Neal Adams Remembered

Legendary comics artist passed away last week at age 80

Neal Adams, the legendary comics artist who helped reinvent the art form in the 1960s and ‘70s, passed away on Thursday, April 28th, 2022 from complications of sepsis. Adams was 80 years old and is survived by his wife Marilyn and their three sons, as well as a daughter from a previous marriage.

Born in New York City in 1941, Adams grew up in a military family and traveled from one U.S. Army base to another across the country and in Germany. Interested in a career in illustration, he attended the prestigious School of Industrial Art in Manhattan, graduating in 1959. Adams initially attempted to find freelance work with DC Comics, which turned him down. He found a job with Archie Comics, which used a few panels he’d drawn in the January 1960 issue of their Adventures of the Fly superhero comic, representing Adams’ first published work. He’d go on to write and draw gag strips for the company’s Archie’s Joke Book Magazine.

Neal Adams
Neal Adams, 2019, photo by Gage Skidmore.

Adams worked as an assistant to artist Howard Nostrand on his syndicated Bat Masterson newspaper comic strip for several months, gaining invaluable experience. He was freelancing for an advertising agency in 1962 when he got a job illustrating the Ben Casey newspaper strip, a job he held for more than three years. At the conclusion of the Ben Casey run, Adams shopped his portfolio around to various ad agencies but was unable to find any takers.

Adams decided to try to get into comics again, and found work with Warren Publishing, illustrating stories in the company’s black-and-white horror titles Creepy and Eerie. Seeing an opportunity at DC Comics – one of the “Big Two” publishers along with Marvel in the mid-‘60s – he got work drawing and inking stories for the company’s various war comics. His attempts to break into the more lucrative superhero books were continuously stymied, however, and Adams made his bones penciling licensed celebrity comedy books like The Adventures of Jerry Lewis and The Adventures of Bob Hope.

One of Adams’s ‘Batman’ covers.

Adams received his break into superhero comics in 1967 when DC tasked him with creating covers for titles like Action Comics, The Spectre, and Superman’s Girl Friend, Lois Lane which, in turn, led to jobs illustrating stories in titles like Detective and The Brave and the Bold, and World’s Finest Comics which starred some of DC’s top characters. Adams’s commercial breakthrough came in late 1967 with the supernatural character Deadman, who appeared in the Strange Adventures comic. Adams would illustrate the title for the next two years, and began writing the book in 1968, quickly becoming a fan favorite.

With the social unrest of the 1960s came an upheaval in popular culture as well, and Adams’ realistic art style–informed by the serialized dramatic newspaper strips and advertising art–brought a fresh breath of modernism to what was then becoming a stale art form. Along with his counterpart Jim Steranko at Marvel Comics, Adams picked up the torch from the previous generation of artists like Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, and Joe Kubert and took comics to new heights of popularity. Adams continued working as a freelancer for DC Comics well into the 1970s, while he also started doing work for Marvel Comics on the then-struggling X-Men comics title with writer Roy Thomas.

Neal Adams
Green Lantern and Green Arrow. Cover by Neal Adams.

Adams continued to freelance for Warren Publishing, Marvel, and DC, where he got the opportunity to work with writer Dennis O’Neil in revamping the Batman character for the 1970s. He introduced several new characters to the Batman universe, including the evil Ra’s al Ghul and the tragic Man-Bat. But Adams built his legacy while working with O’Neil on the newly-retitled Green Lantern/Green Arrow comic. Adams updated the Green Arrow character with a new look and costume, and the two creators sent their superhero charges on a cross-country, consciousness-raising sojourn across America. Tackling such untouched (in comics) topics as racism, drug addiction, and the environment, Adams and O’Neil created what would become known as “relevant” comics, their work earning them several awards and a dedicated college-age readership that appreciated their “grown up” approach to comics.

However, “relevance” didn’t equate to sales, and by 1973 DC had cancelled the title, with Adams drifting away from comics and into commercial illustration. He continued to draw covers for titles like Justice League of America, Action Comics, and House of Mystery as well as a few stories for Superman and Teen Titans. Adams worked on the first intercompany superhero crossover comic, 1976’s Superman vs. the Amazing Spider-Man, and he drew the oversized 1978 comic Superman vs. Muhammad Ali, a personal favorite of his. Adams formed Continuity Associates with fellow DC artist Dick Giordano, the company primarily supplying storyboard art for movies. He also dabbled in theater, acting as the art director and costume designer for director Stuart Gordon’s science fiction stage play Warp!

Adams was a fierce advocate for creators’ rights, working to unionize the industry and co-creating the Comics Creators Guild in 1978 with three dozen other artists and writers. His efforts led to the current industry standard practice of returning original comic artwork to the artist, who can supplement their income with art sales. He fought for Marvel Comics to return thousands of pages of art to industry legend Jack Kirby, a battle he won for all artists in 1987. Adams was also the loudest voice in lobbying DC Comics to give credit to Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster and helped win them both a lifetime pension, as both men were mired in poverty and in poor health. His actions on behalf of his fellow creators earned him a unique place of respect in the industry apart from his groundbreaking artwork.

Adams continued to freelance in comics well into the new century. He drew a story for the Giant-Size X-Men special in 2005 and provided artwork for the Young Avengers special in 2006. He returned to DC Comics in 2010 as artist and writer for the Batman: Odyssey mini-series, and again in 2016 for the Superman: Coming of the Supermen mini-series. In 2020, Adams teamed with writer Mark Waid for the four-part Marvel mini-series Fantastic Four: Antithesis. His final published work in comics was, appropriately, for DC and the Batman vs. Ra’s al Ghul mini-series, which began in 2019 with the last issue published in 2021 because of Covid delays.

Throughout his career as a comics artist, which spanned better than five decades, Neal Adams earned his share of accolades. He was inducted into the Will Eisner Comic Book Hall of Fame in 1998 and the Harvey Awards’ Jack Kirby Hall of Fame in 1999. In 2019 the Inkwell Awards’ Joe Sinnott Hall of Fame honored him for his lifetime of creative accomplishments. He put pen and ink to a veritable “who’s who” of superheroes through the years, his transcendent talent bringing a vibrancy and new dimensions to the characters. He will be remembered as a trailblazer, not only for his electric art style, but also for his work off the page on behalf of his fellow creators.

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Rev. Keith A. Gordon

Rev. Keith A. Gordon is an award-winning music critic with nearly 50 years of experience writing about music, the media, comics and pop culture for publications like Rock and Roll Globe, Blues Music magazine, and Blurt and is the author of nearly two dozen books.

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