Dr. Mike ~ UL Communications Study Professor
Over the weekend, we lost one of the truly great figures in comics art when Neal Adams passed away at the age of 90. Adams was a titan of the industry. His bold artistic style literally broke the comics page, moving out from the common practice of rectilinear panels with wild abandon. Pulse pounding action sequences on Adam’s pages were spaced around diagonal lines and sometimes the figures of characters themselves. Adams was also a master of expression. You always knew exactly what his heroes and villains were thinking by the looks on their faces.
There is a tendency among longtime fans to be a bit insufferable about the impact of older comics. I would never want to be one of those “the book is better” types. However, if you really love superhero movies, tv shows, and games, I want to share with you how much Neal Adams contributed to what you love.
Good X-Men stories: Given the popularity of the X-Men today, many people don’t realize just how miserable X-Men comics were back in the old days. It was a rare miss for the Stan Lee/Jack Kirby duo. Eventually the comic would be converted to reprints. For a few glorious issues though, writer Roy Thomas and Neal Adams showed the true action and drama potential of these characters in Uncanny X-Men #56-63 (1969). While this burst wasn’t enough to stave off the reprint area, I am convinced that these glorious issues showed the power of this concept (particularly in some stories involving the Sentinels) that other creators wanted to bring them back.
Green Lantern/Green Arrow relevance: In 1970, comics made a bold turn towards realism. Teamed with writing partner Denny O’Neil, Adams brought space faring Green Lantern down to earth when Green Arrow pushed him to deal with real world social issues. The most famous example was Green Lantern/Green Arrow #85 (1971) when Green Arrow’s sidekick Speedy was struggling against drug addiction.
Kryptonite Nevermore: Superman’s vast array of powers and abilities often makes the character a challenge to write. For a brief period, O’Neil and Adams tried to fix that by resetting Superman’s abilities and status quo. This all started with Superman #233 (1971) with a bold Adams’ cover showing Superman bursting free from kryptonite chains. His power halved and his weakness gone, Superman charted a new path that unfortunately did not stick. However, it did show future creators that the real power of the character was in the man, not the superman.
Ra’s al Ghul: Throughout his career, Adams helped develop many new characters. Perhaps the best known is this mastermind villain who debuted in Batman #232 (1971) from the O’Neil and Adams team. Al Ghul would go on to become an important member of Batman’s rogues gallery of villains, different because his goals were noble (saving the world) if horribly executed (killing most of the world to do).
A Cool Ant-Man Story: How good was Adams? He made Ant-Man look good again. I am convinced that his artwork in Avengers #93 (1971) made people notice this character once more. Check Hank Pym’s fantastic voyage to repair the android Vision from the inside for some truly amazing artwork.
The Joker’s Five Way Revenge: Speaking of Batman villains, you might think of the Joker as Batman’s greatest enemy. Many people are surprised to learn that the Joker became a goofy, gimmicky character in the 1950s and 1960s. In Batman #251 (1973), O’Neil and Adams brought the Clown Prince of Crime back to his murderous roots in this story about Mr. J getting back at his old gang. Adams’ lanky Joker with his sinister smile became the indelible image of this greatest of supervillains.
These entries make it look like Adams’ best days were half a century ago, but the artist was always in demand. In 2020, he even drew a Fantastic Four limited-series for Marvel. Adams was literally tireless.
As amazing as all of these achievements were, Adams greatest accomplishments came from his work on behalf of other artists. The vast majority of comics art was and still is produced under work-for-hire contracts titled in favor of comic book companies. The fairness of this arrangement is a debate for another time, but the end result is that many creative people who developed some of the great comic book characters you know and love today do not have the ability to profit from their creations as that intellectual property explodes into film success.