I thought it’d be interesting to follow the Adam Strange concept over the years by focusing on one or two stories in each decade of his existence. Principally, I want to examine what makes him ‘tick’ as a character – what can we get from an Adam Strange story that we couldn’t quite get elsewhere?
Followers of my JLA thread may have noticed that it has paused at the end of issue #19, which was the 2nd of four consecutive fill-in issues by Mark Waid. The first two of these – comprising the tale of Julian September - was a very original self-contained little tale. Waid’s second two-parter, however, was much more ‘Waidian’. It concerned longtime DC slawart Adam Strange, and made much use of the continuity of that character. In fact, for good or ill, it was all about continuity.
I decided that I couldn’t really comment on the Adam Strange issues of JLA without having some kind of grounding on how the character has been presented over the years. I could see that such a study would be easier with Strange than with most of his early Silver Age stablemates. He has been used sparingly since his run in Mystery in Space ended with issue 102 in 1965, and his essential character hasn’t changed much since his first appearance.
Thanks everyone who answered my initial queries regarding the best stories to read. Due to reprinting gaps I wasn’t able to get my hands on all that I’d have liked to, but I think I have enough to represent each decade. Some of these stories I am really looking forward to rereading - particularly an appearance by a certain muck-encrusted Earth Elemental. Many I'll be reading for the first time. Hopefully we'll make it all the way to Planet Heist, set excitingly in the 21st Century. How futuristic is that?
(1447 - 140613)
I always thought that Gardner Fox saw in Adam Strange a chance to do Sherlock Holmes in space. Adam could fight up a storm, to be sure, and he could lead the Ranagarian troops when necessary... but he stock in trade was his quick wits. It also gave Mr. Fox a chance to sneak a little science, and some learnin' into them there funny books. As he did that a lot with his books (I'd swear I learned some new factoid* or other every other issue of JLA), it suited him, I think.
I am not a Strange-o-phile enough to cite any particular stories, but I will note "Planet That Came to a Standstill" - or as we in the biz call it, Justice League of America 3½ :) - showed Adam smart enough and good enough to qualify for a seat with the JLA.
Oh, and I still want to register my disappointment of the lack of any Adam Strange Amalgam character. I was already for Dr. Strange, Sorcerer of Two Worlds! Transferred across 26 trillion miles by the eternal Vishanti, Dr. Adam Strange battles the evil mystical machinations of the tyrant of Rann, Sardormammu! Aided by the dictator's daughter, Clealanna, the sorcerer supreme of Earth and Rann strives to bring justice to this world of Alpha Centauri!
Yeah, I know, it's time for my meds again...
Adam Strange in the 50’s – Starcross’d Lovers
Showcase # 17 – Secret of the Eternal City/The Planet and the Pendulum
Adam Strange’s first appearance in 1958 recounts his origin. The Secret of the Eternal City takes a mere 15 pages to set our hero up for a lifetime of adventures, although a few of the classic elements don’t appear until the second story in this issue - The Planet and the Pendulum. Not only do they set up the mythos so well, but I found these two stories to be well-crafted meditations on some fundamental human themes. We'll get back to Fox's pretentions to art in a moment!
Adam Strange’s origin starts off very simply. He’s an archaeologist who is zapped by a Zeta Beam from space just as he’s fleeing some angry natives in a lost city in South America. He finds himself on Rann, another world where he has to be rescued by an alluring young woman. After she makes him fluent in her language via a handy ‘mentacizer’, they learn that Rann is being invaded by an alien race called the Eternals.
This is where it gets a bit strange. The Eternals are after a rare metal called vitatron, which grants them eternal life. The only vitatron on Rann is kept by a reclusive group of scientists who long ago transported themselves and Samakand, their laboratory city, ‘into the fourth dimension’ when they disapproved of their scientific advances being used for war, not the general good.
There is an element of tragedy in Strange’s solution, as he manages to trap the Eternals in the lost city of Samakand in the ‘fourth dimension’ where there is no fuel to allow them to escape, but the scientists are exiled from their refuge.
All good pulp fun! However, on a closer look there is a lot more going on in this simple story than meets the eye. This little tale has a timeless subject and, like a good work of art, (or possibly as a good work of art?) all the elements of the story refocus back onto that subject.
I don’t think I’d win any awards for insight if I was to declare that Adam Strange is about the joy of finding true love and the bittersweet pain of long-distance romance. Everything in the first story ties into this theme, albeit brought to us in the language of Silver Age pulp science fiction. It all begins with a leap of faith, as Adam tries to get away from his attackers, just as prospective young lovers have to take a risk in trying to make a connection at the beginning. The Zeta Beam stands for the million-to-one chance that someone might meet the person for them. At first, prospective partners seem to come from different worlds and have to learn how to talk to each other, just as Alanna and Adam do with the menticizer.
