Monday, October 19, 2009

Neal Adams: Evolving Comics from Print to Motion

Words: Christopher Irving . Pictures: Seth Kushner

The funny thing about Neal Adams is that, with his piercing blue eyes, even radio announcer-like voice, and boyish face, you find yourself wondering:
Did he really push comics to evolve in the late ‘60s with his monumental Batman run with writer Denny O’Neil? Is this also the same guy who later brought social relevance to comics in a big way with Green Lantern/Green Arrow, made comics feel like a spiritual acid trip with his Deadman work thereafter, or even told fun superhero tales with The Avengers and X-Men?

The man sitting across, from behind his desk in the offices of his business Continuity Studios, is young, full of life, and still pushing the boundaries of the comics industry. Even subtracting the years since his first big work in the latter Silver Age doesn't add up.

There can only be one solution: Neal Adams has a life-sized portrait of himself hanging in his study, keeping him vibrant, energetic, and aging instead of him.

“People ask ‘What’s going to be the future of comics?’” Neal poses. “They say that in the face of computer games and movies finally having budgets that can afford the special effects to do about anything. We’ve been ahead of the curve for fifty years, until the last couple of decades. Suddenly Star Wars showed up, and I saw it three times in the first week. That’s the only movie I’ve seen three times.

“When Star Wars started, that was the beginning for difficulties for comics. The smell is still in the air, and comic artists weren’t the only people doing revolutionary material. For the past ten years, people have been asking me what’s in the future for comics? You’ve got computers and video games, the Internet…I haven’t had an answer for years, and it’s really embarrassing. In that one little area, I’m dead.

“But suddenly I have an answer, but this is the answer,” Neal points to a stack of John Cassaday artwork from the Astonishing X-Men, “for comics.”

Debuting October 28th in Union Square, projected on the side of a building, is the motion comic adapted from the first issue of writer Joss Whedon and artist John Cassaday’s Astonishing X-Men. Continuity is shepherding the comics pages along, turning them into a cross between comics and animation.

“This is the next step, because this is a new art form,” Neal adds. “It’s never existed before. What you have is comic books and animation. Animation is Bruce Timm interpreting everybody else’s work, and all very nice and semi-complimentary, and not exactly royalty-filled-with. It’s good, but it’s animation: 500 Czech artists tracing animation from some other artist. It’s fine, but it’s not the comic books. This is the comic books. This is taking the work of the artists and words of the writer, verbatim. The thing about Whedon is that [he] is used to doing copy, so he knows how many words need to be dealt with, and he does good personality stuff.

“So, you have vocalizing of the writer’s words, and the artwork being animated by the most modern technology available by computers. The technology, as little as a year ago, is half of what it is today. It’s moving very, very fast.

“I’ve been doing animatics since I was nineteen years old. Animatics are the unknown art form. We’ve been doing it for advertising agencies and making a living, and happy to do it. Now this art form is applied to comic books as a commercial product. So, what do you get? You get the writer’s words and the artist’s artwork. This is what we believe in, and this is what we’re doing: You’re seeing the artist’s line with very little change. We may extend a line or slightly finish an arm, but as often as not we’ll steal another arm and stick it on there, if possible. Like when we do the mouths moving, I’ll draw a moving mouth, but what we’ll do is, in the computer, steal the actual mouth and put it on there to make the mouth fit the actual positions of the mouth I’ve drawn. You get the mouth, line for line, everything that’s there.”

Astonishing is a step up for the ever-evolving motion comic, with the characters moving through their paces with panning camera angles, kinetic bodies, and expressive faces. Chances are, given the rate of the technology’s evolution, that the final issue will be relatively far ahead of the first issue.

“There’s more available every day,” Neal adds. “We just did the first book’s worth, and now the second book’s worth is so much better. That’s how good it is, and it’s joyous for us, because we know we’re going to see it out with the customers. We’ve been doing animatics for years. We do the work. It gets tested, and it’s put/thrown away [after]. And then we look at this. I can see that being the next step in comics.

“You’re going to walk into a comic book store and see DVDs, watch it on your T.V., and on the subway. It’s tech-conscious because it’s not on paper….The thing that’s so wonderful about this is that there’s nothing about it that denies the comic book, but in fact, feeds off the comic books. We do comics, Marvel and DC do comics, so that movies will be made. Everybody recognizes it through the comic book. Everybody gets it, so that it’s still the origin point.”

