Interviewing Neal Adams over at the New Statesman in the run up to this month’s London Super Comic Con, we chatted about his legendary role in providing greater creator rights for all within the comics industry, his own start in comics, and pushing comics in a more “relevant” direction.
So while I recommend going ahead and reading that asap, we also talked a lot about his work as a comics creator with both DC and Marvel, his opinions on internet trolls, and of course, his Batman miniseries.
For newer comic fans, a quick look at his backlist highlights his truly stunning art on heroes including Superman and Batman, Flash and Green Lantern, the X-Men and Avengers, not to mention his recent writing credits on Batman: Odyssey and The First X-Men. Adams’ history with the X-Men is particularly fascinating, having come full circle with the team of mutants.
The First X-Men began publication last October, yet Adams first worked on the X-Men back in 1969…
“And saved them from cancellation the first time around!” Adams smiles. “Although I didn’t exactly save them, Stan Lee was going to cancel the book and he let me do fourteen issues and then they cancelled it, but suddenly they discovered it was the fans favourite and they brought it back. And now what I did was I took the X-Men in what’s called I think The First X-Men, five issues, and I stepped it back in time to a time where you didn’t necessarily have, you know, everybody in costumes standing around Professor X in a wheelchair and joining a club, but a time before that when Professor X was a student and somebody, some mutant out there realised that some of these kids needed to be protected. And so he gathered them into what we would have to call the first X-Men. So I guess I worked at different ends of the same question.”
“Not at all!” he laughs, “After my ten issues they cancelled the book and I thought that was it, you know I’d had my shot at it. But suddenly every artist that came along to Marvel wanted to do it and they were getting letters and then they discovered that their sales had gone up, and so it was a big old shock to everybody. And the thing is when you do something at a particular time, a particular place and time, it’s almost impossible to believe that what happens later is going to happen at that time. You just kinda do what you do and then watch it like watching a boulder rolling down the hill. And this was a rather fantastic boulder rolling down a rather fantastic hill.”
Adams also worked on Batman: Odyssey as both writer and artist, his own triumphant return to the character he helped redefine as dark rather than camp back in 1970. The book completely divided the critics, with some embracing the “complete and utter insanity” and others left scratching their heads and flinging insults.
“I told everybody at the beginning that it wasn’t going to be, you know, individual stories, that it was gonna be a novel, and so you have to read the whole thing, and you’re gonna get chapters. And people on the internet started hockin’ me like crazy, ‘He didn’t explain this, and he didn’t tell us this, and what’s going on with this, I don’t understand!’ I don’t understand?! Fuck you. You don’t understand? That’s because you haven’t read the thirteenth chapter! I mean what the hell’s wrong with you, is that the way you read a book – you read a chapter and then you bitch at the author? I don’t think so! So, I’m trying to let people know ahead of time that you gotta read all thirteen chapters so you know what the hell’s going on. And they didn’t wanna wait, those guys on the internet. They just jumped all over my ass. Now the thing is finally collected in a book and you can read the whole thing but when you do something new? Boy, y’know, you become a target.
“But that’s the fun too, y’know. Guys I’m sorry, fuck you but I’m the target. Go shoot your arrows. Try to get me. I’m runnin’ across the hill over there. And I had a great time! I did a book that I’m tremendously happy with and what’s happening is now people are coming up to me at conventions and stuff going [whispers] ‘I really liked Batman Odyssey. I loved it. Wow it was great.’ Why you whispering? ‘I don’t want anybody to hear me. I’m not supposed to like it. But I loved it’ [laughs]”
Batman: Odyssey is a crazy story that benefits hugely from repeated readings, as indeed do many of the best comics on the shelves. I’m a fan myself, as are many others, but it’s no secret that more experimental storytelling techniques are often shot down in flames. Sometimes by the same people that change their minds a few reads later…
“The thing about that book is you can go back and read it twice or three times,” Adams explains, ”and learn stuff that you didn’t recognise like ‘Oh, that’s why he’s doing it! Oh, there was a deal between Ra’s Al Ghul and his dad, and his father broke off, and Ra’s Al Ghul was pissed off at him, that’s the deal!’ And you start reading little things like conversations between Batman and, and whatshisname, the butler…
“I have a little thing in there that I just planted for people who really pay attention where Bruce Wayne is pissed off at Alfred, right, and Alfred just isn’t taking any shit from him. And he’s pissed off, and Alfred turns his back on Bruce and you can see Bruce is about to say something and then Alfred says, ‘Before you say that,’ but Bruce has got his mouth in a position where the only position, the only or one of the few words that you say from that position is “Fuck you” He’s got that F-sound, right? So you can look at it if you look at his face you know he’s gonna say ‘Fuck you Alfred!’ And Alfred says, ‘Before you say the thing you’re gonna say…’ [laughs]
“But all that stuff is in there, all that stuff is planted in there, you know, there’s just so much! When Batman blows Robin up, holy shit, he blew Robin up! Anyway I had a great time with that, that’s a series that’s gonna live forever. I’m tellin’ ya.”