As the story continues, our sci-fi lovebirds find themselves in a wondrous vanished city and feel like the first mortals to explore it. This parallels how the whole world seems to be made new and full of promise when you start to fall in love. Indeed, Rann itself is also a metaphor for this aspect of romance.
Then our loner archaeologist hero finds that he has the bravery and fighting skills to protect his new love and this new world from danger. This too parallels how love can transform people, giving them courage to do things they otherwise wouldn’t, and to fight for the precious gift they’ve been given.
Adam Strange, who seems to have spent his life becoming a successful, respected archaeologist rather than in military or sporting pursuits, suddenly becomes a great warrior and protector of a whole planet! That this should come about just by virtue of getting zapped by a Zeta Beam and strapping on a jet-pack is perhaps the most problematic aspect of the Adam Strange concept from a purely literal point of view. However, in a literary, symbolic reading; of course the love of a good woman has transformed Adam into a formidable champion! The stories don’t make sense otherwise.
The Adam Strange concept allowed Gardner Fox and his collaborators to transform the time-honoured insights of poets and lovers into the language of pulp science fiction. Once you start to look at Showcase #17 in this light, there is even more to think about. Consider the details of the first threat to Rann that Strange has to contend with.
The Eternals want to live forever and will go to any lengths to ensure this. The scientists of Samakand have also found a way to extend their lives in the titular Eternal City of Samakand. Alanna and Adam are mortal, like us all, and like us all, the only defence they have against their mortality is in the love they have for each other. Their new love allows them to walk in the Eternal City for a short while, but this ‘immortality’ plotline ends with the Eternal City cut off from everyone, the Eternals trapped in it, the scientists of Samakand now doomed to die once they’ve left their city and our young lovers of course, as mortal as they ever were.
By introducing the concept of eternal life into the story, and dwelling on it at such length, Fox is reaffirming the certainty of its opposite. Indeed the comic has already confronted us with the context in which Adam and Alanna’s love has suddenly come into being. Immediately after Adam was zapped by the Zeta Beam we are told that he feels for a moment “the stabbing, blinding cold and darkness” of interstellar space. Our lives are short and the universe is cold and vast.
Adam’s newfound love is no small thing in this context, and the connection he has made with this woman nothing short of a miraculous gift.
Showcase #17 also contains Adam’s second visit to Rann, in which the creators cement in place the final elements of the Adam Strange mythos. In The Planet and the Pendulum, Adam gets his iconic flight suit, jetpack and ray-gun. Now we see that Adam, like all long distance lovers, religiously counts down the days and minutes until he can see his beloved again. We begin to understand that each visit to Rann will pit Adam against a new threat to his beloved and her world.
The suggestion in the first story that love and time are pitted against each other is reinforced with the imagery of the giant pendulum gradually slicing into the defensive atmospheric bubble around the city of Anthorann, and Adam’s heroic attempts to deal with it. The bubble screen is all that stands between Alanna and that cold, vast, fatal interstellar vacuum we mentioned earlier. The cold and darkness gets a ritual mention on Adam’s second trip and subsequent trips too!
We also start to learn more about Rann’s history. A thousand years ago there was an apocalyptic war which destroyed all the advances civilisation had made up to that point. Society has slowly recovered until now Rann is made up of separate, warring city-states. As a result of Adam’s meeting with Alanna, he not only saves Rann from the Eternals, but the scientists of Samakand rejoin civilisation for a time and pass on much of their knowledge before they die. So the central romance of the tales is already changing the world for the better.
The scientists of Samakand have a strange role in the first issue. Their city and their science is pivotal, but they don’t really have speaking parts and they die off between Adam’s visits once they are removed from their supply of Vitatron. This is brushed aside in the narrative, but these shiny, happy 50’s futuristic tales tend to do that! Mortality is one of the negative concepts that haunt the edges of these tales.
All in all, the two stories in Showcase 17 bring us some wonderful picture poetry that’s well worth a closer look, beyond being merely the starting point of Adam Strange’s long career as a DC character.
Due to the Zeta Beam passing through a blue nebula on its way to Earth, your reply to my last post seems to have got displaced in time, Philip!
Showcase #17 is well worth a quick squizz. In the first few pages Adam is indeed doing the whole Indiana Jones bit. I'd be surprised if Speilberg and co weren't thinking of this sequence when creating the opening of the first movie. This could be the storyboard:
To address your points - Adam is strong, athletic and brave (Swoon!). Quite the catch for Alanna!
