Comics Review: Neal Adams - Mad Genius

As a crusader for comic artists' recognition, he is practically a superhero himself.

The Super London Comic Con opens its doors on the 23rd and 24th of February for the second year, boasting a great line up of stars from the comics world, old and new. There are few creators though that can lay claim both to being a contemporary star and a legend in their own right; few that is other than Neal Adams.

Currently writing The First X-Men for Marvel, and having recently finished his brain melting Batman: Odyssey, Adams has been working in the industry since the ‘60s as both writer and artist. More than perhaps any other creator though, Adams changed the way that the industry works forever. The story of the poverty faced by the creators of Superman is perhaps not as well known as it should be, nor the fact that such stories were hardly rare in the history of comics.

The campaigning that Adams undertook, and the rewards he won for creators that still benefit to this day from his actions, make it very hard not to paint Adams as a de facto superhero himself. He’d laugh at that of course, but Adams had a huge impact on both DC and Marvel, when he crash-landed from the world of serialised newspaper strips and advertising.

As a teenager, Adams started out drawing Archie comics before landing a serialised newspaper strip, Ben Casey. It’s hard to imagine now, in a world of Nolan and Whedon spandex blockbusters, but for the early period of comics history, newspaper strips were the goal for comics artists.

“Back in the olden days when we were rubbing sticks together,” Adams smiles, “everybody wanted to have a comic strip, to live in Westport Connecticut, to have a Jaguar and to have a wife and two and a half kids, and to have a girl in town in their studio in Manhattan that they’d romance, and then they’d have people ghost their strip, it was like this big dream. Everybody wanted to do that. It’s not what I wanted to do!

“Yes I loved doing the Archie comic books but it was a terrible ordeal to be in that place at that time and getting the comic strip was a big deal for me. I didn’t make that much money. I did get married, I did have kids, but in the Bronx in New York, and I was a very hard working young man for those years and for the years following that. I lived a dream without it being much of a dream. But it was a big bloody deal, I can tell you that!

“It used to be that comic strips where the big thing and comic books were toilet paper. And things have quite changed, we no longer have, well I guess we might have, but really they’ve fallen into the background, we don’t have strips that are continuing stories… and those things were popular culture’s fantasy device to forget about the world. And then television came along and suddenly that wasn’t necessary. But comic books, kind of underground, you know, tunneling around underground for years, suddenly popped its ugly head out and comic books fell to the forefront. And then all the things that we talk about in comic books now have taken place and we are – my god! – taking over the world.”

Breaking into the comic books in the late ‘60s, Adams started working for DC, drawing a great number of titles from Superman and Batman, to the supernatural hero Deadman, a character that has been associated with the artist ever since. It was this title that brought Adams to the attention of Marvel, a publisher that the artist was keen to work for. Working on Both Sides was fairly common, as long as artists used a pseudonym – not something that Adams was interested in.

“Understand that early in my career I did a syndicated strip,” he explains. “Well doing a syndicated strip is in many ways more like adultness than comic books. When I did get into comic books it was after a whole other career, and when I got into comic books they didn’t even know who I was. All the syndicated strip guys knew who I was, advertising people knew who I was, there was a whole world out there that did know who I was, but the comic book people had no idea because they were living in, I would have to say the dark ages of comic books. So stepping into that was like dealing with Neanderthals. They didn’t have contracts, they weren’t fair, they didn’t return the original art, they were just a bunch of bullies, the publishers at that time. Yes on an individual basis, all very nice people, but as a group? Not to be trusted. “

Stan Lee offered Adams his pick of titles, including the ones with teams already on them, much to the artist’s surprise.

“I said, ‘Well Stan, why are you saying that? That’s, that’s very generous.’ He said ‘Well, to be honest Deadman is the only comic that the guys at Marvel here read’! [laughs] I said, ‘Ohh okay, I see. So what’s your worst-selling title?’ He said, ‘X-Men, we’re gonna cancel it in two issues.’ I said, ‘You know what, I’d like to do X-Men.’ He said, ‘I just told you we’re gonna cancel it in two issues.’ I say, ‘Well fine! You know for two issues I will do X-Men. And that will be fine.’ He said, ‘Well okay. We’ll [write/run] it as long as we can, we’ll make you a deal. You can do X-Men, then we cancel it, then you gotta work on an important book like the Avengers.’

“And that was a very funny story about ten years ago when the Avengers were nothing! [laughs] Now the Avengers are a big big deal, so the story’s not so funny any more. I say, ‘Well fine!’ He says, ‘Just one thing Neal, how do you wanna be credited, you know because you’re doing stuff for DC comics?’ I say, ‘Well Neal Adams will be fine.’ He says, ‘Well you know sometimes publishers don’t… you know aren’t… they just don’t want you to have a credit with two companies.’ I said, ‘Well I do, that’s fine’ He said, ‘Uhh... well you know if you are working for Marvel I’m not sure I want to have you working for DC.’ I said, ‘Well g’bye Stan! See ya!’ I started walking towards the door. He says ,‘No no no no! I’m not saying that, no it’s fine if you want to be listed as Neal Adams, no that’s fine!’

