May 6, 2022
A week ago today I was riding the Amtrak Cardinal to New York City for a quick trip to see a play (you can read about my trip HERE).
I try not to check social media too much when I’m traveling, but during a 13-hour train ride you get a little bored. Shortly after we crossed into Virginia, I saw on Twitter that the legendary comics creator Neal Adams had died at the age of 80.
It was a gut-punch. I seriously thought the guy might live forever. He was still producing high-quality work just a few months ago. Being on a trip, with PopCult written in advance for several days, there was no way I could post a fitting tribute in a timely manner.
By the time I got back in the office, the internet was filled with tributes, obituaries and loving memories of the man, and rightfully so. Neal Adams was as important to the medium of comics as The Beatles were to music. He changed the entire industry.
More than just an artist, Neal was a writer, editor, mentor and a tireless activist who helped drag the comics industry, kicking and screaming, to new levels of professionalism in terms of the way they treated talent.
Neal Adams also may be the most-imitated comic book artist of the last 50 years, even though nobody really came close to perfectly capturing his style.
Because there have already been so many great tributes written about the man, I’m going to focus on my personal experience with the work of Neal Adams and just wing this off the top of my head. The images accompanying this post, except for the photo of Neal, are just a sample of the amazing work the man did.
I learned to read from comic books. More specifically, I learned to read from my older brother’s comic books. Frank would read at the table, holding the comics directly in front of his face, folded back. So I had to read the pages out of order, but it helped me develop my non-linear communication skills. I was reading by the time I was five years old.
Anyway, sometime in the late 1960s, my brother became very excited about a new comic book artist who was drawing Batman in The Brave and Bold team-up comic. It was Neal Adams, who was then a rising star, just breaking into DC comics after they hadn’t really hired any new artists in more than a decade.
Adams’ style was outstanding. He brought a realism to his work, picked up from years of working at the legendary Johnstone & Cushing Ad Agency, and nobody else in comics was working like that at the time.
His layouts were innovating, building on the work of Kirby, Ditko, Gil Kane and Carmine Infantino, and expanding far beyond their storytelling choices.
His work was revelatory.
His talent was recognized and he soon moved to the main Batman title with Dennis O’Neil writing, and that team then took over the Green Lantern comic book, adding Green Arrow to the book and changing it from a space-opera sci-fi comic to one that dealt with gritty, “relevant” issues of the day. More than fifty years later these legendary comics can still make conservatives fly into a blind rage.
Adams was very much in demand, and was not content to stick with one publisher. He did quite a bit of work at Marvel on books like X-Men, Avengers and Conan, and he did some spectacular work for Warren publishing and The National Lampoon. His iconic covers for reissues of the Tarzan paperbacks in the mid-70s were another high point. He was so good that no publisher would dare to blacklist him for freelancing with the competition.
He was also highly sought-after as an advertising artist, and designed the iconic movie poster for Westworld, along with collaborating with Richard Corben on the poster for Phantom of The Paradise.
He also created his own company, with his good friend and DC Comics inker, Dick Giordano. Continuity Associates became a gathering place for young artists, a combination studio, clubhouse, art school and ad agency all under one roof. I could list the artists who spent time at Continuity, but it’d take all day and read like a “Who’s Who” of the comic book industry for the last five decades.
Adams was in such demand outside of comics that by the late 1970s his work appeared much less frequently in regular comics. He’d do covers for DC Comics because he was dating their publisher, but in 1978 he did take on one big assignment for DC–the Superman Vs. Muhammad Ali comic book.
In 2010 DC reprinted this book in a deluxe hardback edition, and I reviewed it here in PopCult.
Somehow my review got back to Neal and I woke up one morning to a Facebook friend request and a direct message from the man himself. I had never expected that. Neal was very gracious and thanked me for the glowing review, and he told me that he felt Superman vs. Muhammad Ali was the most important comic book he’d ever done.
I was dumbstruck and tried to convey how big a deal it was for me to have any contact with a man who is one of my personal creative heroes, and we traded a few more messages. I didn’t want to pester him, because he was such a busy man, even at a time when most people are happily retired.
As the 1980s rolled around, Adams tried working with some of the new direct-market comics publishers whose fiery independence was matched only by their cash-flow problems, then he decided to just start his own comic book company, Continuity Comics. Continuity Comics shut down during the comics bust of 1994, and Adams later returned to his old stomping grounds at DC and Marvel to do the occasional short story or extended mini-series.
Adam’s final work, a Fantastic Four mini-series written by Mark Waid, was published last year, and a Treasury-sized collection was just released three weeks ago.
I didn’t mention much about Neal’s work as an advocate for creator’s rights. He’s the reason Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster are credited as the creators of Superman. That’s just the tip of the iceberg of how Neal Adams helped change comics for the better.
Now, I’m going to wrap this up. I did this off the top of my head without any research, so apologies for any mistakes, omissions, typos or misspelled names. I just felt I had to acknowledge the passing of a hero. It’s been a sad week here in PopCult land.
That is this week’s PopCulteer. Check back for all our regular features, with new content every day.