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 finally able to read Green Lantern / Green Arrow and the Batman: Tales of the Demon featuring the Dark Knights 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.

The Hopefully Almost Daily Comic Book Coffee, Part One

On the Facebook group Comic Book Historians, moderator Jim Thompson issued a “Call to Arms” to occupy and cheer up those of us who are working from home or unemployed due to the coronavirus pandemic.  The challenge: Pick a subject and find a different artist every day for that subject until May 1st (if not longer).

Jim had already been posting his 1000 Horses series for the past three years, each day showcasing artwork featuring a horse drawn by a different artist.  Group member Mitchell Brown has done several shorter themes, most recently “My Enemy, Myself” featuring “evil twin” stories.

Mitchell sometimes collects together some of these FB posts on his entertaining & informative blog, the appropriately named A Dispensable List of Comic Book Lists.  That inspired me to do the same with my blog.  Here is the first installment in the Hopefully Almost Daily Comic Book Coffee.  From the work of how many different artists can I find examples of people drinking coffee?  I guess we will just have to see.

cat and coffee

1) Shannon Wheeler

Let’s start off with the obvious choice: Too Much Coffee Man by Shannon WheelerToo Much Coffee Man first appeared as a self-published mini comic in 1991.  In a 2011 interview with The New Yorker, Wheeler explained the origins of the series:

“In 1991, I drew an autobiographical cartoon for The Daily Texan with themes of alienation and loneliness. When I described it, people’s eyes glazed over. As a cheap gag, I started “Too Much Coffee Man.” I still address the same themes, except now there’s coffee. People like coffee.”

That’s certainly true.  I’m drinking coffee at this very moment, right as I’m typing this sentence.

From such humble beginnings, Too Much Coffee Man has been in near-continuous publication for almost three decades.  The series has enabled Wheeler to humorously explore existential angst, the lunacy of American society, and the dangers of overindulging in caffeine.

Here is Too Much Coffee Man living up to his name on page two of the story “TMCM vs. TM©M” which sees a ruthless corporate executive shamelessly steal our protagonist’s name & imagery, and then hit him with a cease & desist order.  In the battle of indy original versus big business rip-off, who will win? (Hey, maybe Mitchell Brown can do a “My Enemy, Myself” entry about this story!)

“TMCM vs. TM©M” first appeared in Too Much Coffee Man #1 published by Adhesive Press in July 1993.  I read the story in the Too Much Coffee Man’s Parade of Tirade trade paperback released by Dark Horse in November 1999, which reprinted the first eight issues of the Adhesive Press run.  The story, and a whole bunch of other caffeinated goodness, can also be found in the Too Much Coffee Man Omnibus published by Dark Horse in 2011, with an expanded edition in 2017.

Too Much Coffee Man

2) Dan Jurgens & Al Vey

This artwork is from Common Grounds #5 from Image Comics, cover-dated June 2004. Script is by Troy Hickman, pencils by Dan Jurgens, inks by Al Vey, letters by the Dreamer’s Design team, and colors by Guy Major.  I’m going to quote from my own previous blog post about Common Grounds

Published by the Top Cow imprint of Image Comics in 2004, Common Grounds was a six issue miniseries written by Troy Hickman, with contributions from a number of extremely talented artists.  It initially began life as a mini comic titled Holey Crullers that Hickman had worked on with Jerry Smith a few years before.  Common Grounds was set around a nationwide chain of coffee shops that were frequented by costumed heroes & villains, a sort of Starbucks or Dunkin Donuts for super-humans.  The various Common Grounds stores serve as “neutral territory” where both crime-fighters and criminals can gather peaceably to enjoy a cup of joe and some doughnuts.

Hickman and his artistic collaborators introduce a cast who, on the surface, are expies for famous DC and Marvel characters.  Hickman utilizes these to both pay homage to and deconstruct various storytelling structures and devices of the superhero genre.  What I like about how Hickman goes about this is that he does so with a surprising lack of sarcasm or mockery.  All of his jibes are of the good-natured sort, and he takes equal aim at the implausible silliness of the early Silver Age and the grim & gritty trappings of more recent decades.  Common Grounds is simultaneously extremely funny and very poignant & serious.

I’m fairly confident I’ll be featuring work from some of the other Common Grounds art teams in future installments! It’s definitely due for another re-read.

Common Grounds 5 pg 8

3) Jack Kirby & Joe Sinnott

If you’re going to talk comic books, sooner or later (probably sooner) you’re going to have to discuss Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.  Whatever the specific division of labor was (and all these decades it’s almost impossible to determine that precisely) the two of them working together in the 1960s created the majority of the Marvel Universe.

It all started in August 1961 with the Fantastic Four, a group who right from the start were characterized as much by their all-too-human disagreements as their super-powers.  And no one was more dysfunctional than the gruff Ben Grimm, aka the Thing, who had been transformed by cosmic radiation into a monster.

