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Comics Review: Neal Adams - Mad Genius

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

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

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.