This interview with Harlan Ellison on the subject of Neal Adams appeared in the Neal Adams issue of COMIC BOOK PROFILES and appears courtey that magazine and
Ellison Webderland. CBF can be reached
at CBPROFILES@aol.com or via mail to
As You Like It Publications, P.O. Box 2055, Poughkeepsie NY 12601.
When did you first work with Neal?
We were yoked into a job for Creepy magazine, then being published by a nefarious gent named
James Warren, a something-somewhat-more-than-casual friend who was, ironically, the guy who
set me up on a blind date with the woman who became my second wife. Jim said, "Why don't
you write me a story for this magazine? I've got this Frank Frazetta cover, and I don't
have a story for it." And I had some open time in my schedule, so I agreed, and he gave me
a transparency of the moody Frazetta painting to work from; and so I wrote "Rock God." That
was 1969. Then Warren engaged Neal to do the artwork. In that issue, preceding the
illustrated adaptation, there was a "sidebar" page called The Story Behind the Story of
"Rock God." Neal had done three portraits, really fabulous portraits. One of me, one of
Frazetta, and one of himself; and they all appeared on the same page. Elegant, it was; very
elegant. I had already known Neal's work, of course, because I had been reading comics for
decades, and I tried to stay au courant. I already admired him inordinately (though we'd
never met, and I knew very little about him personally), because he was the champion who had
really been instrumental in getting Siegel and Shuster their Superman annuity from DC. He
had relentlessly waged that campaign with great courage, and had been victorious. He was a
hero. I always admire people who serve the commonweal, and here was Neal doing this
powerfully heroic thing. Later, he even tried to establish a comics artist's guild so that
better wages would be paid. He was a very pivotal activist. He wasn't just a guy taking
the money from whatever sources he could, and saying screw the rest of the workers.
Clearly, he cared about others. I admired that.
The second time we worked together was when Byron Preiss wanted me to do a piece for a
clever theme-anthology called Weird Heroes [Volume Two] in 1975. It was one of the young
Preiss's early publishing projects, long before he became the highly successful mogul we
know today. It was a paperback original for Pyramid Books. I was asked to create a story
about a character named Cordwainer Bird. In this instance, cast as a superhero. You see,
"Cordwainer Bird" was _ and still is _ as recently as this season _ a pseudonym that I used
primarily in television, though I had used it a few times in magazines over the years,
mostly as a lark. But primarily (and I suppose most infamously) I use it in television:
when somebody's screwed up my work, changed my screenplay, and I don't think it represents
my intent or best efforts, I take my name off, and I substitute the nom-de-plume "Cordwainer
Bird." It's a pseudonym registered with the Writers Guild in Hollywood, and it's an open
secret that the appearance of Bird is me disavowing that butchered job by "flipping them the
bird" or saying "It's for
the . . ."
But Byron wanted me to make Cordwainer a real person, sort of a surrogate-Harlan . . . so
Cordwainer Bird became the living protagonist of a story titled "The New York Review of
Bird" (parodying the pretentious New York Review of Books). Byron had different artists
doing the artwork for each prose piece; and I asked for Neal. And so it came to pass that
Neal did the artwork, and in fact I own that original artwork. And Steranko did a smashing
logo for Cordwainer Bird, a bird face inside a typewriter, which is really cool. Neal did a
regally heroic-looking Cordwainer Bird figure with my face on it. I've got it hanging on my
wall; it's very pleasant. So that was our second liaison.
The third time we linked . . . I think this was the third . . . was about nine or ten years
ago. Now Comics had obtained the rights from CBS, and was bringing back The Twilight Zone.
I had worked on the 1985 revival of The Twilight Zone as creative consultant.
Additionally, after the CBS prime-time version went off the air I wrote for a third
incarnation of the series which was being story-edited by none other than the creator of
"Babylon 5," J. Michael Straczynski, who solicited me to do a teleplay for the syndicated
Zone, being aired for purposes of what we call "stripping." That means: another forty
episodes or so need to be filmed, to total the 100 required to put it into syndication. For
that series of shows, I wrote a story called "Crazy as a Soup Sandwich," which is a terrific
little segment they filmed up in Canada. It's a lovely little show. I'm very fond of it.
