A birthday celebration — by FRED VAN LENTE…
UPDATED 5/20/22: Gardner Fox — one of the most important creators in comics history — was born 111 years ago! Perfect time to re-present this terrific piece by Fred Van Lente from 2020. Dig it. — Dan
The late, great Gardner Fox, who was born May 20, 1911, had one of the most fertile minds in comics history. A stalwart of the Golden and Silver Ages, he either created, co-created or had a substantial hand in guiding the Flash, Hawkman, the Justice Society, the Justice League, the Atom, Sandman, Batman and Batgirl. Plus, oh, y’know, the DC Multiverse and so much more.
In other words, he’s one of DC’s chief architects and one of its greatest writers.
But rarely was Fox’s gift for whimsical adventure on better display than with space-faring Adam Strange, who’s getting a lot of attention these days because of Tom King, Mitch Gerads and Doc Shaner’s Strange Adventures.
Well, comics writer Fred Van Lente is a big fan of Fox’s Adam Strange, so just as he did recently with Denny O’Neil’s The Question, he’s here to rank THE TOP 13 GARDNER FOX ADAM STRANGE STORIES.
Take it away to Rann, Fred:
By FRED VAN LENTE
Gardner Fox embodies the Silver Age. If he was any more Silver Age, he would have been an actual member of the Metal Men. That’s not even a joke, that’s science. The lawyer-turned-pulp writer was a holdover from the Golden Age who came up with the Justice Society and the Justice League and the concept of Earth-Two that tied them together, and, therefore, the entire DC Multiverse.
But my favorite Fox feature has always been Adam Strange.
Wikipedia inexplicably gives full credit for Adam Strange’s creation to Showcase editor Julie Schwartz, when in Schwartz’s own autobiography Man of Two Worlds he explicitly says he and Fox came up with the strip together:
“Gardner came in one day, and we decided to do a new series that was more or less inspired by Burroughs’s John Carter of Mars. Now, we had to figure out how to get him out to that star system, so we came up with the zeta beam.”
Adam Strange’s origin is the Martian Manhunter’s, but in reverse: Technicians from the city-state Ranagar on the planet Rann in the Alpha Centauri system invent a ray to communicate with the nearest inhabited world, Earth, but while traversing the void of space it becomes instead a teleportation beam that zaps anything in its path to Rann.
Adam, the first thing so zapped, is fortunate to get discovered on his arrival by the one person on Rann who isn’t completely useless, the gorgeous scientist Alanna, and they promptly fall in love. Since Ranagar is invaded every month by conquerers and monsters from and beyond Rann that only Adam can defeat with his Earthling pluck, how they survived until he got there is indeed a mystery in space. His only “powers” are a jetpack and a ray gun that they gave him, and a mastery of random 6th grade science facts.
When I first encountered Adam as a kid in Mysteries in Space: The Best of DC Science Fiction Comics (edited by future Bat-Producer Michael Uslan) I will admit that the thing that attracted me most to the series was the idea of having a Space Girlfriend that I could go on adventures with then pine for back on Earth.
I was kind of a goofy, romantic kid.
Three decades later in Swamp Thing, Alan Moore postulated that Adam was purposefully teleported to Rann as a stud to rut Alanna and revitalize their species’ moribund bloodline, because Alan Moore has made it his life’s mission to ruin all of pop culture for the rest of us. This motivation, while “dark,” doesn’t make any actual sense either, which goes to prove my pet theory that every generation of superhero fans and creators finds their own contemporary level of acceptable nonsense.
The best Gardner Fox tales hinge on a single grain of logic slathered in layers upon layers of bombastic insanity. It is impossible to summarize any Fox story without sounding like you’re having a stroke. These stories were very clearly written for children, and they live in the improvisational dream-realm of children’s play.
That is why they are awesome, and here are my TOP 13 favorites:
13. Showcase #17: Secret of the Eternal City! We meet archeologist Adam Strange getting chased out of a lost Incan city by spear-hurling natives when he gets zapped to an alien planet. A dragon attacks him but he’s rescued by a lady who becomes his Space Girlfriend. This is what happens through Page 4. In most modern comics what I’ve just described would take six arcs. We would have had a spin-off miniseries about the dragon. But Fox doesn’t so much write comics as he firehoses the reader with adventure.
After two panels of sightseeing, Rann is attacked by immortal space invaders looking for a rare metal that can only be found on the dimensional-shifting city-state of Samakand. Its scientists got fed up with the rest of the planet and only phase their city into our reality every 25 years to see if their neighbors have stopped sucking, so Adam and Alanna have to convince them to help out. As a first entry in a series, it’s pretty great. Adam doesn’t get his trademark jetpack or ray gun until the second story in this issue, which isn’t nearly as good.
