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DCU
101

Strange Days:

The History & Revival
of the
Thinking-Man's Superhero

By Matt Morrison and Michael Hutchison

Part 1: "The Rise of Adam Strange"
By Matt Morrison

One of the things that kept me away from comics in my teens was this. Every time I went to the local comics shop, I would scan the covers and even flip through a few issues, but not see anything special. Some of what I saw impressed me, but most of what I saw showed an amazing amount of sameness. Dozens of covers featuring women whose proportions would have Dolly Parton asking "How does she walk?". Countless gun-toting "heroes" whose philosophy of dealing with criminals is "shoot first and then shoot some more". Even Green Lantern, my favorite hero from Superfriends as a kid, seemed lackluster. I couldn't help but wonder… what ever happened to superheroes thinking around problems and outsmarting the villains? That was back in the late 80's, what we now call the Modern or Dark Age and it wasn't until sometime later, just barely a year ago that I found out about a man called Adam Strange.

Strange first appeared in the dark days after the creation of the Comics Code. Adam Strange made his debut in three issues of Showcase (17, 18, 19) in 1958, just two years after the first original Silver Age hero- The Flash was created. Adam was at first created as a quick way to make some money. It was just a scant few months after the launch of Sputnik, and stories having to do with outer space tended to sell very well.

Adam Strange was an ordinary Earth archeologist who had discovered the legendary Inca city of Caramanga, where the Indians had hidden their vast treasure of gold during the Spanish conquest of Peru. The Incas, not quite as dead a tribe as was believed, did not appreciate Adam's discovery of their secret, and set out to kill him. Adam ran until he came to a large chasm. Having no other choice, Adam ran and threw himself across the pit. Midway through his leap, he was struck by a bright flash of light, and the next thing he knew, he was facing a strange predatory animal in an even stranger world. He was rescued by a beautiful brunette in a large flying machine, and taken to her city, Ranagar. There he was taught the language of this world by the use of a "menticizer". It was then that Adam found that is 25-foot leap had become a leap of 25 trillion miles to the planet Rann of the star system Alpha Centauri.

The girl was named Alanna and her father was Ranagar's head scientist, Sardath. It was Sardath who was responsible for Adam's teleportation., having hit him with a "Zeta beam". Originally built as a means of communication with Earth, the beam had been warped by cosmic radiation and had become a teleportation beam. It turned out later that Sardath was lying and that he was hoping to use the beam to find a mate for his daughter, one of the few Rannians who had not been made sterile by the wars. Rann, once populated by a society obsessed with science, was a world destroyed by atomic war. Most of the planet's population turned to barbarism, forming vast city-states that were in a constant state of war with each other. At the time of Adam's arrival, some of the city-states (like Ranagar) were regaining the scientific progress of their ancestors and were learning to get along with each other.

The Zeta beam's effects would prove to be temporary and Adam would be teleported back to Earth. But Sardath would send out subsequent beams to return Adam to Rann. Equipped with a fire-proof uniform, a rocket-pack and a ray-gun, Adam would go on to be Ranagar and Rann's greatest defender.

Written by Gardner Fox, Adam eventually got a regular feature, taking over Mysteries in Space with No 52 in the August of 1959. Adam's early stories were admittedly formulized, following the same standard pattern. Adam would rush to the spot where the Zeta beam would hit Earth, travel to Rann, deal with some kind of menace, and return to Earth when the Zeta beam wore off.In his defense, Fox was only allowed 10 pages per story and variations on the same basic concept was all he had really had space to work with. It is a credit to Fox's brilliance as a writer that despite this handicap he was able to make Adam Strange a success, gradually moving up to 15 and 25 page stories within a few years. One such example of how he varied what might have become a quickly tired premise can be seen in how he would devote a whole page to showing Adam deal with the difficulties in getting to the exact spot of a beam hitting. He once bought ice cream for two boys who were sitting on the park bench he needed to sit on. One issue even showed Adam dealing with the problem of getting inside a mountain sitting on the contact point.

