In the storied ranks of Hall of Fame comic book legends there are none larger than the prolific native New Yorker, Neal Adams, whose dynamic style and rare eye for detail catapulted comics out of the Stone Age in a revolutionary artistic shift still resonating today.
From Batman, Superman, Green Lantern, and Green Arrow, to the X-Men, Wolverine, Conan, Dracula, Tarzan and countless more, Adams brought a definitive personality to any superhero or supervillain he ever put pencils to. His evocative covers are some of the most collectible and memorable in the comic book universe and we've assembled 25 classic creations for the innovator to dissect.
Adams has been manifesting these fantastic covers for fifty years, most recently with his new Deadman mini-series, returning to his roots to the character of Boston Brand since first drawing him back in 1967. It's as impressive a resume as one can attain in a lifetime and he's still going strong!
Draw up a chair and let's dive into this esteemed group of iconic covers as SYFY WIRE sat down with the influential professional to learn the mystery and magic behind the birth of these amazing artworks, straight from the mouth of the master.
Here's Part One of this historic exploration. Be sure to tell us which of Adams' covers strike you as the finest examples of the art!
Action Comics #356 (1967)
Well I guess this shows a tremendous disrespect for superheroes. (laughs) Superman looks awful. The kid looks okay because he's sorta dressed in regular clothes. And the other superhero in the background looks really funky and '50s oriented. I can't imagine this is the first cover I did, but maybe, because editor Mort Weisinger didn't want me to do any covers for him, and we had to convince Mort that maybe it would be a good idea to do one and have him tell Carmine, the art director, that he hated it, and then I would never have to do a cover again and Curt Swan could go back to doing the covers. But somehow in doing the first cover, he fell in love with them and wanted me to do his covers from then on. I would say this is sort of an experimental, "Let Neal do some of these Superman covers, maybe it's not a good idea."
The Phantom Stranger #15 (1971)
Hmm. Everybody on the cover is black, except for Phantom Stranger. I did a series of covers for Joe Orlando and the idea was that Joe wanted to do horror covers because he came from EC Comics. He knew that he couldn't do it because the Comics Code would crack down on it. So he came to me and I told him you can't do horror covers. He had these mystery stories but wanted to do horror. So it took me a weekend to figure it out and I came up with a solution. The answer is put kids on the cover and have the kids respond to all the things going on, and because kids overreact, they'll be frightened by things adults won't be frightened by so you're not really doing a horror cover. I did them and they were successful and the Comics Code said they were fine. I did it for House of Secrets, Witching Hour, House of Mystery, and then it kind of bled into Phantom Stranger, who is a hero, and fell into that mystery/horror genre but by that point we knew what we could and couldn't do. This was a cover that might otherwise have offended somebody from a horror point of view but there's nothing horrible on it. There's voodoo and somebody coming up out of the grave, but it's not a body coming out of the grave, it's a robot, or a metal man. Now if that had been a guy with rotting flesh, they probably would have rejected it. It just slipped between raindrops!
House of Secrets #88 (1970)
I did a whole series of covers like this. In the early '70s there were gothic romances and whatever bookstore you'd go to there would always be these softcover books with some pretty girl running away from a castle somewhere, and she falls in love with some guy who's got a brother that's retarded or chained up and she doesn't understand what's going on. Very simple stories. It was a very popular theme with the girl running away and the place that she's running from is up on the hill or in the background. So we thought we could adapt that to a comic book. But the problem was the technology. We printed essentially with the same printing presses that Ben Franklin printed on and the same kind of paper. To take the same subtlety of a painting and just do it with lines was very very hard. We had to knock out the whites and adjust it because all it would be is a very bad grey half-tone. So I worked with Jack Adler, the head of production, to do things that really had never been done before. We managed to knock out a few things that captured that dramatic theme and fit into the genre of gothic horror, which was disgustingly popular. We did three or four of these, with girls running away from some scary location. We even did one in Batman.
The Witching Hour #14 (1971)
Basically this is taking the same theme into outer space. It's a very simple concept. A haunted house in space. As soon as you hear the title you go, oh, I got an idea for that, stick it on a meteor. How did it get there, what's the point of it? I particularly like the pink hair on the witch. I think that's cool... but stupid! (laughs)
Green Lantern/Green Arrow #76 (1970)
Yeah, that cover sold at a Heritage Auction for $455,000 in 2015. I actually struggled with that. I did one and I rejected it and then I did a second one. I'm still not really happy with it, it's kind of a bad composition but it served the process well to get the idea across that there was a conflict between these two characters. It became such a good theme that the whole series was based on the theme and basically it was a game changer. I would say a big game changer. But a stupid title - Green Lantern/Green Arrow? Two guys with green in their names? What about Pink Arrow or Pink Tights?
