Sunday, October 18, 2009

DC Universe Illustrated by Neal Adams volume 1: A Comic Book Review

DC Universe Illustrated by Neal Adams Volume 1
Publisher: DC Comics
Scripts: Various
Pencils: Neal Adams
Inks: Adams, Nick Cardy, Joe Kubert

Wow, DC has really been pushing these Neal Adams books in recent years. First the three volume Batman Illustrated By set, books of his Green Arrow/Green Lantern and Deadman work and now this, a collection of Adams stories and filler from all across the DC line. If Paul Levitz’s introduction is to be believed—and why wouldn’t it—when Adams was trying to get started, you practically had to inherit an art job at DC when a staffer dropped dead and legally willed it to you. Can you imagine, holding this super-deluxe “remastered” hardcover in your hand there was a time when DC didn’t want Neal Adams drawing their superpeople for them?

Were they stupid or something? No, they weren’t. There were just a limited number of books then and, consequently, very few slots for writers and artists. Hard to imagine nowadays when practically every supporting character with a fanbase gets a shot at carrying a title and you’ve got people clueless about basic action-to-action storytelling, laying down half-assed scribbles Adams could top holding the pencil between his toes. But back in the 1960s, Neal Adams, with his slick illustrative chops and his ability to draw everything from starships to taxi cabs and make them believable, had to do spot jobs for Archie Comics and spend time drawing Ben Casey for the newspapers before he could throw down Batman, Superman and the Teen Titans in graphite on Bristol board.

Oh, and generic war titles. That’s how Adams broke in at DC—drawing back-up features for Our Army At War and Star-Spangled War Stories. Neal’s figures are as neatly rendered as anything he produced during his heyday on Batman and Detective Comics, but his uniquely shaped layouts and Marvelous posing dynamics don’t suit the interchangeable GI’s and their wan combat misadventures. Nazi sniper infiltrating a patrol of dogfaces? Of course, he forgets to lose his Nazi rifle. Pow! Take that, you stupid Aryan ubermensch! The “War That Time Forgot” story is nifty in that it features WWII sailors fighting dinosaurs, but its secondary protagonist is a complete plot construct—his single-minded obsession with taking over from the skipper borders on the psychotic. How’d he ever get a naval commission?

Adams jokingly explains it all away in a semi-apologetic introduction to the war section, but notice how these stories are relegated to the book’s final pages, as if the war stories are now something of an embarrassment, or too quaint for today's audience perhaps. You do get an eye-popping collaboration between Adams and Joe Kubert on a ludicrous Enemy Ace story. Interesting how when later drawing Hans von Hammer’s descendant in the Batman story “Ghost of the Killer Skies,” (Detective Comics #404, reprinted in Batman Illustrated volume 2) Adams loosened up and made him look as though Kubert had stepped in to handle that character exclusively. That’s respect, baby.

No, Neal Adams was born to draw superheroes, not Hogan’s Heroes. Though he downgrades it, Adams fares much better on a middling Elongated Man story for the legendary Gardner Fox, complete with deathless dialogue like, “Crooks who steal together… Have their downfall together!” Adams seems a bit more engaged here, and his Elongated Man stretches and bends all over the page. The facial expressions probably give the story more energy than it strictly deserves.

And coupled with one of my faves, Nick Cardy, on a three-part Teen Titans tale that makes virtually no sense whatsoever, Adams really starts to cut loose. Monsters, bizarre extra-dimensional aliens, filthy hippies and what may be the first appearance of the classic Adams “I’m lecturing you while pointing upward” panel. This, apparently, was something of a rushed job with an interesting backstory of its own. Writers Len Wein and Marv Wolfman attempted to introduce an African American superhero with a lot of political stridency and it blew the Madison Avenue minds of those uptight reactionary-type plastic toy soldiers at DC. Adams had to step in and give the character Jericho a bleach job (along with many of the supporting characters) and name change to Joshua after Cardy had about twenty-three pages finished. Eventually Wein and Wolfman returned to DC so all’s well that ends well… I suppose.

All this and lots of covers and promotional art as well, pencil layouts for a Superman story where Supes fights pollution, plus sketches for his early 90’s Robin redesign and a misfire of a Batman costume.

It’s all been re-colored except for one sequence nostagicially reshot from printed magazines. Here’s one area where Adams has improved a great deal recently. His touch-ups on the Batman Illustrated books served mostly to muddy the artwork and hide all the fine lines and crosshatching characteristic of classic Adams. This time around the colors are less modeled and not nearly so obtrusive. The war stories suffer the most from dropped lines; I’m guessing this is because they had to rely on inadequate source material—photocopies or damaged negatives from reprints.

Which brings me at long last to the book's weak points— this is the first volume consisting of late 60s/early 70s stuff; why then are there some anachronistic elements like his 9/11 tribute included? This seems to be an inevitable conceptual flaw. Perhaps throwing in another complete story or two would have thrown off the content in the next couple of books. And because this is strictly Neal Adams work, some of this stuff is fragmentary and without context—we get the Adams-drawn wraparound segment from a Justice League of America issue and two pages from Mark Evanier’s and Sergio Aragones' Fanboy comic where Adams pokes fun at himself.

So don’t go into it expecting extended epics. If you want something to sit down and read over a long, lazy afternoon, you should probably look elsewhere. Here’s hoping putting Adams’ latter-day promo and "cameo" work in this book means volume 3 will include the entirety of the awesome Superman versus Muhammad Ali. That by itself would justify this set.

That and The Adventures of Jerry Lewis.

No comments: