On April 28th the comic book world lost one of its great artists, Neal Adams. Adams’ photorealistic style was a huge change from the cartooning that had previously existed and he was an influence on many following artists, including the masterful Bill Sienkiewicz. Just as important as his contributions to the art form were his battles on behalf of creator’s rights.
Neal Adams is most well known for his work on revitalizing two DC properties in the early 1970s, Batman and Green Lantern/Green Arrow. In the Batman titles Batman, Detective Comics, and the Brave and the Bold, he, with writer Denny O’Neil, helped return Batman to his gothic roots after the cancellation of the lighthearted Adam West television show. The duo also reintroduced Two Face to Batman’s rogues gallery and made the Joker, once again, a murderous psychopath after decades of being a harmless prankster. Adams also helped co-create Man Bat and the criminal mastermind Ra’s Al Ghul, longstanding additions to the Dark Knight’s staple of villains.
In Green Lantern/Green Arrow O’Neil and Adams revamped the latter character as a champion of the oppressed and introduced issues of social relevance to the series. They collaborated to tell stories of corporate greed, racism, pollution, drug addiction, and other social ills that had not been addressed in superhero stories. They also created new Green Lantern John Stewart in the series, who was one of the first African American superheroes. The series won critical acclaim, and received multiple awards from the Academy of Comic Book Arts.
In 1969, Adams began freelancing at Marvel Comics, working on titles like X-Men and the Avengers. He chose the former title because it was among the company’s worst selling, and he figured he would be given more freedom to experiment. In the book he pushed the boundaries of panel layouts, coloration, and cover illustration. His freelancing at Marvel broke down another barrier, as this was the first time a creator worked for both Marvel and DC simultaneously under their own name. Previously, writers and artists who wanted to work for both companies used pseudonyms to avoid being found out.
Outside of his creative endeavors, Adams, alongside fellow Batman illustrator Jerry Robinson, fought for and won compensation and credit for Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster after years of poor treatment by DC Comics. In the early 1970s, Adams as President of the Association of Comic Book Arts turned the organization from a congratulatory industry group to a voice for the rights of creators and won health insurance for freelancers. He was also instrumental in the attempt to form the Comic Book Creators Guild in 1978, which led to reprint pay and royalties for creators even if the organization itself didn’t last.
In 2008 he joined the effort to get the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum to return the artwork of Holocaust survivor Dina Babbitt. Babbitt used her talents as an illustrator to paint Snow White on the children’s barracks of Auschwitz concentration camp in an attempt to keep up the spirits of the young inmates. When her talent was discovered by the infamous Nazi Dr. Josef Mengele, Babbitt painted portraits of Romani inmates for him, under the condition that she and her mother would be spared. Mengele wanted to use these portraits to prove the racial inferiority of the Romani people. At Auschwitz, she was also ordered to paint images of Mengele’s nightmarish human experiments as well as images of Mengele himself and other SS officers.
In 2008 Adams signed and circulated an open letter that was eventually signed by 450 comic book professionals asking the museum to return the seven surviving watercolors by Babbitt in their possession. The museum has made various claims as to why they won’t return the artwork, from the paintings educational value to insultingly claiming that the proper owner of the paintings is actually Dr. Mengele. Neal Adams collaborated with Joe Kubert and Stan Lee on a six page comic that publicized Dina Babbitt’s life and her efforts to have her paintings returned to her. Sadly, she passed away in 2009, still awaiting the return of her artwork.
Comic book fans and anyone with a social conscience should remember Neal Adams both for his artistic achievements as well as his real-life superheroism on behalf of people like Siegel, Schuster, and Babbitt. He will be sorely missed.
Featured image credit: Gage Skidmore, modified by Tempest.
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Hank Kennedy is a Detroit area socialist, educator, and longtime comic book fan.