It was little touches like this, added into the larger 15 and 25 page stories, that made Adam Strange DC's premiere science fiction character and one of the most popular characters of the Silver Age revival. At one point, Adam was as widely recognized as the Barry Allen Flash and the Hal Jordan Green Lantern. Still, while having a deep appreciation of a good science fiction epic what really appealed to me most about Adam Strange was his method of dealing with problems. Adam truly did believe that his brain was his best weapon and that he could use his smarts to defeat any enemy. Many stories showed Adam doing just that, but none quite so well as what is now considered to be the best Adam Strange story of all time; "The Planet that Came to a Standstill" (Mystery in Space No. 75).

In this story, a Justice League villain named Kanjar Ro comes to Rann, hoping that the planet's triple sun will give him powers akin to Superman. He succeeds and begins single-handedly defeating the Justice League members who had followed him to Rann. Even while they are having their butts handed to them, the League members comment about feeling sorry for "poor Adam Strange" who must stand by helplessly because he has no super powers.

We soon find, however, that Adam was not standing idle, but thinking. Reasoning that if Superman was weakened by metal from his native Krypton, Kanjar Ro might be similarly weakened by metal from his home planet of Dhor. Adam threw a rod of Dhorite at him, and Kanjar Ro fell down, weakened by the metal. Where the pure power of the JLA had failed, Adam Strange's quick thinking had saved the day. From then on, Adam Strange was not only referred to as Earth's first spaceman and Hero of Rann, but also as the Thinking Man's Hero.

Adam had many more adventures in the pages of Mysteries in Space, until Hawkman's solo book was canceled and Mysteries in Space began to hold the adventures of both heroes. Gradually, Adam's space began to shrink as more and more pages were allotted to the more popular Hawkman. Eventually, Hawkman was given his own book again and Fox as well as the artists and editor of Mysteries in Space left the title to do the new Hawk book. Adam was left in the hands of writer Lee Ellis and editor Jack Schiff, neither of whom cared for the hero of Rann as Gardner Fox did. After 10 more issues, Adam Strange was dropped from the title. Not wanting to see his creation die off, Fox put Adam Strange in a guest spot in Hawkman, thus tying up the loose ends left in the storyline by Schiff and Elli's abrupt dropping of Adam from their book.

Many attempts were made to revive Adam Strange. The first attempt came after Strange Adventures, recently canceled after a disastrous Deadman run, was reformatted to feature science fiction stories. The lead feature of the revived Strange Tales, was appropriately enough, reprinted Adam Strange stories. The reprints proved successful and the famed team of Denny O'Neil, Gil Kane and Murphy Anderson was given permission to start a new series. Sadly, while O'Neil, Kane and Anderson had breathed new life into Batman and received critical acclaim for their Green Lantern/Green Arrow run they did not have the same love for Adam Strange. O'Neil wrote Adam out of character and Kane's pencils were said to be too loose and sloppy. A later attempt was made in a "picture book" style. It too did poorly.

Some measure of closure was finally brought to Adam Strange's story in 1975 when, in a two part JLA story, he finally married Alanna.

Part Two: "The Fall of Adam Strange"
by Michael Hutchison

By the 1980s, Adam Strange was in the realm of unused and forgotten characters. Aside from cameos in JLA #200 and Crisis on Infinite Earths, the comic book readers of the 1980s hadn't even seen Adam Strange.

First off, we should look at why this happened. One factor is that the Silver Age stories were very silly and far-fetched. This probably goes hand-in-hand with being far more imaginative than the fare of today. Nor should it be taken as a slam against any writers; I'd love to have seen what Fox, Broome and the other greats of the Silver Age could have done had they been writing for an older age group. But most of Adam Strange's adventures could be classified as "great concept, poor execution."

