Comic Book Legend Neal Adams Has Died at 80

Neal Adams died on Thursday, April 28 in New York of complications from sepsis, at the age of 80.

Adams was a legendary comic book artist best known for his groundbreaking work in the 1970s, during which he helped to revitalize Batman and introduce more mature and complex themes to superhero comics, as well as co-creating one of DC’s first Black superheroes, Green Lantern John Stewart. He was also an early and vocal advocate for creators’ rights.

Adams, who was Jewish, was born on Governors Island in New York on June 15, 1941. After graduating from the School of Industrial Art high school in 1959, he began his career drawing superheroes for Archie Comics and soap opera strips like Ben Casey for the Newspaper Enterprise Association syndicate.

The cover of Strange Adventures #207. Deadman, a bald, stark white-skinned man in a red costume, looks around angrily. The background is a sea of headshots of different people. Deadman says
Strange Adventures #207 (December 1967), Adams’s first work on Deadman

He started freelancing for DC Comics in 1967, where some of his earliest work involved taking over the art on the brand-new character Deadman, a trapeze artist who is killed during his act and becomes a ghost with the power to possess living beings. Though Deadman was created by Arnold Drake and Carmine Infantino, Adams remains the artist most strongly associated with the character to this day.

In late 1969, Adams began collaborating with writer Denny O’Neil on Batman. At the time, the character’s portrayal in the comics matched the goofy camp of the 1966 TV show starring Adam West, which had been canceled in 1968. O’Neal and Adams wanted to bring Batman back to his roots as a dark, brooding hero, something for which Adams’s art was perfectly suited after honing his realistic style on soap opera strips. They began their collaboration with “The Secret of the Waiting Graves” in Detective Comics #395 (January 1970) and would go on to revamp A-list Batman villains like Two-Face and the Joker into serious threats in stories that are still considered landmarks today. They created one of the DCU’s most prominent villains, Ra’s al Ghul, as well as his daughter Talia, in “Daughter of the Demon” (Batman #232, June 1971). Adams also co-created the reluctant villain Man-Bat with Frank Robbins in 1970.

The cover of Green Lantern #86. Green Arrow holds a limp Speedy (in civilian clothes) in his arms, while Green Lantern (Hal Jordan) shakes his fists at the sky. Begin them is a giant hypodermic needle, and behind that is a background of headshots of various young people, all of them looking sad. The caption reads
Green Lantern #86 (October-November 1971), the second half of the famous “Snowbirds Don’t Fly” story

The O’Neil and Adams team also took over Green Lantern in 1970 with issue #76, bringing in Green Arrow as a co-headliner. Their iconic run marked one of the first — and still one of the most famous — instances of superhero comics very explicitly addressing relevant social justice issues such as racism, pollution, and drug addiction. In the landmark story “Snowbirds Don’t Fly” (#85), it was revealed that Green Arrow’s sidekick, Speedy, was addicted to heroin — a sympathetic treatment of what was then a deeply taboo topic, and one which earned DC a letter of commendation from then–NYC mayor John Lindsay. In #87, they introduced DC’s second-ever Black superhero, the new Green Lantern John Stewart. Adams later recalled advocating with editor Julius Schwartz to introduce a Black Green Lantern because he found it implausible that every hero selected by the supposedly unbiased Green Lantern rings would be white.

During this period, Adams somehow also found the time to freelance for Marvel on X-Men and Avengers stories.

The cover of X-Men #56. The X-Men (Marvel Girl, Iceman, Angel, Beast, and Cyclops) stare up in shock at the Living Monolith, a giant gray humanoid figure in what's basically a silver romper.
X-Men #56 (May 1969)

Aside from his art and the many groundbreaking stories he drew, Adams was known for being a vocal advocate for creator rights, which is still a fierce battle. Freelance writers and artists who do work for hire for DC and Marvel have no legal ownership of the characters they create, the stories they tell, or, before Adams, even the physical art they produced, even as the publishers’ parent companies pull in billions of dollars of profit based on creators’ work. Adams was instrumental in changing industry practice so that publishers began returning original art to the artist, rather than destroying it once the comic was printed; this provided an additional income stream to artists, who could then sell the original art to collectors, a thriving practice that can still be seen at any comic book convention today. He also helped Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster receive long-overdue credit and (some) compensation from DC.

In 1978, Adams helped form the Comics Creators Guild, and in 1984, he founded his own comic book company Continuity Comics, which lasted until 1994. He also championed an effort to have the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum return the original artwork of Dina Babbitt, a Holocaust survivor who had been forced to work as an illustrator for Josef Mengele, though he was always careful to distinguish the atrocity of the Babbitt case from his advocacy for more prosaic creator rights.