His Archaeology background does give him a very broad knowledge base, too. Science, anthropology, history - including military tactics - would all be part of his work, and Adam evidently goes in for the rugged jungle- and desert- exploring end of archaeology.
Still, look at what we're told about Rannagar. It's one of several warring city-states with it’s own standing army, presumably much more proficient in jet-pack and ray-gun warfare than neophyte Adam. How does Adam outshine those guys?
True, Adam has scientific knowledge that they have lost (even though they have jet-packs, ray-guns and flying cars!) and more importantly knows how to apply it. However, Adam is also shown being quicker on the draw, a better aim and more proficient at hand-to-hand combat than the various career soldiers he meets.
My point in the post above was that Adam is transformed by his love for Alanna. He becomes a new, better person. That doesn't happen in reality, but as a metaphor within a story it works beautifully. I guess I didn't get that across too well in my last post even though it was my central point!
I’m back again pleading that these stories be considered as works of art, which discuss timeless, very human concerns, and not just as ‘true reports of the ongoing history of a parallel universe that doesn’t exist.’ Fox and Sekowsky did produce fun comics for kids, but they managed to code a lot of profound feeling and humanity into these early Adam Strange stories.
OK, it’s not Michelangelo’s Pieta, but these stories have a lot of the characteristics of ‘art’: coded meanings, profound universal subject matter (love, separation, death, our place in the cosmos) and a great deal of craft.
Surely we can take this approach now and again? At the very least it’s crediting the people who brought us these stories with a little artistic intent. I’m sure they had some.
Adam Strange in the 60’s – Jetpack ... or Rat Pack?
For a representative story from the Sixties, I had to choose from the issues in my copy of Showcase Presents: Adam Strange. I’ve picked one that highlights the considerable skills of both Fox and Infantino to best effect. It's a doozy! But first a few general comments on Adam Strange comics of this period.
After 3 consecutive appearances in Showcase, Adam Strange moved to Mystery in Space as of issue #53, dated August 1959. Perhaps Fox took the title of Adam’s new home as a licence to increase the ‘mystery’ element of his stories. In any case the problems to which Adam applies his ‘strange’ version of scientific reasoning don’t get any simpler as the Champion of Two Worlds swings into the Sixties.
I loved Mike Sekowsky’s art in the 3 Showcase issues. He knew his onions that fella! Just look at the Indiana Jones sequence in the previous post for an example of his clear storytelling craft. I get the impression that both he and Carmine Infantino, his successor on Adam Strange art, were more at home drawing scenes set on Earth and featuring contemporary clothes and other stuff they’d learned to draw in their youth. In both their cases, the backgrounds get a little less busy when the scene shifts to Rann. This does give Rann its own feeling as the kind of clean science-city which was fashionable in the science fiction of the time.
At first I was disappointed to realise Sekowsky wasn’t continuing on art, but Infantino’s started to grow on me. In fact, it gradually impressed the hell out of me!
I should note here that I read the entire Showcase Presents: Adam Strange volume 1 over the Easter weekend. This is unusual for me as Silver Age stories don’t usually grab me in this way. I can admire them, but it’s often hard to read a lot of them in a row. I guess some of the depth and seriousness that I perceived in the first issue hooked me, and each of the stories intrigued with their puzzles and impressed with Adam’s Silver Age optimism and can-do attitude. I’d imagine that Eric is right in that these stories would be best read in colour. The magical Samakand scene I scanned above definitely needs it to add to its magical otherworldly feel.
Scott McCloud suggested in Understanding Comics that black and white comics lent themselves to studies of ideas and philosophy, whereas colour comics were better at engaging the emotions and presenting childish spectacle. It was a surprising statement and wasn’t really backed up in his book. Still, I wonder did I see the ideas and philosophies behind the Adam Strange concept more easily because they were presented in monochrome in my Showcase volume?
In any case, the uncoloured reproduction does allow one to better admire Infantino’s grasp of 2D storytelling techniques. Often he uses areas of shadow to frame a figure, or presents the figures themselves as silhouettes to striking effect.
Infantino was obviously at the height of his powers on these Adam Strange tales. Look how he presents the left to right action so smoothly in these two consecutive panels.
It’s only on later readings that I realised the action followed the left to right movement of the reader’s eye across the page. That’s a kind of ‘invisible’ mastery that most readers would only appreciate on a subconscious level. To a consummate old-school storyteller like Infantino, the flow of the story matters more than impressing with showy techniques. Infantino’s work on Adam Strange is very much in tune with Fox’s scripts and Adam’s character.
