Neal was another early interview effort and he made it completely effortless with his stories from the trenches and the characters he both met and drew. This interview took place in the Spring of 2007 and he gets into the very beginning of his career.
Bryan Stroud for Comics Bulletin: When did you start at DC exactly?
Neal Adams: Golly. There must be some historians around who can tell you that. I don’t know. It was in the ’60s. I don’t know when that was, but I’m sure some geek around will know exactly when that was, probably the month and the day.
(Note: Wikipedia tells us it was 1967)
Stroud: Oh, no doubt. Carmine was telling me that he knew more than one person who worshipped the ground you walked on.
Adams: That’s ’cause I walk in very special places. I don’t walk along those cold cracks. (Chuckle.)
Stroud: He also told me…this one kind of surprised me, he said he first discovered you in the bullpen working on Jerry Lewis, of all things. Is that true?
Adams: No. I was first introduced to Carmine…Carmine was, of course, as with many comic book artists, a bit of a hero of mine, because when the shit hit the fan in the country when the book The Seduction of the Innocent came out…
Stroud: Ah, yes, good old Doc Wertham…
Adams: Many, many artists had to desert the field, or were hidden among the cracks and crevices in various places, like Al Williamson was doing, I guess, ghosting for certain comic strip artists and I guess he would do a comic book every now and then and Alex Toth went to California to do animation, and all these guys really disappeared, and the few guys that were left were the guys at DC comics. There was Joe Kubert, there was Russ Heath, there was Carmine, there was Gil Kane; known as Gil Kane, Eli Katz was his original name.
Stroud: Ah, yes, yes.
Adams: And Carmine, had a very unique style. He then was doing The Flash and his style kind of got covered up, but I was a fan of his original style when he was doing “Pow Wow Smith” and some of those other things, so as a fan, you know, to meet Carmine…and Carmine was actually working on staff…not really staff, he had a desk in with the romance editor…what’s his name? Miller.
Stroud: Oh, Jack Miller?
Adams: Jack Miller, Jack Miller and his girl assistant, and he was in there when I first came to DC comics. I came to DC to try to get work with Robert Kanigher. The ‘much beloved’ Robert Kanigher.
Stroud: Sometimes referred to as “The Dragon?”
Adams: Who was a beast in human disguise. And I got to work with Bob, partially because he had lost Joe Kubert, because I had recommended Joe to do a comic strip called The Green Berets that I had been asked to do, and the comic strip people had no idea who the good comic book artists were, and when I realized that I really couldn’t do the strip…
I was doing Ben Casey and I couldn’t handle two strips. I took the people from the syndicate and the writer down the path of possibly recognizing that there were such a thing as comic books and rather than try to find somebody in the Ozarks, perhaps they ought to go to some of the best artists that were left in comic books and among which were Joe Kubert, who was the perfect guy for the strip.
Stroud: Oh, sure. All his war comic experience.
Adams: Yeah. So I recommended him for The Green Berets to Elliot Caplin, the writer of the strip. They interviewed. They did it and Joe was working on The Green Berets for the longest time and Bob Kanigher, coincidentally, was a little short on artists.
I had ended my syndicated strip, which was based on the Ben Casey TV series, and things were just a little bit slow for me and I had been doing some stuff for Jim Warren and I realized I was putting way too much effort into this Jim Warren stuff and it wasn’t worth it to me and I thought maybe I’d give it a crack at DC comics in spite of the fact that when I was a teenager and I left school, they wouldn’t even let me in the door.
Stroud: Oh, golly.
Adams: Yes. It was a very bad time. An old fella came out to meet me, a guy named Bill Perry and met me in the lobby and I showed him my samples, just to try to meet an editor and he told me that he couldn’t even bring me inside. It didn’t matter if my stuff was good, it didn’t matter anything. They weren’t interested.
Stroud: Oh, that’s surprising.
Adams: No, not at all. For those times it was very typical.
Stroud: Just not enough work to go around, I guess.
Adams: Not enough work to go around and they were feeding the mouths that were faithful to them, and they just weren’t interested. Nobody really got in easily. Once in awhile some guys broke through, like John Severin did a little work for a while, but it didn’t seem like that lasted and I guess he found something else in Cracked magazine. But when I went there as a teenager, this guy, this very nice old guy just told me I’m wasting my time. As far as they were concerned, any minute the comic book business would end.
Adams: Things were not so good.
Stroud: Boy, I guess not. That just blows my mind to consider it.
