Neal Adams: 1941 to 2022

Legendary comic book artist and forceful advocate for creators’ rights Neal Adams passed away on April 28th at the age of 80 years old. During a career that spanned six decades, Adams had groundbreaking runs illustrating Batman, Deadman, Green Lantern, Green Arrow and Superman for DC, and Avengers and X-Men for Marvel, as well as working in the horror, sword & sorcery and humor genres.

Batman #227 cover drawn by Neal Adams, published by DC Comics in Dec 1970

I was born in 1976 and didn’t start reading comic books regularly until the late 1980, so I was not around when Adams made an absolutely seismic impact on comic books, both as an industry and as an art form.

For a very insightful look at Adams’ work from the perspective of someone who was reading comic books in the late 1960s and early 1970s, I highly recommend reading my friend Alan Stewart’s blog post on The Brave and the Bold #79, published by DC Comics with an Aug-Sept 1968 cover date, an issue Alan refers to as “one of the most historically significant comics of Neal Adams’ career.”

Even though I wasn’t there when Neal Adams shook American comic books to their core, I nevertheless want to pay tribute to the man and his work. So here is my own personal experience at discovering his incredible artwork.

Ms. Mystic #1 cover drawn by Neal Adams, published by Pacific Comics in Oct 1982

By the 1980s Adams had mostly removed himself from mainstream comic books, having found the fields of storyboarding, advertising, and graphic design to be much better paying ones. He was releasing some creator-owned projects, first through Pacific Comics and then through his own Continuity Studios.  Unfortunately for me they got lost in the glut of the early 1990s comic book explosion, because I simply did not know to look for them.

With the benefit of hindsight, I wish that I had picked up those comics, and that Adams had been able to do more with those characters, especially Ms. Mystic, who I’ve always felt has a wonderful design. (I did later pick up a few of these as back issues.)

So… three and a half decades ago there were no trade paperback collections reprinting older comic books or digital editions readily available to read. There was no Wikipedia or social media. All that I had as a 13 year old comic book fan in 1989 was letter columns and editorial pages in current comic books. From time to time Neal Adams’ name would be mentioned… and I really had no way of knowing who he was.

Batman #234, written by Denny O’Neil, penciled by Neal Adams, inked by Dick Giordano, lettered by John Costanza and edited by Julius Schwartz, published by DC Comics in August 1971

The first occasion when I ever saw Adams’ work must have been in the collection The Greatest Batman Stories Ever Told which DC Comics released in November 1988 ahead of Batman’s 50th anniversary. I bought that book in 1990, and I read it religiously.

Neal Adams penciled two of the stories in that collection, “Ghost of the Killer Skies” from Detective Comics #404 (Oct 1970) and “Half an Evil” from Batman #234 (Aug 1971), both of those in collaboration with writer Denny O’Neil and inker Dick Giordano. The book also had smaller reproductions of a few of Adams’ covers, among them his evocative artwork for Batman #227 (Dec 1970), a stunningly atmospheric piece that when I finally saw it full-sized years later took my breath away.

While I certainly liked Adams artwork in The Greatest Batman Stories Ever Told well enough, I had no way of putting it within its proper context. His penciling was nice, but it didn’t seem all that different from what I was used to seeing in comic books. I liken it to someone completely ignorant of cinematic history seeing Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane and having the reaction of “What’s the big deal?” Because just as the innovations Welles has pioneered in his filmmaking eventually became commonplace in filmmaking, the storytelling & stylistic choices pioneered by Adams had become thoroughly suffused in American comic books by the early 1990s.

Batman #244 written by Denny O’Neil, penciled by Neal Adams, inked by Dick Giordano and lettered by jean Simek, published by DC Comics in Sept 1972

I think that I FINALLY began to understand just how important Neal Adams was when in the late 1990s and the early 2000s DC at long last began reissuing his work. I was at last able to read Green Lantern / Green Arrow and the Batman: Tales of the Demon collection featuring the Dark Knight’s first encounters with the diabolical Ra’s al Ghul, both of which Adams did with writer Denny O’Neil.

Likewise, the epic Avengers storyline “The Kree / Skrull War” and the late 1960s X-Men run that Adams penciled with writer Roy Thomas and inker Tom Palmer (with Adams serving as an uncredited co-plotter) were both collected together by Marvel Comics in the year 2000.

Adams’ artwork on all of these was absolutely breathtaking. I also discovered that he drew some astonishingly great covers for DC throughout the 1970s. The more I saw of Adams’ work, the more I grew to appreciate it.

X-Men #59, co-plotted & penciled by Roy Thomas, co-plotted, penciled & colored by Neal Adams, inked by Tom Palmer and lettered by Sam Rosen, published by Marvel Comics in Aug 1969

On Facebook comic artist Scott Williams shared the below two images, along with the following commentary:

“Someone on Twitter posted these two images side by side. One, a page from X-Men #54 by Don Heck, and the other from X-Men #56 by Neal Adams, both from 1969. Same characters and storyline. My point is not to in any way disparage Don Heck, but to demonstrate what a tectonic impact Neal had in comics. Couldn’t be a more stark and clear example (garish reprint coloring aside here) of how Neal changed the game forever.”

