DC's Best Comic Right Now Is Not So Quietly About the Horror of the Iraq War

Strange Adventures is about a broken man making a terrible mistake.
September 3, 2020, 1:00pm
Adam Strange and Alanna Strange with the Washington monument in the distance.
Image: Mitch Gerards, DC

In Strange Adventures, Adam Strange is a desperate man. In issue after issue, he pleads with the heroes of Earth to join him in war in a far off land. One after another, they decline, and as they decline, he gets angrier and angrier, until he's rendered as a madman with spittle flying from his mouth. We, the readers, know his testimony is based on lies. But Strange sees his cause as so just that he has deluded even himself into believing it is the truth.

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To understand Strange Adventures, the new comic from writer Tom King, it's important to know one fundamental fact about its author: Tom King used to be a CIA operative. Specifically, he was a CIA operative in Iraq and Afghanistan. It's not something King hides, to the point that the shadow of Iraq and Afghanistan looms in his work. King's most literal work, for example, The Sheriff of Babylon, was originally titled The Sheriff of Baghdad, and is about his experiences in Iraq, where King was a sheriff. 

The Iraq War is a feature in King's work in the same way that World War I is a constant feature in Hemingway's literature—or Orwell during the Spanish Civil War. It's the key that unlocks everything about their writing. This has never been more true than in Strange Adventures, a book about a broken man making a terrible mistake.

The analogy is so obvious that you can see it from a mile away. The human Adam Strange has been fighting a war in Rann, a far off, desert land. He's seduced by bad intelligence and a highly curated view of its history, and convinced that the Rannians can overtake the apparently backwater Pykkts, who are invading the planet, with sheer military might. On Earth, Adam Strange is a best-selling memoirist, a war hero, and trying to convince the big guns—you know, Superman, Batman, Green Lantern—that they need to support him in Rann. Batman wants to say yes, but he thinks that the Justice League should vet the guy. Given that he and Strange are friends, Batman elects Mr. Terrific to lead the investigation.

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Mr. Terrific immediately identifies a lie that's fundamental to Strange's story of heroism as well as his narrative of why it's necessary to go to war on Rann. It doesn't matter to the public, though: Mr. Terrific is a black man, smarter than Batman but not as popular, his skin rendered in a deep black that stands out conspicuously against his white peers. The mere thought of this person investigating a war hero sends the public into a frenzy.

I was twelve when my parents took me to my first protest against the Iraq War. My memories of it are hazy; mostly, I remember wondering when we would stop marching, and if I would be able to catch System of a Down, who I had heard were filming a music video there. It was this one, by the way:

The war in Iraq has lasted most of my life. We're still there, backing a government that's been battling insurgents ever since we destabilized the country. It's undeniable that Saddam Hussein was a dictator and a despot; there are mass graves of Iraqi Kurds who were murdered by his regime. The U.S.-led coalition never found the weapons of mass destruction which was supposedly its reason for invading, but 17 years later, thousands upon thousands of people are dead as a result.  

Strange Adventures comes at a curious time, when George W. Bush, the man responsible for these avoidable deaths, is being rehabilitated by liberals with short memories, with some like Michelle Obama literally embracing him in public, as if he was just a lovable old man.

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Strange Adventures manages a feat of alchemy by untangling the fear and paranoia that drove the country at that time by portraying it as the mirror of America's current object of fear and paranoia: black people.

Mr. Terrific's blackness is undeniable in this comic, and it's part of what makes him the star, even above Strange. Strange is a tragic Shakespearean hero; Terrific, who gives himself history pop quizzes while doing pull ups before pulling on his jacket with "fair play" emblazoned on the arms and painting a T on his face, is the force of nature that is coming to tear down all his illusions. For daring to investigate someone's claims, Mr. Terrific becomes a pariah, his otherness highlighted by his skin tone and his all black costume. Strange's wife, Alanna, a leader of the people of Rann, stokes America's lust for war by feeding it xenophobia; not just the fear of the Pykkts, who she describes as brutal and unthinking, but it's fear of the other that resides on our own planet.

People regard Terrific with, at best, suspicion as he investigates Adam Strange's background and actions during the war on Rann. It's a skepticism that feels familiar to me, having been black in America my whole life. During the war, my family was not swept up in the jingoism that overtook a large part of the nation. My mom got a letter saying that under the Patriot Act, her syllabus of post-colonial literature could be subject to review by the government. As I got interested in the sixties and the civil rights movement, my mom also warned me that the government could also monitor my library records, and some of the books I wanted to check out had been deemed dangerous. Harboring any thought outside of "America good" felt dangerous at the time. The Chicks, formerly called the Dixie Chicks, spent years recovering from their decision to criticize George W. Bush in 2003.

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Being treated as the other can give you a clear perspective. In Strange Adventures, Terrific relishes in other people's hatred of him. When he's almost murdered by space-police in his bed, Terrific reacts like he's been awoken by an unruly pet or scared kid instead of dozens of aliens with guns. He serves a higher power, and it's written on his jacket: fair play. An even handed analysis of facts. The truth.

Mr. Terrific giving side eye.

What makes Terrific feel black isn't just the way artist Mitch Gerard illustrates his negro nostrils or his kinky hair, but a certain unfuckwitable-ness that the character carries into each frame. He calls out bullshit when he sees it. He is uncompromising. In one issue, a character slaps him, and so Terrific slaps him back. "What the fuck you think 'fair play' means?" he says. King and Gerards both lent words of support to a black cosplayer who updated Mr. Terrific's costume to include a black power fist painted on his face instead of a T, weaving together the threads King is sewing into his series. The Black Lives Matter movement terrifies conservatives in part because it's asking them to reckon with the violent, racist past, and to acknowledge a violent, racist present. Terrific, and the movement as well, do not have time for comforting stories that dependent upon a murderous lie.

Americans are very good at ignoring problems, so much so that when those problems are pointed out, they tend to shoot the messenger. According to Gallup, the American public thought that civil rights protests were harming the cause in the 60s. When Colin Kaepernick kneeled for the national anthem in protest against police violence, he ended up getting iced out of the NFL. Despite a wave of protests against police brutality that have gone on all summer, President Trump and his conservative base have characterized them as riots, where outside agitators are flocking to cities in order to incite chaos. He called the movement, "bad for black people" in an interview with Laura Ingraham on Fox News over the weekend.

In Strange Adventures, Terrific becomes a stand in for all those movements, taking the brunt of the public's ire in pursuit of the truth. He reminds me of the platonic ideal of a journalist, like Ida B. Wells reporting on lynchings despite the threat against her own life. "The people must know before they can act, and there is no greater educator than the press," Wells wrote in an 1892 pamphlet about the reality of lynchings in the south.

If Strange Adventures is about anything, it's about asking us all how many murderous lies undergird our own society. Adam Strange, jabbing his finger accusatorially at the superheroes who won't join his crusade, is our mirror image, clinging to a fiction to justify the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people.