Neal Adams, Influential Artist and Creators’ Rights Advocate, Dead at 80
By Adam Woodard
Neal Adams, the legendary Silver Age comic book artist who revitalized properties such as Batman and the X-Men while championing the fight for creators’ rights, has died. He was 80-years-old.
Neal Adams’ official Twitter account (@nealadamsdotcom) retweeted an article shared by The Hollywood Reporter confirming Adams’ death earlier today. In the article, writer Borys Kit reveals, “Adams died Thursday in New York of complications from sepsis, his wife, Marilyn Adams, told The Hollywood Reporter.”
Adams was born on Governors Island, Manhattan, New York on June 15, 1941. He developed a love for comic books as a child. Upon graduating high school, he enrolled at New York City’s School of Industrial Arts. After honing his craft, Adams applied for a job at DC Comics. Because the comic book industry was in a down period, Adams was told, “The industry is closed. There is no room for anyone new.” Not one to be denied, Adams took his talents to Archie Comics where he found work on a struggling superhero comic called The Fly. From there, Adams began writing, penciling, inking, and lettering Archie’s Joke Book Magazine.
Following a brief stint working for Archie Comics, Adams received his his first big break when he was introduced to artist Howard Nostrand. Nostrand, the writer/artist of the Bat Masterson syndicated newspaper comic strip, hired Adams as his assistant. Adams worked for Nostrand for three months mostly drawing the backgrounds for Nostrand’s characters. Adams later called his time working on Bat Masterson, “a great experience.”
Upon leaving Bat Masterson,Adams took a detour into the advertising industry. He began accepting freelance work from the Johnstone and Cushing Agency. Adams would frequently turn to commercial art over his lifetime, but comic books were always his true passion. As such, when Adams was given the chance to work on a comic strip of his own, an adaption of the television medial drama Ben Casey, he seized the opportunity.
Ben Casey was the first work to showcase the greatness in store for Adams. Comics historian Maurice Horn wrote in his book 100 Years of American Newspaper Comics, “[Ben Casey] did not shrink from tackling controversial problems such as heroin addiction, illegitimate pregnancy, and attempted suicide.” Horn continues, “there was […] a touch of toughness to the proceedings, well rendered by Adams in a forceful, direct style that exuded realism and tension and accorded well with the overall tone of the strip.”
Even though Ben Casey ran in hundreds of newspapers throughout the nation (the actual number varies depending on the source), Adams grew discontent working on the strip. As he said in The Neal Adams Treasury, “I wasn’t happy working on the strip nor was I happy giving up a third of the money to [TV series producer] Bing Crosby Productions. […] On top of that, I was not able to express myself artistically when I want[ed] to.” After leaving Ben Casey, Adams spent the next several years working on various projects including Peter Scratch, The Heart of Juliet Jones, Erie, and Creepy. During this time, he was also offered a comic strip based on Robin Moore’s novel The Green Berets. However, he declined citing his objection to the Vietnam War.
After Adams passed on The Green Berets, he found himself working on a war comic for DC. Ironically, the person who took on The Green Berets assignment, Joe Kubert, was DC’s go-to war comics artist. When Kubert left DC, he also left his art duties on Our Army at War. DC found themselves in need of an artist. They reached out to Adams in 1967 to take over the art duties for Our Army at War. Adams accepted. Soon thereafter, he found himself working on other DC titles such as The Adventures of Bob Hope and The Adventures of Jerry Lee Lewis.
While Adams was grateful to be working at DC Comics, his ambitions never included celebrity adaptions or war comics. Adams wanted to work on superhero titles. He didn’t have to wait very long before DC asked him to transition to their superhero line. His first work on DC superheroes came in the form of covers for Action Comics and Superman’s Girlfriend, Lois Lane. From there, he moved to working on superhero interiors. His first superhero comic was a backup story in Detective Comics featuring the Elongated Man. Adams also worked on Strange Adventures, The Brave and the Bold, Teen Titans, The Spectre, and World’s Finest Comics (where he drew Batman for the first time).
