09 May 2016

Review: Adam Strange: The Man of Two Worlds by Richard Bruning and Andy Kubert

Comic trade paperback, n.pag.
Published 2003 (contents: 1990)

Acquired and read April 2016
Adam Strange: The Man of Two Worlds

Writer: Richard Bruning
Illustrator: Andy Kubert
Color Artist: Adam Kubert
Letterer: Todd Klein

I only just realized that I missed this story in my journey through DC's "space heroes" comics; I should have read it around the time I read L.E.G.I.O.N., though it's not a big deal, as its connections to other comics are slight. The Man of Two Worlds is definitely a product of the time that brought us Animal Man and Green Arrow: The Longbow Hunters: this is a darker reinvention of the Adam Strange story. Adam is a archaeologist periodically transported from Earth to the planet Rann by the zeta beam, which allows him to adventure there (complete with jet pack) for a short time before he's zapped back to Earth until the next zeta beam hits. On Rann, he has a wife named Alanna, whose father, Sardath is the inventor of the zeta beam and the leader of the council that rules Ranagar, the foremost citystate of Rann.

It's sort of a modern Doctor Who question, isn't it? What kind of home life must someone have who's like, "Well, I'm going to cut off contact with everything and everyone I ever loved and have space adventures"? Though I'd probably go for space adventures no matter how good my home life was.
from Adam Strange vol. 1 #1

Bruning questions this whole setup in classic late 1980s/early 1990s fashion. Why would Adam be so willing to give up his home planet? Why can't the people of Rann solve their own problems? He explore Adam's family history, and also the political and biological situation on Rann: the planet is sterile, both literally and spiritually. Thanks to technology, reproduction rates and sexual interest are plummeting, and the Rannians lack the spiritual energy to do anything about their own problems. They can't do anything without Adam, but they resent him for that fact, which Sardath is careful to keep from him, since he needs Adam to reinvigorate Rann: Alanna is pregnant with Adam's child, the first child to be born on Rann in a generation.

It's a "dark" and "gritty" take on what was a pretty clear-cut superhero archetype. On Earth for the last time before the "mega zeta beam" whisks him to Rann permanently, Adam visits his sister and his dying father, and remembers the aspects of his childhood that turned him into a loner and an outcast, the kind of person who would be eager to give up his life and start a new one that is fundamentally a fantasy. But for reasons Adam doesn't quite understand, he's afraid of moving to Rann permanently, and he almost cheats on Alanna with Eve Fox, the doctor caring for his father. It would be easy to dismiss this as gratuitous "grittiness," but it really works on a couple levels.

Whoops.
from Adam Strange vol. 1 #1

First, is that life on Rann never feels fully real to Adam, mostly because of how much Sardath hides from him. I don't think he views Alanna as a real person, but as a sort of masculine fantasy: the attractive woman he constantly gets to save and then have sex with. Eve is very much a real, complex character with her own ups and downs, and the scenes between her and Adam were the real emotional heart of the book for me. The second is that Adam has always been a runner, as Eve points out near the book's end, but if he settles on Rann, he's not going to be able to run from what makes him uncomfortable any more. Overall, I like how the book deftly makes an interesting characterization for Adam out of the book's original kooky Silver Age setup.

The space fantasy suddenly got a whole lot less fantastic.
from Adam Strange vol. 1 #3

Meanwhile, things are falling apart on Rann. With Adam's imminent permanent settlement, Rannian sentiment against him and Sardath has reached a peak, which is exacerbated when the mega zeta beam temporarily drives Adam mad, causing him to attack Sardath. Suddenly the fears of the dissidents are validated, and without Sardath, the Ranagarian council (all made up of duplicates of Sardath) begins to fall apart. The rival citystate of Zared takes advantage of this chaos, and begins advancing a plan to conquer Ranagar. This part of the book was less successful for me: the Ranagar dissidents are often pretty simply characterized as jealous of Adam, which diminishes their understandable objections to Sardath's plan. That said, Captain Delaken, who is the head of the Cityguard (and thus supplanted when Adam became the city's protector), goes from uncontrollably jealous (he was also an old flame of Alanna's, which seemed unnecessary to me) to a reluctant ally, which was a pretty well done transformation. He apparently also appeared in some of the space-based issues of Starman; I'll have to look back at them and see. I also liked Marleah, one of the leaders of the rebels, though she's summarily disposed of when her contribution to the plot is over.

