It seems every time I start to feel comfortable with the progression of these comics, a collection appears on “the shelf” to throw me for a loop. This next one is no exception.
This trade, the first of three volumes, collects all of the Batman artwork Neal Adams drew in the late 60’s, including cover-only artwork as well as complete issues. Before opening this collection, I had come to expect the slightly cartoonish, static illustrations that flooded earlier comics. Knowing this was a trade that focused on one artist’s contributions to the Batman universe, I figured there must be some important shift in the illustrative technique.
I could never have guessed how profound it would be.
From the first page, I was shocked. I actually had to check the dates on the original publications to make sure that these issues were actually from the 60’s. They looked closer to what I expected 80’s artwork to be. I had no clue this style of comic even existed that early on. I plead shameful ignorance for having never heard of Neal Adams or knowing what a profound impact he had on Batman’s overall image and tone.
This cover for “The Superman-Batman Revenge Squad”, originally published in World’s Finest Comics # 175, is a perfect example in the shift in artistry. This cover has action, depth, and emotion, moreso than any of the earlier Batman comics I’ve seen. The characters have distinct facial expressions, and the detail given to them is far greater than in earlier issues.
The actual artwork is impressive on its own, but when coupled with the comic styling, it’s even better. Adams clearly knew how to design comic layouts, and used this gift to the advantage of the story. Layouts were no longer just simple rectangular panels; what’s more, now characters weren’t even confined to the boundaries of a panel at all.
Batman’s image leaps off the page, while the folds of his cape hold individual panels that progress the story. Images like this stand out in the mind, and make me far more eager to keep reading. It would have been very possible for Adams to overuse such tricks, bogging the reader down with following the path of the story across each and every page. Luckily, Adams seems to have been quite masterful in his craft, and employed such techniques just often enough to keep the comics interesting without disrupting the flow of the story.
One aspect of this collection that stood out to me was the migration away from having to spell out every piece of action. I enjoyed the earlier comics, but they were sometimes tedious to read, giving detailed narrative of something that could be more simply explained with artwork. Adams seems to have understood the importance of artwork telling a story, and created images that made extra narrative unnecessary.
While I’m sure that a change in comic writing impacted this shift as well, a thinned narrative would not be possible without a talented artist behind the pencil, bringing the writer’s ideas to life. The stories in this trade were so well drawn that many scenes were depicted with little to no narrative, making the stories feel much more modern than they are:
Rather than writing a long exposition on the inside cover page for the reader to slough through, we are instead thrown right into the action, left to figure out the plotline on our own. Luckily, thanks to Adams’ talent, the story is easy to follow and much more exciting. I was much more excited to read “The Track of the Hook” (pictured above) from The Brave and the Bold # 79 than I was to read some earlier Batman issues, and I believe the method of introducing the story played a major role in that.
The Batman depicted in this trade is just a bit darker and grittier than the standard Silver Age Batman. He still cracks the occasional joke, but he is now also shown in moments of confusion, self-doubt, and even rage. Adams’ artwork depicts this gradual shift in character perfectly. The character design still harkens back to Batman of days old, but there are slight alterations (an unshaved jaw, a more defined physique, an angry grimace) that alter his image just enough to show a marked change in his persona.
I was thoroughly impressed with Neal Adams’ representation of Batman (and indeed, his artwork overall) in this trade. His style seems quite progressive, and in my opinion could hold its own even against modern artwork. There are plenty of talented artists out there, but it’s humbling to see the work of one of the pioneers in comic artistry. Based on this volume alone, I can only imagine the countless number of artists who were inspired by Adams’ work, and who continue to be inspired by it today. I know Volume Two is coming up soon enough on “the shelf,” and I can’t wait to get to it.
As an ending to this post, I have to deviate away from the artistic style of the illustrations and focus on what may be my favorite comic panel from this trade:
Artistic illustrations and well-developed narratives are brilliant and all, but scenes like this make me absurdly happy.