Legendary comic book artist Neal Adams inspired and trained a generation of new artists to be better and more productive, and fought for the rights of comics creators to be paid fairly and to own the characters they created. But he also drew and often co-wrote some of the most iconic storylines for Batman, Green Lantern, the X-Men, and Avengers, many of which still resonate today and inspired many of the cooler on-screen visuals and storylines in recent movies.
Here are the most influential works of his nearly 60-year career.
DC's Strange Adventures #206-216: “An Eye for an Eye”
Neal Adams' first big foray from drawing comic strips was an opportunity to do some war books for DC, then he got his big chance. Taking over penciling duties from co-creator Arnold Drake, Adams got to fully flesh out the character of Deadman/Boston Brand, an acrobat who died and then was “resurrected” by the Hindu goddess, Rama Kushna, who gave his spirit the power to possess any living being. While searching for his own killer, a la The Fugitive TV show, Deadman used his powers to assist others.
Adams' work was praised on the comic, which did better in sales than expected, leading Adams to other more iconic DC characters and books. In the 11-issue run, Adams and writer Jack Miller introduced the hidden city of Nanda Parbat, significant in the CW’s Arrowverse shows. In 2018, Adams even got to return to the character and tell the end of his story, 50 years later.
Superman vs Muhammed Ali
Despite DC comics' reality existing in a parallel universe to our own – Gotham is Chicago, Metropolis is New York, etc., in the 1970’s Superman interacted with a slew of celebrities, including JFK, Bob Hope, Jerry Lewis, and Pat Boone. But his most fabulous face-off was with Muhammed Ali. The once and future heavyweight champion of the world agrees to an alien demand that he fight a depowered Superman to prove who is truly the greatest of them all. In the end, Ali declares them both winners and vows to keep Superman’s Clark Kent’s identity a secret.
The wraparound cover featured Neal Adams' depiction of tons of celebrities and DC heroes in the crowd. These included Frank Sinatra, Lucille Ball, Batman, Johnny Carson, Green Lantern, the cast of Welcome Back, Kotter, Wonder Woman, President Jimmy Carter and The Jackson 5. Reportedly, Adams also snuck in the likenesses of several DC and Warner Bros. employees.
The Avengers #89–97: The Kree-skrull War
Following their short, but successful run on X-Men, Neal Adams, and Roy Thomas were assigned to The Avengers (which had always been Stan’s plan, according to Adams). Coming up with a wide-reaching galactic war concept, loosely reflecting the issues of McCarthyism, they pitted the two major alien races against each other. It would manage to connect many of the Marvel characters, foreshadowing the huge crossover events that Marvel would later be known for. It also introduced the Vision – Scarlet Witch romance, and inspired elements of both the recent Captain Marvel movie and the upcoming Secret Invasion series from Disney+.
Detective Comics #400: “Challenge of the Man-bat!”
Long before Morbius tried to cure his rare blood disease, Dr. Kirk Langstrom was experimenting with a serum that could endow people with enhanced auditory abilities via a specialized bat gland extract. Of course, he tests it on himself. And begins mutating, into a Man-Bat. In his introduction, he helps Batman ward off some museum thieves, but runs off when asked about his “costume.”
Over the years, he would mutate more, developing wings, and alternately be a friend and foe to Batman, even developing a Jekyll and Hyde variation on the serum, allowing him to become Man-Bat at will. Years later in Secret Origins, Langstrom became a childhood friend of Bruce Wayne, and it was he who had fallen into a cave of bats below Gotham – that later would inspire such scenes for Batman’s origins in the comics and Nolan’s films.
(Uncanny) X-men #56-66: Havok, Sauron and Resurrections Galore
When Neal Adams approached Stan Lee about doing freelance work for Marvel, while still doing the same for DC, he asked Stan which was their worst-performing book. Lee told him X-Men, which was on the verge of cancellation. Adams, as would become a pattern in his career, essentially said ‘challenge accepted.’ Because of dwindling sales, the stories in the book were wandering. Professor X was dead – the most definitive comic book death ever at the time – and Magneto was missing, presumed dead. Adams took some dangling threads from the previous issue writer Roy Thomas and artist Warner Roth had created and began building a legacy.
The first addition was to take Cyclops’ brother Alex, and contain his newly acquired mutant powers in a suit, naming him Havok. Then he brought back the classic X-Men baddies, the Sentinels and the son of their now-dead creator, Trask. All of that laid the groundwork where he would eventually show that Xavier’s death was a ruse perpetrated by the Professor and Changeling (borrowed a little for the film Logan), and would re-introduce Magneto, for the first time seeing his face, all connected with the Savage Lands, Ka-Zar, and a new vampiric bad guy who would steal his moniker from a Tolkien villain – Sauron. All in all, Adams nearly revived one of the most popular – and populous – Marvel teams, but to no avail. However, years later, Chris Claremont would cite Adams and Thomas’ run on the series as the inspiration for his epic run on the X-men comics.