Neal’s origin point in comics was, unbelievably, that of initial rejection. It’s easy to look at all the achievements he’s accomplished, accomplishments that have redefined both the comics form and industry, that it’s easy to overlook the depressed comics market of the 1950s.

“I don’t know why they called it the Grolier Building because it looked Gold, so I called it the Gold Building,” Neal says of DC Comics’ base of operations in the 1950s when he, a young hopeful, first tried to break in. “They turned me down so coldly that it was a mark of fear in my life. I didn’t even get past the upstairs lobby after I had made an appointment. I was a good boy: I called and made an appointment, and then went up, and this guy, Bill Perry, came out from inside. I was eighteen, and had really good sense – scary good—and I walked in with good samples. He started to look at the work and then put it down. He said ‘Look, kid, I can’t let you in.’…”

Handed the excuse that comics were dying, Neal wasn’t even able to get past the lobby.

“It’s not like I even got to compete in the Shit Olympics. They didn’t even let you into the door. The shit could be solid gold. It didn’t matter. They didn’t even let me through the door.

“As far as I know, at the time, was that the only new person they’d let through there was Mort Drucker. Mort Drucker, I think, worked in the production room. He wasn’t even an artist.

“Mort. Drucker,” Neal pauses. “The best caricaturist in the world was in the production room and he was, as far as I know, the last guy they ever hired. They had a guy named Joe Leteresi, who I guess had been there for a while. He was, guess what? A letterer. I don’t know when he was hired, seems like it was in the Stone Age.

“From about 1953 to the sixties, when Jack Kirby and Stan Lee became a danger to DC Comics, nobody got in. Nobody. We’re talking about not quite ten years. Nobody.

“Mort Drucker did joke pages. Isn’t that hysterical?

“There were other people doing joke pages, but Drucker’s stuff was fantastic. Then he did Bob Hope Comics, which were funny, but they were still Bob Hope Comics. I guess between doing mechanical work and Bob Hope Comics and joke pages was how he made a living.

“Then, one day in 1952, Bill Gaines, the son of William Gaines, decided to start Mad Magazine. Somehow they got a hold of Mort Drucker whose first feature was, I believe, a Bob and Ray illustrated cartoon story [in 1956]. For us fans out here, it was like ‘Wow!’ Before that, Mort Drucker had done the Bob Hope Comics, and Bob Kanigher, the Bob Kanigher," Neal lets out a melodramatic, comical laugh that Snidley Whiplash would be proud of. "Somehow was wise enough to realize that this guy could do war comics. I’m this fan, in high school, and I’d heard about this place called Timely, but they did crap. And ACG did a fat little guy with some super power…weird stuff. There was nothing, and then Julie Schwartz was sort of doing superheroes with Mystery in Space and Space Taxi. They were doing Superman and Batman, and then they tried Flash with the first story by Carmine Infantino and inked by Joe Kubert. Inspiration.

“People talk about the first issue, inked by Joe Kubert. Flash and the Turtle, and that great cover? Not to take anything away from Carmine, but Joe Kubert inking that first issue: kick-ass.

“So, anyway, Mort Drucker, around that time in ’56, started to do war comics. At DC, there were Joe Kubert and Russ Heath, the two best artists at DC. There was Gil Kane, who was becoming one of their best artists but wasn’t quite there yet, doing Green Lantern. There was Ross Andru and Jack Abel and others doing war stories that were so-so.

“You had Kubert and Russ Heath—very good— and then you suddenly had Mort Drucker fall into the war story thing. Now you’ve got Joe Kubert, Russ Heath, and Mort Drucker doing war stories. It was like heaven. Then, for whatever idiotic reason, this character Mademoiselle Marie, a resistance fighter in Paris, caught on with Bob Kanigher. He got Mort Drucker to do those stories, and Mort started to bash those out because he’d found another home over at Mad Magazine, doing satire and being paid four times as much, or something like that. There came a moment where there was war story, war story, Mademoiselle Marie, crap, and then gone! Mort had now found a career becoming the greatest caricaturist in the world, in my opinion.

“That was the end of the new guys at DC Comics!” Neal laughs. “He came in, became fantastic, was kept in the Production room, rose like a rocket, went out, and closed.

“Until I came along.”

Comic books weren’t originally a destination point for cartoonists, but rather a means to the end of a daily comic strip. Neal went a backwords route, first doing some work for Archie Comics in 1960, and then found work at famed ad agency Johnstone and Cushing. By 1962, Neal landed the gig drawing the comic strip of TV doctor Ben Casey, one that ended in 1966.

