From the TCJ Archives

The 1978 Neal Adams interview

The following interview is from The Comics Journal #43 (December 1978). It was conducted on August 6, 1978 at Con Con (Hyattsville, Maryland) by Gary Groth, who also transcribed and edited it.

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GARY GROTH: Why aren’t you doing much comic book work now?

NEAL ADAMS: The reason I’m not doing much comic book work now is because there’s a contract that’s being handed out by the two major comic book companies called the work-for-hire contract. I consider this contract to be against the intent of the new copyright law, and I will not work under those conditions or sign such a contract.

If and when the situation changes, what would you like to do?

I’d like to do some covers for DC. There are a couple of characters that I haven’t fooled around with that I wouldn’t mind fooling around with. One of them is Aquaman and one of them is Captain America.

What would you like to do with them?

Do them right.

How is that?

Well, I’d have to do ’em. I mean, if I said I felt like I knew how to do Green Lantern or Green Arrow right, I’d have to really do it to do it. So, it’s really a situation where I’d have to do it.

Adams got to do Aquaman in Batman: Odyssey #5 (January 2011)

Do you prefer to write your own books?

I enjoy writing my own books, but I have no real preference. I like working with a good writer and I like working with myself.

Who do you think is the best writer you’ve worked with?

I would have to say Roy Thomas. I would say that Denny O’Neil comes a rather close second.

Roy Thomas’s X-Men?

Yeah. And the Avengers and Conan.

Do you prefer working Marvel-style?

I have no preferences as far as style is concerned.

Can you tell me the different approaches required when drawing a strip Marvel style and drawing a strip DC-style?

It seems to me that most everybody knows the difference between the Marvel style and the DC style. From my point of view the Marvel style and DC style are very, very different only because I’m given an opportunity, in the Marvel style, to more-or-less plot my own stories rather completely with very simple directions from the writer that I work with, which is Roy Thomas. When I work for DC, I get full scripts. So, the difference is a very, very strong difference. In some cases, I suppose, it isn’t.

It would seem to me that with the Marvel style, you would have much more freedom as to how you tell the story, with the page design and pacing. Is that true?

I’m a person who is adaptable to different disciplines. I don’t feel oppressed by a discipline. Within the style of DC I find tremendous freedom within the style of Marvel I find tremendous freedom. I don’t really have the criterion that goes along in those ways.; If I’m working in the Marvel style t would prefer to have total freedom to plot the story myself. If I’m working in the DC style I would prefer to work with a good writer. Those are my only criteria. If I liked one over the other, then I would do that one. I don’t have any preferences.

You mentioned to me earlier that the book you most enjoyed working on was the Superman-Ali book. What was so special about that book?

The one thing I found special is that it represented what I consider to be part of the future of the comic book business. It was a way to do a comic book that was 72 pages long. It wasn’t really a series of incidents but was indeed a short novel. I feel that the industry has not done short novels or stories for a long time in most cases. Each of the large books that DC has done recently was more one incident after another rather than a story. I enjoyed working with a story, I enjoyed taking the time and effort to do the kind of job I felt it deserved, and I enjoyed the size. I enjoyed controlling the book. I enjoyed experimenting, and I also enjoyed, to tell you the truth, expressing ideas that I had never expressed before. My problem — and I still can’t call it a problem — my situation is that the last job that I did is my favorite job. My next favorite job will be the next job that I do — assuming that I do a good job, or at least what I consider a good job.

Have you ever worked on a book where, in the middle of the story, you wished you’d never started it?

If I had, I would’ve forgotten it immediately and not concentrated on it. I don’t think that that’s been so. There have been a couple of cases — first, the Mars book. Not the Mars book — what’s the name of the book? It was a carry-on of the invasion thing—

“War of the Worlds?”

“War of the Worlds,” yeah. I was discouraged by that book because in the middle of the book, it was handed to another writer, and I became really discouraged by it. Similarly, I was working on a black-and-white Conan book, and after I’d done page five, I was told that the story was gonna be shortened from a 26-page story to a 19-page story, and that just blew my guts right out. I didn’t know what the hell to do, so I jammed the story into the few pages that I had and it created a very confused book. Once I had started accepting the criterion of that job and when I discovered I didn’t have those pages I was helpless. I couldn’t shorten the story. That kind of thing hurts me. That kind of thing bothers my storytelling and gives me a great deal of problems.

From Conan the Barbarian #37 (April 1974), written by Roy Thomas, colored by Glynis Wein, and lettered by John Costanza.

That kind of thing happens fairly often, doesn’t it? Switching writers and artists.

Yeah. Well, it doesn’t happen often to me, but when it does happen, I’m thrown for a loss. It’s very, very bad for me — because once I get a story in my mind, I have it worked out, I have it pinned down, and I generally want to just carry it through the way it’s going. To be thrown off base like that is very, very difficult. It’s like a movie going to another writer in the middle of it and not knowing quite what to do with it.

Could you answer a few questions about storytelling? In an interview with Marty Pasko [Journal #37], Pasko said that you broke the 180° line with impunity — that is, you would draw a fight scene from one side of the fight and then, in the next panel, show the fight progressing from the opposite side. Do you think that hurts storytelling?

One of the concepts I feel very strongly about is that rules are made to be broken. If you can break a rule and do it in an interesting and different way, then it’s almost your obligation to break a rule. I find it fairly common to discover that people find my stories rather easy to read as opposed to difficult to read except in those cases where I go out of my way to make them difficult to read. An example of that would be the X-Men books. I was aware that the X-Men books, for the young mind, were difficult to read. They were just too confused and too packed full of information and material. Yet I didn’t feel we were selling to a young audience so I didn’t have any trouble with it. On the other hand, I feel my Batman stories can be read by anybody and understood by anybody. As a matter of fact, it’s not even necessary to read the words of the Batman stories. If I do a job one way one time I don’t feel obligated to do another job the same way the next time. If I did, then I would obviously do something else with my career. I would go into another business. It’s not my job, nor do I feel an obligation, to create a story that will be understood by minute minds. I feel it’s my job to be a leader and to create new ways of telling stories. So, although it’s possible that Marty Pasko doesn’t understand the complicated· storytelling that I create I feel that there are some people who actually do understand it and don’t have any trouble with it.

