December 2, 2020

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Strange Adventures by Tom King, Mitch Gerads, and Evan "Doc" Shaner

Strange Adventures
Written by Tom King
Illustrated by Mitch Gerads and Evan "Doc" Shaner
Published by DC Comics/Black Label 

Writer Tom King and artists Mitch Gerads and Evan "Doc" Shaner are about halfway through their 12-issue DC series Strange Adventures, and it's been an absolute delight to read so far. Strange Adventures is a mystery, a commentary on race, political intrigue, paranoia, "the fog of war,” and what it means to be a hero.  It's also an absolutely gorgeous book courtesy of Gerads and Shaner, both of whom bring their A+ game. And it's unquestionably one of my favorite series of 2020.   

The Story of Strange Adventures takes place in two different time periods, and centers around the character of Adam Strange.  Adam's an Earth human, but lives (most of the time) on the planet Rann, populated by people that look just like humans, but have a more technologically advanced civilization. Adam is a superhero and explorer, and (frankly) sort of an odd character (which makes him perfect for Tom King). He's spent most of the time on Rann over the course of a number of years, and has become the defender of that planet. In recent times, Rann was invaded by a powerful alien force called the Pykkts. Adam and his wife Alanna and her father Sardath (the leader of Rann) fought a long, bloody war against the Pykkts, ultimately prevailing, but tragically losing their beloved daughter Aleea in the process.  The “present-day” scenes are illustrated by Gerads, and the scenes taking place before and during the war with the Pykkts are illustrated by Shaner. 

As the book begins, Adam and Alanna are now on Earth, as Adam is conducting a book tour for his bestselling memoir "Strange Adventures", telling the story of their war against the Pykkts. As the story begins, Adam and Alanna Strange are ascendant. Most of the press has been extremely positive, and Adam and Alanna are embraced as heroes on Earth. Adam has a bestselling memoir, and people are really taken with their story of heroism against the deadly Pykkts, and their bravery in the face of tragedy (i.e., the loss of their daughter). Despite the fact that Alanna isn't human, she and Adam are straight out of Central Casting as far as attractive, heroic white people.  Their story is all over the news media, and everyone seems to be talking about what a big hero Adam Strange is. There's even talk that Adam should seek public office somewhere on Earth.   

 
However, one day Adam is confronted by an angry man at a book signing, who yells about how he knows that Adam is a war criminal and committed atrocities. Not long after, this man is found dead, the apparent victim of a laser blast to the face.  This immediately upsets the perfect narrative of the heroic couple, and Adam swears to his innocence and asks the Justice League, specifically Batman, to investigate. To prove their innocence in this killing. Batman won't do it (as he and Adam are friends), but he asks Michael Holt (a/k/a Mister Terrific, a superhero, successful inventor, and former Olympian athlete) to do it. Michael is one of the world's smartest people (up there with Batman and Lex Luthor) but he and Adam don't really know one another. 

Michael is initially quite reluctant to take on this investigation. As he points out to Batman, typically people don't take well to people who look like him (Michael is Black) questioning people that look like Adam. Michael is aware that people seem to really love Adam, in a way they never loved him, even when he was winning Olympic medals and otherwise being heroic. But something about reading Strange's book compels Michael to take the case. He will get to the bottom of this case; he will find out the truth.

It's not long before Michael starts to ruffle feathers. Even in his initial meeting with Adam and Alanna, they seem to be pretty uncomfortable with (and offended by) Michael's questions. He has a lot of questions about Aleea, and her death. Adam and Alanna ostensibly want this investigation in order to clear their good name. But it's pretty clear that what they really want is the appearance of an investigation, and more of a rubber stamp clearing their involvement in this murder (so that they can get back to being lavished with praise and attention).  So Adam and Alanna decide to use this situation to their advantage. They make public their displeasure with Michael's investigation, enabling them to be seen as the victims in this context. As it happens, Adam and Alanna are even more important now than ever, as it appears that the Pykkts are on their way to Earth.  
Michael was also right; popular opinion does not seem to be in his favor. Particularly after he goes to Rann to continue his investigation and causes a major scene. He's been told that the only records available to him are the Rannian records, and that the Pykkt records are simply unavailable to him as they are untranslatable.  But Michael isn't one of the smartest people on Earth for nothing; on the trip over to Rann, he went ahead and taught himself Pykkt. He ends up leaving Rann after a huge incident (Sardath slapped him, he slapped Sardath back) but nevertheless he remains undaunted.

