I first met him in the 1960s, when DC comics was still conducting tours of the office. He was slim, and good looking, and a good ten to twenty years the junior of everybody else in the office. This was before I’d seen what would become his comic book output—and before I’d seen and studied the brilliant BEN CASEY newspaper strip.
Like most kids, I had no eyes, so that brilliance I mention above didn’t impress me until much later. But the comic book work that began to flow from Adams flabbergasted me, just as, at the same time, the small cadre of comics enthusiasts who were my friends reacted with dismay to this material—with what can only be called the shock of the new.
His work was so radical a departure from what we were used to—the Gil Kane, Carmine Infantino, Murphy Anderson, Joe Kubert stuff—that it demanded an entirely new and different way of thinking about comics.
It’s been mostly forgotten over these many years, but those early jobs were often met with hostility, from fans who, even then, were constricted by a conservative short sighted constipation in their preferences. What struck us was the alarming(!) and eccentric approach to layout and picture making, not to mention the predominance of pen work over brush, pen employed in a series of techniques that bore no resemblance to what we identified as traditional.
It wasn’t until a few years later, with the development of those eyes mentioned here, that I and others were able to draw the line from his drawing and rendering to the work of Stan Drake and the like—which illuminated a typically sniffy dismissal of Neal’s stuff from the typically sniffy Gil Kane—another mentor of mine, by the way.
“Neal Adams makes comics safe for commercial illustration,” he said, unwilling to or perhaps in capable of getting past that old school traditional approach to comics.
In short order, of course, Neal developed followers, fans and acolytes. I was one of the latter, and after assisting Gil Kane, and ghosting a strip for Wallace Wood, Neal got me my first actual assignment at DC—for which, to be sure, I was utterly ill-equipped.
To be specific, and to be clear—he got my professional-signing-my-own-work career underway. He carried that much weight at DC.
We went our separate ways in the late 1970s, seeing each other inadvertently at conventions or social gatherings. All the while, via his studio, he attempted to reignite and keep alive the sort of commercial use for comics that he learned at Johnstone & Cushing, where he produced that GE stuff—and which he left to do the BEN CASEY strip, months before he turned twenty one, and thus had to have his mother sign his contractual release.
I’m an old man now, and Neal’s got a decade on me, but we’re both still working. He’s moved from those razor sharp pen lines of his youth to a more organic, and frankly baroque approach to the rendering of the figure, a figure which still retains that propulsive dynamism that defined the shock of the new for comics enthusiasts over a half century ago.
He is a giant, and no walk in the park, but yes, a living legend.
Howard Chaykin: When and where’d you spend your childhood?
Neal Adams: Since I’m an army brat, my childhood was on the east coast of the United States including the Bronx, NYC, Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and towns up and down the east coast, and for a time Germany and finally Brooklyn.
HC: Where you a fan of comics—either newspaper strips or comic books?
NA: When I grew up, every kid in America read comics strips and every kid read the Sunday papers, but the stories in the Sunday papers were either gags or parts of stories and so to satisfy the desire to read complete stories we all read comics and traded comic books and we all read every comic book out there.
HC: What about pulps—either of the actual thing or the latter-day stuff—paperback originals, as an example?
NA: Kids in my day did not read pulps. Some of us read science fiction, adventures and novels. Pulps were for the previous generation or the older teenagers and adults. We read comics. I didn’t even know who Doc Savage was or Conan or The Shadow or any of that. I knew who Captain Marvel was, Blackhawk, Super Snipe, etc. etc. etc.
HC: What movies, music, radio and television drama informed your growing up years?
NA: I was past the popular radio shows except for The Shadow, Inner Sanctum and the Horror-Mystery shows; and I watched early TV which included Kukla, Fran and Ollie, Captain Video, Tom Corbett, and all the old black and white cartoon shows. It took a long time before we got to the modern cartoon shows, which they saved for Saturday Morning at the movies. When I was sick, which everyone was a lot in those days, we stayed home and watched the Westerns…Hopalong Cassidy, Charlie Chan and all those terrible black and whites, which lead me to an early childhood of being brain dead.
HC: In that time in every boy’s life between FIREMAN/POLICEMAN/COWBOY, what was an early ambition that consumed you before you became who you are?
