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Adam Strange: Planet Heist (Review/Retrospective)

This month I’m taking a look at DC’s massive “Infinite Crisis” Event. Although it was all published in one massive omnibus, I’ll be breaking down the lead-in to the series to tackle each thread individually, culminating in a review of the event itself. Check back for more.

Note: Although technically not a lead-in, and not included in the Omnibus, Planet Heist leads directly to Rann-Thanagar War, so I thought I’d take a look at it. Also, it’s a pretty damn fine series.

I’ve always had a soft spot for Adam Strange. Along with The Flash, Strange’s adventures in Mystery in Space are among my favourite of DC’s Silver Age comic books. (That would suggest a fondness for Carmine Infantino, who – his Batman work aside – is certainly a favourite of mine.) I’m boggled that DC has never managed to make more of Strange than they have. A delightful science-fiction concept, blending John Carter of Mars with a fifties ray-gun aesthetic, it seems ripe for pulpy exploitation. In fact, before Marvel announced Guardians of the Galaxy, I figured that Strange might prove DC’s best big screen hope of distinguishing themselves from Marvel.

Andy Diggle and Pascal Ferry’s Planet Heist is a delightful eight-issue miniseries featuring the character, updating him for a new era. I can’t help but feel a little sad that the pair didn’t extend the miniseries into a run, and that Adam Strange remains a neglected character in the DC pantheon.

All the Strange, Strange people…

Part of the fun of Strange is the delightfully hokey science-fiction concepts he employs. The character sort of screams “fifties” in a way that has great cultural cache today. After all, it was only years later that many cheesy fifties science-fiction films would being appraised as misunderstood classics, much like the work of Alfred Hitchcock. I think the character is really calling out for some sort of conscious attempt to modernise him. I can honestly see Strange as emerging as one of the breakout DC characters (similar to Green Lantern is recent years) with the right creative team behind him.

Andy Diggle’s Planet Heistis a pretty impressive starting point, to the extent that I’m surprised Diggle wasn’t given an on-going series out of the eight-issue story arc. It really serves as something of a reintroduction to Adam Strange, and introduces themes that feel relevant without being awkward or out of place. It isn’t a massive reinvention, because one isn’t necessary. Instead, Diggle smartly decides to contextualise that character amid all the changes going on in the wider comic book universe. In a way, it seems like the universe itself has radically altered since Strange has been away, but Diggle affirms that Strange himself is still the same character, a ray-gun-weilding jet-pack-riding science-hero.

A Super-special guest…

While not officially a tie-in to DC’s massive Infinite Crisis event, the miniseries feels quite thematically connected to that gigantic epic. At the core of Infinite Crisis was the idea that the comic book world had become a place too dark, cynical and sinister for the heroes inhabiting it – and that the heroes themselves needed to learn to embrace hope and optimism to avoid being suffocated by the darkness around them. It was a meta-fictional commentary on the legacy of books like Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns, which proved that you could do mature stories with superheroes. Unfortunately, a lot of later writers misunderstood what “mature” meant, confusing it with cynicism and violence.

Planet Heist starts with Adam Strange in a fairly dark place. So dark that it could almost seem like a deconstruction of this most Silver Age of characters. We open with Adam in police custody, a “drunken bum with a pile of rubble where his apartment block used to be.” He is due to be shipped off to Arkham Asylum, the home of the delusional and the crazy folk, mirroring Darwyn Cooke’s treatment of the character in New Frontier. He confesses, “And I did something I’ve never done before… something that’s always been alien to me… I gave up.”

Let’s face it, if he works in Gotham, it’s not the strangest thing that cop has seen…

Planet Heist begins with a fundamentally broken Adam Strange, a character who is truly alone in the universe, who finds himself trapped in a real world when he desperately longs to escape to a fantasy. “There was nothing left for me on Earth anymore,” Adam explains. “There was precious little ton leave behind — just a lifetime’s worth of clutter and useless artifacts that I couldn’t wait to be rid of.” He seems to have little affection for the real world, a dark and gritty attitude. “I’ve tried being reasonable,” he states at one point with some measure of frustration. “Tried doing things the Earth way.” He describes the planet as a “backwater dirtball.”

The series opens with the ultimate grim!dark! hook. Superman, of all people, tells Adam that his fantasy world has been destroyed, his people wiped out. His wife and child are dead. Superman, perhaps the most idealistic of superheroes, has to advise Adam, “There’s nothing left, Adam… Rann is gone.” It feels like the type of editorial move that DC would pull in the nineties, adding a genocide to a popular character’s back story to generate some cheap angst and change their character motivation to one of revenge. Diggle teases this idea remarkably well, as the first issue of the series seems to explicitly tease everything that the series isn’t, and thus feels like a criticism of these sorts of cheap dramatic hooks. (Which is quite in line with Infinite Crisis.)

Raging at the cosmos…

The scenes on Earth are coloured in muted and drab shades, perhaps suggesting how Adam must see the world. It’s an interesting take on the character that involves some measure of criticism of the concept – the idea that Adam is so devoted to his imaginary fantasy that he has given up on what might be termed ‘the real world.’ However, Diggle doesn’t quite continue that train of thought, but instead allows Adam to grow increasingly optimistic and less cynical as the series progresses. The first issue ends, appropriately enough, with Adam hijacking a jet-pack and a set of ray-guns. “Looks like I’m back in business!”