12. Mystery in Space #69: Menace of the Aqua-Ray Weapon! At the beginning of every Adam Strange story he hauls ass to to catch the zeta beam somewhere in the Southern Hemisphere, because that’s where Alpha Centauri is visible. For the first time, Adam accidentally takes something else from Earth with him—a husky named Chunky he rescues from an avalanche in Antarctica.
On Rann, Adam is promptly trapped in ice by the blue-skinned Kirri, whom the white-skinned Rannians thought they had casually genocided thousands of years ago. But they’re back and kind of understandably pissed. The Kirri did not count on Spaceman’s Best Friend though. Adam gives Chunky mental commands to scratch him out. No, Adam isn’t wearing an alien telepathy helmet, he assumes that if anyone concentrates hard enough, they can boss around dogs via ESP. It’s every pet owner’s dream, and appears to work: After Chunky frees Adam and he defeats the Kirri by sculpting a perfect likeness of himself out of ice (you had to be there), he returns the husky to the Antarctic research station back on Earth, and learns Chunky is an arctic rescue dog so scratching people out of ice is kind of his whole deal.
Adam thinks, “If he was trained to scratch men free, I’ll never know whether it was Chunky’s training or my mental commands which prompted him to scratch me out of the ice sheath!” OH, WE KNOW WHICH IT WAS, ADAM STRANGE, YOU EGOMANIAC. WE KNOW.
11. Mystery in Space #77: Ray-Gun in the Sky! Apparently many Adam Strange covers were conceived of and drawn before the story was written, which makes me love Fox even more, because he had to improvise off some nutty stuff. I don’t know that this was one of the preexisting covers he had to write to, but looking at it, don’t you think Julie Schwartz was messing with him just a little bit?
A giant indestructible ray gun appears in the sky over Ranagar, freaking everybody out, but when Adam figures out how to disable it, alien invaders show up to reveal a friendly scientist buried it thousands of years ago to defend Rann from them. Now that Adam has removed that threat, Rann is screwed, so he has to trick them into thinking he’s made it operational again. Do I need to tell you that his solution is as gloriously crazy-pants as the problem?
10. Mystery in Space #82: World War on Earth and Rann! Fantastic Four had premiered by this point (early 1963) and I suspect Fox had read it, because when Adam arrives on Ranagar he’s faced with protestors who complain that he’s a danger-magnet constantly threatening their planet. Then Adam spends the next few pages neurotically waiting for some new threat to erupt in a thought-balloon monologue worthy of Stan Lee.
Of course said threat does soon arrive: A giant magnifying glass heat-beams Ranagar at the same time futuristic jetplanes bombard Earth in an unrelated attack. On Rann, Adam figures out this terrorist is keeping one step ahead of the authorities by… mailing the remote control for the magnifying glass to himself? Look, roll with it, nerds. Adam has to enlist the Rangarian Postal Service in some light mail fraud to get his hands on the remote, then has the bright idea to bring the lens to Earth to take out the super-planes.
9. Mystery in Space #76: Challenge of the Rival Starman! Earth has Superman and Rann has Adam Strange, but the planet Zarala has two potential champions, Xanthos and Yarnak. Xanthos is the Tonya Harding of the two, because to sabotage his rival he attacks Adam with Yarnak’s weapons, hoping Adam will use his legendary problem-solving skills to give Xanthos a leg up in the competition. Adam has to noodle his way out of Xanthos’ deathtraps and school this fool in a little thing called heroism.
8. Mystery in Space #55: The Beast from the Runaway World! A wandering planet gets between the zeta beam and Earth, so Zardak, its resident kaiju, gets teleported to Rann instead of Adam Strange. Once Adam finally gets there, he and Alanna figure out that Zardak’s rampage is just because he’s hungry and frightened, as you would be too if you got teleported to a strange planet for no reason and didn’t immediately hook up with a Space Girlfriend. Fortunately Zardak eats energy, so he becomes a key part of Rann’s planetary defense when the Sfarri show up to bomb them into oblivion.
7. Mystery in Space #61: Threat of the Tornado Tyrant! An alien mad scientist kidnaps Adam Strange from Earth and dumps him on a soon-to-be-exploding planet so no one can thwart him from wreaking havoc on Rann with a giant tornado that he appears to control from a flying lawn dart. Turns out Rann has never had a tornado before, so just one is enough to bring the whole planet to its knees, as if it was a giant trailer park. Adam figures out that the villain is, in fact, a sentient tornado and the mad scientist is just a mental projection because the mad scientist doesn’t cast a shadow. Yes, this is the most logical thing that happens in this completely bananas story.