Green Lantern (Co-starring Green Arrow) #76-89: “In Brightest Day, in Blackest Night…”
As apparently often happened in Neal Adams' career, Adams and Dennis O’Neill were assigned to a comic book that was on the verge of cancellation. In this case, Green Lantern, Vol. 2, which the two creatives rebranded a bit with what would become an iconic crossover – Green Lantern and Green Arrow. O’Neill and Adams sent the two mismatched heroes on a road trip through modern America (and occasionally into space?) to face off against the evils of the world, including racism, drug addiction, poor treatment of Native Americans, media influence, and more. While the 14 issues produced some of the most famous GL storylines – two of which made this list separately, the book was canceled put on hiatus for 4 years.
Green Lantern #85–86: “Snowbirds Don’t Fly”
This two-parter is easily the most famous Green Lantern story of all time. Reportedly, Adams was also the person who came up with the story idea, although the script was still penned by Denny O’Neill. In the opening, Green Arrow is accosted by muggers who shoot at him with a crossbow – loaded with his personal brand of arrows. Investigating, Hal Jordan and Oliver Queen discover the arrows came from a group of junkies, including Roy “Speedy” Harper, Ollie’s sidekick. They think he’s just working undercover – until Queen walks in on Speedy shooting up with heroin. An enraged Oliver scares Roy into going cold turkey, but not before others die.
The issue was the first to depict a good guy falling prey to drug addiction. In order to do Adams' cover, Marvel and DC sat down with the Comics Code and rewrote parts to allow real-world issues to be front and center, as long as they weren’t glamorized.
Green Lantern #87: “Beware My Power”
The Speedy addiction storyline was followed immediately by the introduction of a new character – a backup Green Lantern by the name of John Stewart. Guy Gardner, the first earth-based GL backup is injured in an earthquake and the Guardians come to Hal Jordan, insisting that a replacement be selected – and they have a man in mind. Jordan is at first dubious because he meets Stewart standing up to a cop – the guy’s got authority issues, but the Guardian insists. Stewart manages to foil a plot to make him look like an out-of-control Black man and gains Jordan’s respect.
He would sit mostly on the sidelines for the rest of the ’70s, but become the titular character in the relaunched Green Lantern title in the ’80s. Stewart became the chosen GL for most of DC’s Justice League animations and it’s been hinted many times that David Ramsey’s Diggle from the Arrowverse may someday be a Green Lantern – maybe in the upcoming Justice U?
Batman # 232: “Daughter of the Demon”
After Batman discovers Robin has been kidnapped, he’s approached – in the Batcave – by a man named Ra's al Ghul, who has deduced that the hero and Bruce Wayne are the same man. He convinces Batman to go with him to Calcutta to rescue his daughter Talia, who’s also been kidnapped. Even though the issue was a one-off adventure, Neal Adams and Dennis O’Neill had introduced two major forces to the Bat-canon. Ra’s would become an ongoing sometimes villain, sometimes ally to Batman and Talia, who falls in love with Bruce, would be his on-again, off-again lover – eventually bearing his son, who’s the latest Robin in the books. Ra’s and Talia would also play major roles in the Nolan Bat trilogy of movies.
Batman #251: “The Joker's Five-way Revenge!”
After the success of the Adam West – Burt Ward Batman television series, many of the comic characters started to take on the campy appearance and style of the TV characters. The Joker, in particular, went from a homicidal maniac to a dangerous, but fun and foppish Cesar Romero-esque prankster. But that would all change, thanks to this one-off guest-crafted issue from Neal Adams and Dennis O’Neill. The Joker escapes from an unnamed mental hospital (O’Neill would introduce Arkham Asylum a few issues later). He immediately goes on a violent revenge quest to take out the five members of his gang – one of whom betrayed him to the cops. He manages to take out four of the men before Batman catches up with him.
The last member of the gang is poised in his wheelchair over a shark tank – a brief nod to the Rube Goldberg type of contraptions from the TV show. Batman manages to save the man and beats the crap out Joker before sending him back to the hospital. This reinvigorated portrayal of the Joker would continue through the comics from then on and inspire everyone from Jack Nicholson to Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the comedic criminal. This issue also has a line of dialogue that both encapsulates and still haunts the character interaction between Bats and the Joker to this day. Joker chooses not to kill Batman when he’s knocked unconscious because he’s “always envisioned my winning as a result of cunning at the end of a bitter struggle between Batman and myself.”
This article was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.
Paul Rose Jr has worked as TV News Producer, Forensic Analyst, and Train Conductor, among many other things. He’s the former TV Editor for Infuzemag.com and owns more books, DVDs, and comics than most people have seen in their lifetimes. When he’s not writing articles, he exercises his creative muscle writing screenplays and acting in film and television in Los Angeles, CA.