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 have to check my index, such as it is, but I believe that many of Adam's Silver Age foes had Bronze Age rematches. That's how powerful and memorable his original tales were. I have to find my Showcase:DCCP to refresh my memory of it but that Adam appeared in #3 was saying something as opposed to a more current or popular hero. Garcia-Lopez's artwork was and is amazing! They wanted him to be Curt Swan's successor but Curt wasn't retiring anytime soon!
But if Adam enjoyed his Earth-bound adulation too much, at least there was no hidden agenda! ;-)
Besides some great DC Comics Presents stories, Garcia-Lopez drew some issues of Superman, took over from Jim Aparo on Deadman in the Dollar-Size Adventure Comics and was the artist of Atari Force. But he drew practically all of DC's heroes at one point or another, including the Legion in Superstar Holiday Special.
His highlight may have been the Batman Vs The Hulk tabloid book.
Adam Strange and Commander Rann of The Micronauts.
(Rann in flight, from Micronauts #45. Art by Gil Kane and Danny Bulanadi)
If Adam Strange is the ‘son’ of thirties pulp heroes Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers, then he is also the ‘father’ to Seventies space-faring hero Commander Arcturus Rann, Space Glider and leader of Marvel’s Micronauts. Like DC Comics Presents..., which we’ve just looked at, The Micronauts debuted in 1978.
The generational thing is particularly relevant to these characters when looked at as a group. I’ve already pointed out that Adam’s genesis in the Fifties must owe his existence to Gardner Fox’s memories of reading the likes of Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers in the pulps as a teenager. Fox was born in 1911. Similarly Rann’s creator, Bill Mantlo, born in 1951, would have been a teenager when Fox produced the definitive original run of Adam Strange comics, and as with Fox and the pulps, something in it would have lodged in his mind that found expression later.
It’s true that Mantlo didn’t create Arcturus Rann from scratch, but based him on the Space Glider toy in the Micronauts line. Adam Strange is such an archetypal space hero that it's plausible that the producers of the toy had flight-assisted, fin-helmeted hero Adam Strange in mind when they designed Space Glider (shown at right). However, it was Mantlo who decided to make him the central character in his space opera, and more importantly, to link Arcturus directly to Adam by giving him the name of the latter’s adopted planet Rann as a surname. With that stroke, Mantlo is inviting us to compare and contrast the two, who have many surface similarities.
A fascinating connection between the two is established in Adam’s third ever adventure, ‘Invaders from the Atom Universe’ in Showcase #18. It pitches the Champion of Two Worlds against a subatomic race of world-conquerors, much as Commander Rann had to face off against Baron Karza and his teeny-tiny Microverse-conquering forces.
(Adam Strange explores the ‘Microverse’ years before the Fantastic Four or the Micronauts came along, in Showcase #18, Jan - Feb 1959. Art by Mike Sekowsky)
Like Adam, Rann constantly switches between his homeworld and a world vastly removed from it. Although Commander Rann was born and raised on a world of scientific wonders much like Alanna’s homeworld, it is our Earth that proves to be the most alien and challenging place for him. The challenges Rann faces and how he reacts to them are a telling commentary on how the depiction of the macho space hero had changed between the Fifties and the late Seventies. I’ll come back to this in a moment.
Adam was often separated from where he wanted to be by 25 trillion miles of space, and conversely, when he was with his dream lover he was the same vast distance from his home. There is a similar displacement involved in Rann’s story, but as with Buck Rogers it is a displacement in time, as well as space. Micronauts #1 kicks off with Rann returning from a 1,000 year journey of exploration around the Microverse. He quickly discovers that the villainous Baron Karza was involved in the murder of his parents, and has turned his home world into a fascist dictatorship, horrifically alien to him.
(As this post is all about pop culture genealogies, it’s worth mentioning that both Buck Rogers and Arcturus Rann have Rip Van Winkle in their creative DNA!)
There are other intriguing links between Adam Strange and Arcturus Rann. I’m tickled by the fact that both were drawn by space-hero maestro Gil Kane, who did the pulpish covers of some early Adam Strange comics. I’ve already posted an example or two of these above. Kane then drew Commander Rann and the Micronauts in issues #38 - 45 of that series. Sadly, Kane didn’t get to draw Adam’s ‘son’ Arcturus soaring through space, or flying through the architecture of futuristic alien cities, as he did on his Adam Strange covers (and as the Green Lantern, Kane’s most celebrated space hero had done). Such scenes would have been most gratifying for this geek.
(Adam Strange and Commander Rann on a pair of similarly themed covers by Gil Kane.)
