• Michael Dooley

Did Artist Neal Adams Make an Ass Out of Wonder Woman—and Himself?

Advance word is that Wonder Woman steals the show in Batman v Superman. And next year she stars in her own feature flick. The Amazon is also doing well on Amazon, with critically praised feminist studies by Jill Lapore and Noah Berlatsky. So it’s no wonder that her original, comic book incarnation has getting extra scrutiny. Just a few days ago, a Daily Dot opinion piece criticized a variant cover for the latest Wonder Woman under the headline, “Don’t Exploit Wonder Woman on Her Own Cover.” Beth Elderkin, a freelance multimedia journalist, former Time Warner Cable News producer, and self-described nerd, sees the title character as being reduced to a mere “faceless sexual object” and “a butt with legs.” Obviously, Elderkin is also triggering a “political correctness” hot button.

The artist, Neal Adams, was one of the most influential Silver Age superstars during the 1960s. And he’s still going strong. He just produced a series of more than two dozen variants for DC, all of which were remixes of early, iconic covers. In one, Wonder Woman is in a passionate embrace with a towering Superman, with her back to the viewer and her star-spangled behind as the primary focal point. In a recent 13th Dimension blog discussion, interviewer Dan Greenfield definitively declares that Adams’ original Superman cover illustration [shown below] on which he based this one, “…is the sexiest cover Neal Adams has ever drawn… Lordy. Time for a Supercold shower.” To which Adams replies, “Yowza, yowza, YOWZA!”

Adams has always been unapologetically proud of his “bad boy of comics” reputation of rushing into topics where others fear to tread during a career that spans more than half a century. In fact, the comics historian Maurice Horn noted that even his early, 1960s Ben Casey newspaper strip tackled “controversial problems, such as heroin addiction, illegitimate pregnancy, and attempted suicide.” It also touched on Naziism and the Vietnam War.

In the early 1970s Adams and writer Denny O’Neil earned acclaim for introducing realistic, socially relevant superhero stories – and reintroducing comics to college kids – through the award-winning Green Lantern/Green Arrow series. It kicked off when a black man brings galaxy-fighter Green Lantern back down to earth by criticizing him head-on for ignoring racial injustice on his home turf; as a side note, Adams’ original cover art for that particular issue – considered by many to be his most memorable and important – was just auctioned off for over $440,000. The duo followed up with a tale modeled on the infamous 1969-70 Chicago Conspiracy Trial, Bobby Seale gags and all. And Green Arrow’s sidekick, having been presciently nicknamed “Speedy,” gets hooked on smack. Overpopulation and pollution were among other topics they tackled.

And so it went into the 21st Century, when Adams both authored and drew Batman Odyssey, a graphic novel-length journey involving a panoply of classic villains, flying dinosaurs, and gun control. He considers it the greatest work he’s ever done. Critics — even among its admirers — found its storyline to be, well, batshit insane. For more about Adams, you can read Print’s interview with him here.

Meanwhile, back in the present, I contacted comic book art historian and illustrator Arlen Schumer to further investigate the Adams/Elderkin dispute. Schumer is the author/designer of the newly updated Silver Age of Comic Book Art, and a leading authority on that era. He also worked with Neal Adams at his advertising art studio, Continuity Associates, and edited and designed The Neal Adams Sketchbook. You can read my Print discussion with Schumer about artist-creator rights, a crusade he shares with Adams, here.

Schumer has his own gloves-off, “tell it like it is” reputation. On one of his Facebook blogs, The Neal Adams Almanack, he was already taking Adams to task about Batman Odyssey for, umm, exploiting his own legacy: “He’s ‘destroying’ it while laughing all the way to the bank, and sneering contempt at us,” his fan base. So that’s where our conversation started.

Schumer has his own gloves-off, “tell it like it is” reputation. On one of his Facebook blogs, The Neal Adams Almanack, he was already taking Adams to task about Batman Odyssey for, umm, exploiting his own legacy: “He’s ‘destroying’ it while laughing all the way to the bank, and sneering contempt at us,” his fan base. So that’s where our conversation started.

“In any other legitimate art form — music, literature, film, fine art — if a Hall of Fame practitioner like Neal Adams, one of the greatest and most influential comic book artists of all time, revisited their ‘Greatest Hits’ by ‘covering’ them in such a blatantly crass and mercenary manner as these being ‘churned out’ — Adams’ own words — by the artist, a legion of super-inkers and colorists, and DC Comics, the straight media would ridicule them. But in the world of what I call comic book fan-dumb, they’re celebrated! It is to laugh! Adams is not just tarnishing his considerable legacy, he’s gilding it.

“That being said, out of all the 27 covers I’ve seen this cover, inked by Terry Dodson, is the best and most successful, given what Adams and DC were going for, for a number of reasons. Dodson is perfectly matched to the sexy subject matter — perhaps the sexiest cover Adams ever drew for mainstream comics, and definitely the sexiest in Superman’s history — as he is one of the premier realistic-figure comic book artists of the modern era, specializing in the curvaceous female form, and rivaled only by fellow female-infatuated figure artists Adam Hughes and Frank Cho.

“And Adams’ repenciled art is actually better than his original, which, for Adams at the time, looks like a phoned-in drawing to meet a deadline — he was the most in-demand comic book artist at the time, by both DC and Marvel comics, and was juggling multiple advertising art assignments all the time as well — two figures alone against a stark white background, and not abetted any by the hurried-looking inks of Dick Giordano, who was probably the most overworked DC inker at the time, too. And the subtle, contrapuntal changes in Wonder Woman’s posture and stance, as Adams explained in a recent interview [the aforementioned yowza! one, titled — really — “Hubba Hubba”], make the contrasting drawings an ‘art lesson’ indeed. Though Adams has never actually taught art classes, he’s a natural teacher who teaches by example, and this Wonder Woman redux is a great example of that.”

And as for the charge of exploitation, Schumer says, “The irony of Elderkin’s problems with this cover — the submissively-positioned Wonder Woman reduced to a ‘faceless sexual object,’ merely a ‘mystery woman for Superman to embrace’ — is that they could’ve easily applied to the original cover Adams based the new one on, published in 1971, at the dawn of the women’s rights movement — Helen Reddy’s feminist anthem I Am Woman came out a couple of months prior to this issue — which Elderkin excuses too easily with the blanket ‘it was over 40 years ago’ forgiveness, atypical for authors with a feminist bent like Elderkin.

“But she does smartly suggest that Neal and DC would have been better served by reversing the embrace of the two characters, with Wonder Woman smothering Superman in similar submission, even if it meant she might have to stand on a box! Wonder Woman, Amazonian Dominatrix? Now I’d pay to see Terry Dodson draw that!”

And aside from any comments you might like to add below, I’ll give Neal Adams the last word… visually, anyway.

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