During this time, Adams also began accepting freelance work from Marvel Comics. Adams commented on working for both Marvel and DC simultaneously in The Neal Adams Treasury saying, “The first time I got away from DC was when I went to Marvel to do the X-Men. It didn’t stop me from working at DC; they were a little annoyed at me, but that was a calculated plan.” While at Marvel, Adams worked on with frequent collaborator Dennis O’Neil for the first time on X-Men, where the two changed comic history by bringing Professor X back from the dead in X-Men #65.
Adams reputation was on the rise. He won the 1969 Alley Award for Best Pencil Artist for his work on X-Men. After X-Men, Adams was moved to one of Marvel’s bestselling titles — The Avengers. On The Avengers, Adams, along with writer Roy Thomas, produced one of the most renowned story arcs in comic book history, the “Kree-Skrull War.” Marvel allowed Adams to begin expressing himself not only as an artist, but also as a writer. Adams wrote or co-wrote titles for Marvel such as Tower of Shadows, Chamber of Darkness,and Amazing Adventures.
At the time, Marvel Comics dealt with real world issues while DC Comics were more fancy-free, preferring to focus on the super heroics of their characters instead of the problems of their alter egos. Perhaps the greatest contribution Adams gave to the comic book industry as a creator was injecting the real world issues seen in Marvel Comics into DC’s titles. Adams, along with former X-Men collaborator Dennis O’Neil, took over the creative duties on the character with whom he would become synonymous, Batman. Throughout the 1960s, Batman comics tried to capture the campy feel of the ABC TV series starring Adam West. O’Neil and Adams sought to dismantle what Batman had become by inserting the character in a darker, more realistic setting.
In January 1970, O’Neil and Adams took over DC’s two marquee Batman books, Batman and Detective Comics. They wanted to bring Batman back to his roots. With the cancelation of ABC’s TV series, it was time for the character to return to his dark, brooding nature. During their run on Batman and Detective Comics, O’Neil and Adams reinvigorated Batman by reintroducing old adversaries such as Two-Face, introducing new characters such as Ra’s al Ghul and Man-Bat, and reimagining foes like the Joker as cold-blooded masochists instead of lovable pranksters. A direct line can be drawn from O’Neil and Adams’ legendary run on Batman to how the character is currently portrayed.
Following their run on Batman, O’Neil and Adams took on the task of revamping two other classic DC characters who’d fallen out of favor with the public, Green Lantern and Green Arrow. The two characters’ comics were combined into one title called Green Lantern/Green Arrow. Adams redesigned the Green Arrow giving him a goatee and a new costume. Green Lantern/Green Arrow explored modern social issues in a way that was previously taboo in comic books. O’Neil and Adams’ most groundbreaking story arc of Green Lantern/Green Arrow appeared in issues #85-86, in which Green Arrow’s sidekick Speedy was revealed to be addicted to heroin.
Comic book historian Ron Goulart spoke about O’Neil and Adams’ run on Green Lantern/Green Arrow in his book Ron Goulart’s Great History of Comic Books. “These angry issues deal with racism, overpopulation, pollution and drug addiction. The drug abuse problem was dramatized in an unusual and unprecedented way by showing Green Arrow’s heretofore clean-cut companion Speedy turning into a heroin addict. All this endeared DC to the dedicated college readers of the period and won awards for both artist and writer.” Although Green Lantern/Green Arrow brought relevance to comics and critical acclaim to O’Neil and Adams, this did not translate to sales. Even though Green Lantern/Green Arrow was canceled, it sent shockwaves through the comic book industry that are still being felt today. Many consider Green Lantern/Green Arrow to be the birth of the modern comic book.
Adams continued to work in comics intermittently throughout his life. He returned to Batman numerous times over the years as well as working on Justice League of America, Superman, New Avengers, Deadman, Fantastic Four, and Action Comics. He became the go-to artist for crossover events with mass appeal such as Superman Vs. Muhammad Ali and Superman vs. The Amazing Spider-Man. Legendary comic book artist Bob McLeod wrote about Adams in a blog on his website, bobmcleod.com. “Neal held a position of respect in the industry no one in comics has since achieved. He was the single most respected artist in the business.” McLeod continued, “I was immediately hired at Marvel in the production department on Neal’s recommendation, and they still didn’t even want to see my portfolio. If I was good enough for Neal, I was good enough for them.”
