Another title that I got a few issues of in my Windfall Comics purchase of 1988 was MYSTERY IN SPACE. It was one of a pair of titles edited by Julie Schwartz (the other was STRANGE ADVENTURES) devoted to science fiction adventures, a big genre in the late 1950s. This was the earliest one in the box I bought, the second issue to feature the exciting new character Adam Strange after his initial tryout appearances in SHOWCASE. Apparently, Adam didn’t sell well enough to warrant being launched in a series of his own, but Schwartz liked the concept well enough that he gave the spaceman-from-Earth the cover spot in MYSTERY IN SPACE starting with #53 in 1959. Despite the fact that he would eventually team up with the Justice League of America with some frequency, Adam Strange wasn’t a super hero series at all. It really had its roots in the Edgar Rice Burroughs John Carter stories concerning an Earthman transported to Mars/Barsoom. Here, the earthman was archaeologist Adam Strange and the destination was a bit further off–the planet Rann, located in Alpha Centauri.
Adam was the brainchild of writer Gardner Fox, working in tandem with editor Schwartz as was typical. And he was perhaps the most suitable character for the age. For, while Adam did carry a ray gun and occasionally used it, his stories revolved not around the use of superior force to overcome an enemy, but rather scientific knowledge and inventiveness. Adam Strange was the thinking man’s hero, and he’d triumph over the bizarre alien menaces that would routinely imperil far-off Rann (and his girlfriend Alanna) by being cleverer than the bad guys. It was a very Doctor Who approach, years before that series would even begin. Adam’s stories could be formulaic–typically, they opened with him having to “catch” the teleportational Zeta-Beam that would transport him to Rann in some outlandish location–but they were always gun and inventive. In these days as the super hero resurgence was only just starting to pick up steam, his series was a well-regarded shining gem.
A number of different artists worked on the earliest Adam Strange stories, in particular Mike Sekowsky and Gil Kane (who also did this issue’s cover–an excellent composition with some fine coloring. Adam’s red and white uniform stands out like a stop sign on the otherwise green cover.) But it was when Schwartz gave the assignment to Carmine Infantino that he finally hit paydirt. Infantino was the perfect artist for Adam Strange, his jet-age vistas were always expansive and sophisticated-looking, and his sense of page and panel design was immaculate. Especially when paired with inker Murphy Anderson (the story in this issue was inked by Bernie Sachs, who did a competent job, but no better) the end product was one of the slickest looking series in the DC line, and looks light years ahead of Superman and Batman in terms of being contemporary
While they would eventually grow in length, the earliest Adam Strange stories in MYSTERY IN SPACE occupied only nine or ten pages–the one in this issue was nine. But they packed a lot of adventure into a short space. In this one, having caught teh Zeta-Beam once more, Adam finds himself accused of stealing weapons from Ranagar, the capital city, and is exiled from Rann. He discovers that the true culprit is a race of subterranean stone men, who purloined the weapons in order to test them in advance of their own invasion of the surface world. Finding Adam too weak a foe to oppose him, they send him back to the surface to warn his fellows of what is to come. But Adam, as always, has a plan. He’s worked out that the underground beings are used to living in a hot climate, and so he uses Ammonium Nitrate pellets against them, which draws out the heat of their bodies and paralyzes them. His innocence proved and the day having been saved, Adam is teleported back to Earth in typical fashion before his accomplishment can be celebrated.
Next up in the book was another of Jack Schiff’s public service single page strips, this one illustrated by Bernard Baily. I love the provocative headline on this one! DC made it a point to include these strips in their titles for years, a bulwark against criticism of the medium by parents’ groups and the like.
While Adam Strange had commandeered the front pages of the magazine, the remainder of it soldiered on as it had been doing, with single one-off self-contained stories of a science fiction nature. This next one was written by Otto Binder and illustrated Sid Greene. Greene would go on to be largely an inker as the Silver Age got into full swing, but he started out as a penciler as well. His work had an appealing cartooniness to it–I can see why it wouldn’t be considered suitable for a super hero strip, but it always worked well for the kinds of quirky sci-fi tales that Schwartz would give him to illustrate. This one’s a pot-boiler about the simultaneous discovery of a titanic space ark at the edge of the solar system at the same time Earth is imperiled by cosmic doom. The two astronauts who discover the ark learn that they can mentally question three of its ten-million frozen inhabitants in the hope that the aliens may know of a solution. And they do! But the two astronauts need to select the correct solution out of teh three offered, as only one of the beings they questioned is a scientist and knows what he’s talking about. Of course, our boys are savvy enough to figure it out, and the Earth is saved.
Rather than a typical letters page, MYSTERY IN SPACE instead carried a faux “Wonders of Space” page in which the book’s “science editor” answered questions ostensibly put forward by the readership. As these questions weren’t signed and no method of sending in a query was posted, I’m assuming that this was all theater to dress up another science facts feature (as well as to satisfy the postal regulation that called for each comic book to have a certain amount of text-based material in order to qualify for second class subscription postage rates.) This stuff is pretty dry, but if anybody was likely to be interested in it, it’s the readers of MYSTERY IN SPACE.
The last story in this issue was also written by Otto Binder, who had a background as a science fiction writer as well as his long history writing for comics. It was wonderfully illustrated by Gil Kane, whose alien designs were often very memorable and particularly styled. It concerns the first manned flight to Titan, Saturn’s moon, where astronauts discover a thriving alien race. But when the Earthmen disclose their place of origin, they are disbelieved. You see, the Titanians have studied long-range data on Earth for years, and their greatest scientists have put together a picture of what an actual Earthman would look like. Not only that, but another ship lands on Titan, this one also claiming to be from Earth and containing aliens that precisely match the Titanians’ descriptions of what Earth people should look like.
The fake Earthlings claim that a massive Earth fleet is coming to attack Titan, thus embroiling the two worlds in a war. They are actually Titanians themselves, criminals who plan to use this conflict to enrich themselves. But fortunately, the real Earthmen have a way to prove who they are, and to save teh alien Titnaians at the same time. They strip the lead shielding from their spacecraft–lead being an element that is not found on Titan but which is plentiful on Earth–and use it to construct a gigantic shield against a radioactive danger threatening the city. And that’s really about it. The faux “Earthmen” are never captured or even seen again, and our heroic astronauts return to Earth, where a leading scientist confronts them with what he imagines an inhabitant of Titan looks like. Like many stories from this time, everything is told in a textbook fashion, without a lot of excitement to it, visual or otherwise. These stories were always well-crafted affairs, but you can see why the Flash or Green Lantern would instantly be of greater interest to the audience, even in the highly restrained forms they first appeared in.