Throughout, though, Andy Kubert really impresses as an artist, as does his brother Adam as a colorist. Some of their characters look a little same-y, but they handle both the sci-fi vistas and the ordinary Earth sections of the book really well, combining expansive sci-fi visuals with a slightly grotty tone that reveals the darkness beneath the wondrous surface. The last few pages of the story give Kubert some splash pages that really let him strut his stuff as artist, and he's great with facial expressions and (to a lesser extent) action.

THE MOON IS AN EGG!
Well, not exactly.
from Adam Strange vol. 1 #3

Overall, the middle of the book has Adam scrabbling around in the Rannian desert while things spiral out of control back in Ranagar. It's competently done, but not as interesting as the insight Bruning provided into Adam's character in the earlier parts of the story. Things get pretty nuts in the very last part, as a number of big events happen: 1) Evelyn Fox is brought to Rann by the mega zeta beam, 2) Zared invades Ranagar, 3) Adam brings Alanna's exiled mother back into the city, 4) Alanna dies giving birth to her daughter, Aleea, 5) Sardath snaps and discovers the joys of nonsense, and 6) Ranagar is launched into space in a giant egg, saving it from Zared by placing it in orbit.

I'm sort of torn by most of these events. On the one hand, they promise interesting future developments, but on the other hand, they irrevocably change the setup of Adam Strange stories. Bruning might have got away  The death of Alanna seems unequivocally a mistake, though; the whole point of the end of the story is that Adam Strange can no longer run from his problems, yet the death of Alanna allows him to permanently escape his fear of commitment. Any imagined follow-ups to this book would have been more interesting with Alanna than without. And really, follow-ups are the problem. If this had been an out-of-continuity tale like its contemporaries Watchmen or The Dark Knight Returns, I think all the other changes would have worked: the end implies great adventures to come of a new, more realistic sort. The working title for the book was The Fall of Adam Strange, and it really does feel like the last Adam Strange story, like Dark Knight Returns was for Batman.

Adam begins crying as he realizes Richard Bruning has destroyed the entire appeal of his character's adventures.
from Adam Strange vol. 1 #2

But it's not; in theory, I think this was a set-up for a whole new cycle of Adam Strange adventures. Much as The Longbow Hunters transformed the basic setup of Green Arrow and was followed by an ongoing, this seems like it was supposed to as well: instead of Adam constantly zeta beaming between Earth and Rann, and smooching Alanna, we'd get Adam trying to build a new society inside the space-egg of Ranagar, with the help of a nonsensical Sardath, Doctor Evelyn Fox, and Alanna's mother, while trying to raise his child on his own. I can imagine an ongoing series with this setup would have been good (though Bruning really shouldn't have killed off Alanna), but it never happened. If an ongoing series had resulted from this, I think I'd view this ending differently, but as it is, it seems like Bruning broke all the toys when he was done with them. Adam Strange has been "deconstructed," and that has left him nowhere to go.

A brief coda: I actually already read the follow up to this story, though I didn't know it at the time. Adam Strange and an orbital Ranagar appear in 1996's Green Lantern vol. 3 #74-5, a two-part epilogue to The Darkstars. We don't see any Adam Strange characters other than Adam himself (indeed, Evelyn Fox has never appeared again at all), but Ranagar needs defending by the Darkstars because of the events of The Man of Two Worlds. Adam tells John Stewart, "A few years ago Ranagar was at war with Zared, another city on the surface of Rann. Ranagar was lifted into orbit. What saved us then makes us sitting ducks now." At the end of the story, Green Lantern safely lowers Ranagar back to the surface of Rann to save it from a decaying orbit, apparently beginning a slow process of undoing all the changes to the status quo made by Man of Two Worlds.

2 comments:

  1. Additionally follow-up in JLA #20-21, written by Mark Waid as guest issues in the midst of Grant Morrison's run.

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    1. Apparently these are collected in Strength in Numbers, which I have read, but I have literally no memory of that! I only remember Prometheus and the Starro story: http://lessaccurategrandmother.blogspot.com/2011/08/faster-than-dc-bullet-sandman-spin-offs_21.html

      Opinion on the Internet seems to differ as to whether Waid changes Adam back to his original status in-story or through ignoring what came before. I'll have to (re?)read them and find out someday, I guess.

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