An exclusive interview with Neal Adams by Paul Levitz
Photograph from National Periodical annual report, 1964. “The group of youngsters seated here against the colorful background of the United Nations symbolize the universal appeal of the entertainment magazines published by National Periodical… Children pay for them with pennies, pence, centavos, drachmas, pfennig, lire, rupees, markkaa, cuzeiros and dinars in some 48 countries.”— Jack Liebowitz, from the 1964 President’s Report.
Neal Adams is legendary for a career that changed comics by increasing the influence of dynamic illustration (as opposed to the dominant cartooning approach of the early comic books). Drawing issues that redefined Batman he set the style for the Dark Knight Detective for a generation of artists and moviemakers. Bringing visual drama to social issues in Green Lantern/Green Arrow with writer Denny O’Neil, he put his strong voice and relentless, smiling energy in the cause of writers’ and artists’ rights. Paul Levitz met with Neal Adams at his studio, Continuity Associates, for this exclusive interview. The Continuity studio is one of the mythic spots of comics, for all the talents discovered and nurtured there, incredible informal collaborations, and not least, its legendary proprietor, whose work has exploded from comics to advertising and new media, and, recently, back again to the panels he loves.
In the Silver Age you arrived at DC at the end of a long period of stability. Creatively, you were one of the artists who opened “Pandora’s Box” and began to redefine comics with greater drama and illustrative energy. Going into the Bronze Age, arguably you were the definitive artist with Green Lantern/Green Arrow, Batman...
You’ve got to pigeonhole somebody somewhere…
You were so much younger than everyone around you when you started at DC.
I was so much younger than everyone on Earth. I heard about guys like Joe Kubert who had started at a very young age, but by the time I came in, all those guys had become adults. I started drawing comics and doing art when I was 18, basically when I got out of high school.
What was it like breaking into comics in 1960?
I moved into advertising comics, because the door [to comic books] was locked. The only reason I got in at Archie [Comics] was I was trying to show my work to Jack Kirby or Joe Simon. I would do samples, drop them off, and try to see Jack or Joe, but they didn’t come in. I did this three separate times, and finally they put me on the phone to Joe, who got on the phone and said, “Kid, I saw your work. The stuff is good. I gotta tell you, I would use you, but I’m going to do the biggest favor that I could possibly do, and you won’t think of it as a favor, but you need to get a job in advertising. You’re going to thank me later. I’m gonna turn you down. I’m sorry.” And I said, “Thank you, Mr. Simon,” and hung up the phone. Victor Gorelick, who was there, just looked at me and he saw the tragedy in my eyes, and he said, “Maybe you want to do Archie Comics?” “Yes, I’ll do anything.” So I started to write and draw Archie Comics. I was doing advertising comics for Johnstone & Cushing, and storyboards. I had a career. I had the Ben Casey syndicated strip for three and a half years. When I finally gave up the strip I considered going to DC Comics, and the thought of sitting there and drawing guys in tights just appalled me.
If not DC, where?
I went to Warren, which had cracked open with Archie Goodwin, [who was] just the sweetest guy. I put so much work into my Warren jobs… if you look at each one, every single one was done in a different technique and a different style. If you examine them, you’ll see that each one had a totally different direction, as if I just turned into a different artist. Very exciting, wonderful way to live, not so good a way to make a living.
But you didn’t stay at Warren long… what was next?
I go see this guy Kanigher [at DC], and I started to do war stories, which I always kinda wanted to do. Because the best artists in the business when I was a teenager were Russ Heath, Joe Kubert, and Mort Drucker, who had done wonderful war stories. And then across the desk from Kanigher was Julie Schwartz.
Truculent, cantankerous, grumpy Julie Schwartz… Whatever it was about Julie that makes him do the other thing before other people, he offered me an Elongated Man story. A superhero story. Nobody in the place would do that. It was very chancetaking, but it was just at the very beginning of Marvel starting to do something. There was this feeling in the air that DC ought to do something, but nobody acted on it. Julie was the first guy to do it, by letting me do that Elongated Man story. Nobody else was allowed to come in the door, but Julie would give me other stories to do, would give me Spectre to do.
