Comic artist paves way for renaissance

WITH COMICBOOK HEROES reigning as Hollywood’s golden boys of summer — and projections that the latest Batman sequel, “The Dark Knight,” will clean up more than just Gotham City — it seems appropriate to recognize the unsung heroes that steered modern caped crusaders onto this lucrative path.

Major studios have mounted a corporate takeover of Comic-Con as a vehicle to promote movies and TV shows, but comicbook artists still receive rock star treatment at the San Diego event. And among those artists, none cast a larger shadow over the current cinematic renaissance than Neal Adams.

Teaming with writer Denny O’Neil in 1970, Adams transformed Batman from the “Biff! Bam! Pow!” camp associated with the 1960s TV show starring Adam West back into the sleek, brooding Dark Knight depicted onscreen for the past two decades. By doing so, they helped establish the serious-minded template that has informed the best superhero adaptations that followed.

Expunging the juvenile Batman — a characterization that emerged in response to a laughable 1950s campaign to curb comics’ pernicious effects on children — was pivotal in paving the way for next-generation superheroes. As Adams said, once his take took hold, “I think everybody got it after that. I didn’t have to write an instruction booklet on how to do Batman.”

ADMITTEDLY, this ode to Adams comes from someone weaned on those vintage Batman comics, which possessed a kinetic energy that practically sprang off the page, along with the artist’s lithe, athletic heroes and impossibly sultry women. While two decades covering entertainment has left me blase about movie stars, encountering Adams at Comic-Con instantly transported me back to age 10, when all that art and poetry sold for a cool 15¢.

Nevertheless, it’s not much of a reach to suggest the conflicted, dark, layered superheroes being treated respectfully in their theatrical guises today don’t owe those advances solely to CG wizardry. Equally significant in invigorating these characters is a soberness of tone that truly began with the 1989 “Batman” movie — a comics-based approach employed in subsequent films, including director Christopher Nolan’s bar-raising reboot with “Dark Knight.” It finally vindicates fanboys (or actually, middle-aged fandudes) who have long griped over camp exercises of the past.

“I had a great time watching the TV show, but that wasn’t the Batman I knew,” said Adams, who was initially rebuffed when he proposed taking over the comic. When Adams did get a chance to draw Batman — and readers demanded more — he recalls telling his then-editor, “Me and every kid in America know what Batman ought to be. The only people who don’t know work for DC Comics.”

As rendered by Adams, Batman again became a night-shrouded creature and less a superhero than a grim vigilante — Sherlock Holmes with Olympic-quality athleticism. “Batman is the grittiest character in all of comics,” Adams said. “This is an awfully real concept, so none of this wishy-washy shit would do.”

ADAMS WAS CONSIDERABLY less prolific than, say, Jack Kirby, who in Marvel Comics’ early days churned out a half-dozen titles each month — including Fantastic Four, X-Men and the Hulk. Among his less-publicized achievements, Adams also fought for artists’ rights to control their original artwork and share in the bounty from characters they created. As part of that effort, he lobbied DC Comics to properly compensate Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster.

Given original pages’ explosion in value — Adams’ own routinely sell for $25,000 apiece or more — those efforts represented a boon to later artists, after such material belonged to the companies or was simply discarded, its worth unrecognized. (As he tells it, the burly Adams once threatened to punch a DC employee he found shredding pages.)

Adams fled comics for a while — flexing his artistic muscles in advertising and design — but his influence endured. The late Marshall Rogers arrestingly expanded on the shadowy Batman model in the late ’70s; Frank Miller followed with his landmark graphic novel “Batman: The Dark Knight Returns.”

Filmmakers, many raised on comics, took notice. For Adams, the revolution remains hard to believe, since he contends that comics have never been fully appreciated as an art form and were once “as welcome in America as communists.” Actually, all it took to win Hollywood’s heart was demonstrating that building a darker Dark Knight can pay off in terms of old-fashioned capitalism.

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