Neal Adams is one of the most influential comic book artists of all time.
His rendition of Batman revolutionized the character’s look, and for many is the definitive version of the Dark Night. Adams’ realistic drawing style, unique layouts and design sense, polished by his previous experience in the world of advertising, as well as his work in newspaper strips, were a revelation when he started working in comics in the sixties.
Though many artists attempted to duplicate his approach, no one ever managed to as well as he did. Even if a penciler possessed technical skills equal to Adams, copying him made their work seem unoriginal and exposed it to ridicule, often by the master himself. Several artists started out as Neal Adams clones, but eventually evolved their own definitive styles after using him as an initial reference point.
Despite his longevity, his recent pencils retain the dynamic quality of his earlier work, featuring meticulous attention to detail in the posing of the figures and their anatomy. Very few graphic artists in any field, not solely comics, have been able to capture the human body in motion, muscles straining with tension or exertion, the way Adams does. Unfortunately, his current efforts at inking and coloring his own line work sometimes obscure its vitality, robbing the art of some of its beauty.
Although Adams is recognized for depicting lovely faces, his work doesn’t generally feature a great variety of them—he usually picks from his stock one or two male and female options for the basic features, and slightly modifies a characteristic here or there, often only in the coloring, to distinguish one character from another. It isn’t that he’s unable to draw a diverse number of faces. Adams has often included celebrities and historical figures in his stories; when he’s done so, he’s rendered them with the ability of a skilled portrait artist to capture an uncanny likeness. It’s likely that to save time, he simplifies things for himself, giving Batman, Superman, Green Arrow and the rest the same basic face, with a minor tweak here or there for the reader to tell them apart.
In addition to his indisputable place in the pantheon of comic book greats, Neal Adams has shown his true colors in substantial ways throughout his life in the public eye. At various stages of his career, he incorporated important social issues into his stories, and sought to tackle the questions he raised in his work with maturity and a balanced approach.
Furthermore, Adams has fought numerous battles on behalf of creators’ rights, and championed the cause of his peers and golden age pioneers alike. Perhaps more significantly, whenever a fellow comics pro has fallen on hard times, Adams has immediately stepped up to help in some meaningful way. Adams has also worked on several efforts related to the Holocaust, both by educating the public regarding the stories of Americans who protested the Nazis or helped rescue European Jews during the Second World War, as well as by working on behalf of Dina Babbitt, a Jewish artist who suffered at the hands of the notorious Josef Mengele.
The man is an artistic treasure and clearly has a good heart.
He also comes across as self-righteous and arrogant in person, is a proponent of crackpot pseudo-scientific concepts, and is arguably one of the worst writers currently working in mainstream comics.
There are distinct elements that make Neal Adams the unique person he is. These incongruous qualities can be a challenge to reconcile.
As a society, we are struggling with how to analyze and experience the work of artists who are less than perfect human beings, as if such people could even exist. We wonder how we can separate the creation from its creator—or if we should even attempt to. All the hand wringing over revelations of a person’s personality, character or past, reflects fundamental issues we haven’t dealt with yet in our culture.
Cultural historians wonder how much bad behavior we simply let slide in the past, whether as individuals or as a civilization, and theorize as to why we did. We ask ourselves if certain transgressions are simply easier to forgive, particularly in light of changing social mores, opinions and viewpoints. In the case of particularly unsavory people, we debate if it is even possible, desirable or necessary, to separate a work of art from its creator. Can we judge, perhaps even celebrate their work independently—or must our opinion of the artist come into play when considering the creation?
An analysis of Neal Adams raises some of these issues.
As a penciler, he is undeniably an artistic genius. Unfortunately, it seems his arrogance has left him with a tremendous blind spot concerning his writing. His current Deadman miniseries for DC is a convoluted mess that jumps from idea to idea with no apparent internal logic or plan. The 13 part Batman: Odyssey he did in 2012 was by turns dull, contradictory and incomprehensible. He believes he knows more about science than actual scientists do and has, in the most charitable use of the word, debated them, though he refuses to accept the facts they’ve provided to disprove his outlandish claims.
Should these points factor into our appreciation of his art?
Another perplexing contradiction: As a person, Adams has been on the right side of many issues—most often stepping up for the downtrodden. Yet there are many accounts of his poor behavior towards fans at conventions, as well as his charging them for everything under the sun. The man is notoriously opinionated and prickly. Adams is well within his rights to think, say and do the things he does—it’s simply hard for fans to resolve the person they meet at a signing with the artist and crusader they grew up idolizing.
Humans are imperfect. Moreover, if we start excluding great works from our consideration because they are the products of flawed people, we’ll have none left. What are we to do with a work of art that is undeniably extraordinary, yet produced by an unlikable or possibly even evil person? What if their work is astonishing and unique, yet celebrates something unpalatable? Perhaps the best recourse is for each of us as individuals to judge each creator and creation on its own merits and decide for ourselves what we’re willing to accept.
Fortunately, though he may advocate odd things, can be aloof and rude and has produced a clunker of a story or two, Neal Adams doesn’t cross any of those lines.
He may behave badly at times, but he isn’t evil.
He deserves his special place in comic book history.
I hope that he won’t eventually talk or write himself out of it. After all, it really only exists in the hearts and minds of the fans.