If I had to pick one word to describe Adam's character, it would be ‘cool’. In the particular late-Fifties/early Sixties sense of that word, meaning calm under pressure, well-presented and effortlessly capable. This period was the heyday of the Rat Pack, who embodied all those things for a generation. Of course, Adam is fictional, so he can be as cool as a Rat Packer without being an alcoholic, an unfaithful womaniser, or a friend to Mafiosi. (Yet another example of fiction outclassing reality!) The other reference point I’m using for this cultural period is the Mad Men TV show. As an examination of that era, it at once presents and critiques the ‘cool’ values of the time. Fortunately, pop culture heroes only have to personify the best values of their time, and Adam embodies a lot of the characteristics which were aspired to in that era.
Infantino’s art style only adds to Adam’s ‘cool’. For one thing, most of the panels show Adam’s sleek figure in full, from a distance. There is very little of the emotionally charged, in-your-face, bursting-out-of-the-panels style which Kirby would develop at Marvel. The style pioneered by Kirby at Marvel was a lot of things, but ‘cool’ wasn’t one of them!
Adam Strange in mid-flight is self-contained and at a cool remove from the action. Thanks to his iconic jetpack, he doesn’t even have to walk the same ground as the rest of us poor slobs! Again and again Infantino shows him elegantly gliding over the ground, or up in the sky. I’m sure his readership keyed into how ‘above-it-all’ Adam seemed most of the time. Check out some of the panels I’ve attached to these posts for the kind of thing I’m talking about. Infantino’s art is so in tune with Fox’s scripts and with Adam’s character, that I have to wonder if Adam Strange is a high point in Infantino’s artistic career?
Another aspect of Adam’s cool is the cerebral way he approaches problems and his confidence in his ability to find solutions. Connected to this is Fox’s use of real-world facts and scientific knowledge. This reference to cold facts removed from the pressing issues at hand cause the reader to emotionally attribute the writer’s removal from the story in these instances to Adam’s cool, calm remove from the exciting events that are happening to him. That Adam can disengage from pressing physical danger to consult his encyclopaedic mental files, makes him seem very composed and, well, ‘cool’!
In the highly regarded ‘Planet that Came to a Standstill’ (MiS #75) featuring the JLA, we are barraged with real-world information. We learn that Earth’s Aurora Borealis is ‘caused by electrically charged particles emitted by the sun striking the Earth’s atmosphere’; how an object counterbalanced by its outward trajectory and the pull of gravity goes into circular orbit; the direction of the Earth’s jetstream (and what it feels like to fly into it); how Ulysses saved himself from the sirens; how many G’s it takes to make Adam weigh half a ton, and how many G’s a human body might be capable of bearing without collapsing. All of these facts have an independent existence from the story and help to remove Adam from the ongoing action momentarily as the reader considers them.
For all that his Rat Pack/ Mad Men, early Sixties cool made him a hit with fans (and with me!), the representative story I’ve chosen from the Sixties shows Adam losing his cool when pushed to experience tragedy and sorrow. But that's a topic for its own post...
Mystery in Space #79 is something of an emotional climax of the first volume of Showcase Presents: Adam Strange, which only takes us up to MiS #85. Adam is pushed by grief to the edge of despair when he believes his beloved Alanna is lost to him. It is also a cracking example of a good Adam Strange story, and another example of how great comics can get when a fine creative team 'bed down' for a long run on a concept that suits both their sensibilities.
This story also supports the argument in my last post that Infantino used specific techniques to convey Adam's Rat Pack 'cool' personality. We see some of those techniques here, but also see that Infantino changes his presentation of Adam when our normally very self-contained hero starts to unravel under extreme emotional pressure.
After the dramatic splash page of Adam in battle with a lava hammer (gotta love comics!), the story begins with Alanna awaiting Adam's arrival on Rann via Zeta Beam. She worries that Strange will materialise over a quicksand pool and covers it with some heavy planks. As I've been getting used to Fox's manner of plotting stories, I was expecting the covered pool to play some part later but that isn't the case here. The sequence is a rather charming character moment, giving us an insight into Alanna's anticipation of Adam's arrival and her self-reliance and practical foresight as a co-hero of the series.
The sequence with the planks reminds me of some advice dispensed by Chazz Palmentiri's character in A Bronx Tale, regarding what to look for in a girlfriend. He tells the young hero of the movie to watch what a girl does after her boyfriend unlocks the passenger door and allows her to take her seat first. Some girls just sit and wait for the guy to get in, but if she reaches over and unlocks the driver's door so he doesn't have to unlock it himself, she's a keeper!