“In that thirty seconds, that ended that habit. Nobody did that any more. That was the end of it. Because it Neal did it, anybody can do it, right? [laughs] Some problems you can solve very easily. Just have to say the right thing at the right time. It wasn’t a big campaign it was just, oop! That was it. Goodbye.”

It’s no surprise perhaps given Adams’ determined nature, that big campaigns were indeed in the pipeline. At that time it was normal for artists to submit their artwork and not have it returned, meaning that they could not sell on their original art – a perk that artists today take for granted.  It sounds like a small change, but the impact upon the industry was huge, with artists financially more secure, and inspired to create a greater product for both the publisher and themselves.

“Well I think you have to say that people doubled their income, in a year,” laughs Adams, “by being able to sell the original art. If they couldn’t sell them for what they sold at DC or Marvel for, they weren’t very good, I’ve gotta say that. But it was a tough campaign, and it, it went through lots of stages, and one of the things that I do... it’s not so much that I win because I’m a pigheaded asshole, or because I win, it’s because I do my homework. I read the copyright laws, I read the laws on the books, if they apply, I read the common law and I look at other deals with other industries and I pay attention, so that if somebody wants to take the time to argue with me I’m perfectly willing to have the argument and to have the debate. But it’s really kind of a waste of time because I’ve probably done more homework on it than they have. And so yeah we’ll have the discussion but in the end, you know… it didn’t matter what they were saying or what they felt or they, whatever the significance it was, it was law. So you sorta have to obey the law!

“Look at the people who went to Image, they ended up making billions of millions off selling comic books. And they got little percentages, where you made a ton of money! So why wouldn’t you do that? Doesn’t that, the logic of it, don’t book publishers do that? They make money! They get to have big metal logos on their buildings that are made of marble, with marble steps and they get to act like they’re making the money when in fact some poor prick writer is writing little weird books and signing his name Stephen King and making them rich! I mean, it all makes sense, it wasn’t like I was arguing to take something away from the publishers, I was arguing to make them rich! Why would they fight with me, I have no idea. [laughs]”

The issue of Superman’s creators, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, earning so little from their iconic creation while DC comics and parent company Warner Brothers became rich, has been angering fans for decades. Even now there are disputes over their treatment, but their fate would have been far worse had it not been for Adams leading the fight in the mid ‘70s. At that time, Shuster was almost blind, living in poverty, and ignored by DC.

“That was a big big fight that took months out of my life,” Adams recalls. “Not only were they not getting credit they weren’t getting any royalties, they weren’t being paid. Jerry was, he had a heart condition, he was approaching seventy, he thought he could recover some of his rights. His lawyers didn’t do their job for him, he was making seven thousand five hundred dollars a year working as a clerk - Joe was legally blind and lived in an apartment in Queens with his brother, [he] slept in a cot at night with a window next to him with tape on it holding it together... and these are the creators of Superman.

“Pretty bad, you know? You hear the story and you kind of go, ‘What can I do?’ Well fortunately I was in a position to do something. And it had gotten very deeply under my skin because these guys helped to create this industry. I mean, you could pay ’em as good as you pay a secretary for Christ’s sake. And so we had a little battle, Warner Brothers and I, and, and we sort of won, and it got taken care of, and it made Warner’s rich! [laughs] They had ambassadors of goodwill for the remaining ten years of their life, everybody was happy, everything was good, we were making money. So you know, I don’t go up against the dragon in order to kill the dragon, I go up against the dragon in order for him to buy a house and have kids and make a lot of money! [laughs]”

Adams was also making huge changes upon the comics pages themselves, with partner in crime, writer Denny O’Neill. Their Green Lantern/Green Arrow series in the early ‘70s was slightly ahead of its time, dealing with real life issues including racism and drug abuse that began a new wave of “relevant comics”.

“I remember in those days they used to make fun of us,” Adams recalls, “saying aww you’re just preaching, you guys are full of crap, and you know what, what we did was essentially change the comic book business because it was through that series of books - and you can forget about everything else and not even take the important stuff and put it into important slots - but the fact that we got rid of the comics code, between Stan Lee and Denny and myself, we got rid of the comics code and realised that comic books, it was about time to grow up, that one thing alone hanged comic books forever. But there were other things along the way, to talk about current problems of the day, to be entertaining while you’re talking about significant things. The assumption that you make is that if you talk about important things, you’re boring. No, not necessarily true. You can talk about important things and be very darn interesting. We showed that in those comic books.”

“Snowbirds Don’t Fly”, a two part anti-drugs story in which Green Arrow’s sidekick deals with a heroin addiction was the first comic to be published without the Comics Code seal, an extremely strict self-regulation body that was born on the back of the sensationalist (and largely made-up) findings of Fredric Wertham. The breaking of the code was a huge step in making comics more resonant with readers of all ages, and setting the scene for more mature storylines.

