Best of 2020 (Behind the Scenes): How the art of Strange Adventures captured a year of uncertainty
Over the past few years, a pattern has emerged: When writer Tom King and artist Mitch Gerads team up to make a comic, it's a recipe for magic.
The duo's first collaboration, the 2015 Vertigo miniseries The Sheriff of Babylon, drew from King's experience in the CIA to tell a well-rounded story about the American occupation of Iraq, of which there are still far too few in our culture. Gerads then joined the lineup of many artists who took turns drawing Batman during King's three-year run on DC's flagship comic — specifically, he drew a two-issue story about Batman and Catwoman hooking up that set the stage for the rest of King's run and the just-launched Batman/Catwoman comic. But King and Gerards' most acclaimed collaboration came with Mister Miracle, a modern twist on comics legend Jack Kirby's "Fourth World" mythology that found the titular superhero escape artist trying to escape the trap his life had become. Mister Miracle became so successful and acclaimed that King got hired to co-write the screenplay for Ava DuVernay's forthcoming New Gods movie. But as we fans of the Fourth World still await new developments about that project, comic fans had a more immediate question: What would King and Gerads do next?
They decided to tackle Adam Strange, a spacefaring hero created in the late '50s (an era referred to as both the Golden Age of science fiction and the Silver Age of superhero comics). Outside of a role on the underseen live-action series Krypton, Adam Strange is not particularly well-known these days. Gerads says they came upon the decision quite casually.
"We were at my house and we were just kind of naming books that we saw on my shelf to see what we might want to do next," Gerads tells EW. "I've always just had an affinity for Adam Strange. The spacefaring '50s thing seemed like a weird enough thing to do next that was different from Mister Miracle. So I was kind of just like, what about that? Tom was like, okay. And then literally the next day I picked him up from his hotel and he gave me the entire pitch."
That was the humble beginning of Strange Adventures, the 12-issue miniseries that launched earlier this year. But what started as a story about two underutilized DC heroes — not just Adam Strange, who travels between Earth and the far-away planet Rann via "Zeta Beam" technology, but also Mr. Terrific, a brilliant Earth-based hero whose slogan is "Fair Play" — became unexpectedly resonant in the year of COVID-19 and widespread paranoia.
When Adam returns to Earth at the beginning of Strange Adventures, he talks about having just won an intergalactic war on behalf of Rann (he even wrote a book about it, and an early scene set at a bookstore signing reminded this reporter of seeing King and Gerads sign Mister Miracle hardcovers at Barnes & Noble back in the Before Times). But the Justice League suspects all is not as Adam says, and Mr. Terrific is tasked with investigating the truth of Adam's story even as the Pykkts (a "merciless" alien race who Adam claims killed his young daughter in that recently concluded war) approach Earth.
"Mister Miracle, which I think is probably the best thing I ever wrote, is ultimately this warm story about surviving adversity, which is the mood I was feeling at the end of this last decade," King says. "Strange Adventures is a much angrier book, a much more caustic book. Mister Miracle was about how we survive through love. But this is about how we react to evil and how we deal with it and confront it. To me, it's a much more active book, and it reflects more of the emotional place I am in now, where I'm done with surviving. I'm ready to fight."
Beyond the change in King's attitude, there's been an even bigger difference between the storytelling of Mister Miracle and Strange Adventures. For their latest collaboration, King and Gerads did something they haven't done before: They brought in a third. Evan "Doc" Shaner, already a prolific DC artist in his own right, shares art duties with Gerads on Strange Adventures. The series is split in two, with Shaner and Gerads each taking half of the story. Shaner handles the flashbacks to Adam's experience during the war on Rann, while Gerads handles Adam's present-day efforts to convince Earth of the Pykkt threat (and Terrific's parallel investigation into what really happened in that war).
When the series began, both artists seemed perfectly matched to their respective stories. Shaner's art style is well-suited to DC stories from the '50s and '60s, and he's often tapped to illustrate new covers for omnibus collections of their classic comics. Gerads' style is a little rougher and more postmodern; in Mister Miracle, he came up with the recurring visual motif of "glitches" to depict the protagonist's struggles with reality. But as Strange Adventures has gone on, Gerads has shown more of Adam and his wife, Alanna, luxuriating in victory and confidence, while Shaner has delved deeper into their brutal wartime actions.
"I drew so little of Rann's capital city back in issue 1, and since then my story hasn't been back to any kind of civilization," Shaner says. "I don't think I've drawn Adam's costume in one piece since the first issue."
In order to defeat the Pykkts, Adam had to go around forging alliances with the less-humanoid races on Rann. At one point, he and Alanna go to meet the Hellotaats, who will only join their side if Adam can beat their champion in single combat, Game of Thrones-style. The Hellotaat warrior formally defeats Adam, but when he tries to act honorably in victory, Adam takes advantage and brutally beats his head in with a rock. The alliance is secured, but Adam's heroism looks like a lot less definite after that.
"If I drew that, it'd kind of be expected, like, 'Oh yeah, you've done that before,'" says Gerads, who drew plenty of brutal combat in Mister Miracle and The Sheriff of Babylon. "When you see Doc do it, it really makes you raise your eyes. That makes the book feel a little more special."
The disjointed storytelling of Strange Adventures ended up being perfectly suited to a very uncertain year. The first issue hit stands in early March, just a few weeks before COVID-19 lockdowns began in the U.S. The entire comic industry ground to a halt for a few months, and there was a three-month gap between Strange Adventures' first and second issues. Eventually things picked back up again, though not without changes — DC Comics decided to break Diamond's decades-long monopoly on comic distribution and choose a different distributor, meaning that new DC comic books now come out on Tuesdays, while the rest of the industry still puts out new stuff on the traditional Wednesdays. As we all know, things only got weirder from there.
More and more people started doubting the reality of COVID-19, even as its ravages were plain to see. That then extended to this year's U.S. presidential election, with an unsettling amount of people now saying they doubt the veracity of the results that say Joe Biden defeated Donald Trump. In this context, Strange Adventures' story — in which Mr. Terrific's investigation has been demonized by a media and a public that would much rather believe Adam's feel-good story about conquering evil through military might, no matter how "true" it actually is — really resonated. Are Adam's memories of his past on Rann any more distorted than our own memories of the long-ago "Before Times" when COVID-19 had not yet materialized?
"That's the whole big thing," King says. "Some people are now like, 'I don't care about the truth. I just want my guy to win.' I feel like that's been sort of the mantra. 'I don't have to wear a mask because my guy said not to wear a mask. If we all wear masks then my guy won't win, so I'll f---ing die.' That attitude has become sort of enwrapped in what people think about Adam, the idea that facts and truth can be subjected to wants and desires."
King's writing has been much celebrated in the comics world. We here at EW named him Best Writer of 2017, and he won the slightly more prestigious Eisner Award for Best Writer two years in a row in 2018 and 2019 (sharing the first with Monstress' Marjorie Liu). But King is the first to admit that Strange Adventures is an "art book" whose power lies in the nexus between Gerads' and Shaner's collaboration. As an acknowledgement of this, each issue ends with a quote from a Silver Age comic artist, like Carmine Infantino or Wally Wood.
"One thing I've always appreciated about Mitch's stuff is that he's always pushing for something new, on every book," Shaner says. "That's really helped me."
The first seven issue of Strange Adventures are available now.