Voted number one Batman artist by last year’s Comics Should Be Good poll, Neal Adams is God’s (or Satan’s, if you prefer) gift to fans who like their Batman stories devilishly creepy, diabolically vibrant, and moody as hell.
Adams’ quintessential redesign of the Dark Knight in the late 1960s still feels modern after all these years, eschewing the previous cartoonish style in favor of a combination of musculature and elegance drawn with realistic proportions. This Batman is a cavalier athlete in peak physical shape, although not a bulky bodybuilder like some later iterations. Oh, and he sports a kick-ass vampiric cape. It’s like every night is Halloween.
Neal Adams left his first big mark on Batman comics with his cover work and would go on to draw some of the neatest images to ever grace the stands. And while I don’t think anything could ever beat this cover he did for Phantom Stranger…
… it’s a fact that Adams illustrated tons of covers with the Caped Crusader that have forever become feverishly ingrained in my imagination.
Although he excelled at action and adventure, Adams had a special flair for brooding ambiance. This is particularly noticeable in a long strand of gothic covers that could fit comfortably next to a set of Universal Horror movie posters:
As you can see, Neal Adams could pull off the kind of nightmarish vibe old fairy tales are made of, evoking haunted mansions and ancient curses while making even silly plots reek with looming evil. It’s no wonder that Adams quickly became the go-to artist for comics in which the Dark Knight faced especially grotesque or phantasmagorical foes. Inked by Dick Giordiano, he memorably pitted Batman against, among others, the deranged Muerto couple, the scythe-yielding Reaper, and a goddamn werewolf:
To be fair, a lot of credit for the ghoulish atmosphere has to go to the colorists for these books (which is why I can’t stand the recent collections reprinting Neal Adams’ old comics with horribly bright recoloring).
Still, regardless of the color palette, it’s hard to ignore Adams’ sense of design. His most prominent creation is probably the sinister Ra’s al Ghul, whose depiction captured the Orientalism inherent in the character’s origins while giving him distinct enough features to elevate him beyond a mere racial stereotype:
Besides Ra’s al Ghul, another lasting contribution to the imagery surrounding the Caped Crusader was the infamous Man-Bat:
As evidenced by this image, although renowned for having increased the level of realism in Batman’s art, Neal Adams was also not above some freaky experimentation in terms of page layout:
Indeed, there is a pretty trippy side to Neal Adams. Most of the roughly thirty stories featuring the Dark Knight he drew from 1968 to 1975 were written by authors with strong authorial voices, like Denny O’Neil and Frank Robbins. However, recently Adams was allowed to unleash upon the Batman universe his full creative power as both writer and artist. And the result was nothing short of mesmerizingly insane.
Batman: Odyssey is storytelling on acid, with jarring dialogue, countless non-sequiturs, bizarre characterization, and a disjointed plot that includes, among other things, the Caped Crusader going to war at the bottom of the Earth alongside a beatnik wizard, glowing aliens, a gun-toting Neanderthal dressed like the Huntress, and a dinosaur version of Robin. Let there be no doubt: it’s a fascinating mess of a comic.
Unfettered by logic or (apparently) editorial oversight, Odyssey may be borderline incomprehensible, but at least we should be thankful that it allowed Neal Adams to draw all the awesome ideas that came to his delirious mind:
NEXT: Batman goes on a date.