On an oddly balmy February day my good friend and I were leaving a meeting in midtown, and decided on a whim to visit Continuity Studios. Continuity is a production company that does a wide variety of commercial work, but most importantly, it was founded by, and is home to legendary comic book artist Neal Adams. In a career full of innovation and achievement in and beyond the art form, he is perhaps best known as being the man who visually evolved Batman out of the short-eared, smiling super citizen of the 1950’s and 60’s, into the long-eared, stone-faced dark knight as we know him today. Neal can sell dynamic melodrama as realism like nobody else in comics, he has a knack for dramatic composition, lighting, and expressive characters that is wholly his own voice. I have seen his original work up close and personal, and I’ve come to preach the gospel.
When I was old enough to hold a 400 page book without falling over, I claimed The Greatest Batman Stories Ever Told for myself. I’m not sure if it belonged to my Dad or my older brother, but since the day I first pulled it off the shelf it’s been mine. I have read and re-read that book more than anything else in my life. It reprinted stories from 1939 to 1978 and was a perfect sampling of the best talents of every era of the character. But as a kid who loved Batman, and loved to draw, I kept coming back to the Neal Adams stories. His style seemed more realistic, more dark and dangerous, cooler, and I wanted to draw like that. And that is how I met the art of Neal Adams, as a discovery in a stolen treasure, as a greatness to which I aspired. I make movies these days, and there are a lot of movies I love watching, but there are some movies I can’t watch without having the uncontrollable need to go out and make one of my own. There is something in the energy of it that inspires and compels me to leave the room and make something myself, and Neal Adam’s work makes me want to pick up a pencil and draw every time. There is something inspiring to me about his art that has such delicate line work, yet such an immediacy of energy and speed, I have no idea how that man can draw so fast and so well at the same time. So imagine seeing his originals, and his full size prints in person.
The offices of Continuity Studios are on the 9th floor of an unassuming building on 39th street. After walking through the small gray lobby, when the elevator doors opened to a huge, colorful, modern space decorated with big canvases depicting Green Arrow and Batman, it was obvious we found the art studio. We were greeted by Kristine, Adams’ daughter, who was a magnificent host and tour guide for the entirety of our visit. The tour (which by the way, is free if you call ahead and make an appointment) began with a fantastic oversized canvas painting of Green Lantern fighting Green Arrow, an amazing abstracted blow up of a panel that Kris described as “Just something Neal was trying out”. It was an experiment in Lichtensteinian abstraction of his own comic book art, and was incredible. I’ve seen amateurish reproductions of his Superman vs. Muhammad Ali and The Amazing New Adventures of Superman #1 in the windows of many a framing store, and nobody can rip off Neal Adams like Neal Adams. This “experiment” was a gorgeous piece of finished work, and it was the first thing we saw on the tour.
Kris explained to us that the pieces featured on the walls are regularly rotated, so one may visit the offices several times and have as many different experiences. The day we happened to visit coincided with the release of an action figure set from NECA toys commemorating Superman vs. Muhammad Ali, and so the first set of original pages we saw were from a recent issue of Harley Quinn which parodied the classic 70’s tale, and which Adams himself drew. Like I said, no one does Adams like the man himself. We were led around to many original comic pages and covers that Adams had done for everything from X-men to Conan and Daredevil. Adams in fact led the charge in the 60’s and 70’s for creator rights in comics, and specifically for artists to retain their original work after finished comics were printed. Prior to his efforts, original art was either destroyed, poorly shelved, or sold at a profit to whoever stole it, and the artist never saw a dime past their work for hire fee. So it was particularly satisfying to see so much original Neal Adams art on display in his own studios.
We were led past a room called “The Bridge” which true to it’s name looked like the bridge of the U.S.S. Enterprise, and on to the centerpiece of the gallery, the pages and cover of Superman vs. Muhammad Ali. This wrap around cover is arguably the most iconic image Neal Adams is known for, a gloriously absurd scene in which the Man of Steel faces off against the former Heavyweight champion in front of a crowd of the biggest celebrities of 1978, in an arena on a spaceship. It is one of the most visually quoted images in comics. Adams himself has redone several different versions of it on occasion. And here it was hanging on the wall, corrections, margin notes, and all. I cannot think of another image that is simultaneously so goofy, and yet so inarguably cool at the same time. It’s not only an iconic piece of comic book illustration, it’s an essential piece of 20th century pop culture that begs to be seen.
