Comic Book Artist / Writer / Legend
Artist of Green Lantern / Green Arrow (1970 - 1972)
Part Two: Challenging the Comics Code Authority
This is the second part of an interview with comic book artist Neal Adams.
Go to Part One to read the interview from the beginning.
We left off talking about how Neal Adams redesigned the comic book superhero Green Arrow in 1969 to more closely resemble Robin Hood. Beginning in 1970, writer Denny O'Neil, artist Neal Adams and editor Julius "Julie" Schwartz had added Green Arrow to boost sales on the failing Green Lantern comic. Now we turn to how their comics changed an industry.
In the early 1970s, comic books were most widely available at newsstands, convenience stores and the like. Stores only had to pay for the copies they sold (you'll read below about the problems with such a method). Since the 1980s the most comics are purchased through comic book speciality stores. The most of these speciality stores purchased their comics on a no-returns policy. Even though sales may have dwindled, comic book publishers didn’t have to carry the cost of the unsold comics. This interview talks a bit about the evolution in comic book distribution. A holdover from the days of newsstand distribution is the idea of “cover dates” being used as a guideline for when to remove comics for sale. For example, the first issue of Neal Adams’ acclaimed run on Green Lantern/Green Arrow has a cover date of April 1970, but actually the comic went on sale in late February 1970.
In 1954 comic books were subject to intense scrutiny. Psychiatrist Frederic Wertham had fingered comics as a leading cause of juvenile deliquency. (Wertham's research could be politely described as questionable.) This brought the attention of senate heroes. So, the comic book industry adopted a self-regulating Comics Code, similar to the film production codes. The first major revision to the Comics Code happened in 1971 during Neal Adams' run on Green Lantern/Green Arrow.
Allen W. Wright: When you were doing the Green Lantern/Green Arrow series with Denny O'Neil you were at the time just when the Comics Code was starting to change.
Neal Adams: I think the Comics Code wasn't going to change. I think we changed it.
AWW: I noticed that the early Comics Code from the 50s was very much "authority had to be respected". And when it changed in 1971 during your run, they put this proviso in that okay, authority could be bad if they were shown to be bad apples and punished.
NA: Yeah, a little bit. But the Comics Code, if you read the Comics Code, you are really not supposed to cast aspersions on federal, state or local government officials or you know, anybody that's in any government office. They are not supposed to be thought of as being bad, and that was part of the Comics Code. So we kind of snuck around that. People that we made fun of were not official members of the legislature -- businessmen. Businessmen weren't off the platter there. They we could go after.
You have to understand that the guy who ran the Comics Code, I forget his name -- very nice fellow, a lawyer, his job was to take the Comics Code that was created by the publishers - I mean, you must understand it wasn't created by any government office, it was created by the publishers to be a self-protective, self-governing agency and set of rules, which is sometimes the very worst you can do. I'm mean, oh yeah, we'll self-govern ourselves into oblivion. And that's sort of what they were doing. This guy who was writing the Comics Code, he just looked at the stuff that passed in front of his eyes, and looked at the Comics Code to see whether or not it was being followed. I found myself not going up against the Comics Code because I'm one of those people who walk between the raindrops.
If I find I can't do vampires, okay, so what I'll do is take a pterodactyl -- I'll infect somebody with a pterodactyl -- and I'll have it suck energy from other people. And he's in effect a vampire because if you suck blood, you suck energy. But since he wasn't sucking blood, he was sucking energy -- The character was Sauron who I did for Marvel [in X-Men #59-61 in 1969] -- then you couldn't accuse me of doing a vampire. But the very same result existed. He would grab the person or even a dog by the head, absorb his energy and the person would either stumble off and look old and look terrible and tired, or die. So, in effect he was a vampire, using the pterodactyl, the pterodon, I had a leather-winged creature, not unlike a bat. So the analogy to a vampire was dead on, but he wasn't a vampire so the Comics Code had to let it go through. [The outcry that led to adoption of the Comics Code in 1954 was, in part, a reaction to the then-popular horror comics. A provision of the original code was "Scenes dealing with, or instruments associated with, walking dead, torture, vampires and vampirism, ghouls, cannablism, and werewolfism are prohibited." Vampires were allowed in the 1971 revision.]
AWW: And with Sauron's real name, wasn't it Lykos which implies a werewolf?
NA: Right, it implies wolf. We kind of threw that in there. But basically it was Sauron, who essentially was in Tolkien. That was where Roy Thomas (the writer) got his name. You see, by doing that, I was doing a vampire story -- 100%. And the Comics Code -- I got to know the guy who ran the Code, that's why I'm a little embarrassed I don't remember his name, I liked him. He was a nice guy. He was doing his job. And I never really had any conflicts. I just found ways of getting by, doing things that you couldn't easily otherwise do, unless you're clever. So, I clevered the stuff by, and I really never got any notes back from him saying "you can't do that". Maybe once in a while -- once here, once there -- a little too much violence, "don't put blood on the person's face" or something. And I got by, so I was very much a friend of the Comics Code, but I'll tell you underneath it all, I was seething, seething, to get ride of that damned Comics Code. I don't believe in those sorts of things, whether it's self-governing or not, it's against the tradition of America. So you know, it's one thing to put warning things on comic books if they tend to be adult and perhaps shouldn't be read by kids, but to forbid, that's really not good at all.