Instead, Kane started drawing Micronauts during one of their visits to the oversized – to them – Marvel Earth, and continued into a period where the team were split up with only Mari’s team getting to return to the futuristic Homeworld and Rann being forced to stay Earthbound until after Gil Kane left the book. This is a pity, as the best parts of Kane’s Micronauts run were a short story in full-blown space opera tradition on how Bug met Acroyear, and then the very ‘Flash Gordon’ sequences of Mari taking part in the rebellion on Homeworld. Further, Commander Rann’s arc during Kane’s tenure emphasised how different the personalities of Rann and Adam were, with Rann's self-confidence hitting a new low in each issue.
Where Adam kept his presence of mind and always seemed confident of figuring out a way to defeat his foes – a confidence which would always turn out to be fully justified, Arcturus Rann was a much more insecure and troubled individual. His first action as leader of the Micronauts is to flee the Microverse altogether to escape the seemingly unbeatable forces of Baron Karza, and he keeps fleeing until a symbolic meeting with the Man-Thing, Marvel’s manifestation of fear itself, in issue 6. Even then his role in the defeat of Karza is down to luck more than his own wits and cunning. As this great blog post asserts, the defeat of Karza almost shatters Rann completely. We learn much later, that Space Glider took off on his original 1,000 year mission despite knowing that Karza was up to something nefarious against his family. As it happens, this was shown in Micronauts #38, the first issue to contain work by Gil Kane.
Even the art reflects the differences in temperament between Adam and Arcturus. Whereas Adam Strange soared freely and acrobatically as he tackled his challenges, Commander Rann is drawn in such a way as to seem more heavy and cumbersome. Unlike Infantino’s and Kane’s graceful and unfettered Adam Strange, Commander Rann is usually depicted constrained by the panel frames, or caught up in a confusing melee or struggling in the grip of an opponent ridiculously larger than himself.
(From Micronauts #44. Art by Kane and Bulanadi)
Concerning Rann's personality, Mantlo makes much play with the themes of retreat, insecurity and helplessness, all of which are the opposite of what drove the intrepid Adam Strange. Given that the two-fisted technologically-assisted space hero is a masculine archetype so deeply ingrained in American 20th Century culture, this evolution is fascinating. Is Mantlo’s depiction of Rann a reflection of how modern males were losing their backbone and can-do spirit? Or is it rather an acknowledgement that the forces arrayed against those who would oppose injustice are almost overwhelming, and that the audience is becoming more savvy to the complexities of the world and the difficulties facing anyone wishing to make a positive effect on the world, and they want to see this reality reflected in their pop culture entertainment?
Adam Strange was brought to us by the generation that had lived through World War II and reflects the vindication the US felt at the end of that test of American capability and strength. Commander Rann was created in a post-Watergate, post-Vietnam context, one deeply questioning of the old virtues and values.
On the face of my quick summary here, Adam Strange seems the more laudable creation, but perhaps Rann is more realistic, acknowledging how hard it would be to be a hero up against a regime with vast resources and technological superiority at its disposal. Further, rather than depending on cold logic and the strength of arms, as Adam does, Rann succeeds by putting his faith in larger forces than himself and allowing himself to be used by those forces, be they the people’s struggle to be free, or even a cosmic higher power, as embodied in the Micronauts mythos by the Enigma Force. The insecurity and anguish he goes through make him a much more human and tragic figure than Adam.
Mantlo’s use of the Flash Gordon/Buck Rogers/Adam Strange space hero archetype and his reconfiguring of it to reflect the concerns and temperaments of his own times, speaks well of how strong an archetype it is in the first place.
Even with the surname, I'd never made that connection before! Of course, the last time I'd read a Micronauts story was when I was 13 or so, but still....!
There are of course lots of various interpretations of the Space Hero archetype over the years, but the few I've used in my simplified genealogical line do illustrate the journeys archetypes often make in a culture.
Flash and Buck were the formation of the archetype and they hit a powerful chord. At the time, Buck Rogers even made it into everyday speech, proverbial for far-fetched, futuristic impracticality. "That Buck Rogers nonsense!"
Flash and Buck wore different outfits and used different gear in their adventures, but Adam Strange illustrates the refinement and codifying of the archetype - He just isn't Adam Strange without the jetpack, ray-gun and streamlined retro-military flight suit. The fairly implausible heroics of Flash and Buck have been even further refined so that Adam can defend his adopted planet from any threat all by himself!
Commander Rann represents the third stage - the subversion of the archetype. Mantlo sets up the surface similarities (and hammers them home with the name) so that he can critique the idea of one man being able to cope with all that responsibility and risk, as Adam does, and he examines the very 50's notion that all it takes is one strong man to make a difference. As you say, Philip, Arcturus needs a huge support network, up to and including the revolting masses, to tackle the wrongs he's up against. He cracks under the strain much more easily than Adam does. Much like any of us would, I'd imagine! Mantlo's is a very valid critique.
The "John Wayne complex" was a buzz phrase in 70s-80s pop psychology, and poor fallible Commander Rann is Mantlo's answer to it.
Q: What was Space Glider's response to the tasks fate allotted him?
