Tom King's Strange Adventures (DC Comics 12-issue series) (open spoilers)

I’ve written about my love for the work of comic book writer Tom King ([Batman](I loved Tom King's run on Batman--let's discuss! (open spoilers) – hm gotta update that second thread).

Since those discussions, I’ve devoured Heroes in Crisis and Mister Miracle. I loved those so much, I acquired the hardback collections. Human Target and Rorschach are next on my list.

I absolutely love his style of superhero storytelling, exploring the minds of superheroes, their motivations, their trauma, their moral and ethical choices and the often tragic consequences. I also love his partnerships with artists (n.b. Mitch Gerars) The artwork is just beautiful.

I love the storytelling styles, the quiet moments, the duplications, the mirroring, the flashbacks–a lot of comics do flashbacks badly, but King’s flashbacks come at the right moment.

I’m not saying that they can’t be criticised … by someone. I find very little in them to criticise, but I am willing to entertain critiques.

And it’s not even that I have no criticisms myself. (A small example: I don’t like the modern version of the Riddler as an Irish brawler. I prefer him as a lithe, agile funster.)

One thing that someone might bring up is the sexualized visual images of Alanna. It’s noticeable, although perhaps not necessarily as bad as some other books. But I can’t criticize it too much, because I love looking at these gorgeous drawings. Also, Mister Terrific is also shown in what might be considered sexualized images.

But I’m all in, emotionally. I turn to look at the Batman-Catwoman pages routinely from his run on Batman. I can feel those two and their feelings for each other in those panels. (I’d like to see Batman share the same kind of passion with others: Talia, Silver, etc. I don’t see him or his paramours as monogamous.)

What I love most about King’s work is that it makes me care for characters that I often hardly gave a second thought. Although I respect Jack Kirby’s creativity, I have never really been all that enamored by his output. But Mister Miracle made me care about Scott Free and Big Barda and everyone else.

I was invested in the relationships and the drama, and the tribulations of the characters, and I can feel my heart breaking for them. I also like that a lot of his work is Black Label, so I can experience adult stories, with sex and all that jazz.

Even Hereos in Crisis, which already featured many characters I’ve been following my entire life, brought me to care in different ways about characters, even characters that I didn’t follow much before. The small-paneled sections in which the characters just spoke to camera were my favorite parts of the book. I still feel a rush of emotion when I think about those brief panels, especially those featuring Batman’s retinue, but also characters I hardly knew anything about, sometimes not even their names.

(Exception: I hate the modern Roy Harper/Speedy/Arsenal. I’m not at all upset by his demise.)

Okay, so I started reading Strange Adventures on DC Universe Infinite, but several issues in I started liking it so much, that I waited for the hardback collection to come out, and that arrived this week. I got a text message from my local comic bookery, and I hied myself thence as soon as I got off the clock.

I devoured the book that very evening, and boy, by the end, I was blown away. I don’t know whether it’s just that I’m not a very smart or careful reader, but I was not expecting the ending at all. And it was brilliant. So unexpected, but yet so perfectly logical given the story that preceded. I went back to read again, and, of course, every step of the way, the ending made sense to me.

I now love these characters–Adam Strange, Alanna, and Mister Terrific. I don’t know whether these versions of the characters will ever appear again, but these ones here will live in my heart. Even the less important characters–Batman, Superman, Green Lantern–revealed things that make me think of them differently.

Now, of course, there’s the art. This time King used two artists: Gerads for the “today” portions–lush, painted portraits of melding colours and soft borders. Perfect for the ambiguity of real life today. The second artist: Evan “Doc” Shaner for the flashbacks – very sharp, clear classic comic book style, but more beautiful than it would have been in the Golden Age.

Absolutely perfect choice. The present: hazy and ambiguous. The past, a likely mythological past as presented by Adam Strange’s memoir, sharp and clear. There is no ambiguity, and the dialogue is corny as all get-out, laying out the adventures of the perfect hero.

Adam Strange’s journey was perfectly told, from loner to hero to family man, and then … the revelation. But it all made sense. It all fit together (emotionally, that is). I was shocked by the ending, but not disappointed.

The parallels with Mister Miracle are evident:

  • Adam Strange, born on Earth, finds a family and becomes a hero on Rann, returns to accolades, and Earth looks to him to save us

  • Mister Miracle, born on New Genesis/Apokalips, flees with his lover and companion and builds a life in hiding on Earth, becoming a hero here, building a family and home, and also a hero back on New Genesis.

  • Both heroes, both having a strong relationship with es partner, a powerful, smart woman, who supports him, but also does battle alongside him. Their relationships are tested and they go through hard times, but they come through …?

  • Both suffering from the effect of brutal, seemingly endless war, how it changes them, how it affects their relationships, their abilities to cope, their decisions.

Some differences, of course:

  • Adam Strange has finished his victorious war against the Pykkts on Rann and has come to Earth in retirement, to accept accolades and sell his memoir. His tribulations are ended, but he is changed.

  • Scott Free alternates between constant, never-ending brutal war on New Genesis and a tranquil family life on Earth with hope and love and beauty. And it wears on him.

  • Both books use interesting visual storytelling techniques. I’ve talked about some of the ones in Strange Adventures above. I won’t go into Mister Miracle in depth here.

Now, the spoilers, the contrast between the endings:

  • Scott Free begins the story by attempting suicide. By the end, all challenges are met and overcome. … Or are they? Maybe it wasn’t just an attempted suicide. Maybe it was successful, and what we have read are just the final dreams of a dying man.

  • Adam Strange begins the story as an acclaimed hero–“A good man leading a good war.” Slowly his compromises are revealed, but they all seem justified. We know there’s a mystery surrounding the death of his daughter, but each action seems explainable in context. But then, in the end, the extent of his compromise is finally revealed, the horror. And then it remains for Alanna, the partner who has supported his every step, to finish it, and fix what can be fixed, and deal with the consequences. In the end, it turns out Alanna–the smooth politico, the princess, the spin doctor–she is the real hero.

Just blown away by both these stories. Absolutely love them.

No one else has read this?

I have.

I thought it was technically well done, but I also thought the plot wasn’t as quite as clever as the writer thought it was (and I’m still not quite sure what actually happened), there were peculiar choices with a couple of characters that kept taking me out of the story (Space Science Princess Alanna for no apparent reason is immediately a media/PR guru on Earth and speaks in contemporary American vernacular, and that random Space Hippie), and, of course, an optimistic Silver Age Science Hero is revealed to be a war criminal and traitor, because it’s so edgy to reveal the sordid truth behind Silver Age heroism.

Seriously, we’re long past the point where revisionist, cynical takes on classic Silver Age heroes are at all original. What would actually feel fresh and original would be reviving a Silver Age hero with modern sensibilities but still keeping the optimism and heroism.

Also, I get the commentary on racial politics (“when a man who looks like me investigates a man who looks like him”), but the setup for that is just clumsy. The idea that Americans would treat someone as a national hero for fighting in a foreign war that no one even cared when he was actually fighting it is kind of silly. And the fact that the series spends so much time driving home how no one on Earth would help Adam Strange or get involved while the war was actually going on, but then when he returns victorious he’s treated as a huge celebrity hero is just poor plotting. Choose one: no one on Earth cares about Rann and the Pykkts, or Adam Strange is a huge hero for defeating the Pykkts and saving Rann.