NEW YORK, NY.-
Neal Adams, a leading comic book artist who brought a visceral realism to his depictions of superheroes, notably helping to revitalize Batman by giving him a darker image and new adversaries, while also championing the rights of comic book creators, died Thursday in the New York City borough of Manhattan. He was 80.
His daughter Kristine Stone Adams said the cause of his death, in a hospital, was complications of sepsis.
Characters drawn by Adams were more grounded in reality than his predecessors. The anguish of Deadman, the ghost of a trapeze artist trying to solve his own murder, was evident in his facial expressions. Adams Superman could burst the chains binding him simply by expanding his chest. And Batman, as drawn by Adams, was lithe and menacing, a return to the heros shadowy roots after a boom and bust in his popularity following the campy 1960s Batman television show.
He was a master at every facet of art his range of expressions, the dramatic use of lighting and shadowing, the seemingly facile command of anatomy and, of course, the trademark finger-pointed-in-your-face foreshortening was all just unbelievably next level, Jim Lee, the chief creative officer and publisher of DC Comics, wrote in an Instagram post remembering Adams.
Some of Adams most well-regarded work resulted from his partnership with writer Denny ONeil. In 1969, the two began to restore Batman to a brooding vigilante, as he was originally conceived, and in 1971 they created a new foe for him, the eco-terrorist Ras Al Ghul, whose goal of saving the planet usually involved eliminating much of its population. Ras Al Ghul became the central protagonist in the 2005 film Batman Begins. Adams would draw Batman stories through 1973.
The two also collaborated from 1970-72 on the Green Lantern/Green Arrow series, in which the title heroes, who were friends out of costume, traveled across the country in stories about drug abuse, racism, corporate greed and poverty.
During this period Adams and ONeil introduced John Stewart, the first Black Green Lantern.
Adams made his way back to Batman in 2011 when he wrote and drew Batman: Odyssey, a lavish seven-part series that was met with mixed reviews (some critics found it hard to follow), though his daughter said it was the project he was most proud of.
His pairing of Superman and Muhammad Ali in 1978 in a tabloid-size comic book initially drew a similarly tepid response. The boxing match at the center of the story takes place over six pages and ends with the Man of Steel, who had temporarily deactivated his powers, on a stretcher. But the two fighters shake hands at the end, Ali declares, Superman, WE are the greatest.
He was always 10 to 20 years ahead of everybody, Kristine Adams said in a phone interview. When Superman vs. Muhammad Ali came out, everyone hated it. Twenty years later, everyone was, like, Superman vs. Muhammad Ali was the best thing he ever did. The story was reprinted in a hardcover edition in 2010.
Neal Adams was also on the front lines in challenging comic book publishers to safeguard the rights of creators. Neal was an agitator, Paul Levitz, a former president of DC Comics, said by phone. Adams, he said, was the only star talent to stand up when the major talents were desperately afraid of the great power of the publishing houses.
One of Adams achievements was to help make it standard practice for publishers to return original artwork to the artists, which created new revenue opportunities for them; they could then sell the pages to fans and collectors.
Adams also joined the decadeslong cause of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the writer and artist who created Superman, in their quest for recognition and remuneration.
Siegal and Shuster sold their rights to Superman for $130 in 1938 and later fell into poverty. When they tried to claim a share of the enormous revenue Superman generated, DC stripped them of credit and denied them further work. Adams was a vocal supporter, joining a successful publicity campaign in the 1970s that brought them recognition for their work, as well as health benefits and, for each, an annuity of $20,000, later raised to $30,000.
Neal was the loud voice of justice, Levitz, the former DC president, said.
Neal Adams was born June 15, 1941, on Governors Island in New York City, where his mother, Lillian, ran a boardinghouse. His father, Frank, who was largely absent, was a writer for the military.
Adams graduated from the School of Industrial Art in Manhattan in 1959. He did some work for Archie Comic Publications but found more continual employment in the advertising industry. In 1962, he landed an assignment drawing Ben Casey, a newspaper strip based on the television medical drama of the same name.
He began working for DC Comics as a freelancer in 1967, when he drew a short story for the long-running comic books series Our Army at War. He ended the 60s and started the next decade with some memorable freelance work drawing the X-Men and the Avengers for Marvel.
In 1971, he and Dick Giordano founded Continuity Studios, a graphics arts concern that worked in advertising and film. It also had a publishing arm, Continuity Comics, an early attempt to allow creators to reap more profits from their characters. One of the companys successes was Bucky OHare, a comic book about a green rabbit who has adventures in space; the character inspired toys, cartoons and video games.
Adams enjoyed nurturing talent.
He was the teacher who encouraged more than a handful of people who became the leading lights of the next generation of the field, including Frank Miller, Bill Sienkiewicz and Denys Cowan, Levitz said. But it was a tough-love encouragement.
Kids would bring them his portfolio, and he would rip it to shreds, Levitz said. However, after two or three times, if they improved, Adams would call DC or Marvel on their behalf.
One of his proteges was Denys Cowan, who had a high school internship at Adams studio in 1977.
I was a 16-year-old Black kid from Queens, Cowan said. He was letting me come to the studio every day and paying me. Cowan became a founder of Milestone Comics, a groundbreaking imprint that flourished in the 1990s with stories centered on Black, Asian, Hispanic and gay superheroes.
In addition to his daughter Kristine, Adams is survived by his wife, Marilyn Adams; another daughter, Zeea Adams; his sons, Joel, Jason and Josh; five grandchildren; and one great-grandson. He lived in Manhattan.
Adams fight for what was right continued for decades. In 2008 he teamed with comic book veterans Stan Lee and Joe Kubert, and with Rafael Medoff, director of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies in Washington, to bring attention to the plight of the artist Dina Gottliebova Babbitt. They told her story in comic book form:
Babbitt survived imprisonment at the Auschwitz concentration camp during World War II by painting watercolor portraits for Josef Mengele, the infamous Nazi physician known as the Angel of Death. She later wanted her artwork back, but the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum in Poland has continued to refuse to return them, citing the historical and educational value of the work. (Babbitt died in 2009.)
Adams and Medoff also produced animated shorts, released in 2013, about Americans who spoke out against the Holocaust. In 2018, with Craig Yoe, Adams published the book We Spoke Out: Comic Books and the Holocaust, a look at how comics depicted the Nazi genocide.
He told me many times that he felt that the Dina Babbitt campaign and our book, We Spoke Out, were the most meaningful projects of his career, Medoff said, which was saying a lot.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times