There’s a beautiful rhythm to DC Comics’ Strange Adventures. Like watching a tennis match, the issues play off of one another. Writer Tom King, artists Mitch Gerads and Evan “Doc” Shaner, and letterer Clayton Cowles focus back in on Adam Strange in this issue. Again, this issue of Strange Adventures tells two stories. Stories that work off of one another to paint a disturbing image of how Adam sees himself, while commenting on who he actually is. And it’s not long before we’re all wondering, what the hell are Alanna and Adam hiding?
Adam Strange: Savior / Alanna Strange: Proud Wife
When describing the events of Adam’s autobiography, Strange Adventures, King is speaking in Adam’s voice. The things Adam says or does are things he wrote down and edited, for release to the general public. It doesn’t take that much skepticism to think of these moments as airbrushed and deceptive. What’s interesting in this chapter, though, is how much we see Adam was willing to reveal about his time on Rann in the pages of Strange Adventures. In a ceremonial fight before the Hellotaat, a group of aliens brushed off as “other” and therefore lacking true human qualities, Adam becomes nearly deranged as he kills his adversary.
Alanna seems completely unmoved by the whole thing. She had faith that Adam would be the winner. It never occurred to her he would lose. And so, as Adam stands over his bloody rival, Alanna’s next line is nonchalant. “Ah. The ceremony is done.” It feels as though this is a proud moment in this couple’s history. Alanna’s unwavering nature. But the tendrils of truth are beginning to sneak their way into the cracks of this story. We are beginning to see the sheer power of two people who simply think they’re the heroes, and therefore, whoever should oppose them must be in the wrong.
Shaner’s art is always so crisp and clean. It’s in the Gerads panels that we see distortions and blurs, until now. With every issue, the impression these artists are making on each other is becoming clearer and clearer. Not only are they pushing each other to new heights, but they’re adopting each others’ storytelling techniques. And so, as Adam succumbs to a poisoned blade, the blurred outline of his approaching enemy seems very un-Shaner. But it works as a method of showing the hints of reality in Adam’s Strange Adventures autobiography.
Similarly, as Adam brings his helmet down on his enemy’s neck, over and over, his face is wild. It’s not the smiling, adventurer we’ve seen in the last two issues. He’s not clean. He’s not even clean-shaven. Instead, he has crazy hair and a wild beard. His eyes look animalistic. And as Shaner zooms closer in on Adam’s face, we lose the outline of his face. The details are obscured in lines over the page and the overlapping lines of his features. This only serves to further underline Alanna’s indifference. We see her in the next panel and she looks calm. We can barely tell if her eyes are open, her face looks so relaxed and unmoved. The juxtaposition is haunting.
Shaner dirties his colors in this issue. What once was a world of purely solid colors has become speckled with dirt. Even before Adam throws down with the Hellotaat warrior, the air is filled with specks of dust. The light catches them in the darkness and give the room a sense of physicality. As the issue progresses, these “corruptions” of the color palette continue. Adam’s helmet gets its paint chipped; we see the grey metal beneath the red. But Adam paints the helmet again, giving it a new coat of red. The red of his enemy’s blood as he holds his helmet over his head and is himself engulfed in the murderous rage of red on the page. It’s all a clear stylistic shift in Shaner’s work, and it’s a beautiful physical representation of the progression of the plot.
Cowles’ lettering in this section is not as simple as it may seem. The first sound effect Cowles gives us is in small but fat block letters with a black outline. It’s the sound of Adam tripping his opponent. When his opponent swings back at him, the sound of the sword has no outline to its lettering. It makes the sound feel both smaller and more dangerous. It’s this small, almost innocuous noise that begins the evolution. Soon Adam is screaming in large red lettering, which breaks past the bounds of his word balloon. As the scene progresses, sound effects lose their black outline. When the outline is present it’s cracked, like the sounds are refusing to be contained. It all ends in the large white lettering of Adam screaming. Lettering that refuses to even be contained by the page.
Adam Strange: Coward / Alanna Strange: Lady Macbeth
King sure knows how to make you doubt everything he’s told you. As Terrific begins his investigation, we see the immediate panic in Adam and Alanna. Panic that is so based in reassuring themselves, and even fighting back, it’s clear they’re harboring a secret together. In the last issue, we learned that Terrific is convinced that Strange’s daughter never died. Whatever else that is all tied to can’t be good. Adam immediately jumps to legal action. Should he sue the Justice League to get them off his back? Through this King opens up a brilliant grey area: can the Justice League even be sued? And while Adam certainly seems guilty of something, is it not still wrong that the JL could be above the law?