So one day when I realized that Denny O'Neil and I were probably coming to the end of the line with the Green Lantern / Green Arrow books, because one they weren't selling well. Or else the perception was that they weren't selling well, but in fact what was happening was there were teenagers all over America that were buying comic books out of the back of the wholesalers, and those books were being called destroyed, because the industry had gotten into doing this 'affidavit return' policy. So that they didn't have to return the [unsold] books or even slice off the titles. They would just depend on the local distributor to say they had destroyed the comic book. Well, local distributors were not destroying the comic books, they were selling them to teenagers out of the back of the distributor's shop for seven cents [cover price was 15 cents]. And these kids would then take those comic books by their favourite artist -- or the artist that would sell like Berni Wrightson and myself and Barry Smith and all those folks and they would sell them to their friends at motels or in their father's garages. Sell them to the neighbourhood kids for two dollars and five dollars according to what the quality was, because those kids could not find those comic books in their neighbourhood, because these kids were buying up them up out of the back of the wholesaler. And those kids who did that became the first tier of direct sales market comic book stores.
AWW: Which is what industry is today.
NA: That's right. Those guys are still around. Not all of them, many of them died. You just have to look at the guys wearing the jeans jackets and silver hair with pony tails and leathery skin and those are the guys that began the direct sales market by buying comic books out of the back of the wholesalers and the wholesale reporting them as being destroyed. So when DC Comics said "Gee, I don't understand, Neal. Everybody's writing letters about Green Lantern/Green Arrow, everybody loves it, college students are writing letters, high school students are writing letters, but it's not selling that well. I don't understand." Well, it was selling like hotcakes -- like hotcakes. I sign, when I go to conventions, mint condition copies of those books. Because people put them in boxes and store them away and sell them. You can buy those books for as much as $400 a copy now. You've got very smart people who are storing that away or selling them for $2 or $5 in those days. It was a very corrupt and very strange business, and the direct sales market -- the no-return market -- saved it, but they saved it because they had corrupted it.
AWW: That's funny that the corrupting influence becomes the official saviour.
NA: That's right. Anyway, it was very clear we were coming to the end of our run. Denny wrote a story on overpopulation. And I thought "Unh-unh, this is the end. This is not a good story. We don't want to do this." You could fit the population of the Earth into the state of Texas and have room for everybody. It just was a bad subject. I remember those days. People were having vasectomies and all kinds of weird s--t was going on. So, I figured I'm watching the end of what we're doing. And I thought there's two things we didn't do, first we didn't get a Black superhero and I was determined to do that. Second, we hadn't handled drugs. And therefore, we had to kill the Comics Code, because that was the only way to do drugs. So I went home and, on my own, pencilled and inked and then lettered that first drug issue [cover] with Speedy [Green Arrow's former sidekick aka Roy Harper] as a junkie. And I handed it into my editor and he dropped it like a hot potato and said "What the hell are you doing, Neal? You're causing trouble again." I said "No, we oughta print this, Julie [editor Julius Schwartz]." He said "We'll never print this, it won't pass the Comics Code." He said, "First of all, Neal, this will never be printed -- never be printed -- and second of all, I will never pay you for it." I said "We'll see."
So, it sat on his desk for a couple of months. In the meantime, over at Marvel, Stan Lee [writer and co-creator of Spider-Man] had done an issue of Spider-Man where [Harry] Osborn or somebody like that takes some pills and walks off a roof or something. [Amazing Spider-Man #96-98, cover dated May-July 1971 although the first issue went on sale in early February 1971. The issues were drawn by Neal Adams' predecessor on Green Lantern, Gil Kane.] And of course Stan really didn't much about drug addiction. Mostly guys who did pills like that would go off into the corner, sit in the corner and ask people stay away from them -- or get very happy. So, it wasn't exactly like Stan was a big drug advocate.
Denny O'Neil and I both had studied the drug problem through Phoenix House and we were both going to a book for the city of New York on drug addiction, so we really became steeped in it. I was also the head of our neighbourhood committee for our local drug institution in the Bronx. I was the head of the citizens' committee that kept the neighbourhood safe from the junkies, and kept the junkies safe from the neighbourhood. So I have had quite a bit of experience in this drug addiction problem.
