(The following essay was originally presented at the Fourth Annual New Narrative Conference at the University of Toronto on May 6, 2011.  See a list of presenters and abstracts from the conference here and visit Jon Adams online here – TH.)

The first time we meet a superhero in Jon Adams’ Truth Serum, he’s brushing off a friend who wants to fight crime, or just “get some lunch or something” and who doesn’t even realize he’s being rejected.  The first time we meet a villain, he’s inviting one of his son’s friends over for a sandwich – but then hands him an empty plate;  there’s not enough cheese to make another sandwich.  These two scenes introduce two of the major themes of the strip’s cynically humorous world – the similarities between heroes and villains and the mundane, even boring, nature of their daily lives.  

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Jon Adams, Truth Serum (2000).

Truth Serum is a bleak comedy with a distinctive art style through which Adams provides commentary on the original superhero comics stories that influenced him.  He draws our attention to the conventions of the superhero genre not by imitating them, but by turning them upside down.  Where earlier superhero stories were forcefully drawn and intensely colored, Adams sketches his world in black and white.  Where his mythic ancestors were active and effective, he gives us characters who are passive and bumbling.  For the heroism of Spider-Man or Superman, he substitutes petty vengefulness, casual cruelty, and arbitrary intervention.  Most importantly, Adams comments sardonically, and sometimes sorrowfully, on the childish, naive nature of the moral simplicity and absolutism inherent in all superhero narratives.  His world is black and white, but his morality is far more complex.  In this paper, I will explore in detail how Adams’ particular drawing and writing styles dramatize his commentary.  

The art of Truth Serum is deliberately non-dynamic.  Characters are frequently depicted looking anxious and lifeless, as most action takes place in small panels of static conversation.  Unlike the vibrant colors and action lines of traditional superhero stories, Truth Serum unfolds in repetitive, uncomfortable close-ups of dilapidated, dingy suburban scenes.  While superheroes are invariably incredible physical specimens depicted in active, propulsive poses while performing astonishing feats, Jon Adams’ balding, overweight and ill-at-ease costumed characters appear noticeably earthbound as they plod through daily routines, looking as though their best years are long behind them.  By making his narratives conspicuously mundane, and by depicting his characters in harsh, realistic blacks and whites, he critiques traditional comics as simplistic escapist fantasies.  In the process of stripping the stories that influenced him of their excitement and drama, he crafts a narrative that is less about super-people and more about people who just happen to wear costumes.  Throughout Truth Serum, stock comic story elements are inverted to leave readers questioning the merit of the original comics and the effectiveness of the heroes who inhabit them.  

In the 1960s, superhero storywriters began to infuse their comics with new levels of realism.  Commentators cite Marvel as the publisher that originated this trend by making protagonists younger (and thus more similar to their readers) and settings more realistic.  Similarly, DC Comics tried to insert real world issues into its series, perhaps most memorably when Green Arrow’s sidekick Speedy became a drug addict.  Christopher Sorrentino explains the phenomenon: “Marvel heroes became Other . . . everyone knew that they were marked by an exotic ethnicity . . . Marvel’s “relevancy” was encoded in the implicit idea that any bunch of young people who looked different, who acted out the way Marvel’s heroes did, would be regarded as freaks by all the straights” (67).  In the 1980s, DC developed this trend to what seemed its logical conclusion with the publication of Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns, two genre classics whose influence resonates even today.  Watchmen deconstructed superhero tropes by framing them in a twisted reflection of the Cold War ’80s, with nuclear escalation anxiety supplanted by a fear of superheroes either too physically powerful or too mentally damaged to function in everyday society.  Dark Knight used MTV-influenced imagery to bombard readers with the story of an elderly Batman coming out of retirement in a violent and unfamiliar world.  Both stories were written with the explicit goal of deconstructing the cliches of the superhero genre. Truth Serum continues that tradition.  But while both of those stories broke new ground in comics narrative with dynamic art and writing, Adams reduces his characters by making them ordinary and, ultimately, unappealing.  

While Truth Serum is a contemporary story that draws from several current pop culture sources, its origins lie in earlier comics.  Jon Adams explains, “The Spider-Man of my youth read as such a real person with actual problems. One of my favorite scenes is in an issue of The Amazing Spider-Man [#258] where he’s had the alien symbiote . . . removed from him by Reed Richards. Without the costume, he is naked, so they give him an old Fantastic Four costume to wear home. It’s loose fitting and he has no shoes. The FF don’t wear masks, so Spider-Man wears a paper bag on his head. And the Human Torch puts a ‘kick me’ sign on Spider-Man’s back. The humor and realism of this scene stood in such sharp contrast to the idea of an alien costume.”