It's not just the rather obvious signs that Adam Strange was a little kids' book (All signs on Rann are in English, with buildings labeled "Rann Chemical Co." in Arial font; the Rann architecture looks suspiciously like Earth's 1960's Deco). There's also the sad fact that Adam Strange is touted as a thinking man's hero whilst most of his logic was ridiculous! "Kanjar Ro has Superman-like powers, therefore he'll be susceptible to a chunk of his home planet" is about as logical as "Fish lay eggs and breathe underwater; ostriches lay eggs, therefore ostriches can breathe underwater."

This isn't to say that Adam Strange wasn't a great concept. An Earth man who must race to specific coordinates to meet a ray from space so that he can have amazing adventures beside the woman that he loves. A great concept…but by the 1980s, one which had been fairly explored and had grown tiresome due to lackluster stories.

Adam Strange, as a character, needed to mature as the comic book readership and most of the DC Comics titles had matured. To do that, some basic questions needed asking:

  • Why does Rann need an Earth man as its planetary savior? Aren't they supposed to be far more intelligent than us? If Adam is just using Rann's technology (jet packs, ray guns), couldn't anyone be doing his job?
  • What's so intriguing about Alanna that Adam can't just find a woman like her here?
  • Set in a universe of his own, the concept is great. But in the DCU, 4 light-years is nothing. As a friend of the JLA, can't Green Lantern just drop him off on Rann permanently? In the aforementioned Mystery In Space #75 (recently reprinted in the JLA Annual), Adam's physiology gets altered by Kanjar Ro so that he'll die if he lives on Rann for more than a year. This is a pretty forced reason to get Adam doing the zeta beam yo-yo, of course, and it was overlooked… ah, but I'll be getting to that.
  • What's so great about another run-of-the-mill Johnny Rocketpants flying through the sky with a blast-o-ray-gun? Didn't this kind of stuff die out in movie serials? Why should we care about such a character today?

These are the basic points which need to be addressed in order to revitalize Adam Strange for the 1990s, most of which can be solved with a little explanation. Thus, two writers undertook the "modernization" of Adam Strange…one with decent results, the other disastrously.

The first was Alan Moore in Swamp Thing #s 57 and 58. Swamp Thing, traveling through space, manifests himself on Rann. Adam Strange (who, in a hilarious intro, shoves a fat Australian man out of a bathroom stall in order to intercept the Zeta Beam) disposes of Swamp Thing as he has numerous other monsters. The plot of the story then revolves around Swamp Thing assisting Rann in revitalizing their plant life. It is revealed that Rann is still recovering from a nuclear war that rendered most plant and humanoid life infertile (a break from previous Adam Strange stories, of course, where Rann seemed lush with jungles and wildlife). In a parallel to the story of Rann's vegetation being restored, Alanna (one of the few fertile people born in the last generation) is trying to get pregnant and finally succeeds.

But all is not well for Adam. We discover that many on Rann consider him an ape-descended primitive (Which is curious, given that he's genetically compatible with Alanna; wouldn't they be similarly ape-descended on Rann?) and mock him behind his back. He is not as universally beloved as the old stories made it seem. Their acceptance of him as their "savior" is begrudging at best.

Even worse, the hawk-police from Thanagar (who want to stop Swamp Thing, as Thanagar has been trading crops for Rannian technology) are eager to get their hands on the Zeta Beam transport technology. In combat with Adam, one of them mocks his naivete in thinking that his teleportation to Rann was an accident. "Did you really think you could be accidentally transported by a communications beam?" she exhorts. She goes on to admonish that he's just a breeding partner for the fertile Rannian cow (meaning Alanna). Adam doesn't address these accusations, but they clearly nest in the back of his mind when he's told that Alanna is pregnant.

