comics, comics criticism, dc comics, writing

Strange Adventures: Artifice, Narrative and the Nature of Truth

Art by Evan Shaner

Reading Strange Adventures, the latest Tom King maxiseries with collaborators Mitch Gerads and Evan “Doc” Shaner, along with letterer Clayton Cowles, is an act of engaging with an artifice. The very structure of the work directs the reader to recognize its fabrication and question the truths it presents.

According to King, the series “is trying to speak to the nature of truth and how our assumptions about that nature can tear us apart.” 1 The story is set amid the backdrop of war, but it is not about the trauma of a single event on a broken man trying to put the pieces back together. It is an exploration of the American moment under Trumpism, where “Truth” as an abstract concept seems increasingly meaningless.

To tackle the nature of truth, King builds the frame of the story atop competing narratives. These creative choices highlight the book’s artificiality.  The most opaque of these choices is the inclusion of quotes from Silver Age comic creators as closing epigraphs. These words seem to bear no relation to the story and only draw attention to the artifice of the work itself–every issue ends with a reminder that we are engaging with a fictional story. 

With a work at its core about competing constructed narratives, and the nature of truth, and King an admitted formalist, these words offer a reminder every issue that narratives are artificial creations. 

Strange Adventures  is a story about stories–what we tell ourselves, how we justify ourselves, and how we create them as a society and as individuals.

Tom King recruited two distinctive artists to help him create this story. On the one hand, you have Evan “Doc” Shaner, who has drawn acclaim for his idyllic depictions of superheroes, and many comparisons to Darwyn Cooke, a creator similarly pegged as a “throwback” cartoonist. On the other hand you have Mitch Gerads, one of the most idiosyncratic artists working in comics today. Gerads’ has the ability to ground superheroes in the real world–a Norman Rockwell verisimilitude that draws attention to the artifice of the comic book medium and the page itself. His realism grounds these larger than life characters into a more familiar and mundane world, but never lets you forget that you are looking at a comic book–not just a single stagnant image.

The distinction seems simple –Shaner draws the simpler Silver Age throwback and draws readers into the high adventure of the space opera and grand conflict between Rann and the Pyykts. The use of the three wide panels (an homage to Cooke’s New Frontier) sets the entire thing in a bold and cinematic aspect ratio that echoes the space opera scope of Star Wars and classic big screen epics. 

Gerads’ work on the other hand, with backgrounds done with traditional pen and ink and finished with the digital figures, positions the story of the present day in the dreary and rougher world of the current. Gerads’ sketchy lines, muted colors, and compositions fade the figures into the world around them–these are people dealing with real pains, overshadowed by the world they are forced to wade through. 

Art by Mitch Gerads

King’s decision to utilize Shaner as a contrast with Gerads reads at first as typecasting, a pigeonholing that Shaner himself has expressed frustration with. But as the series progresses, the decision seems more nuanced; an intentional choice to subvert expectations and point directly at the way we as readers and consumers of media construct narratives–about others, about art, and about reality itself.

It would be easy to simplify the two artists and to say “Gerads is the real world, Shaner is the idealized version,” but halfway through these 12 issues, the truth of that reading is questionable.

Comic book readers have preconceived notions about what superhero stories should look like, and what particular styles suit certain kinds of stories. 

Shaner’s work on Strange Adventures, easily the best of his career, defies those easy classifications.

The stories set in the past initially depict Adam as a well meaning man in control, who faces insurmountable odds with a smirk and good humor. Alanna, on the other hand, is a demure woman, constantly refraining, “Oh, Adam,” whether in fear or sadness, relying on her strong husband to save them. In the present, though, Adam shrinks into the background, lacks confidence, and defers to Alanna to make tough choices. Gerads’ Strange slouches and avoids eye contact, lays in bed or confronts people indirectly. Shaner’s gets into fights with Superman and Green Lantern and towers over his alien foes.