From "What is ... the Power?" in X-Men #56 (May 1969) written by Roy Thomas, inked by Tom Palmer, lettered by Herb Cooper.

Could you describe the differences in the complicated storytelling of the X-Men and the simpler storytelling in Batman? What makes one more complicated than the other?

I think that would take a very complicated and technical description, and I don’t think I could quite do it. If you are, or your readers are, willing to take my word for it, then perhaps they will be good enough to get an X-Men and a Batman story and compare them themselves and see what the difference is. I would suggest as two ideal ones, the Batman freak story and, actually, any one of the X-Men books.

Speaking of the complicated storytelling in the X-Men, what purpose do the diagonal panels serve, the almost-shatter effect of the page?

There are a number of purposes to a diagonal panel. In one case it may be to irritate. In another case, it might be to excite, in another case it might be to direct the eye. To describe the various reasons of why one uses a diagonal panel or any technique would be the same as trying to describe why five different directors would film a scene five different ways. In each case there’s a different reason. In each case it’s planned. In each case it’s worked out. It’s a conscious act. It would really take another person who would wish to take the time to analyze my work, to write down all the reasons I do my things. When I do them I do them consciously, and I do them with malice of forethought, or with kindness of forethought, but I really don’t have the time to explain each time I do it. It’s up to the critics to decide why a person does it or to define why they do it, or to discuss it. It’s not up to me because I’m too busy doing it. There are people who are sympathetic to my way of storytelling and people who are definitely not sympathetic to my way of storytelling and I seek to communicate to those people who are sympathetic to it, and not at all to communicate with people who are not sympathetic to it, because that would be a really big waste of time.

Gil Kane mentioned that there were, roughly, two kinds of artists: the instinctual artist and the more thought-out artist who methodically plans every step. Would you fit into the latter category?

I would like to feel that I fit into both categories. There are times when planning can be guided by instinct. I think the world is too full of people who have discovered that there are two ways that things can be done.

When you plan out a book like the Superman-Ali book or the X-Men books, do you work page by page or do you rough out the entire story, or what?

As a matter of fact, what I do is I lay out my page tightly, small, very carefully, and I transfer that rough by means of an opaque projector to a large page. That’s the technique I’m currently using.

Would you lay out 72 pages at the same time?

No, I might do it in clumps of eight to 12 pages.

From "The Sentinels Live!" in X-Men #57 (June 1969), written by Roy Thomas, penciled by Adams, inked by Tom Palmer, lettered by Sam Rosen.

Could you tell us a little about the evolution of the Superman-Ali book, how you came to write it, and so forth?

What happened was that Denny O’Neil submitted a synopsis. The synopsis was accepted by the Ali people. Denny, myself, and Julie Schwartz discussed the synopsis and what changes should be made in the synopsis very, very briefly. Denny then wrote the 72 page script over a period of about two months or so, and I had started penciling it. By the time I had received the last of it, the last of the 72 pages, I had penciled, I suppose, about four or· five pages of it, I was a little bit perturbed by the way the script went. I felt some of the original flavor of the synopsis was gone — Julie Schwartz’s reaction was that it had just gone off in the wrong direction somehow, it just wasn’t doing what it was supposed to do. So. he asked me to stop working on the book, and we got together for an editorial meeting, and at the editorial meeting we talked over the direction the book was going and how we could get past this difficulty. I made some suggestions that Julie and Denny agreed would be a good direction for the book to go in, and we agreed that I would do it Marvel-style so that Denny wouldn’t have to write a whole new script. That seemed to be very logical. I, indeed, proceeded on that track. What happened subsequently with that, for whatever reason — I’m not very clear on the reasons — Denny went to California* on some sort of hiatus and at the same time asked to be let off the book. It was a rather abrupt decision. The editorial staff at DC were kind of thrown for a loss. And rather than let someone else jump into the middle of the situation I asked the editor whether or not I could please finish writing the book. The editor seemed to think it was a pretty good idea and let me do it, so I continued from that point on.

[*Denny O’Neil disputes Adams’ version of this story. O’Neil does not deny going to California. But says that: 1. He asked to be taken off the Superman-Ali book before he went to California, and that his trip to California had nothing to do with this decision to be taken off the book. And 2. He continued writing on the West Coast and maintained his professional commitments unimpaired while in California.]

Is there any part of the book that remains Denny’s writing?

I would say much of the dialog in the first 23 pages is Denny’s.

Was that one of the reasons the book took so long to do?

No. It took so long to do because I was busy making a living. It’s very difficult to make a living and draw comic books at the same time. ·

Why is that?

Well, because drawing comic books takes a lot of time and if you want to make a living, you can’t afford that time, and I intended to make a living and to draw that comic, so I was allowed to take as much time as I could.

Would it be unfair to say that you have problems meeting deadlines?

Ummmm. That’s an interesting question. Do you have another way of phrasing that?

I thought that was a pretty adroit way of putting it.

Let me put it this way: Everybody has problems with deadlines. I would suggest that was not an adroit way to put it. Why don’t you, for the sake of the question and for the sake of my answer, think of another way to put it, and we can see whether we can come to some sort of mutual understanding on the question.

I understand that you have a reputation in the comics industry of missing deadlines quite often. I’m not accusing you of that. I was just asking whether or not that is accurate.