A: He Rann!
BTW, I looked at where Adam Strange stood as a character in the lead up to Micronauts #1 here.
Rob, I'd contend that there is still a lot for an adult (or 21st century kids, for that matter) to enjoy in the Micronauts. But then I would say that! Probably the best way Marvel could pay respect to Mantlo and be of practical use to him now, would be to try to get his Micronauts out there again in some form.
The first 12 issues are outstanding by any measure.
Alanna was all the support Adam needed or wanted. However I see more of his determination in Princess Mari than Rann. She was more the center of the Micronauts than a moody, overly sensitive Space Glider.
I remember in the late 70s articles and surveys asking if one was "John Wayne" or "Alan Alda". The tough guy or the caring guy. I believe the two merged as Thomas Magnum of Magnum, P.I.
Everyone should read Figs' amazing and informative Micronauts overview or reread it since I asked a question that I don't recall asking! :-)
I believe the two merged as Thomas Magnum of Magnum, P.I.
What a fine insight!
Alanna Mari stepping up and showing she could run the show as well as any man was also a critique of the gender politics of Adam Strange and its ilk. (I was impressed though, at how strong and independent Alanna was within her role as 'female love interest'.)
It's all good.
Yes it is!
Alanna was very capable and certainly had more gumption than the other Ranagarians. On any world, she would have been quite the catch. If DC had ever done a Silver Age All-Female Justice League story, she would have fit in, no problem!
The classic Space Hero archetype continues to be a part of our pop culture, although by now it has been so thoroughly subverted that it's something of a joke, and can only be used in a rather arch and knowing way.
If Arcturus Rann is Adam’s son, inspired by his creators’ teenage reading of Adam Strange, then there is a case to be made that Arcturus Rann too, has produced a further generation of iconic space hero. I’ve postulated elsewhere that Toy Story’s Buzz Lightyear is creatively descended from Commander Rann, which would make him Adam’s ‘grandson’. When Toy Story first came out, I could see that Buzz was a riff on space opera heroes from Star Wars and Star Trek, but couldn’t figure out where he got his glider wings until I started reading Micronauts last year.
That Joss Whedon (b. 1964) has a love of Marvel comics going back to his teenage years is well known, and he was one of the main scriptwriters for the Toy Story movies. If Joss didn’t influence Buzz’s look, it’s fairly probable that Commander Rann's wings were in the back of someone’s mind when they designed the 21st Century’s favourite Space Ranger. Notably, wiki says that Buzz’s look was based on a mash-up of the Apollo 11 astronauts and GI Joe, neither of which explained the wings. Actually, considering most of the toys in Andy's bedroom are classic toys of the Seventies, the wings might be inspired by the original Micronauts Space Glider toy itself. I can't think of another Seventies sci-fi toy that had wings on a backpack like that.
I’ve just illustrated how Mantlo's Rann, as a continuation of the Adam Strange archetype, questions traditional heroic values and the portrayal of masculinity itself in pop culture. On top of everything I noted above, this was emphasised by the fact that Rann was about 4 inches high and found doing the most basic of tasks in our Earth incredibly challenging. This was a real contrast to Adam Strange’s trademark aplomb and savoir faire. Mantlo used the whole set-up of tiny people lost in a giant world to question traditional heroics and masculinity.
The makers of Toy Story took this even further. Entertainment weekly relates the plot/characterisation of the first movie as “Roy Rogers vs. Buck Rogers” (him again). These are the old school icons of heroic masculinity. Toy Story remade these quintessential American he-men as fragile plastic toys, for whom even a trip across the road or into the next door neighbour's garden is fraught with peril. Emotionally they are deeply insecure and dependent on the love and support of others to get them through their existential fears and worries.
The Toy Story movies take Buzz on quite a journey. At first he believes that he is the quintessential spaceman tough guy, brave and equiped with all he needs to conquer any environment or threat. He has to learn that all that 'Buck Rogers nonsense' is just so much fantasy for little boys. He begins to understand that he is in fact a fragile, weak being whose entire meaning depends on the love and attention he gets from the important people in his life.
This is hammered home in Toy Story 2, where he finds that he isn't even that unique, but has to face whole aisles of a store dedicated to toys identical to him, with the newer ones actually being better! He also has to face his own 'mortality' and looming prospect of the end of his life as he knows it. The space hero's masculinity just keeps getting knocked down in the modern world, doesn't it?
What all this signifies about the evolution of masculine identity and how we relate to our pop culture heroes is somewhat beyond the remit of these posts and indeed, my own ability to analyse it, but it’s certainly a rather fascinating subject for consideration.
Adam Strange of course, is much closer to Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers on our spectrum of old-fashioned gung-ho grit, but perhaps his prioritising of thought and strategy above jumping in first with laser guns and fists is an early step in the direction of the self-doubt and helplessness of Arcturus Rann and Buzz Lightyear.