By Adam Korenman
“Your human world is strange. I think I’ll destroy it”
Transport yourself to 1950s America. The military invasion of Korea failed to stall the rise of Communism, the fedora began its inevitable decline, and Russia beat the US into space.
(In Soviet Russia, this joke is still lame)
Basically, we needed a win. Luckily, America was still leading the world in the “thinking up awesome superheroes” race. However, as the years dragged on, even the legends of the Golden Age couldn’t keep the reader’s interest. DC, looking to find a new banner character, launched the anthology series Showcase. Made up of various one-offs, the rag was used to vet possible storylines and find better, squarer-jawed heroes.
Enter writer Gardner Fox and artist Mike Sekowsky. Fox had been tasked with creating a character set in the modern age, someone that readers could relate to even as he went off on wild and crazy adventures. Fox jumped at the opportunity, creating a hero that was equal parts John Carter and Indiana Jones, with just a hint of MacGyver.
(Take a moment to remember what this movie could have been, rather than what it was)
But Fox didn’t want to copy the violent nature of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ famous planet-hopper. He wanted his hero to solve problems with his wits rather than his fists. He also wanted the series to be grounded in real science (as much as there was real science in the ‘50s). The Space Race had just jumped to the forefront of the public mindset, and Fox was keen to capitalize. The result?
(Don’t let the spandex fool you, this guy is basically space-Batman)
Adam was an archaeologist, traipsing around the jungles of Peru looking for a lost civilization. When he actually did stumble upon one, the locals happily welcomed him into their fold and congratulated him on his intrepid explorership.
No, just kidding, they threw spears at his face.
“Sharpened blades! My only weakness.”
Adam flees from the jungle, only to be cornered at the edge of a cliff. As Nathan Drake and Lara Croft can attest, when you’re stuck between a cliff and a fistful of spears, you take the cliff every time.
“I can’t see this ending bad–VOIP”
Hit by a “Zeta Beam” (read: SCIENCED), Adam is whisked away to the planet Rann in the Alpha-Centauri system. As he will soon discover, the brainiacs of Rann had sent radio waves to Earth to try and create some sort of dialogue. However, the radio waves had mutated in space (again, SCIENCED!) and become teleportation rays instead. Adam wasn’t too perplexed by the ordeal, as he was focused on a more pressing issue.
(Like laying down some mad space-game)
And so Adam Strange began his adventures on the planet Rann, as well as his space-romance with the beautiful Alanna. Their courtship is a hallmark of the series, and a grounding device for stories that grew more and more elaborate as time went on. All the while, Adam faced off against shrink-rays, shape-shifters and other tropes of science-fiction lore.
Visually, Sekowksy’s work is spellbinding. Each of the surreal creatures dreamed up by Fox is brought to life with vibrant colors and simple shading. Adam bears the classic features of the American hero: square jaw and wavy hair, with piercing blue eyes and athletic silhouette. Alanna comes from a similar mold, with the wavy black hair and hourglass figure. What is amazing is that, appearances aside, neither character is cookie-cutter in any way.
As previously noted, Adam is not much of a fighter. He is no stranger to a laser pistol, and is not afraid to wrestle a fully grown Zaradak, but he relies on tactics to win the day. His scientific mind is the hero more often than not, even when confronting the most brutish alien menaces. This was a period in American history when the scientist was considered a national hero, and Fox wanted to showcase how intellect could resolve almost any issue.
(Though there are problems even math can’t solve)
It is important to remember the backdrop of the decade. Science was moving from the droll (Atomic Bomb? Ho hum) to the spectacular (We will put a bear on the moon TOMORROW!) Every DC hero made the leap to extraterrestrial adventures. Batman wore a spacesuit and fought green-skinned goblins–not to be confused with the Green Goblin, who is just a billionaire with an ether problem.
Adam Strange captured America’s attention because he represented the adventure and excitement everyone hoped the future would hold.
His love interest, Alanna, is no slouch either. Unlike most female leads of her time, Alanna is more than just some damsel to be distressed over one thing or another. She is a warrior, more than willing to charge into battle or race an atomic missile. Her father, Sardath, is the chief scientist on Rann, and much of his intelligence has passed on to his daughter. It makes for a more interesting relationship than the standard “hero and hero’s girlfriend” we see in Lois Lane or Mary Jane.
(Typical date with Superman)
As is required by science-fiction action heroes, Adam and Alanna constantly find themselves set against intergalactic menaces and end-of-the-world scenarios. His very first furlough on Rann, Adam takes on a race known as the Eternals, who’ve come to the planet seeking a rare element which can keep them immortal. Naturally, he traps them in the 4th dimension, says a quick one-liner, then promptly vanishes.
(Adam Strange’s take on “drop the mike”)
I don’t want to spoil the fun of discovering these adventures on your own, so I’ll give you a snapshot of his antics.
And did I mention he teams up with the JLA? Because he totally does. And each time is more epic than the last.
Although the initial run of Adam Strange was made up of mere installments in each issue of Showcase, there was a common plot arc running for the first thirty years. Adam’s intergalactic teleportation was powered by some pretty fancy science, but his trips were limited. Like John Carter, he is thrown back to his home planet at the end of the adventure, left staring wistfully at the stars and bidding his love goodnight from 25 trillion miles away.
(Bright side? A valid excuse to skip foreplay)
Worse yet, he had no way to know when exactly the beam would send him away. During one adventure, Adam ducks underwater to distract a bullfrog from eating his shrunken girlfriend (it would take too long to explain, so just run with me here). Alanna was mid-conversation when Adam vanished, and thinks he has simply gone back to Earth. She had no idea what the rest of his plan was, only that it involved a large amount of duct-tape and paper clips.
In many ways, this demonstrates the distinguishing trait of the Adam Strange series. Unlike many superheroes of his era, Adam was a little fish in an enormously big pond. Sure, Superman was an alien, but Kal-El had a laundry list of powers at his disposal. Hal Jordan was a human amongst aliens, but was gifted with a ring of unlimited utility. Batman was, is and shall remain the Mother F*#@^! Batman.
(Fact: One of the traits needed for Sainthood is being equal to or greater than Batman)
But all of those heroes got to stay in one place. Adam went to an alien world, always arriving in the middle of one crisis or another, and managed to bring order to the chaos with nothing more than a little American know-how. He was the everyman-hero, a champion of brains over brawn, and the savior of Rann a thousand times over. But he was always just a visitor, and every adventure ended the same way: in a cloud of mist that ended in a backwater part of Earth.
Adam Strange left his love alone, often for months at a time. He raced across the globe in search of the Zeta Beam that would bring him back to Rann, back to Alanna. In that way he is like all of us, searching for that magical connection that will bring us to the place we’re supposed to be.
(And, if possible, get us to second base)
Adam’s time on Earth is meaningless to him. He hides his travels to another world from others, secrets away to the magical alien planet. And as Superman protects our planet, so too does Adam protect his adopted home. It holds everything he loves and cherishes, whereas Earth is merely the layover between trips.
Created during a dazzling period in human history, Adam Strange is as timeless as he is awesome. If you’re a fan of science-fiction, space exploration, or a great romance, you owe it to yourself to dive into the adventures of Adam Strange. Although I’d suggest to take the more recent issues (notably Alan Moore’s run) with a grain of salt. They tend to be a little…Strange.
Adam Korenman is a Los Angeles-based writer who thinks scotch is part of a balanced breakfast.