The loss of a great artist is always tragic, but today the world mourns as the particularly bright light of Neal Adams has gone out for the last time—a light which has illuminated one part of the cosmic Bat Signal for so many years. A well known comic book artist that helped create several legendary characters in the Batman franchise, his style also influenced multiple generations of creators. More importantly, however, his work in artist advocacy has ensured that his contemporaries, and future creators, will not only be fairly compensated, but adequately recognized for their work for years to come.
So today, let us do just that: give a legend in his own time the honors he so richly deserves as we take a look back at his life, times, work, and his vitally important activism.
Born June 15, 1941, in Governor’s Island in New York, Adams’ first published work was under the banner of Archie Comics. After graduating from the School of Industrial Art in 1959, he aspired to draw for the Fly, aka Thomas “Tommy” Troy. One panel of his work was published as part of “Adventures of the Fly” #4 in January of 1960, added to another artist’s story. Lauded for being superior to the rest of the artwork, that one panel would launch what would go on to become a prolific career spanning well over half a century.
Adams was a student of the prestigious School of Industrial Art in Manhattan. Other notable graduates are comic creators Alvin Hollingsworth, Violet Barclay, Al Plastino, Carmine Infantino, Joe Orlando, John Romita Sr. and Dick Giordanio.
Neal Adams Breaks In to DC Comics
Adams’ first major strip was the companion to TV medical drama Ben Casey in 1962. The first to be helmed by Adams, the strip tackled tough and controversial issues in an art style that was equally rough and realistic for its time. Ending in 1966, roughly four months after its television counterpart, Adams’ was more invested in a commercial art career at this time, working in advertising alongside his comics work at this time. Early signs of his activism came into play during this period, when he was offered a role drawing for a Green Berets comic based on the film of the same name, but Adams declined due to his opposition of the Vietnam War.
The late Sixties were where Adams came into his own as a prolific contributor to the Silver Age of comics. Making his debut at DC comics with art in the anthology series Our Army at War in 1967, he worked on art for covers to syndicated works such as The Adventures of Jerry Lewis and The Adventurs of Bob Hope before making overtures to Batman editor Julius Schwartz for permission to work on the comic. Adams wouldn’t be allowed to cross over into superhero properties until 1967, when he illustrated his first covers for comics under the Superman umbrella. The same month those first covers were released, Adams would be allowed to illustrate the story for an issue of Detective Comics, the Batman flagship series, and shortly after drew Batman for the first time, alongside Spectre, in The Brave And The Bold. Spectre would go on to become one of his signature characters, as well as those he co-created such as Ra’s al Ghul.
From there, Adams would start working on Deadman in Strange Adventures and on the supernatural series The Spectre. Into the 1970’s, Adams would become the primary cover artist for DC Comics.
Many comic artists and historians have noted that Adams’ background in advertising art, which he brought to comics, greatly impacted the medium by introducing more realism and depth of focus.
To Marvel and Back Again
Adams would also begin to work for Marvel Comics. His notable contributions to them were reviving the nearly cancelled X-Men comics (alongside future collaborator and writer Dennis O’Neil) and drawing the Kree-Skrull War in The Avengers comics.
Finally, Adams would collaborate once more with O’Neil on Batman for Detective Comics. During this time, they begun to reestablish Batman back to his darker and brooding origins, and away from the campy influence of the 1960’s Adam West TV show. During this time, they introduced fan favorite villain Ra’s al Ghul in Batman #232 and would make Two-Face and the Joker much more dangerous, and deadly, than ever before.
Another landmark collaboration between Adams and O’Neil would be the landmark, and controversial, Green Lantern and Green Arrow team-up series. Adams had previously updated Green Arrow from his 1940’s appearance, by giving him the now iconic goatee, an updated costume and a now infamous outspoken liberal stance. As a vigilante, this would clash with the more conservative Green Lantern, who is an officer of an intergalactic peacekeeping corps.
This led to many social commentary stories, where they tackled the problems that plagued the 1970’s: racism, overpopulation, pollution, war, political corruption and drug addiction. The latter issue would lead to Green Arrow’s sidekick Speedy becoming addicted to heroin, which is still clouds over the character today.
Since then, Adams has gone to work for multiple DC and Marvel properties. In 1971, he would found Continuity Associates, an art and illustration studio. In 1978, he was instrumental in the forming of the Comic Creators Guild. Finally, he was won multiple awards for his contribution to comics, and inducted into the Will Eisner Comic Book Hall of Fame in 1998.
Adams the Activist
In collaboration with Rafael Medoff, director of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, Adams championed an effort to get the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, which is operated by the government of Poland, to return the original artwork of Dina Babbitt. In exchange for his sparing her mother and herself from the gas chambers, Babbitt worked as an illustrator for Nazi death camp doctor Josef Mengele, who wanted detailed paintings to demonstrate his pseudoscientific theories about Gypsy racial inferiority. Using text from Medoff, Adams illustrated a six-page graphic documentary about Babbitt that was inked by Joe Kubert and contains an introduction by Stan Lee. However, Adams deemphasized any comparison between the Babbitt case and his struggle for creator rights, saying that her situation was “tragic” and “an atrocity.”
In 2010, Adams and Medoff teamed with Disney Educational Productions to produce They Spoke Out: American Voices Against the Holocaust, an online educational motion comics series that tells stories of Americans who protested Nazis or helped rescue Jews during the Holocaust. Each standalone episode, which runs from five to ten minutes, utilizes a combination of archival film footage and animatics drawn by Adams (who also narrates), and focus on a different person. The first episode, “La Guardia’s War Against Hitler” was screened in April 2010 at a festival sponsored by the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art, and tells the story of the forceful stand New York City Mayor Fiorello La Guardia took against Nazi Germany. La Guardia’s actions stood in contrast to the relative passivity of President Franklin Roosevelt, who historians such as David S. Wyman believe did not do as much as he could have to save European Jewry, a point underlined in the episode “Messenger from Hell”. Other episodes include “Voyage of the Doomed”, which focuses on the S.S. St. Louis, the ship that carried more than 900 German-Jewish refugees but was turned away by Cuban authorities and later the Roosevelt administration, and “Rescue Over the Mountains”, which depicts Varian Fry, the young journalist who led an underground rescue network that smuggled Jewish refugees out of Vichy France.
Thank you, Mr. Adams
The life and work of Neal Adams has been described as having a seismic influence on the world of comics art, and the comics industry. He was as caring as he was gifted, and the world is a brighter place for his having passed this way. Thank you, Mr. Adams.
Liz Carlie (she/her/he/him) is a regular book, TV, and film reviewer for SCIFI.radio and has previously been a guest on ‘The Event Horizon’. In addition to being an active member of the traditional fandom community, she’s also an active participant in online fan culture, pro wrestling journalism, and spreading the gospel of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. She resides in Southern California with her aspiring superhero dog, Junior, enjoying life one hyperfixation at a time.