In memory of Neal Adams, a cartoon legend who fought for Holocaust consciousness

JTA – Cartoon artist Neal Adams, who died at the age of 80 in New York City on April 28, is best known for revolutionizing Batman and other iconic cartoon characters for both the DC and Marvel brands. But Adams himself was also a fearless crusader: he fought for comic book publishers for the rights of artists and writers, saved Superman’s Jewish creators from deep poverty, and campaigned for a Holocaust survivor to reclaim portraits she painted in Auschwitz.

Adams, who was born in New York City in 1941 and spent much of his childhood at a U.S. military base in post-war Germany, where his father was stationed, was not a Jew. But he had a strong interest in the Holocaust, both because of his childhood memories of Germany and because his mother-in-law was a Jewish refugee from Nazi-occupied Poland, who helped the Polish embassy in Morocco design fake documents for other Jews fleeing the Nazis. .

At school, “they showed us some pretty shocking things – news footage of what the Allied troops found as they liberated the camps, severely emaciated prisoners, huge piles of dead bodies,” he later recalled. “It was very difficult for a 9-year-old to take. I came home from school and did not want to talk to anyone for several days.”

These memories would affect his interest in Holocaust education many years later.

After graduating from the School of Industrial Art in Manhattan, Adams worked for an advertising agency where he created works of art based on copying photographs. The technique helped him develop an eerily realistic art style that would prove to be revolutionary for comics.

In 1967, Adams began drawing for DC Comics, the publisher of Batman and Superman, and a few years later for Marvel Comics, home of Spider-Man and X-Men. Under Adam’s pen, superheroes who had previously been drawn in exaggerated, cartoon-like ways acquired a new, powerfully realistic look. Sales of Adams-drawn comics skyrocketed.

Adams’ rendition of Batman in particular was a game-changer. He transformed Caped Crusader – at the time best known from the campy TV series of the 1960s – into the gloomy and rude Dark Knight character that came to dominate Batman comics and recent movies. Adams also drew groundbreaking comic book stories about the superheroes Green Lantern and Green Arrow, which dealt with social issues such as racism, drug abuse and pollution.

Adams’ first dive into public controversy came by chance. During a visit to the DC production room in 1969, he came across an employee who cut up pages of original cartoon art.

“I could not believe they were destroying this beautiful work of art,” Adams later said. He launched a campaign to convince DC to recognize the art as the property of the artists and return it to them after its release. After seven years of protests, lobbying and cajoling, both DC and Marvel gave in to Adams’ demands. The sale of original art has since become an important source of supplementary income for traditionally low-paid comic artists.

Jewish artists, writers, and editors have played major roles in the comic book industry since its earliest days, starting with Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the Jewish teenagers from Cleveland who created Superman in 1938. They sold the rights to Man of Steel to DC (then the National Periodicals). ) for $ 130 and a 10-year employment contract.

The red ‘S’ on a fence outside Jerry Siegel’s home in Cleveland. (Photo credit: AP Photo / Tony Dejak)

When Adams met them in 1971, Siegel was working as a clerk, and Shuster, almost blind, was sleeping on a cot in a relative’s apartment. Shocked to hear that Superman’s creators could not even afford tickets to see the Broadway play based on their character, Adams led a campaign to pressure DC “to just do the right thing already,” as he put it. The publicity he generated eventually convinced the publisher to give Siegel and Shuster a modest pension and health coverage.

In 2006, Adams took up the case before Dina Babbitt, a Czech Jewish artist seeking the return of portraits she had been forced to paint in Auschwitz by the infamous “Angel of Death”, Dr. Josef Mengele. The Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum, which acquired eight of the post-war portraits, claimed ownership.

“The basic principle that art belongs to the artist who created it is recognized everywhere except in totalitarian countries,” wrote Adams and other cartoon characters in a petition that repeated Adam’s previous struggle for the return of comic book art. “Mrs. Babbitt has had enough. We beg you to do the right thing and give her back her paintings.”

Adams helped mobilize more than 450 cartoonists and writers to sign the petition.

“Unfortunately, despite Neal’s best efforts, the museum never returned the paintings,” said comic book spokesman J. David Spurlock, who worked with Adams and former Marvel Comics boss Stan Lee on the campaign.

Adams drew a cartoon about Babbitt’s situation, which was published by Marvel Comics and later adapted into an animated short film for a DVD with Holocaust-related stories created by Disney Educational Productions. Subsequently, Adams, along with comic book historian Craig Yoe and I co-authored a book, “We Spoke Out: Comic Books and the Holocaust,” which showed how comic book stories about the Nazi genocide played a pioneering role in Holocaust education in the 1950s and 1960s. erne. .

During my collaboration with Adams on these projects, we had the opportunity for many conversations about comics as a tool for Holocaust education, something that Adams was a strong supporter of. He said his Holocaust-related efforts were “some of the most meaningful work.” [he] ever have done. “Given the breadth and impact of Adams’ career, it said a lot.

Rafael Medoff is the founding director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies and author of more than 20 books on Jewish history and the Holocaust.

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