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Rationality and Relevance: Dennis O’Neil

Why don’t we go back to when we were talking about the interchangeability of comics writers and artists and my feeling that the comics companies encourage this attitude, and it diminishes the value of the material. Could you comment on that?

I doubt that there has ever been a company policy at either place formulated to minimize the importance of artists or writers. That may be the pragmatic result of what has happened, but with one exception, I don’t know of anybody whose mind would work like that, who would deliberately minimize somebody’s importance for the sake of gaining something.

Bear in mind that it is a mass medium and it requires a lot of material and the presses have to roll. So, for example, if a guy is getting behind, you have to put in work by somebody else in his place. I have to do it myself and I don’t want to, ever. There are practical exigencies; try to have an inventory issue of every monthly book and that is simply because everyone misses deadlines, I miss deadlines. I just missed one, I missed it big, I missed it by six weeks through circumstances I couldn’t help. That happens once in a while. It behooves my editor to have something to fill up those pages with. It behooves me as an editor to treat my creative people likewise, so I would be delighted if all of them were in every issue of the magazines they’re associated with.

From "Blackout!" in Iron Man #169 (April 1983) written by O'Neil, penciled by Steve Mitchell, and inked by Luke McDonnell.

But, think about comic books compared to television. How many people even know television bylines at all? Even people who watch a lot of television seldom bother to read those credits. Television is sort of analogous: It’s a mass medium which consumes a lot of material and it has implacable deadlines. And television is a good thing to use as a comparison because the only right that you have with regard to a television script that you’ve written is the right to take your name off it. That’s all. They retain total control of every other aspect of everything you’ve written. Comics, it’s not quite that bad. There’s a lot more attention paid to the individual’s needs and to the feeling of the readership for a given writer or an artist. There are times when we can’t pay attention to that stuff.

Now, I don’t know about what people at the very top of both corporations are thinking, I don’t have dealings with them. I can talk about editors, and I know we pay a lot of attention to that. If a book is a Chris Claremont book we want it to remain a Chris Claremont book, and it is only under pressure of exigency that it will become a not-Chris Claremont book for an issue. In my case it’s partially because I still respond to the material, I still read it for pleasure, and to that extent, I share the discriminating fans’ distinctions and preoccupations. I suspect that nobody at the very top of either corporation reads anything and they don’t know. That, however, is also true of other kinds of publishing. How many times have I heard books referred to as “product?” That’s just the way it is. So, they may not know, but I don’t care — I don’t meddle with their preoccupations.

I have a fair amount of autonomy as an editor and, with certain exceptions, most of the decisions, pro or con, that get made having to do with what I edit, are my decisions. With personnel, at least 97 percent of the decisions that get made with who’s going to do what are mine. Pro forma I frequently consult with an editorial director, but Shooter sort of makes it a point of saying that the bottom line is yours. He will suggest — he has never to my knowledge stated that somebody has to be doing something. In fact, the fights that I’ve had with him have dealt with my keeping people on books that were giving me a lot of trouble and making my life unnecessarily complicated but I felt the readership liked these people on these particular characters and so I decided to put up with the grief I was getting personally.

I’m sure most people pay as much attention as you do, but the fact remains that in comic books artists and writers are interchangeable commodities. If one of your writers died tomorrow you would simply scoop up another one from your stable with virtually no change –

Oh, but Gary, that’s true of all mass media. Look, I just saw a movie called Hopscotch. When they originally put the deal together Hopscotch was to star Warren Beatty. It ended up starring Walter Matthau. And it’s a perfectly good movie. I liked it, and it probably would have been a good movie with Warren Beatty, too. They would have made the adjustments necessary.

All I’m saying is that if x-writer died tomorrow or left the business, the following day I’d have a replacement for him. Because I’m out there entertaining those readers, and I have to have somebody to do the work. It does not mean that there would be no regret attached to that. But, I have been taken off books as a writer myself for reasons I didn’t always think were justified, and the books went on, they survived. I don’t know if that has anything to do with the importance of the individual artist or writer. Yes, they are interchangeable because we have a given number of pages to produce a month and those pages have to be produced or we’re not in the comic-book business. We’d be in the vanity press business or the small press business. But as the business is constituted we are as print media go, a mass medium, and we have those pages and we have a lot of jobs depending on those pages getting filled. So, if X can’t do the work for whatever reason, Y has to. In that sense, X and Y are interchangeable. It does not mean that we’re not aware of the differences between X or Y or that those decisions are ever ever ever made lightly. Bear in mind that — I’m an exception — most of the people who are now running the comic-book world on a practical day-to-day level were once fans.

I understand that, and I understand the exigencies of a mass medium. But, is there any significant difference between writer X and writer Y? And doesn’t this sort of thing breed a collective artistic consciousness as opposed to an individual artistic consciousness? Art has always been the most individual activity possible; now it’s being reduced to a formulaic approach where you simply plug into the slot the required participant. I’m talking about the bankruptcy of mass media, and the fact that comics so enthusiastically embrace this bankruptcy.

If indeed it is a bankruptcy, it is one that is built into the nature of mass media. Go fight city hall. Go quarrel with the industrial revolution. That’s who you’re ultimately railing against here. I could also question that art has always been the most individual of acts, because in pre-literate times…

Well, we don’t know much about art before then. We have only sketchy ideas.