I have a reputation of having great difficulty with deadlines. On the other hand, any book that I was assigned to do and was given a deadline for, that I’m aware of, that I was allowed to finish, I finished within the deadline or if I finished outside the deadline, it did not stop the book from being published when it was supposed to be published. So, although I have this reputation, there seems to be a great deal of attention paid to it, so it’s very difficult to avoid it. Once you get a reputation started, it’s difficult to get out from under that reputation. So, I would prefer to say yes: I have trouble with deadlines, but any time I have been asked to get a job in at a particular time, if I have been late, I have not been late to the extent that it has been impossible to put that book out. As a matter of fact, any time that a book was put out and it was insisted that the book was put out so that I could catch up on my deadlines or whatever, it was put out without consulting me. There was a time when a Green Lantern reprint was put in as an editorial decision long before any deadline was up.

Is that right?


Did Infantino make that editorial decision?

I don’t know. I assume it was made between Julie Schwartz and Carmine Infantino. I think Carmine Infantino was a little bit annoyed that the Green Lantern/Green Arrow series was getting a lot of attention and that I couldn’t do his covers while I was turning out Green Lantern/Green Arrow. You must understand the situation I was in. I was being asked to turn out Green Lantern/Green Arrow, but I was also being asked to do five covers a week for DC Comics. If you’ll recall the time, I was not only penciling those covers, I was penciling, inking, and coloring those covers. So, when people talk about my having trouble with deadlines, they tend to forget to mention things like, “Well, while Neal was having trouble turning out Green Lantern/Green Arrow, Neal was also being asked by Carmine Infantino to turn out approximately five covers a week, pencils, inks, and colors. And when he let down on doing those covers and insisted that Green Lantern/Green Arrow was more important, it was insisted to him by the publishers that indeed it was much more important to get out those covers because those covers sold more books. And, after all, Green Lantern/Green Arrow wasn’t that important after all.” Now, from that point of view, whatever problems I had with the Green Lantern/Green Arrow series were created by publishing decisions. The X-Men, similarly, it was insisted that there were {deadline] difficulties. But it wasn’t until I did — I don’t know how many it was, five or six — that they threw in an issue that was not done by myself, and the fact is that the reason that issue was thrown in was very simply 42 because an artist was asked to do a fill-in issue and it was discovered that I was turning out the book fast enough not to need that fill-in issue, so they decided to throw it in anyway, since it was already drawn. I had no trouble with the Batman books. They came out when they were supposed to come out. It’s just that it’s so hard to get out from under. Also, when you find yourself in a position like mine, you tend to be a target. If the only thing that people can complain about my work is that I’m late on deadlines — and people want to complain about something — that’s what they’ll complain about. I can understand that.

The first cover Adams did for the X-Men. It was rejected.

By the nature of the industry, you have to do so much work every month …

Not true. Absolutely not true. You can be assigned a job and be told that it’ll be due in four. months and just have other people do the other jobs in between.

But can you make a living doing that?

No. It would be very difficult making a living doing that.

So, if you want to make a living in comics you have to turn out x-number of pages every week, every month.


Do you ever have creative dry spells, where you just don’t want to draw?

Never. Never happen. I’ve got too much to do and too much I want to do for that to happen. If that ever happened I’d do something else. I haven’t had the opportunity to do one fifth of what I want to do.

What do you want to do outside of commercial comics? Do you have any ideas in that direction?

I have many ideas ...

I remember reading an anti-Vietnam story you did for a limited edition magazine called Phase I many years ago. It particularly impressed me. Are you interested in doing that kind of thing?

Since you mentioned that particular story, l have a story I’m going to be doing in that same style, but for a much broader subject. Unfortunately, I can’t talk about it. It’s something between a 300 and 700 page book that would be done in that style. As soon as I finish my research I’ll know how many pages it’s going to be. But it will definitely be a very ambitious undertaking and one that I look forward to and am involved in now with incredible enthusiasm.

Who’s going to publish this?

I have no idea who’s going to publish it, I have never found myself in a position of doing a story and not finding a publisher, so I’m not concerned about that. I think I could safely say that if I did a story I wouldn’t have a lot of trouble getting somebody to publish it.

You said a 300 to 700 page book..?

That’s what I said. It’s a very ambitious project.

What do you think of some of the newer developments in comics such as Byron Preiss’s books?

I think they’re terrific. I think most of Byron’s books are boring.

What do you find terrific about them?

I think that his trying new things is terrific. I also think that Gray Morrow’s book is not, absolutely not, boring. I think it’s a terrific job. Gray Morrow’s —

Illustrated Zelazny?

Yeah, Zelazny book, is to me the most successful book that Byron has undertaken so far. I think that if things go in that direction, he’ll turn out a raft of fantastic books.

Do you think this is the direction comics might take?

No. I think that some of them might take that direction, but I think traditional comics with traditional word numbering are the future of comics. I don’t think that people can read more than 20 words or 24 words in a balloon or a caption box and still consider it a comic book. If you have too many words you tend not to read it the same way you would read comic books. You can’t put words and pictures together that way.

If a comic shouldn’t have more than 25 words or so in a balloon or caption, do you consider Gray Morrow’s Zelazny book a “comic book?”

I consider it as something in between a comic book and a novel.

Is there anything special that the Zelazny book has over a regular comic book?

Over? No, nothing over. It’s just that it’s got better reproduction, it has a greater sense of detail. But it’s improperly spaced as far as the amount of copy to pictures. There’s too much copy. I would take the time to read it because it’s beautiful.

Aren’t these hybrid forms a new development in comic art? We’ve had Steranko’s Chandler, and now Zelazny’s visual stories ...

Well, see, that’s the thing that bothers me. People keep on trying to do different things. To me, the problem is not to do it differently, the problem is to do it better. The comic book is an almost perfect form. I don’t know what would make it perfect, but it seems to be very close to perfect. So, the question to me has nothing to do with “How do you make it better as a form?” because it is perfect. The question is, “How do you get people to enjoy it more?” and that is to present it better. It can’t be different because it’s good the way it is. It’s like doing a movie without sound — it’s a waste of time.

You think silent films are a waste of time?

