Neal Adams: Influence Of An Era
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Summing up Neal Adams’s career and influence in less than 1,500 words is like fitting 10 gallons of India Ink into a single bottle. There’s no shortage of detailed biographical info out there, so for this article, we’ll just hit the highlights, anecdotes, his influence and inking.
Born June 15, 1941 on New York’s Governor’s Island, Adams showed talent with both pencil and ink early. In high school, he inked animated commercials and had some gag cartoons published. (He originally dreamed of working on cartoons like “Atomic Mouse.”)
Neal tried to break into National (DC Comics) in 1959–one of the worst possible times for the industry. According to Adams, DC didn’t hire any new talent for nearly a decade. He was able to freelance for Archie Comics doing mostly gag pages. (One panel from his samples for their superhero The Fly was cut out and used in issue #4.) He earned little more than half what veteran mainstream artists did but the money helped his mother and he was proud of the work.
Legend has it that for at least one Archie assignment, Neal didn’t have access to a lightbox and laid his pencilled pages against a window to ink them.
Another story claims that Adams snuck a risqué gag under the editor’s nose. On one panel, self-proclaimed ladies man Reggie has a devilish smile and his hand is suspiciously close to Veronica’s chest while she speaks; the next one shows Reggie’s hand on his cheek with “pain lines” emanating, as if Veronica slapped him! No one I know has seen the art so the tale’s not yet been corroborated.
After Archie came a three-month stint assisting Howard Nostrand on the syndicated “Bat Masterson” strip. Thanks to feedback from another G.A. cartoonist/illustrator, Elmer Wexler (creator of Fighting Yank and Miss America), Adams wound up at the fabled NY commercial art studio Johnstone & Cushing, working on commercial comic strips, storyboards and advertising art. This experience would later inspire him to form Continuity Associates over a decade later.
After about a year, Adams moved to newspaper strips, illustrating “Ben Casey,” based on the popular TV show at the time. Working with writer Jerry Caplin (brother of “Li’l Abner” creator Al Capp and prolific strip writer Elliot Caplan), Adams experimented with sophisticated but subtle storytelling techniques and the duo tackled some mature subjects.
After about 3.5 years Neal returned to comic books, this time for editor/writer Archie Goodwin at Jim Warren’s EC-inspired line of B&W horror magazines like CREEPY and EERIE; here he made use of a wide range of storytelling and finishing techniques such as ink washes.
Soon after, Adams finally broke into National. Inspired by the work of Joe Kubert (who had temporarily left DC to work on the “Green Berets” newspaper strip, ironically because of a recommendation from Neal), Russ Heath and Mort Drucker (later of MAD), he aimed for DC’s war books and was hired by editor/writer Bob Kanigher in 1967.
Adams was then assigned to humor titles “Jerry Lewis” and “The Adventures Of Bob Hope.” Finally, he got his shot at superheroes drawing a few covers with Superman before landing interior work on the Elongated Man stories in “Detective Comics.” That was quickly followed by a famous run on the mostly Batman team-up book “Brave And The Bold, and many others, including the horror books. At one point Adams was drawing nearly half the company’s covers. He also freelanced for Power Records, “National Lampoon” and other clients.
Other notable DC work included “The Spectre” and Deadman in “Strange Adventures,” taking over for co-creator/art director Carmine Infantino. It was with Deadman that Adams turned the volume up to 11, breaking all kinds of rules and conventions, just as Jim Steranko was doing at Marvel. (In one sequence, Neal used emanating lines of mist to spell out, “Hey, a Jim Steranko effect!”) Adams had fun exploring the medium and expressing his freedom.
Many feel Adams’s highest point at DC was collaborating with writer/future editor Denny O’Neil on “Green Lantern,” teaming up the former Gil Kane character with an Adams-updated and redesigned Green Arrow. This was DC’s entry into what was called “relevant comics,” tackling racism, drug abuse (GA’s young ward Speedy became a heroin addict) and other themes previously forbidden by the oppressive Comics Code, which was modified in the late ’60s.
However, one of Neal’s favorite works at the company remains “Superman vs. Muhammad Ali,” which he used to address bigotry in the U.S. He also was instrumental in black hero John Stewart becoming a Green Lantern.
