Neal Adams versus Barry Windsor-Smith--who was the superior comic book artist?

Gritty realism and ornate elegance--which do you prefer?

The Adams Barbarian
The Adams Barbarian
The Windsor-Smith Barbarian
The Windsor-Smith Barbarian

Neal or Barry--who was best?


Barry Windsor-Smith and Neal Adams were two young men who reached the heights of their fame as comic book artists in the early ‘70s.  Both changed the way comics looked as perhaps no one before them ever had; Windsor-Smith with his stunning, elegant work on Marvel’s Conan the Barbarian, and Adams through the ultra-realistic Green Lantern/Green Arrow comic for DC.  These two artists transcended the medium with their stylized depictions of characters we were accustomed to viewing in the more traditional styles of Jack Kirby, John Buscema, and Gil Kane, and comic book fans quickly took notice.

These two artists were much alike, with magnificently rendered heroes and visually compelling worlds that looked real.  Green Lantern, Conan and the rest were drawn with an anatomical precision that artists had never before attempted in a comic.  They gave us far more than Superman flying in through the office window to greet Lois and Jimmy for the thousandth time.  They gave us something new and unique, with Adams’ Triton rising from the water on the first page of Avengers #95, arms and legs straining as the aquatic Inhuman pulls himself onto the pier.  On the first page of Conan the Barbarian #19, Windsor-Smith offered us a sullen Conan sitting alone on the deck of a great ship, watching soldiers tending to a wooden idol that represented their god.  Conan’s long hair flowed in the sea breeze, and his arms were muscular and tensed, even in repose.  Who was the better comic book artist?  These guys were both so good there is no wrong answer to this question, but let’s compare and contrast their styles and come to a conclusion.

Neal Adams.  Neal Adams did many of the covers for DC comics in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, presumably in an effort to give DC a look that would draw in new fans.  His style was influenced by graphic illustration, and he worked with a fluidity and charm that no one equaled.  He created a quirky hero in a really cool red costume called Deadman, who roamed the earth as a ghost, looking for his killer.  Adams was the very best at making his heroes look real.  He was once quoted as saying something to the effect of, “if superheroes were real, they would look the way I draw them”.  No one disputed his claim.  His work for DC on Green Lantern/Green Arrow and Batman were of such high quality, his vision of these heroes became the standard for decades.  Deadman was a departure from the standard superhero format, as the main character usually inhabited other bodies to fulfill his purpose.  This character was so linked to Adams that for years, no other DC artist was allowed to draw Deadman. 

Neal Adams frequently tested the limits of comic book conventions, leaving blank areas for dialogue, drawing figures holding the comic cover’s logo, or looking for new ways to illustrate the human figure in action.  Although his efforts sometimes looked rushed, his experiments were usually successful.  His backgrounds were dark and gritty, suggesting a New York (or Gotham City) that might not be safe at night.  His action sequences were usually tight and powerful, and he did some wonderful work with Green Arrow and his bow.  He took Carmine Infantino’s Batman and pushed the envelope a step further with bold, powerful fight scenes—the Dark Knight never looked better.

Neal Adams was not perfect as a comic book artist, however.  Adams was sometimes inconsistent, as though he took too much time drawing the first half of a story and had to rush through the last ten pages.  (It was rumored he frequently missed deadlines.)  He wasn’t my favorite at designing the tights traditionally worn by comic book heroes and villains (Deadman and the X-Men’s Havok being notable exceptions).  It was hard to define what I didn’t like about his costumes, but I preferred the simpler designs.  The more complex his costumes were, the less I appreciated them.  Neal Adams suffered from the malady comic artists were frequently stricken with—his women didn’t look as good as his men.  I got used to the way he drew women, but the faces always looked the same, and I didn’t find them attractive.  As time passed he made his women prettier, and it became less of a problem.

In my opinion, his comic book work saw its peak in a one-shot large format comic teaming Superman with (of all people) Muhammad Ali.  In this comic, Adams combined the realism of Green Lantern/Green Arrow with a masterful rendition of Ali.  Thrown in for good measure was some of his best work ever on Superman.  The result was a joy to behold.

Barry Windsor-Smith.  Barry Windsor-Smith began working at Marvel as a Jack Kirby imitator, and you had to look hard at his earliest work on X-Men and Daredevil to see the promise this young artist held.  He was given a crack at Conan the Barbarian because Marvel couldn’t afford John Buscema, and the rest was comic book history.  He started slowly, but improved with each issue and by Conan the Barbarian #3, one could see that Windsor-Smith had talent.  He posed Conan in dramatic new ways, and his backgrounds were becoming increasing ornate and elegant.