A lot of writers and artists within the comics industry have expressed their frustrations with the vitriolic strain of online criticism, not for its own sake, but because it is so different from what people are willing to say to their faces at conventions.
“Yes I know! Maybe they’re– well I’m thinking that they’re sitting in the back there, some little troll going [growls] and he’s never gonna SAY anything cos I’ll bust him in his face. Hey, come over here, you! Are you one of those guys? BAM! Sock’em.
“It’s a problem on the internet! I have this science thing on the internet and people write to me and they call me “YOU RETARD, YOU IDIOT, YOU DON’T KNOW ANYTHING!” Like no, don’t call me a retard! You’re on the internet, you know, you don’t have the freedom to say “You’re a retard”! But they’re just heartless, awful people. And I think we have to come up with a new standard for the internet. We have to. Everything has to be monitored by somebody with common sense so that people don’t say the stuff that they say. Because it’s really rude.
“If you were in my house, somebody’s in my house and they talk to me like that I’d throw’em out through the window! It’s not something you do. It’s rude, and terrible, and awful, and it.. you don’t get to do it in real life, how come you get this like magical.. device that you can be a prick? It’s totally wrong. And it’s not so wrong that, there’s certain injustices that you can rail against, things that you can say, but just to, you know, about a comic book! [laughs wryly] Jesus! It’s a comic book, guys! Relax! It’s a movie! Calm down! It’s not– I think we have to have new standards, come up with a new standard. I’m doing it on my science site, I say you know what? Youtube is giving me two extra buttons. One is called ‘remove’ and one is called ‘block’; you deserve it. And I am the dictator. And you can’t say that’s a – damn, goodbye. But I think we have to have that! I think we need that.”
Speaking with Adams is a little bit like drinking six coffees in quick succession. His enthusiasm, and his sense of fun is infectious; it’s difficult to maintain the reverence that the seventy-one year old creator is due when you’re practically crying with laughter. I’m not entirely sure the London comic fans are going to know what’s hit them!
With The First X-Men wrapped up in January, what’s next for Neal Adams?
“I’m still working on Blood, with Dark Horse, and I’m talking to DC Comics about something,” he reveals. “Because you know, I’ve come back, and I’ve done Batman: Odyssey, and now I’ve done this X-Men thing, you know, how do I beat that? [laughs] I think I started at the top of the heap again! And when they tell me, I can’t tell anybody. Because you know, when we talk about it I can’t tell anybody – what’s bigger than those things? I don’t quite know. But you know, it will be probably with DC.
“And I also have some concepts, that I’m kind of trying to fire through DC and Marvel, of new things! You realise that Batman: Odyssey was my story, you realise that the X-Men thing was my story, although Marvel got a little paranoid about whether or not I was sucking the right teat there, [laughs] and wanted to put a dialoguer in, and a co-writer, and I’m not altogether sure that worked out great but it certainly worked out well enough for it to be a good comic book. I would say it got watered down a little bit but still, it was fine!
“So what am I gonna do now. You know, there’s things that I would love to do, there’s things that I’ve been tempted to do, like revisiting the Kree/Skrull war and actually telling the whole story that I didn’t get to tell. That might be nice. Oh! I could play with Deadman over at DC Comics and tell the real story, or finish off the real story. Because it’s never been done.
“Or, I could do, say, Superman. That might be interesting. So I mean there’s lots of opportunities out there, I think, things that I’ve been sitting back, kind of thinking, ‘what am I going to do’. There’s also things that I have in the hopper, that we started when we stopped doing books because the whole industry imploded… but I did have a really nice concept that I began at that time called The Rise of the Magic. Which I believe has been opted by everybody on earth as a theme, but The Rise of Magic is something that we have a ton of pages [for], here in the studio, that are beautifully done and I think that no matter what I do with say DC or Marvel, you can pretty much bet on The Rise of Magic coming out. And we’re gonna hook gimmicks to it and things to it to help the sales but, and try to add real magic into it. To be kind of a new way of doing something where you take a theme and you make it part of whatever it is that you do. And magic is one of those good themes. So I think with that, we’re gonna have some surprises. Really solid surprises. Besides whatever it is that I do for DC and Marvel.”
Adams’ own studio is Continuity Studios, co-founded by himself and fellow comics artist Dick Giordano, which specialises in all forms of graphic art, from motion picture storyboards and commercials to conceptual design and comic books. Formed in the ‘70s, Adams moved away from DC and Marvel as his company blossomed, contributing the occasional cover for DC in particular.