Silent films would be a waste of time now because now we have sound. It’s a waste of time to do a comic book that is overloaded with words because we’ve already discovered the correct ratio to words to pictures, to change that is a big waste of time, unless somebody comes along with a new and different idea and certainly Byron hasn’t done that. I think it’s outrageously arrogant of him to assume he has.

You think Preiss assumes that?

Oh yeah. You know, I love Steranko’s Chandler, but I think it’s boring as hell. I think it’s a beautiful art job, and a beautiful attempt at something different, but I just can’t read it. I’m not going to sit down and read that thing, because there are just too many words. And I can’t alter my brain to go “wo-O-O-O-ords, pictures, wo-O-O-O-ords, pictures.” I’d rather go, “words, pictures, words, pictures.” It’s a good rhythm, it’s easy to do, it makes a lot of sense. I doubt that anybody picking up the Chandler book reads it the first time through. I’m sure they leaf all the way through it and then put it aside for some night when they have the time and then they read it. That’s not true of a comic book. That’s less true of Gray [Morrow]’s book, because you can actually put your time aside and read it slowly and still enjoy the pictures. With Chandler you can’t quite do that. There’s not enough there.

I believe Gil Kane said that there was no real reason to design Chandler that way, that the self-imposed restrictions and the pictures served no real function.

Exactly. Exactly. That’s true.

From Fiction Illustrated Vol. 3 Chandler: Red Tide, by Steranko.

You said comics were a perfect form. What did you mean by that?

They specifically do the job that they intend to do. They entertain, they balance the right amount of pictures to the right amount of words. For example, it’s wonderful to run across a full page Jack Kirby job, or a double-page spread with no words. But, if you had a 20-page book, made up of double page spreads with no words, by the time you turned three pages, you’d just be bored looking at it. Exciting as it would be, it would be boring because there’s nothing to hold your mind. You need an anchor to hold your attention, you need something to attract. If you don’t have anything to attract, it doesn’t work. By the same token, you had a full page of copy and one little spot of art on the page, you would not be interested in the art and you would not be interested in the copy, because there are too many words. It’s just the same way a movie is — there are enough words or enough story for the movie. You’ll find that a movie that’s all image and no story can be boring, even though the images are great. Similarly, if you find a movie that’s all story and no images, you’ll get bored. It happens a lot of times. It’s the balance between images and story that makes the entertainment, and if you want to draw an analogy between those, I think it’s true of both comics and movies.

You consciously aim your stories at specific audiences …

At times.

From "You Can't Hide from a Deadman" In The Brave and the Bold #86 (October-November 1969), written and penciled by Adams, inked by Dick Giordano.

You mentioned Batman appealing to a younger audience, X-Men appealing to an older audience …

I wouldn’t limit myself to that. I would say Batman was aimed at a more general audience that encompasses a greater number of people. It can be understood by a smarter person or a person who is not willing to take the time to stay with it. On the other hand, The X-Men is not easily understood by a younger audience. It’s difficult for me to allow myself to fall under the influence of the lowest common denominator. Nor do I feel it is valid in our industry to do such a thing. I think that there are times and there are places for that, but they’re not all the times, and they’re not all the places. I think, for example, when good comic books are being produced, that an odd Jim Steranko or Neal Adams once in a while adds a little spice to the industry, keeps everybody on their toes. For example, I feel that Steranko and myself and Barry Smith brought a lot of college students into the comic book reading crowd. Now, what that did, in my opinion, was broaden the market. Whereas the books may not have sold well, it brought a new audience into the market. It might have affected sales across the board. It might have added to the sales of all the other books while it didn’t much help the books we were working on. I think such a concept is important to consider because how do you bring a new audience into the comic book reading market? If your sales are steadily going down, then you can’t depend on good, solid, run-of-the-mill comic books to bring in new people because they won’t. You’ve got to depend on the crazies, you’ve got to depend on the people who will go out and grab a market and pull them in. And, if you can’t do that, if you don’t have those people, then the market will just do down. What’s happening now is that a sense of mediocrity is setting into comic books and there’s nobody out there pulling outside markets into the comic book business, into the comic book market. Because that’s not happening, sales are steadily going downward. Not only that, there’s an additional factor that’s hurting comic books, and that is simply that comic books are related to one another. The Legion of Super-Heroes are so interlocked one book to the next that if you pick up the third book of the series, you don’t understand what the hell’s going on. Now, consider an eight year old kid trying to read the Legion of Super-Heroes. He can’t read it. He doesn’t know who these people are, what they’re doing, how they work, how they operate. And that’s who you have to sell your books to.

But the Legion is one of the best-selling books.

It’s going down. It’s going down because the generation of people who read it are moving away, and new generations are not picking it up. It’s a self-inflicted masturbatory delight. There’s the sense of enjoying it too much, of getting too much into it, so that you can’t gain a new audience, and so the old audience begins to leave it as the years go by, you don’t pick up the new audience. You have to get a new audience all the time. And maybe it’s worth it to hold onto it for a long period of time, but when the sales start dwindling, then it’s time to pick it up and look at it and say, “Hey, what are we doing wrong?” And I think it’s a good idea for DC to go ahead and do that. I think you can only afford guys like Steranko and myself when you’re doing well,. On the other hand, you need guys like Steranko and myself when you’re doing badly.

Why don’t you think artists like Barry Smith and Steranko and yourself sell?

Because we’re too different. You buy what you’re used to buying. You’re not going to attract a general audience by doing different stuff because little kids, those people who are going to be your mass market, are not going to turn onto it for a long period of time. It takes a good year to get somebody used to a new idea, to get a market used to a new idea. No comic book concept, from the Fantastic Four to Conan, was an immediate success. None of them. They all took a year or two to catch on. And as a matter of fact, Conan almost failed in that same period of time. It takes a while for the news to get around. By the time the news got around to Green Lantern/ Green Arrow it was cancelled.

How important is the story — as differentiated from the artwork — to the sale of a comic book?

