When Neal Adams started drawing comic books in the late 1960s, he blew the doors off the industry.
“Adams brought to comics a realist’s mastery of anatomical detail, facial expression and gestural precision that caused a style revolution still seen in today’s graphic novels,” The New York Times later opined in a review of comics art.
Apart from his phenomenal talent, Adams had an advertising background. He truly could draw things — clothing, cars, architecture — not just muscle-bound men hammering on each other. His page compositions were fluid and dramatic, owing more to cinematic storytelling than traditional six-panel layouts. For the next decade, everyone wanted to draw like him.
“The way I describe it is, if there were superheroes in our world, they would look the way I draw them,” Adams, 74, said in advance of his appearance this weekend at the Lexington Comic and Toy Convention. “Back in the day, art in comics had been a little more primitive. The publishers paid little per page, and they were hiring some of these artists right out of high school.”
Adams’ first big assignment was Batman, in 1970. He is still considered the caped crusader’s definitive artist.
At the time, Batman had been reduced to a silly parody of himself by the popular but campy 1966-68 TV show. Teamed with writer Denny O’Neil (who will appear on a panel with Adams at this weekend’s Lexington show), Adams revived Batman’s pulp origins as a brooding avenger of the night. He swooped down on thugs like an actual bat. Adams and O’Neil told horror stories, introduced menacing villains — some of whom, like eco-terrorist Ra’s al Ghul, later would turn up in movies — and made the Joker a homicidal lunatic again, rather than a mischievous prankster.
Next, Adams and O’Neil made headlines by introducing “relevancy” to superhero comics. Their series Green Lantern/Green Arrow sent a couple of Justice League members traveling across post-1960s America in a pickup truck to discover what ailed it. Along the way, they confronted real-world problems, like the exploitation of coal miners by a greedy boss and the heroin habit of Green Arrow’s teen sidekick, Speedy.
To make these stories visually interesting, Adams redesigned Green Arrow, giving him a sleek, sleeve-less costume and a blond goatee the character still sports on the CW television show Arrow. Green Arrow was a fiery liberal who regularly lectured Green Lantern, the naive, inter-stellar space cop, about society’s injustices.
Adams had much in common with Green Arrow: They both distrusted authority. At the height of Adams’ industry popularity in the 1970s — he also drew celebrated runs on The Avengers and The X-Men at Marvel, DC’s chief rival — he tried to organize the freelance writers and artists into a union that could demand better pay and benefits. They achieved some of their goals, such as royalties for creators whose work later is republished or used in movies or on television.
The way I describe it is, if there were superheroes in our world, they would look the way I draw them.
While drawing a Superman project around this time, Adams realized he never heard anything about the men who created the iconic Man of Steel in 1938 before selling their rights for $130. The publisher that became DC eventually shoved them aside.
“So I went looking for Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster,” Adams said. “I was like, ‘What, are they dead? Why aren’t their names in the comics? Why don’t we ever see them around here?’ And everyone at DC was telling me ‘Neal, drop it, don’t ask.’”
Adams discovered that the aging Siegel and Shuster lived in forgotten poverty. Even as Superman earned a fortune for his corporate owners — and a blockbuster Superman movie was in the works for 1978 — DC and then-parent company Warner Communications were ignoring their letters begging for additional compensation. Nothing was owed the men, DC said.
“Joe Shuster, the first artist to ever draw Superman, was living with his brother in this small apartment in Queens, sleeping on a cot next to a broken window,” Adams said. “It really hurt your heart to see this. This was not the way you wanted the creators of Superman to be treated.”
“I called Jerry and I said, ‘You don’t know me, but I draw Superman today, and I’d like to represent you in the media. I promise you, the sun will not rise on a day when I’m not working to make this right,’” Adams said.
Adams and other high-profile media figures shamed DC into providing a modest $20,000 annual stipend for the men, increased over the years until they died in the 1990s. Additionally, whenever Superman appears in print or on screen, a credit must declare: “Superman created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster.”
Unlike most comics veterans his age, Adams is still busy with fresh assignments. The first issue of his new DC mini-series, Superman: The Coming of the Supermen, hit stores last month. Also in February, Adams produced 27 different covers for DC comics in the style of some of his famous earlier cover illustrations.
“Hopefully, if I did my job well, I inspired a whole generation of artists who realized what comics are capable of, and that maybe this doesn’t have to be a terrible industry to be in,” Adams said. “If I did that, then I’m satisfied.”
If you go
Neal Adams and Denny O’Neil will appear on a panel together at the Lexington Comic and Toy Convention at 11 a.m. Sunday in the Thoroughbred Ballroom, Third Floor, Level L, at the Lexington Convention Center, 430 W. Vine St.