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Neal Adams, comic book legend and defender of artists' rights, dies at 80

Neal Adams revitalized popular comic book characters including Batman, the Green Lantern, Superman and the X-Men, by reimagining them in a more realistic style.
Warner Bros.
Neal Adams revitalized popular comic book characters including Batman, the Green Lantern, Superman and the X-Men, by reimagining them in a more realistic style.

Comic book fanatics far and wide are mourning the death of Neal Adams, the artist who changed the game with his realistic illustrations in the 1960s and '70s. Considered somewhat of a superhero himself in the comic book world, he was the champion of his peers, pushing for artist rights and fair pay.

Batman, Superman, the Green Lantern and the X-Men are just a handful of the characters that Adams reimagined beginning in the late 1960s. He flipped the script by straying from the traditional cartoonish look found in comics. Instead, Adams sketched heroes and villains with a gritty, realistic flair.

Adams' death was confirmed Friday by one of his sons, Josh, on social media. Adams' wife, Marilyn Adams, told The Hollywood Reporter that her husband died in New York from sepsis complications. According to the social media posts, Adams died early Thursday; he was 80.

"My father was a force," Josh Adams said in his post. "His career was defined by unparalleled artistic talent and an unwavering character that drove him to constantly fight for his peers and those in need."

Newspaper comic strips, not comic books, were where the high paying positions for artists were when Adams graduated from New York City's School of Industrial Arts in 1959, comic book historian Alex Grand told NPR. And though Adams enjoyed his work on strips such as Ben Casey and Archie, he felt more at home working on longer stories in comic books.

Neal Adams took a newer approach to his drawings, giving the audience a more realistic feel for the story.
/ Warner Bros.
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Warner Bros.
Neal Adams took a newer approach to his drawings, giving the audience a more realistic feel for the story.

DC Comics brought Adams on in 1967, where he drew covers for war comics and contributed to The Adventures of Jerry Lewis and The Adventures of Bob Hope stories, a DC statement said.

In 1968, he reimagined and redesigned Batman as a brooding, dark detective, more in line with the Dark Knight's 1939 origin story than the comical character equipped with shark repellent played by Adam West.

Instead of heroes and villains looking bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, the typical style at the time, Adams' characters took on a more rugged appearance: Batman was jacked, and the Joker was terrifying; fight scenes showed battered costumes with blood dripping from fresh wounds.

On top of revolutionizing comic book illustrations industry-wide, Neal Adams pushed for artists' rights.
/ Warner Bros.
/
Warner Bros.
On top of revolutionizing comic book illustrations industry-wide, Neal Adams pushed for artists' rights.

"He came in applying hyper-realism, and bringing that to comics, his work felt like you were watching stills from a movie that he illustrated really well," Grand said. "He made it look like you could believe that this could almost happen."

Readers couldn't get enough. Other illustrators began to emulate Adams' approach, Grand said, as the industry turned a stylistic corner. And Adams, who had climbed to near-superstar status in the comic book world, worked to better the lives of his fellow artists.

At the time, artists didn't have many rights. One of his biggest achievements, Grand said, was how Adams helped Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the creators of Superman, get the credit — and the money — they deserved from DC after the company bought the rights to the comic and stripped their names from the byline.

"He really put himself out there to try and create unions for comic book artists and writers to allow better health care, pay, return of their original art," Grand said. "He was a superhero himself in that sense, that he could actually go to bat for the weaker people, and that's something different."

Adams even worked to try and save the X-Men, who teetered on the brink of failure in 1969. He and Roy Thomas teamed up to revitalize the Marvel series with new artwork and introducing new characters, Grand said.

Josh Adams described his father as someone always looking out for others, a man who gave and expected nothing in return.

"Neal Adams' most undeniable quality was the one that I had known about him my entire life: he was a father," Josh Adams wrote on Twitter. "Not just my father, but a father to all that would get to know him."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: April 30, 2022 at 11:00 PM CDT
An earlier version of this story mistakenly noted that Neal Adams began work on the X-Men comics after they had been reprinting stories for some time. The comics began reprints in 1970, after Adams began work on them.
Dustin Jones
Dustin Jones is a reporter for NPR's digital news desk. He mainly covers breaking news, but enjoys working on long-form narrative pieces.