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Monday, September 11, 2006

Neal Adams Interview

In the interests of keeping my interviews and articles "under one roof," I'll be re-presenting material originally run on other sites here on Four Color Commentary. This will probably take place over the next couple of weeks, or so. Today, it will be an interview with Neal Adams that was originally conducted over the phone last year, and ran on Starland and Komikwerks, both of which still feature Michael Vance's Suspended Animation comics review column, so check 'em out!

Mark Allen

Anyone who has been a comics fan for a while and doesn’t know who Neal Adams is...., well, they’ve probably received severe head trauma. Coming onto the scene in the 1960's, his ultra-realistic style brought new life to stale properties in D.C. Comics’ Batman, and Marvel Comics’ X-Men. An important figure in the history of the medium, Neal recently took time to speak to Suspended Animation about his contribution to comics, his defense of creators’ rights, and what he perceives as some problems in the business, today.


Asking for a single fondest memory for an entire career could prove daunting, so I’ll ask this: Around what works or projects in comics do you associate the most satisfying memories?

That is certainly a hard question. I guess I don’t think of it that way. I pretty much like to do what I am doing, and I leave it up to people to indulge in those thought processes because, after all, I’m sort of like an entertainer. I create an entertainment, and it’s up to other people to either enjoy it or not enjoy it.

When you’re creating an entertainment, you’re pretty much working to try to achieve a goal, and then you get a little bit nervous about whether or not you’ve done it, and then find out later that people liked it. It’s their liking it that’s the important and significant part of it, but, in some ways, that almost has nothing to do with it.

So, it’s kind of like a “fringe benefit” if they like it.

Yeah, it’s kind of like, you get to dig a ditch, and someone comes by and says, “Boy, that’s a really good ditch!” You kind of go, “I wasn’t thinking of that while I was digging it, but now that I step back and look at it, you’re right, that is pretty good-looking ditch!” It’s sort of that way. I think of myself as a worker in the field, and I like to tell stories, so from the point of telling a story, I have a number of high points.

The beginning of my career, when I first got work, was a terrific high point because I never thought anybody would actually pay me for drawing pictures. Then I did a comic strip called “Ben Casey,” based on the t.v. series, for three and a half years. [That was] tremendously satisfying, wonderful work to do. Then, doing the work for Jim Warren, or Archie Goodwin, who ran Warren Publications. I had a good time doing that because I got to experiment. The work I did for D.C. Comics on the Green Lantern/Green Arrow stuff, though much more satisfying than the Batman work, from the point of view of connecting with the readers and appreciation, the Batman work stands as another high point in another way. Saving “The X-Men” from oblivion when they were going to cancel it in two issues, and pulling it out of the fire for Marvel Comics and now seeing how far it’s gone, because of the ten issues that I did - very satisfying. Doing the “Superman/Mohamed Ali” graphic novel that not everybody appreciates quite as much as I do, because I’m a fan of Mohamed Ali and what he’s done in his lifetime. That was tremendously satisfying for me. Starting my own publishing company was a very, very big deal. Doing a project called “Deathwatch 2000" - a big deal for me. Being a formative member of the Academy of Comic Book Arts and fighting for the rights, royalties and return of original art for comic book artists and writers, while not necessarily something I get a lot of joy out of, was something significant that I was able to do. Battling Warner Publications for something reasonable for Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster was a big deal. I must say, the list is awfully long. I’m a very happy puppy. I’ve gotten to do an awful lot of things that have made me feel very good about what it is that I do.

Let’s address the subject of creators’ rights. You’ve made a point of calling Marvel and D.C. out on their treatment of creators, via a lack of any kind of creators’ rights or compensation. Give us a history lesson: Is this a problem as old as the industry? Is it more blatant, today? Is it better, today?

Well, no, because most of it has been repaired. We are now in a much higher level of sophistication of battling for rights, where you don’t need a crusader to right the basic wrongs. When a thing is wrong, it may be wrong on an individual basis, but when it’s wrong for everybody, when it affects the greatest of us and the smallest of us, then that’s a worthwhile fight for somebody like me. Because, you’re righting a wrong, not fighting for an individual’s royalties. When a creator says “I want 10% rather than 6%,” there’s nothing to campaign about. That’s his problem that he has to deal with. But, when NOBODY gets royalties, at all, that’s a campaign. When NOBODY gets their artwork returned, that’s a campaign.

If our industry (it’s hard to call comic books an industry), but, if, as an industry, we’re not looking out after our creators, then there does seem to be a problem, here. There are certain people that fall by the wayside, and the business is a little cold about taking care of those folks. That’s not a good thing. We should be taking care of the people that we worked alongside of. If they start to not do well, then one has to say, “Why is that happening? Is it that there’s not enough work for them, or are we just a little too interested in giving our friends work?” There seems to be a little bit of that going on. People, you know, discovering that they don’t know anybody, that they can’t get any work even though they are professionals that ought to be getting work. At least, to make a living.