We know that for a long time that stories were transmitted orally from storyteller to storyteller and so what you got after 200 years was the equivalent of a mass media product, something that had passed through a lot of sensibilities. Up until the last century, artists wrote for a really tiny audience, all of whom had the same set of preconceptions. Goethe’s Weimar had 25,000 people in it, of whom five or 6,000 people were literate. That was his audience. He knew them virtually. So, yeah, it was individual in that it was clearly and definably his stuff, but he knew his audience intimately in a way we can’t. Shakespeare’s London had 100,000 people. That’s a tiny, tiny fraction of the number of people that I have to write for in a given month.

But it is possible to promote an individual vision in today’s mass media.

Sure. A few people do it.

So it isn’t impossible.

It is seldom done on television, for example.

That’s because television is, as you have pointed out, the lowest common denominator mass medium. It panders to audience preconception, and if you pander to a homogenized audience, how is there any room for an individual point of view?

Well, there’s not much. I’m trying to think of how we can apply this to other media. I don’t know how much of an individual vision, if I understand what you’re talking about at all, you get from best-sellers.

Again, I come back to. the fact that there is a greater range of values at play in other entertainment media.

A greater range of…?

There’s a far greater range of depth, of insight, of character revelation…

That partially has to do with the limitations of the medium. I mean, in 22 pages you’re not going to do Hamlet.

Twenty-two pages is a limitation of the industry, not the medium.

If I go see Game of Death and I look at the character that Bruce Lee plays, I am not going to come away from that movie knowing anything about why that character chose to become a martial artist, what his political, social, or religious, or moral feelings are. I’m going to know he does one thing superbly, and I either accept or reject the movie on that basis. What those movies are about at their best is the way a man can realize himself physically.

Likewise in comics, anybody that reads anything I write expecting to find out what I think about the forthcoming election is barking up the wrong tree, because I’m not in business to do that when I’m working in that medium. The average TV show isn’t in the business to do that. In fact, the thing that’s leveled against Lou Grant — the main criticism that you hear about it — is that it’s too preachy. I don’t think it is at all. I think they’re dealing with a newspaper and to deal with a newspaper realistically you have to deal with the things a newspaper deals with, which are public issues. But, that’s an excellent show that’s constantly criticized, because it deals with serious stuff. I don’t know if the Los Angeles Tribune is a liberal or conservative paper and I watch the show pretty often. They don’t even get into it that much but because they get into it at all they collect a lot of flak. Well, I don’t know — when I’m doing a comic book I’m not going to get into certain kinds of things because that isn’t the place to get into them. But there are in everything I do implied values with regard to things like violence and brotherhood — to use one of those big words.

It’s there but it’s buried so deeply it’s difficult to ascertain.

Because I’m writing fiction, not polemic. People like Rich Howell will disagree with this — and have — but I think there are limitations to the medium, built-in limitations to the format, to what it is. I would be delighted to be proved wrong, I don’t see doing Hamlet’s soliloquy in a comic book. Gen of Hiroshima is a very good example of somebody who looked at a comic book and saw what it could do and used the limitations of the medium and made the copy and the artwork to tell what is a very, very serious story. Yet it’s not ponderous, it’s not heavy, it’s not overblown. It simply takes what a comic book is and uses that to convey this guy’s sensibility, to convey the story he had to tell.

But every medium has its limitations. That doesn’t mean comics can’t have the same profound quality…

Exactly. And you’re not going to get from a Shakespearean play the same thing you’re going to get from a Wagnerian opera, even though they may be dealing with very much the same kind of subject matter.

Right. So the potential of comics isn’t limited just because you can’t do Hamlet’s soliloquy. Something just as touching could be done in the comics form.

Exactly. And we are still — but, and I don’t know if this is a good analogy, the Beatles expanded the parameters of popular music, and yet they could do that because there existed the 33 LP. Al Jolson, for example, on his recording, if he wanted to, could not have expanded the parameters of popular music at that point because of the nature of what phonograph records were; he had five minutes, tops. So, he couldn’t do a Sgt. Pepper. Very much the same way comics are evolving, they’re very much in the process of becoming…

Jolson’s was a technological problem, not an economic problem. Comics are an economic problem. There’s no reason, technologically, why Marvel Comics couldn’t produce a 200-page comic. Their only excuse is economical.

Yeah, and that would mean Marvel if they did a lot of that stuff and had no audience, would be out of business. Therefore, it would be self-defeating. You would not have a mass medium anymore. Remember, we’re always talking about a mass medium. That means reaching lots of people, that means finding certain things we can all agree are amusing.

All right, but film is a mass medium and you have Coppola and other filmmakers who are doing superior work and who are reaching a mass audience.

Your assumption is that comics people aren’t doing superior work. Some are, some aren’t. We have our losers, but we also have our Coppolas.

The problem as I see it is that you don’t have the range he did to play with. You’re working in a more restricted, more confined range within the superhero context.