Well, although it is true that a comic book can survive a bad story and it cannot survive bad art, a comic book cannot on a long-term basis survive a bad story and I suppose it can’t survive bad art. In the end, bad writing is harder to correct than bad art. It’s a lot easier to correct bad art. You can correct bad art with mediocre art, but you cannot correct bad writing with mediocre writing. You really have to have pretty good writing. You have to realize that the comic book audience is a changing, volatile, and young audience. You’re not talking about a television watching audience that doesn’t change year after year. You’re talking about kids who are eight and two years from now will be ten and two years from then will be 12. Every year a whole group of kids get out of the market and a whole group of kids come into the market, and if you’re not there attracting those new kids, then the ones that go out will not be replaced by the ones that come in. So, you have to create a constantly attractive package that will attract those kids.

Why do you think the comics industry doesn’t publish comics for different age levels, creating a diverse product so that comics can grow with kids, whatever age they start reading comics?

Why don’t they do it? It’s because they’re stupid. I don’t know why they don’t do it. It doesn’t make sense to me, a lot of the things the industry does. I can’t figure it out. I’m not saying that I know all the answers, but some of the things that they do — I mean, I have some real simple answers for them, all they’ve got to do is ask. Dollar Comics — now that’s a good idea.

I believe the Dollar books are selling several percentage points higher than the lower-priced comics.

Not only are they selling several percentage points higher, but each percentage point counts for a great deal more and the break-even is a lot lower. Furthermore, advertising in comics hardly pays for the paper it’s printed on. The fact is they don’t have a good advertising program. They don’t go out and solicit advertising. They don’t know how. Comic books don’t solicit anything. The reason they don’t solicit is because they’ve never been in a position of having to compete. They don’t know how to do it. They don’t know how to advertise their product either. They don’t know how to take $12,000 and put an ad in a national magazine and say, “Hey, folks, comics are good for your kids.” They’d rather pay Mike — uh —


Yeah, they’d rather pay Mike Gold to send out crummy letters to the Daily News.

Do you think they should aim advertising at parents?

Absolutely. They don’t have to aim ads at kids.

Kids don’t read national magazines.

They tend to read comic books.

Written by Denny O'Neil, penciled by Adams, inked by Dick Giordano/Terry Austin, lettered by Gaspar Saladino

But they’re reading them less and less. There was a big push for the Superman-Ali book, wasn’t there?

Yes, but the push was a negative push in my opinion.

What do you mean?

What they did was say, “Here’s a $2.50 Muhammad Ali comic book. Here’s Muhammad Ali ripping you off again, folks!” I mean, what the hell is that? I don’t know how it should have been designed, but somebody should have sat down and said, “How can we positively approach the promotion for the Superman-Muhammad Ali book,” not “How do we get it mentioned in the newspapers?” because a mention in the newspapers can be negative and can cause people to turn against it.

And the Superman-Ali book has not sold well?

That’s what they tell me up at ol’ DC. I think that the companies are spending too much time not capitulating and not treating freelancers fairly, and it’s just making their books worse and worse. I wish they’d come around. I think they could use all the talented people that are around.

When you talk of quality in comic books and you talk about a ten year old audience, isn’t there some incongruity there?

Not to me.

Would anything that engages a ten year old mind automatically have quality?

I wouldn’t think so.

Then how does quality affect sales to a ten year old audience?

I have a ten year old kid and I go to the store and I buy him something, and I try to buy him something that is made with quality. For example, I buy him Japanese toys that turn from robot creatures into planes. They’re terrifically made, they’re good toys, they engage his attention, they’re made with quality and ability, they’re made with technical knowhow, and I think they’re good toys for my kid. And when I buy him a children’s book, I buy him a book that is well-drawn, that is entertaining at the same time, that’s interesting, and that piques his curiosity. When I buy him a comic book, I try to buy him a comic book that he’ll be interested in reading and a comic book that I think is of a certain value. It doesn’t have to be that well drawn, it doesn’t have to be Hamlet, but it has to have quality. It can’t be stupid.  I don’t want Green Arrow using a pointed arrow and killing a bad guy. That doesn’t make sense. I don’t want my kid reading that. Green Arrow has trick arrows or whatever that stops bad guys. He doesn’t shoot them in the back with arrows and have them die. That happened in a DC comic. That happened with everybody looking on — the whole editorial staff should have been aware of it, yet in one of their comic books, Green Arrow, my Green Arrow, after I was no longer doing it, took out two arrows, shot both arrows, killed one guy, but the other guy got away. He expressed regret that the other guy got away.

I hope you take it as a compliment when I said I think you’re an exceptional father. But, with an adult population in an America that has made Laverne and Shirley the top-rated television show in the country, can you really expect parents to go out and look for quality comic books for their children?

Yes, I can. They look for quality television shows, and I don’t think that Laverne and Shirley is a bad television show, I think that’s a very cynical attitude that you take towards television. Laverne and Shirley happens to be a very funny show. I don’t necessarily want my children to look for the worst. I would like them to look for the best. Within my own quality structure, I make mistakes too. I would prefer that their tastes be better than mine when they grow up, so I will try to influence them in the direction of doing better than I would, but by the same token I will not take entertainment away from them. I don’t think it’s necessary when you try to create something of quality to have to the lowest common denominator to satisfy your own desire for quality. So, if indeed Laverne and Shirley is the lowest common denominator, I’ll take a second and I will try to influence my kids along a little bit higher direction. But by the same token I will not ask them to watch Hamlet at five years old. Common sense comes into this that has nothing to do with sophistication, that has nothing to do with what should be. It merely has to do with, “Yes, that’s good. And, yes, that’s good. And that teaches a little bit more and is a little bit better, and since they’re both good I’ll go for that one.” I don’t say that you must appreciate the best thing if the best things are too hard to appreciate. Appreciate now what is good now. I think Laverne and Shirley is funnier and lot better than Life With Riley when I was a kid. Standards have gone up in general. Standards across the board have gone up, humor has gone up, adventure has gone up, technology has gone up. Everything has gone up. And I prefer not to take a cynical attitude toward it. I have seen enough of the world to know that things are better than they used to be. I also know standards are higher than they used to be, and the kind of comics that sold 15 years ago will not sell now. They need to be better.

