Gamechanger: An interview with comics legend Neal Adams
Jason Inocencio, June 11, 2018 | 12:43am

Creator rights aren't important to Neal Adams. He says so on a rainy afternoon at ToyCon PopLife Fan Xperience 2018 at the SMX Convention Center. “What's important to me is that we have justice and we have fairness,” the comics legend says. “To me (not giving credit to creators) just rose to the level of stupidity and when something is stupid, you try to undo it without embarrassing too many people. Stupidity is something that ought to be undone.”

For the sake of context, from the early days of comics in the late 1930s until the 1970s, the writers and artists of comic books could create characters, but it was the publishers who effectively owned them. Guys like Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster may have created Superman in 1938, but they sold the rights to the character in return for $130 and a contract to supply publisher DC Comics with material. Nobody could have predicted he goldmine that the character would become, and the two boys who grew up in Cleveland were largely uncredited for their brainchild until Adams and the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists went on a publicity campaign on their behalf.

Comics legend Neal Adams signs some items at ToyCon PopLife Xperience 2018 with wife Marilyn by his side

Adams is still a spitfire decades later, and he's never at a loss for words. Prior to being an advocate for what he believed was justice for Siegel and Shuster, Adams was that most mercurial of comic book creators. Not just a writer or an artist, but a gamechanger. Someone whom both DC Comics and archrival Marvel Comics entrusted some of their most precious characters to draw.

At Marvel, Adams and writer Roy Thomas took on the mercurial X-Men and the Avengers. But perhaps Adams' most famous work is his reinvention of iconic DC characters in both Superman and Batman. He downplays his contribution to their growth, but it was under his and writer Denny O'Neill that Batman went back to his dark and gothic roots, roots that had been forgotten because of the campiness of the Batman TV show starring Adam West.

Actor/director Kevin Grevioux joins Neal Adams in meeting the media on the first day of ToyCon PopLife Fan Xperience 2018

Adams and O'Neill created characters that have been seen quite frequently in recent movies and TV, including Ra's al Ghul and his daughter Talia. It was the duo of O'Neill and Adams who changed the look of the Green Arrow and gave him a liberal edge, then partnered the character with Green Lantern for an epic run that is still talked about almost four decades later.

When asked what he thinks about the TV show Arrow, which takes many of the concepts that he and O'Neill introduced, he smiles when he says, “They should call it The Neal Adams Show!” After all, if the producers aren't using concepts Adams created for Oliver Queen a.k.a. Green Arrow, they've taken some Batman lore that he also conceptualized and adapted it for the show. Regarding lead actor Stephen Amell though, Adams has one request of the man now donning the bow and arrow, “Would it hurt him to smile more? I mean, he's supposed to be based on Robin Hood! So smile more!”

Fans line up to have comics and toys signed by comic book legend Neal Adams

Another curious thing about New York-native Adams is that he helped facilitate the initial wave of Filipino artists to work at DC and Marvel in the 1970s. He once again doesn't want to take credit for this, but his voice definitely helped in the hiring of Alex Niño, Nestor Redondo, Tony DeZuñiga, Alfredo Alcala, Rudy Nebres, Dusty Abell, Ernie Chan, among others. The way Adams tells it, he saw some of the submissions by these artists and said, “These are pretty good!” That was enough for DC and Marvel to take note and begin looking to the Philippines for artists to work on their books.

If not for that generation, current Filipino comic superstars Leinil Yu, Carlo Pagulayan, Stephen Segovia, Harvey Tolibao, Jonathan Lau, Kim Jacinto, Philip Tan, and more might not have had the door opened for them. It's no surprise then that when he was introduced to the media and fans on the first day of ToyCon PopLife Fan Xperience 2018, Adams said, “I know where I am. I'm in the home of the best comic artists in the world!”

Actors Michael Copon, Kevin Grevioux, Dante Basco, and Kelly Hu join Neal Adams onstage at ToyCon PopLife Fan Xperience 2018

For all of his accomplishments in comics, and for things he has done that have gone beyond the medium, Neal Adams doesn't think he has done anything different from what other artists had done before him. “I gave Superman and Batman hairy chests and nipples!” he laughingly shares. “How stupid was that? Guys would draw them without hair on their chests or nipples!” The way he looks back at his work, he notes that he might have just drawn these characters better, but that's about it. Of course, many of us who have been fans of his work will strongly disagree, but Adams has a way of convincing us otherwise.