Right now, that’s sort of what I’m having to deal with, because there are people who have, in fact, fallen by the wayside, and unless the companies are made aware of it by somebody like me knocking on their door, saying “Okay, time to get up. (Laughter) We have to do something about this,” then they do fall by the wayside. We had that happen with Dave Cockrum, and, right now, a guy named William Messner Loebs, who was a good standard provider of writing for D.C. Comics for a number of years, and basically has been ignored. Now, we’re getting a little bit more attention for him and it’s starting to get a little bit better. But, you know, it takes a certain amount of my time, but, everybody has a little bit of time in their life to spend helping the next guy.

As a point of interest to something you said just now, why would you not refer to comics in general as an industry?

Well, it’s sort of a “Mom and Pop” business. I mean, we only have a few hundred people in it, to be perfectly honest. We don’t have, you know, thousands of people. Were it to disappear, it wouldn’t really affect the American economy. It’s not like the steel business, where if the steel mills close down you’re affecting thousands of families, and whole towns close down. It’s kind of a small business, sort of like people who work in animation, or special effects, stuff like that. People try to make more of it than it is, but that’s really all it is. There are more people who are trained as artists who do all kinds of things other than comic books.

On your website, you have posted a design that is basically how you would do Batman, today. That was one of the things that stood out to me on your site. Most fans know Batman is a character with whom you are most readily connected, I guess I’d say, Batman and X-Men, perhaps. Do you have any other ideas about how you would “change” any other properties, or maybe how they would be better used?

Well, I think you have to kind of put them in my hands to see what would happen. I “stepped up” the Batman character because I have such a close relationship to it, and I believe Batman is sort of being misused. I mean, for Batman to be going around, wearing now, instead of the capsules around his waist, which can’t hold anything, to carry a garrison belt from WW II, is not exactly what I would call progressive. (Laughter) It seems like it needs to be a little more practical. And, I mean, it’s tough when you have films made out of these characters, and certainly the film makers are going, “Well, THAT doesn’t work, and THAT doesn’t work,” and so they change the characters. Why aren’t they being changed in the comic books themselves, with the same kind of rationale? So, if I were to do the characters and have to rethink the characters, of course I would give that consideration. But, I would give that consideration in the realm, in the area of making them better at what they are, and not just changing them. One of the things you see about the Batman design (on the Neal Adams web site) is that, essentially, and almost exclusively, he remains Batman. I don’t make his ears longer, I don’t have additions to his costume, or do things that overtly make him look any different than he looks today. All the changes and ramifications are within the costume, and essentially make Batman even more of a Batman.

The difficulty that I have with some of the things that are being done in comics is that it seems like the writers and artists are hell-bent on either killing off characters, or changing them completely, as if they knew better than the next guy or the person that created the character. To which, I would say, “If you’re so darn smart, go create your own character, but right now, leave this one alone, because we’re pretty happy with him.”

That would fall under, I would think, the category of respecting former creators’ work.

Yes, I would think that would be the case. And, I’m finding that there is less of that than I would expect, that there doesn’t seem to be anybody necessarily out there saying that. So, they’re very often free to do these things.

What we find is that the companies are deluged by people constantly, saying “Why have you done this to this character? Why can’t I see Hal Jordan?” Of course, they killed Hal Jordan, and they’re about to bring him back to life. And they did it in a rather bad way.

D.C. Comics has three tiers of characters: they have the Batman/Superman/Wonder Woman kind of tier, which is the upper tier, which they do tend to protect because the film company protects it. But, they’ve practically destroyed the second tier of characters, which is Green Lantern, Green Arrow, Aquaman and Flash. In doing that, they’ve made it very difficult for movies to be made, and for fans to retain their respect for those characters. Then, there’s the third tier of characters that they’re changing on such a regular basis that, the big theme these days is “Let’s kill them!” (Laughter) So, you have this rampant destruction of the characters for no good reason.

Do you think it's done out of a sense of desperation, doing something to increase sales?

I don’t think it’s desperation, I think it’s ego. It’s “I can do it better.” There’s no reason for D.C. Comics or Marvel Comics to be desperate about the wonderful characters that they have. They’re terrific characters, and they’re proven characters. If they’re not handled well, then the job is to go out and have them handled better, but not to destroy them for reasons that don’t make any sense. They’re perfectly fine, everybody loves them.

Give me your comparison of the work ethic of this “new breed” of creators, writers and artists, compared to those of the Silver Age.

Well, I think the Silver Age creators got to take the characters into new directions with new techniques, and got to revitalize a company that had fallen asleep, and was throwing up in it’s own beer. There was so much available to do. Now, there still seem to be things to do, but there doesn’t seem to be a “guiding light” protecting the characters that we have. I think it has to do with control - I don’t think that there’s anybody in control who’s saying, “Leave the good characters the way they are and create something new,” or “Find some new way to do this.” There seems to be nobody watching the store.

Is it a true statement, that, largely, there are no bad properties, only lazy creators?