I didn’t mean to take a cynical attitude but watching an evening of prime time television can bring out the cynicism in me.

Put it aside. The country has had enough cynicism.

It must be very difficult to try to gauge what is quality for a ten year old. Do you try to see things through his eyes, or what? How do you handle that?

I don’t know. I assume I fail. I assume that I’m not good at it, so I try harder. I think there is a general standard that you can shoot at that represents a higher and a lower level that need not be understood completely by the lower level, but that is available to them. But I think I can point out things in those categories. Star Wars is an example, I think. The James Bond movies are an example of that. I think the Hulk television show is an example of that. I think Wonder Woman tends to be not so much an example of that. The Wonder Woman show tends to be a little bit more of a lampoon, which is entertaining on a bunch of different levels as well. I think that there are levels that everybody can enjoy, I would, for the most part, tend to shoot for the James Bond level, and sneak in a little bit of Hamlet when I get an opportunity. Star Wars is a perfect example. Star Wars goes right across the board. Anybody can enjoy it. If you’re looking for a super story — a super story — you’re not gonna get it in Star Wars. But you’re gonna get good entertainment and that’s what I think a comic book should be.

Of what benefit is this sense of quality, of making a distinction between mediocrity and quality?

An artist can influence the future, can influence day-to-day life in almost any area. If an artist chooses, if an artist has something important to say, through entertainment he can say those things. If he really has something important to say, he almost has an obligation to say them. He also has a responsibility not to when what he has to say is something that he doubts. If he feels strongly about it, he ought to say it. Unfortunately, that puts us in a very odd position. Steve Ditko, for example, feels strongly about some rather odd things. By the same token, you’ve got to take the bitter with the butter. The reason that there are artists in the world is because artists tend to notice things other people don’t notice, even in comic books. If you read the Superman-Muhammad Ali book from the point of view of being an instrument of propaganda, I could be indicted for being a propagandist very easily.

The concept that fair play is what the whole shootin’ match is about is put forth rather seriously, yet I would deny myself if I didn’t present that concept because I truly believe it. So, I’m a propagandist of the first order, yet I’m rather blatant about it and it’s rather easy to see. I feel very strongly, though, that since we are dealing with kids, that we have a responsibility to present those things that we truly believe to be valid and I believe fair play to be valid. So, I’ll present that concept, and I’ll allow myself to be shot down if people disagree.

What’s the difference between art and propaganda?

I don’t think there’s any difference whatsoever. One can easily say that art is propaganda. It has a lot to do with what you consider art to be. Art has changed over a period of time. Art used to be propaganda. Art can be propaganda if you take propaganda to mean trying to create opinions in other people’s heads. And it can be propaganda according to the ability and desire of the creator to be along a percentage path from zero to 100 percent. It’s almost impossible not to influence people with art because it deals directly with emotions. The question is whether or not the artist has a responsibility to understand that, and two, whether he chooses to actually, consciously propagandize or whether he just feels a certain way about it and can’t help it. I feel that I do it consciously. If somebody were to accuse me of it in a court of law I would have to admit to it.

I would think that most comic books don’t consciously express a deeply felt principle or ideal.

I would think that most comic books and most comic book creators have an opposite point of view, Host of them are influenced by propaganda, and don’t present propaganda or present a point of view. I think that the industry these days is full of crybabies and I’m really sick of ’em. Whining, bitching crybabies, who have nothing good to say about anything, who have no ideas, who are the propaganda around them that causes them to spread the same propaganda, that heroes are not heroes and that nothing is worth fighting for and that your love life is more important than whether or not the country falls or rises, that it’s not important whether the sun comes up in the morning, and all this stuff is a negative piss-ass attitude, and I think it’s a greater sin to be influenced by negative propaganda than it is to consciously present positive propaganda. If I had to pick one of the two — and obviously since I’m speaking from my point of view I’m going to pick my back and be told that the world is a lousy place to live in, I am not going to take that attitude. I’m going to take the attitude that it’s a great place to live, I’m going to take the attitude that I can do something about it to make it better, and I’m not gonna sit in my swimming pool of tears and cry over the spilt milk of the past. I’m gonna try to do something about it. For those people who feel that way I say, “Fie on you. Fie on you, assholes!”

Would Howard the Duck fall into the negative category?

Howard the Duck is a very cynical, crybaby strip. That is true. Yet it has so much humor and intelligence attached to it that I give it credit for doing it better than most. I think there does need to be a certain amount of cynicism and silliness, and I think if there was one Howard the Duck — you see, when Daredevil cries as much as Howard the Duck does, then it bothers me. Captain America. Jesus! To see Captain America moping around and crying and bitching and wailing just makes me sick. I mean, here’s a guy who has more advantages than almost anybody on earth and he’s crying all the time. I mean, what kind of a mother did he have, what kind of a father did he have, what kind of a tough life did he have? It couldn’t have been that bad. Nothing’s that bad.

Don’t you think that may be a valid point of view, though, insofar as not every writer can write upbeat, cheery stories?

I think that what’s happened is, that writers, just like everybody else, have been influenced by the stuff around them and in spite of the fact that they should recognize what their job in the world is, and that is to look beyond propaganda that’s thrown at them all the time and to pick out what reality is and what ideals are and what their responsibilities are, they sink into the morass of being influenced by that propaganda. In my opinion, the comic book artist and writer’s responsibility is to the young people of the country. If they’re gonna be comic book artists and if they’re gonna deal with young people, then they have a responsibility to present a positive attitude about the future. They don’t have a responsibility to present a negative attitude. Unless they’re crybabies. If they want to be crybabies, I say fine.