“Back when I finally went to DC, I had had a commercial art career and had done a syndicated strip for three and a half years. I became a person, and had a career, essentially,” Neal recalls. “It felt like a big career, and I was only twenty-five…When I decided that I didn’t want to do the strip anymore, I did an illustration portfolio that took me six months and took it to an advertising agency, left it, went to pick it up, and it was gone.

“What could I do then?

“Comic books.”

After doing some work for Warren’s black and white comics magazines, under the legendary Archie Goodwin, Neal connected DC artist Joe Kubert with the writer and syndicate behind the Tales of the Green Beret comic strip, based off of the John Wayne film. With Neal’s backing, Kubert gained the strip, and enjoyed a run on it that lasted until 1968.

“It’s later, and I’m thinking while I’m working at Warren [and realize]: ‘Mort Drucker’s now at Mad, Kubert’s doing the Green Beret comic strip, and all they have is Russ Heath who’s drawing war stories by Robert Kanigher.’

“I called ahead, and this time they let me see Bob Kanigher. Why? Because they were finally afraid of Marvel’s comics. So I met Bob Kanigher. What a tough guy, and he knew it. He wasn’t just tough, but he was proud that he was tough.

“He wanted me to be his friend. I know Bob Kanigher was rough, but not to me. He was as nice as could be.

“I even went to Kubert one day and said ‘Joe, how do you get along with Bob?’

“‘Oh, great.’

“‘Are you ever in conflict?‘

“‘Oh, never, never. I love the guy.’

“I’m thinking, ‘Of course this is Joe who could put his fist through the wall. I get it. I understand perfectly.’ Exactly like you said, you’ve got to earn his respect.

“I’m trying to imagine Joe putting up with shit from anybody. Not gonna happen. He’s a tough guy.

“Joe Orlando said one day ‘I was in Carmine’s office. I saw Joe coming down the hall, and I saw you coming down the hall, and you saw each other and then met. I thought for a minute that you guys were going to hit and there would be this big explosion and release of energy,’” Neal laughs.

Sandwiched between Mort Drucker and the generation that produced Denny O’Neil and Roy Thomas, Neil found himself the lone cheerleader and catalyst for change in what was then a static world.

“I have no contemporaries,” Neal admits. “To the older guys, I was the Rah Rah Johnny Freckleface Rah Rah.”

“I’d walk around with a big grin on my face and they would call me Smiley. It was fun. I enjoyed it. Maybe it was a false happiness, but it infected people: ‘There’s some new generation coming? Oh, it’s just Neal.’

“Basically, I sparkplugged all the old guys. They were like ‘What’s he doing? Fancy panels and all that stuff? What’s that?’

“They got a kick out of it, and I met all the old guys, and made friends with all the old generation: Howie Post, who was doing Anthro and was just a sweetheart, Russ Heath, Joe Kubert, and Ross Andru. I loved…and love them all. I was the unexpected thing, sort of like you’re in a family with five kids and then mom gets pregnant again.

‘What’s this? He’s happy to be here? And we’re all miserable? Let’s get happy.’”

As Neal Adams’ style emerged in the ‘60s, it was as a photo realistic cartoonist with modern graphic design leanings: his superheroes looked like real people in costume, while his page layouts consisted of unorthodox panel sizes and arrangements. Fast becoming a star cover artist at DC, Neal made splashes on drawing Batman with writers Bob Haney (in The Brave and the Bold) and Denny O’Neil, as well as the Adams-scripted Deadman series (in the pages of Strange Adventures), which combined superhero action with quasi-Eastern philosophy and trippy layouts that would make Steve Ditko proud.

“People used to ask me about Deadman and other comics that they thought sold well, but according to DC, they didn’t sell that well. How could this be? Of course they sold well, out of the back of the distributor’s warehouse. There was a table in back where you could pull up with a van and buy your Playboy Magazine or comics. The guys who started comic book stores and conventions got their comics that way. From the backs of the distributor’s. Marvel and DC are promoting ‘We’ve got Barry Smith, Neal Adams, and Jim Steranko, and they’re all pulling out this great stuff and sales are just a little bit better than they were? Why is that?’ It’s because you have affidavit returns on your comic books where distributors sign a piece of paper saying they’ve destroyed this many comics, and then they sell them out of the back. That’s why you can get mint conditions of my comic books all the time. ‘Look at that! Looks like it was printed yesterday…thirty-five years ago.’

“The DC says ‘I don’t know why they didn’t sell, Neal. You know, people like Deadman!’”