All right. Frank Capra had 90-minute movies to play with. He gave you what he could give you in 90 minutes and still reach the numbers of people he had to reach with the stuff. It’s a very close analogy. I have 22 pages. I have a lot of things I have to do that are givens before I sit down to fill those 22 pages. I am not going to give you 22 pages of talking heads even if the conversation is fascinating, for example. So, OK, given that…

I see what you mean. I don’t see the page count as much a limitation as the restrictions to the content in those 22 pages that are imposed upon you. It’s a limitation but it’s a limitation that can be surmounted.

Kurtzman did it. Kurtzman told stories in seven pages that were far and away better than the stuff DC and Marvel are doing now. Kurtzman was Kurtzman. You’re talking about a guy who is probably a genius. We ain’t all geniuses. Would that we were. And then Kurtzman eventually ran afoul of commercial limitations. The reason he is not editor of Mad, if my reading of that brouhaha is accurate, is because he could not make his vision ultimately conform to the mass market. It’s unfortunate because the mass market is certainly impoverished and I wish to God that Kurtzman could have made his vision and his discipline conform to the exigencies of periodical publishing. We’d have had lots and lots of great stuff that we don’t have if he’d been able to do that. I think Annie Fanny is tripe. It’s superbly executed tripe, but you have this major visual comedian who’s reduced to doing smarmy sex gags. Too bad, man. Don’t you wish that Kurtzman could have met those deadline schedules on Mad back in 1952?

My question is: Do Marvel and DC encourage the Kurtzmans of today?

They may not encourage them, but they don’t discourage them.

Don’t they discourage them implicitly by setting an example by the material they publish, which is almost all derivative and banal?

Your opinion, Gary.

Even new artists coming into the field, you can see all their influences are totally from old comic books.

Well, of course. What do you want their influences to be? Rembrandt’s chiaroscuro? Come on!

I’m saying they don’t bring in any new values. It’s all regurgitated Kirby-Lee stuff.

What you’re talking about is a lot of the limitation of the talent. Here’s something I learned very early in my alleged career. I was writing scripts for Charlton. I was putting in Westerns these terrific action scenes, “Here comes the Loco Kid” — or whatever character I was doing — “somersaulting over this rock, both guns blazing.” What I’d get is a picture of a guy with a gun in his hand pointing it at someone. I was furious! I thought, “This idiot is vitiating the entertainment value of my stories!” I later found out that those artists were not capable of drawing what I was asking. They were doing the best they could. A lot of what you’re talking about is that artists are not capable themselves. They’re capable of doing acceptable work — so are writers, I don’t want to limit it to artists — so we use them because, sure, why not? They are entertaining x-number of people by what they do. The reason they are not doing it better is that they can’t, at least not at a given point.

Frank Miller is an example of somebody who’s come in who is capable of doing better and is virtually every month.

Could I talk about Frank for a minute?

Sure.

I’ve been impressed with Frank’s design and panel configurations and his storytelling techniques. Yet he hasn’t learned how to draw the human figure. You can see where he’s taken from Gil Kane, from Steve Ditko, from Jim Starlin, and from other comics sources. His first story, which I just read, in Daredevil #168, just embraces all of the melodramatic formulas of every comic that has preceded it. So, here’s a guy with a very personal approach, but it’s almost entirely subsumed by derivation.

All right, there’s a number of things you said, and I’ll speak to them one at a time. To my eye, anyway, Frank’s figures are realistic within the confines of the exaggeration of what is basically a cartoon medium. They’re exaggerated, but I would not like it if they weren’t. As an editor that’s what I want, that’s what I’m asking him to do. I think the Elektra story is very good melodrama. It may not be original melodrama, but within its own self-imposed limitations, he did it well.

I agree, but we’ve read it a hundred, a thousand times before.

Well, we have seldom read it that well done. That’s the beginning and end of my answer to that. The third point is that Frank is still learning, and one of the things that most impresses me about him is that as good as he is now, he’s always willing to learn and always seeking out new information.

I hope this doesn’t come across as though I’m dumping on Frank because he’s certainly one of the freshest talents to come along. But I read that story and thought, “My God, he’s falling into the rut.”

I edited that story and thought it was a very good first story. For a guy who’s learning how to write, I thought it was a fine first effort. I defy you to show me very many people’s first stories — especially including mine — that were anything like as good.

And everybody always imitates at first. Like, Raymond Chandler was imitating the pulp guys. It’s just that he had a much finer sense of language. He was basically telling the same story, he just did it better. He did it with fresh language, with a fresh approach to that archetypical private-eye character. As far as plotting, Chandler brought nothing to the American detective story. He just used the same tools and used them better. In the Elektra story that’s what Frank was doing to my perception, using the same tools and doing it better than it’s usually done. And I applaud that. And I think that’s a way we can raise the level of the comic-book reader. Because you’re buying Daredevil for a certain kind of melodrama and that’s what he gave you. He just has his own way of doing it and, again, I thought it was better than most versions of that melodrama.

I suppose that melodrama is the basis –

If you don’t want to read that melodrama, go read Fowles or Hawkes or Thomas Pynchon or those people. You won’t get that kind of melodrama. And anybody who does not take advantage of the fact that there is a Pynchon as well as a Frank Miller is impoverishing themselves. And that happens a lot.

