FOR FRIENDS OF THE STIRLING ROAD BRANCH LIBRARY
Crown Jewel of DC’s Silver Age
By Stuart Hopen
Originally published in Rain Taxi Review of Books, Print Edition, June 2013
In 1958 three-issue trial run of a piloting comic titled Showcase, D.C. Comics audience-tested a science fiction series that revolved around a character costumed like a superhero, but possessing no superpowers. We meet Adam Strange, an archeologist, as he explores the Peruvian plateau of the Andes Mountains. He is alone in the dense jungle. As the series unfolds, this state of solitary questing seems to be the norm for his life on Earth. Throughout the series, there is never any hint of friends or family on this planet, or any interests outside of exploring the remnants of deserted cities and digging among their ruins.
Strange locates a legendary Incan city, and with it, a treasure-trove of gold. His professional and financial triumph is short lived, for this particular dead civilization is not entirely dead, and a hostile party of its remaining citizens attack with arrows and spears. They chase Strange to the edge of a precipice that yawns over a wide chasm. He has a choice between certain death at the hands of the attackers, or risking a 25 foot leap over an abyss.
He takes his one chance for salvation, and he leaps. At the apex of the leap, surrounded by flying spears, Strange is struck by a blinding flash of light.
Instantly, he finds himself teleported to the planet Rann, in the Alpha Centauri solar system. The dominant life form is unmistakably human. In short order, Strange meets the beautiful Alanna. She fits a metallic band around his head, a mentacizer, a device that instantly teaches language so that the two can add words to the primal communication that already exists between them– for they have immediately recognized one another as soul mates.
Adam discovers he was brought to Rann by the Zeta Beam, a bright burst of energy that had been originally sent to Earth as a signal, but which had somehow transformed into a teleportation medium by the process of crossing twenty five trillion miles of empty space.
After a brief adventure, the effects of the Zeta Beam wear off, and Strange returns to Earth. But he knows exactly where and when the beam will strike next, for the beam adheres to a rigid formula, as do the stories that follow.
At the start of each tale, we find Strange racing to connect with the Zeta beam, always in some exotic locale below the equator. Decked out in his Rannian garb, a jet pack strapped to his back, he sports a tight fitting piece of headgear with center fin that might serve some obscure aerodynamic function. He stalks the elusive beam through forest, or desert, or frozen tundra. He jets around tidal waves, glaciers, and volcanic eruptions as he races to continue his star-crossed courtship. At the point at which he connects with the beam, his back arches with formal grace, something akin to the studied leap of an Olympic high diver. As he fades, he forms an iconic image of submission to the forces of time and space.
The Zeta Beam whisks Strange off to Rann, where his efforts to court Alanna will invariably be frustrated by the appearance of some new menace that threatens imminent doom for the planet.
According the plot formula, no one but Adam Strange can defeat these menaces. He always uses his mind and his creativity. He might cleverly deduce a weakness on the part of the villain that no one else has seen. Or he might arrive at some inventive solution to a problem that otherwise seemed intractable. The effects of the Zeta Beam will keep Strange on Rann for what is supposed to be a period of unpredictable duration, though it will most assuredly not last much longer than the time it takes for Strange to defeat the menace du jour.
The three issues of Strange’s Showcase run were largely unremarkable comics. One wonders how he survived them. The interior art was by penciled by Mike Sekowsky, best known for decades of rendering the superheroes of the Justice League of America with thick waists and stocky limbs, as though they were lapsing into middle-aged paunchiness while enjoying a diet heavy in potatoes.
Strange’s premier story features one particularly telling panel in which the art fails the writer’s vision. A caption reads, “Elfin towers rear upward into the sky while all around them golden fountains and waters splash with gentle music…” Alanna exclaims, “Words are inadequate to describe this breathtaking beauty.” The panel surrounds the text with quick, blunt brushstrokes, a mere ideogram to contain the words, neither reflecting nor enhancing them.
Perhaps Strange survived his test marketing because of the remarkable science fiction imagery of the covers, gloriously rendered by the great Gil Kane. Compelling covers were integral to the Adam Strange mythos.
Editor Julius Schwartz had been a science fiction literary agent. He seemed to appreciate the accolades of the elite. His books reflect the nation’s postwar elevation of American rationality and ingenuity, the triumph of man over nature. Adam Strange’s stories are about solving problems through the application of logic and science, a theme flowing naturally from the national attitude.
