts as a professional competitor for Peter. Even Fusion is an original creation, although that character has been forgotten by fans entirely (and for good reason). While O’Neil certainly creates many characters in his short run, the characters themselves aren’t especially interesting until later writers develop or reimagine them. Further, it is important to note that his creations occur in the short period from ASM #208 to ASM #212. He fires on all cylinders for this half-year period, but the rest of his run lacks this innovation, leading me to speculate that he burnt out or got bored of the title.

While he may have some interesting ideas, O’Neil’s major pacing problems throughout the run detract from his concepts. He runs out of space in ASM #209 for the final battle between Kraven and Spider-Man, which ends up looking cramped and rushed. This problem is mostly artist Alan Weiss’s fault, as he is infamous for poor pacing. ASM #219 ends suddenly as well, which may be due to artist Luke McDonnell.) O’Neil’s primary problem is finding enough room for interesting events to fill twenty-two pages. The story that suffers most obviously from this boring pacing is the three-part Fearsome Four story. In ASM #213, O’Neil happily spends four pages on a by-the-numbers prison escape (one whole page of which is spent describing the weather) and only a page-and-a-half on the battle with a giant spider robot promoted on the cover. He then uses six pages for Spider-Man’s unremarkable rescue of civilians from a burning building and another four pages go towards another prison break. Five more pages are filled by a fight with Namor, the Sub-Mariner, whom Spider-Man battled only three issues earlier. With such a liberal allotment of pages to seemingly-unimportant events, one would expect O’Neil to be building up to a long, glorious fight with the Frightful Four. They would be wrong. There are about six pages of true fighting divided among two sequences that involves the full villain team. The first conflict is a one-sided fight with the villains winning, and the second is one-sided for the heroes. Namor defeats the Sandman with one simple punch, and the same subdues the Wizard. With this pain-staking page counting, I’m demonstrating that O’Neil spends too much time on less significant build-up than substantial payoff. This is a problem throughout the run, and he too often writes sequences in which the characters briefly confront each other for a panel or two before splitting.

What makes O’Neil’s trouble in pacing conflict so odd is John Romita Jr., an artist well-known for his good sense of pacing and storytelling, pencils the majority of this run. Often, artists can be blamed for pacing problems, but I’m reluctant to attribute this issue to Romita, even if he was young at this time. He draws an excellent, well-paced run of Iron Man with writer David Michelinie at the same time as his run on Amazing, and O’Neill’s fill-in artists have even worse pacing than Romita. Likely, O’Neil gave his artists rough page-by-page outlines of his stories and never allotted enough space for action. While Weiss and McDonnel rush conflict to fill this small space, Romita fluidly depicts action, meaning that the battles often end too quickly. Romita rarely has the opportunity to flex his artistic muscles as a result. His talking heads and establishing shots are great, but his action always stands out. The only truly memorable battle during this run is Spider-Man’s long, glorious fight with Namor in ASM #211, during which the two characters are evenly-matched powerhouses in an all-out slugfest. O’Neil would have been smart to reserve five or six uninterrupted pages for conflict each issue so Romita could demonstrate his sense of dynamics and motion. Instead, the artist gets too many wasted pages devoted to building up nonsense plots that ultimately go nowhere.

The best issues of O’Neil’s Amazing run aren’t from the monthly title; they’re the two brilliant annuals he does with Frank Miller. Before he got famous drawing Batman or Daredevil, Miller was frequently doing work, whether it be covers or one-shot stories, for O’Neil’s Spider-Man line. (Although Al Milgrom edited his flagship title, likely because Jim Shooter abhorred writer-editors, O’Neil edited Spectacular Spider-Man, Marvel Team-Up, and Spider-Woman at the time.) In Amazing Spider-Man Annual #14, Miller enhances a doldrum Doctor Strange team-up into a vivid, Ditkoesque psychedelic experience. His layouts ooze innovation, and the details and shading are advanced, even though he was just starting his career at this point. Miller elevates O’Neil’s unexciting script into a masterpiece. The credits list them as “co-creators” but it’s obvious who is doing the heavy lifting. Somehow, the next annual is even better, as Miller is able to display his talent in depicting dark noir stories. The plot features Spider-Man, Doctor Octopus, and the Punisher as they battle on rough rooftops, in a pitch-black morgue, aboard a minimalistic submarine, and above jagged printing presses. No panel is wasted and Miller’s storytelling is flawless. O’Neil and Miller brilliantly use the framing technique of newspaper front pages to illustrate a statement about the news industry and foreshadow the story’s final battle. Both annuals are terrific, clearly standing out from the mediocrity of O’Neil’s regular Spider-Man work. The writer benefits from teaming up with a hungry artist eager to make a name for himself, and Miller deserves most of the credit for these stories’ successes.

Denny O’Neil probably isn’t a bad writer, but his Spider-Man run is not good. It’s not even mediocre. At no point does he convince me that he truly understands or cares about the character. His plot-driven stories ultimately feel out-of-place, especially when the titular character is so trivial in his own book. The supporting cast is strange and adds little to the stories that ultimately lack any type of drama or stakes. Perhaps the most difficult task for readers is staying interested while reading these issues. That is frankly half the battle of getting through these boring issues, especially when the conflict is so lackluster. I can only recommend the annuals of the run, more for Miller’s art than O’Neil’s dialogue, and the rest is completely skippable. At least O’Neil will go down in Spider-Man history for creating a few characters significant enough to be killed off in the 90s. I give this run 2 webs out of 5.