Amazing as it was to see this piece up close, it was far from the only reason to visit. The gallery is packed with some of the most quintessential comic book covers and pages of the last fifty years. In fact, almost as if to say sarcastically “Oh yeah, and then there’s this other stuff”, the three pieces immediately following Superman vs. Muhammad Ali are Green Lantern/ Green Arrow #85, and Batman # 244 and 251, three of the most famous covers not just of the bronze age, but American comics history. In fact, a huge print of the cover of Batman 251 graces the wall of my old bedroom at my family’s house to this day.
Something you’ve no doubt figured out from the pictures, is that Neal Adams is a natural story teller. He not only tells stories visually, but he actually plotted many of his stories, and writes a decent amount as well. But if you ever get a chance to meet the man, you’ll know within five minutes that he can spin a yarn. If you want to hear some crazy stories about comics history, the Marvel Bullpen in the 60’s, office fistfights and four A.M. shenanigans, next time you’re at a convention, the guys you want to run into are Jim Steranko and Neal Adams. Be polite and buy something, and maybe compliment something of theirs they don’t hear about every day, and get ready for story time. I promise it’s the best thing you can do with your time at a comic convention. Neal can inject a story about getting coffee with Bernie Wrightson with more pathos and drama than an episode of Game of Thrones. He’s done a number of interviews on shows like Fatman on Batman and The Writer’s Panel, you can hear for yourself. And evidently he has passed on his talent for yarn spinning to his daughter, because Kris had a story for every piece we asked her about.
Two pieces in particular stood out to me on the rest of the tour. The first was this portrait of Joe Kubert. Joe was a contemporary of Neal’s, and a legend in the world of illustration. He quite literally founded the school of it. I like this portrait because it not only captures a perfect likeness of Joe, but does so in Joe Kubert style. One of Neal Adams’ talents is that he is a fantastic mimic as an artist, an strength he applied when he worked as a ghost artist for a number of syndicated strips early in his career. The likenesses are Neal’s patented photo-realistic style, but the shading is pure Kubert, which captures his essence in a beautifully fitting way.
The second piece was this poster for Warp!, which I had never seen or heard of before our expert guide enlightened us. Warp! was a 1971 Sci-Fi stage play space opera serialized in three parts, in the fashion of Flash Gordon. The play was written and directed by Stuart Gordon (Re-Animator, From Beyond), starred John Heard, of Home Alone and C.H.U.D., and was art directed by Neal Adams, who also did the posters. This poster reminds me of some of Neal’s more psychedelic work seen in some of his X-Men issues, it looks more like a poster for a show at the Fillmore than a broadway show. I’m not a fan of theater, but this poster is strait up bonkers, and a Warlord of Mars knock off with comic book visuals from the director of Re-Animator sounds absolutely crazy in the best way. I can only hope there is some bootleg tape of this, somewhere.
There were a hundred more prints and original pages on display from every comic or movie you could imagine. They even had a gift shop full of signed prints and books (some of which are rare and out of print) where I spent $40 in spite of myself. But the tour didn’t end before Kris, at my request (having spotted a strange model globe on a high shelf), took us into the conference room to expand on Neal’s scientific pursuits and theories. Neal has a whole website, and a series of documentaries where you can hear the man himself delve into no less than the secret origin of planet Earth itself. Kris ended the tour with a sentence that more than anything else, made my whole day; “Most nights he stays up late arguing with geologists on the internet.”
If you’re ever in New York, I’d like to remind you that this tour is free, and available most days as long as you make an appointment. You can find more information at Continuity’s website, if you’d like to plan a trip yourself. If you are a fan of Neal’s work, or illustration in general, I advise you to pay a visit to the offices. The art of Neal Adams explodes off of the page with energy and style, and more importantly, it is inherently inspirational. Take a walk up 39th street and pay the gallery a visit. I promise you’ll learn something.