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It is impossible to overstate the impact of artist Neal Adams on American comic books. Whatever grand impact you want to assign to Adams, you can double that, triple it, and keep going to absurd lengths, and you still won’t be able to give Adams more credit than he deserves.
There have been many tributes written in the wake of Adams’ passing last week at the age of 80. Writers, fans, associates, and pundits have done a wonderful job of recognizing and celebrating his legacy. There is the legacy of his artwork itself, how he revolutionized the way comic book art can be created and appreciated, and how his visual interpretation of The Batman was essential–absolutely essential–in transitioning the character’s image from camp crusader to dark knight; I mean no disrespect to the 1960s Batman TV series (which was also extremely important to me), but there is no way the public’s perception of Batman gets from Adam West to the pop culture dominance of THE Batman without Neal Adams. I recommend a visit to 13th Dimension for further reading on this subject.
Beyond the artwork, Adams was also a tireless and passionate advocate for the rights of creators. His highest-profile battle for truth, justice, and the American way was his role in publicly shaming the publishers of DC Comics into giving credit and (some) compensation to Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster in the ’70s. Adams was not the only one involved in this valiant effort, but his voice was the loudest, and he helped get the job done.
That’s the larger picture of Neal Adams and his work, and I encourage you to bop around the web and read more of his story. That would give you a better understanding of just why the comics world is in mourning now.
But I just want to speak for a minute about my own relationship with this body of work. I became more conscious of Adams in the very early ’70s, when I was ten to fourteen years old. I had seen his work before; I have no recollection of where or when I first saw Adams’ dynamic comic book images, though it was probably in DC Comics house ads in the mid to late ’60s. He drew the covers for my first issues of Action Comics (# 356, cover dated November of 1967) and Adventure Comics (# 368, May 1968), and the cover of Batman # 200 (March ’68) in between those. My first Neal Adams interior work was The Spectre # 3 (February-March 1968), followed later that year by World’s Finest Comics # 175 and The Brave And The Bold # 79.
Adams had been bugging regular Batman and Detective Comics editor Julius Schwartz for a chance to draw Batman, but Schwartz was adamantly not interested. Another DC editor, Murray Boltinoff, was more open to the idea. Adams drew a couple of Batman-Superman team-ups in World’s Finest Comics, and Boltinoff assigned Adams writer Bob Haney‘s script for The Brave And The Bold # 79. This was a team-up of Batman and Deadman, a character Adams was already depicting in the pages of DC’s Strange Adventures.
Don’t worry about those two issues of World’s Finest. They’re like the forgotten singles the Kinks did before “You Really Got Me.” Neal Adams really began drawing Batman in The Brave And The Bold # 79.
This issue, this single issue, was Ground Zero for the return of The Batman, the reclaiming of the character’s long-lost pulp roots. It’s no snub to Haney to say this was entirely because of Neal Adams. Adams knew how Batman–sorry, THE Batman–should look. The dark shadows, the visual sense of noir, weren’t in the script; Adams brought all of that in himself.
As Adams continued to draw a few more issues of B&B, legend has it that Julie Schwartz saw letters from readers wondering why that Batman, the REAL Batman, was only appearing in The Brave And The Bold. Schwartz was known to be stubborn, but he was no dummy. Adams was soon drawing Batman stories for Schwartz, usually with writer Dennis O’Neil, who shared Adams’ preference for Batman as a dark knight. In these stories, the definite article in the character’s name was reclaimed after decades of disuse. We caught our first glimpse of The Batman in Adams’ Brave And Bold stories; the stories done by O’Neil and Adams (and Frank Robbins, Irv Novick, Dick Giordano, Jim Aparo, Bob Haney, and others) made the change official. The Batman. THE Batman.
Within this time frame, very late ’60s into very early ’70s, Adams also did some incredible work for Marvel Comics, notably with writer Roy Thomas in the pages of X-Men and The Avengers. An artist working for Marvel and DC at the same time was a rarity, and certainly something stodgier minds (especially at DC) discouraged and often prohibited. Neal Adams did not care. He made his own rules, and modeled an approach for other creators to follow and expand. His talent was too great for any publisher to even think about blackballing him. Restrictions? Pfui. He was Neal freakin’ Adams. He didn’t draw outside the lines. He redrew the lines.
