Nov 23, 2017

21st Century Neal Adams at DC

When Neal Adams returned to DC to do his Batman maxiseries, Odyssey, many a fan and critic responded as if Adams had lost everything from his ability to draw to his mind to his integrity. They blew things way out of proportion, but also failed to look at his body of work as a body, to remember his actual work as it is and not rose-tinted and full of gaps when he wasn’t at “one of the big two,” or being riffed on by other talent. Same thing occurred when he came back, a few years after, with his six-issue The Coming of the Supermen.

Let’s Get Nuts
21st Century Neal Adams at DC
Travis Hedge Coke

Neal Adams is, and has been, the Neal Adams, pretty much as long as he has had a career in comics. You may not get what you came in for, but you get what’s on the label, every time. Neal Adams is not the myth or some other artist’s pastiche. Neal Adams has always been a guy who would rhyme “water” and “order” in a professional comic, with a completely straight face. He has always been a guy who would keep in mind that Bruce Wayne has to eat and sleep, and Clark Kent has to button his shirts and doesn’t sweat the small stuff.

His 21st Century Superman and Batman are melodramatic, emotional, capable of deep anger and earnest astonishment. They rush into saving lives without hesitation. They doubt themselves, but push on regardless. They, like all his characters, speak idiomatically and idiosyncratically. Their reactions are not motivated by plot-necessity, their emotions are not crafted to the animus of a story, but generated through strongly personal perceptions and concerns. Men living lives. Their own lives.

That freaked people out. No exaggeration. Just when you think people are so inured to Batman, you can do anything and they shrug it off, shirtless Batman getting emotional while eating a banana freaked people out.

And, it is classic Neal Adams.

One critic who was really burnt out on Supermen, framed his frustration, with, “[I]t means precisely nothing when it turns out that Rafi’s dog Rusty is actually Izaya, Highfather of New Genesis! It makes perfect sense, because “dog” is “Izaya” backwards! WHAT?!” And, I understand his issues, but I think he’s not accepting a fundamental requirement to get on this ride, which is that it’s not going to be neatly explained, the impossible will happen, the unlikely will be frequent, and the mode here is not house detective or parlor drama but zoom zoom ZOOM! Even that critic, ultimately, has to praise the comic for what it is, much to my relief. What it is, is nuts. Gleefully, purposefully, rip-roaring goodness to gonzo nuts.

His Batman and his Superman comic are not repeats, either. There is control here. There is purpose. Odyssey turns inward, takes it to the underworld, to history and growth, moves things to circles. The guest characters are ghosts and drop outs, dinosaur boys dressed as Robin, musician wizards, lunatics and doctors who are absolutely locked into politically-motivated cycles. Odyssey’s story wraps around and twists through itself, mirroring at many a turn, the classic epic it borrows its name from, containing flashbacks within flashbacks, anecdotes within reminiscences. A story about stories, without announcing itself as such. And, in many ways, an origin story for Batman, detailing the how and why of many a growth spurt and change in his outlook or tactics, while acknowledging tacitly that no single instance completely remolds or shifts a human being.

Supermen, which is half the length of Odyssey, shoots forward, gushes and rushes forward, moving out into space, into cosmic weirdness, secret histories, and mad transformations. Adams throws in three new Kryptonian Supermen just like that. Bang. Three more Supermen, modeled on three characters from the film version of Gunga Din. There is a green monster figure named El, which may remind both of Kal-El, Superman’s birthname, and of Hebrew, who speaks in riddles and foists a little boy and dog off on our hero, and who seemingly comes out of the novel Childhood’s End. It’s counterintuitive, perhaps, but Adams’ Batman invites family, pulls in friends, while his Superman tries to push people off, mostly to save them, sometimes because they really can’t keep up with his top speeds. It’s out of love, both ways, and it is decidedly intentional, but neither is something we’re used to seeing with those two iconic superheroes.

Adams isn’t giving us icons. He is presenting takes, fully articulated and considered takes that fit specific, energetic stories. When he presents us his Superman, we don’t see the work that went in, the thoughts like, “[I]f you were a real Superman and you wanted to move a ship out to sea, you couldn't do it by pushing it because your hands are only about six inches long.” But, those thoughts effect the Superman we do see, a man-god who knows better than to try to push a ship with one super-strong hand and just making a hole.

Neal Adams does not make clockwork plots; stop the bomb comics. Neal Adams builds articulate worlds, populated with colorful folks, and then makes them vibrate out a rhythm, a series of rhythms, that becomes a song.

In addition to Batman: Odyssey and The Coming of the Supermen, Deadman: Journey Into Death launched this month (with a glow in the dark cover). Go get your copies and your Neal Adam fix now.

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