All the while, Strange Adventures has been showing us scenes taking place before and (mostly) during the Pykkt War. These scenes are brought to life by Shaner, and they depict the invasion of the city by the Pykkts, and the evacuation of the Rannian city-dwellers to the rural areas. All the while, Adam and Alanna are doing whatever they need to do in order to gain the alliance of the non-human species (the Heliotaat (lizard-bird people) and Rock People) that also call Rann their home. In the case of the Heliotaat this involves Adam engaging in gladiatorial combat, and in the case of the Rock People, this involves Adam and Alanna being trapped in a cave for a month. Nevertheless, they persevere in their fight against the Pykkts. They also display a level of condescension and/or contempt for these other species of this world; even as they ally with these other species, it seems clear that Adam and Alanna consider themselves to be superior, true Rannians and rightful rulers of the planet.

There's a lot to unpack in Strange Adventures, and the series is only halfway through (issue 7 comes out today).  But the comic seems to be focused on the central and overlapping ideas of truth and propaganda, heroism, and who gets to say who is or isn't a hero (and more broadly, who controls truth). Just last week I took a deep dive into issues of defining truth and reality in the comic Department of Truth.  That book is about conspiracy theorists attempting to overwrite truth and reality, and the government agents tasked with keeping reality real. But Strange Adventures is less of a 10,000 foot view, and more of a specific story about overt attempts to spin truth and narrative, and how war and memory can make those things get very messy.


Right away Strange Adventures is a story about heroism and narrative; who gets to define it and who gets to control it. There's a narrative of Adam and Alanna Strange as brave heroes whose example can inspire us all back on Earth. We can all benefit from following their example. This benefits them, it benefits the media and power structures that support them and gain from them, and ostensibly it benefits the people, who know they've got brave, attractive heroes looking out for them. So, a public outburst followed by a dead guy is upsetting to that narrative, and it's in the Strange's interests to have this all go away as quickly as possible.  So by pushing for a full, thorough investigation, even though that's what Adam and Alanna say they want, Michael is definitely upsetting the apple cart. And all things being equal, Adam and Alanna and the media would probably be upset at any high-profile person who was challenging their narrative of heroism. 

But the thing is (as Michael and the creative team themselves know), all things aren't equal. And Michael is absolutely correct that whether it's in the fictional DC Universe, or it's in our world, a Black man challenging the accepted history or narrative or status quo is going to immediately be met with substantial additional levels of resistance.  If it were Superman, people might be more willing to accept an investigation. But Mister Terrific isn't Superman.  He's a lower-tier hero, and more importantly to the power dynamics at play, he's a powerful, prominent, successful Black man. 

As he astutely points out, regardless of how hard he has worked to be a hero, and win medals for America, and design and invent products that improve people's lives, he's already swimming upstream in the battle for public opinion. And then to be the one to cast aspersions on the golden couple of the moment? And to go all the way to Rann and state plainly that he's not just going to accept the official Rannian version of events, and that he's taught himself Pykkt?  Well, this presumably raises a lot more "how dare he" and "who does he think he is" than would be raised if the investigation were being conducted by Batman or Superman.  Particularly in the year 2020, you don't have to look very hard to find examples of racist double standards in our history and our right now. From the way prominent Black politicians (including those who were president) have been treated, to the treatment of Black people at the hands of the police, to the disparity in health outcomes by race with regard to COVID. Things aren't anywhere close to equal. And that sort of realization is important and valuable, even with regard to a fictionalized and aspirational superhero universe. 

Adam knows who Michael is, by reputation. He understands that Michael is one of the smartest men on Earth, and that Batman himself asked Michael to pursue the investigation, at Adam's request. And yet, as soon as Michael begins his investigation and is asking pointed questions, Adam suggests to Batman and any other superhero that will listen that it's clear Michael has some sort of "agenda".  Those with power and privilege don't like being poked at, even a little. So, it's not surprising that any question from Michael would be seen as an "agenda.” He's Adam Strange, he's been through a war, and he presumably believes in himself. And yet, after only a little questioning, he's complaining about an agenda and asking every other superhero he knows about what they're hearing, his insecurities front and center. 