As the series goes on, the harsh reality behind the shining exterior seeps in around the edges. Adam attempts to share his memories in as positive a light as he can, creating a narrative of honor and sacrifice. But the fact is still this: he was at war. And war is a horrific thing. Shaner’s art, though remaining vibrant and crisp, grows increasingly violent. King has described these memoir excerpts as Strange’s descent into madness, a Heart of Darkness like journey into the horror of violence and colonialism. 

The expectations of who Shaner is as an artist both belies his narrative skill and exceptional ability to express emotion both in body language and facial features. His rounded lines and cartooning makes the violence surrounding Adam Strange more palatable, but the most horrific violence in the story takes place in these seemingly rosier portions of the book. And yet as readers, because of our expectations, the narratives we have created about the kind of artist Evan Shaner is, we first react to this violence as acts of heroism.

Similarly, because Gerads’ muted colors blend the characters into their background, or the layouts intentionally minimizes them within the panels, we read every action by Alanna as manipulative or suspicious–the same for Mr. Terrific. Adam meanwhile, the blonde white man, positions himself firmly as the victim. His diatribe against the investigation–which he asked for to clear his name–is shockingly similar to the kinds of sanctimonious garbage we have become numb to from our outgoing President of the United States. How often have we heard powerful men vehemently deny reality, presenting themself as unfairly persecuted?

Adam himself is less the lead and more of a vehicle for Alanna and Mr. Terrific to explore these questions of truth. Adam in the present day is a fidgety and simple man, while his stories (as seemingly presented in his in-universe autobiography) present a far more traditional hero.

King forces us to confront these challenges about who we expect to lead a superhero comic, and how we interpret the actions of non-white men in issue 2, the introduction of Mr. Terrific. In it, Terrific discusses with Batman that by his very nature as a black man, people will not trust his good intentions or his findings if they prove harmful to the white Adam Strange. 

In the moving sixth issue, Alanna and Terrific spend time getting to know one another, sharing their similar pain at the loss of their loved ones. Alanna comes off in the first half of this series as manipulative and untrustworthy. Her constant smoking reads as a classical, morally ambiguous noir femme fatale. We later learn Alanna smokes to make the air she breathes more like what she grew up with on Rann.

It is, again, King crafting the work around the stories we construct, coloring the truth with our perceptions and biases. We discover that Alanna is not the one with a dark secret–her strength, contrasted with Adam’s fecklessness in the present-day scenes, positions her into this sexist trope of a woman who manipulates and undermines. But it is our perception of the narrative that leads us to that conclusion. 

The conversation with Terrific lets us into Alanna’s story for the first time, and the final moments reveal that she, too, believes her daughter to be dead, and that it is seemingly only Adam who carries the dark truth with him. She is not the manipulator, she is the manipulated.

The dichotomy is highlighted by the portions of the story on Rann. As Adam becomes increasingly despondent and unhinged, Alanna becomes more and more confident and sure of herself, eventually stepping into a role of equal weight as Adam, fighting side by side on the battlefield.

Her rise and his fall seem to coincide in issue six, at the Battle of the Rocks, where Strange is captured. The contrast between Alanna at the start of the story on Rann and the start of the story on Earth seem to be in reverse course and intentionally opposite to make her seem less trustworthy.

Contrast Mr. Terrific with Adam in the present day, an average man idolized for acts of war that he may or may not have actually taken, and that may or may not have been criminal. Terrific, dedicated to “Fair play,” as emblazoned on his jacket, has devoted himself to perfection. His stark view of the world, that there is a right and there is a wrong, truth and fiction, stands in contrast to Adam Strange’s complicated narrative of his own past. Terrific presents himself as a man of moral character, holding to impossible standards that society will never thank him for because of his background, no matter how perfect he becomes.