Adams contributions as a comic creator are undeniable, but it isn’t his work as a writer/artist for which he will be most remembered. It’s no secret that comic creators have a history of being exploited. Adams took up the fight for creators’ right in the 1970s and continued fighting against exploitation into his twilight years. In the 1970s, Adams began to push for the unionization of the comic book industry. Adams’ effort culminated in the creation of the Comic Creators Guild in May 1978. Although the Comic Creators Guild wasn’t the union Adams hoped it would be, it did give some power back to comic creators.
When Warner Brothers announced the production of Superman: The Movie in 1975, Superman co-creator, Jerry Siegel, condemned the project. Siegel was furious with Warner Brothers and DC Comics because they continued to make millions of dollars off his creation while he lived in abject poverty. Siegel found support for his plight in Neal Adams. Adams, along with Joker co-creator, Jerry Robinson, began to publicly pressure DC Comics for better treatment of aging comic creators. Siegel, Adams, and Robinson caused such an uproar that Warner Brothers agreed to give Siegel and co-creator, Joe Shuster, a yearly stipend, health insurance, and the assurance that all future Superman stories will credit Siegel and Shuster as Superman’s creators.
Over the next decade, Adams continued to emphasize the importance of creators’ rights. Traditionally, comic book companies considered submitted art to be their property. Not only was this art published in comic books, but the publishing company also kept the original art instead of returning it to its creator. When Jack Kirby left Marvel Comics in 1979, he demanded the return of his original artwork. Kirby believed he owned the original art, not Marvel. Marvel was notorious for giving away creators’ original, inked artwork to random office visitors. This enraged Kirby. He thought not only should his original artwork be returned, but it should be his to do with as he pleased — including his to sell on the secondary market. After hearing Kirby’s pitch, Adams agreed with him.
Kirby and Adams sued Marvel for the rights to their original artwork. In 1987, Kirby and Adams were granted the return of their original art. This decision didn’t only benefit Kirby and Adams, however. Marvel had to return every artists’ original artwork. The right to retain their original artwork opened up new sources of income for comic book artists by allowing them sell original covers and iconic pages they’d drawn. This has proven indispensable for most artists because the money they make from selling their original art often surpasses the amount comic book publishers paid for their initial work. Kirby and Adams against Marvel would prove useful two decades later, when Adams again hoisted the creators’ rights flag.
In 2008, Adams lent his voice to those in support of Dina Babbitt. Babbitt, a Jewish Holocaust survivor, was imprisoned at Auschwitz concentration camp during World War II. Babbitt was also a talented artist. When Babbitt found herself and her mother, Johanna Gottlieb, imprisoned, she made a deal with her Nazi captors — if they would spare her life and her mother, she would draw portraits of Romani inmates. Babbitt was selected for this position by the infamous Schutzstaffel (SS) officer known as the Angel of Death, Josef Mengele. Seven of Babbitt’s watercolor paintings survived into the new millennium. Those watercolors were preserved in the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum. Babbitt requested her watercolors be returned to her, but the museum refused her request.
Adams, also a Jewish artist, took up Babbitt’s cause just as he had those of Jerry Siegel and Jack Kirby. In the New York Times article titled “Comic Book Idles Rally to Help Holocaust Artist” from August 2008, Adams calls the museum’s decision to keep Babbitt’s artwork “tragic” and “an atrocity.” Adams illustrated a six-page graphic documentary about Babbitt’s plight that was inked by Joe Kubert with an introduction from Stan Lee. Unfortunately, Babbitt passed away from abdominal cancer the following year before her artwork was returned.
Neal Adams’ legacy is multifaceted. He was a superstar artist who changed the landscape of his profession and challenged the idea of what comic book art should be. He was also a champion for the downtrodden. He believed the people who worked to create art were entitled to a bigger share of the profits their work produced. Ultimately, Adams gave more back to the comic book industry than he was given. The comic book industry is a better place because Neal Adams existed. I can think of no higher praise.
Neal Adams is survived by his wife Marilyn; sons Josh, Jason, and Joel; daughters Kris and Zeea; along with six grandchildren, and one great-grandson.