Adams also created one of the first black superheroes, the Green Lantern named John Stewart who is also the star of many DC cartoons, a creation that the artist is particularly proud of – “we changed the face of fiction for kids in the world to make things more reasonable and more reflective of reality. Thank god!” 

Was there resistance from the publishers and fans at the more liberal direction that Adams was pushing the industry?

“Not really. I mean I don’t know, who would argue with me? Really. I’m such a nice guy,” he grins. “The vice president of the United States under Richard Nixon in his first term was a guy named Spiro Agnew and we did a take-off of Spiro Agnew in the Green Lantern/Green Arrow series where [he] was this superintendent janitor of a kids school, and he had this little girl who had tremendous power, could control other kids minds, and he controlled her. And he looked like Spiro Agnew who of course as the vice president of the United States, and that’s pretty much what was happening in politics –Spiro Agnew was taking the power of the president and lashing out to the opponents of the Republicans at that time and using the power of the president to lash at other people, which people after a while started to resent.

“So anyway we did this character and the then governor of Florida sent a note to DC comics that said, how dare you do this, insult the vice president of the United States, if you do it again I will see to it that your comic books are not distributed in the state of Florida. And so the publisher came to Denny and I and said will you read this letter, this guy says they’re not gonna distribute… and we said well, they’re not going to distribute if we do it again but I don’t think we’re gonna do it again. We just did it! What he didn’t notice was that the little girl that he was controlling, the ugly little girl that he was controlling was a takeoff of Richard Nixon! [laughs] Mr Agnew did not make it to a second term as it turned out. I don’t think we caused that but I think probably us and a whole bunch of other people in combination made it very clear that he really shouldn’t be the vice president. I’d love to take credit for the whole thing! Bloody asshole.”

Thinking back to his last visit to the UK, Adams was at the centre of the creator rights movement within the industry. Summarily pounced on at a UK convention, he was invited to a pub where creators started to spill out their woes about the publishers of the time.

“I’m going, what, what’s this all about? So anyway, I sit, and they’ve put a pitcher of wine up there - I don’t drink, y’know, get me a Diet Coke or a Tab, in those days we had Tab, and they didn’t have any Diet Coke or Tab so I went up and I said, ‘So what are we here talking about?’ and then they started to explain to me… First of all they weren’t giving original art back, using artists one against the other, it was terrible. And they started moaning and groaning - I’m like oh so this is why I’m here, you’ve invited me up here putting this pitcher of wine in front of me cos you wanna MILK me. Right? They say ‘Yeah, that’s it!’

“So I poured a glass of wine, I started drinking wine, I sit, so we’re talking about it, they’re describing their problems like you know if they make a fuss suddenly they don’t get work, and there’s so few places they can work in England, there’s a little publisher over here then there’s the big publisher that’s a monster, and even people who get hired by him become monsters, and hard to deal with, and blah blah blah, I’m thinking Jesus this is England, you know, this is even worse than the United States, at least they were paid halfway decently, but really, keeping their original art, it was just awful.

“So finally I was on my second glass of wine and I said ‘Okay! I got it. I understand. You guys are a bunch of fuckin’ idiots. I don’t wanna hear anything from any cry baby, because you idiots, let me try to explain something to you. It’s a big world out there. There’s countries called France, there’s countries called Germany, there’s the United States! Do you know that, [in] America, that DC comics and Marvel Comics would love to hire you? And pay you competitive prices? And there are people in France that would love to hire you, and you’re stuck on this fuckin’ little island? And you’re not getting any work and you’re wondering what the hell you’re gonna do? Get off the island! Take a trip! Go to places where people can appreciate you and pay you money!

“’It’s totally insane, we have an international market, and you’re complaining to me that’cha got one fucked up publisher here, who, who runs you ragged, takes advantage of you, guess what, I just got the artwork returned in the United States! Work there, you’ll get all your artwork back, and then you can sell it, so whatever money you make you’ll double your money, or maybe more, because you’re talented, so wanna double your income? Go out, across the ocean, go down to France and get some work there. Do that stuff and escape these bastards, you know what? They’ll come after you begging. They’ll come after you begging.’”

A brief glance at the number of British creators now working in American comics suggests that Adams advice was certainly followed!

“And the revolution started!” he laughs. “They still do stuff for Great Britain, but they go to America, they’re artists of the world. They all have, you know reputations, they get their artwork back, we’ve leveled the playing field. I just didn’t have any idea going in that that was going on! I really had no idea. Well fine! We’ll have a revolution, screw it! Let’s go! Gimme a fuckin’ hammer, I’ll knock down your fuckin’ horse! Screw’em!”

Looking forward to the London Super Comic Convention this month, Adams gives a laugh that can only be described as dastardly. “Yeah, you know, I’d like to shake you guys up a little bit. You know, get you up on the floor. And dance!”

Adams will be signing and sketching both days of the convention – and quite possibly dancing – and is always happy to chat with fans. Prepare yourself!

Tickets are still available.

Master at work. Adams in his New York studio. Source: Getty

Laura Sneddon is a freelance journalist. Find more of her work at comicbookgrrrl.com

Photo: Getty
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Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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