As I’ve said in print before, one of the few very serious reservations I have about my colleagues is that they limit themselves to pulp-derived material. Their work and their souls would benefit from a more constant exposure to a wider range of stuff. But if they choose to limit themselves to pulp-derived material and do it well, I can applaud the fact that they do it well, and I have no right to condemn them for what they don’t do and what they don’t want to do.

The only thing I’ll say about this comic book-type melodrama is that, like all comic-book melodrama, it’s cheap, obvious, shallow — it doesn’t even have the melodramatic qualities that something like All About Eve had — it was not deep by any means, but it had involving characters, it had witty dialogue, it had a piquant tone…

All right. Mankiewicz, who wrote the screenplay for All About Eve, had 120 pages, probably. Miller had 22. It’s as simple as that. I think he’s probably capable of the kind of intricacy that you’re talking about. But if Mankiewicz had been doing a 15-minute short about a rivalry between two actresses, it would not have been All About Eve, because he couldn’t have gotten the subplots in 15 minutes. It’s just that simple.

I think what is conveyed subliminally in your magazine is an attitude of disdain. A little while ago you yourself used melodrama as a pejorative. Melodrama in my vocabulary is not a pejorative. It is a form. It is the form I predominantly work in as a matter of fact. It is a form with equal validity and weight with tragedy and comedy. It is one of the three modes of dramatic expression. And as Norman Mailer said, melodrama seems to be the natural mode of 20th century America as tragedy was the natural mode of Socratic Greece.

That might say more about 20th century America and its cultural standards than it does about the validity of melodrama as a form.

If, by that, you mean we are living in a melodramatic age, yeah.

In an age that embraces cheap melodrama…

An age that embraces melodrama; why does it have to be cheap melodrama? Cheap and melodrama are almost always yoked like that and yet melodrama is in itself neutral, it ain’t good and it ain’t bad. It’s a form. The sonnet is a form; the ode is a form. Melodrama is a form, tragedy is a form, comedy is a form. It’s just a dramatic attitude, and there’s cheap melodrama and there’s not cheap melodrama. There’s bad tragedy, there’s bad comedy. I will say unabashedly with almost no fear of contradiction that what we do in comics is melodrama, it’s broad melodrama, fantasy melodrama. That’s what comics are. If you don’t like that, go read someplace else, go someplace else. I am not in the business of satisfying the tastes of anybody who is not willing to accept fantasy melodrama as a viable form of entertainment.

Love it or leave it.

It is in a way. You can’t judge me for something that I have no intention of doing. What I intend to do is produce melodrama. Why condemn it for something it doesn’t pretend to be?

Again, we’re going back to Goethe’s third criterion: Is it worth doing? Which may be the most important criterion of them all. In other words, why condemn a Russ Meyer movie because it’s just T&A and doesn’t aspire to anything beyond that? Because it’s crap.

Actually, in singling out Meyer — he’s one of the few auteurs in that form.

[Laughter.] I guess he is.

There is distinctly a Russ Meyer movie and it’s not mistakable.

That’s true, but it’s misogynist trash nonetheless.

All right, by your standards. But I can see where Russ Meyer movies might do a helluva lot more social good than Socrates. If you’re a frustrated, sexually deprived little man, and you can crawl under the turnstile into a sleazoid 42nd Street theater that’s showing a Russ Meyer movie and you can have your sexual tensions relieved, and you walk out of there feeling better, the Russ Meyer movie that you think of as trash has done a positive social good for that poor, little man. It has alleviated the sum total of his suffering. Which is something that most high art can’t lay any claim to. Russ Meyer movies have their place. I would not want Meyer movies to stop existing on the face of the Earth.

I think Russ Meyer movies are demeaning. Speaking of this poor, frustrated little man, a different form of art or entertainment might emancipate him from whatever problems he has in a more meaningful way than a Russ Meyer movie. A Russ Meyer movie may sustain him till the next day, but if he seeks to improve his life in a more satisfying way, he may find life more endurable, even enjoyable.

So, what are you saying? That you shouldn’t pander to the very basest part of people?

That’s what I would say.

I agree. I don’t do any comic-book equivalent of The $1.98 Beauty Show, for example, which I think is debasing and immoral. But, I’m not going to accept any condemnation because I do melodrama. And I’m not going to say shows satirizing beauty contests are intrinsically bad, I just think that one is. I feel sorry for the people who participate in it willingly. And I think Chuck Barris is a reprehensible man. But, I don’t do that. If I were doing a television show, I would hope I wouldn’t do that one. I would be trying to reach the same audience that that reaches, but I would be doing a show with more dignity and more wit.

From July 1969. It was co-written by O'Neil and Sergio Aragonés (the latter lends his name to the story "Wanted! Sergio Aragonés") and drawn by Nick Cardy.