In summary, this was a very good story, if a little dark for Adam Strange purists (It's weird hearing Adam use the word "bastards"!). For the first time, it really explored Adam's situation and treated Rann as a complex civilization instead of a fantasy world where Adam saves the day and is universally revered. It's particularly unsettling, even frightening, to think that Sardath conspired to snatch an Earth man to impregnate his daughter! (Of course, that doesn't really gibe with Adam's courting her for years before getting physical. If his sperm is all that was needed, Sardath could have said, "You've been abducted and now you have to have a lot of sex with a beautiful alien woman, after which you'll never see her again and you can go back to Earth.") Nonetheless, Adam Strange is treated as his usual self, using his intellect to deal with opponents and loving Alanna with all his heart. I don't have the slavish devotion to Alan Moore that many fanboys have, but I'm betting that the Adam Strange mini-series would have been better had he written it.

Adam Strange Mini-Series Issue 1 Adam Strange Mini-Series Issue 2 Adam Strange Mini-Series Issue 3

Which segues into discussing the Adam Strange 3-issue Prestige Format mini-series that followed in 1990. By Richard Bruning. THIS! THIS is the book that could be used as a textbook for botching a character completely and totally. Even more than the Metal Men mini-series, my usual target for venom and derision when it comes to the subject of "missing the whole bloody point," this mini-series is king of the stinkers.

First, in analyzing it, it's important to note the comic book mood of the day. Dark. Very into anti-heroes. Lobo is a huge success and Guy Gardner is still hot after five years. And I don't just mean in terms of being entertaining parodies; these guys really get tons of fan mail from apparently mentally-disturbed comic buyers praising the way they "kick ass and take no prisoners." This is roughly the same time that Hawkworld is similarly darkening the legacy of Hawkman; instead of a good man who never kills, we have a drug-addicted fascist. (Not to say that this book wasn't infinitely better than Adam Strange, but it is yet another example of the readership turning away from bright, shiny characters.)

So Bruning's intent with the Adam Strange mini-series is not to introduce a few disquieting elements into the Adam Strange utopian concept but to instead tear down the whole utopia. On top of this unsettling proposal, he also does it very badly. Good writers can have bad ideas which are still well-executed due to the strength of the writer's talent; this mini-series ignores a few basics of good writing which, say, Alan Moore wouldn't do were he given the same basic plot concept.

Adam, on a lovely picnic outing with the wife
On a lovely picnic outing with the wife.

First off, we start out on Rann, where Adam, Alanna and Sardath are discussing the imminent arrival on Earth of the "Mega-Zeta-Beam" (and if you really think a serious scientist would pin that name on his invention you're crazy). Sardath sent the two beams 4.1 years previous…and after he did that, he stopped sending Zeta Beams. The MZB (I'll use that for short) will bring Adam to Rann permanently; if he misses the first one, he has only one other chance to make the second one. Even if Sardath started sending them again, it would be 4.1 years before they reach Earth.

Adam Strange
Meeting his mother-in-law.
Just kidding.

This totally ignores the basic fact that Adam lives in the DC Universe. Were Adam in his own universe devoid of Green Lanterns and space ships, that measly 4 light years would seem far more imposing. (This, to get slightly off track, is another reason Adam Strange would work better as a movie property.) Thus, it was established that Adam's problem isn't getting to Rann but that he can't live there for over a year.
Adam Strange
A piece I like to call "Adam Contemplating Fruit"
But Bruning skips over this fact. Even the sentence "The Mega-Zeta-Beam will also allow you to live here without ill effects" would have saved it. This also screws all the writers to follow, as they've had to gloss over the fact that Adam Strange is teleporting to Rann again despite the fact that there should be at least a four-year drought of Zeta beams! Waid and Robinson have had to ignore this; there's nothing else that can be done.

Back to the so-called "story." I think I'll take this opportunity to point out that Adam Strange appears to be on a permanent stash of dope. He mopes around neither excited nor depressed, taking in every bit of news with a glassy-eyed stare. Hardly the lusty Alpha male he's always been. Told that he can live with his loving wife Alanna permanently, his response is that of an eight-year-old who is given socks wrapped inside a "Playstation" box. Told that he will never see Earth again, he doesn't voice any regrets but proceeds to sulk as he talks to family, visits his old home and wraps up his life. Why? Who knows?!

