Culture

In Praise of Neal Adams, the Reigning King of Comic Books

Left: Neal Adams at the San Diego Comic-Con, August 1973. Right: Marilyn and Neal Adams and family, June 12. (Portrait © Clay Geerdes Estate courtesy of David Miller; Photo via Facebook)
A tribute to one of America’s greatest artists.

He walks among us!

Unbothered on the street, anonymous to passersby in midtown Manhattan, he is just another Old White Guy shuffling along, not looking for trouble. But in the right setting — a comic-book convention, say, or on one of the Facebook groups devoted to his legacy — he is nothing less than a god!

Mobbed for autographs and selfies, pressed for comment and criticism, he answers, with varying displays of patience, the same questions he has fielded, across a half-century at the top of his game, from super-fans of all ages, the nostalgic obsessives who have collected and internalized, pored and wept over, the tens of thousands of enduring images he has created, the hundreds of interviews he has given.

How can you not know who Neal Adams is? He gave the world the modern Batman and Joker! Revived Green Arrow and the X-Men! Created the first Black superhero for DC, the John Stewart Green Lantern!

He used his unrivaled talents for anatomy, layout, facial expression, coloring, and composition to bring an unprecedented hyper-realism to comics, birthing the multibillion-dollar industry that surrounds us today. More than that: When he was Riding High, a handsome and charismatic figure who resembled Robert Redford — unlike the Murrays, Marvins, and Mortys under whose crotchety tyranny the industry had suffered — he used his clout to prod the major publishers to reward creators more equitably, to provide a pension for the blind and broke creators of Superman, and to return original artwork to the artists. Like the figures he brought to life — If superheroes existed, he famously boasted, they’d look the way I draw them — he was a force for justice.

And now, Neal Adams — seeing his name in print still excites, still thrills, though not as much as the sight of his iconic signature, with the zippy arrow beneath the double-A in ADAMS — Neal Adams is 80!

Eighty! The Brash Newcomer who revolutionized comic illustration in the late 1960s, brought the medium to unparalleled heights in the ’70s, walked away for more lucrative advertising work inside his own Continuity Studios in the ’80s, published his own line of comics in the ’90s and 2000s, then returned to DC and Marvel — and the conventions industry — over the last decade . . . is now, with the death of Stan Lee and a nod to Roy Thomas, the greatest living figure in the history of comic books.

A living legend! Neal Adams hears this phrase every day — probably every half-hour. With his mere presence, he provides a cherished bridge to the bygone Silver and Bronze Ages, when comics still cost under a dollar and even desultory titles — Superman’s Girl Friend Lois Lane, for example — sold over 450,000 copies a month. Blessed to have avoided glaucoma or arthritis, The Master remains active, still possessed of his mad drawing skills, thick head of dark hair, and unrestrained outspokenness (“Donald Trump,” read one of his recent, milder tweets, “has made me ashamed to be white”).

He is no longer a revolutionary force in the art world — how could we expect that of him? — and critics complain he has cheapened his legacy with overexposure and trifling commissions; but who else that wowed us in 1968 is still wowing us today, still practicing his craft, still sought out, a force to be reckoned with?

How close we came to Neal not walking among us — to losing him forever — was revealed just last week. In a June 6 video on his Facebook page, from which daily perch he had been strangely absent for weeks, Neal disclosed he had weathered a bout with sepsis, a life-threatening blood infection that put him in the NYU intensive-care unit for eleven days. “The odds are I should be dead,” he said. The illness forced him onto dialysis for four days, claimed 40 pounds and half his muscle tone, left him delirious (“I went to hell”), and briefly confined him to a walker, which he has since shed.

Anticipating Neal would die — as happens to an estimated 40 to 60 percent of sepsis patients — the doctors presented grim paperwork to Marilyn Adams, Neal’s wife and Continuity collaborator of nearly 40 years. Dazed but undaunted, Marilyn spent marathon hours at her husband’s bedside until — miraculously, as in a comic book! — the living legend recovered.

In the Nealiverse, the community of super-fans who rightly regard their hero not merely as the greatest comic book artist of all time, but as one of the top five figures in the history of American art, who collect every fading back issue of Detective and Brave and Bold, every mimeographed fanzine he graced with an interview, every trading card and Winston-Salem ad he produced, every T-shirt, coffee mug, sleeping bag, shower curtain, gym bag, spiral notebook, and other piece of Neal-emblazoned memorabilia they can get their hands on, this was a supremely frightful moment.

They were forced to confront for the first time the specter (Spectre # 4, 1968: when Neal wrote and drew the main story, credited with both, a first for DC Comics) that this exceptionally hearty father of five, grandfather to many more, a presence at comicons from Philadelphia to the Philippines, might be . . . mortal . . . after all. This was uncharted terrain: the first time in anyone’s living memory that beckoned before them a lonely World (or Earth-2) Without Neal. I am 52, and I’ve not lived a second without Neal Adams always being there, always being the best, the gold standard. The prospect of life without him is saddening beyond description.

Fortunately for the Adams family, all of whom work with Continuity in some fashion, the Old Lion, a fighter since his youth in Coney Island, had one more battle in him. He returned, staggered but unbowed, to the place where he assuredly will perish: his drawing board in the Continuity offices on West 39th Street. Already this year, he contributed a dazzling cover to the first edition of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, his first-ever work on the franchise. And he resumed his live auctions on Facebook, where he charms the faithful with anecdotes, impressions, drawings to order, and even the odd Sinatra tune.

“I really like living in the middle of things,” The Master once told me, in one of the 20 hours of recorded interviews we have conducted together, dating back to 1994. “I like to create change as much as possible. And not because I’m a raving lunatic running through the streets, but [because] I don’t like to see things stay the same from one day to the next.”

A snapshot posted to Facebook on June 12 showed Neal and Marilyn surrounded by their family, seemingly happy as they posed high above the Rockaways surf at Bar Marseille, in Queens. Only faintly visible, as in the old photographs of FDR, is the wheelchair.

Neal Adams is still Riding High.

James Rosen — Mr. Rosen is a reporter for Sinclair Broadcast Group and the editor of A Torch Kept Lit: Great Lives of the Twentieth Century (2016), an anthology of essays by William F. Buckley Jr.

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