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Ron Frenz and Tom DeFalco, Amazing Spider-Man #258 (November 1984).

Adams amplifies the contrast by depicting his superhero characters, allegedly extraordinary beings, in bland and simple settings.  He describes the story as “a mixture of my experiences growing up in suburbia and my love for superheroes as a kid.”  Unlike more mainstream superhero cosmic battles or struggles of good versus evil, Truth Serum is a composite of vignettes based on small-scale worries and petty power struggles around  suburban Manchester, Connecticut.  The sinister Mr. Lipp is flabbergasted when his friend Bea brings an alleged superhero, Don Sequitur, to his supervillain party, and Don passes out on the couch.  Adams’ Superman analogue, Captain Force, is embarrassed when kids make fun of him for buying an Ace of Base CD, so he retaliates – passively – by ignoring a truck careening toward them.  Heroes and villains talk about fighting but rarely do it, suggesting their differences are more cliquish than ideological.    

Captain Force’s struggles for respect form a narrative arc that culminates in his  leaving Manchester for New York, “where all the big time costumes are.  Guys like Spider-Man, that blind lawyer guy, and Speedball” (67).  However, Speedball is considered a joke character in Marvel’s pantheon and, despite his admiration for “that blind lawyer” (the superhero Daredevil), Captain Force can’t remember his name.  He also claims he’s moving to be closer to a new girlfriend, Kryptonia, but her name suggests that this effort is doomed to fail –  and it does, as Captain Force returns to Manchester with a bindle.  While typical superhero stories show ordinary citizens rejoicing at the hero’s return, Captain Force is greeted only by an overweight man in a running jacket.  

One of the few important non-superheroes in the series is Lester Boy, a struggling comic book artist trying to make ends meet when his publishers, Marvelous! Comics, go bankrupt.  Adams explains that this is “one of the most autobiographical elements in Truth Serum. It’s a sadly real depiction of a company I worked for when I was 17 called Dark Moon Productions. It was a good experience for my youth, but they did a lot of things wrong, including closing up shop overnight, still owing me (and others) a lot of money and taking a lot of my artwork.”  Lester’s attitude toward the publisher, who seems unaware of how their motto, “Where imagination ends, we begin,” could be interpreted, hints at Adams’ frustrations with the comics industry.  One of the few press photos of Adams shows hims posing like Lester.  Altogether, Lester’s story is a deliberately unsatisfying coming-of-age tale, as he loses his creative, but unsatisfying job, and the woman he secretly loves moves away to live with a drunk has-been superhero.

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Jon Adams (c.) and Lester Boy(s).

Captain Force and Lester Boy have one of the defining relationships in the series: Captain Force is Lester’s father, but refuses to assume responsibility for him, tries to shirk his alimony payments and denies his paternity, because, he explains, “I’ve been with a lot of ladies.  And maybe I have some kids out there somewhere.  But I always pulled out with your mom” (68).  Captain Force’s refusal to acknowledge his son mocks archetypal superhero origin myths of a lost magical heritage, consigning Les to a distinctly unheroic suburban existence.  Adams uses Captain Force and Lester’s few scenes together to parody the typical comic orphan: While Superman is famous as the last survivor of the planet Krypton, jettisoned to Earth as a baby, and Spider-Man is adopted by his uncle and aunt, Captain Force has no interest at all in taking care of his progeny.   

Similarly, unlike the spectacular, colorful fist-fights of typical comics narratives, most of Truth Serum‘s conflicts are downplayed to an extreme degree.  Even when fantastical events happen, they unfold undramatically.  When Captain Force is confronted on a rooftop by his evil twin, Ecrofni Atpac (obviously just Captain Force spelled backwards), he’s skeptical, and warns, “Just tell me what you want, ’cause I’m missing Baywatch for this.”  When the evil twin swears he’s going to kill Captain Force, the hero refuses to try to stop him, saying, “Why prolong the inevitable?”  Ultimately, Ecrofni Atpac slips on a banana peel and falls to his death, trivializing a classic confrontation between good and evil with a random pratfall as its outcome.  Adams stages the scene through several small panels of the enemies’ overlapping conversation, substituting desultory chit-chat for an epic battle.  Even the climax is uneventful, as the villain launches into a “don’t think you’ve seen the last of ME!” monologue before realizing Captain Force is already walking away from him.  