The cancellation of Deadman led Neal to knock on the door of DC’s competition: Stan Lee’s Marvel Comics.

“I went over to Marvel and I met Stan. I said ‘I’d like to do some work for you, Stan, in the Marvel Style.’ Which was where the artist does the story, Stan dialogues it. Steranko talk me that was how he worked with Stan.

“Stan goes ‘Anything you want!’

“‘What do you mean, anything?’

“‘Spider-Man, Fantastic Four, anything you want.’

“‘Don’t you already have people on them?’

“‘Doesn’t matter, you can have anything you want.’

“I said ‘Why?’

“‘I’ll tell you a secret: the only comic that guys here read, from DC, is Deadman',” Neal laughs.

“I’m not the type of person that sits in the back of the class and doesn’t say anything. If I have anything to say, I’ll go directly to the person and say ‘Listen, guess what could happen if you’re not a little bit nicer?’”

“The worst thing I ran into was when I was working on some covers in the production room at DC Comics, and I looked over to the cutting board,” Neal says. “There was a guy there, and it looked like he was cutting up originals.

“So, I went over there and asked ‘What are you doing?’ like an idiot.

“‘I’m getting rid of these.’ He was cutting them into thirds (that was the way): He’d cut them into two slices and them dunk them into the garbage.”

Neal pauses dramatically: sitting across the desk from him in his office, is akin to witnessing a one-man play. At that time, it was standard practice for both companies to not return artwork; DC, in particular, was infamous for destroying it. The pages were cut into tiers so that they couldn’t be easily pieced back together.

“‘You’re cutting up originals?’

“‘Yeah, yeah, I’m low man on the totem pole here, so I get to do the shitty jobs. So, I cut these up and throw them away.’

“‘Really?’ I said. ‘Stop, just stop.’


“‘I just asked you to stop. Stop.

“‘Look. I’m just going to go talk to some people, and would like it if you wouldn’t cut up anymore while I’m gone.’

“‘Oh, yeah?’

“‘Okay. Let me put it this way: I’m gonna go and talk to some people, and if I come back and you’ve cut up some pages, I’m going to be very angry.’..He looked in my eyes, and then I could pretty much guarantee that he wouldn’t cut up any more pages.

“I went to talk to Carmine and said ‘Carmine, they’re cutting up originals in there.’

“He said ‘Yeah?’

“I said ‘Yeah. That’s really not good.’

“‘No? No, of course it’s not!’

“‘Maybe I’m not making myself clear, Carmine: they’re cutting up original art that should go back to the original artists.’

“‘Oh, you think so? Yeah, right. No, it should.’”

Neal pauses again.

“‘Okay, let’s start again—
“‘Carmine that’s a really bad thing going on in there. Artwork shouldn’t be thrown away, it’s not garbage and should be returned to the artist. Don’t you think so?’

“‘Yes, I agree!’

“‘Well: Carmine, if another page of artwork gets cut up here, I don’t think I’ll be working here anymore.’

“‘No, no, wait a second. I’m going to go talk to Irwin about that.’

“So, he went and talked to Irwin Donenfeld. They agreed at that time, not to destroy any artwork. And that’s when it stopped.

“I love Carmine, and he’s talented and I’ve loved his work since I was a teenager. It was wonderful to meet Carmine Infantino. He combines design with art, so his sense of spatial relationships is not very realistic but very wonderful. I’ve always loved his stuff.

“His art direction was a little like this – vertical and then horizontal. But I didn’t mind, and got along fine with him. I think that I got some things accomplished that I might not have gotten accomplished if he didn’t help. He stopped the art from being destroyed. I only stopped it from being destroyed momentarily, but he stopped it by going in and defending my position, without necessarily believing it.”

Carmine used his pull as Editor-in-Chief (and later Publisher) to keep the art from being destroyed but, according to Neal, the fight wasn’t over for seven more years:

“One day, the new Publisher at DC Comics, Jenette Kahn, decided to return all of the original artwork, for the right reasons,” Neal notes, citing the Publisher who succeeded Infantino in the 1970s. “During that same week, Marvel Comics decided to return all their original artwork. Why? Because people were coming to DC because they could get their originals back.

“There were people in the freelance end of things who were terrified that Neal would cause everybody to be fired. We had an Academy of Comic Book Arts. People didn’t want me to bring it up, and argued with me. It was a little rough, so I decided I wouldn’t bring the Academy into the discussion of returning original artwork, because everybody was afraid.

“What’s interesting about it, is that the year after the decision was made to return original artwork, every artist in the business doubled their income that year. Even the worst could sell their stuff.”