Though he's had a spectacular career drawing interior comic pages, some of Adams' most stunning work that have stood the test of time have been on comic book covers. Whether it be Superman shattering Kryptonite chains (a cover that he actually hates because one leg is shorter than the other) in Superman (volume 1) #233, Green Arrow smashing the lantern of Green Lantern while he recharges in Green Lantern/Green Aroow #76, the controversial image of Green Arrow's sidekick Speedy shooting up on drugs in Green Lantern/Green Arrow #85, or the unforgettable image of a boxing champion battling the Man of Steel in Superman vs Muhammad Ali, Adams has a talent for catching the viewer's eye. Perhaps it was borne of his experience in working for advertising agencies in the past, something which he readily admits was necessary to supplement his meager earnings in comics.

“You just have it on a smaller scale here (in the Philippines), but I know a lot of people who don't earn enough while making comics back (in the US) too,” he notes. "Life is hard," Adams says. "But we still smile." With wife Marilyn by his side for the duration of ToyCon, Adams is still quick of wit and friendly to everyone who wants an autograph. “Shall we take a picture?” he asks everyone after he signs their comics or even their Funko Pop toys. His booth at ToyCon is impressive, with large images of his work on Superman, Batman, Green Arrow, Deadman, Iron Man, Thor, Catwoman, and others announcing loudly that a giant in comics is indeed present.

Even the Filipino artists are in awe of Adams as each of them eventually finds their way over to shake his hand or introduce themselves. Count even Pugad Baboy creator Pol Medina, Jr. among those starstruck in Adams' presence. Yet Adams is largely unaffected, he gives a smile and a hearty handshake to everyone who approaches with the same warmth and vigor. When you've been drawing iconic figures and are hailed as a legend, it's easy to let it all get to your head. It's therefore pretty amazing that in the case of Neal Adams, he says, “I get a lot of credit for a lot of things.”

One thing that he loves though is creativity. Asked what creativity means to Neal Adams, he waxes poetic as he states, “Creativity is the blood that I live on. Creativity is the coffee that I drink, creativity is the things that I think. Creativity is the thing that I try to be and try to do. Creativity is that thing that you do when you take everything that you learn and you pump it into something and you make it something new. Creativity is mixing the old and creating the new. There's no such thing as something new. The way you make something new is mixing a lot of the old things together in a different way and it seems to be new. It's not really new, it just seems new and sort of that's creativity.”

Gamechanger: An interview with comics legend Neal Adams

Creator rights aren't important to Neal Adams. He says so on a rainy afternoon at ToyCon PopLife Fan Xperience 2018 at the SMX Convention Center. “What's important to me is that we have justice and we have fairness,” the comics legend says. “To me (not giving credit to creators) just rose to the level of stupidity and when something is stupid, you try to undo it without embarrassing too many people. Stupidity is something that ought to be undone.”

For the sake of context, from the early days of comics in the late 1930s until the 1970s, the writers and artists of comic books could create characters, but it was the publishers who effectively owned them. Guys like Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster may have created Superman in 1938, but they sold the rights to the character in return for $130 and a contract to supply publisher DC Comics with material. Nobody could have predicted he goldmine that the character would become, and the two boys who grew up in Cleveland were largely uncredited for their brainchild until Adams and the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists went on a publicity campaign on their behalf.

Comics legend Neal Adams signs some items at ToyCon PopLife Xperience 2018 with wife Marilyn by his side

Adams is still a spitfire decades later, and he's never at a loss for words. Prior to being an advocate for what he believed was justice for Siegel and Shuster, Adams was that most mercurial of comic book creators. Not just a writer or an artist, but a gamechanger. Someone whom both DC Comics and archrival Marvel Comics entrusted some of their most precious characters to draw.

At Marvel, Adams and writer Roy Thomas took on the mercurial X-Men and the Avengers. But perhaps Adams' most famous work is his reinvention of iconic DC characters in both Superman and Batman. He downplays his contribution to their growth, but it was under his and writer Denny O'Neill that Batman went back to his dark and gothic roots, roots that had been forgotten because of the campiness of the Batman TV show starring Adam West.

Actor/director Kevin Grevioux joins Neal Adams in meeting the media on the first day of ToyCon PopLife Fan Xperience 2018

Adams and O'Neill created characters that have been seen quite frequently in recent movies and TV, including Ra's al Ghul and his daughter Talia. It was the duo of O'Neill and Adams who changed the look of the Green Arrow and gave him a liberal edge, then partnered the character with Green Lantern for an epic run that is still talked about almost four decades later.