Early on Ben Grimm very much straddled the line between hero and villain, and in those first few issues the rest of the FF found themselves wondering if the Thing, consumed by anger & self-loathing, might violently turn on them.  However, the Thing gradually evolved into a character who was both gruff & comedic.  We see one of the first hints of that here, in this scene from Fantastic Four #5, cover-dated July 1962.  Ben is attempting to enjoy a cup of coffee, only to get razzed by literal hothead the Human Torch.

This is one of those pages that really makes me appreciate Kirby.  I love the panel with the Thing holding the cup of coffee.  This was when he still looked like orange oatmeal, very much a horribly disfigured individual, before he evolved into the almost cartoony orange brick form we are all familiar with. There’s this simultaneous humor and tragedy in that panel, as Ben Grimm, now this huge, grotesque figure, is almost daintily holding that coffee cup & saucer, a very human gesture, and a reminder of what he once was, and longs to be again.

Inks are by Joe Sinnott, his first time working on FF.  Lee wanted Sinnott to become the regular inker, but soon after Sinnott received the assignment of drawing the biography of Pope John XXIII for Treasure Chest.  Sinnott had inked about half a page of Kirby’s pencils for the next issue when he got the Treasure Chest job, and so had to mail the art back to Lee, who then assigned it to Dick Ayers.  Sinnott fortunately got another opportunity work on the series in 1965, commencing with issue #44, and for the rest of the 1960s did a superb job inking Kirby.  Sinnott remained on FF for the 15 years, inking / embellishing over several pencilers.

In a case of Early Installment Weirdness, we see the Torch reading an issue of The Incredible Hulk #1, which in the real world had come out two months earlier.  It seems at this point in time Lee & Kirby had not quite decided if the Hulk occupied the same fictional universe as the FF.

Fantastic Four 5 pg 2

4) Werner Roth & John Tartaglione

X-Men #31, cover-dated April 1967, was penciled by Werner Roth and inked by John Tartaglione. “We Must Destroy… the Cobalt Man!” was written by Roy Thomas.

X-Men in the 1960s was a title of, um, variable quality.  Series creators Lee & Kirby both left fairly early on, and newcomer Roy Thomas sometimes struggled to find a successful direction for the book.  Thomas was paired with penciler Werner Roth, who did good, solid work… but regrettably did not possess a certain dynamic quality necessary for Marvel-style superheroes.  Also, I’m not sure if Tartaglione’s inks were an especially good fit for Roth’s pencils.

Roth was, however very well-suited to drawing romance, war and Westerns comic books.  He certainly was adept at rendering lovely ladies, as seen in his exquisite art on Lorna the Jungle Queen in the 1950s, which he inked himself.  So it’s not surprising that some of Roth’s best work on X-Men was when the main cast was in their civilian identities, and the soap-operatic melodrama was flying fast & furious.  Witness the following…

Here we have two different coffee-drinking scenes on one page.  At the top, Scott Summers, Warren Worthington and Jean Grey are hanging out with Ted Roberts and his older brother Ralph at a greasy spoon known as the Never-Say-Diner… really, Roy?!?  Ted was a short-lived rival to Scott for Jean’s affections, and Ralph was (spoilers!) a short-lived villain named the Cobalt Man.  Elsewhere, Hank McCoy and Bobby Drake have taken their dates Vera and Zelda to their semi-regular Greenwich Village hangout, Coffee A Go-Go, where Bernard the Poet is, ahem, “reciting his latest masterpiece.”  The scene closes with Bobby creating the world’s first iced espresso.

X-Men 31 pg 10

5) Joe Staton

This entry is drawn by one of my all-time favorite artists, the amazing Joe Staton.  “Vamfire” is a short story featuring E-Man and Nova Kane, the awesome characters created by Nicola “Nick” Cuti & Joe Staton at Charlton Comics in 1973.  This story was originally planned for Charlton Bullseye in 1976.  It did not see print until a decade later, in The Original E-Man and Michael Mauser #7 (April 1986) published by First Comics, who had the E-Man rights in the 1980s.

I’ve blogged at length about E-Man on several occasions.  Suffice it to say, it’s an amazing series, with brilliantly humorous & heartfelt writing by Cuti and wonderfully imaginative artwork by Staton.  This six page story introduces E-Man’s negative energy sister Vamfire, a sort of proto bad girl anti-hero who would reappear in later stories.  “Vamfire” also introduces Nick and Joe’s Café, and Staton draws himself and Cuti as the proprietors.  Nick and Joe’s Café would also return in later stories, with the running gag that their coffee was always terrible.  Nevertheless they somehow managed to stay in business, no doubt due to being strategically located near Xanadu Universe in Manhattan, where innumerable sleep-deprived college & graduate students were desperate for a caffeine fix to keep them awake during the school’s interminable lectures.

“Vamfire” was later reprinted in 2011 in the excellent trade paperback E-Man: The Early Years, which collected the entirety of the E-Man stories from the 1970s under one cover.  It is apparently still available through the publisher. I highly recommend it.

E-Man The Early Years pg 207

Thanks for stopping by to sample our fine four-colored espresso.  I hope you will come back again soon when we will have five more examples of Comic Book Coffee from throughout the decades.