Remember Neil Adams, the comic book legend who advocated for Holocaust awareness

JTA – Comedian Neil Adams, who passed away at the age of 80 in New York City on April 28, is Best known for revolutionizing Batman and other popular comic book characters for both DC and Marvel brands. But Adams himself was also a brave crusader: Comic publishers fought for the rights of artists and writers, rescued Jewish creators of Superman from extreme poverty, and campaigned for a Holocaust survivor to get back the pictures she painted at Auschwitz.

Adams, who was born in New York City in 1941 and spent much of his childhood at a US military base in postwar Germany where his father was stationed, was not Jewish. But he had a keen 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 forged documents for other Jews fleeing the Nazis.

At school, “they showed us some very horrific things—news footage of what the Allies found when they liberated the camps, emaciated prisoners, huge piles of corpses,” he later recalls. “It was very difficult for a 9-year-old to bear. I came home from school and wouldn’t talk to anyone for days.”

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

After graduating from Industrial Art School in Manhattan, Adams worked in an advertising agency where he created artwork based on photocopy. This technique helped him develop an oddly realistic art style that would prove revolutionary for comic books.

In 1967, Adams began drawing for DC Comics, publisher of Batman and Superman, and, a few years later, for Marvel Comics, home of Spider-Man and the X-Men. Under Adams’ pen, superheroes previously drawn in exaggerated cartoonish ways have taken on a powerfully realistic new look. Sales of Adams’ drawn comics skyrocketed.

Adams The Batman Show in particular was a game changer. He transformed the Caped Crusader – popular at the time from the 1960s camp TV series – into the grim and gritty Dark Knight character that has dominated Batman comics and modern movies. Adams also drew groundbreaking comic strips about the superheroes Green Lantern and Green Arrow that dealt with social issues such as racism, drug abuse and pollution.

Adams’ first dive into the public controversy came about by accident. During a visit to a DC production room in 1969, he came across an employee cutting pages from original comic book art.

“I couldn’t believe they were destroying this beautiful work of art,” Adams later said. He launched a campaign to persuade the capital to recognize art as the property of the artists and to return it to them after publication. After seven years of protest, pressure, and adulation, both DC and Marvel gave in to Adams’ demand. Since then, the sale of original artwork has become an important supplemental income source for traditional, low-paid comic book artists.

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

A red “S” on the fence outside Jerry Siegel’s Cleveland home. (Image source: AP Photo/Tony Dejak)

When Adams met them in 1971, Siegel was a clerk and Shuster, nearly blind, slept on a cot in a relative’s apartment. Shocked to hear that Superman’s creators can’t even buy tickets to see a Broadway play based on their character, Adams led a campaign to pressure DC to “actually do the right thing,” as he put it. The propaganda generated by Eventually he convinced the publisher to give Siegel and Schuster a modest pension and health care coverage.

In 2006, Adams took up the case of Dina Babbitt, a Czech Jewish artist seeking to return portraits she had been forced to paint at Auschwitz by the notorious “angel of death”, Dr. Josef Mengele. The Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum, which acquired eight pictures after the war, claimed ownership.

Adams and other comic book characters wrote in a petition that echoed Adams’ earlier struggle for the return of comic book art: “The basic principle that art belongs to the artist who created it is recognized everywhere except in totalitarian countries.” “Mrs. Babbitt has suffered enough. We implore you to do the right thing and to return her paintings.”

Adams helped rally more than 450 artists and comic book writers to sign the petition.

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

Adams Draw a comic strip about Babbitt’s plight, published by Marvel Comics, and later adapted into an animated short film for DVD of Holocaust-related stories created by Disney Educational Productions. Later Adams, with comics historian Craig Yu and myself, co-authored a book, We’ve Talked: Comic Books and the Holocaust, which showed how comic book stories about the Nazi genocide played a leading role in Holocaust awareness In the fifties and sixties.

In the context of Collaborate with Adams on these projects, we had the opportunity to have many conversations about comic books as a way to raise awareness of the Holocaust, something Adams strongly advocated. He said his Holocaust-related efforts were “some of the most meaningful. [he] He ever did.” Given the breadth and influence of Adams’ career, this was saying a lot.

Raphael 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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