You’re back to two things which we’ve talked about tonight: The ability of the individual artist — for want of a better word — to do something; and the readiness of people to perceive what he’s doing. I mean, it’s happened again and again in history that people have been ahead of their time. The Armory Show in 1915, which was the first show of modern painting, was totally lambasted by the critics as immoral among other things. People who get into this sort of thing get into morals a lot, for some reason. Now, a lot of those paintings are considered masterpieces and certainly, nobody on Earth would consider any of them immoral anymore. I think I have occasionally had ideas — well, like Bat Lash, which was a comic book that was 10 years ahead of its time. That’s unfortunate that occasionally that happens. Norman Mailer’s mayoralty campaign was considered radical in the extreme and now 50 percent of the mainstream politicians around have incorporated those ideas. It’s unfortunate that the guy who breaks the ground is frequently not the guy who reaps the profits from what he’s done. James Joyce did not die a millionaire, and he showed people a whole new way to write novels. That’s unfortunate, but again that’s sort of like railing against earthquakes.

Manmade earthquakes.

Yeah, but when you’re dealing with masses of people — and we’re always talking about masses of people — you’re not dealing with one, perfidious individual, human being. In this case, you’re talking about mass taste, which changes with glacial slowness. Of course, it does. You have to get four million people to agree on something before you have any significant change in mass taste. Obviously, that’s going to happen slowly. You can lament that that’s true, but there’s not a damn thing you can do about it.

You can lament that it won’t change.

So those of us who are working in any mass medium who consider ourselves to have integrity try and do good stuff. Don’t always succeed. I won’t quarrel if you point to any given story of mine and say, “This is a piece of garbage.”

I will quarrel if you say that I set out to do a piece of garbage. I have failures of talent and intelligence all the time. My intention is always to produce something that is at least acceptable when I sit down to do it. I don’t always make it. Nobody else does that I know, either, but I’m always trying, and I happen to be the guy with the access to the comic books. And if you think you can do it a lot better than me then you should start doing it and start getting yourself in a position where you have access to the same amount of print that I have access to in a given year. You can make the case that in order to get to that place that you will be so compromised by the time you get there that you won’t know what your values are anymore. That’s the thing that’s often said of politicians. I don’t know what I think about that; I don’t think that’s necessarily true. I think it’s sometimes true. I think I’m relatively immune to that because I’m not very ambitious. I think in a funny way that’s true of most people who are in comic books, because if we were ambitious we wouldn’t be here. So, I think in an odd kind of way — this has never occurred to me before right now — that we do probably keep our standards intact more than most people who are in mass media.

When your standard is to write Rom you don’t have to compromise yourself.

All right, if your standard is to write Rom and you are writing Rom well you’ve succeeded in what you’re doing. Nobody is pointing a gun at your head and making you read Rom. And truly you would not deny that people have a right to read and enjoy Rom. Or Betty and Veronica or Casper the Friendly Ghost or anything else. I may not be able to stand reading Betty and Veronica — and as a matter of fact I couldn’t the last time I tried — but I can’t deny the pleasure or even the validity of the pleasure of people who get it from that stuff.

But the original point is comics creators have nothing to compromise in the first place.

So, are you going to hang them because they don’t have genius or largeness of soul or whatever? They’re doing the best they can.

So’s Chuck Barris.

I don’t know. I think Chuck Barris is cynical about it. I don’t know of any comic-book people who go into it with a dead, cynical standpoint. Even the guys who I think have been damaged by working in the medium — they’re guys who tend to be 15 or 20 years older than me — they’re not so totally cynical that they go in thinking that they will exploit the medium or the kids reading the stuff. I don’t know Chuck Barris, he may be a commendable man, but I have a feeling he goes in intending to exploit bad taste. So, if you say that somebody is not capable of perceiving anything outside the limitations of the kind of comic books they grew up with, and that is the highest standard they have, I might agree with you and say that it’s too bad. If we make this quantum leap — if that person might not like The Spirit, for example, which is pretty generally regarded as an excellent comic strip — and I know people who do not like The Spirit and who do like Betty and Veronica — well, what can you say about that? It’s too bad? What I perceive as extraordinary quality they cannot perceive as such. I think they are wrong and I think it’s too bad their aesthetic grasp is so limited. Y’know, it’s too bad. They’re not bad people. The people who produce what is within their aesthetic grasp are not bad people for producing it and Will Eisner is not a bad man for exceeding that grasp. There’s no blame here.

Another problem with mass taste is that it impairs the ability to make subtle distinctions.

How so?

Because the artistic response is always operating at such a low level. I fail to see how people can make distinctions on a higher level when they can barely make them at a lower level.

All right, if that’s true, if there is what you’re saying — a coarsening of sensibility — then you blame television much more than comic books.

Of course.

I think you’re probably right.

I think it’s affected me and telling me to go out and read a good book isn’t going to help because the fact is we are bombarded by it all the time.

Then don’t let yourself be bombarded by it. I’m a snob; I’m a print man. I don’t watch television; I can’t watch television. I just published a story in Fantasy & SF which is, on one level, a covert shot taken at all of my friends who do watch television a lot. The character, Quentin, in that story, is a composite of a lot of people I know and as a matter of fact, of a lot of people I like, and I don’t understand how a guy I play poker with can, on a normal night, sit in front of a television set for five hours. I can’t do it. I simply am not physically able to do that and after two hours of television, tops, I run screaming for the nearest book.