When asked what he thinks about the TV show Arrow, which takes many of the concepts that he and O'Neill introduced, he smiles when he says, “They should call it The Neal Adams Show!” After all, if the producers aren't using concepts Adams created for Oliver Queen a.k.a. Green Arrow, they've taken some Batman lore that he also conceptualized and adapted it for the show. Regarding lead actor Stephen Amell though, Adams has one request of the man now donning the bow and arrow, “Would it hurt him to smile more? I mean, he's supposed to be based on Robin Hood! So smile more!”

Fans line up to have comics and toys signed by comic book legend Neal Adams

Another curious thing about New York-native Adams is that he helped facilitate the initial wave of Filipino artists to work at DC and Marvel in the 1970s. He once again doesn't want to take credit for this, but his voice definitely helped in the hiring of Alex Niño, Nestor Redondo, Tony DeZuñiga, Alfredo Alcala, Rudy Nebres, Dusty Abell, Ernie Chan, among others. The way Adams tells it, he saw some of the submissions by these artists and said, “These are pretty good!” That was enough for DC and Marvel to take note and begin looking to the Philippines for artists to work on their books.

If not for that generation, current Filipino comic superstars Leinil Yu, Carlo Pagulayan, Stephen Segovia, Harvey Tolibao, Jonathan Lau, Kim Jacinto, Philip Tan, and more might not have had the door opened for them. It's no surprise then that when he was introduced to the media and fans on the first day of ToyCon PopLife Fan Xperience 2018, Adams said, “I know where I am. I'm in the home of the best comic artists in the world!”

Actors Michael Copon, Kevin Grevioux, Dante Basco, and Kelly Hu join Neal Adams onstage at ToyCon PopLife Fan Xperience 2018

For all of his accomplishments in comics, and for things he has done that have gone beyond the medium, Neal Adams doesn't think he has done anything different from what other artists had done before him. “I gave Superman and Batman hairy chests and nipples!” he laughingly shares. “How stupid was that? Guys would draw them without hair on their chests or nipples!” The way he looks back at his work, he notes that he might have just drawn these characters better, but that's about it. Of course, many of us who have been fans of his work will strongly disagree, but Adams has a way of convincing us otherwise.

Though he's had a spectacular career drawing interior comic pages, some of Adams' most stunning work that have stood the test of time have been on comic book covers. Whether it be Superman shattering Kryptonite chains (a cover that he actually hates because one leg is shorter than the other) in Superman (volume 1) #233, Green Arrow smashing the lantern of Green Lantern while he recharges in Green Lantern/Green Aroow #76, the controversial image of Green Arrow's sidekick Speedy shooting up on drugs in Green Lantern/Green Arrow #85, or the unforgettable image of a boxing champion battling the Man of Steel in Superman vs Muhammad Ali, Adams has a talent for catching the viewer's eye. Perhaps it was borne of his experience in working for advertising agencies in the past, something which he readily admits was necessary to supplement his meager earnings in comics.

“You just have it on a smaller scale here (in the Philippines), but I know a lot of people who don't earn enough while making comics back (in the US) too,” he notes. "Life is hard," Adams says. "But we still smile." With wife Marilyn by his side for the duration of ToyCon, Adams is still quick of wit and friendly to everyone who wants an autograph. “Shall we take a picture?” he asks everyone after he signs their comics or even their Funko Pop toys. His booth at ToyCon is impressive, with large images of his work on Superman, Batman, Green Arrow, Deadman, Iron Man, Thor, Catwoman, and others announcing loudly that a giant in comics is indeed present.

Even the Filipino artists are in awe of Adams as each of them eventually finds their way over to shake his hand or introduce themselves. Count even Pugad Baboy creator Pol Medina, Jr. among those starstruck in Adams' presence. Yet Adams is largely unaffected, he gives a smile and a hearty handshake to everyone who approaches with the same warmth and vigor. When you've been drawing iconic figures and are hailed as a legend, it's easy to let it all get to your head. It's therefore pretty amazing that in the case of Neal Adams, he says, “I get a lot of credit for a lot of things.”

One thing that he loves though is creativity. Asked what creativity means to Neal Adams, he waxes poetic as he states, “Creativity is the blood that I live on. Creativity is the coffee that I drink, creativity is the things that I think. Creativity is the thing that I try to be and try to do. Creativity is that thing that you do when you take everything that you learn and you pump it into something and you make it something new. Creativity is mixing the old and creating the new. There's no such thing as something new. The way you make something new is mixing a lot of the old things together in a different way and it seems to be new. It's not really new, it just seems new and sort of that's creativity.”