Review: Strange Adventures hardcover/paperback (DC Comics)

Wednesday, January 05, 2022

Tom King’s Strange Adventures is a strange Adam Strange story, and while I promise that’s the last time I’ll use that alliterative construction, it’s no less true.

I wonder at what point with these DC Black Label books we’ll end up with a Hawkworld situation, where what wasn’t intended to be or shouldn’t be continuity becomes such, possibly by accident. We saw, for instance, Scott Free’s son from King’s Mister Miracle show up in Tom Taylor’s DCeased: Dead Planet, though that’s explained away as one DC “Elseworld” reflecting another.

No one’s going to mistake Sean Murphy’s clear alt-world White Knight series for continuity, nor the many Black Label origins of Harley Quinn (Harleen, Criminal Sanity). But I think there is that danger with Strange Adventures, a wonderful and yet truly emotionally awful Adam Strange story that just gets more awful the longer it goes on. The DC Universe here is functionally the same as “our own” DC Universe, the characters functionally the same, and so I think it might be too easy for the careless writer of some next Hawkman or Green Lantern or even Justice Society story to make reference to Strange Adventures, thereby solidifying the terrible actions here as canon. That, I think, would take a long time for these characters to recover from.

Has DC ever stated that even if a DC Black Label book appears to take place in current continuity, the events are still separate? Not that I recall. Assuredly that wasn’t true for the former “Mature Readers” books, which included the later canonized Killing Joke, where also what was not intended to be continuity became so. Perhaps the time is now for that statement to be made. Adam Strange might thank you for it.

[Review contains spoilers]

Though Strange Adventures and King’s recent Rorschach share between them King’s current journey into the history of comics, Rorschach was more about the politics of the here and now, while Strange Adventures hearkens back to the themes of King’s Sheriff of Babylon and Omega Men — the corrupting power of war and what war makes people do. There are ideas not fully realized in both Heroes in Crisis and Strange Adventures that perhaps become clear in combination — that one can be so traumatized as to see no way out, or as to see the worst of options as viable. Assuredly Strange Adventures is Adam Strange’s Wally West-in-Heroes in Crisis moment, and again hopefully no one takes Strange Adventures as having “happened” — you’ll know it by whether Adam Strange is ever referred to as dead!

[See the latest DC trade solicitations.]

Overall I enjoyed Strange Adventures, which includes a cogent mystery and a Heart of Darkness-like draw toward its worst secrets. I thought King succeeded most handily in the middle, before the really bad stuff, when he posited Adam and Alanna Strange as the kind of “stand by your man,” “us against the world” political power couple in fiction that you love to hate and hate to love, House of Cards' Frank and Claire Underwood or American Crime Story’s imagining of Bill and Hillary Clinton, drawn with glassy defiance by Mitch Gerads. It is not a trope I recall seeing laid over the DC Universe before, letting alone this kind of “rules of alien planets,” “the Justice League doesn’t understand us” wrangling set out against late night talk shows. It’s ultimately, again, very bad for Adam Strange, but it’s very cool the depth King finds among the four-color funnybooks.

There is precedent for a dark take on Adam Strange, most specifically Richard Bruning and Andy Kubert’s Adam Strange: The Man of Two Worlds (from a period where “dark” was very much DC’s thing). But since that time, Strange has mostly been an amicable sort, most recently paling around with Superman in the Brian Michael Bendis titles or, before that, his good-natured origins in the Jeff Lemire Justice League United series. Lemire, too, offered an Alanna Strange as capable and swashbuckling as her husband, even supplanting his role in the team. That, amidst the cartoonish “pew, pew” sound effects, they should each luxuriate in genocide seems more than we can bear, especially even as Doc Shaner’s “classic” thread in the book gets ever darker. It’s fine for an Elseworld, but I don’t think we could wave this away as villainous mind control in the DCU’s “real life.”

I was delighted by King’s choice to juxtapose Adam Strange with Mr. Terrific Michael Holt — one straight out of comics' Silver Age and the other not really so new any more, with Terrific having been around 25 years now, but still a relative infant in the DCU. Happily King is not ignorant of what he plays with here, what superheroes looked like in the 1950s and 1960s and how far we’ve come — or not, as Terrific notes early on that “people don’t like it when people like me question people like [Adam].”

Given that acknowledgment, I think King intends us to see privilege in Alanna’s criticism that Terrific is “so perfect, your wife and child die and you just go on.” She makes much throughout the story of not being understood, of Rannians being fundamentally different than the people of Earth, but in the end Alanna is as blind to her husband’s sins as she is to the compromises Terrific has had to make to be accepted — being above reproach, settling for the label of “world’s third smartest man,” and not letting too much angst show through over his wife and child’s deaths. King’s Terrific exudes stoicism, but I think we’re meant to see his pain between the lines. (And I insist, Barry Allen and Wally West are one thing, but the greatest sin of the New 52, still unanswered, is Terrific losing Pieter “Dr. Mid-Nite” Cross, one of the better male friendships of the post-Crisis [and so on] era.)