I went to talk to Johnny Romita [a key Spider-Man artist and inker on the drug issues] and said "What the hell's going on, Johnny?" He said "Well, Stan went to his uncle, Martin Goodman, and he said 'the Comics Code sent this book back and now I still want to publish it, but I'd have to publish it without the Comics Code seal and I'd like to do that.' And his uncle said 'Sure, go ahead.'" So, they did and a week later I went back to Marvel, I was pretty welcome at Marvel, and talked to Johnny and I said "What happened with the book?" He said "Nothing. Nothing happened." I said "What do you mean nothing happened?" He said "Nothing. Nobody even noticed the Comics Code seal wasn't on the book." "Really? Are you kidding? Nobody noticed, nobody wrote a letter, no phone calls, nothing?" "Nothing," he said. "Nothing happened. Nobody cared." Well over at DC Comics they cared. They were having a f---ing conniption, they were going ape s--t. Because they had this cover on their desk for a couple of months and they didn't do anything. So within a week the publishers had a meeting of the Comics Code Authority and they basically took all the teeth out of the Comics Code. In about four days. And a week later, Julie Schwartz came to me and said "We're doing that book," and I said "So, you're going to pay me for that cover. Right, Julie?" He said "Get out of my room."
AWW: He sounds like quite a character from all the interviews and articles I've read.
NA: Oh, Julie? Absolutely. Are you kidding? The best. The best and the worst all wrapped in one guy. Curmudgeon. And the weird thing is that Julie started off as a teenager acting as agent for science fiction writer. He and -- uh, what's the name of the other guy who was Superman editor.
AWW: And the co-creator of Green Arrow, Mort Weisinger
NA: Yeah, Mort. The two of them started as teenagers. It occurred to them that science fiction writers weren't being represented so they offered their services as teenagers to represent and take science fiction stories to the various publishers and represent them. And they began a business as agents. I mean Julie Schwartz represented Ray Bradbury for God's sake, Silverberg and all those guys. So they began very young. I don't know how they became quite so curmudgeonous as they got older. But still they recognized talent and ability. They may have been kind of jerks and a--holes in their way, but they were for good quality material and seeing that talented people got pushed forward. I remember Julie Schwartz bitching about Gil Kane [the original artist on Green Lantern] all the time, but he used him every month. And he practically cried when Gil had to leave and go off and do his own stuff. I wouldn't say practically cried -- bitched and moaned and yelled is more like it. Let me tell you my favourite quote of Julie Schwartz. You have to understand that Julie was an intellectual and very sensitive to people's wants and needs, so my favourite quote of Julie Schwartz is "Get the f--- out of my office, Adams!" My favourite quote.
AWW: When you did the drug issues, how was that plotted? You and Denny O'Neil together?
NA: No, think about this, look at that first cover, and try to imagine not being able to write that story. It's pretty much there, isn't it? How hard is that story to write?
AWW: I think I heard somewhere about an earlier version of the cover where the needle is actually going into Speedy's arm?
NA: Not at all. The cover is actually the way I drew it. Because I'm not so dumb to do that. It's one thing to -- I mean I put the fixes in the damn butcher's tray. I mean that everything. I had the rubber tubbing, I had the needle, I had the cotton. I had the heroine sitting right there in the plastic paper. I mean everything was there. No doubt about it. I remember in the book there was an objection to where he tied the thing around his arm and tightened it up and was going to do it. And we were asked to change that and just hold the tube and don't do it because it acted as an instruction. Which I had to agree with. It does. I mean like, you know, "Step number one, do this, Step number two do that." Yeah, that was stupid. So we just took the tube off his arm and had it hanging there. No big deal. And they were right. That was the new Comics Code, just don't instruct kids on how to do heroin. It makes sense, I'll buy that.
AWW: They were powerful issues. Not just with Speedy doing drugs, but his relationship with Green Arrow.
NA: I have to say. And remember when Arrow socks Speedy in the kitchen? There is something I did to interfere with the writing on that book I will tell you. I don't want to make a thing of it. Maybe I shouldn't say. Anyway, I wrote the last two pages because it just seemed to end not doing anything. You want an idea of what my writing is a little bit like, read the last two pages of the second book.
AWW: It's a funeral for one of the victims right. And Green Arrow tells Speedy something like "you've done well," and Speedy is not exactly happy with that.
NA: He socks him. And then gets pissed and does his little speech. Yeah, it's a good two pages. The problem was that Denny had finished the story -- I shouldn't talk -- don't worry about it. Drop it. Denny did a great job. It just wasn't quite as dramatic as it should have been.
AWW: That's why it's a collaboration.
NA: Yeah. Overall Denny did a fantastic job. Maybe except for that overpopulation issue. [Laughs] He did a great job on John Stewart as well. He turned in a great script. That was a little bit of a battle. It was actually quite a dramatic battle I had with Julie on that. If you'd like to hear I'd be glad to tell you.
Go to page three to read about the creation of one of the first Black superheroes.
Interview text, © Allen W. Wright, 2016.
Illustrations from Green Lantern / Green Arrow, Batman, The Brave and the Bold, Superman: The Coming of the Supermen, Strange Adventures (Deadman) and Superman vs. Muhammad Ali by Neal Adams, © DC Comics, used without permission as fair use for criticism and review. [Image of Julius aka Julie aka Be Original Schwartz is by Dick Dillin.]
Illustrations from X-Men, The Amazing Spider-Man and The Fantastic Four/ © Marvel Comics, used without permission as fair use for criticism and review
Pictures from the TV series Arrow and DC's Legends of Tomorrow © Warner Brothers Entertainment (Characters owned by DC Comics), used without permission as fair use for criticism and review