One of Adams’ biggest coups was also in his helping Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster regain their creators’ credit, as well as a pension from DC Comics/Warner Brothers. When the Superman film was announced in the late '70s, Siegel came out of exile to force Warner into settling with he and his long-suffering creative partner and friend. Through the efforts of the National Cartoonist’s Society and President Jerry Robinson, as well as Adams’ vocal support within the comic book industry, the pair successfully regained their credit, along with an annual pension. For decades, it was common for publishers to make creators sign away their rights when signing their paychecks.

“Since I was eighteen years old, I was used to getting a purchase order, but at DC Comics I’d turn in the pages and they’d give me a check. On the back of the check there’d be this statement that says ‘We own everything, and you forfeit all your rights…’

“‘What’s this?’

“‘That’s your agreement.’

“‘So, you mean that if I sign the check I’ve made a contract with you?’ I wrote a little pamphlet to hand out to everybody that says ‘Look, DC Comics gives you a check with that thing on the back. Cross it out, and write ‘Under protest’ and then sign your check. You know what? Your bank doesn’t want to be a witness to your contract: they just want to cash your lousy check. That’s all they care about. Do that and you’re protected. There’s a danger to signing those things and not making an objection, because you’ve then accepted it.

“That’s a bad thing.”

“The thing about it is that in a way, I was in a better position to do stuff, because I’d had work in advertising,” Adams notes. “Everybody else could’ve found work, but it was easier for me. When that happens, you do have a certain responsibility and can’t say ‘Oh, they’re not going to fight, so I’m not going to fight’, because they’re in less of a position to fight. I’m in a better position to fight, so I came quietly, smiling and suggesting ‘Let’s talk about this and just be friendly.’ I never got into any real arguments.”

It’s a good thing that Neal Adams was turned away from comics in the 1950s; had he not been, he may not have become armed with the knowledge and business acumen gained through advertising, or the craftsmanship honed through drawing daily strips. When he did finally make it, however, he did it in a big way, irrevocably contributing more than his fair share to the standards, practices, and ethics of comics. Because of that (not even counting his revolutionary draftsmanship, panel layout, subject matter in Green Lantern/Green Arrow, and all his other creative contributions), Neal Adams forced the comic book industry to grow up just a bit more.

“This is something I believe in very strongly: I believe that lawyers ought to be out of most things where people are involved,” Neal points out. “People of good will can get together and settle their disputes. There’s no reason to think that they can’t, and they do. I settled more disputes with DC and Marvel by just being friendly. Maybe because I was, perhaps, a little more knowledgeable, but that’s part of the mix. If you know it’s good for both sides to have the same caliber guns, and that way nobody’s taking advantage. That way, I’m in a better position to have those conversations and to make the points that have to be made, and they can make the points they have to make, and we can come to some kind of a conclusion.

“The big argument I had for royalties was ‘There’s a certain amount of copies that you can sell, where you consider it to be your profit. You don’t expect to sell more copies than this, so if you make a contract that says ‘If that number of copies is 80,000 copies, some artist or writer are able to sell more than 80,000 copies, then why not make some small royalty of that?’ Then, the creators will make an effort to do work that will make it sell beyond that, so you, the publisher, will make more money. You’ll get the best out of your creatives than you can possibly get now, because they’ll want to make these royalties. You’ll be selling more copies than you’d expected to sell. That’s a win-win for everybody. You don’t have to start at copy one, but at whatever point you feel is a windfall if you sell more copies.’ So, they did, and surprise, surprise, suddenly some books were selling 150,000 to 300,000 copies. Even now, if you were to ask an artist about certain other artists, they’d say ‘They sell more copies and get better royalties.’ That’s what it’s about.

“If you present an argument like that, where are they going to get angry? There’s no place to get angry because I’ve just made sense.

“‘Are you pissed off at me because I’ve made sense? I’m going to help you sell more copies. That’s a good thing, isn’t it?’” Neal laughs.

“Most of that stuff got settled pretty peacefully. I find, for example, even now common sense and logic…We had some difficulty with Dave Cockrum. He had double pneumonia and was in the VA Hospital, not getting help. We managed to convince Marvel that he ought to get something. One way we convinced them was that I called a reporter in Washington and I had him call Marvel and say ‘is this going to be a big story, with Dave Cockrum in a VA Hospital and not getting any royalties for the characters he’s created? Should I come to New York to cover this story?’

“‘No, no, it’ll be settled and taken care of next week.’”