After talking with thousands of celebrities, it’s rare that I get nervous before an interview. One of those rare occasions happened when I got to talk to an artist — who turns 72 on Saturday — that I’ve admired for years.
Although a large portion of the space at the Big Wow Comicfest in San Jose was filled with comic book artists, it was Neal Adams who got the greatest amount of attention. That’s because few artists in the comic book industry have had such an impact. His realistic style of drawing — it changed comic book superheroes from round cartoonish figures into very human looking drawings — was a major factor in the ‘70s and ‘80s. His work sparked the metamorphosis of comic books from simple entertainment into a meaningful art form.
Marvel Comics launched in the ‘60s with the promise of giving its heroes real problems. There was some angst during the early days of the Marvel comic books but the tone and production never came close to what Adams and writer Denny O’Neil did in the early ‘70s with the “Green Lantern/Green Arrow” line for DC Comics.
Not only did every panel of the book leap off the page powered by the drawings of Adams, the series tackled the gritty story of Green Arrow’s sidekick, Speedy, dealing with a heroin addict. Even those who aren’t comic book fans can see this series that changed comics forever through the bound anthology that is still available.
Adams’ work can be found in a host of other books and they are all just as visually powerful as the “Green Lantern/Green Arrow” series. Once you have seen his work, it’s easy to spot in other titles because no one matches the sheer beauty and power that comes from one of his creations.
The work has earned him almost every award the industry, including a place in the Will Eisner Comic Book Hall of Fame and the Jack Kirby Hall of Fame. In 1985, DC Comics named Adams one of the company’s “Fifty Who Made DC Great.” While Adams has been much heralded by his peers, he works in an art form that’s never gotten as much credit from the general art community.
“The first comment I make is, I couldn’t care less,” Adams, 72, says between chats with the never-ending line of fans. “ It wasn’t that way in the ‘30s and ‘40s when everyone read comics. But, there was a time in our history when we had just finished attacking Communism in this country and Congress was not very busy and so to get busy, they opened the dictionary to the next word that begins with C and we’ll just attack comic books.
“Then Fredric Wertham wrote his book ‘Seduction of the Innocent’ that attacked comic books. It almost destroyed comic books. Many adults would not let their children read comic books. What we have been doing for the last 30 years has been climbing out of that pile of (expletive deleted).”
His work for the “Green Lantern/Green Arrow” comics provided a tremendous boost to regaining respect for the industry. The series won Shazam Awards in 1970 for Best Individual Story and Best Pencil Artist plus the 1971 Best Individual Story honor. His work was so groundbreaking — from the complete disregard for the confining panels that had been used for decades to the hyper detailed drawings — that many artists have copied his style.
Adams started developing his style at an early age as he was determined to be a comic artist. That’s why the New York native worked so hard to attend the School of Industrial Art high school in Manhattan. It was his own passion that drove him.
“No artist that I have ever known was pushed to do art,” Adams says. “My mother supported me but she she didn’t know a lot about that stuff. This was a little bit out of her purview. She helped me as much as she could but essentially, I did it.”
That determination became very handy once Adams graduated and started looking for work. He was turned down by DC Comics to work as a free-lancer but instead of giving up, Adams found work at Archie Comics. He worked for several companies but the job that put him on the map was the daily syndicated newspaper comic strip, “Ben Casey.” It was the most read strip during its 3 1/2 year run.
At the same time, Adams began to work in advertising. In fact, although he’s drawn almost ever character in the DC and Marvel Comics worlds, his advertising portfolio — that includes drawings for AT&T and Goodyear Tire — is even larger. In the beginning, Adams had to hide the fact he was a comic artists because the advertising community wouldn’t have hired him. Later they were shocked to find out the advertising and comic book artist were the same person.
Adams calls his determination to make a career as an artist as just “being pig headed.”
“It wasn’t fun in those days but I had decided to do it and that was it. I wasn’t going to listen to other people. Listen to what they thought. One way or another, I was going to do it,” Adams says. “As a teen-ager I worked jobs at a carousel, with moving companies. I was never afraid of heavy work so this was lighter work.
“Everyone tried to talk me out of it. Most people thought that comic book companies were going to be out of business in a year. I just worked my way through it because I’m just a stubborn person.”
The only way the line of fans ends for Adams is when the convention closes for the day. Doors are being shut but just like everyone who has lined up to meet him during the day, Adams is in no rush and makes sure that each autograph for the last few fans is just right. The fans not only get his signature on a book, poster, print or piece of art, they get to spend some time talking to the artist about his work.
“Two-thirds of the people who get an autograph want it personalized,” Adams says. As he talks, Adams personalizes a signature on a print that features his drawing of the 100 greatest sports figures of the 20th Century. Along with signing his name, Adams adds “To Michael.”
“I find that when people go home and it’s just a signature, people come over and they go ‘That’s really nice but he didn’t sign it to you. Why didn’t he?’ A lot of people don’t think about that when they are getting the autograph but then they get home and someone asks, they suddenly realize they should have had it personalized,” Adams says. “Getting it personalized is being cuddly. It’s warm and friendly. That’s how I feel about it. The cuddly part is very much part of fandom.”
It’s a fandom that has grown largely on the industry changing work by Adams.