Inducted into Will Eisner’s Comic Book Hall of Fame in 1998, Neal Adams is widely recognized as one of the greatest sequential artists of all time, by both his fans and peers. Although he’s most known for updating DC’s classic characters to a more modern aesthetic, Adams also championed artists’ rights at a time when there were none. He also runs a successful advertising agency called Continuity Studios in New York City.
Your run with Dennis O’Neal on Green Lantern/Green Arrow in the early ‘70s brought social issues such as racism and drug abuse to the forefront. What prompted you to take your work in that direction?
What you have to remember is, in the 1950s when Congress became tired of attacking communists, they opened their dictionary and said, “look, comics – we can attack comics.” So Congress attacked comic books for creating juvenile delinquency and all kinds of terrible things, much like rock n’ roll a couple of years later. So they decided to have public hearings and they appeared on television against comic books. The people who represented comic books didn’t do a good job, and so pretty much the comic book companies had to create a code called the Comic Book Code – which essentially said… we’ll never put crime on our covers or have violence, and essentially watered down comic books, until we actually had in the early ’60s a comic called “Pat Boone Comics.”
I’ve seen those, they’ were awful.
So I guess what Denny and I were doing was testing the outer limits of what we was available for us to do with comic books, without going outside of the code, but trying to stretch the boundaries of comic books to grasp political commentary, talking about union towns, talking about the Chicago Seven trials, talking about things that you wouldn’t necessarily talk about in comic books but making them entertaining and fun at the same time – pretending we were in the real world. Until finally, we did a cover for a comic book on drug abuse, which then kind of really brought the problem into the forefront, where, what will we do now, don’t we have to change the comics code? And so it all boiled over into a question of whether or not the comics code needed to be changed, not Denny and I’s poor attempt to be relevant. And so I guess the world had moved forward, and by golly, we were able to get rid of the comics code – and we were able to do that comic on drug addiction. And I think probably we changed the face of comic books and perhaps even a little bit, the world.
When you took the reigns on Batman, the character design was still mirroring the campy look of the television show.
What you’re saying is true, on the other hand, it wasn’t like [DC Comics] had a choice. The television show was incredibly, phenomenally popular. Everybody watched the show, I watched the show. I knew it wasn’t a realistic Batman that we were seeing, it was a satire, it was campy. You were able to figure that out during the first show, where Jill St. John stood on top a cyclotron and did a little dance, then jumped into the cyclotron, and Batman said, “What a way to go-go.” Pretty much you knew what was going to happen. This was not a serious attempt to do Batman. The people at DC comics unfortunately took it very seriously, and they found it hard to escape when the popularity dwindled. In those days, you must also remember we lost a lot of good artists to the comic strips, and since comic books were considered to be pretty much toilet paper, starting from 1953 moving into the ’60s, we had lost some of our best artists. Alex Toth had went off to animate for Hanna Barbera, Al Williamson was doing syndicated strips for people, a lot of people were gone. So there weren’t people who had the capacity to draw comic books in a more realistic light. So somebody like myself came along and said, “Okay, isn’t it time for us to grow up and start doing comic books in a way that you can relate to, rather than cartoons or imitations of the TV show?” So my stepping in perhaps was unexpected or unusual, but it certainly was not turned away by the fans. The fans loved it.
Myself as well. I think a lot of what people know as Batman today was a result of your darker direction.
Yes, well, somebody had to do it. If it didn’t happen with me it would’ve happened with someone else later on.
Your latest work was the epic mini-series Batman Odyssey. Do you know what comic work you’d like to do next?
It was in fact an odyssey, not unlike Ulysses’ Odyssey. It was meant to be something to make people step back and go, “Oh, you mean it’s possible to do a book in comic book form?” Now people have done collections of stories in comic book form and people have done what seem to be graphic novels, but they were intended as graphic novels. This was an attempt to tell a novel and tell a unique story in the comic book medium, and that’s what I did. Maybe it’s the first or maybe it’s a conglomeration, but it stands out as one of the first ways of doing a comic book a little bit differently. That is, instead of being a little pamphlet that is 22 pages long, it’s 13 chapters – each 25 pages long – that you can read… you can talk about it and go back and reread and discover you missed half of what was there. That’s what I’m trying to do with this form – I’m trying now to make the form take the next step.
I’m glad you’re experimenting in new ways. How do you top it?
I’m working on First X-Men. Which is a telling of a story of the X-Men before the X-Men – you will see a similar theme in the new X-Men movie. Apparently I came along with a concept just in time to influence some of the direction of that movie.
Hopefully they give you a kickback.
I wish for Marvel I would get that. I get it from DC Comics, but unfortunately Marvel Comics is very, very slow in moving forward in the area of compensating people for the work that they do, and it’s one of the bad things about Marvel Comics, I hate to say it. One of the good things about Marvel Comics is they’re making terrific movies. DC Comics maybe perhaps isn’t making such terrific movies, but they are way ahead in compensating creators. It’s a good company to go to if you’re actually looking to participate in the work that gets done from your work. Of course, if you want to go independent, that’s another thing to do.
I’m currently doing a Superman/New Gods, ala Jack Kirby. So we have a six-part series in that it’s basically about Superman, and suddenly these supermen come to Earth to help him out and he’s totally confused as to what’s going on, but it’s really a ploy to get him to help them. …Again, it’s a novel in six parts, maybe not as long as what I would’ve preferred, but I think we came up with a good project.