From “Snowbirds Don’t Fly” in Green Lantern #85 (August–September 1971), written by Denny O’Neil, drawn by Neal Adams, lettered by John Costanza.

There was a two-page sequence in one of your and Denny’s Green Lantern/Green Arrow books where Green Arrow is shot with an arrow, and the two-page visual narrative is a wordless sequence where Green Arrow crawls around the street, sees a policeman and begs him for help. The cop responds by kicking Arrow into the gutter and calling him a drunk. Where does that fit into your philosophy?

I think it’s a perfect case in point. Green Arrow was reacting to the idiocy of what’s going on in society. In the end he got to the hospital himself and fell across a nurse’s desk to get her attention. He ended up getting to where he was supposed to go and making a rather cryptic comment when he got there. The point is that Green Arrow overcame. He didn’t succumb to all the idiocies that were around him. He pulled himself up by his bootstraps and got to where he was supposed to go, despite the fact that the world is really rotten. I’m not saying that the world isn’t rotten. I’m merely saying that you just don’t give up, you don’t take a negative attitude. And a couple of issues later there’s Green Arrow marching in with a big grin on his face saying, “Let’s take a trip across the country. Let’s get to it.” It was Green Lantern that was the crybaby. He couldn’t understand whether he was a good guy or a bad guy·. Green Arrow knew he was a good guy. He knew things were screwed up and wanted to do something about it! I thought Green Lantern was a real whiner ...

He was quite naive.

In my opinion being a crybaby takes a tremendous amount of naivete. He assumed that the world was full of good guys and bad guys and they’re easy to recognize, which is a pretty stupid attitude to take. But he was willing to take that attitude.

Most comic book characters take that attitude.

Not these days. Well, now they don’t do anything about it. They just cry about it! They stand on the sidelines and say, “Aw, gee, guys, she doesn’t love me. We’ll never save the world!”

You’re saying they should return to the pure, heroic image?

I think that they’re in a position to take a positive attitude, and I think they take a negative attitude because the people who are doing them are very negative people. I think there are a lot of crybaby writers around.

Could you give me some examples?

You want to see an example? The fact that we haven’t had a Guild in this business for 35 years. Everybody is sitting on their duff and crying in their beer. You’ve gotta’ do something, get together and form a Guild! Feel good about yourself. Do it! The writers are the last ones to join because they’re crybabies, most of them. And I don’t even know why. I think most of the writers come out of the ’60s. It was a very disillusioning time because it tended to want to create great things and it tended never to do it, because your goals were too high. When your goals are too high you have a sense of failing that it all didn’t work out and now you’ve got to cut your hair short and you get a little bit upset. “Oh, gee, we didn’t make it.” Now they’ re becoming arch conservatives.

How did the ’60s affect you? You were in that age group where you may have been very active in the various political youth movements.

I found myself to be a fairly angry young man. But I generally attacked those things that I really believed in, and not what other people told me I should believe in. I didn’t have any illusions. I was actually more oppressed by what the radicals were doing around me that was negative. I thought, for example, the defeat of the SST [supersonic transport] was an incredible, negative thing. I couldn’t believe it. On the other hand, fighting pollution is a great thing to do. But picking a target like the SST, which the company who was producing the SST was saying, “Listen, just tell us what you want and we’ll do it,” and the people were saying, “No! No! Just don’t do it! — -just take a whole segment of the American economy and throw it down the drain. That was a real negative attitude to take, but they did it so they could go home and say, “I defeated the SST,” and they could smile, sit in front of the television and drink beer. Well, that doesn’t make sense. What you do is tell the company what kind of plane you want, produce that kind of plane and it’s all right. You keep industry in this country, and you deal realistically with the problems. But that takes work, that takes hard work and people don’t want to do it. It might take some effort on some people’s part to figure out exactly what they want. They don’t want to do that. They want to march.

I’m pretty sure Denny [O’Neill] was opposed to the SST.

Oh, sure. Denny was against the SST.

Were there major differences of opinion, politically, when you two worked on the Green Lantern/ Green Arrow book?

I would say there were major differences.

How do you reconcile those differences when you work so closely with someone on a book like GL/GA?

It wasn’t necessary. I don’t think Denny ever said anything that I disagreed with wholeheartedly that I didn’t think was worthwhile doing. I didn’t like his attitude toward the SST, but toward that airplane factory [issue 89] I felt really good. I felt if the SST was being implied in that airplane factory, then indeed it deserved being destroyed, but I never felt that’s what was happening, so I didn’t have any trouble with it. I think we agreed and we still agree about a lot of things, but Denny, unfortunately, has turned into a crybaby. He feels that he was defeated. I don’t understand why. He feels that the bad aspects of the world won. I don’t feel that way at all. I feel certain bad aspects won, but I think we’ve come out of it all right and I think we’ve got to move forward. I’m tired of people being afraid to move forward.

What books or writers meet with your approval?

Very few. Chris Claremont is one of them. There aren’t too many. I find the Justice League to be good. The Batman stories to some degree. It’s just a general trend. The general trend is to be a crybaby. Everybody has problems and everybody’s got to cry about it.

Isn’t that an extension of Stan Lee’s hero-with- problems formula?

Yeah, but it’s a twisted form. Stan founded a gimmick, but there was humor attached to it. Spider-Man was unhappy a lot of the time, but Hank Pym wasn’t unhappy all of the time. The Fantastic Four seemed to be pretty happy most of the time. Gerry Conway separated Sue Richards and Reed Richards. Oh, c’mon, guys, that’s no good. They were having such a good time. I didn’t think that was very cool. I thought that was an extension of Gerry Conway’s own personality.

That’s not saying much for Conway’s personality.

