By Hannah Means-Shannon

Please scroll down to the bottom of the page to listen to an audio version of the entire panel.

Comics have been engaging with social issues far longer than many current comics fans have been alive. They have challenged the disparagement of censors, outrun the prevailing winds of political opinion, and held a light to the unsavory plagues of modern life in many forms. For comics artists, writers, and fans, it’s not news that superheroes can do a world of social good, and yet we rarely find occasion to celebrate their contribution to our lives. At the Housing Works Bookstore and Café on July 17th, a unique event brought together two legends of the comics industry, Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams, to discuss the ways in which social relevance has shaped the medium, meanwhile raising money for charity. This double-barreled approach, celebrating the important social impact of comics in order to put funds directly in the hands of community need, was ingenious to say the least.

Housing Works is a “healing community” focusing on those who are living with or affected by HIV or AIDS and has a particular goal of ending homelessness and saving lives. Their ideas are big, but their methods are practical, introducing solid business models in order to be self-sustaining. The cavernous, wood-paneled Housing Works Bookstore and Café is warm, inviting, and stocked with a wide array of attractive books on dozens of subjects, comics included. It easily housed the diverse audience who waited to hear some of their personal heroes take the stage. The historic reunion of these legendary former collaborators brought out a wide range of comics fans from the newbie reader to those who had followed the comics creators’ careers religiously.

The evening was devised and hosted by the co-authors of the acclaimed Leaping Tall Buildings, a new text and image based history of the “origin of American comics”.  Historian Christopher Irving and photographer Seth Kushner presented donated copies of their book for charitable sale courtesy of Powerhouse Books. Irving moderated the discussion and brought an energetic historical perspective to the evening, complimenting O’Neil and Adams’ commentary with the lavish covers and panels of their work via projector.

What fans may not have fully envisaged was the frisson and energy of this reunion; O’Neil projected an earnestness and feisty idealism while Adams contributed savvy wit and charm. As they discussed their work together, now a legendary team-up in comics history, the notes of agreement and appreciation that each sounded had something in common: a firmly entrenched belief in the power of comics. It was not an unqualified assumption that comics sway popular culture for the good, but an insistence that social relevance is the best form of cultural advocacy.

O’Neil and Adams brought similar outlooks to their work at DC on Batman and Green Lantern/Green Arrow. Both felt, early on, the value and impact of infusing comics with an unaccustomed realism. O’Neil brought realism to his Batman by re-establishing the origins of the Batman, complete with the psychological trauma of losing his parents, in an attempt to stage “good classic drama” in comics. Adams called his complimentary approach to the art of Batman a “meeting of the minds” as he pursued a “realistic style” visually. Together they created an experience of Batman that would delve even further into the psychology and experience of every day life for fans. Both O’Neil and Adams felt that they were returning Batman to his comics origins in the hands of Bill Finger and Bob Kane and reinforcing what Batman “should have been” based on those roots.

The realism that O’Neil and Adams took on came with a certain price. Not only did they feel responsible for forging a closer link between the “real” world and their heroes, they gradually became aware of the need to address serious contemporary issues that art forms, as a whole, were avoiding. A particularly controversial example involved epidemic drug use. They toyed with the idea of introducing a plot-line involving the dangers of drug use and the suffering it causes in Green Lantern/Green Arrow. Around the same time in 1973, Stan Lee had pushed forward the first appearance of drug use in Spider-man without the approval of the comics code. Based on this bold move, O’Neil and Adams pushed forward an even more explicit story, and iconic cover image, about drugs. At a time when it was highly unpopular to suggest that drug addiction deserved any sympathy, O’Neil and Adams explored the influence of parents and society on the prevalence of drugs. These efforts endeared them to fans and created a new direction for superhero comics: holding a mirror up to society to provide necessary and helpful commentary on moral choices, ambiguity, and struggles faced by readers. This enabled comics to become a vehicle for changing ideas, tolerance, and compassion in a more pronounced manner than ever before.

When the panel was thrown open to questions, fans got to hear a little more about what O’Neil and Adams thought of working together to create the unique synergy of their Batman and Green Arrow/Green Lantern arcs. O’Neil praised Adams trustworthy, committed execution of the original vision of a story drafted by a comics writer and Adams confirmed a particular penchant for making sure the fine details made the final visual cut. This level of mutual virtuosity may well be the unique “it” quality fans still recognize in O’Neil/Adams collaborations. Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams left quite a light on for fans by both replying “yes” when asked if they would ever consider working together again.

Their final message to current comics creators and those who aspire was particularly heart-felt. Both O’Neil and Adams expressed a remarkable and reassuring degree of confidence in those at work right now to build an even better future through the comics medium. They feel that artists and writers now are more highly skilled and capable than they have ever been before, and equally aware of the potential of comics to impact the world they live in.

[Denny O’Neil, Neal Adams, Chris Irving, Amanda Bullock of Housing Works & Seth Kushner]

This was a cogent reminder that the baton has been passed to a new generation, and that O’Neil and Adams set a dazzlingly high standard for using comics realism to engage with real-world issues. The first step, perhaps, was to put down a few dollars in the Housing Works Bookstore, thereby helping people who face superhuman challenges every day, and then continue to consider the ways that belief in significant ideas can shape our reality.

–Hannah Means-Shannon @HannahMenzies on twitter

Photos by Seth Kushner

Hannah Means-Shannon is a comics scholar and medievalist who has published articles on the works of Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, and Grant Morrison in the International Journal of Comic Art, Studies in Comics, the Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics, reference books, and upcoming essay collections. She is working on her first book for Sequart Research and Literacy Organization about Neil Gaiman, blogs about Alan Moore for Sequart, and teaches at Georgian Court University in New Jersey.

Leaping Tall Buildings: The Origins of American Comics outlines the history of comic books through the creators, documented in Irving’s interview-based essays and Kushner’s photography. The Wall Street Journal calls Leaping Tall Buildings “a living history,” while The New York Times considers it “a great survey of many of the talented men and women behind the characters.” Publisher’s Weekly calls it “nearly as epic as the field’s history itself,” while Huffington Post refers to Kushner’s photography as “remarkable.”

Listen to an audio version of the entire panel below: