Mystery in Space
edited by Dale Crain
Published by DC Comics
223 pages, 1999
Buy it online
Riding a Zeta-Beam
Reviewed by Claude Lalumière
Retro-kitsch hipster Mitch O'Connell provides the cover for Mystery in Space, a historical anthology of science fiction stories from the DC Comics archives. Over a lurid purple background, a sharp-toothed tentacled green alien (looking suspiciously like Kang from The Simpsons) is attacking a high-heeled go-go babe in a skin-tight spacesuit. Zipping out of his flying saucer, a man (recognizable as Captain Comet to the cognoscenti) in an equally skin-tight red uniform -- and sporting a noticeable bump at the crotch and rouged cheeks -- hurries to the rescue. It's a beautifully funny illustration and an ironic gateway to the prudish, desexualised stories that follow.
Oh sure, in the 40s and 50s there were science fiction comics filled with stories of leggy damsels-in-distress being threatened by bug-eyed monsters. Startling Comics, Superworld Comics, Strange Worlds, and the 73 issues of Planet Comics, for example, all enthusiastically peddled voluptuous females on their covers. Those titles, however, weren't published by DC Comics. The universe depicted in DC Comics' science fiction stories (and, in fact, in most of their comics of the 50s and 60s) was that of a thinking man -- emphasis on "man." Even the occasional female characters tended more towards the cerebral than the airheaded and were often as brave and resourceful as the males -- sometimes even more so, if a touch too subservient and love-struck.
An unusually shining example of a female character in this anthology is the gutsy and brainy space adventurer Karel Sorenson, one third of the informal group The Star Rovers (this book reprints, from 1961, one of their adventures, "What Happened on Sirius-4?"). At least as resourceful and intelligent as her two male cohorts, she never needed rescuing, nor did she fall gushingly into men's arms at every opportunity, nor was she treated by her teammates as anything less than an equal.
Most of the stories in Mystery in Space are reprinted from DC's two most famous science fiction anthology series, Mystery in Space and Strange Adventures. The first section, reprinting stories from the 40s series Real Fact Comics, is hardly representative of the bulk of DC's science fiction output and too many pages are devoted to these dry, pseudo-documentary tales. Two stories would have sufficed to give readers an idea of their tone and quality. The first of the six such stories reprinted here, "The Rocket Lanes of Tomorrow," is by the renowned team of Jack Kirby and Joe Simon (creators of such diverse concepts as Captain America, The Newsboy Legion and romance comics). Their talents for depicting dynamic human interaction were sadly wasted on the stiff, undramatic formula of Real Fact Comics, but the premise did give Kirby the opportunity to show off his skill at designing outré machinery.
The following 70 pages showcase the problem-solving stories with twist endings that filled up the pages of DC Comics' anthology titles in the 1950s, very reminiscent of the type of tale that would later show up on TV shows like The Outer Limits. On the whole, these stories offer the same white, patriarchal, prudish, clean-cut, homogenized distortion of America that dominated the mainstream media of the 50s. Despite the often world-threatening crises ("Spores from Space!" "The Comet Peril!" "The Counterfeit Earth!"), there's very little sense of emotional urgency in these stories, with two exceptions: Jack Kirby's exuberantly energetic "I Found the City Under the Sea," and "Girl in the Golden Flower" by Robert Starr and Alex Toth, a tale whose uncommon erotic romanticism (at odds with both the mock-sexist cover and the general sexless tone of the anthology) was pleasantly reminiscent of Theodore Sturgeon's short fiction. Because their styles didn't mesh well with DC's editorial preferences of the time, Kirby and Toth didn't find much work with the industry's then-leading publisher -- these two stories were wonderful surprises.
The longest section in the book is devoted to what DC has, since the introduction of Superman in 1938, always done best: series characters. These stories, culled from 1951 to 1965, are more diverse, more fun and campier than anything else in the volume. From the over-the-top space opera of The Knights of the Galaxy to the jaw-dropping nonsense of Ultra the Multi-Alien, there are universes of colorful concepts here: the low comedy of Space Cabby and Star Hawkins, the stoic heroism of Captain Comet, the deadpan melodrama of The Atomic Knights... I wish this section had been much longer. It's the only section in the book that left me wanting more.
The most fondly remembered of these series characters is Adam Strange, and with good reason. The story here -- "The Weapon That Swallowed Men!" -- by the classic team of Gardner Fox, Carmine Infantino and Murphy Anderson, perfectly captures the essence of this strip. Adam is a Terran who was once accidentally struck by a zeta-beam that instantly transported him to the faraway planet Rann. There he saved the world and fell in love with the courageous and beautiful Alanna, who just as quickly reciprocated his affections. However, once the zeta radiation wore off, he was transported back to Earth. After this, he spent his life hunting down zeta-beams to be reunited with his true love. Of course, on every trip he also happened to save Rann from some new menace. Alanna was always fighting right by Adam's side and he accepted her not only as lover but also as a partner in his adventures. Although never explicitly shown, Adam and Alanna obviously had an active sex life and their love and complicity, as well as their constant frustrations over Adam's short zeta-irradiated visits, were what fueled the series. Adam Strange was a sort of sexually mature (as opposed to adolescently horny), intellectual, tragic version of Edgar Rice Burroughs's John Carter of Mars. By today's standards, the Adam Strange series is too gimmicky and heavy on exposition, but it was beautifully drawn and the bond between Adam and Alanna was ahead of its time. Perhaps one day DC will reprint the entire series and thus preserve the best of their classic science fiction characters.
Mystery in Space skips from 1965 to 1980; in the intervening years DC didn't publish much science fiction outside of the superhero genre. The seven stories reprinted from the short-lived 1980-81 attempt by DC to revive science fiction comics are again too much. Two selections would have been more than enough to represent this short period. These stories are bland and predictable and totally lacking in any nostalgic or artistic interest. Further, they are socially irrelevant to their period and totally lacking in the irony that would have made the cliché material palatable (aliens mistake farm animals for the dominant species, the world is saved because there is still one good man -- that there might have been a good woman was apparently unimportant -- left on Earth, etc.). This last section reads like a jumble of hastily produced filler material.
The odd balance of the stories in Mystery in Space gives an inaccurate impression of the place of science fiction throughout DC's history and also does not offer the reader the best possible selection of stories. Although there are a few rare gems and several fun stories in this book, perhaps it would have been wiser to narrow the focus a bit in order to give the anthology a more coherent identity. It is interesting to note, however, that both of this book's brushes with sexuality -- the lush romanticism of "Girl in the Golden Flower" and the egalitarian relationship of Adam Strange and Alanna -- are far from the cliché lampooned on the cover. | January 2000
Claude Lalumière -- a freelance writer, editor and translator -- is the founder and former owner of Montreal's Nebula Bookshop. His book reviews, essays, and articles can be found on his Web site.