Similarly, Alanna's pro-active preparation for her man's arrival tells us a lot about her and what kind of relationship she shares with Adam. It reminds us that Alanna is much more of an equal partner with Strange, sharing his risks and actively contributing to his success. The story we are looking at now gets much of its power from the fact that Alanna wasn't used as a 'hostage' type female often, as she is here, but instead was usually a proactive hero much like Adam, and a partner to him. The splash page of the very first Adam Strange tale shows Adam rescuing Alanna with a flying car, but in the story itself, Alanna rescues him!
Affecting and revealing character scenes, such as those in the three panels above, are one of the ways that Fox stretches himself creatively on Adam Strange. In some ways this first run of Adam Strange, entirely written by Fox, feels like a creator-owned or creator-driven series more than an editorially mandated series like Justice League of America. Adam Strange was editorially mandated too, apparently, but it seems to me that Fox and his artists were able to make it their own in a more satisfying way.
The third panel there, showing both Adam and Alanna, separated by a vast distance, counting down together towards Adam’s arrival on Rann, is affecting. It’s a charming and piquant little summary of how their relationship works, and of how two people can be separated by vast distances physically but still be together in their hearts.
Once Adam arrives on Rann, he is horrified to see Alanna dematerialise before his eyes. Below is a scan of the page immediately following this dismal event. It illustrates some of the points I've been making about Infantino's art and his general command of comics storytelling.
The first frame is an unusual use of empty space and silence in a Silver Age story to convey Adam's despair. The next frame shows Adam regaining his composure as he takes the first steps towards finding Alanna. Note the more customary full body shot of Adam in the middle distance gliding over the ground. He’s momentarily back to his old self. Frames 3 and 4 are almost identical, except with the viewpoint flipped 180 degrees. Infantino does this a lot in his storytelling. In this case the focus on Adam hunched under the weight of his internal worries in the first of the two frames is switched outwards towards the square where the crowd is awaiting our hero.
The final frame again displays Infantino's clever use of the left to right reading order; in this case, to draw the reader's attention to the right and off the frame. It builds anticipation in the reader about the surprise the crowd have in store for Adam overleaf, and thus encourages her to turn the page.
We discover it is the statue in Adam's honour featured on the cover. Reading these stories, it’s clear that in most cases the cover image came first and Fox spins his story around it. No doubt most of these covers raised puzzling questions in the browsers' minds and probably contributed to increased sales. Nevertheless, a marketing tactic is not a story and this issue is typical in that the intriguing image on the cover is only a passing moment in the story itself.
An Adam Strange story has its own strict rules to follow. It has to include Adam's arrival, his return to Earth, and in between a threat to all Rann or just to Rannagar, that Adam has to solve using carefully spotted clues. A whole story about Adam getting zapped when his statue gets zapped mightn’t fit that formula too well!
In the story Fox has devised, Strange gets zapped by the metal statue because it has been taken over by Ikhar the Undying, a world-conquering disembodied entity who can possess any mineral, ie non-organic, material. Ikhar has done his homework and knows that Adam is the greatest threat to his plans of world conquest. Thus Adam is both transported to a distant spaceship, and turned to stone, a fate which Alanna has already succumbed to. (Like the proverbial Irishman, Ikhar wanted to be sure, to be sure!)
As occasionally happens, Strange’s Zeta Beam soaked physiology makes him an exception; he soon changes back to flesh and blood and wakes up on the spaceship near the petrified Alanna. The subsequent, middle part of the tale, detailing Adam’s near hopeless despair on the spaceship is the reason I chose to focus on The Metal Conqueror of Rann for my representative Sixties issue. The scenes are harrowing and directly address the cosmic fragility of Adam’s love for Alanna. Further, Infantino stretches his art style in a way generally untypical of his Adam Strange work.
We’ve seen very effective ‘letterbox’ frames from Infantino before, and here are two more:
In the first frame, the artist captures Adam’s dismay both in his hunched posture and the way that the frame constricts the figure so severely, almost closing in on him. That's a classic depiction of grief too, with the hand over the face. Adam’s despair is further emphasised in the next frame by the heavy shadows surrounding him as he looks out the window and sees the vastness of the unknown cosmos wherein Alanna is going to be lost to him. Even the edges of the windows seem to be closing in on him like a vice! Note also how Adam, almost collapsing from anguish, has to lean on that handle and prop himself up with his other hand.
The Man of Two World’s agony reaches its apex in the final frames of part one. The ‘rules’ I suggested for depicting Adam Strange are completely broken in this sequence. Instead of swooping free through the skies unhindered, we see Adam in close-up, with the edges of the frames cutting off parts of his form, or with parts of him breaking out of the frames in a marked change from the usually orderly and well-contained way that Strange is normally depicted.
