Sunday, March 13, 2005

Looking To The Stars: Strange Daze

Yet another slow comic week in Starmanland. I was actually worried about having something to write about this week. And then Johnny Babos had to go shoot his mouth off about a character very near and dear to my heart…

I’m surprisingly leaning towards getting this. While I am a huge Star Trek fan, I’ve never been a comic sci-fi fan. The possibility of learning more about Thanagar and Rann appeals to me.

Seeing Hawkman in this foreign sci-fi environment (I say foreign b/c in his revamp he really is all human not Thanagarian as I understand) also is appealing. I wonder how/if he’ll be accepted by Thanagar. I’d love to see Darkwing show up too.

I’m also intrigued about Kyle Rayner’s new role in the DCU – and hopefully a costume change is in the works for Kyle.

Adam Strange? The weak link of the bunch IMHO. What’s the appeal of this character? None.

Adam Strange? Weak link? No appeal? Blasphemer!

So who, I hear some of you ask… who is this Adam Strange guy? Doctor Strange’s cousin? Hugo Strange’s nephew? Hardly…

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. Adam ran from the restless natives 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 ray of light. 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. It was there he was taught the language of this world by the use of a “menticizer” and found that his 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 radioactive 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.

Adam Strange first appeared in 1958. It was shortly after the creation of the Comics Code and just two years after the creation of Barry Allen, The Silver Age Flash. He made his debut appearance in Showcase 17, written by Gardner Fox. Adam’s creation owed itself to a sudden need for more science-fiction stories in comics. With Sputnik launched and stories involving space travel showing increased sale. But like many characters created because of market forces, Adam would evolve into something more.
Adam got a regular feature following his appearances in Showcase. He took over Mysteries in Space as his personal title 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 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, which made Adam Strange DC’s premiere science fiction character and one of the most popular characters of the Silver Age revival. At that time, Adam was as widely recognized among comic fans as the Barry Allen Flash and the Hal Jordan Green Lantern.

Admittedly, Adam Strange has suffered from being “out-dated” according to many modern comics readers. They see some guy in a jet pack with a ray gun and dismiss him as dull and boring. And on that level, yes. Yes, the science and idea behind the character is silly. Yes, the whole tragedy of his being separated by the love of his life could easily be solved by Green Lantern giving him a ride to Rann. Yes, it is rather questionable that he would be able to breed with a Rannian woman in the first place. Yes, pretty much anyone could strap on his flight-suit and fire a ray gun and it’s a mystery why no Rannian man, sterile or no couldn’t protect the city of Ranagar. Yes, Adam Strange is just one more bit of nostalgia to be tossed on the trash heap with Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon.

Except for one thing. The thing that separates Adam Strange from all the other space-heroes. The thing which endeared him to me as a character. The one trait that, when written properly, makes him a character the equal of any other in the DC Universe. His mind.

Despite having a handy arsenal of sci-fi weaponry and equipment, Adam truly did believe that his brain was his best weapon and that he could use his smarts to defeat any enemy. Of course there is a chance that there is no place in the DC Universe for a hero who wins his fights not through power, but through smarts. Someone who, with careful planning, could take on any threat and survive. Maybe even fight the gods themselves…

Batman? Who is that?

John Constantine? Never hoid of him.

Many stories showed Adam doing the same things Batman does on a regular basis. But none captured the spirit of the character quite so well as what is 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, believing that the planet’s triple sun will give him powers akin to Superman. He is right 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. He reasons that if Superman can be weakened by pieces of 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 presence of the metal. Where the pure power of the JLA had failed, Adam Strange’s quick thinking had saved the day. Admittedly, this is a rather Silver-Aged bit of logic. But by the logic of his world, it works.

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 given the title, 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. But the character was ignored for the most-part during the 1980s, save for a few cameos during major events and an appearance in Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing where it was revealed that Alanna was pregnant. The 1990 mini-series, recently collected in trade-paperback format for reasons nobody understands, is best ignored. Not only because of its poor quality but because everything in it (the death of Alanna, the madness of Sardath, Ranagar being launched into space, Adam being hated by the people he protects) has been undone by other, better writers since then. And oddly enough, all the stories that show the value of Adam Strange in a character in a modern DC Universe have all been collected in one trade-paperback or another.

Green Lantern #74-75 – Reprinted in Green Lantern: Baptism By Fire

Adam is one of several heroes on-hand for a last-stand effort by the Darkstars to stop the rampage of Grayven. While the highlight of the issue is Kyle Rayner single-handedly stopping the destruction of the city of Ranagar, this issue serves as an excellent primer to the character and world of Adam Strange.

JLA #21 – Reprinted in JLA: Strength in Numbers

In two issues, Mark Waid managed to turn-around most of the problems with Adam Strange and restore it to what it was before. It turned out that Alanna was not dead, but in a deep coma-like state that Rannian medicine was unfamiliar with. Sardath took Alanna to the En’Tarans; a telepathic race of conquerors well known for being skilled physicians. They were able to cure Alanna but tricked Adam into teleporting an invasion party of the aliens onto Rann on Sardath’s orders. With his wife and father-in-law held hostage, Adam quickly promised to deliver the En’Taran’s more than just Rann. Setting the people of the city to work “rebuilding its’ former glory” (a legitimate concern following the battle with Grayven), Adam used the Zeta Beam to kidnap the JLA and set them to work aiding in the construction. Held in check by the En’Taran’s telepathic might, the JLA was powerless to fight back.

Thankfully, it turned their old ally had not crossed over completely to the side of darkness. He had instead embarked upon a bold plan, using the landmarks of Ranagar to create the largest Zeta Beam ever; large enough to send the En’Tarans entire fleet far away. But his salvation of his homeworld came at a high price; for the ray to work, it needed a source of Zeta radiation… and the only ready source available was Adam Strange’s own body. When the ray fired, his body was cleansed of the Zeta energy and he teleported immediately back to Earth, once again dependent on running to catch the next beam. One of the best moments during Waid’s tenure on JLA came at the end of this issue, with a saddened Adam Strange looking up to the stars with tears in his eyes. And then being joined by a silent Martian Manhunter; another hero who well knows what it is to lose a daughter and a wife and how it feels to be apart from his own world.

Starman #52-53- Reprinted in Starman: A Starry Knight

The first Adam Strange story since Waid’s retcon of the past 20 years, James Robinson laid the groundwork for the portrayal of Adam Strange currently used by Andy Diggle in the current Adam Strange mini-series. Adam was now written as a man of action in the Indian Jones vein of adventurer; an intelligent man who could turn to violence if needed, but who always preferred battles of wits to battles of fists.

As you can see, Adam has a lot of potential as a character and can inspired some great stories when properly written. With the upcoming Rann/Thanagar mini-series, we can only hope that Adam will finally get some much deserved respect from the fandom community that has ignored or insulted him for so long.

Tune in next week. Same Matt time. Same Matt website.

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