A shorter version of this article appears in the October issue of Print, the International Design issue. In this issue, we celebrate designers from around the globe as they give voice to the mute, chronicle key historic movements and show how design impacts peoples’ lives. Get Print on your favorite device or, of course, in print.
Legendary artist and writer Neal Adams talks creators’ rights, social issues in art and—of course—comics, sans filter. The thing about Neal Adams is he doesn’t really come across as the most, well, modest man. “Your work is pretty amazing,” a young fan gushes to Adams at a recent comic convention. “I’ve noticed that,” Adams replies. “I have noticed that.” The 73-year-old comic book writer and artist is opinionated, outspoken, wildly talented, engaging, a born cusser and a born hustler (you should see him hawking his artwork at these conventions). And that’s all undoubtedly how he’s been in the game so long. Adams soldiered past initial barriers to the industry and became a legendary talent for both Marvel and DC, leaving his stylistic mark on such iconic series as Batman, the X-Men, Green Lantern and Superman. He co-founded the design studio Continuity Associates. Along the way, he became known as much for his work as his activism: For decades, he’s battled for the rights of creators, winning Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster—who sold their character Superman to DC for a paltry $130 in the 1930s—long overdue compensation and credit. For his life’s work, he’s received numerous awards, and has been inducted into the Will Eisner Hall of Fame (the industry’s highest honor) alongside legends Jack Kirby and Stan Lee. No, Neal Adams is probably not best described as modest. But he’s one of those rare people who might just have a right not to be.
You had a hell of a time breaking in.
Well, I didn’t actually get any rejections. They just wouldn’t see me. I mean, it’s not a rejection if somebody looks at your work and says, “Gee, I can’t use you.” They never even looked at the work. They just said, “We’re going to be out of business in a year. You’re wasting your time.”
How did you persevere through that?
I got better jobs. I worked for a place called Johnstone and Cushing, and we did comics for advertising and I was paid four to six times as much as a regular comic book artist. I did storyboards for advertising agencies, and I got paid better than any comic book artist got paid. I did illustration work, and I got paid better. It was a source of embarrassment that somebody would ask me what I was going to charge them and then they became quiet for a minute and said, “Well, I don’t think our accounting department will pay a bill that’s that low. We have to pay you more.”
Did it ever get you down, how difficult it was to get your portfolio read?
If I get rejected, I just come back. Look, there’s nobody within the comic business that’s five years my junior or five years my senior. There’s nobody in comics that’s a contemporary of mine. They don’t exist. There’s 10 years of blank. So obviously I was a very stubborn, aggressive, positive person. You don’t get to be somebody like me without being very, very tough.
Looking at the industry today, what are new artists’ chances of breaking in?
Are you kidding? This is like fucking gold times. It’s the easiest time in the world to break in—if you’re incredibly talented. The thing you have to remember is there’s an art student or an art guy in every junior high school and high school across the country. And there are tens of thousands of them. There aren’t that many jobs. … It’s a very, very tough field. And it’s getting tougher because the illustration field is going away. There’s very little real illustration being done in America today. Movie posters are photographs. Where is The Saturday Evening Post or Life magazine? They’re gone. Illustrators now are doing comics. The very best artists in America and in the world are doing comic books.
From among all the characters you’ve worked on over the years, which rank as your favorites, creatively?
I like Batman because I was able to bring him to what he was supposed to be. I didn’t change him. I just brought him back to what he was supposed to be—[away from the campy nostalgia of the TV show, and back to brooding]. I created Havok out of whole cloth, so that’s pretty interesting. I took Green Arrow, who was a copy of Batman, and turned him into his own independent-type character that you never saw before. So in effect I created Green Arrow, yet I’m stuck with the fact that I recreated Green Arrow. For Green Lantern, I didn’t do anything except make him the character that Gil Kane created and saved him from obscurity, and then created John Stewart [in the early ’70s], who is a black Green Lantern, and I gave a character for black American kids and kids around the world to look up to.
You approach race and social issues a fair amount in your work, and don’t pull punches. What’s comics’ role?
I think the role of comic books is to be the adults while we’re being children. We have to look to our children, at our children growing up and what kind of world they’re going to be in, and try to reproduce that world in the art that we do so that the world will get there. If we don’t show some of that world, then our kids will never get there. We’re so close to the ground level with comic books that we’re actually having an effect. I’ve had black men cry in front of me because of John Stewart. Just the impact. Other people may not think that much of it, but he appears on television to millions and millions of people. When they announced Hal Jordan was going to be Green Lantern in the movie, all the kids in America went, “Who the hell is Hal Jordan? Isn’t John Stewart Green Lantern?” They knew who Green Lantern was. If you’re in a position to do that with a whole generation of people and your brain and heart are in the right place, then it’s a good thing. If you’re stupid and you do the wrong thing, you can cause trouble, and that’s not so good.
Circling back to Batman, what made you decide to shift him back to the core of the original character?