NA: Being something between Tarzan and Super Snipe. And I wouldn’t say I was consumed by it.
HC: What and when did you first seriously entertain the idea that you could do the job?
NA: When I was a kid travelling around from town to town, tragically facing the consequences of losing all my old friends and assuming I would never get new friends, I discovered that unlike everyone else around me, I could draw. So I would draw and give kids the drawings. I would draw for the teachers. I, like everyone else of my ilk, became the class or school artist. There are one or two in every school. Although my inclination was toward drawing big foot stuff, I was drawn toward the Batmans and Blackhawks. At ten years old I was drawing Atomic Mouse but I was also drawing and writing a Batman encyclopedia. I wanted to be an artist or a scientist but I knew I could never afford to go to college. Then my mother found an art high school. Then, I thought I could draw comics with all that entails. Unfortunately, the world said no. But as usual I didn’t listen. I was right and they were wrong. It’s a nasty habit I have.
NA: Somebody recommended me, I don’t remember whom. Howard was a jazz fan and he burned his candle at both ends, which taught me not to burn my candle at both ends and I never have. He worked originally at a place called Alexander E. Chaite studio alongside such luminaries as Bob Peak. It was discovered that the reps were ripping off the artists so they all left. That’s where I learned not to rip off artists. In an apartment on 50th street, Howard worked with “Red” Sudek, “Red” Wexler and a Spanish fellow whose name I forget who laughed every time Howard sang, “Besame culo”. Elmer Wexler, a line illustrator and ex-marine, taught me a work ethic that Howard would never learn. From Howard I got broad experience and learned tons. From Wexler I learned a work ethic. I paid attention to both but never confused the two.
HC: Whose career did you first want to supplant?
NA: Everybody’s! I was like an animal. I wanted to be Stan Drake, Mort Drucker, Elmer Wexler and the rest and in many ways, I did. They just didn’t notice.
HC: Legendarily, you nailed the BEN CASEY newspaper strip before you were of legal age, and had to have your mother sign off on the contract.How did that come about, and what was that experience like?
NA: Although I nailed the strip, the contract came around after my 21st birthday so I did not have to suffer the humiliation because I committed one of my two professional lies there. I told them I was 25, which made it a little embarrassing when I quit the strip when I was 25. As to Ben Casey, Eliott Caplin, writer and brother to Al Capp had landed the Dr. Kildare strip. Jerry, the third brother, was given the opportunity to sell the NEA syndicate the Ben Casey strip IF he could find an artist who was qualified. Jerry inquired at Johnston and Cushing where I freelanced. They gave him my name. The rest, as they say, is history.
HC: You might be the last man standing, certainly the last man hired, by Johnstone and Cushing. How did that come about, and what was that experience like?
NA: The Bat Masterson strip ended after three months. I stupidly took a ten percent part of the strip rather than be paid $50.00 a week which ended up earning me a whopping $11.50 a week. So much for clever horse-trading. I did a sample for a commercial strip and begged Elmer Wexler to review it for me. When I did, he told me there was so much wrong with it that would take him all day to tell me what it was and he didn’t have the time. Once I recovered, I made another attempt. I showed it to Elmer. He called Johnston and Cushing and told them that they should hire me on a freelance basis. And they did. Long story short.
HC: Some of that work, in particular the GENERAL ELECTRIC stuff, is among the first work of yours seen by me and my contemporaries. Did you enjoy this experience?
NA: I enjoy every experience in life. I am the worst Pollyanna on Earth. I take joy in everything. It is truly disgusting to watch. I love people. I love history, science. I love art. And I love America. I hate Hitler, Allan Kupperberg and Donald Trump. I don’t need my other fingers to count any more.
HC: In our world, it’s an anomaly to go from newspaper strips to comic books, and yet that’s precisely what you did.
NA: I was lost in time and space. I hit a moment in history that no one else really experienced. A time where America transitioned from comic strips to comic books. Few would have believed it. None would have approved of the choice to go into comics. They were wrong, I was right. As I said, a very bad habit.
HC: What compelled you to make this move?