Adam Strange
Gettin' chewed out by Eve for his cheatin' heart.

Then he has an affair. That's right. This romantic whose love for Alanna has kept him racing across the hemisphere, no doubt spending his life's savings on airplane tickets and wasting his Earth career, now takes a woman home for a lifeless one night stand. Why? Who knows?! He never truly shares his reasons with us. Even worse, he expresses no regrets…not that we're privy to many of his thoughts.
Adam Strange
HERE's where he meets his mother-in-law.
As I said, we mainly watch this lifeless slacker bum around for a while. Then he catches the MZB beam and disappears from Earth forever in a scene that is as touching and poignant as an episode of Big Bad BeetleBorgs Metallix.

By the way, the woman he has an affair with is nicknamed Eve. I am not kidding.

On the way to Rann he freaks out (again, I'm alleging drug use) and fantasizes that Sardath is importing numerous aliens to rape Alanna until one of them impregnates her. While Adam is in transit, Alanna confronts Sardath and discovers the truth that Adam was intentionally brought to Rann to impregnate her. (Again, it makes no sense that a logician like Sardath…who believes in marriage for conception's sake…would let his daughter make goo-goo eyes at Adam for years instead of demanding a consummation and/or simple sperm donation) When Adam arrives, he tries to kill Sardath and knocks out the old man's right eye. Adam flees from Ranagar.

That's just the first book, I'm afraid. Lest this article go on forever, let me boil the second and third issues down to their basics. Adam meets Alanna's exiled mother in the badlands outside the city; she goes ON and ON about how awful it is to live under Sardath's rule. Eve, looking for Adam, goes to the second set of coordinates and is transported to Rann. Another city-state invades Ranagar. Lots of people complain about various things. No one ever smiles at any point. Sardath goes looney and begins spouting nonsense like a poor man's Jim Carrey. Adam, Sardath and Alanna's former lover fly away to try to activate the city's defenses.
Adam Strange
Learning that his wife is dead.
Their vehicle crashes for no apparent reason whatsoever. Eve delivers Alanna's baby and Alanna dies. Sardath re-wires the city to encase Ranagar in a protective bubble and launch it into orbit. (This is, of course, a simple matter of crossing the right wires. Someone inform NASA that they can stop all that worrying about solid fuel and ballistics and such.) Adam discovers Alanna's death and mopes around…which would be dramatic if it were any kind of change from the previous dozens of pages. Finally, Eve gives him a kick in the pants and he accepts responsibility for Alanna's child.

Adam Strange
The all-new Adam Strange! Wow. Makes your heart soar with wonder and your imagination run loose, doesn't he? Really captures the grandeur and majesty of the alien world, too.

As I had the misfortunate responsibility to re-read the mini-series in order to write this article (unfortunately, it put me to sleep again and again…that's why this issue is late), I finally realized just why it stinks so much. It's not just the dreary attitude. It isn't even the fact that Alanna dies. It's that ADAM DOESN'T DO ANYTHING! Isn't that his name on the cover? Isn't he the hero of the book? Would you read a Superman book where Superman whines and moans like a dead-end drunk slacker while Jimmy Olson saves the day and Lana Lang is the one with all the guts?

Adam Strange
A loving father looks at his newborn child.

In the interest of cleansing the pallet…and because my mumsy done taught me to have something good to say about everything…I almost laughed when Adam first disappears from Rann with a promise to be back soon and Sardath comments, "I hope he remembers my Milky Ways." As the only attempt at a joke in the entire mini, I must admit it's a pretty good one.

Adam Strange
The uplifting conclusion of an amazing fantasy adventure.