The knowledge that that character that was on TV wasn’t Batman. It was a satire. It was terrific. And we all loved it. I loved it. Jill St. John standing on top of the cyclotron and then jumping in and Batman saying, “What a way to go-go”—that was the first show, and you pretty much knew from there that that was the way it was going to go. Which was fine. The bad part was that DC then followed it because commercially they thought they could make money on it.
What do you feel is the importance of getting to the core of characters?
If they’re originally good characters, it’s important. If they’re shitty characters like Green Arrow was, then there’s no core to get back to. The idea is to build a core. So I build a core. Then, when people start screwing with it, it becomes bad. The problem is that there’s an awful lot of guys in comics, less talented guys, who have to screw with stuff all the time. Then the companies have to finally recognize that they’ve been messed up and go, “Gee, maybe we better get back to them again.”
What’s it like to see your ideas so deeply saturated into popular culture?
It’s like being a movie star without being recognized on the street. It’s pretty good. When I come [to conventions], they treat me like I’m something and they get all flustered and sweaty, and that’s what they do with the actors. But when I go out on the street, nobody knows who I am. So I have the best of all possible worlds, because who the hell wants that?
Do you think people in general tend to overlook the value, impact and influence of creators?
No. I think that what happens is nobody realizes what’s gonna happen right at the beginning. At the beginning it’s just, “Yeah, yeah, fine, I’ll pay you for it.” Later on when it takes off suddenly, corporations and people start to get protective, and then aggressively protective, and suddenly they want the whole pie and they don’t want to share it because the pie’s getting bigger and bigger and bigger. Superman was like that. Nobody knew Superman would become fantastic. Between the ages of 17 and 21, [Siegel and Shuster] failed to sell it to anybody and they were just busy working, and finally DC Comics agreed to run it, and then newsstands went nuts. And within a year, they were selling a million copies. Well, that’s like unheard of. So now that quick little agreement that was given to Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster became life and death for DC Comics, and became a problem for the rest of the lives of Jerry and Joe.
How did you get involved in that situation?
When the two boys ran out of options and their lawyers no longer answered the phone, Jerry wrote a letter to The New York Times, The Washington Post, various news outlets and the Academy of Comic Book Arts, and I was the president. And so once I read the letter, in spite of the fact that it was like a nine-page long letter, very raging and very emotional, and very accusatory and very nuts, I realized our industry couldn’t afford it. And so I decided to end it. The two of them had stayed hidden for 15 years, they weren’t communicating with anybody, nobody knew what was going on. Now that they had surfaced and they had depended on these lawyers to take them to court and to reclaim their rights, and their lawyers backed off and in effect disappeared, I realized they had now run out of their options. Somebody was going to have to do something about it. I dedicated my studio to ending the questions. And I told everybody in the studio, “Look, you don’t have to be part of my craziness here. If you want to help me, help me out. Otherwise, do your work. We will see to it that within however long it takes, this has to end, and we will see to it that it ends.” So that was a promise I made to myself and everyone who could hear, and it took between three and four months to resolve it. It was a big deal. It was a long fight, it was a hard-fought fight, I learned a lot about Jerry and Joe. It was embarrassing for the industry, so I decided I would take the embarrassment away and make a present of Jerry and Joe and Warner getting together so that everybody would be happy. And for a time, they were. Everything was good. But then later on it turned to shit.
What’s the most important thing creators can do to protect themselves?
The first thing they should do is never sign a contract on the day they get it. Wait a day. Show it to a lawyer, show it to an uncle, explain the situation and get advice. Avoid the work-made-for-hire provision of the law as much as possible, make it hard to enforce, try not to make a contract for a long period of time. Try not to undervalue yourself. It’s never a good idea to have somebody ask you what you’re going to charge for something. And if they ask you, think of the price you want to get, double the price, and remember this line: The last time I did a job like this, I was paid this. And it should be double what you ever got. But—remember this—I want to work with you, so I’m willing to adjust my price for you. If they give you the price right off the bat, you’re in a bad situation. Try not to let them do that. Also, learn how to do business. It does not hurt to take a business course. It makes sense for an artist. Unfortunately, most art schools do not have business courses, which is a total fiasco. I mean, artists go out there and they don’t know how to pay their taxes. Any freelancer should open a second bank account and put a third of his money in it immediately. As the minimum basic, get a good accountant. Keep bills. Always have your deductions ready and lined up. … I know more guys who ended up living in a small apartment and eating off crates just because everything was taken away from them. It sucks and it’s terrible. What artists don’t realize is that they can make twice as much money by doing good business, and they can make their money work for them, versus against them.
What’s one thing you wish you’d known going into all this?
If something happens, sometimes I back off and I stay back, and I think about it and then I react to it. I’ve made so many mistakes, there’s not one that I can point to. Tons and tons of mistakes and stupid things and ridiculous things, but usually I make stories of them. When I do something really stupid, I say to my family, “OK, remember this whenever anybody says your father’s a genius. Because your father’s a fucking idiot. Remember that.”