Adams: Well, I’ll tell you another story that is actually coincidental to that story. Timely magazines, which later became Marvel, really wasn’t doing anything, and you didn’t even know where they were, and I was this 18-year old kid who was trying to get some work and so I thought maybe I could go to Archie Comics and work for Jack Kirby and Joe Simon, who were doing at that time The Fly and The Shield and a bunch of other titles for Archie Comics.
Stroud: Oh yeah, their adventure series.
Adams: So, after failing at DC and searching around for nothing…I didn’t know where anybody was. I went over to Archie Comics and I tried to get work and I showed my samples and neither Joe Simon nor Jack Kirby were at Archie Comics.
I met the Archie guys and obviously they felt sorry for me, because I was foolish enough to want to do comics. Nobody did. Nobody was showing samples. It was a dead field. And so they suggested I come back with some samples of The Fly, and I did. I came back the next week and they’d introduce me to either Joe Simon or Jack Kirby. So I came back a week later with my samples and it turns out neither one of them were there.
Stroud: Of course.
Adams: So I showed my samples to the guys at Archie and they looked at them sympathetically with kind of a sad look around their eyes, an embarrassed look, and they said “Well, why don’t we get Joe Simon on the phone for you?” And so they did. Now it turns out they had shown Joe Simon the samples I had brought in previously, and they got Joe Simon on the phone for me.
Joe said to me, “Neal…young man, your samples are good. I’d use you on stories, but I’m going to do you a really big favor. I’m gonna turn you down, kid, because this is not a business to be in. It’s gonna fall on its face any day now and everybody’s gonna be out looking for other work and you want to get a job doing something worthwhile, so it may not seem like I’m doing you a favor, but I’m turning you down, and it’s the biggest favor anybody could ever do for you.” “Gosh, thank you, Mr. Simon.”
Stroud: How very gregarious.
Adams: So the guys at Archie said, “Well, Neal, do you want to do some samples of Archie? And you know, maybe we can give you some work doing our joke pages or something.” I said, “Yeah.” So I came back with some samples and in the end I did work for Archie for the Archie joke pages for a couple of months, and that’s how I got my first work in comics, because Joe Simon turned me down.
Stroud: Son of a gun.
Adams: The end of that story is, if you’d like to hear it…
Stroud: You bet.
Adams: About 15 years later, or so, I don’t know exactly how many years it was, I made my way into comics and the world of comics had changed, the revolution was in, Neal had established himself as a gigantic pain in the ass, but a sufficiently talented pain in the ass that they put up with me, and I was fighting for the return of original art and royalties and all the rest of it and I was helping various people and I helped…I don’t know if I helped Jerry [Siegel] and Joe [Shuster] at the time or whatever.
Anyway, I was up at DC, for whatever reason, and Joe Simon was there and I’m talking to editors and people that I know, and again I had established something of a reputation, good, bad or indifferent, whatever you may think of it, and apparently Joe Simon was up there and the word was that he was fighting a battle over Captain America and some other things, because he felt he owned certain properties and under certain circumstances, blah, blah, blah.
Apparently he was looking for Neal Adams. So he was down the hallway somewhere, so I went and sought him out and introduced myself and he said, “Listen. Can I talk to you? I really have to get your advice on something.” And I said, “Well, DC has a coffee room. We’ll go to the coffee room and have a cup of coffee.”
So we sat down and had a cup of coffee and Joe explained to me something of his situation with Captain America and the various characters that he felt he had a right to, and I listened to him and I said, “Well, okay, let me tell you this. First of all I can give you these two lawyers and I can give you this person here who seems to be fighting for graphic arts and I can tell you this, that you should begin by sending bills in and making a paper trail and establishing yourself with the people that you work with and the people who are in charge of the people that you work with as requiring and demanding that you didn’t have contracts, you have rights to these things, you have to create paper, and then you can go and see these people, although most lawyers won’t think much of this, there are a couple lawyers that you can talk to and also people who are associated with the National Cartoonist’s Society that you should talk to.”
So, I gave him a list and I wrote down the stuff. Anyway, so we got up. He said, “Thank you. You have no idea how much I appreciate this.” I said I have a pretty good idea. And so he shook hands and he was gonna leave, and as he was about to leave I said, “Excuse me, Mr. Simon.” He turned around, he said, “Yeah?” I said, “I’d like to introduce myself. My name is Neal Adams.” He said, “I know.” I said, “Well, let me tell you a story…” He had no idea, no idea that this was the same person that he had spoken to. Absolutely no idea.