The Dennis O’Neil-Neal Adams version of The Batman debuted in Detective Comics # 395 in 1970, but I didn’t see that one until a few years later (in the hardcover collection Batman From The ’30s To The ’70s). After Adams’ Brave And Bold run, I started with “Ghost Of The Killer Skies” in Detective Comics # 404 (October 1970), Adams’ single-issue return to The Brave And Bold (with O’Neil) for # 93’s “Red Water, Crimson Death” (December 1970-January 1971), and the return of Golden Age Batman villain Two-Face in “Half An Evil” (Batman # 234, August 1971). That last one thrilled me no end. I was eleven years old. I still wasn’t following creator credits yet (other than Stan Lee and Jack Kirby). I would start to know the names of the writers and artists very soon.
And, by the summer of ’72, I knew who my favorites were. And I knew exactly who knew how to write and draw The Batman.
1972 gave us The Batman’s serialized battle with Ra’s al Ghul, an adversary created by Adams and O’Neil. At the age of twelve, I thought this was the most epic thing I had ever seen. I’m still not convinced I was wrong about that. Dennis O’Neil and Neal Adams were absolute superstars to me. The following year, when they brought back The Joker and returned him to his original murderous characterization in “The Joker’s Five-Way Revenge!” in Batman # 251, I couldn’t stand the anticipation of waiting for the issue to hit the stands. I read it obsessively, over and over. It will always be among my favorite individual comic books.
“Moon Of The Wolf” in Batman # 255 (March-April 1974) was Adams’ final Batman work for DC Comics, at least until many years later. Other paths beckoned. Other writers and artists continued the work, some of them rivaling or even surpassing what O’Neil and Adams had done. But I say none of that subsequent great stuff–hell, The Batman himself!–none of it would have happened if not for Neal Adams.
I confess I had less interest in much of Adams’ later work. I did absolutely adore O’Neil and Adams’ slam-bang 1978 tabloid Superman Vs. Muhammed Ali, as well as his cover illustrations for Tarzan paperbacks, his illustrations for Harlan Ellison‘s short story “The New York Review Of Bird” (in the 1975 paperback anthology Weird Heroes, Vol. 2 ), and the sublime 1976 DC superheroes calendar, most of which was drawn by Adams. But Adams’ creator-owned material and even his decades-later return to The Batman wasn’t my cuppa. Doesn’t matter. The stuff I loved will always be the stuff I loved, the stuff I love still. I can’t exaggerate the importance of that work to me. It was everything.
1972 was when I made the connection that my favorite Batman stories were created by these guys, Dennis O’Neil and Neal Adams. 1972 was also the year I started writing in…well, not in earnest, but maybe in pursuit of earnest. I was twelve. In social studies class, rather than do a boring research project about the Revolutionary War, I scripted a science-fantasy story about traveling back in time to participate in the Boston Tea Party, and corralled classmates to help me perform the piece on video tape. For English class, our study of Bram Stoker‘s Dracula prompted me to write a (terrible) Gothic horror story, performed as an audio tape. By 1973, I was submitting scripts to DC Comics. They were awful, sure, and they didn’t get me anywhere. But I’d made a decision: I was going to create. I couldn’t draw like Neal Adams, but I could write. I’m still doing that.
I met O’Neil and Adams in 1976. It was a brief can-I-have-your-autograph? encounter at the Super DC Con in New York. I felt like I’d met the Beatles.
Neal Adams was the Beatles. He was Babe Ruth, Charlie Chaplin, Orson Welles, and whatever other reference you care to use to indicate he was the best, THE best, at what he did. Nonpareil. It is impossible to overstate the impact of artist Neal Adams on American comic books. That’s not hyperbole. That’s just the way it is. The artist. The crusader. The storyteller. A definite article carries specific meaning.
Just ask The Batman.
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