Fox was so enamored of this psychic tornado villain that he brought him back to fight the Justice League in a story that is even more bananas than this one.
6. Showcase #18: The Dozen Dooms of Adam Strange! Adam has been in the hero business for all of two issues and the Rannians are already building life-sized dolls of him in his honor — must be nice. Alanna decides to get into the kooky scheme business herself and flies 11 of these man-dolls into a dictator’s city with the real Adam Strange smuggled among them so they can spy out this guy’s war plans against Ranagar. I know that sounds completely foolproof, but the dictator gets wise to their plan and sets up the deathtrap depicted on the cover with an Alanna doll he had lying around (not creepy at all); how Adam gets out of it is one of the series’ better twists.
5. Strange Adventures #226: The Magic-Maker of Rann! Fox returns to his roots with a prose story beautifully laid out and illustrated by the original strip’s regular inker and the man who designed Adam’s costume, Murphy Anderson. This tale could have easily come from Weird Tales, Amazing Stores, or one of the many other SF pulps Fox wrote for in his prolific career: Adam returns to Ranagar to discover its citizens have been given godlike mental powers by the radiation from an evil rainbow that is also driving them mad. I wish I could report that Fox is an elegant prose stylist — he’s not — but, I mean, c’mon, the villain is an evil rainbow. This is the cleverest layout of a prose story in a comic book I’ve yet seen, and, as is true of all the Top 5 on this list, Adam’s solution to the problem is as smart and logical as the premise is wacky.
4. Mystery in Space #63: The Weapon That Swallowed Men! Carmine Infantino was born to draw people getting sucked into vacuum cleaners, which sounds like an odd thing to say about someone until you read this comic and realize it’s absolutely true. Most fans prefer Infantino’s Flash to Adam Strange, but I’m more of a Strange guy, mostly due to the Flash’s conspicuous lack of Space Girlfriends.
The final battle here comes after Adam figures out that the man-swallowing weapons(!) need to be re-set to absorb different elements, so he armors the Rannians with layer upon layer of various metals, forcing the bad guys to constantly reload while they’re rushing them. It’s the best use of the Periodic Table in an action sequence I’ve ever seen.
3. Mystery in Space #80: The Deadly Shadows of Adam Strange! Adam’s own shadow keeps kicking his ass, which is weird even by his standards. After his shadow chucks him off a cliff Alanna has to save her Space Boyfriend for once in a sequence terrifically executed by Infantino. Finally, Adam figures out that an old enemy has discovered a rare crystal that, well, animates shadows. The final deathtrap, a variation on the old Lady From Shanghai hall-of-mirrors bit but with a dozen shadows all facing down Adam Strange, is super cool.
2. Showcase #19: Challenge of the Star-Hunter! Leothric is a powerful shapeshifter bored with hunting other species. Now he gets his jollies demanding planets send champions to hunt him in his many forms. They get three chances to catch him; if they fail he imprisons them forever in suspended animation. This strikes me as poor incentive for planets to play along, but fortunately for Rann they have a stray Earthman to sacrifice to this lunatic. Adam and Space Girlfriend chase the star-hunter in his weird alien bodies across various stunning Mike Sekowsky landscapes; the method by which Adam prevails in the end is genuinely clever.
1. Mystery in Space #75: The Planet That Came to A Standstill! Intergalactic fascist Kanjar Ro, whose species apparently evolved from baby sharks with Eggos for eyes, escapes from the asteroid where the Justice League imprisoned him on a space Viking scull and rows his bony ass to Rann, where he manipulates the giant-vulture-riding Zoorans into enslaving the locals with “gamma gongs” so they’ll build a machine that bombards him (Ro) with triple-sunlight from Alpha Centauri that makes him powerful enough to punch Superman so hard that Superman will literally explode.
And this is just the set-up.
If you don’t think that that is the greatest run-on sentence in the history of the Silver Age, I don’t even know why you’re on this site. Shouldn’t you be looking at your stock portfolio or something?
Anyhoo, Adam and Space Girlfriend infiltrate Ro’s slave camp to put a stop to this and save the League, which involves a lot of chicanery with the zeta beam and the gamma gongs and so on. It is too complicated to summarize here and it is also extremely rad. “Standstill” won the Alley Award, that era’s Eisners, for Best Comic Book Story in 1962 and Uslan declares it “the classic Adam Strange tale” and it’s hard to argue with either assessment.
Fred Van Lente is a comics writer, playwright and historian. He’s also really funny if you haven’t noticed. Go check out his site fredvanlente.com.
— How MYSTERY IN SPACE #75 Gave the Fans What They Wanted. Click here.
— The TOP 13 Denny O’Neil THE QUESTION Stories — RANKED, by Fred Van Lente. Click here.