Neal Adams (1941– ) is one of the most famous and influential superhero cartoonists of all time; it thus comes as no surprise that, in the 1975 celebratory compendium The Art of Neal Adams, the cover shows a face-off between the superheroes of Marvel Comics (left) and DC Comics (right)
But who is that funny-animal in a cape playing the peacemaker between the two camps? Just a parody Adams dropped in to deflate the pretension of the set-up?
Not at all! That’s Atomic Mouse, a character created in 1953 by Al Fago (1904–1978) for Charlton Comics. Adams drew a couple of stories for the feature– he has stated that it was his favorite ever strip to work on. Atomic Mouse returned on the cover of the second volume of The Art of Neal Adams, in 1978:
Adams did humorous, funny animal and “big-foot” strips for several years; in fact, below is Adams’ first published comic book page:
Adams also worked for Harvey Comics (Hot Stuff) and did long runs on DC’s licensed Jerry Lewis and Bob Hope books. In his Shop Talk with Will Eisner, Adams stressed the necessity of a ‘big-foot’ style of cartooniness as a foundation for realistic comics art. In fact, Adams never really was a realistic draftsman as were, say, Gray Morrow or Alex Raymond. As Bill Sienkiewicz put it, Adams would basically triple-light Charlie Brown; and as John Byrne said about Adams’ characters, “That’s the way people would look, if people looked that way.’
Adams’ characters are all overactors.
In the theatre, there’s a severe distinction between acting and signalling.
Signalling means communicating by conventional signals of gesture and poise. For instance, after a scene of being rejected for a job, a signaller will literally let his shoulders slump. To show anger, he’ll furrow his brow and draw down the corners of his mouth while clenching his fists. Joy: skipping and smiling. Grief: burying his face in his hands, wiping away a tear.
Adams’ characters are all signallers.
And that’s fine.
Let’s look at probably the most famous sequence Adams ever drew (script by Denny O’Neill):
Panel 1 contrasts a realistic, old Black man (although we might be put off by his ‘shuffling’) with a hysterically over-tensed GL figure. The second panel also shouts ‘I’m doing realism!’ while affecting an extremely dramatic upward angle point of view. The third panel — a down shot for a ‘downer’ moment– shows Adams signalling as blatantly as any Vaudeville ham performer. GL slumps, stares down at the ground in shame…
But it all works. I think comics are more tolerant of overstatement than most other artforms. Whether this overstatement is necessary is another debate…cartoonists such as Adams, Jaime Hernandez, Robert Crumb or Jack Kirby navigate from the subtle to the blaring with a sure sense of what’s fitting.
When Adams turned his hand at overt, Mad-style cartooning his efforts seem a little too over-the-top, as in this TV parody (of McCloud) from Marvel’s Mad knock-off, Crazy — basically, he tries too hard:
Neal Adams in the ’70s
Much better were his relatively straight works for National Lampoon, such as Son O’ God or Dragula — the latter some sort of monument of homophobia in comics and comedy:
He is very much capable of satirising his better-known superhero style, as he did in this 1979 story published in the French humor weekly Fluide Glacial, over a script by Jacques Lob:
A sample panel:
The story featured some mild nudity; Adams only seems to have once really gone soft-porn, in the 1975 underground comic Big Apple. Comics
Neal Adams drew half the story, on the left-hand part of the pages, following the day of a fun-loving yuppie lady; the right-hand dealt with the grimmer day of a prostitute, and was drawn by Larry Hama and Ralph Reese.
I think this is the only published story featuring an Adams-drawn erect penis…