By Josh Hechinger
Welcome to From Strip to Script, where I take a page of finished comic art and try to derive a script from it, to see what I can learn from the exercise.
If you are or were ever into the superhero sorts in comics, I'm willing to bet you have some less famous characters that you're fond of; B- or C-list heroes you either encountered in some random back issue, or whose adventures were repped to you by another reader, or who you grew up with during their (sometimes brief) era of importance.
One of my favorite lesser lights is Adam Strange from DC. A riff on Burroughs' John Carter and Nowlan's Buck Rogers, Strange follows in their footsteps of being a man-of-our-time who is transported by fantastic means to an alien world (or a time so far in the future as to be alien), where he meets a nice lady and becomes a champion of…well, not justice, now that I think about it, but mostly self-preservation and political dissent. Er.
Well, I mean, a large part of the appeal of Adam is that he becomes a champion of public safety more than anything, protecting his accidentally adopted world from both natural disasters and villainous schemes. And too, him and his partner Alanna usually do this not by being an ageless superman granted (further) extraordinary abilities on a new planet (Carter) or a veteran strategist (Rogers), but usually by being smart, either smarter than their enemies, or knowledgeable enough to turn local phenomena to their. Put another way, Adam Strange adventures out of love (of a place, of a woman) and wins the day through quick thinking, and that's a pretty appealing premise.
Also he has a jet pack and a laser gun, which are always fun.
Let's take a look at my first exposure to the character, in this two-part JLA story by Pat Garrahy (colorist), Heroic Age (separations), Arnie Jorgensen (guest penciller), Ken Lopez (letterer), David Meikis (guest inker), and Mark Waid (guest writer).
P1. BARDA, STEEL, KYLE, and J'ONN in their cell. KYLE is making a ring-construct recliner to support the still-wounded STEEL, who has his helmet off. The EN'TARANS surround them all silently.
BARDA I wish my husband were here. He'd have us freed by now.
BARDA Adam has turned Rann into a prison to rival Takron-Galtos
STEEL (small) Some >nnnh< some ally. For the last time…
STEEL (small) …who is this lunatic?
J'ONN A soul ravaged by grief.
P2. For the next four panels, let them flow into each other like a montage. ADAM in his archeologist clothes, being struck by the Zeta Beam.
J'ONN (cap) "Adam was once an Earth archeologist who, by accident, encountered the Zeta-Beam—
J'ONN (cap) "A teleportation ray which transported him 25 trillion miles to the futuristic planet Rann.
P3. ADAM in his suit and jetpack, zapping a flying dragon in the mouth with his raygun.
J'ONN (cap) "Though the effects of the ray were only temporary, Adam often rode subsequent Zeta-Beams to Rann–
J'ONN (cap) "–becoming its champion, demonstrating courage and cleverness unmatched—
P4. ADAM, helmet off, and ALANNA embrace.
J'ONN (cap) "–and, in time, marrying Rann's princess, the beautiful Alanna.
J'ONN (cap) "Eventually Alanna's father, Sardath, found a way to make Adam a permanent resident of Rann–
P5. SARDATH pulls a sheet over ALANNA'S face in the background as a grief-stricken ADAM walks towards us, cradling the newborn ALEEA.
J'ONN (cap) "–only to have him stand by helplessly as Alanna died giving birth to their daughter, Aleea.
J'ONN (cap) "So strong was Adam's love for his bride, it was the stuff of galactic legend. His loss was akin to the dying of a sun, so cold did it leave his heart."
So, What'd We Learn?
Four panels is about the extent to which you can comfortably sum up a superhero's history and status quo. Grant Morrison's got that famously minimalist version that opens up his All Star Superman, but I think a good rubric/guidline is this: Origin, What They Do, Defining Career Moment, Current Status. So with Adam, we have the Origin (hit by Zeta Beams), What He Does (defends Rann with wits and courage), Defining Career Moment (married his partner, the princess of Rann), current status (she dead, he sad). The Defining Career Moment should always be relevent to the story you reference it in; this whole JLA jam is about Adam Strange being reunited with his wife, so the defining career moment is marrying her, as opposed to beating the Tornado Tyrant or whatever.
I can't think of anywhere else besides superhero comics off the top of my head where this would be a story beat. Not "who is that guy?" exposition, but that unique "catching up new readers on a character's history that stretches back IRL decades organically" issue you have to tackle in these kinds of books. So how does Waid tackle it? Well, Steel's new-ish to the team, so he asks. J'onn's been around since the beginning, so he answers. It keeps to the relevent bullet points to both the character and the story, as mentioned in the previous point.
Spoilers for an older comic: you can, as Waid does here, use your exposition as a kind of thesis statement to your story. "This is what Adam Strange is about; this story is about Adam Strange". To wit: it turns out Adam's not insane, Alanna is still alive, Adam sacrifices his ability to stay on Rann, but outwits the invading En'tarans. All of which is covered in the exposition: Adam Strange's deal is that he's an interplanetary commuter, he's in an epic romance, and his tools are bravery and intelligence. Again: that's what Adam Strange is about; this story is about Adam Strange; it's just presented in a "that's what Adam Strange was about" kind of way to misdirect the reader.
Philly-based comic writer Josh Hechinger [joshhechinger.tumblr.com] is a Cancer, and his blood type is A+. You can find him being a loquacious dope on Twitter, and read his comic collaborations on Comixology.