When is that book slated for release?
I just finished the script on it, so it’ll be a while before it gets out there. But everybody should keep their eye out for it because you’re going to be hearing about it.
You were one of the first artists in the industry who worked at Marvel and DC at the same time. In a time when the big two companies retained pencilled pages, you fought for artists’ rights and the return of their artwork. What was that like?
I had already had a career before comics. I had a syndicated strip, I did a lot advertising work, I did a big ton of stuff, and when I came backwards into comics I thought I would leave, but I just fell in love. And I decided well, if I’m going to be here, things are going to have to change. This is like walking into a camp of neanderthals who didn’t know how to do business, didn’t know how to do contracts, didn’t know to deal rights, what to do with original art – they really didn’t know anything. And so, for me to stay, I had to make changes from the outside because I wasn’t interested in taking anyone’s job. I was interested in doing my work and changing how everything worked, so I worked at it and it all worked out. I won, they lost. And to their benefit, anybody who ever made these changes in policies that I [initiated] made more money that year than they made the previous year. Everybody did fine.
You worked alongside other folks in secret to get back some of Kirby’s original art. What was it like to be able to return some of his work to his family?
I don’t think that I can easily take credit for it except for as an overall, which was to get DC and Marvel to return the pages – part of that was to get Jack’s stuff returned. I wish I could’ve done more for the Kirby family… I was able to help Jerry Siegal and Joe Shuster. I was able to help Dick Ayers and a handful of other people get themselves properly set for their own future so they did well. …I’m in a position to know how to manipulate some of these things to everybody’s benefit, and why would I not do it? We made things better by making things better. There’s some people out there in the world that have responsibility and I try to live up to it. So that’s what I did.
What do you think of the current state of creator-owned work, like that found at Image?
There’s a lot of changes that still need to be made. I’m working on a contract with DC Comics that hopefully they’ll be able to apply to other creators. I’m still trying to fight the work/pay for hire provision of the copyright law, which is an outrageous provision in the law and I’m hoping we’ll be able to do that. I don’t make it my business to go to battle when I wake up in the morning, I make it my business to do work. But when somebody brings a fight in front of my face, well, I’m not the type of person that backs away from it. Personally, I don’t know why anybody would argue with me, because I generally tend to be right about most of these things because I study them. I do my homework. I’m not presenting new concepts or strange ideas. If you examine other industries, these things exist. For example, the publishing business – writers get royalties, it’s perfectly logical. There’s percentages and it all makes a lot of sense, so you just take those things and apply them to comic books. And it’s an easy problem to solve. Relative to original art, we have laws, we have a copyright law, we have a sales tax law. All you have to do is read them and go, oh, then this is what we have to do.
Outside of writing and pencilling comics, you run Continuity Studios, a successful advertising agency.
In Midtown Manhattan, but we’re not an advertising agency, we’re an advertising supplier. We supply animation – we’re a production company for advertising agencies. We supply computer animation, pre-production work, commercials, I direct, we go out and produce. …Unfortunately, it’s not as popular as comic books. Comic books are kind of a mom and pop business that actually get a tremendous amount of attention, as opposed to all the work that production companies like Continuity do. On the other hand, we are compensated by people giving us money for advertising work. It always pays better than comic books, and I’ve had a family to raise and take care of. I’ve had to spend half of my time and career doing advertising and production.
What’s your favorite project you’ve worked on?
There are so many. My own companies comic books, Megalith, Samuree, Toyboy – all those characters are all my favorite things. We only backed away from publishing because there was a tremendous slump in the marketplace. We had just gone through a project called DeathWatch 2000 – we made a lot of money, we were able to put it into the bank, then the comic book business got very, very lousy. We are coming back with all our characters and are going to be publishing them again. So, as a company, that is my favorite stuff. As an individual artist, I’d say Superman Vs. Mohammad Ali. That was my most significant and most important comic book for any number of reasons. Currently, my favorite is Batman Odyssey, because it’s taking us one step in the future. But I’ve had lots of stepping stones along the way that have made me a happy puppy.
Do you do convention sketches and commissions?
We do commissions ahead of time so some people come to town and already have the drawing waiting for them. The way they do that is get ahold of nealadams.com which is of course, very hard to remember, and to order sketches at whatever price level they can afford. And then at the convention, I will do the same thing, I’ll do it during the day, or I will take them to the hotel at night and do them, then give them to the people during the day. It’s a way to get close to an artist by having him do a drawing for you. I mean, if there’s something I want from an actor, I want to see him act, and maybe I want his signature, but if there’s something I want from an artist, it’s a drawing. So many people are finding that hanging up comic book drawings in their house compared to most of the other wall decoration is such a conversation piece, such a launch into things they love, things that they understand, that it’s changing the way people buy artwork. I don’t know what’s going to happen to what we call fine art, which is to me, decorative art work, but we’re falling into a time where original comic book artwork are what’s happening. It’s actually the hippest thing around.
Will you be participating in any panels at Wizard World this year?
Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t. It has to do with the nature of the panel. You know I get pretty rowdy at panels, it gets to be a little raucous.
Any final things you’d like to add for folks coming to see you this year?
Let them know the circus is coming to town and we’re all going to have a good time.
Originally published in The Voice Tribune, March 6, 2014.