Adam Strange and commitment

Finishing DC’s Adam Strange Omnibus recently has me thinking about former Marvel editor Tom Brevoort’s post on the importance of committing to the idea. As Brevoort explains it, in the comics business you may end up working on a strip you don’t like or can’t get into. Rather than radically turning it into something you’d prefer, “what you need to be able to do is to figure out what it is about the character or the book that appeals to the people who like it–or is supposed to–and then Commit To The Idea.” How does that connect to Adam Strange? I’ll get to that.

For those who don’t know Adam, or only know him from Krypton, he debuted in Showcase #17. Showcase was DC’s tryout magazine, testing new features for several issues to see if they had the strength to go to series. Adam didn’t make it to his own book but he did land the cover spot in the SF anthology Mystery In Space, starting in 1959 and continuing until 1965.

In the first story, by Gardner Fox and Mike Sekowsky, we meet Adam as an archeologist attacked by natives while excavating a South American site. As he runs he’s hit by a beam and materializes (as he and we learn) on Rann, a planet around Alpha Centauri, slightly over four light years away. Sardath, the chief scientist of the city state of Ranagar, has been experimenting with a communication ray called a Zeta Beam, but space radiation in the four years it took to reach Earth has mutated it into a teleport ray instead. Adam stays on Rann long enough to fall in love with Sardath’s daughter Alanna and to save Rann from the Eternals, immortals seeking a McGuffin that will maintain their ageless state. The Zeta Beam energy wears off, returning Adam to Earth but Sardath’s told him where the next one will strike, so  soon he’s on his way back to Alanna.

No question the series was formulaic. Typically we’d open with Adam trying to catch the Zeta Beam despite obstacles. Once he arrives on Rann, something menaces the planet (in an early example of lampshading, he and Alanna joke about this throughout the series) and Adam figures out a way to stop it. Rather than whipping up a super-weapon, typically the solution involved Adam out-thinking his foe; quick wits were his super-power. In the classic “Planet That Came to a Standstill,” for example, the alien villain has figured out how to give himself super-powers via Rann’s triple sun, modeled on the way Superman gains powers from our sun. Adam correctly deduces that Kanjar Ro will be vulnerable to radioactive metal from his homeworld just as Superman is vulnerable to kryptonite. He defeats Kanjar Ro where the Justice League failed.

What made it work, at least for fans like me, is that the stories were genuinely fun and often clever. The long-distance relationship with Alanna added some romantic tension and they clearly had a very affectionate physical relationship (of all the unmarried heroes of the Silver Age, Adam’s the one most likely to be bedding his girlfriend). Carmine Infantino, taking over the art from Sekowsky, provides really great visuals, especially when paired with Murphy Anderson.The last dozen or so issues, with an entirely different creative team, are a disappointment (the editor, Julius Schwartz, had been transferred over to Batman, and taken Fox and Infantino with him). But they did stay true to the idea. Alan Moore, when he wroe Adam Strange in Swamp Thing #87 and 88 did not.

Adam Strange’s adventures were upbeat, optimistic and full of a sense of wonder. When a star-traveling Swamp Thing arrives on Ranagar, the tone is bleak, cramped and miserable (this was setting up for Adam’s new direction, in a limited series that came out a few years later). Rann is a dying world with radiation from past wars sterilizing much of the population. Adam was brought deliberately, not by accident, so that he could be used to impregnate Alanna. The Rannians look at him with contempt as an Earth primitive rather than a hero. IIRC, there was a hint that the various menaces were just distractions to keep Adam occupied, but I can’t swear to that.

For me, this sucked; the subsequent series by Richard Brunning sucked worse. Rather than commit to the idea they’d decided to deconstruct the series and make it grim, gritty and Serious.

Of course if you’re trying to reboot a series or character that got cancelled years earlier, I expect the new writers to try something new. But there’s a difference between adapting and improving while committing to the core concept and disregarding what made the original work. The James Patterson The Shadow for example, ignores everything that made Walter Gibson’s Shadow click. DC’s 1990s Hawk and the Dove series, by contrast, radically changed things up but they kept it true enough to the Silver Age version.

I could probably think of counter examples, but overall I think Brevoort has a good point.

#SFWApro. Covers by Gil Kane, Carmine Infantino, Infantino and Rob Liefeld top to bottom, all rights remain with current holders.

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