NEAL ADAMS’ BRUCE LEE: The Deadly Hands of Perfection

THE NEAL ADAMS CHRONICLES: A birthday tribute to the martial arts legend — and Adams’ masterful depictions…


I grew up with UHF Channel 56 broadcasting a movie every night at 8:00 p.m.. Some weeks were complete garbage (I mean, this is 1982-84, where the options were very limited) but once in a while, you got GOLD. You’d get a Clint Eastwood Week or a War Movie Week or John Wayne Week or simply a Martial Arts Week. (The martial arts movies were nothing I’ve ever heard of again, but watching two guys fight on a beach for 45 minutes was kind of awesome.) However, once in a blue moon, you got a perfect week – you got a Spaghetti Western Week or a BRUCE LEE WEEK!

You got Enter the Dragon, which was (of course) the best. Then there was Fist of Fury, The Big Boss, Game of Death and maybe The Way of the Dragon. When you were a 16-year-old young man back then, martial arts were amazing! We had never seen this kind of fighting, this level of skill and intensity; super-fast and super-deadly.

Neal Adams also loved martial arts, especially Bruce Lee — who was born 83 years ago this week, on Nov. 27, 1940. Then again, in the ’70s, everyone loved Bruce. He was, and probably still is, the best martial artist in the history of cinema. Just the pain on his face as he dispatches an opponent is brilliant. And for the love of God, don’t let him have a pair of nunchuks. Then you’re in big trouble. When my daughter was young and liked watching the movies I was watching, I made her watch Enter the Dragon. Lee rappels down into a secret lair and fights a bunch of bad guys until he meets one with a single nunchuk. He smacks that guy to the ground and grabs the weapon.

I nudged my daughter and said, “Uh-Oh. Those guys are in trouble now.” Her eyes grew wide as she watched Lee open up not just a can of whup-ass, but a whole case of it. He takes out like 20 dudes with those nunchucks. I think it was his look, eyes slightly downward as he stalks them in a tight circle. Then, BAM! He takes two out. Bruce with nunchucks is my favorite Bruce.

Even today, I remain a devoted fan of Bruce Lee. In fact, just a week ago there was a Bruce Lee movie on. I couldn’t help but watch it, waiting for the moment when Bruce defeats the bad guy and makes that face filled with agony, pain and fury.

Neal understood the appeal of Bruce Lee more than most. He loved that explosion of martial arts movies in the ’70s. He saw most of them and used the whole kung (or gung) fu exceptionally well in Batman, Deadman, Megalith and Armor.

Marvel asked Neal to do some covers for its black-and-white magazine The Deadly Hands of Kung Fu. He decided to paint many of them and they became iconic. (Heck, he even made Roger Moore look dangerous.) Neal told me once about his frustration to create a sideways, flying kick on a longer, taller cover. Then he figured it out. Deadly Hands of Kung Fu #1. Bruce Lee (or someone like him) flying from left to right, his body almost horizontal, his leg extended, milliseconds after kicking a bad guy in the face hard enough that the guy’s back arcs so much that he stays in the cover. I love that cover because it reminds me of Enter the Dragon and the scene where I nudged my daughter, telling her to watch Bruce Lee kick ass.

Neal took that concept to a higher level. He loved Bruce Lee because of his physique and his skills. So, when he painted his favorite Bruce Lee cover, he put his heart and soul into it. He really DREW. He pulled out all the stops. He focused on anatomy, Bruce Lee’s likeness. On images from his previous Chinese movies. On the pose. On the attitude. On the smaller fighting vignettes around the main figure. And on the hands.

Neal would always stop at that image when we were finally allowed to display his art. He always believed his art wasn’t really art. It was comic art, made for reproduction. Then, he heard about people buying art for hundreds of thousands of dollars — that changed his mind. “Let’s display the art and see what we can sell,” was his attitude. So, we did. The birth of the Neal Adams Gallery at Continuity Studios, which, sadly, died when we had to move to a smaller floor. One of the pieces he insisted on putting up was the Bruce Lee cover. “Damn. I love that,” he would say if I were near him. “I nailed his likeness. Look at that lighting. That is a fabulous piece.” I would totally agree. It was an amazing painting.

There was a deeper love of that painting for Neal. He told me on several occasions how much he loved those hands. He’d say, “Pete, look at those hands. Do you understand how good they are?” Me, not being an artist, didn’t really get it but I appreciated the image.

“One of the hardest things to draw is hands,” Neal said. “To make them look real and in this case, make them the focus of the painting, is tremendously hard. I’ve done arms like that before, but I think that is my best hand.”

He said that most of the hands he drew were deadly or fists, but the one he loved the most was that foreground hand. The slightly cupped hand that was not threatening at all. The darkened palm and forearm, the fingers, each one unique and curled in a slightly different way. The ridges in the palm are exquisite. The lighting from below creates a stunning, almost Grecian-sculpture-of-a-hand feeling. I’m not a huge fan of hands in general (well, I barely look at them in comics or paintings), but I have to agree with Neal. THAT hand might be one of the best ever drawn. Certainly, one of the best ever drawn in comics.

Whether I believe that or whether any other fan does is not important. Neal himself loved that hand. I am not someone who would argue with him about art… or even his ability. I’m not that smart or that artistic. I look at that piece and see a master of his craft. Like Norman Rockwell or Bob Peak. Other fans may look at that piece and say they don’t like this, or that, or the other thing, but Neal truly didn’t care. He knew what he was doing and what he was good at. He knew he drew those hands (and that foreground hand) better than anyone else.

Bruce Lee, the Beatles, The Godfather, Watergate, Jim Steranko and Neal Adams. These are just the barest hint of the influences of the very early ’70s. Bruce Lee struck at the heart of all comics fans. The concept of Neal drawing/painting one of our greatest idols is a dream come true. Neal rose to the occasion and created a brilliant piece of art for the greatest theatrical martial artist of his (or any) generation.


— TONY DeZUNIGA and the Deep Influence of Non-American Artists on American Comics. Click here.

— The RA’S AL GHUL CONNECTION: A Thank You to PAUL LEVITZ For Supporting Artists and Writers. Click here.

Peter Stone is a writer and son-in-law of the late Neal Adams. Be sure to check out the family’s twice-weekly online Facebook auctions, as well as the, and their Burbank, California, comics shop Crusty Bunkers Comics and Toys.

Author: Dan Greenfield

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