And then came Deadman…
So the thing with Deadman is it was started by Arnold Drake. Arnold fell in and out of favor at DC; he wanted to start a union… If I had known about it, if they had come to me, I probably would have solved the problem because I know how to do that stuff. I’m very apolitical in a political way. I do it in a friendly way… diplomatic… “We don’t have to do this now, it’s fine… let’s have coffee.” I’m not a pushy guy, but I have more staying power than most people.
You took over Deadman as Carmine Infantino moved into a staff job as art director, making changes in the company. Deadman, even more than the Spectre, was your visual experimentation book, where you broke all the rules at DC up until that time, composing pages and panels in new ways.
If you take these things individually, they’re interesting stuff; but if you take Deadman, it really became one story; individual adventures that were one story and you’d watch the ebb and flow in that story. So it really became a graphic novel, a long form rather than a short form… which was not really typical of comic books in those days.
They let me use a room up there, and I put in a projector and guys would come in, go past the front door, and I would feed them to different editors. “Julie, this is Bernie Wrightson; he’s a good artist, you ought to use him on something.” “I got everybody I need.” I’ll go down, Joe Orlando gets hired, and [introduce him to] Bernie.
Part of what goes on here, as you mention people like Joe Orlando, is DC changing from a house run entirely by writers and businesspeople to a house that is largely run by artists… from Carmine Infantino through Kubert, Dick, Giordano, and Orlando.
First of all, I don’t think of Julie as being a writer, I think of him as being an editor. When Dick came in he came in as an editor, from Charlton, he was also an artist, but he didn’t really draw that much. [At Charlton] he controlled the whole company. When Carmine brought Joe Orlando in I just viewed it as one Italian hiring another Italian, and as soon as I had a few conversations with Joe I knew his mind was editorially oriented. He was not interested in drawing—he had the knowledge from the old EC days of how to find artists, how to recognize artists.
I just think that what happened is DC [changed]—because of my influence, but also Carmine’s influence. Carmine was looking for talent, but the talent that I was able to find was really tremendous artwork. I brought the young artists to DC; some left for Marvel. But also on an editorial basis, there became a coterie of people who knew art and knew writing; not because of me, but we were all part of the same group and Carmine was responsible for that.
Did this relate to Marvel’s increasing sales in the mid-’60s?
Marvel had laid down the challenge. What Kirby was doing was taking Stan Lee’s sixpage horror stories and extending them out to fill books. In fact, that’s the difference between DC and Marvel comics: all the characters at DC, because of their history, were all sparkly-tooth Americans; they smiled, they had good jobs, they had secret identities. At Marvel, Jack convinced Stan that the four characters who would go off into space, be bombarded by cosmic rays, and come back as monsters.
All [the Marvel stars] were essentially monsters turned into superheroes. Over at DC we had golden-toothed heroes. Even the new guys: test pilot, lab scientist. It’s still the difference between the two companies. When people talk about Spider-Man and his personality problems, it’s all part of the monster side of the super hero genre as opposed to DC. Batman is the closest to the Marvel characters that DC has.
When you walked in DC’s door, what were you dreaming of?
Getting out. I wanted to get out, do comic books for a while until I found a way to do illustration work, and then get out. I had no interest in doing comic books—they were a step down. I was either going to get another syndicated strip or I was going to become an illustrator.
I had a portfolio—it took me six months to do it. I left it at an advertising agency, and when I went to pick it up it was gone. Six months of work. So I was doing comics, some advertising, taking care of my family. Then something happened. I don’t know when it happened, how it happened. I just fell in love with comic books. I didn’t expect to. The freedom. The artistic freedom to lay out a whole page, to do things with a whole page, to express myself, to write, to draw, to create stories; it just totally caught me. I fell in love. Totally against my will. I had no desire to love this stuff. I did as a kid, but I had a career I had to be responsible for. I had to support a family and enjoy the whole career, and I just fell in love with comic books. And I like it more today than ever.