(Laughter) Well, I think probably I’m the prime example of the truth of that. When I started to work on the X-Men, they were two issues away from being canceled. So, not to blame any individual, but clearly the characters were not being handled very well. And all it really needed was somebody who had respect for the characters, the creations, and who could do a good job at bringing them to life, again. So, yeah, I’m sure there are bad characters. You know, “Dial ‘H’ For Hero?” I don’t care what they do with that; it’s a piece of crap. (Laughter)

You ought to learn to speak your mind. (Laughter)

But, one of the things that has to be true is that, no matter what I may say about a particular character, I may have to admit to being wrong. By the hand of some other creator, they may do a particularly spectacular job.

There’s a character called “Goon” that I would have said, “This isn’t going to go anywhere. This is ridiculous.” But, my son is a big fan of “Goon.” And, I think a lot of people like him.

I like him. (Laughter)

(Laughter) Well, there you go! So, you know, I wouldn’t be listening to me when I’m being negative. I’d only listen to me when I’m being positive. When I’m being negative, I’m just as much of an a****** as anybody else. (Laughter)

Do you have your opinions, ideas, on how..., I don’t want to say how comics can be “saved,” because it sounds trite, but do you have ideas about how comics could increase their readership, and increase sales? What are some ideas?

Well, first of all, it’s a very difficult problem to be solved, and in many ways it’s not meant to be solved by easy methods. If you look at comic books, about 80% of them are crap. (Laughter)

I agree.

And, maybe 20 % of them are good. And the 80 % drag down the 20 % in that, there’s so much of it, and so much out there, and it fills the spaces so there is very often not space for good comic books. So, for example, if you go into a book store and the comic book companies are trying to sell hardcover and softcover books in the regular bookstores, one of the things you will notice is that you’ve got graphic novels, you’ve got all these other things, that, in your mind you go, “Well, this would be great if we could have the really good things here, like ‘Sin City.’” But what you generally have there is just buckets and buckets of crap. You know, “‘The World of Superman,’ with illustrations by so-and-so, and copy by so-and-so.” And it’s just dreck. It just fills up the space and drives people away. There’s no system by which you can filter out the stuff that the companies choose to put there, which is generally crap, and just get the good stuff there. There ought to be some kind of editorial going on about the stuff that goes in there, but there’s not.

What you need is fans. You need those people that are real fans, that will go and take the good stuff and leave behind the bad stuff. But, the companies will say, “We survive, as often as not, on the other stuff. The dreck. If we go into bookstores, we have to have ‘The World of Superman,’ or this or that or the other thing, because we can sell some of those at a high-ticket price, and therefore they’re good. We need to show the investors that they’re making money.”

So, because we are so infected with the corporation view, we’re trying to produce product that everybody will like and, in doing it, we destroy the fanbase. We say “We don’t care about you. We’ll still put out your stuff. But, you don’t represent the major impact on the market.” Well, unfortunately, what happens is that they really do. Underneath it all, they are the market, and they need to be satisfied. And if they’re not satisfied, they’ll just walk away. They’ll play computer games or something else.

So, what happens is there’s a natural process of attrition, and I think it’s sort of like an evolution. If it can’t support itself, things will start dying off until you get down to a level where, hopefully, you’ve kept the good stuff and gotten rid of the bad stuff, and then it can survive again. That’s a very hard thing to do, and it happens at the loss of a great many things. But, since so many people are in control, it’s like the extinction of the dinosaurs; whatever survives, survives. So, it’s going to survive, with difficulty. And, in a way I say, “So what?” (Laughter) If that’s the way it has to happen, then fine, let it happen that way. We’re not supposed to be taken care of by our society. It’s a competition. There are safe jobs and there are difficult jobs, and this is a difficult and competitive and tough job.

Kind of like going to Hollywood and becoming an actor. In fact there may be better chance of that.

Yeah, exactly. But, at the same time, you do get those starring roles and those people who do make all that money. So, you know that it’s out there, and I think in some ways comic books are like that. They’ll survive, one way or another. They’re just too much fun. I’m not too worried about them. I just feel sorry for the guys who are producing crap, and they don’t see the signs that they have to create a higher standard. The companies are not fostering it. They’re letting their characters be destroyed left and right. I don’t get it.

Do you keep an eye on the independent market, at all, as far as what’s coming out?


Do you notice a lot of original stuff coming out of the independent market?

Well, there is a lot of original stuff, and it’s usually paid for by Uncle Joe. There are a lot of companies coming into business and going out of business.

But, you know, original implies that there’s a lot of original ideas out there, and there are people who say there is no such thing as an original ideas; it’s all a rehash of old ideas, and, I think that’s true. I mean, the assumption that human beings are brilliant and come up great ideas all the time is really not a good assumption. If you were to go back to the 50's and say, “How many really original movies are there from 1952 to 1958, then you’re really not going to find many. I think we find that more now than ever before. We find more derivative stuff that goes from one medium to another, we get more entertainment now, and we see more fun movies than we’ve ever seen in our lives. And more fun television, and more fun comic books. It’s just that people are used to wringing their hands and wining. (Laughter)