That’s true. Gerry Conway is the biggest crybaby in the world. Boy, is Gerry Conway a big crybaby. Goddamn! He got on the board of the Academy of Comic Book Arts — he ran for president at one time and got defeated — and if things didn’t go his way, he’d ‘quit. I don’t wanna do it! Nyehh! And he left. He got elected to the board twice. I mean, why run a second time if you’re gonna’ quit? But he did. He does it all the time. He’s a big crybaby. He goes to one company, cries over there about the other company. Then he goes back and cries about the [first] company. He’s not consistent. One company’s bad, but then he makes friends with the guy he’s gonna stab in the back.

What do you think of him as a writer?

Oh, purple. I think he’s a pretty good writer. I think he tends to be a bit overdramatic. I never much liked his writing, but I know he’s talented, and I recognize his ability. I think he’s a professional, very much a professional. I disagree with him a lot, but I’m glad to have him in the business, more than I can say for a lot of people.

Do you have any solution to the sales slump?

There has to be a new company.

You think that’s likely?


You do?

Oh yeah. I think that’s very likely.

How so?

I just think it’s a necessary thing and because it’s a necessary thing it’ll happen.

In the face of diminishing sales, who in the world would start a comic book publishing company?

Which would be harder — getting them published or getting them distributed? Getting them distributed. If you produce good comic books that are salable and marketable and commercial, then one problem would merely be to get them distributed. It seems to me that there are a number of people who can put together a good package of comic books. The next step would be, who will distribute them? I think once the answer to that question is found we’ll see a new comic book company. Also, comic books in which the profits are shared by creative people. I’d rather not talk too much about that particular aspect except to say that I feel that’s a thing that’s in the wind. “If you can break a rule and do it in an interesting and different way, then it’s almost your obligation to break a rule.”

You drew the Ben Casey newspaper strip for quite a while. What’s the difference in approaching a daily strip and a 17-page comic book story?

For one thing you have to retell your story every three panels, which is really ridiculous. You also have to create enough interest in three panels to sustain an audience, which is very hard to do. Most of the strips that come from comic books don’t do that, and that’s why most of the strips that come from comic books are destined for failure. I consider myself a partial expert in the field because I took a strip that was not destined to do well and took it up to 265 papers and kept it at that level until the strip ended. There are all kinds of other standards that have to be in comic strips. The one thing that’s most important about comic strips is that they’re dead, and they should remain dead as much as possible.

How do you mean?

Comic strips are a waste of time. Who needs a three-panel story? A joke, maybe, a three panel joke, but not a story. Not when you can watch Star Wars or watch television shows or read comic books. They’re a big waste of time.

From "Do or Die, Baby" in X-Men #59 (August 1969), written by Roy Thomas, penciled by Adams, inked by Tom Palmer, lettered by Sam Rosen.

You’re saying the newspaper strip is totally ...

... Out of date. When things die they should be left to die. They just ought to die. All things ought to die. Just die! Goodbye! They died ten years ago, maybe longer ago than that. I don’t why I did mine. The Marvel magazines is a lot more the direction that comic books should be going in. Is The Hulk in color or in black and white?

In color.

That’s where it’s gonna be at. A change in format [to full-color magazine comics] will happen because it is economically feasible, and marketable. It is economically feasible from a distribution and a retail point of view. With one drop of the cash register you’ve made 35 cents. Beyond that, it’s a package that will last longer. It’s a package that people are used to handling. People are used to handling magazines. It’s more brilliant, therefore it can compete with television and movies. It’s better from the point of view of reproduction because the fact is that those people who separate comic books are fast disappearing, It’s very hard to find housewives who will do comic separations. There is a thing called the laser scan color separator. The laser scan color separator is better by far than the old-fashioned color separations.

How does that work?

I can explain the most important part of how it works, and that is, what costs $400 to do before now coats $100 to do. That’s the most important part.

Are the separations just as good or better?

By far better. You see The Hulk? It’s better. It’s a new development that’s going to change the business. The longer it takes for the companies to discover it and do something about it, the longer behind they’re going to be. It’s time for the product to change. There have to be fewer titles, there have to be bigger titles, there have to be thicker titles, they have to cost more money, and they’ve got to be reproduced better or else they’re not going to succeed on the market. The 20¢ and 25¢ and 35¢ comics are going to become antiques. These are really going to become collectors’ items. Five years from now they’re not going to reproduce are on this kind of paper. You can quote me on that one.

Why shouldn’t Warner Communications say, “We’ re tired of this marginal business,” and keep only Superman, Batman, and a couple other top sellers, and say to hell with everything else?

That’s what they’re doing.

Why should they get into higher priced slick comics for adults, then?

Licensing. Their licensing is incredibly valuable. I don’t know how much money they’re going to make this year off licensing, I would speculate that it’s between three to four million dollars. The licensing is total profit. Foreign sales is going up. I would say a million and a half on foreign sales, You’re approaching five million dollars. The best way to make money on that is to knock off 30 of your titles that aren’t licensable and keep the rest of your titles and try to make a buck on these or even not make a buck — it depends on your licensing and foreign sales — and you’ll do just fine. They’d stay in business at least another five years.

A decision like that does not sound as though it would provide an atmosphere that could cultivate new ideas or imaginative work.

I would say not. I would say probably not, and that’s probably why there needs to be a new company. Or two. More likely two.

The only major competition to DC and Marvel in the past decade was Seaboard Comics, and it failed miserably.

My opinion is that that was a two-fold problem: There was not enough room on the market for all those new comics from Atlas, plus the influx of new titles from Marvel and some from National. Second, their distribution company was a company of thieves. My mother used to work for the company that distributed Seaboard. My mother used to describe to me exactly how they stole. What they would do is they would give false figures to a publisher, then they would doctor the figures until the company would have to borrow money to stay in business. And, the distribution company would loan them the money, and the publisher would end up being an employee of the distribution company. Then, they would stop doctoring the figures.

It’s worse to know about this, I shouldn’t be telling you about this. You could sleep a lot better at night. Any more questions?

No, I think we covered everything. Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Yeah. I gotta go to potty.