So this is the situation Adam is left in after the mini-series is over. He's stuck in orbit around Rann. His ex-father-in-law has gone slightly mad. His wife is dead. His daughter is a painful reminder of his wife's absence. He's stuck with a woman named EVE for crying out loud. He realizes that Ranagar's inhabitants hate him and the fact that he did nothing during the recent war can't be helping things. Worst of all, he's been reduced to a stupid, self-pitying jerk who wallows in his own misery.

Adam Strange is pretty far and gone; it's almost impossible to restore him to what once was. Or is it?

Part Three: "The Salvation of Adam Strange"
By Matt Morrison

Three writers helped to restore Adam Strange to his former glory.

The first was Ron Marz, who in Green Lantern 75 of the current run, had the Darkstars and Green Lantern Kyle Rayner trying to save Ranagar from the attacks of Darkseid's illegitimate son, Grayven. What had protected Ranagar from the attacks of the other city-states, its elevated position, ironically made it the first target of Grayven's attacks. During the battle, the machines keeping the city elevated were destroyed. Green Lantern was able to hold the whole city in a giant snowglobe and safely lower it to the planet's surface. This took care of the whole floating city problem.

The second was Mark Waid, who deserves the lion's share of the credit for helping to restore Adam Strange's reputation. During a two-part story in JLA (No 20-21), Rann was invaded by the En'Tarans, a telepathic race of conquerors, who hoped to gain Rann's Zeta Beam technology. It turned out that Alanna's death had been greatly exaggerated, the doctor making the declaration of death being an Earth doctor with no experience with the Rannian physiology. She was merely in a coma-like state, but even Sardath could not revive her. Sardath had taken Alanna to the En'Tarans, hoping their advanced medical technology could save Alanna. It did, and through Sardath they learned of the advanced Zeta teleporter. Using Alanna, the En'Tarans tricked Adam Strange into teleporting an invasion group onto Rann. However, the resourceful Strange tricked them into thinking he'd deliver them the entire world in addition to the technology. Using the Rannian population and the JLA as slave labor, Adam set to work rebuilding Rann in its former glory, under the guise of readying it for his dear wife's return. In reality, Adam was secretly moving monuments and statues into the right positions, turning the whole of Rann into a planet-sized Mega-Zeta Beam large enough to teleport the En'Taran invasion force far away. Superman was able to get Alanna and Sardath off the invasion force's ships and return them safely to Rann. However, there was one drawback to the plan. In order to get the ray to work in the time left, Adam had to use his body as the focal point for the Zeta beam. Doing so, Adam Strange lost the Mega-Zeta radiation in his body (which was what kept him on Rann) and was soon teleported back to Earth, away from his reunited family. He barely had time to introduce his wife to the daughter she'd never seen. The issue ended, in one of the best scenes in comicdom in the last year, with Adam wistfully looking up at stars and J'onn J'onzz (who also knows the heartbreak of being separated from one's family) clasping his shoulder. It is thanks to Waid that we now have Adam back to his roots; a thinking-man who outsmarts the bad guys and does it all in the name of love.

The third writer who has helped restore the glory of Adam Strange, while not having made many world shattering changes, has given us a vision of what future Adam Strange stories might look like. This man, James Robinson, has already done a lot to restore forgotten DC Heroes, having started the excellent Starman series and having penned "The Golden Age", probably the best JSA story ever written. Recently (in Starman #52-53), Adam played a guest role in the current storyline, when Jack Knight paid a visit to Rann.

We got a chance to see Adam in his new role as a hero, father and husband simultaneously. We also got a surprisingly touching moment when, while on a mission to save Adam's daughter, Adam starts to fade away and he asks Jack to promise to save his daughter. Jack in turn asks Adam to go to Opal City and let his family know he is safe. This two-parter showed a lot of potential for what might be done with Adam Strange now. Hopefully DC will see that and find a new writer and artist who can bring a new life to the Thinking Man's Hero.

 
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