This all also feels very 2020, as this whole context seems like an allegory for white fragility. White people who still have lots of power and privilege are being questioned and challenged some; for some, maybe for the first time in their life. What's being asked of them is not that much and may be reasonable (like wearing a mask, or not being overtly racist). It doesn't matter - giving up anything as a result of protests or questioning feels like an existential threat.  This interaction in Strange Adventures also feels like an example of underrepresented groups challenging the dominant historical narratives.  It's not surprising that a Person of Color is accused of "having an agenda" when that person is questioning the official historical narrative of a white savior. That's true to life, regardless of whether it takes place in a world where Superman exists.

Apart from the fascinating ideas raised by Michael's investigation into Adam and Alanna, Strange Adventures wrestles consistently with the idea of the reality of war vs. the feel-good propaganda that people are provided, and the gulf between the two. And the overall messy, complicated nature of war.  These are (I believe) the central themes of Strange Adventures, and the creative team here clearly defines them by having the different parts of the story illustrated by different artists. This does a lot more than distinguish temporally when something in the comic took place. The specific art styles chosen, and the scenes that are shown in one art style vs. another, speak fundamentally to the issues that are at play in the story. Obviously the art is an essential, fundamental part of the storytelling of any comic. But what I'm saying here is that the artistic choices made here by the Strange Adventures creative team are even more important than is typical. And thankfully, these are exceptional choices made by exceptional creators, and the art in this story does exactly what I think it's intended to do.

More specifically, Gerads handles the present day (i.e., the book tour, Michael's investigation, all of the dramatic and fraught interactions between the Strange family and others) and Shaner handles the past (any scenes taking place before or during the Pykkt war).  Each one of them has a style that's perfectly suited to the part of the story they're telling.  King and Gerads have worked together on a number of projects. They first collaborated on the fantastic The Sheriff of Babylon and then on a number of issues of Batman, and more recently in the extraordinary Mister Miracle (one of my favorite comics of the decade). Gerads is a remarkable visual storyteller, and one who has adapted his style over time to work with the specific story being told. The Sheriff of Babylon was a murder mystery set in the second Gulf War era Iraq.  Mister Miracle was a story of a man dealing with depression whose grip on reality was somewhat questionable. And in case, Gerads' art reflected that context, whether with a dusty, gritty desert feel (in Sheriff of Babylon) or weird aspects of unreality (in Mister Miracle). 
 
In Strange Adventures, I think Gerads is trying to accomplish (and succeeding in accomplishing) something different. This is the present day - a story that's full of book tours, political meetings, and subsequently investigations and explorations of the consequences of Adam and Alanna Strange's actions during the Pykkt war. This is a more somber and also more mundane time. Scenes take place in hotel rooms, conference rooms, and on quiet snowy streets. So Gerads' depiction of characters is less idealized. You can see the age and wear on Adam's and Alanna's faces. The colors are more muted (as compared with Shaner's section) - even when you see Adam's classic red and white costume, it doesn't pop in the same way that it does in Shaner's part of the story. Even when depicting Rann, Gerads exercises a great deal of restraint. It's not overly bright, and the technology, while sophisticated, doesn't overwhelm.  

By contrast, Shaner is telling a story of war. But more than that, he's not telling an in-the-trenches, you-are-there story of war. He's telling a story of war by way of a pulpy adventure novel. Shaner is an extraordinarily talented artist in the "neo-classic" style, with work that feels very influenced by Alex Raymond, Alex Toth and other pulpy adventure comic storytellers. My first exposure to Shaner was in the wonderful Flash Gordon miniseries he drew (appropriately enough given the Raymond influence). His style was perfectly suited for that story, which featured exhilarating action, exciting adventure, strange beings, humor, and a sense of larger-than-life fun. 
 
Similarly, Shaner's art in Strange Adventures conveys a sense of adventure to the entire story, even those difficult or painful parts of the story. Shaner's pages depict the classic romance between Adam and Alanna, along with heavy doses of adventure and derring-do.  Even in depicting violence (such as when Adam kills his Heliotaat gladiatorial opponent), Shaner's idealized, clean style doesn't let the proceedings get too grim (though in those moments it gets pretty intense). Shaner's Adam is always handsome and roguish, even when he's disheveled. And Alanna is always beautiful and graceful. His flat, clean, bright colors pop off the page, and always create a sense that things are never going to get too bad, and those colors and the charm he brings to the page conveys a sense of hope.   
 