I regret the coarsening of a sensibility that cannot respond to a novel as deeply as it can to a television show. But, again, that’s fighting city hall. It’s too bad. It may be doing, and I suspect it is doing, some kind of harm to our collective consciousness. But, I don’t know what to do about it. I can only feel it on a personal level and try not to let that happen to me, and try to expose myself to as many kinds of things as possible. I am currently spending a lot of time with someone who’s deeply involved in modern dance, about which I know nothing at all. It’s a small effort for me to remain open to what she says, but having made the effort, I am now finding things to like in modern dance.

It’s probably a great opportunity to learn about it.

Yeah. I wish more people would do that. And I guess I do tacitly, covertly condemn people for not being open to more kinds of experiences. You should not just read my Spider-Man stories. You should go out and buy paperback books and go to a library and get hardcover books and you should go listen to the free concerts in the park, both jazz and classical music, and you should go listen to the free rock concerts. You, living in the New York-Washington-New Jersey Metroplex, have access to all of the world’s culture, to everything that’s ever been done, you can get it. And if you don’t get it, it’s too bad for you. You are impoverishing yourself. You can’t blame me because I am not offering you Beethoven, because Beethoven is available to you. Personally I read comic books and Russian novels and there are times, with a gun at my head, I would not read a Russian novel, and I want a comic book, dammit. There are other times when I might be in a gloomier or more contemplative mood when a comic book will not satisfy what I’m looking for. One of the few ways we are blessed with in the 20th century, living as we do in interesting times, is that we can get anything we want. It is all available to us. You only have to reach out. If you choose not to reach out, it’s too bad. Why don’t you?

It’s not that mass culture conspires to encourage triviality and mediocrity; it’s just that they think the same way and have the same goals. The result is a cultural dictatorship that encourages people to find the cheapest, easiest form of escape. The people who accept it at face value are being cheated.

They are and they aren’t. Did you ever work at a bottle factory?

No.

I worked in a bottle factory. Two summers to put myself through college so I could get haute culture. Working at a bottle factory is this: I stood at the end of a conveyor belt. Ten thousand beer bottles came at me a day. The heat was 120° because these beer bottles were being molded in huge blast furnaces about 40 feet up the line. I took them off, I looked at them, I put them on gauges, I flipped them over, I put them in boxes. I repeated that until 10,000 of these bottles had been done. Then I got in my car and drove through a dismally bad East St. Louis neighborhood, and I got home. At that time I was very snobbish about things like melodrama. I was much worse in my prime than you ever were. [Laughter.] I mean I was an English major in a Jesuit university, man. If it was popular, it was no good per se. That was, for one year, my criterion. If a lot of people liked it, I didn’t. End of discussion. Well, I was not capable of reading Dostoevsky after eight hours in that bottle factory. I couldn’t do it. I could maybe crawl into the living room and turn on the television and stare at whatever happened to be flickering across it for an hour before crawling up to bed and getting ready to repeat the whole horrible process the next day. To appreciate Dostoevsky, you have to read a book with a lot of attention.

What I like about novels is that they absorb me because I have to bring some of myself to them. I have to make the effort of reading; it’s not a totally passive experience. But that’s because I’m now in a position where I am not physically exhausted except when I choose to be. If I were still working at that bottle factory I could not read the serious stuff that I do. In fact, I couldn’t go to the serious movies I go to. In fact, I couldn’t go to the Japanese melodrama that I go to on Tuesdays at the Bleecker Street because I would not have the energy to get past the language barrier, and see what was going on on the screen. All that I could do is to watch television. A lot of people have jobs like that. Their lifestyles sort of limit the culture that is available to them.

That’s why the level of culture corresponds to economic class.

Yeah, absolutely. But, it had never occurred to me because I haven’t thought of that bottle factory in 20 years.

I know what you mean. I worked in a restaurant taking red-hot dishes that had just gone through a huge dishwasher off a conveyor belt. After eight hours of that I crawled home like a whipped cur.

And yet ironically, probably working in that bottle factory made me a better writer who’s able to bring things to my own work that wouldn’t be there otherwise. Certainly my experience in the Navy, as much as I hated it — which was a lot — broadened me. I think that unquestionably made me a better writer. One of the things I often recommend to, what we jokingly call the younger writers, is just to live more.

Experience.

Yeah. Because your work is bound to be enriched by anything that happens to you. One of the few good things about being a writer is that you can use pretty much anything that happens. I am hardly the first person to make that observation.

But if you are the son of that bottle-factory worker, and you grow up being only exposed to that, that will harm your taste. You will never exceed those formative years. And yet you may, because my parents were not cultural in any way at all. And yet somehow or other at about age 12, without any prompting that I’m aware of, I started reading books. And I think probably there was a certain amount of unease in my family at first because I was reading those books.

Eventually, my father, who did not read novels himself, was applauding the fact that I did. And yet the people I grew up with did not ever start to read novels, and to this day, their highest cultural peak is Laverne and Shirley. I don’t know why I did it and they didn’t. I’m thinking of one guy who’s every bit as intelligent as I am and is exactly my age. He is a cultural illiterate at age 41. I don’t know why it went one way with me and another way with him.

It may have very little to do with native intelligence, and more to do with what you expose yourself to. Once you expose yourself to different things, you’ll acquire a taste for them and expand your taste as a result.