Concurrently, Adams again broke convention by freelancing for arch-rival Marvel at a time when other artists had to change their published names for fear of repercussions. Adams blew the minds of fans and peers alike with his storytelling on titles such as “X-Men” and “The Avengers,” the best of which tended to be inked by fellow Inkwell Hall Of Famer Tom Palmer.
Neal’s groundbreaking style and storytelling efforts drew both criticism and accolades from the industry, culminating in several awards and aesthetic influence. Neal’s became the superhero “house style” for ’70s DC much like Kirby’s was for ’60s Marvel. Adams innovated an inking style using graduated pen lines and lush brush strokes that became an industry convention until the “Image-style” supplanted it in the early ’90s. About inking, he once said:
“I’m generally considered a pen inker, but…I started out as a brush inker and developed a number of techniques…It isn’t that a brush is easier to use; the pen represents a greater discipline. To use it with control and to use it properly, is more difficult than using a brush.”
Adams also designed costumes and sets for the short-lived Broadway play “Warp.” But perhaps his biggest achievement was teaming with artist/editor Dick Giordoano in 1971 to form Continuity Associates, a commercial art studio that handled art from comics to advertising, film, television, albums and apparel. (Today, also handling 3D animation and computer work, together with an LA office.)
Scores of future famous and/or successful artists and illustrators either rented space there and helped out, or worked on staff. A smattering of names (including a few Inkwell Ambassadors and Hall Of Fame award recipients): Jim Starlin, Bob McLeod, Joe Rubinstein, Terry Austin, Val Mayerik, Larry Hama, Walt Simonson, Al Milgrom, Pat Broderick, Mike Netzer/Nasser, Ralph Reese, Howard Chaykin and the late Rich Buckler.
When the gang helped pencil books (such as Charlton’s “Emergency” and “The Six Million Dollar Man”), they were credited as “The Goon Squad,” and as “The Crusty Bunkers” when inking (including Marvel’s “Conan”). Many artists credit Continuity and Adams with launching their careers.
Also in the ’70s, Adams helped form the advocacy/educational organization, the Academy of Comic-Book Arts. The A.C.B.A. administered awards, helped bring artists together as a work pool, and advocated for the return of their original art from publishers. Adams made national headlines with a successful crusade to help Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster receive a lifelong stipend from DC’s owner Warner Brothers in the wake of the popular “Superman” film.
Though the A.C.B.A. didn’t last long, Adams remained an artist’s advocate. In 2004, he partnered with writer/Inkwell Ambassador Clifford Meth to successfully take on Marvel, seeking and receiving royalty and other compensation for the then-hospitalized New X-Men co-creator Dave Cockrum (and his wife, artist Paty), before Dave passed. Behind the scenes, Neal has helped many other needy creators without seeking credit.
While occasionally freelancing for DC and others, Adams turned Continuity into a comics publisher from the late ’80s into the beginning of 21st century with titles featuring characters like Armor, Megalith, Ms. Mystic (with co-creator Michael Netzer), Crazyman, Toy Boy and Valeria the She-Bat. Plagued by perennial lateness and confusing numbering that drove both retailers and fans crazy, along with an industry downturn, Continuity bowed out of publishing.
Recently, in comics, Adams has focused mostly on mini-series (including “Batman: Odyssey” inked by Inkwells-winner Scott Williams, Valiant Comics and “The First X-Men”), covers (including an event reimagining many of his iconic DC covers), private commissions and various sketchbooks/art books. He continues to setup and guest-appear at conventions across the country and has even opened up a comic-book store, Neal Adams Crusty Bunkers Comics & Toys, in Los Angeles.
Despite today’s standard “more Photoshop rendering/less inking” in mainstream comics, the Neal Adams style and repertoire continues to resonate while inspiring and influencing artists old and new. Many of his characterizations of iconic heroes are fan-favorites. His Batman, especially, is still considered by many to be the standard against which all others must be compared.
Storyteller, penciller, inker, writer, cartoonist, designer, editor, publisher, entrepreneur, advocate, amateur scientist: Adams is all of these and more. Without hyperbole, Neal Adams is one of the rare true renaissance men and living legends.
Text written by Inkwell Awards Assistant Director/Kubert School alum Mike Pascale (©2019 Mike Pascale and The Inkwell Awards.)