Anyhow . . . Tony Caputo, the publisher of Now Comics, wanted me to lead off the first issue
with an illustrated version of my script for "Crazy as a Soup Sandwich." I said, "Great,
I've got the teleplay, the equivalent of a comic book script, so we're all set, and ready to
go. All we've got to do is get an artist." He said, "Who do you want? Just name the
artist, anyone you want, and I'll get him or her." I said, "Neal Adams." I didn't even
have to dwell on it; Neal, I said, instantly. Because I wanted the best. So, la-dee-dah,
he got Neal. And that outing was the one where I learned my biggest lesson about Neal: he's
even more obstinately singleminded than I am!
Neal was supposed to show me the roughs. Of course, Neal never showed anybody any roughs.
He'd promise, but forget about it! He was, as usual, so late getting the damned work in,
that everybody was foaming at the mouth. He would go straight to finished art; and the
primacy of interest of the creator, meaning me, was not his concern. So if anything was
wrong, he would suddenly develop a raconteur's skill in explaining to you why the way he did
it was the way it should have been done and how your version which you created was, of
course, muddleheaded and he was saving you from eternal damnation by doing it his way.
Well, the cover and the splash-page are of a guy running down an alley. He's a little loan
shark of a guy named Arky Lochner, who has made a deal with a demon to give him all of these
winners in the horse races, so he can get rich. But everyone knows making a deal with the
devil is dumb, so . . . yeah, he got all the winners, all right . . . except one dropped
dead as he crossed the wire, another was scratched for being doped, another was a ringer,
another got scratched for bumping in the stretch, and on and on and on . . . he had fifty
winners, but all got disqualified. As usual, the demon screwed the poor sucker. Now, he
has to give his soul to the demon. The premise of my story was: if you make a deal with a
demon and you want to get out of it, who do you go to for Protection? Who can serve as your
bodyguard? Obviously, you go to the head of the Mafia.
Now, in the show, Arky wore a squashy hat. The hat figured in the story a couple of ways.
In the opening, it's supposed to be really late at night and he's running down this alley
trying to escape from the demon who is floating behind him in the air; boiling out of the
clouds behind him. Neal did the drawing. First of all, the guy had no hat, and then if you
look down the alley you see cars and people walking by and it's obviously a busy
thoroughfare in daytime. So I called Neal and I said, "You've got to white-out the cars and
the people at the end of the alley. Make it dark. It's got to be nighttime. It's supposed
to be creepy . . . moody . . . scary, not bright." He said, "No, I really like those there.
They focus the action."
Grrrr. First of all, you could barely see the crap, it was that small in the far distance.
It just messed up the story. All he had to do was follow my script descriptions. But he
doesn't hear a word you say; he's already framing an apposite rationale for what he's done
casually; just so he won't have to go back over what's "finished," in his view. I don't
think it has anything to do with laziness, it's just Neal apportioning time-spent to
fee-paid. Really pisses you off. It's so bloody commercial, not sedulous. If I have ever
had a beef with Neal, something about him I'd call less than noble, it is that part of his
business ethic. But it's also a manifestation of Neal's arrogance: "I did it, it MUST be
correct!" But his talent always compels that you hang in there, continuing to try to smash
through that wall of singlemindedness.
He goes on at great length, talking about how he needed these little itty bitty ant size
stick figures way in the far distance. And all that daylight. After a while . . . he could
wear down the Rock of Goddam Gibraltar . . . finally, exhausted, headachy, I said, "All
right, Neal, enough is enough! I've got to have the hat." He told me he couldn't give me
the hat because he had already drawn such-and-such. I said, "Neal, I've got to have the
goddam hat; it's in the plot." So he mollifies me, with that, "sure, sure, Harlan, anything
you want" crap . . . and I know he's gonna jerk me around, I just don't know specifically
I'll tell you how. Neal had managed to draw it falling off Arky's head in the beginning of
the story; it was lying in the alley. It does not appear again until the end of the story,
where the Mafia boss pulls it out of his pocket and claps it down on Arky's head, thereby
making it completely pointless and ridiculous. That was the last time we worked together.