Stroud: And what was his final reaction?
Adams: His final reaction was, “I guess that wasn’t such very good advice, was it?”
Stroud: Oh, how the pendulum does swing. That’s funny. That’s just too funny. You actually have two U.S. postage stamps of your work now. How does that feel?
Stroud: I think so, at least they gave you credit on it, there’s obviously the iconic Green Lantern one and then the Aquaman one is attributed to you also.
Adams: Oh yeah? I don’t think that’s mine. I think that’s not fair to somebody. Somebody out there is not getting credit.
Stroud: That could very well be, but it does look a little like your style. I mean, I don’t have the artist’s eye, but…
Adams: I don’t know. I thought it was just one.
Stroud: Okay. (Note: I discovered later that stamp was done by Jim Aparo.)
Adams: It was very nice, don’t you think? Very pleasant to see that. Really not so much for me, but I think for an industry that was basically considered to be just one small step above toilet paper.
Stroud: Oh yeah, exactly.
Adams: To have come so far that the stuff we have done in comic books is appearing on our screens for hundreds of millions of dollars, that is appearing on our postage stamps and on our television shows, that is essentially making a contribution to popular culture across the board.
Stroud: Oh, absolutely.
Adams: Quite incredible.
Stroud: It was kind of funny, because…
Adams: I had a little to do with that. (Laughter)
Stroud: You did, which is one of the reasons I was pleased to get the opportunity to pick your brain a little bit.
Adams: But you were gonna say…
Stroud: Oh, I was just commenting…Carmine was even asking me…I think being part of the old guard it was just hacking out a living and he was asking me “Now how old are you?” I said, “I’m 44.” “Why all this interest in comic books?” I said, “Well, Carmine, I…”
Adams: (laughter) I don’t think actually Carmine has absorbed the impact of what is actually going on here, of what a cultural change this is making. I think Carmine perhaps even thinks that there are illustrators out there doing illustration work when in fact there is a minority of illustration work out there. All the magazines that used to carry illustration work no longer do it.
The movie posters that used to be Bob Peak and Drew Struzan now are photographs for the most part. You get a Drew Struzan poster once in a while, but really you know the illustration field, it hasn’t dried up, there’s certainly illustration work out there, but nothing like used to exist in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s and before that.
So the question today is what does an illustrator do? What does somebody who is really good and really professional and loves to create and draw, what does he do? Who would ever think that somebody would say “Do comic books?” It’s just a phenomenon. But that’s what’s happening. There are more illustrators and artists doing comic books, excellent comic books…there’s not even a question.
And then if you think of all the ancillary stuff, the computer games, the movies, the television, the t-shirts. I have people walking around who are proudly wearing Superman t-shirts. They’re not some 12-year old kid with some Superman t-shirt with a DC logo on it. There are people who are wearing stylish shirts and clothing with these various logos. It’s become a major part of our culture and is spreading around the world.
Stroud: Yes. I couldn’t agree more.
Adams: It’s really quite phenomenal.
Stroud: It’s modern day mythology.
Adams: Ah, you’re a writer, I can tell.
Stroud: Oh, well, I dabble. Let’s put it that way.
Adams: Well, what’s that “modern day mythology” stuff?
Stroud: (laughter) And perhaps I lift a little from your old compadre, Denny O’Neil.
Adams: Oh, yes.
Stroud: In “Knightfall” he said something to that effect, talking about Superman being a modern day incarnation of Gilgamesh, I believe, but he says, “But you take Batman and what is he, really? Is he a hero?”
Adams: Well, certainly Batman is a hero, but Batman is the antithesis of the superhero if you think in terms of what superheroes have become. You know, bitten by a radioactive spider is pretty much the standard. Batman is the opposite of Superman. You have Superman, who is the most powerful superhero there is, essentially and almost too unrealistic to consider to deal with and on the other end of the scale you have a person who is in fact not a superhero at all.
Stroud: Yeah, yeah…
Adams: Batman is a NOT superhero. I don’t know who else is a NOT superhero and is successful. I mean there have been guys around who have put on costumes and have acted like superheroes, but generally they get themselves pasted. Batman succeeds where no one else succeeds. He is not, in any way, a superhero.
Stroud: Absolutely true.
Adams: He wears a costume, but that’s to scare people.
Stroud: Yeah, yeah exactly. His primary method is fear, inciting fear.