The emotion-charged close-ups and unconventional framing tricks are like a proto-Neal Adams’ style before there even was a Neal Adams style! I suggested in the previous post that Infantino used certain techniques to convey Strange’s ‘cool’. The sequence on Ikhar’s ship here shows that they were deliberate artistic choices, rather than Infantino’s natural style, which the artist put to one side when Adam starts to ‘lose his cool’.
This is the nadir of Adam’s desolation in the story. Similar to how elements of Adam Strange’s origin story had a broader ‘poetic’ resonance, with its musings on love in a cold and dark universe, there is something very evocative in Adam’s particular plight here. Adam frets that when the Zeta Beam wears off and he returns to Earth, he will not be able to find Alanna again, as he doesn’t know where in the vastness of space her ship is floating. It emphasises the extreme romantic basis of the whole Adam Strange concept of lovers separated by cosmic distances.
There is something more going on too, that touches on a real threat to more prosaic Earthbound romances. The image of the lover turned to stone in his arms, there with him, but not with him, seems to be a coded comicbook version of the fate that awaits many real relationships. After the first flush of romance and excitement has long passed, sometimes people do find themselves physically ‘with’ someone who is no longer ‘with them’ in their hearts or minds. Adam lamenting the loss of his sweetheart while holding her petrified unfeeling form in his arms is a powerful image in itself. Almost up there with those of Heathcliff cradling Cathy’s freshly exhumed corpse in his arms in Wuthering Heights! That the normally rational and optimisitic world of a Silver Age sci-fi comic can be here compared to one of the great Gothic romances of literature is saying a lot!
Reading Adam Strange has been educational for me as I hadn’t really studied much of Fox’s work before, beyond the early issues of JLA and Fox’s crossovers with the JSA. On Philip’s JLA/JSA thread I bemoaned how Fox didn’t use the multi-generational JLA/JSA crossovers to explore important universal themes like the relationship of generations to each other and issues surrounding aging. I was told that the readership were too young to care about such grown up things and wouldn’t understand any of it anyway.
The Adam Strange stories on this thread so far contradict those statements. Despite the supposed mental or emotional incapacity of their young readership, Fox and his artistic collaborators explore some important, heavy themes with no little artistic skill. Because of this, I'd suggest that Adam Strange is a much more satisfying body of work than Fox’s Justice League of America. In fact Adam Strange is well worth a look as a great comic - period.
And how did the Champion of Two Worlds save Alanna, return to Rann and defeat Ikhar the Undying? You’ll have to read the issue to find out! Of course Adam’s optimism, rational thinking and scientific nous all come into play, and everything works out for the best.
First off, sorry I haven't responded more. I do have the Adam Strange Archives and am rereading or in some cases reading these wonderful tales.
As I read the Showcase issues, it just felt weird not seeing Infantino's artwork! Sekowsky was good but this was a real primal Adam Strange. As we the readers often enter our fantasy worlds, Rann was Adam's, filled with excitement, danger and wonder. He had no true reason for returning there "monthly" to save these unmotivated Ranagarians time after time, facing the menaces that they obviously are incapable of dealing with. It is his love of Alanna, the dream girl, the partner, the nurturer and his feminine ideal that drives his Zeta-Ray "addiction". He saves Rann or Ranagar every time because he must save her. She is his anchor, his constant, to borrow a term from LOST.
On Earth, he is just an archeologist. We see a few scenes of Adam in his "dayjob" and he is always alone. For all his bravery, good looks and intelligence, he is a lonely, unimportant man, unfulfilled and wanting more. He gets that on Rann. He becomes the Hero, the Savior, the Lover and the Champion, in the truest meaning of the word. His only problem is that he can't stay there long! He appears, he's reunited with Alanna, there's a menace, he saves the day and vanishes, leaving Alanna again and the cycle continues.
There's something very Freudian about Adam's situation. The compulsion to return to Rann, despite his work on Earth (the Id), his love and devotion to Alanna (the Ego) and the mysteries and puzzles he must solve (the Superego). There is a repetitiveness in his life that even Adam notices. Yet there are differences and twists along the way. He may be a Hero of Two Worlds but we know where his heart truly lies!
I am going through the Mystery In Space stories now.
Great commentary Philip. Much more succint than I seem capable of!
One difference between Sekowsky and Infantino's depictions of Adam is that Infantino's is drawn as a little younger and the scripts actually refer to Adam's youth. I'm seeing a lot in Adam's sixties apperances that trace a move from a late 50's culture to the very youth-orientated swinging culture of the mid-sixties. I think perhaps Adam's 'straightness' and 'cool' went from being assets to being liabilities in that period.