Ok, so then what are Gerads, Shaner and King doing?  Clearly, they're drawing a contrast between the everyday *normal* life as experienced on Earth and the world of war and invasion and adventure. The contrast is always stark, and in some places it's just overwhelming. In issue 6, intense scenes of battle, heroism and bloodshed are intercut with quiet, contemplative scenes of two people walking through the snow or sitting in a bar, just having a conversation. So Gerads and Shaner have very different, contrasting art styles. But it's more than that. I think there's more than just "different artists are better suited for different aspects of the story". Because the contrast is often so stark, it's almost like we're reading two different stories. From two different worlds. Such that the Shaner part of the comic is more than just a depiction of earlier events in the comic, it's almost more like a story within a story.  
 
Shaner's part of the story strikes me as being something more like the story of the "Strange Adventures" book written by Adam Strange, but brought to life in the pages of this comic.  Because everything in that world looks cleaner, and more beautiful, and looks like idealized representations of reality. And beyond just the visual aspects of the story, the dialogue between characters in the Shaner parts of the story is completely different. It's noticeable from the very beginning of the story. Adam and Alanna speak to each other in a more poetic, formal, stilted way. As opposed to scenes illustrated by Gerads, where the two of them talk to each other like a normal married couple (and the dialogue is casual and naturalistic). In scenes brought to life by Shaner, they sound like pulp adventure characters. Everyone does. Whether it's the Stranges, or the Heliotaat, or Sardath. Everyone sounds like characters in an old-fashioned story reading scripted dialogue.

So if we aren't experiencing accurate flashbacks, what are we experiencing?  It's hard to say precisely, but it feels like war as seen through the lens of memory, where certain actions and moments can take on additional weight and meaning. It also reads like propaganda, as everyone is constantly focused on the people of Rann and their welfare against the dreaded Pykkts. Propaganda, being stories that are meant to inspire and to also reinforce existing beliefs.  As depicted in propaganda, war isn't messy. Much like Shaner's colors, the lines between good and evil (in Shaner's parts of the story) are clean and clear and stark. It could be even more than just propaganda. These flashbacks could be wish fulfillment from the characters in the stories, showing how they wish they'd been, how they wish they'd acted, and how they choose to remember certain battles and intimate moments.  
 
The story also feels like propaganda in one other way, as it displays the sense of superiority and privilege that Adam and Alanna and Sardath seem to have with regard to the other races of Rann, who they essentially suggest they are doing them a favor by allowing them to participate in the defense of Rann, and otherwise threatening them.  This does raise a question of the privilege of the Rannians on full display, which certainly feels like white privilege (as applied to Earth humans). Is this aspect of the story a critique of that privilege?  I think it's hard not to see it as a critique given the over-the-top, strident dialogue (particularly from Alanna). But it's also mid-story, so I'm willing to see where the creative team goes with all of this.
 
I also think about all of this propaganda in light of the fact that even before the end of World War II, Hollywood was busy making movies set in that era.  The war wasn't even over and the entertainment industry got busy romanticizing and mythologizing the war, painting it (like Shaner's colors) as an easy to understand battle between good and evil.  Don't get me wrong, there was a clear line between good and evil, but I think there were a number of times that might have become blurrier that complicate the narrative a little. Dresden. Hiroshima. Nagasaki.  We don't think about those events quite as often as we think about the boys storming the beaches at Normandy.  
Now granted there's been a lot of serious history and analysis and reckoning since the end of World War II. But these battles over history continue to be fought.  They go all the way back to even before the founding of our country.  We're still fighting over Thanksgiving, and the Civil War, and everything before or since.  Because reality is messy and complicated, and reality often appears from more than one perspective.  So these action-packed, heroic scenes of the Pykkt War, are they the truth?  I don't think so. I think they're a truth. Just like I think that Adam and Alanna have far darker, messier truths inside of them that we haven't yet seen. Are they heroes? Are they war criminals? We are mid-series so I think there’s more time for these questions to be further explored, as I want and expect them to be. But I think this creative team is one I trust, and I want to see where they go with all this. 

So, if you're looking at an intelligent, action-packed science fiction series that's also something of a procedural, and an examination of war and privilege, well then. You couldn't pick a more engaging, more gorgeously illustrated book to read than Strange Adventures