Schwartz would devise a scene for each cover that promised danger, mystery, and other-worldly exoticism along with an imbedded narrative hook, and then he’d assign to author Gardner Fox the task of inventing a matching story for the image.
Adam Strange may have survived his Showcase trial, but he could not have survived it by much. Unlike most of the successful Showcase contenders, he did not win his own magazine. Rather he was consigned to a recurring nine page slot in an existing title, Mystery in Space. His share of the magazine was relatively modest– less than half the pages– even though he commanded the cover.
The switch to Mystery in Space brought with it a change in artist. Carmine Infantino assumed penciling chores. Infantino, who died on April 4, 2013, was a gifted craftsman, capable of works of surprising beauty and elegance, though one would never have known it from the first three Mystery in Space appearances, where they were buried under Bernard Sachs’ savage inking.
Infantino’s early work was heavily influenced by Milton Caniff. He held onto that style well into the early 1950’s, and it was in evidence when he drew King Faraday, a D.C. spy title. But within a few years, when he started drawing the Phantom Stranger, he was following DC’s house look, which was based on Dan Barry’s fairly antiseptic and unemotional, but skillful work. A Bernie Krigstein influence slowly begins to show itself. When Infantino inked his own work, it appears design-oriented. By the time he had drawn a few issues of the Flash, his pages start to resemble blueprints. He was the Frank Lloyd Wright of comics. What had once seemed very sleek and modern now has the retro look of old fashion ads.
In 1959, the vision that had been underlying the series comes into sharp focus with the addition of meticulous inking by Murphy Anderson. The reader is at once transported beyond the realm of the ordinary, as if the Zeta Beam had struck. There is a sudden synergy between all members of the artistic team, the editor, the writer, the penciler, and the inker.
At this point, the series blossoms into a romance in the richest sense of the term. The passions between the two lovers radiate through the evocative art, despite the efforts of the Comics Code Authority to douse them with cold water. Adam and Alanna can’t keep their hands off one another. We feel the pain of their separation every time they are wrenched apart by exhaustion of the Zeta Beam. We feel their unbearable longing as they look to skies at the start and conclusion of each tale, where they are tormented by every inch of the twenty five trillion miles of empty space between them.
In story titled “Menace of the Super Atom,” a gigantic intelligent beryllium atom appears on Rann. Immortal, the atom has conquered so many worlds, he’s lost count of them. He uses mental powers to command inorganic matter, raising armies of classically proportioned semi-nude young men from stone, gold, silver, and iron, overwhelming Rann with animated Grecian statuary.
Strange struggles helplessly against the tireless inflexible legions, while the Super Atom, in a fit of ennui and narcissistic indulgence, puppeteers his statues to bow and grovel beneath him. It surely was a resonant image in the late fifties– supplication before a tyrannical atom. Then the atom begins to bombard Alanna with radiation.
Partially in response to a sudden outburst of emotion, and partially in response to a gestating hunch, Strange cries out a command to desist. Surprisingly, he finds that the atom’s ability to command the inorganic world carries with it a psychic vulnerability to the command’s of the organic world.
Strange commands the Atom to slumber until such time as Strange chooses to wake him. The immortal conqueror of countless worlds acquiesces with almost plaintive submission to the demands of life.
The Machine that Swallowed Men features a cover in which a cube headed alien wields a weaponized version of vacuum cleaner, turning a symbol of 1960’s domesticity into an instrument of science fiction terror. The alien points the vacuum nozzle at Strange, exerting a pull strong enough to dissolve him into primary particles that retain the distinctive colors of his trademark outfit.
On the basis of that cover, Gardner Fox devised a story about the Vantors, alien raiders who could suction up people and buildings and store them in small back pack containers.
Strange deduces that the machines can only deal with a single element at a time, if confronted with a pure element. He devises an attack strategy based on a strike force trained in hand to hand combat, who first coat themselves with layer after layer of disparate elements. Each soldier wears a coat of copper under a coat of gold under a coat of aluminum. At each step, the Vantors must reset their weapons to deal with the new elemental coating. The delays associated with the process of making these adjustments allows the Rannian strike-force to get close enough to engage the invaders in hand to hand combat.
The series often featured biological properties or physical principles that were grounded only in the internal logic of the story. Some of these biological properties and physical principles seem to have come from a plot convenience store– perhaps the same one where Alanna bought her menticizer.