Yeah. And if you walk around being open to things in general, you’ll have a much richer life. You’ll see the way light is shining through the ice on the tree branches, and you will be given a moment of rare beauty that doesn’t cost anything. I guess the moral of all this is to be open. In the non-erotic sense, to try to love everything, or at least to be nonjudgmental.

For example, the social stratum that I come from, which is Shanty-Irish lower-middle-class blue-collar, St. Louis, there is a tendency on the part of a lot of the people who live in the neighborhood I grew up in to automatically condemn anything that is cultural, that is stamped with that. I sometimes wonder if my own anti-academic attitude is somehow related to that. But, my family would dismiss something as “deep,” which means, “We can’t understand it, so go away.” A lot of the things we were dismissing as deep weren’t. But, they were simply being judgmental and therefore closing themselves to a lot of things they would’ve liked, they would’ve enjoyed. We’re getting quasi-mystical-philosophical, but that’s all right because I’m 41.

You’ve earned it.

It seems to me that one of the primary duties that anybody has to themselves is to try not to judge anything, at least not prima facie judge. As I’m finding that I can like dance when I didn’t know I could once upon a time. I judged, I said, “That’s sissy-stuff. I don’t want to have anything to do with it. I can’t like it because it’s a bunch of dodos leaping around a stage. Forget it.” And I was wrong. That’s an example from my own life of a stupid judgment that deprived me of a lot of genuine pleasure for 40 years. If you want to extend that to the world of interpersonal relationships, it’s even more applicable.

God, if we get any further into this line, we will begin discussing the Tao and things that I’m not really qualified to discuss. In an odd way these are things that are right now most important to me, but I don’t know what I think about them enough to talk about them.

What you try to do is make some kind of peace with your own life.

That’s another problem I have with your magazine. There seems to be an appetite for turmoil and conflict. I once shared that appetite for turmoil and conflict, and I don’t anymore. I don’t know about you, but I think I have probably had more conflict and hassle in my life than you have, and I guess I’m sick of it. I don’t run away from it if I see a reason for it. On the other hand, I don’t seek it out as I once did. I had about five or six years that were full of every kind of conflict and hassle there is, from physical violence on down. I’ve been through that. I’ve starred in that movie. I don’t want to do it again. It was the cause of a lot of pain. And I don’t see any point in seeking out pain. All of it was a learning experience, no doubt; I don’t know if I’d do it again or not, because it almost killed me a couple of times. But I recognize at least that, yeah, I’m probably a more complex man for having gone through it. But I don’t know if anything will be served by continuing to go through it. In any case, I don’t have the stamina anymore to do those things I once did. I guess I maybe perceive a kind of young firehouse attitude — you smell smoke and you run toward it.

Once when I was working on a newspaper, a kid called in with an incipient drug scandal. It would’ve smeared egg all over the face of the University administration. And I got on that story like gangbusters. And one of the other reporters said, “Why? Why are you so excited about this?” I didn’t have an answer except that I liked conflict and turmoil when I was 25.

I don’t know what it is about being 25, but you’re hungry for conflict, for turmoil, and you run toward it. When I was a newspaper reporter, a story involving that kind of thing had infinitely more appeal for me than a story, for example, I did about a lovely old Japanese gardener and his wife who were having a wonderful and tranquil old age. That was a real good story I did, and it was very moving, but I didn’t enjoy it nearly as much as I enjoyed the time that I got some real heavy dirt on the police department and I showed that these authority figures had really dropped the ball.

Yeah, now that I think about it, I remember really responding in a Pavlovian way, of anything that reeked of scandal, and I went for those stories with my arms outstretched and my teeth bared. I don’t anymore, and I can only suppose that it’s because I’ve gone through that. I have probably gotten my allotment of conflict, turmoil — Sturm und Drang — in my life. I would like to believe that if I perceived something as a clear, visible moral wrong and it involved turmoil and violence to do something about it, I would not back away from it. I would not seek it out anymore, but I would like to believe if I were in Berlin in 1932, I would fight Hitler … with a machine gun if necessary. But, I’m not going to go over to a foreign nation and sign up with a mercenary army for the sake of discharging my machine gun at somebody, even though the person I may be snuffing may be a reprehensible person. I just don’t need to do that anymore. Whatever it is in me that made me that avid, scandal-hungry reporter doesn’t exist anymore. I’ve satiated myself with whatever that need is. Which sounds like slipping into mellow old age or senility, whichever comes first, but it’s not true because also my life now is, I think, immeasurably richer now than it was then. I enjoy so many more things. I get through weeks thinking, “Wow. I really don’t have it so very bad anymore.” I mean, I do a lot of interesting things all the time now.

Is your life as passionate now?