Each successive issue of Conan displayed less of the Marvel “house style” and more of Barry’s considerable talents.  Windsor-Smith drew from classical art styles, and “art nouveau”, “art deco”, and “Pre-Raphaelite” were all terms used to describe his style.  Other artists relied on illustration techniques to craft comics, but Windsor-Smith preferred incorporating the methods of the Old Masters.  His work was so unique; it was sometimes difficult to find the right inker to complement his style.  Sal Buscema and Dan Adkins were considered good matches for him, but even they had their critics.  Windsor-Smith eventually solved this problem by inking and even coloring his own work, but this reduced his output even more.

As Windsor-Smith’s style developed, he showed how much he could do with the comic book medium.  Toward the end of his comics run, his action sequences were filled with perfectly proportioned men and women brawling in flawlessly choreographed fight scenes.  His backgrounds were among the most intricate in the history of comics, with shining towers rising toward the heavens; temples decorated with stained glass windows; icy mountains that sparkled from the cold; and, storm clouds forming overhead as Conan rode off on his horse.  His attention to detail wasn’t limited to backgrounds, either—ornate swords decorated with images of animals or demonic figures gleamed in the sunlight, fur boots looked like real fur, and no one drew fabric with as much detail as Mr. Windsor-Smith.

Barry had his flaws, though.  His faces, both male and female, needed work—noses in particularly were often poorly drawn.  His women were unattractive in both face and figure (a flaw he subsequently overcame when he left comics), and the men sometimes looked odd, as well.  Like Adams his work occasionally appeared rushed, as if he spent twice as long on the first half of a comic as he did the second half.  As a comic book artist he contributed very little to the Marvel cast of characters—in fact, I can’t think of a single superhero or villain he helped create.  Smith also seemed to lack versatility; while he did outstanding work on Conan and Dr. Strange, his efforts on mainstream superheroes were more uneven.       

His crowning achievement as a Marvel artist in my opinion was a story called “Red Nails” (adapted for the black and white magazine “Savage Tales” by Windsor-Smith and Roy Thomas from a Robert E. Howard story).  The first ten pages in particular were as beautiful as anything I had ever seen in comics, and Windsor-Smith added a grace and subtlety to his barbarian that was never equaled.

Who was the better comic book artist?  I have to give the edge to Neal Adams, who took mainstream heroes in new directions while offering his unique vision of the genre.  Windsor-Smith gave us a gorgeous Conan but little else. Who did I prefer of these two outstanding comic book artists?  Ask tomorrow and I might offer another answer, but I am going to say Barry Windsor-Smith.  The sheer beauty of his artwork enchanted me in a way the grit of Neal Adams’ art couldn’t.  To make a most direct comparison, they both drew Conan the Barbarian, and I preferred Barry’s version to Neal’s.  Both of them are among the greatest comic artists of all time and it almost feels wrong to pick one over the other, but my vote is for Barry Windsor-Smith.

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Comments 8 comments

waynet profile image

waynet 7 years ago from Hull City United Kingdom

Now then, that is a hard one to figure out as they both are superior artists in the different comics that they have drawn, but mainly I've read more of comics with barry windsor smiths artwork in, so that's why I voted for him and I liked his Conan work.

Mike Lickteig profile image

Mike Lickteig 7 years ago from Lawrence KS USA Author

Hey, Waynet, thanks for your comments. It was tough for me to choose one over the other, also.

steve 6 years ago

Adams was more influential but Barry Smith was definitely the superior artist.

Mike Lickteig profile image

Mike Lickteig 6 years ago from Lawrence KS USA Author

Smith was fantastic but I like 'em both, Steve. Thanks for reading.

Dave Morris 5 years ago

I wouldn't know how to choose. Both artists were favorites of mine from way, way back. Both brilliant in different ways. Okay, if I can only have one, I'll go with BWS... But oh, what a hard choice to make!

Karl Waller 5 years ago

I appreciate your nuanced critiques of each artist. I was going through Red Nails just yesterday and while I was marvelling at the work, there are some points where barry still "didn't quite have it nailed down". The eyes in particular really stood out. He also occasionally pulls some very odd anatomy on the figures. Don't get me wrong, Barry Smith is the reason I draw. To this day I can't attempt a Conan drawing without it turning into a Smith impersonation. It seeme to me that that Barry's talent is more based on intellect whereas Neal's is just plain scary raw ability. Adams storytelling is as bulletproof as it gets and his ability to lay down those loose lines and still have his stuff look "tight" is almost supernatural. It's a tough call and although I worship at the Alter of 'Smith I have to hand the "better comic book artist" crown to Adams .

Mike Lickteig profile image

Mike Lickteig 5 years ago from Lawrence KS USA Author

Thanks, Dave. It is indeed very difficult to decide between the two. I might choose Smith today, and Adams tomorrow. They were both unique and brilliant.


Mike Lickteig profile image

Mike Lickteig 5 years ago from Lawrence KS USA Author

Karl, thanks for your insightful comments. I am in total agreement the whole way--I think I liked Smith better, but Adams was the ultimate comic book artist. I also recently went back through Red Nails, and I am still impressed. It is simply magnificent.


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