In The Planet that Came to a Standstill, Strange had to deal an alien villain who had amplified the sun ’s rays in a way that made him three times more powerful than Superman. The combined might of the Justice League of America could not defeat this villain. But Strange plucked up a weapon the villain had brought from his home world, for the villain had discarded the weapon when super powers obviated its usefulness. Strange defeated the villain with his own weapon, for the mere presence of the metal from his home world weakened him in the same way Kryptonite weakens Superman.
The cover of The Spaceman who fought Himself shows two identical individuals, both appearing to be Adam Strange, about to engage in a duel. Alanna holds a kerchief, preparing to drop it as the signal for the mirror images to open fire at themselves.
From that peculiar image, Gardner Fox wove one of his very best tales. An alien named Horton Var arrives on Rann. He is a dead ringer for Adam Strange. The two could be identical twins. On his home planet, Horton Var said, he was as much as a hero as his likeness to Adam would suggest. A band of evil warlords exiled him to Rann, transporting him there in a space warping device contained in a glass bubble capsule. Because the warlords had the ability to monitor all of Horton Var’s dealings, it was necessary to stage an elaborate charade involving a duel between twins, to convince them that Horton Var was dead.
Strange followed Horton Var’s instructions on using the transport capsule, believing himself bound for the world of the Warlords, so that he could defeat them where Horton Var had failed.
But Horton Var’s story turned out to be an elaborate trick. Adam found himself transported to a dead world, rendered with heartbreaking desolation. The capsule is out of fuel, marooning Adam on the dead world. Horton Var will be waiting to ambush him should he try to return to Rann, for the Zeta beam destinations can always be determined with geometric precision. Adam is stunned to find he had been outwitted at his own game, by his doppelganger. Had he studied folklore as intensely as he studied science, he might have known that the appearance of one’s doppelganger generally does not bode well. One would expect more of an archaeologist.
Adam brings the glass capsule back to Earth with him, simply by clinging to it as the effects of the Zeta beam wear off. On Earth, he analyzes the last remnants of the capsule’s fuel, makes a fresh supply, and uses the teleportation capsule, rather than the Zeta beam, to make a sneak return to Rann. Then he melts the capsule into a giant lens capable of casting its teleportational effects over a wide area. He traps Horton Var’s invading force under the broad beams cast by the lens, thus sending them packing off to the dead world from which he had narrowly escaped.
After its very best story in February of 1963, The Cloud Creature that Menaced Two Worlds, the series started to run out of steam.
The issue that followed had one of the most compelling covers and an irresistible narrative hook, World War on Earth and Rann, with Adam on a bisected mega-panel posited between two holocausts. On one side, a gigantic magnifying glass focuses a point of condensed sunlight onto Ranagar City (Some villain using futuristic technology like a child tormenting an anthill), while on the other side, a city on Earth vanishes under a mushroom cloud. But the story itself begins with a painfully awkward moment. A crowd of Rannian protesters greet Adam with placards telling him to go back home. With “poster hoc ergo prompter hoc” reasoning, the protesters concluded that because menaces appear whenever Strange does, he is the cause of the menaces. We’re told this bunch come from “backward City-States.” These simple minded folks were Rannian hillbillies.
In 1963, protest signs had become signs of the times, and scenes like this one were common sights all over America. Here, we have a D.C. protest against protesters, though most of the protesters at that time had targeted problems involving civil rights, the war in Vietnam and nuclear proliferation.
At the time, D.C. was clearly being threatened by an ascendant Marvel comics, a barbarian at D.C.’s gates, trading openly in themes of alienation and family dysfunction, prompting D.C. to dig in its establishment heels.
From that moment on, a kind of stodginess set in. The series began to be defeated by one of its former strengths. Entropy was taking over the closed system of the formulaic stories. Maybe the formula might have lasted longer if the stories had held to their original 9 page humble format. But the series had reached its ultimate heights in stories that ran for 15 to 24 pages, and from these heights there was no turning back. The Rannian hillbillies were right. They knew cause and effect when they saw it. The formula dictated that a menace appear along with Adam Strange, and the formula had the force of a thermodynamic law on Rann. And the formula was rapidly running out of energy.
Some of the stories that followed in 1963 were painfully awful, not merely occasional lapses in craft, but utter spectacles of degradation. The very title of the story in Mystery in Space #87, (The Super-Brain of Adam Strange! )speaks for itself.
Adam Strange quietly faded away shortly thereafter, as if the Zeta Beam had simply worn off for the last time. But he reappeared briefly in the pages of Hawkman #18, to finally marry Alanna in a not entirely awful tale, bringing closure to the series with a happy ending.