Beyond his preternatural skills with pencil and pen, Adams, in the 1970s, spearheaded a heroic campaign to bolster economic rights for comic book creators—not least the return of their original artwork from publishers who routinely trashed artboards once an issue was printed. Adams also righted another great industry wrong in 1975, when he and fellow artist Jerry Robinson demanded that DC comics pay a stipend and medical insurance costs to the writer-artist team of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, who, in 1938, had signed away the copyright to their creation—Superman. The duo were only in their early 20s and had no more idea than anyone else in the midst of the Great Depression that the Man of Steel was, faster than a speeding bullet, on his way to becoming one of the biggest pop culture franchises in history.
Whether helping fellow creators get their financial due or thrilling fans through dynamic depictions of Batman, the X-Men, Green Lantern, Muhammad Ali, and too many other superheroes to count, Adams set standards that stand out more with each passing year. As his son Josh Adams said on Twitter, “My father was a force. His career was defined by unparalleled artistic talent and an unwavering character that drove him to constantly fight for his peers and those in need.”
Below is an excerpt from a feature we published in 2003 about Adams (who was born in 1941, on Governor’s Island, in New York Harbor) and other masters of comics realism. The full article and other related pieces can be found at the bottom of this post.
• • •
From AMERICAN GODS, first published on November 18, 2003
Best known for rescuing Batman from the camp hell of ABC’s popular TV series by returning the Dark Knight to his somber, vigilante roots, Neal Adams is, simply put, one of the greatest draftsmen this country has ever produced. “Neal Adams changed everything,” said fellow comics realist Alex Ross. “He defined what realistic, dynamic storytelling in comics would be for all time.”
Not that Adams will own up to it. During a recent interview, a deep, broad accent comes down the phone line as he recounts the tale of some Frenchmen visiting his studio: “Ahhh yez, America does zree forms of art—your musical comedy, jazz, and comic books.” Adams laughs, and says that he replied: “It’s something you take into the bathroom, and if you take a nice long shit, you can finish a whole comic book.”
If not false, his modesty is at least disingenuous; minutes later, he speaks of putting his “heart and soul” into Green Lantern comics for $45 a page when he could have been making hundreds doing advertising layouts. In 1970, Adams and writer Denny O’Neil sent Green Lantern (a test pilot made nigh-on invincible through an alien power source) and a hippie Robin Hood named Green Arrow on a journey to discover America. Green Arrow teaches his straitlaced friend that the law is not always on the side of justice, as they bring down a cruel slumlord in one issue and defeat an army of goons protecting a greedy mine owner in the next.
Adams displays his chops throughout the series in judiciously detailed drawings of trash-strewn tenements, stunningly natural figures, masterful foreshortening, and emotional portraits that, in another epoch, would’ve earned him a place at the Court of the Medici. In an iconic panel, Green Arrow stands before posters of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, and decries their assassinations: “Some hideous moral cancer is rotting our very souls!” Three years later, John Dean told Richard Nixon there was “a cancer… close to the presidency,” as Tricky Dick came to personify everything Adams’s characters railed against. Adams created dramatic layouts—X-Men plunged diagonally down pages, entire sequential scenes played out within the silhouette of Batman’s cape—energizing stories that passed the ideals of superheroes on to a new generation. Even though these tales were “printed on toilet paper,” Adams recalls, “kids fucking loved them!” He sounds like a superhero himself when he emphatically adds, “I am for justice, I am for democracy, I am for helping the other guy. I am my brother’s keeper.” ❖