Monday, January 26, 2015

An Evening With Neal Adams

This is an overdue story, but I've been telling it again recently, so I thought it was time to put it in writing.

Last April 25, legendary comics artist Neal Adams made an in-store appearance at my place of employment, Phantom of the Attic Comics in the Oakland section of Pittsburgh.

Neal with most of the staff of Phantom of the Attic Comics.
Me, Dave, Neal, Jeff (the owner), and Jim

Neal Adams is easily on the top ten list of most influential comics creators ever. I don't have time or room here to address everything he has had a hand in creating. He helped to revitalize Batman in the early 70s, establishing a more realistic and darker take on the character than was usual at that time, laying the groundwork for the version everyone is familiar with today. Along with writer Denny O'Neil he was responsible for a series of stories featuring Green Lantern and Green Arrow that brought a social relevance to comics that had never been seen before. He established a tradition of heroic but realistic anatomy, and realism in general, that was revolutionary when he first began.

I could go on and on, detailing all of this, but that isn't what this is about. Go look him up. There's a lot to learn.

For me personally, Neal Adams was one of the first artists whose name and style I was able to identify when I was a young comics reader. One of the first fan purchases I made, something comic book related that wasn't a comic, was a collection of Adams art called The Neal Adams Index. I mailed away from an ad in the back of a comic. It was magazine format and had a checklist of his work, and a lot of unseen black and white artwork. Because I was a kid I colored in some of the pages with magic markers.

Adams was scheduled to appear at Steel City Con. Apparently, when he travels, he likes to schedule additional appearances at other, local comics shops. We were recommended to him and after some phone tag the signing was set up for Thursday evening at the store.

In all of my years of going to comics conventions I had never met him before, so when I was asked by Jeff (my boss), to go pick Neal up at the airport I had a little fanboy moment. Now, I should say here that I have met a lot of comic book professionals. I've interviewed Stan Lee. I've had beers with Frank Miller. I have postcards of encouragement from Scott McCloud. I used to hang out some with Steve Bissette and John Totleben (two-thirds of the Swamp Thing team, along with Alan Moore, who are responsible for the creation of John Constantine). So, I'm not a rookie. Truth be told, it's been a long time since I've really been a big fan of Neal Adams. I still love his earlier work and give total mad props to his place in history. But I don't get all excited over any new projects by him.

But, this felt a little full circle for me. He was the first comics artist I was genuinely a fan of.

So, I drove out to the Pittsburgh Airport to pick up Neal and his wife Marilyn. I was determined not to be a complete fanboy goober immediately. I think I was pretty successful in that. I met them and shook hands. They were friendly and outgoing. On the way back to the city we talked about where they could grab a bite before the signing. Neal asked questions about Pittsburgh. The conversation was pleasant and lively.

The store filled quickly. To say Neal was outgoing is an understatement. He held court. He's a showman. A carnival barker. A salesman. He told many stories about his days in the industry, filled with personal anecdotes about himself and other professionals. While he was friendly and made time for everyone who showed up (and stayed well past the allotted time with no complaint), I had the distinct impression that his bombastic persona was off-putting to some people. In the days after the signing I had several people say they thought he was arrogant.

And he is. The thing is, he's earned it.

There is anecdote from that night that sums this up for me. Among the many art prints he was selling was one that featured the cover of Green Lantern #85 from 1971. Here's a picture of it.

Here's the link to the Wiki page about this issue:'t_Fly

A young woman was looking at it closely and Neal said to her, fairly loudly and proudly, “That cover completely changed the history of comics!” I was at the store counter when he said that and my first thought was, “Wow! What an arrogant thing to say.” My second thought was, “He's completely right. I said the exact same thing about this cover to my comics class just a couple of weeks ago.”

So, is it really arrogance when the facts agree with you? Maybe we're just not used to hearing such a definitive proclamation of achievement, so it sounds like arrogance. We're always expected to be humble with what we accomplish, sometimes to the extent that we all downplay things we rightfully should be proud of. History has borne out his claim. Why shouldn't he be proud of it?

"I am the greatest!" Muhammad Ali would proclaim to anyone. Neal Adams is the Muhammad Ali of comics.

Neal also had a fairly long story about being the first artist to draw male nipples in comics, so there's also that.

While he was at the store I had him sign my copy of The Neal Adams Index and told him my story of how he was the first artist I was a fan of. When the signing was over I drove him to his hotel in Monroeville. He talked pretty non-stop the whole way out there. I was happy to listen. He's comic book royalty. He's earned it.

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