Narratives of race and sex are at the heart of Strange Adventures by the very nature of Adam’s publishing history. King uses these to explore how these constructed narratives can distort reality. In King’s words:

“Adam Strange is like your basic…rip-off copy of John Carter of Mars and Flash Gordon and Tarzan …these pulp heroes from the early 1900s that were these guys who were ordinary people in their own land or wherever they were, and then they went somewhere mysterious and kooky and crazy and they became gods and kings there. And of course it’s all a metaphor for colonialism….there’s an inherent racism to it all, right?

What we’re doing is we’re taking that concept and we’re looking at it in a modern light and seeing if we can use that to talk about where we are now, the difference between the dream of you and the real you. And that’s why we have two artists, we have Mitch [Gerads] who draws the real better than anyone in comics, and we have Doc Shaner joining us, who draws the dream better than anyone in comics. We’re looking at the legend and the truth and the fiction. And so that’s what it’s all about.” 2

These tropes whitewash colonialism, depicting middling white men as superior to native tribal populations by nature of their whiteness. As a veteran, King has reason to be skeptical about stories that fetishize the heroism of war. Exploring the harder truth behind the narratives of Spreading American Democracy, of manifest destiny, reveals the artifice of these stories. They intentionally hide the truth of the individuals on the other side.

History is built on the subjugation and slaughter of others and the past has a way of haunting us. Look at today’s America: our history of racist slaughter and colonization, resurging in violent and harmful ideology that has placed the fabric of our democracy at risk. 

More importantly, take a hard look at how the narratives and myths of American exceptionalism have inflicted centuries of harm upon countless minorities not just at the individual level but by the very systems meant to protect its people.

Placing Mr. Terrific in opposition to Adam Strange’s averageness is a statement. Strange was a product of a post-Comics Code era, where heroes were designed to be as inoffensive as possible. The mostly Jewish comic creators, ashamed of their profession and scared of losing their jobs, designed characters like Adam to appeal to the masses, channelling the concept of the Good Christian Man they thought middle America would accept. At his very core, Adam was created to appease ideas of white supremacy, to speak to narratives that White America could accept–of the average man overcoming the savage unknown.

These stories are inherently unjust, a celebration of false ideas of class and race. By utilizing Mr. Terrific as a central character in search of truth it highlights the lack of fair play that these colonial narratives afford marginalized peoples. Nevertheless, Terrific pursues this truth out of a sense of fairness, but what is fairness?  Seeking the truth and addressing it? Or sharing what might be most beneficial to those who hear it? 

Mr. Terrific, to rationalize the death of his wife and unborn child, constructed his own story, where the pursuit of fairness and justice was at the core of the human endeavor, that there is an objective ideal of Fair Play to strive toward. It is a thankless pursuit, and one that this comic calls into question. 

Truth. Justice. Can these concepts exist amid the competing artifices of personal biases and experiences? Is Adam’s fear that he is being unfairly targeted and the story he has told the world about who he is really at odds with Mr. Terrific’s high minded ideals? 

The blurring of roles between Adam and Alanna in the past and the present, the defying of expectations of the artists’ sensibilities, the truth of the colonialism at the root of Adam Strange, the heroic ideals he represents, can these competing narratives live in tension with one another, or is the collision of these opposing forces inevitable?

At six issues of a twelve issue story, we do not have King’s answers to these questions. But by highlighting the artifice and form of the work itself, Tom King, Evan Shaner, and Mitch Gerads draw readers into a complex world, inviting us to engage with the tension both in the narrative and in the visual storytelling. 

It forces us as readers to contemplate the tensions at the heart of American society today, to reckon with the narratives about who we are, and the reality of what we have done. 

Strange Adventures is on sale now from DC Comics at your local comic book shop.

1 thought on “Strange Adventures: Artifice, Narrative and the Nature of Truth”

  1. I just think it sucked like most of Tom King’s,work where he writes himself as the characters and leaves ambiguous endings so pretentious pricks like you wax poetic about how great he is!


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