Ty Templeton wrote a piece celebrating Adams in 2011, praising Continuity as being the original Image, publishing “creator-owned series outside of the pre-existing system… run by, and for, creators”.
“That’s true,” Adams agrees. “We tend to break the ground, and then everybody else grows plants in it. [laughs] It’s, it’s a little tough for the first guys to go out and, you know the problem is, when you’re the kind of person that does it the first time, you kind of, you take all the hits and then everybody goes, ‘Yeaahh that’s a good idea, let’s go ahead and do it!’ And that usually works a little better because the ground, the ground has been broken. So you don’t necessarily do the best when you’re the groundbreaker, you know, it’s like the scout, he goes out and takes the first couple of arrows and then everybody comes through with the wagons.”
His return to Marvel in 2005, and to DC in 2010 was met with great acclaim from fans old and young. To be working on both Batman and the X-Men in particular, feels rather like the ride has come around full circle.
“Yeah I think it has,” says Adams. “I think it’s because the first part has been a bumpy ride, DC Comics has tried to make a friendly friend with me, I think out of it is gonna come some good work – Batman: Odyssey was so left alone and out there and unpublicised and unsupported that it was almost as if I had done it for an unknown company. Which was fine with me! You know, at the time, and even the Marvel thing, ‘Oh, everything has to fit into the Marvel…’ We had an interesting discussion, I can talk about it now, where I wanted to have Professor X, who was at Cambridge, at the beginning of the thing, at like seventeen years old, and I wanted to have him you know bounding across the place to open the door, and there’s Wolverine at the door with a dead body in his hands, and I wanted to have Professor X having this kind of curly golden hair.
“Which I think would be a great way to introduce the character at college-age. Cos it’s [ambiguous], where did his hair fall out, you know? The last year of high school, first year of college? Exactly where was it? And why? You know, let’s try to figure out why.
“So I drew him with this curly blond hair, and the people at Marvel, editorial at Marvel said, ‘No no no, he’s gotta be bald at this time.’ I said, ‘Well who knows if he’s bald?’ They said, ‘Well you know we have this story in the history, if you look it up, he was bald right at the end of high school.’ Well like who cares. The point of it is, you got guys out there making movies, and you know he’s got hair! And he’s already out of college! So nobody cares! It’s just good for the story. How about if I make it a wig? He confronts Wolverine, blah blah blah, they have their conversation, the drama goes on, and at the end of it he calls Moira and he has his wig off and he’s holding it in his hand. So that follows all the rules!
“‘Yeah but the people who view this will be thrown by the fact that he has hair.’ It’s the last page in a comic book! He’s got hair, but it’s a wig, in the last panel! It’s – funny! That’s cute! What – what’s the problem? ‘Oh we would rather have this though, because we want them to recognise him right away.’ I– Excuse me? [laughs] Wait a second. Have I fallen into an alternate universe where it’s a – he can’t even wear a wig? I don’t know, if I was seventeen years old and I was going off to college I’d have a fuckin’ curly blond wig on me. I wouldn’t be walking around bald in those days! OK, today, but back then, y’know, it wouldn’t look good! ‘No, no, we’ve decided, editorial, that we don’t want this.’ Fine.
“So, you know, I found that to be juust a little daunting. [laughs] Cos I had a great gag and it was like chkk–!
“And so it was a few things like that happened on their way through doing that series and what they do is they say, ‘Well you know, we have a responsibility here to live up to mythos, and you’re adding [your] own mythos to the beginning of the X-Men story so we have to be concerned that it fouls up—‘ It’s just a fuckin’ wig. Who gives a shit, y’know? People will read it they’ll go, ‘Aah wig! That’s funny!’ No no. It’s the mythos, we have to worry about the mythos, Jesus.
“I dunno, when I was creating Havok, I don’t think we were worried about the mythos, we thought we were gonna cancel the book! Anyway. It’s just like, it’s a different time – I’m still here, I’m fine, I’m just like laughin’. D’you know what I’m sayin’? Holy cow! We don’t wanna have a wig on Professor X. Check the movie guys! What was that? That was a wig. That woulda been great, in the movie if he took that thing off and it’s a wig! [laughs]
“God, there we go. Facing Magneto and he goes, ‘Ahah!’ and he pulls the wig off. Whadda ya gonna do about that? Huh? I’m gonna be a new hero called Shineman, my head is all shiny. ‘I can’t look at you, your head is too shiny!’ Oh, Jesus. Anyway.”
Batman: Odyssey is now available in a hardcover edition that collects all thirteen issues, while the collected edition of The First X-Men is out on the 24th of February.
Adams will be signing, sketching and creating havoc wherever he goes at the London Super Comic Con on the 23rd and 24th of February. Some tickets still available!