There’s something gorgeous that follows. An interview Adam and Alanna give on TV about the investigation. Adam stumbles over his defense, but soon he shuts up. King gives Alanna all the lines. She comes to her husband’s aid; she protects him as a proud wife. As we see Alanna watching the interview later that night (or an alternate version of Alanna watching it live?? It does say “live” in the corner of the screen, after all… It might just be a recording she’s watching, but let me first say here that she might by a Pykkt clone.) she puffs on a cigarette and simply says, “Boom.” Her support suddenly feels calculated and cold. The whole thing suddenly feels wrong.
Gerads art also takes some pages out of Shaner’s book, just as Shaner borrowed from Gerads. Some scenes feel strangely simple for a Mitch Gerads panel. Hawkman’s mace has a clearer outline. Superman and Adam Strange fly through the air, looking a little less fuzzy than is typical of Gerads. It gives us the feeling that these are the elements of the story that just make sense. They’re simple. And so, the gospel of Gerads begins to become the gospel of Shaner. Where once Shaner was saying “nothing to see here!” he is now sprinkling in red flags. And Gerads’ panels, chock full of worry and woe, are now full of clean smiles and clear action sequences.
In the world of acting, actors are often told to “play against a scene.” If it’s a sad scene, hold back the tears, if it’s an angry scene, try and keep your shit together. Holding back, or even pushing firmly into denial, elicits a stronger response from viewers. If you cry, you cry so the viewer doesn’t have to. If you don’t, then they may cry on your behalf. Gerads is doing this here. Pushing into “everything is Hunky Dory” so strongly, that we’re becoming more and more convinced of the opposite. Alanna and Adam’s brave faces, their big smiles, feel like masks over a sea of worry. Even their framing as they sit on their bed. With Alanna in the foreground looking much bigger and more confident, Gerads communicates who wears the pants in the relationship brilliantly. And it’s the very fact that they’re so desperately trying to hide all their angst makes us truly scared of what’s really going on.
While there is certainly an element of clarity in these pages, solid colors in Superman and Adam’s suits and the like, Gerads’ doesn’t sacrifice all of his style in this narrative shift. We still get the variance in textures and color that make his pages pop so vividly. But some of the most splendid examples are the shift from one to the other. Superman’s flight with Adam is colored rather simply. The tone is very bright. But they fly around the corner of a building and are suddenly head to head with a giant alien spaceship. Red covers the top half of the page; distortions radiate out along with the alien tentacles.
It’s this shift that gives that moment weight. For Superman and Adam Strange, this is just a Saturday. Life is normal, the end of the world on the horizon is nothing they’re not used to. The bottom half of the page maintains the color scheme of the previous page. Superman and Adam won’t let this alien baddie spoil their bright and pleasant day. And in the final scene, Gerads swerves in the opposite direction. As Alanna gets out of the pool after a late-night swim, the page is colored in beautiful blues and greens. It’s menacing and spooky, while beautiful at the same time. It gives her all the class and allure of a Bond villain. The brightly lit news channel that recounts this late-night swim and chat makes it feel as though her sinister plans are making it out into the everyday world.
As has so far been the case, Cowles goes out of his way to stay incredibly restrained in the Gerads scenes. The opportunities for sound effects are endless. Adam Strange wears a jetpack for Pete’s sake. But there are no whooshing noises. Hawkman even smashes a robot in the face, and no “boom” or “wham” accompanies the art. Similarly Cowles does the same with emphasizing words in dialogue. Very few words are bolded, especially when compared to the dialogue in the Shaner scenes. All of this is to focus readers on the deeply important things. Only the most important words are bolded, one or two for every few pages. We have to know what it sounds like when Alanna says Terrific’s name. And the only sound effect that shows up is the snapping of a camera. Cowles needs us to know Batman was caught talking with Alanna late at night. And so he makes sure he only puts the one sound effect in. It’s small, but it carries incredible weight.
Strange Adventures has an immense range from the swashbuckling adventures of faraway planets to the cut-throat politics of book tours. This creative team is working with each other, but also against each other, to produce some of the most breathtaking work to hit DC Comics. Pick up Strange Adventures #3 from DC Comics on July 14th!