Adams: So you see between Superman and Batman the opposite ends of the scale, the whole of the comic book industry.
Stroud: Very much so. It’s kind of a shame after all of the efforts that you were able to bring forth that you were too late to save somebody like a Bill Finger, for example.
Adams: It’s a, you know, more often than not, as much as I…I don’t look for these things, but what happens is that people don’t come to me and say…basically I say, “I’m at your service. I owe enough to this industry to be willing to say if you need my help, you just have to reach out and I’ll help. Whatever it takes.” And…just sometimes people have too much pride to ask for help and I understand that perfectly, you know. That’s just such a natural phenomenon, but people don’t ask, and when people ask, very often people will rally around and do things.
It’s just very often the hardest thing in the world to ask. And so anything that I’ve been able to do has really been when a person is at the end of their line. “I can’t do anything else.” Call Neal. And then we turn things around, and everybody rallies, everybody comes to it, it’s just…
Stroud: It’s the right thing to do.
Adams: Well, of course. No surprise.
Stroud: It’s no more complex than that.
Stroud: What’s right is what’s right…
Stroud: I don’t know. The things I’ve read about both Bill and Bob Kane, you just shake your head after a while…
Adams: I don’t know, you know I think Bob Kane did kind of okay. He made a living at it. I don’t know. Yeah, he didn’t get rich, that’s true. On the other hand nobody was getting rich…well, that’s bullshit. I’m lying. I just started to lie there. (Chuckle.) It’s crap. It’s always been a mom and pop business, it’s always been shit, and the one thing that’s happened is it’s gotten a lot better.
You know, God bless the people who get into it now. It’s way, way better for them. For the guys who were in it at the beginning when it was going to be flushed down the toilet, you know the mere fact that they held on or they were able to hold on is a glory, in my opinion, but nobody expected it to survive and everybody was grabbing for whatever little piece of shit they could. You know they didn’t even have contracts. They had “contracts.”
You know Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster signed a contract, but when I got in they didn’t even have contracts. They were ready to go out of business. They had this statement on the back of the check that says, “We own everything.” I went to a lawyer and he said, “That’s not a contract. Just write “under protest” under it or cross it out. It means nothing. It means nothing in court. It’s not a contract.”
So we went through that terrible time and it was like being in the Stone Age, it was unreal and it was…you can’t put a definition on it. And those guys who went through it, who suffered through it…you know God bless Bob Kane who was able to bring his mom or his dad down and bring a lawyer down and was actually able to get a contract. He is, as far as I know, the only guy in the business that actually got a contract.
Stroud: Yeah, for that era, as near as I can tell, you’re absolutely right.
Adams: And he was paid for comic books he never did, he had other people do it, he was able to do it…he got royalties he got some kind of deal at the end, so he was able to take care of himself and they didn’t bother him when he did paintings with Batman on them and he did a TV show. You know Bob was all right. I don’t know so much about Bill Finger, but I hear he wasn’t so good for that.
Stroud: Yeah, like I say from what I’ve been able to gather Bill toiled in obscurity and unfortunately died the same way.
Adams: But you know most of those guys went home at night and they kissed their wives and they watched the television and they lived a normal life and it was that kind of a business in those days. You just can’t compare it to today.
Stroud: Yeah. A different world.
Adams: How could you find a Frank Miller back in those days?
Adams: I went through it. I tried as much as I could to help, I tried as much as I could to change it, it was a disaster and it needed every bit of help it could get. I wish there were more people that could repair the… broken animal that it was, but we came out of it. We came out of it the better for it.
And I don’t know, is it because we’re America and we’re Americans and we have a better attitude? Why is it? Is it because we believe in heroes, is it because we’re optimistic, what is it about the nature of comic books that makes it such an American thing?
It makes a universal thing, but it all really comes from America and to think that our greatest comic book superhero came from two little Jewish kids in Cleveland, Ohio, of all places is a wonderful story, so you know so as much as I get pissed off about it, you know I got up out of the fight and I had blood all over me and mud all over me, but you know around me everybody was smiling and moving forward, so I went and washed off and cleaned up and everything’s fine. (Laughter.)
Stroud: Absolutely and well, it was pivotal, the work that you did. More than one person has commented to me that the efforts that you put forth led to that sea change that was long overdue.
Adams: Well, there you go. Somebody had to do it.
Stroud: It’s certainly something to be proud of.
Next week: Part two of three!