NA: Several answers. First I was a student of the Illustrators and I was a fan of comics. Because of Congress’s attack on comic books, comic books, through no fault of their own I suppose, deserted their geniuses. Alex Toth, Al Williamson, burgeoning Frazetta, Wally Wood and the rest. It makes me sad to recite them. They all landed somewhere, mostly not good places. Reed Crandall, for example, became a security guard. Alex Toth? Well, I don’t want to say what happened to Alex because if I do his ghost will rise up and assail me.
HC: You brought to comic books a visual sensibility—specifically an approach to the figure--that had vanished with the 1950s, with a layout and design sense that had never been seen before. What was it about that time and circumstance in comics that brought you to follow and frankly blaze such a path?
NA: Since the comic book industry was blinded by the attack and hid themselves away in rabbit warrens around the country hoping that no one would notice them, when I showed up they had no idea who I was or that I had a syndicated strip for three and a half years and in a NY paper no less. So when I showed up in the offices of Bob Kanigher, it was as though I had fallen out of the sky. Who the hell is this smiling idiot who seems to be doing everything different. They called me smiley. They wondered how I could be so happy drawing comics in an industry that wouldn’t be there next year? Didn’t I know that comics would soon disappear? I told them, with Jack Kirby over at Timely, it looked to me like the world was being set on fire. They insisted one more year and we would all be out looking for a new job. I told them I don’t think so. They were wrong. I was right. It’s a really bad habit.
HC: In that regard, can you point to an artist who was an early inspiration who remains of interest…?
NA:I could point to many artists. It’s easy to mention Alex Toth. But then there was Williamson, inheritor of the Raymond crown. Woody and Jack Davis. The newly arrived Mort Drucker, the best caricaturist on earth for many decades. Bob Peak. Hal Foster. Norman Rockwell, like a giant blazing star. Alphonse Mucha. I’ll steal from anybody. I have no ego.
HC: In that same regard, can you point to an artist you once held in high regard in whom you’ve lost interest?
NA: No I can’t.
HC: Is there a genre that you loathe?
NA: I don’t like to draw crowds or buildings or X-men fighting an army on a double page spread where the writer says have fun. I don’t much like chamber music or 90% of rap music but I do like 10%of it.
HC: Is there a genre that your fans would be surprised you dig?
NA: Certainly. Physics and all sciences. Anthropology and sciences of all sorts. I love history. Any applications of art. 50% of my art career has been devoted to advertising, designing amusement parks rides and theatrics. That’s 50% not 20%. Relative to science. I really don’t have patience for people who don’t study. That’s very hard for me. Ethics, I suppose, would have to be in there. Morality and general fairness. Yeah, there’s more but I’m beginning to bore myself.
HC: Is there a book you hate that everyone loves?
HC: That you love that everyone hates?
HC: Five favorite movies since the birth of film.
NA: I consider most old movies to be primitive and amateurish and I have trouble abiding them though I am forced to recognize the evolution and a certain highbrow appreciation by many. I am much more attached to the technology. The idea of moving microphones so that actors can move more freely. Special effects and people who go beyond the technology that is available. King Kong, (the original) is horrible animation but it took place in a time where it shouldn’t have even existed and launched filmmaking forward. Then there are the multiple lenses of cameras. I remember watching a TV show that was directed by Steven Spielberg, I believe it was a Colombo and the villain was someone like Jack Cassidy and I was taken aback by the camera angles that actually improved the storytelling only to find out later that the episode was directed by a young Steven Spielberg. That’s the kind of thing I like. Cary Grant in North by Northwest had moments of brilliance. Not just good acting, but action acting blended with tech to make a seamless story.
HC: Five favorite television series since anybody started actually caring about the medium. I don’t think in those terms because I rarely allow myself to be drawn into those kinds of conversations. I’ll go over the pros and cons of a particular show but I think of this stuff as food for my brain and not my mouth although I did love The Dick Van Dyke Show and Kukla, Fran and Ollie.
HC: How would you like to best be remembered?
NA: I’d like to be remembered as someone who hates to answer the question how would I like to be remembered. It makes me seem like an old fart and I hate old farts but to put it another way, I have all my hair, I bench press 300 lbs and I don’t drink blood or smoke shit and I have the best kids in the world and my wife, on a good day, is a total delight and I don’t give a damn if anyone remembers me. I’m just happy to have their friendship.