Want to Write a Screenplay or Make a Movie?: Read Comics!

Interview with Dennis O’Neil, Marvel Comics and DC Comics

by David Kaminski

Comics might help you get into film school, or help you to get your first film written. Sound preposterous? Maybe not. For decades, comics have had a bad reputation, but in the last handful of years, Hollywood has been churning out a number of box-office smashes about superheroes who first lived and breathed in comic books. And every superhero has been optioned. Why should you care?

Comics as a Short-Cut to Filmmaking

Reading comics and entering the world they inhabit might be the best short-cut to help you generate material and to give you an understanding of character, story, and continuity. Most obviously, they have a storyboard style that will help you to see ideas come alive and to understand how the visuals can help tell a story. Think of a comic as a film that runs at one frame a second, or slower. Or one static shot at a time. A shot that conveys meaning. The writers and artists have to know how to pare down their material and the visuals to get the idea across to the reader. You will be lucky to have a more easeful 24 frames a second to work with, and as many different shots as you want, but studying the masters will make you smarter.

A Lesson from Dennis O’Neil

Dennis O’Neil, now retired after being a decades-long editor and writer for Marvel Comics, DC Comics, and Bantam Books tells why comics are important for filmmakers and screenwriters. “Comics are a near-perfect form of visual narrative, so film guys can learn a kind of approach to storytelling that might be a bit outside their own discipline. Comics are paced very differently than TV and movies, so there may be something about relating to the audience to be learned. Comics are far more iconic than movies, another place where some learning may be done. Finally, comic book dialogue is highly compressed, yet, to work well, it should sound colloquial. So screenwriters might learn something about making their characters talk from comics.”

Narrative Problems, Solved

Comics face some of the same narrative problems as television and film, and the writers have spent an enormous amount of time crafting storylines, adding backstories, developing additional characters, and finding a way to catch the attention of the audience. They have not hundreds, but many thousands of characters and stories.

Maybe you think comics are not high art, or maybe you’d rather spend time culling storylines from great literature, or find inspiration in some French philosopher. Forget it. Put down all of those fat old volumes in their musty covers and get a stack of good comics. Those comics writers have done all of the work for you. They have been reading all that material and have been using it for years. Even better, they have taken it past the basic storylines and have used their own genius and imaginations to expand the ideas outward into a world that is now well-suited to special effects, 3D, multiple storylines, and a complexity that is part of the current sensibility.


Summing up the relation between comics and movies, O’Neil says, “They grew up together, and both contributed to educating audiences to get narrative information from images, rather than just words. They started from very different traditions and eras, visual narrative in the form of pictures predated film by tens of centuries, but they came together in the U.S. in the 1930’s as vehicles for pop culture. Virtually all early comics guys I know or know about are/were big movie fans, and for the past 50 years or so, movie makers have tended to be comics readers. So there was and is a huge cross-pollination.”

Also, there are the shared storylines between the comics and film noir, the serialization of comics that is employed in movies now, and the use of the same mono-myth of the American culture that today permeate both mediums.

Dennis O’Neil, from Reader to Writer to Editor

O’Neil’s career stretches back to 1943, when he was four years old. He first started reading comics then, when they had a reputation for being lower than low-brow literature. As he moved into high school, college, and the working world, he began writing for a newspaper where he learned to write quickly to beat the deadline and the start of the presses at 10 pm. It was a great and important learning experience for him to learn to produce material. His focus on writing comics brought criticism from some of the people closest to him. He was told he would “never amount to anything” by his own mother and his mother-in-law. And he agreed. He didn’t argue with them. At the time, working as a writer for the industry was not considered very respectable, though now, every major university has a course on comics.

Looking back on a glorious career that is filled with Batman, Spiderman, X-Men, the Green Lantern (his own original character), and countless other characters he has worked with, he is a man rich in story and knowledge. He has been honored at the Library of Congress and at the Smithsonian Museum. He is working on a piece about Nietzsche, Sartre, and supervillains. He teaches a course at NYU, “Writing Comics and Graphic Novels.” And he can sit in a movie theater from time to time and watch his characters, storylines, and the influence of his work come to life.

Characters on the Big Screen

Most recently, he sat in a movie theater watching Ironman and had a flash of recognition when a character he created, Obadiah Stane, played by Jeff Bridges, was on screen. At the time, when he created and named the character, his fellow writers at Marvel Comics mocked him. This year, he had a chance to settle the score with them, when he called them and mentioned the new film. As both a writer of Batman comics and the editor for DC Comics, he had a broad influence in helping create the darker character that the audience saw in Christopher Nolan’s first Batman film, Batman Begins. That mood also permeates the most recent film, The Dark Knight. O’Neil has worked with the screenwriters on the novelization of each of the films since his history with the characters went back so many decades.

Though he is well-known in the world of comics, O’Neil’s influence, both large and small, has gone somewhat unnoticed by the general public. His role as the creator of Obadiah Stane was uncredited, for example. This is not uncommon, since the writers of comics have a different and less formal process for receiving credit than writers who are part of the Writers Guild of America. He describes the writers, characters, and stories of the comics world and the film world as being all part of the same universe, connected like Indra’s jewels, a net of gems all glittering, reflecting, and shining light upon each other.

O’Neil speaks frankly and without sentimentality about the relationship between comics writers and screenwriters. “We have very little to do with the translation of our comics to other media and that’s as it should be. I’ve occasionally been accorded the courtesy of being shown a script and I’ve always dutifully written memos, but I don’t say anything that isn’t pretty obvious. We comics guys provide a starting point. I’ve had very cordial relations with all the Batman directors, but they don’t need me to tell them how to do their job.”

The Secrets of Genius

Dennis O’Neil is standing on a mountain of achievement. He is talented, smart, and a lot of other things, but what makes him different? After a long career he has had some time to reflect on what has made him tick. Forget vacations. They are nice, but in the end, he was and still is an adrenaline junkie. His lovely wife Marifran pointed out to him that the drive back from a vacation always had him gripping the steering wheel in a state of anxiety and excitement about deadlines, missing material, everything that he needed to get out another issue. He also had the chance to discover in the last few years that one of the root causes for his erratic grades in school (A’s, C’s, D’s) was also part of his genius. Marifran encouraged him to get tested for ADHD, and he had all the indicators “in spades”. He mentioned that people with ADHD have the ability to “hyper-focus”. Because of it, he can sit and get a job done, or work three 19 hours days in a row. And at the end of the day, the support and love of Marifran, his childhood sweetheart, has been another secret.

Chaos and String Theory

What’s next? Well, O’Neil is interested in chaos and string theory. He’s even studying it. Though he finds it hard to follow, he talks about how the parallel worlds and other concepts written about in comics have been proven by science. His advice to others: “Read everything. Cultivate curiosity and then indulge the hell out of it. You never know what will be professionally useful and besides, it’s fun to know stuff.” His mind is still spinning with ideas for a book, facts and information that could fill an encyclopedia, and a joy to share it all with others. “If you think that comics are simple,” O’Neil said to me, “sit down with a pile of Krazy Kat. That will turn your head inside out.” Indeed it might.

David Kaminski teaches TV Production/Media at Clarkstown HS North in New City, NY about 25 miles north of New York City. His students have earned five Telly Awards and over 50 national awards for their work. They also have screened their films more than 200 times in festivals across the country and internationally.