I think that my relationship with people is far deeper and far more real. It may not have the surface passion. But, it’s like a married couple if they can get through the first 10 years. The honeymoon kind of romantic passion is almost always gone, but if they can get through that initial period, they develop a love that takes the place of passion and is a lot more real and ultimately a lot more satisfying. My friend, Richard Hill, came up with a gag on a postcard three years ago, that said “We practice scribble-do,” do meaning The Way in Chinese. It’s a Zen-derived idea. I saw Richard a few weeks ago and we both realized that it was a very good joke because it was a very true joke. If you are a professional writer, say — and I’m sure that applies to being a professional artist or anything else — for the first six or seven years, I would get enormously elated from my work. It would be five in the morning and I would have just finished a script and, my God, I thought it was good and I’d have to talk to somebody. I’d telephone somebody in California, just out of this need to exalt; but that was almost always accompanied by a crashing low in which I thought that I was worthless, and the world was worthless and all of creation and the hand of God was worthless. Now, I seldom get that fantastic elation any more. And so you can say that there is a lack of passion in my life. I try to do things steadily.

However, I think that there is a constant satisfaction in my life now that was missing back then. It is a kind of day-to-day realization that one does the work and does it fairly well, and that’s like the equivalent to the love between a man and a woman I was talking about before. It is not that great, “I cannot wait to get home and touch her again!” It’s the “I know she’ll be waiting for me and that we will arise together tomorrow morning and that I will start my day having a very pleasant and even meaningful exchange with this woman even though if I don’t get home and touch her tonight it’s not going to ruin my day.” I think you reach some kind of detente with your work like that, which may be the reason that old men seldom write lyric poetry because maybe lyric poetry is a result of that kind of unbounded, unfettered, youthful enthusiasm. What older men write are serious novels that require a sustained effort, that require going to a desk every day, and putting yourself in a certain frame of mind and sustaining that for, maybe a year. It’s what Salinger once said about himself: He said he was a dash-man and not a miler, and I think history has borne him out unless he’s writing a great novel. But even at that, it would be true. Salinger must be well into his 50s by now. So, the book he would write now would not be Catcher in the Rye which is a dash-man’s book, essentially an extended short story.

On an infinitely lesser degree, I think I have reached that kind of feeling about my work. I try to go to it every day and I try to sustain a level of enthusiasm. In fact, I don’t have to make an effort most days. If I’ve been away from a typewriter for three weeks, which has happened recently, I go to it with a great deal of enthusiasm, because I have, on some level, apparently a need to write. I’ve always written, even when I wasn’t doing it for money. The only difference between now and 10 years ago is that I think I’m a lot more sane about the way I do it. And I think that my work is probably more consistent now. I was doing occasional great stories 10 years ago, but read the Justice League from that era and you’ll see that I was occasionally doing awful. I don’t think anything gets that awful anymore.

From "Snowbirds Don't Fly" in Green Lantern #85 (August-September 1981), written by O'Neil and drawn by Adams.

Do you have the highs?

I don’t have that mad 4 a.m. exalted feeling, but as I said, I have a general calm sort of feeling of satisfaction. I don’t think I’d want the exalted 4 a.m. thing because I think that has to be accompanied by the crash. And the crashes, when they’re low, they’re real low. But, I think even if that were not true of me and it’s certainly not true of everybody who reached this kind of detente, that it is generally better for work to do it consistently, rather than in peaks and valleys. We’re talking, of course, about a sustained body of work. One individual story might benefit greatly from being done at the peak. Well, yesterday I read Thus Spake Zarathustra, and I also read the introduction by Nietzsche’s sister and that whole book was done on one of those peaks — 30 days — and he went insane the next year. You wonder if there is a relationship. I don’t know, but it has generally been true that people who have done that — well, you know, Dickens allegedly wrote A Christmas Carol in one sitting, but he came down and wept. He obviously was going through some kind of turmoil. I can remember finishing my first novel on one of those peaks and in an odd way it was one of the most exalted and one of the most horrible hours of my life. I finished it at 4 a.m. in a farm in central Missouri and I needed to go exalt and say, “I finished my first novel!” And there was nobody to exalt with. I couldn’t very well wake up my mother-in-law. That would have been a fairly unsavory thing to do. There I was, way up there, with no place to go with it. Now what I would do, I guess, is run. I wasn’t running in those days, so it was awful in a way. There was all that adrenalin, and absolutely no place to channel it. I don’t ever want to go through that hour again. Now that I think about it, it was ghastly.

The rewards aren’t satisfactory?

Well, what I’m doing now is that I’m sort of amortizing the rewards. I’m spreading them out over a week instead of trying to cram it all in that hour. When I finish a piece of work now, and if I think it’s a good piece of work, I get exalted still. I don’t mean to say that that’s all gone.

I finished a job — I won’t say which one, because I don’t want to put value judgments on my own work — but I finished it at 10:30; I was uptown, at Marvel’s office, and I thought, “Damn, it’s the best thing I’ve done in years,” and I did get a real feeling of exaltation, but it was not that shrill, sharp, hysterical feeling of exaltation that would’ve caused the accompanying crash. It was almost like a suffusing feeling of satisfaction, at having done what I considered to be an extraordinarily good piece of work. I was not tempted to scream about it. I was tempted to go find somebody and to share it with them and that’s what I tried to do. In fact, I didn’t succeed in finding anyone, and in the old days, not finding somebody to share that with would’ve precipitated the crash, the terrible, dismal low. In this case, I was able to sustain the feeling that, all right, so I don’t have anybody to talk to. I still liked the work I did and that’s nice. It carried through to the next day.

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