By Andrew A. Smith
Scripps Howard News Service
Neal Adams changed how comic books were drawn in America.
I still remember the first time I saw his artwork. It was in the late 1960s, and I was familiar with the major artists at the bigger companies, the A-listers all the B-listers were copying. Jack Kirby was “The King,” and set the pace at Marvel Comics. Dan DeCarlo was the de facto house style at Archie Comics. DC Comics didn’t have a single house style, but several, split up by editorial office – Curt Swan on the Superman books, Joe Kubert on the war books, Carmine Infantino on the science fiction books, and so forth.
But those artists, while terrific, were basically cartoonists with excellent individual styles. Adams was something altogether different. He came from advertising, and was a master of the “photo-realism” school. His characters had weight and texture. Instead of “spotting blacks” where convenient, his people and objects threw shadows as you’d see in real life. And all his superheroes were anatomically accurate, bursting with the kind of power you see in professional weight-lifters.
For the first time, Batman truly became a creature of the night. For the first time, Superman really looked like he could bend steel in his bare hands.
Adams has reportedly said “if superheroes existed, they’d look like I draw them.” That may be apocryphal, but when I heard that remark as a boy, I could only nod in agreement. It wasn’t bragging; it was simply true.
Adams quickly moved from back-bench comics like Strange Adventures, where he drew Deadman, to big guns like Batman and Justice League of America. Where he didn’t have time to draw whole books – and Adams was notoriously slow – he did covers. He drew many books that remain famous today: the racism and drug abuse stories in Green Lantern/Green Arrow; the Kree/Skrull War in Avengers; the apocalyptic Sentinel story in X-Men. Everybody wanted to draw like Adams, and before long a lot of artists did.
But that was the 1970s. It’s been decades since Adams was a major player in comics, and other artists are the trend-setters now. But Adams isn’t really gone. When you look at work by superstars like Jim Lee (now co-publisher of DC Comics), you can see Adams. He’s still an influence, and will probably remain so for generations.
So it’s appropriate that Vanguard Productions has published The Art of Neal Adams ($24.95), an overview of Adams’ career. Written by Adams himself, the book has slick paper and high-quality printing to show the art to its best advantage.
Adams has done everything you can do with illustration: Advertising, comic strips (Ben Casey), every genre of comic books, an art studio, his own publishing firm (Continuity Comics), even movie posters. The Art of Neal Adams covers it chronologically, in Adams’ own words. If you want to understand why today’s comic-book artists draw the way they do, you need only glance through these pages.
Captain Britain was the first superhero created by Marvel UK – the British arm of Marvel Comics – back in 1976. Captain Britain Vol. 1: Birth of a Legend ($39.99) reprints roughly the first year of the character’s adventures, and it’s surprising how terrible they are.
Captain Britain was first written by Chris Claremont, who went on to fame in X-Men comics, but in these early days of his career basically strung together snippets of Stan Lee dialogue to poor effect. In the first story he gives Captain Britain a nonsensical origin and lame super-powers that amount to being kinda strong, kinda fast and carrying a stick.
The art was by Herb Trimpe, a second-stringer whose biggest claim to fame is a long run on Incredible Hulk in the ‘70s. And Captain Britain sported one of the ugliest costumes in a genre that’s seen a lot of horrendous haberdashery.
In short, early Captain Britain is just awful, a mish-mash of cliché, amateurism and worse. It gets marginally better when journeyman Gary Friedrich picks up the writing, and the art shifts to several other B-listers. But it’s still nothing to write home about.
Currently Captain Britain is a big player in the Marvel Universe, with A-list super-powers, an X-Men affiliation and a much spiffier outfit. But it’s easy to see why his earliest adventures weren’t included in the Captain Britain Omnibus that came out a couple of years ago, and why it’s taken 35 years for these stories to appear in the United States at all.
Contact Andrew A. Smith of the Memphis Commercial Appeal at firstname.lastname@example.org