While the first Truth Serum series critiqued comics, Adams used a second storyline to expand his scope, extending the moral implications of Truth Serum to a commentary on current events.  Originally serialized online by Dark Horse Comics in 2007, “The Lonely Parade” is an explicitly satirical work which draws direct comparisons between an inept team of superheroes known as the Manchester Justice Squadron, and George W. Bush’s presidency.  After an anonymous attack on the team’s offices occurs, superheroes Ameriman and Orifist begin a slowly escalating anti-terrorism campaign that causes catastrophic damage to Manchester and their reputations there,  yet no one has the courage to confront them.  They become convinced that the initial attack was the scheme of a criminal called Deathpain, but, when they cannot find him, attack the suburban home of an unrelated criminal mastermind.  The political critique becomes more pointed as the story concentrates on the heroes’ ineptitude and rationalizations for their mistakes.  While Ameriman serves as the story’s Bush analogue, Orifist, a political Svengali, stands in for Vice President Dick Cheney.  Specific events in the story are meant to have explicit real- world parallels, but are even more audacious.  While Cheney shot a friend during a hunting trip, Orifist hits a child with her car.  She explains, “She’s an eight-year-old orphan I mentor once a week.  I was teaching her how to drive when she accidentally fell out of the car, and I drove over her . . . I backed up . . . and kind of miscalculated where she was” (83).  As a fictionalized stand-in for New Orleans, inundated due to the failure of the federal levees, a Manchester apartment complex is flooded when a nearby pond overflows and Ameriman sends his janitor to clean it up.  The story ends with a team member asking Ameriman for financial aid and being denied, at which point a boy asks, “Hi, Mr. America.  Are you coming over to save us?” (98).  In an epilogue, a reflective Ameriman asks Orifist, as they sit on a park bench, “Do you ever get the feeling we’ve really fucked things up?  . . . people are dead because of me . . . Lives have been ruined.  And it seems like every time I turn around, something unspeakably horrible has happened.  And it’s my fault . . . I wonder how it is that nobody has stopped us.”  Orifist puts the situation in perspective when she explains, “Well.  We’re the Manchester Justice Squadron.  Who is there to stop us?”  The last page of the series shows a silent Ameriman smiling in quiet contemplation as he realizes that, as awful as his actions have been, he has gotten away with them.  In Truth Serum‘s world, not only does evil go unpunished, it frequently triumphs over good.  By equating his so-called superheroes with real-world figures and depicting his characters as misguided and inept,  Adams comments on the irrelevance of the  superhero to the problems of the real world.

The political commentary of “The Lonely Parade” stands in striking contrast to similar stories in comics.  While it is certainly not the only comic of the early 21st century to discuss American politics, it is among the least ambiguous in its indictments.  Contrast the series with Marvel’s Civil War, perhaps the best-known superhero story that is also a contemporary political metaphor.  Originally published in 2006, Civil War was a multi-title crossover which, like The Lonely Parade,  had superheroes and villains stand in for modern American political figures.  The story unfolds with characters forging new alliances and battling either in support of, or against, increased Government regulation of superhero activity.  Civil War writer Mark Millar described the story by saying, “The political allegory is only for those that are politically aware.  Kids are going to read it and just see a big superhero fight.”

In contrast, Adams says, “I didn’t want there to be an identifiable villain because really, the villains in the The Lonely Parade are the members of the Manchester Justice Squadron.”  While most superhero stories must follow genre conventions first and serve as commentaries second, Adams explains, “I wrote The Lonely Parade because it seemed like the only way I could directly speak out about the politics of the time.  I wanted to say something and comics are how I speak.”  Contrast the unseen deaths in The Lonely Parade with one of the most publicized repercussions of Civil War, the death of Captain America, in March, 2007.  When asked about it, Marvel President Dan Buckley commented to the New York Times, “He’s very dead right now.”  Sure enough, the character was brought back to life (following a plot including brain-washing, time travel and a battle with a giant robot Nazi), but the casualties of Lonely Parade were not.  While early superheroes represented idealized, benevolent archetypes,  evolving in the ’60s to characters which bridged the ideal and the real,  Adams finishes the job, dismantling any lingering illusions readers may still harbor by making his superheroes at best inconsequential, and, at worst, reprehensible.  

Adams has said of his bleak worldview, “I’m not sure if I believe in evil.”  While the comics that led him to create Truth Serum require a world that is defined in starkly unambiguous moral terms, Adams’ characters are neither heroes nor villains but challenge the underlying assumptions of the superhero genre.  Instead of a world in which good and evil are clearly discernible and the path of justice  is irresistibly defined., Adams offers a far less comforting, but far more credible story:  Morality is rarely black and white; good people do bad things; bad people do good things.  Indeed, Adams seems to say, events unfold in random ways, casually determined by context, mood, impulse.  People are seldom good or bad, and in fact are often not even entertaining moral considerations, but are going about their daily lives.  This is the “truth serum” of his title.

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Jon Adams, Truth Serum: The Lonely Parade (2001).

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