4.0

Rating

In Strange Adventures, as in Heroes in Crisis and Mister Miracle and his Batman run, Tom King takes the superheroic swashbuckling stories of Adam Strange and peers behind the curtain, revealing that the “grand space opera” must inevitably hide atrocities. This has been the heritage of many of DC’s most lasting mature books, finding the truth that was always there but never acknowledged. Hopefully these things can stand separate, the human tragedy that one possible Adam and Alanna Strange can show us versus the characters we knew and loved. I want more like this from King, but I fear it gets too complicated if he’s made to be writing history and not fables.

[Includes original and variant covers]

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7 comments:

  1. Loved this book, including the tragic twists in the last few issues, and I'm fine with King getting to write his kind of story outside of continuity, just like I enjoyed Injustice and its evil dictator version of Superman, but I really don't see any of this becoming part of the DCU canon.

    I guess King has become the kind of "dangerous" writer that only gets to play with DC's characters outside of continuity, although Supergirl: Woman of Tomorrow doesn't seem to contradict anything that's going on in the DCU, and his Human Target even features some unexpected nods to '90s Justice League continuity.

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    1. Great points. I think that many times the best stories that we have are the ones outside of continuity wherein the writer is free to take the characters in unique new directions - without having to worry about putting all the toys back in the box the way they started at the end.

      DCeased was another recent outside of continuity series that I really enjoyed from the writer of Injustice....

      Looking forward to the Human Target once that is collected.

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    2. > I guess King has become the kind of "dangerous" writer that only gets to play with DC's characters outside of continuity

      Right, I'd be happy if King could always do his own thing outside continuity. I just don't trust that some writer or editor — given that King's Heroes in Crisis and Batman are in continuity — won't just assume something like Strange Adventures is in continuity without thinking twice about it.

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  2. Excellent commentary on what I believe is a really important book that I couldn't put down once I started to read it. Tom King seems to be quite a polarizing writer with some people really enjoying his work and strongly disliking anything he works on.

    I've always enjoyed his work from the Sheriff of Babylon and onwards. Each of the books to me have been finite stories...and not part of the regular DC Comics continuity, but rather complete stories that really dive deeply into the psyche's of the characters involved.

    I knew that Strange Adventures is a must read book once I couldn't put it down and the strange (pun intended) dislike that I had of the direction that King took Adam Strange's character. The sign of a good book is when the author makes you think in an uncomfortable way....and yes you may not agree with the direction the author goes in, but you take the time to understand why and how the setup was leading to the finale.

    I don't think that Adam Strange's fate in this story should carry over into the DC Universe proper. That doesn't lessen the power of this story, rather this is a complete strange adventure that really pulls apart the tapestry of what we think vs. what the truth is vs our beliefs in the people we love.

    Heady stuff for sure, and certainly King leaves a lot of the threads to the readers interpretation, while subtly conveying the message that he meant to. I think that the line, "No. YOU can't kill them. Because you are a super hero. I'm something else" that Strange states to Batman after being questioned about killing the enemy says it all. Strange is a father, husband, war hero, traumatized human being who did what he thought best....and if we don't agree with what he did...that's ok..

    The interplay between Terrific, Alanna, and Strange really held the intricate plot together. Each character pushes forward in a unique and thought provoking manner. (and I totally feel your point about them getting rid of Doc Midnite with the new 52...I always enjoyed the friendship between the two characters).

    The artwork by Mitch Gerads and Evan "Doc" Shaner is perfect - going from Gerad's more realistic and gritty approach to Shaner's clean "pew pew" pulp sci-fi look in a seamless manner. It's not jarring, rather it really makes a statement as to how the different artists allow the emphasis on supporting story beats/points to breathe as they move on to their inevitable conclusion.

    All in all.....an excellent read and one that I will re-read again (which is saying something considering that most of the books I own, I've only read once).

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    1. Great points. I guess I don't consider Adam Strange an "anti-hero" (a la, let's say, Deathstroke, for instance), since his shiny jetpack and fin helmet are so quintessentially Silver Age. But in the context of this story, I guess, Strange is not a "protect the streets of Metropolis" hero, but rather a warrior protecting an entire planet (maybe why he and Hawkman get along so well ... arguably no Hawkman cameo was a miss in this story). Certainly would make me think differently about Adam Strange the next time he appears, in whatever iteration.

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  3. Am I the only one tired of King? Look I respect that people like his work but I am personally sick of his depressing writing and how he keeps ruining every hero he touches. He ruined Wally, ruined Batman and now he ruined Strange. Again I know people like his work but I do not.

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    1. Totally respect where you are coming from. I agree that he ruined Wally West (though from what I have read that was forced on him by Didio). He certainly tends to be more nihilistic in his writing and that certainly can be something that people wouldn't necessarily enjoy. His work remains polarizing for sure.

      Personally, I just enjoy most of the work that he has done....but I can certainly see your point as well.

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