Saturday, May 1, 1999

The Rise Of Adam Strange

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 formalized, 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.

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