Almost immediately, a lot of the darkness suggested in that first chapter is erased. Far from being motivated by vengeance, Adam is driven by hope. He is optimistic about the fate of his family, embodying that most noble of Silver Age virtues in a way that seems decidedly pointed. Far from being destroyed by a supernova, it’s revealed that Rann was actually magically (well, pseudo-scientifically) transported away. “Somebody stole Rann’s entire star system,” Strange explains at one point, outlining the plot of the miniseries. “Beamed it away and replaced it with a supernova to cover their tracks.”

Look at the Thanagarians, perched on their high horses…

The cynical Councillor Thrall describes this concept as “preposterous.” And, of course, it is. But no more preposterous than anything else in the story of Adam Strange, and certainly a plot point that would fit quite well with a classic Silver Age story. Diggle just gets points for taking a concept that sounds like a wacky Silver Age premise and finding a way to play it as an engaging character drama. It’s like a better-executed version of the technique that Brian Azzarello tried on Superman: For Tomorrow.

Diggle seems to have little time for the angst of the nineties, and instead Planet Heist reads as an updated Silver Age narrative, but with more complex characterisation and more sophisticated plotting. “The hell with your self-pity!” Adam declares on interrogating a clone of Sardath, another point where the book refuses to wallow in the same gloom and depression as so many modern comics, with Adam refusing to confuse needless insecurity as character development. It feels like a rather sharp counterpoint to the character arcs of the leads in Infinite Crisis, who learn the same thing through the opposite course of action – indulging their angst and self-pity at a grave cost.

Out of this world…

Diggle teases the idea that Adam Strange himself has become somewhat darker and edgier in the years since his debut. He is rather cold-blooded, rather pointedly killing several of his adversaries rather than merely subduing them. An alien begs him for help escaping the bomb on her armour, but Adam is pretty brutal. “You had your chance to talk… now it’s time to make your peace!” I would argue that this portrayal isn’t that far from some of his earlier appearances, just more explicit about it, but also that Diggle is careful to make sure the decision comes back to haunt him. On trial for genocide, he is unable to present a witness in his defense, because he killed them. “How convenient,” Thrall responds.

Planet Heist also adds a sense of relevance to Strange and his universe, updating some of the far-out DC cosmic concepts to reflect the world in which the story had been written. Strange was created in the fifties, at the height of the Cold War during the space race. There are several nods to that here, including one plot point that paints Sardoth as an Oppenheimer-style figure, lamenting his creation of a potential doomsday weapon. “Alas,” Sardath laments, “the Omega technology could not be uninvented — the genie could never be put back in the bottle.”

Alpha (and Omega) Males…

However, the book is also heavily informed by a post-9/11 atmosphere. There’s a sense of cosmic uncertainty, mirroring the uncertainty among the international community at the time – especially concerning the issue of justice for those guilt of the most heinous of crimes. The universe itself seems unstable and uneasy, with the Thanagarian Councillor Thrall boasting, “The Guardians of Oa are no more. The interstellar community is looking to us to take a leadership position on this matter.” Perhaps the Guardians represent the U.N., a supposedly all-encompassing international body that become somewhat irrelevant during the United States’ conflicts in the Middle East.

There’s a decidedly religious element to the threat here. Far from being presented as a colourful nut job in a silly cape, Starbreaker is presented as something of a deity, a dark god feeding on the very essence of life itself. The threat to Rann doesn’t come from any official military body, planet or sovereign nation, but instead from subversives with “unorthodox spiritual beliefs.” Diggle references the moral ambiguity of the War on Terror when Adam greets the Omega Men. “You’re supposed to be some kind of terrorist outfit operating out of the Vega System,” he states. Tigorr corrects him, “When we’re the good guys, yer supposed ta call us freedom fighters, Red.”

And he Rann, he Rann so far away…

Of course, despite its interesting meta-commentary on comics or its updating of the galactic status quo, Planet Heist works because it’s really just a fun read. Its eight issues breeze by as Diggle takes us on an adventure from one side of the DC cosmos to the other. He’s careful to introduce all the niche characters and concepts that Adam encounters on his cosmic journey, and he keeps things moving at an entertaining pace, with a very clear character arc mapped out for the lead. It’s a very well constructed miniseries, and it’s a shame that this was the end of Diggle’s work on the character.

(As an aside, I like an early line that seems to be a thinly-veiled reference to Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing revision of the character. “Rann was dying, you see,” Adam tells us. “They’re a good people, but reclusive, and their gene pool had deteriorated over the centuries. They needed new blood.”It seems like a shout-out to the much-maligned revelation that Adam was brough to Rann to repopulate, without explicitly mentioning it. I’ve always loved that retcon, if only because it adds a bit of complexity to the relationship, but also because it undercuts some of the unfortunate implications of a white man showing up and teaching an alien culture how to make both war and love.)

Spaced out…

Diggle is assisted, more than ably, by Pascal Ferry. Ferry is an artist with a very particular style, and it works almost perfectly here. Ferry has a wonderful knack for drawing cool technology or surreal-looking aliens, so Planet Heist is actually a pretty neat fit. I have to say that Diggle and Ferry actually seem to have a pretty neat synchronicity going on, and I wouldn’t have minded a chance for the pair to really flesh out Adam strange and his surrounding and supporting characters with an extended run.

Still, you know a miniseries is good when your only complaint is that it never graduated to an on-going. I won’t pretend that I am not a fan of Adam Strange, but Diggle really does an excellent job of illustrating how the character works – and why he still works, even if the universe around him has changed. Sometimes we need an optimistic voyager with a jet-pack and a ray-gun.

You might be interested in our other reviews relating to Infinite Crisis:

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