La-dee-dah. I love his work and I guess, in truth, I would work with Neal again . . . except
I would have to take an awful lot of Valium.
Do you have a favorite work of Neal's?
"Rock God" is my very favorite; I think it's a killer. Apart from the ones he did for me,
which of course I would have a vested interest in thinking were my favorites, I think the
first few issues he did of Superman are really high points of Neal's work. But there's so
much. Any book that Neal has ever worked on, he's made glow. Neal can take the dullest
comic and if it's well-written, Neal will give you visuals that are so cinematic, and yet so
clean, that he enhances the prose.
There is a quality, that only a rare number of comic-book artists possess, and that is the
ability not to confuse you from panel to panel. That is to say, in the inferior work of so
many artists, particularly those who are slaves of the Image style, you'll be reading along,
and suddenly someone will appear out of nowhere . . . or there's an arm proceeding from one
side of the panel toward the other . . . and the continuity from previous panels is the
wrong way. Too often for clarity, an artist will confuse you. You never get that with Neal;
he has a sense of internal consistency that is absolutely splendid, you might call it a
"mimetic gestalt," something like an onboard True North storyline compass, fully tricked-out
with visuals; and I think he has an ethical imperative for proper translation into graphic
What do you feel are Neal's most important contributions to comics?
In my view, he's a pivotal figure in the world of comics. There are artists who come along
who do wonderful work, innovative work, even stylistically seminal or germinal work, but
they don't change the face of the craft or the social conscience of the industry. Neal did
that. The people who imitated Neal, and I mean really imitated Neal (you could barely tell
it was their work or some half-assed Adams parody), are legion. Artistically, Neal is a
germinal figure, if not seminal; but as a man he has positively altered the state, the
ethical structure of the industry; and always for the better. He has never demeaned the
craft, as far as I know, even though he's got a troglodyte's reputation for being late,
lazy, flighty, irresponsible, and not delivering the product . . . a bemusing rep which is
well-earned and richly deserved, but so the hell what? I'm just like that, myself. We
could've come out of the same egg, me 'n' Neal. Which _ reputation-wise and getting
hired-wise _ is a problem for me as well. When you get very popular, and when you are the
only person who can do the polka that you do, then you find that everybody wants you on
their dance-card. Everybody wants it now. If you don't cash in when you're hot, very soon
your vogue will be gone. As it happened with Neal.
In the coarsest, cheapest, market sense, where memory is short, loyalty is rare, and callous
"businesslike" behavior is rampant, Neal's "vogue" is gone. There's a new
"flavor-of-the-month" every year or two. Which does not mean that he is any less a
sensational artist, or any less pivotal, it just means that this week everybody is looking
to imitate who's hot from 4:45 PM till 6:30 PM today. It's a cyclical industry that has
very little regard for it's heroes.
Paul Simon once said that every generation throws its own idols up the popularity charts.
Which means that the kids today all drool for the work of the schmuck who does the bad girl
art: massive 200 lb. breasts that look like honeydew melons stuck up under Labia Girl's
chin. That's their ignorant, corrupted idea of "kewll" art. If a generation of readers is
intentionally brought up on crap (because crap is always easier to come by on a monthly
deadline basis than is genius), well, they are purposely corrupted . . . and that is what
they'll want to see. It's sorrowful. So somebody like Neal, who works with skill and with
a distinctive style, well, if it isn't the style that's currently in vogue . . . la-dee-dah
. . . it's no longer considered "hot." As bogus as that is.
Is there a bottom line?
Being friends with Neal is like having a cold that you can't get rid of. But if you stay
amused, and you're strong, he can be great fun. He's clearly so talented that his nuttiness
is excused. And if you wait him out, the work you get will almost always be more than your
limited imagination could have foreseen. I'm very fond of Neal. Being friends with
someone, even being an admirer, does not mean you cannot comment on what you may perceive _
wrong or right _ about their character and actions. That's in the nature of treating your
friends like fully-formed human beings, not like Dresden figurines or cranky babies. It's
honoring them, not lying to them. When all is said and done, Neal is one of those people of
whom you can say: he was here, and he mattered. That's why people put up with pains in the
ass like Ellison and Adams.
Talent, in the end, always rules!
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