For the record, the full credits for X-Men #54 are apparently breakdowns by Don Heck, finished pencils by Werner Roth, and inks by Vince Colletta. Heck and Roth are both good, solid, underrated artists who seldom receive their due. Pencilers such as Heck and Roth were the vital foundation of the American comic book industry, guys who could tell a clear story and hit deadlines month after month.

But, yeah, when you place Adams side-by-side with them, basically drawing the same scene as Heck & Roth , it totally enables you to see exactly what Adams brought to comic books in the late 1960s, and why it was so Earth-shaking.

Compare & contrast: X-Men #54 (March 1969) drawn by Don Heck, Werner Roth & Vince Colletta, and two issues later X-Men #56 (May 1969) drawn by Neal Adams & Tom Palmer

Just as important, perhaps even more important, as Adams’ artistic legacy was his continual fight for creators’ rights in the comic book industry, which has for all-too-long regarded talent as interchangeable, disposable cogs in the machine. Among the creators Adams helped out where Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster, Jack Kirby, Dick Ayers and Russ Heath. Over on 13th Dimension former DC Comics writer /editor / publisher Paul Levitz discussed this aspect of Adams’ career…

“What I didn’t know is that as Neal began shaking up the look of comics, he began devoting much of his energy to shaking up the processes. Creative people were treated very poorly in the field in those years, and most of the leaders in the community were afraid to champion the cause because of the likely consequences. The disparity of power between the owners of the comics companies and the creators was an immeasurable gap, and at its base waited carnivores ready to devour agitators. But a modern Don Quixote had no fear…

“Of the many fights won or ignored, the one that was most visible was being part of the team (with Jerry Robinson and Ed Preiss) that labored to restore Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s credit to Superman, and economic dignity to their lives. Jerry was probably the more suave negotiator, Ed the wise lawyer… but Neal roared the loudest. And they won.”

Adams was also a teacher to young up-and-coming artists who hoped to enter the comic book biz. Among the many creators he mentored over the years were Frank Brunner, Howard Chaykin, Larry Hama, Bob McLeod, Frank Miller, Bill Sienkiewicz, Buzz , Henry Martinez and his own son Josh Adams.

Superman #252 cover drawn by Neal Adams, published by DC Comics in June 1972

Living in the New York City area most of my life, I was very fortunate to have met Neal Adams on several occasions at comic cons and store signing. In spite of the fact that he was a hugely popular creator who was frequently mobbed by fans, Adams always came across as polite and patient to everyone who came up to his table. He always had a smile on his face.

There was one time he was at Big Apple Comic Con about a decade ago when his table wasn’t busy and I had the opportunity to chat with him for a few minutes, and I asked him about something I had been curious about for a while. In the pages of X-Men #62 (Nov 1969) Adams had been the first artist to draw Magneto without his helmet. The features & hair he gave Magneto were very close to those of Quicksilver… so much so that a decade later this became the basis for establishing that Magneto was the father of Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch.

I asked Adams if in giving Magneto that particular visual he had intended for the character to be Quicksilver’s father. Adams gave me one of his smiles and explained that he liked to plant “seeds” in his storylines that he or other creators could then use to develop future storylines if they so choose.

X-Men #62, co-plotted & scripted by Roy Thomas, co-plotted, penciled & colored by Neal Adams, inked by Tom Palmer and lettered by Sam Rosen, published by Marvel Comics in Nov 1969

Adams then smiled again, leaned in conspiratorially, and told me he had something to tell me, but I had to promise not to tell anyone else about it, and I agreed. (Since he’s now passed away I feel comfortable recounting this.) Adams said he had an idea for another X-Men story that he hoped to do one day. Adams observed that the Beast in his furry blue form had the same distinctive hairstyle as Wolverine… so he wanted to reveal that Wolverine was Hank McCoy’s father.

Honestly, it sounded completely bonkers to me! But I am sure that if Adams had ever gotten around to actually doing it then it would certainly have been a memorable story.

Another time I saw Adams at a convention he was penciling a page for the Batman: Odyssey project at his table while talking to fans. Observing him up close laying down this detailed pencil work and these intricate, dramatic layouts while simultaneously carrying on conversations just left me in awe.

Neal Adams always looked a decade or so younger to me than he actually was. For example, when he was in early 70s he didn’t look much older than 60. I guess that’s why I expected him to live, well, not forever, but certainly much, much longer. Still, 80 years is a good, long run, especially as he was still creating quality work right up until almost the end, capping it off with the Fantastic Four: Antithesis miniseries written by Mark Waid that was published in 2020.

Fantastic Four: Antithesis written by Mark Waid, penciled by Neal Adams, inked by Mark Farmer, lettered by Joe Caramagna and colored by Laura Martin, published by Marvel Comics in Nov 2020

So much more could be said about Adams; you could literally write books about him. I’ve blogged about him a few times in the past; the links are below.

My sincere condolences to Neal Adams’ family, friends, and colleagues for their loss.