Among the many awards he won over the course of his career, Adams was inducted into the Eisner Awards’ Will Eisner Comic Book Hall of Fame in 1998, the Harvey Awards’ Jack Kirby Hall of Fame in 1999, and the Inkwell Awards Joe Sinnott Hall of Fame in 2019.

The cover of Detective Comics #395. All of Neal Adams's artwork featured in this article is realistic and dramatic, with deep, striking shadows. In this cover, Batman flees down the stairs into what appears to be a cellar, looking over his shoulder in fear at a beautiful, vampiric woman in a long, dramatic gown. She holds a torch in one hand and a large bird of prey perches on the other. There are large dogs or wolves on either side of her, and she is saying "I offer you IMMORTALITY - or INSTANT DEATH! Choose, BATMAN - NOW!"
Detective Comics #395 (January 1970), featuring O’Neil and Adams’s first collaboration on Batman

Superhero comics would not be what they are today without Neal Adams. Not only is his distinctive artwork with its lean, kinetic realism and deep and moody shadows instantly recognizable, but his work ushered in greater diversity and complexity of ethical themes, and paved the way for the famous “grim and gritty” comics of the 80s. Every Batman adaptation from Michael Keaton to Robert Pattinson cites Frank Miller’s work on Batman: Year One and The Dark Knight Returns, but there would be no Miller without Adams (who mentored him).

More importantly, he was a champion for respectful representation of marginalized and disenfranchised people. Though his work from 50 years ago can sometimes seem dated today, his good intentions are clear. And his fight for creator rights has left a lasting legacy.

“When he saw a problem, he wouldn’t hesitate,” his son Josh Adams told The Hollywood Reporter. “What would become tales told and retold of the fights he fought were born out of my father simply seeing something wrong as he walked through the halls of Marvel or DC and deciding to do something about it right then and there.”

At the end of the day, words can only do so much to explain why a visual artist’s work matters, so I’d like to close with just a sampling of Adams’s most iconic art:

Three panels from Green Lantern #76.

Panel 1: An old Black man approaches Green Lantern (Hal Jordan).

Black Man: "I been readin' about you...how you work for the blue skins...and how on a planet someplace you helped out the orange skins...and you done considerable for the purple skins! Only there's skins you never bothered with - !"

Panel 2: A closeup of the Black man's face.

Black Man: "...the Black skins! I want to know...how come?! Answer me that, Mr. Green Lantern!"

Panel 3: Green Lantern hangs his head as Green Arrow and the Black man look on.

Green Lantern: "I...can't..."
One of the most famous scenes from Green Lantern/Green Arrow (specifically, #76). This is a good example of the progressive intentions of the run, which now seem dated when taken out of context. Adams’s detailed expressions and dramatic “camera angles” are also on display.

The cover to Superman #233. Superman is pulling his arms back and thrusting out his chest to break the heavy kryptonite chains that were wrapped around him. The caption reads
Superman #233 (January 1971). This is one of the famous Superman covers in existence.

The cover for Green Lantern #87. Hal Jordan lies on the ground, while John Stewart stands over him in a Green Lantern uniform, holding him up by one arm, his ring glowing. He is saying "They whipped the Green Lantern - now let 'em try me!"

Various captions read:

"Introducing an unforgettable new character who really means it when he warns...beware my power!"

"Plus: A new life for Green Arrow in 'What Can One Man Do?'"

"A classic extra - 'Earth's First Green Lantern!'"
Green Lantern #87 (December 1971-January 1972), the first appearance of John Stewart

Two panels from Batman #244.

Panel 1: Batman, in cowl but no shirt, stands behind Talia. In the foreground is a closeup of Talia.

Background Talia: "Will you take him to the authorities?"
Batman: "I must! I am sorry!"
Foreground Talia: "And I? Am I also to be imprisoned?"

Panel 2: Batman and Talia kiss passionately. She's wearing a crop top with weird blousy sleeves and he's incredibly hairy - it is peak 70s.
This iconic kiss between Batman and Talia from Batman #244 has been referenced and homaged countless times.

The cover to Batman #251. A giant Joker looms over Gotham, laughing and holding a huge playing card with Batman strapped to it. The caption reads "Look out, Gotham! The Joker's back in town!"
Batman #251 (September 1973), which revitalized the Joker

The wraparound cover for Superman vs. Muhammad Ali, showing the back of the book as well as the front. Superman faces off against a young Muhammad Ali in a boxing ring, with an enormous crowd of people from all around the world watching. There is a space scene overhead. The top of the cover reads
The famous wraparound cover to Superman vs. Muhammad Ali

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