These are very strong stories but in 1965 Adam goes from a headliner to infrequent guest star overnight.
As your post shows, there is something fundamentally human about the Adam Strange scenario. There's so much to discuss about what it says about us conflicted, dislocated, daydreaming everyday folk.
I'm about to post a long entry on the parallels in my own life with Adam Strange. The big one is that, like many people, I often want to be where I'm not. Driving around the sun-seared surburbs of Brisbane, I often dream of being tucked away in the corner of some fine old Dublin pub with a pint of Guinness and a few old friends. If I was in Ireland I would be bemoaning the shattered economy and mismanagement of the country and dreaming of spending my days barbecuing sausages in the sun-drenched Elysian Fields of Australia. We're all like Adam. Never at home in one place or the other. STRANGErs in a STRANGE land, in fact...
I'd love to read the final 15 or so Mystery in Space stories, and would even consider buying an Archive, but I don't think the archives take us right to the end. Hopefully the second showcase will show up some day, with the Green Lantern back-ups etc included!
If you are rereading these Adam Strange stories, pay particular attention to the stories featuring the evil Tornado enemies, and #82 World War on Earth and Rann, as we will be looking back at these when we get to Adam Strange appearances of later decades.
For what it's worth, here are the Adam Strange stories I hope to look at:
Strange Adventures No. 226 “The Magic-Maker of Rann” (1970)
DC Comics Presents #3 (1978)
Swamp Thing #57 and 58 (1987) Of course!
Adam Strange - Man of Two Worlds # 1 - 3 (1990)
JLA # 20-21 (1998) Of course - as the raison d'etre of this thread!
DC Comics Presents: Mystery in Space (tribute to Julie Scwartz) 2004 Written by Grant Morrison, so - of course!
Adam Strange: Planet Heist 2004 - 05
I'd love to look at Adam's place in 52 as well, but that's a big project in itself!
Adam Strange, Alpha Centauri, & Me
These sixties stories of Adam’s long distance romance struck a personal chord with me for several reasons. The main one being that my wife and I spent most of our first year ‘as a couple’ in seperate countries, counting down the days and hours until the Heathrow Zeta Beam would reunite us, much as Adam and Alanna do in Fox’s stories. These little tales very poetically distill those exciting, bittersweet visits into comicbook fun, and reading them has brought a lot of that time back to me.
The Southern Cross (Crux in the diagram) is much loved by Australians.
It's on their flag,
Fox and Infantino may have included Alpha Centauri and ‘Hadar’, its sister Pointer Star, in some of the images of Adam looking at the night sky and thinking about his sweetheart.
...or maybe not. It’s hard to say!
For Australians the Southern Cross indicates south for lost travellers looking to get their bearings at night. I’ve used it myself to find my way home a few times, when an over-absorption in the comicbook of the moment led me to missing my stop on the bus and getting off in some unknown part of town. So for the past two years I’d been using the Pointer Stars and the Southern Cross for geographical guidance without realising that the famous Alpha Centauri was one of those stars!
Having now had to look all this up, it’s worth mentioning how subtly Fox and co included all this real-world astronomy in their story. In any case, Adam’s urgent appointments with the beam in the Southern Hemisphere adds a much-needed international and Developing World dimension to DC’s output in the Sixties. It was a subtle way of showing the young readers some parts of the world they otherwise wouldn’t be exposed to.
So once I’d looked up Alpha Centauri on wiki, seeing the home star system of Adam Strange’s beloved Alanna was just a matter of looking up the last time I left out the bins! Standing in the garden of our home, as far as it’s possible to be from where I grew up without actually leaving the planet, it made me think of how far my own long-distance romance has taken us, and the adventure it’s been up to now.
Sometimes comics are about more than just comics. Occasionally, when we read them, they read us!
Strange Adventures No. 226 (Oct 1970)
“The Magic-Maker of Rann”
Issue 102 of Mystery in Space, cover-dated Sep 1965, concluded a respectable seven-year run for Adam Strange as a headliner. After this he appeared occasionally as a guest star in other heroes’ books until his Green Lantern back-ups in the early 1980s.
Most of his appearances in this interim are hard to pick up as reprints, and The Magic-Maker of Rann is the first one that was available to me. Mark Waid included it in The 52 Companion, his eclectic collection of reprints featuring the main cast of that series. As an indication of my interest in Adam Strange before embarking on this little project, I was convinced in my memory that it had been Captain Comet, not the Champion of Rann that had appeared alongside Animal Man in the space section of 52, even though I’d spent a year reading 52!
In any case, The Magic-Maker of Rann is a milestone Adam Strange story in several respects, so I was glad I had access to it.