Batman #237 (1971)
This came out of the story. Sometimes you're forced to do the cover before the story is done. This had a Jewish theme in the story and a Holocaust concept which was really very smart on the part of the writer, Denny O'Neil. Of course we see nothing of the Jewishness or the Naziism on the cover, but it's definitely in there. I didn't make a conscious effort to hide it, but the final image of this guy in the robes with the sickle chasing the characters was such a strong image that I knew it would work on the cover. This was so simple a cover to do, so obvious and so clear. It was clearly a top seller.
The Phantom Stranger #8 (1970)
I decided that I would not make the Phantom Stranger a part of the cover story, that he would basically be an image in the background. But sometimes it made it hard because you wanted to enter him in the story but you knew he would show up later. So I always kept him almost coming into the story but not quite there. That made it possible to do a cover but have this looming figure. It's a classical theme, basically a movie poster concept with the hero on the top and there's all this crap going on in the body of the poster. It's a "phantom" stranger not really in the cover and the cover is about something else. Not that I didn't have fun with that ice guy!
Detective Comics #412 (1971)
That's an out-of-the-ordinary cover because first of all, most guys don't know how to draw horses. And they're hard to draw. So we wanted a kind of misty background so I did it in pencil and shot as a half-tone then dropped in two very simple compositions. This is the standard "H" cover and then the question of whether or not we could do that mist from the point of view of the primitiveness of the methodology that we were using was a question all the way up to the end. Once we did that, then we went on to do some other things. There's a Tomahawk cover where we did a very similar thing, where there's an Indian on a horse riding down Tomahawk who's thrown on the ground.
Savage Tales #4 (1974)
Well obviously Frazetta is the Conan guy, so I made it my business to make sure I made a six-foot-two or six-foot-three-inch tall Conan all the time I did it. Because one of the things that Frank did was Conan, on his covers, would get shorter and taller, sometimes he would be like five-foot-eight, sometimes six feet tall. So I did a Conan that was maybe was not as good as Frank's but made him this powerful, six-foot-two-inch marauder. I had fun with the character and I think it's Buscema, myself, and Frazetta, the classic Conan, that's the three of us. And relative to that creature in the background, isn't that fun? With those gelatin eyes? I love that. Because you hear that in science fiction writing - "And it had gelatinous eyes!" What does that look like? Oh, It looks like this.
Tomahawk #116 (1968)
Here was an example of Jack Adler and I taking what we had learned and going further with it, making it look like a painting in some ways, but using the textures of the half-tone to add the emotion of the background to the drawing. So it's sort of like a Van Gogh, making the emotion appear in the painted background to add to the emotion of what's going on. Because if they were just silhouetted by themselves it would be nothing. But this texture really adds an awful lot to it and then it stops right in the border right where Tomahawk is. I might have said, eh, mix the colors a little bit more but the truth of it is we were really limited in what we doing and here was an opportunity to experiment. You walk away from it and say okay, maybe we learned something here. But you know, people love that cover.
The Witching Hour #13 (1971)
I think that had Bernie Wrightson done it he would have done all the texture himself with a pen. Mine was done with a steel engraving screen over a pencil drawing. The idea was to separate him out from that creature hanging down. And the thing hanging down is almost like a cartoon but it doesn't matter because that guy is so terrified of it. It's like it jumps right into the camera. The inspiration for the facial expression? Look in the mirror, that's all.
Savage Tales #6 (1974)
Ah, stampeding dinosaurs. I guess I had run out of subject matter. I was doing those Conan pieces for Savage Tales and then they asked me to do a Ka-zar and I thought, how will I make Ka-zar different from Conan? Then I realized that the theme of the underworld that he was in had dinosaurs. And I didn't want him to fight a big Tyrannosaurus but I thought maybe a creature like that. In fact, it's weird, now that I look at it, aren't those the raptors from Jurassic Park? I guess if I looked at that and I were doing Jurassic Park that would be my main character because the T-Rexes were a little too big. But that raptor is great. I'm not sure how much ahead of Jurassic Park I did that but I imagine it was quite a while. The problem with doing a large dinosaur is that the dinosaur takes up too much space on the page, but if you have the hero fighting a small raptor like that then he can take up the major space on the page.
The Brave and the Bold #93 (1971)
The thing about covers that's relatively important to remember is that it doesn't matter how good an artist you are, if you don't have good ideas, the covers don't stand out. And not to criticize Boris Vallejo, but once you see two or three Boris Vallejo covers, you've pretty much seen them all, they're the same or similar compositions. These things are memorable because of the difference in the compositions and the approach to what's going on. And because we were working with such bad technology, certain things have to be forgiven. Like that brown door, it was never separated like that, it was done in a gray and it was indicated for a brown but it was never meant to be that dark and that red, because there's metal stays on here. But we were at the behest of the technology, so we tried overt concepts that you couldn't miss, like the light hitting the kid, even though there's no light hitting the kid, the white hand beckoning Batman. These simple graphic images tell enough of a story that you would forgive the technology. And nobody ever criticized the technology because all they wanted was the idea.