- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 20, 2003

Neal Adams ruined comic books for me — and I am eternally grateful. For a decade, starting in 1967, the legendary pencil-and-ink illustrator revolutionized — and dominated — comic books. Now, in “Batman Illustrated,” a slick, full-color $50 hardcover, DC Comics has for the umpteenth time reissued Mr. Adams’ work on his signature character, Batman, whom he rescued from the campy caricature of mid-1960s television and restored to his original Gothic darkness.

After my first taste of Mr. Adams’ supreme command of superhero anatomy, hyper-realistic renderings of human facial expressions, draftsman-caliber depictions of buildings and vehicles, radical reordering of camera-angle perspective and page layout, I could never again read comic books illustrated by anyone else.

Faintly insulting became his predecessors, with their window-pane layouts and stiff, chunky Eisenhower-era clods, and his successors, from 1979 onward. The latter fell into two camps: the Neal wannabes, who invariably fail at their task of god mimicry, and those who determinedly abandon the Neal Way, either to draw Batman like the Hulk, a steroid-addled freak with 150 teeth, or, worse yet, in some annoying avant-garde mixture of pastels and watercolors last seen in Hannibal Lecter’s basement.

Neal Adams also revolutionized the industry — championing socially relevant comics, breaking the barrier against illustrators working simultaneously for DC and Marvel comics, forming an artists guild, securing pensions for Superman’s destitute creators and establishing his own company.

There were also some bumps in the road. Fed up with their royalty structures, Mr. Adams left DC and Marvel in the late 1970s to develop his own creations for Continuity, a profitable effort he cut short to survive the industry-wide collapse in the 1990s. Since that strategic retreat, the native New Yorker, now 62, has made an enviable living from his Manhattan studio, doing storyboards and such for Hollywood and Madison Avenue.

Now, like an apparition from the darkness, comes the new Batman retrospective volume “Batman Illustrated,” the first of a projected three-volume set. But wait. The coloring on a few stories seems new — computerized, deeper, richer, more sophisticated than the four-color candy-dot techniques of 1969. And the lettering on the onomatopoeia — “PFSUNK!” “BLAM!” — is straight-edged, perfect, not hand-drawn. Even much of the penciling itself has been — can it be? — redrawn altogether. Whole pages.

Mr. Adams’ foreword doesn’t mention anything about this — so who had the nerve to mess with his classic work from his peak period? The answer is Neal Adams himself — and many fans aren’t happy.

Erik Larsen, an Adams devotee and creator of “Savage Dragon” on Panels, the Comicon.com chat board, writes: “New Neal DOESN’T DRAW LIKE old Neal — I wanted to SEE those stories as they WERE! I don’t want to see a kinky-haired Superman drawn with a marker sitting next to a panel where he has smooth hair and is inked with a far thinner and more expressive inking tool! Does this look better — to ANYBODY?”

To some, apparently, it does. Mr. Adams says the book, having quickly sold out its 5,000-print run, will likely double that figure and that his mail runs 10-to-1 in support of his fine-tuning. Those defenders descended on Panels like the Flash.

“Even Michelangelo would want to redo some of his stuff if he had the chance,” posted Michael Greczek. Jimmy Helter said he was “quite happy” with the revised reprint, which affords Mr. Adams “the luxury of changing those odd panels where he had to compromise his talent for time.”

“The people who have difficulty with this seem to be the older guys, dyed-in-the-wool collectors from way back,” Mr. Adams said in an hourlong telephone interview from his Midtown aerie at Continuity. Stories regarded as untouchable classics from the 1960s, the artist explained, were often inked, lettered, colored and blocked out by hacks, amateurs and Connecticut housewives, walking embodiments of DC’s myopic stinginess. And even some of the seemingly untouched selections in the new hardcover volume have been recolored not by Mr. Adams, but by anonymous stooges hired by DC, which lost the original pages.

“If you guys are going to [fiddle] with this stuff,” Mr. Adams says he told DC, “at least let me [fiddle] with this stuff.” He added: “I’m trying to reach a new audience, while saying to my old audience, ‘Had it been done properly the first time around, this is what it would have looked like.’”

But is it? As Mr. Larsen noted, new Neal doesn’t draw like old Neal. It’s as if Paul McCartney rereleased the album “A Hard Day’s Night,” but substituted his latter-day voice singing “Can’t Buy Me Love” for the vocal tracks on the 1964 Beatles classic. New Paul doesn’t sing like old Paul.

“I kept it to a minimum,” Mr. Adams says of his revisions. “I might have made a mistake along the way, might have been guilty of a little overdoing it — and if somebody feels shorted by that, I feel bad. But if I didn’t do it, I would have felt bad for the rest of my life.”

As Mr. Adams points out, the original comic books — even some of his original artwork for them — are available through EBay and elsewhere. Arlen Schumer, an Adams worshipper and comic-book historian, closes his new coffee-table retrospective, “The Silver Age of Comic Book Art,” with a lavish spread on the master and his zenith era.

Despite his obsessive attention to past details, Mr. Adams claims to have moved on. Next month, Vanguard Productions will publish “Monsters,” a collection of his old Dracula and alien stories, recolored but not redrawn. The forthcoming Batman collections will require progressively less retouching because, Mr. Adams explains, early-1970s inking steadily improved.

And his life’s work, “A Conversation Between Two Guys in a Bar, or a New Model of the Universe,” will soon be ready for unveiling. It’s a hopelessly ambitious project, of the kind only the contentious Mr. Adams, a science hobbyist, would even attempt. A long-form comic book and TV special on which Mr. Adams has been at work for 35 years, “Two Guys in a Bar” seeks to prove that the Earth grew from a landmass sphere, a theory squarely at odds with current scientific orthodoxy.

Challenging any accredited earth sciences professor to refute him, Mr. Adams brings the same relish to intellectual provocation that he brings to his revolutionary pen-and-ink renderings of fictional heroes.

“I’m not dead,” he says. “An artist has to make a stand.”

James Rosen is a Fox News White House correspondent. His book “The Strong Man: John Mitchell, Nixon and Watergate” will be published next year by Doubleday.

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