As well as being a very unusual 'picture-story', it’s the last Adam Strange story written by the great Gardner Fox. The otherwise pulpish sci-fi events in it bear a closer look for that reason. The story can be read as a commentary on some of the philosophical underpinnings of Silver Age DC. In Fox’s Silver Age stories, good intentions rarely cause disastrous results (unless your name is Jimmy Olsen), science and atomic power are usually benevolent, and reasonable people will always act in their own self interest in a way that doesn’t adversely affect others in their society. In this story all these precepts are turned on their head.
Adam Strange catches the Zeta Beam from Australia (natch) only to find that Alanna seems to be furious at him, everyone in Ranagar is acting nutso, and Sardath tells him there isn’t a problem and he should just go away. Once Adam starts investigating, he discovers that a well-meaning scientist had found a way to affect everyone’s mind so that they can control all matter, in effect they can create whatever they wish with a thought. The scientist was able to create a rainbow that emitted the special radiation that caused this. Everyone on Rann loved their new ‘magic’ powers until a meteor containing some kind of impurity landed on Rann. The entity released from the meteor has caused the ‘magic’ radiation to have the side effect of making everyone act in a way ‘contrary’ to their own wishes. Thus friends fight duels and loving mothers chastise their beloved children.
Adam learns that the scientist caused further harm by trying to study and contain the entity, driving it insane with his well-intentioned experiments, before it killed him on its rampage.
Adam has to fight the amorphous entity that has escaped from the meteor and eventually he is able to box it up in a coffin made of the black lead that the meteor degraded into.
Maybe my three precepts of Silver Age DC stories aren’t hard and fast rules, but they were general trends typifying the optimistic, trusting and science-friendly society which produced them. Part of Marvel’s genius moving forward from the early 60’s was to undercut these notions. The Hulk is a creature of conflicting impulses created as part of a US government programme to protect its people. Kryptonite or mind-control aren't needed to explain the Thing often turning against his friends and family.
This story shows Fox belatedly acknowledging that not all scientific advances are for the good; that good intentions, like the scientist’s in the story, often aren’t enough, and that humans are very complicated beings with unconscious negative impulses bubbling under the surface – ‘contrariness’ as Fox calls it in the story.
Philip mentioned earlier that the Adam Strange mythos taps into a very primal wish-fulfilment fantasy. (And consider that his name is Adam - the first man. You don't get more primal than that!) The stories found a way to depict the tensions between our commitment to our obligations and real lives – our job etc – and our wish to be the all-conquering hero and lover. In Adam Strange stories our subconscious gets to act out its contradictions on the page. This primal subconscious wish-fulfilment aspect of the Adam Strange concept mustn’t have been far from Fox’s mind when he wrote this, his last Adam Strange story. All the citizens Adam meets are doing the opposite of what they’d normally want to do, pretty much illustrating the way we are told our subconscious works. Our subconscious doesn’t understand negatives or constrictions of any kind, but we normally repress all the undesirable impulses. Under the influence of the bad radiation, the Rannians act out their negative impulses, throwing away food they want to eat, and telling their friends to go away. Adam realises that his friends can’t explain to him what’s happening, so he knocks a guard almost unconscious so that he can get answers straight from the guard’s subconscious mind as the guard starts to come around.
Perhaps I’m reading too much into this tale as Fox’s commentary on his 60’s DC work, but it is definitely very concentrated on issues of wish-fulfillment and the related contradictory impulses of our subconscious. Note that the rainbow central to the story has a long association with wishing and dreaming.
As Philip asserts above, most of Fox’s Adam Strange stories can be read as examinations of our subconscious desires and anxieties. Although Rann is essentially Adam’s dream world, it seems a bright, optimistic place where Adam’s applied reason always wins the day.The negative impulses are externalised as foes for Adam to fight.
Some of the foes are intensely lonely creatures, causing mayhem and trying to dominate others just to make a connection, perhaps like our deepest selves. I think it's telling that the Tornado Demons are the closest thing Adam has to recurring villains. Tornadoes are unpredictable, violent and destructive with no constructive use. Much like the negative impulses we all try keep a lid on. The Tornado Demon is also the one villain that manages to break away from Adam’s dream-world of Rann and invade the rational, serious waking world of Earth.
Our most profound fear, usually suppressed and pushed down into our subconscious, is the fact of our own death. This story climaxes with the image of a black coffin, surrounding and sealing off yet another another monster of the Id. That’s quite an intriguing image to close out Gardner Fox’s run on Adam Strange. Neil Gaiman’s Sandman asserted as it came to a close that all stories ultimately end the same way, with death, and endings don’t get more final than a coffin!