Sunday, September 25, 2011

The Definitives: The Silver Surfer

The Silver Surfer occupies an interesting place in the broad spectrum of classic characters created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby during their landmark run on Fantastic Four. Like the Inhumans, he’s an exotic character who makes for an impactful guest star. However, like The Black Panther, he’s also a figure with depth and an intriguing background who can sustain his own mythology to a degree. It’s tempting to write him off as somebody who works better weaving in and out of series starring other folks and existing on the fringe of the Marvel Universe—and he’s not in lousy company in this regard when it comes to many of the Lee/Kirby inventions from said FF stint—but he’s got quite a few quality stories centered around him as the protagonist.

I met the Surfer during his 90’s solo series, so for me, he was a cosmic hero first and foremost and I wouldn’t learn about his earthbound years or even the sacrificial first appearance that defined him until much later. It speaks to his versatility that he can succeed in either environment; however, it’s also perhaps a commentary on his limitations that he gets shuffled back and forth between Earth and space, between opposing Galactus and serving him, as he gets into a rut if his dynamic doesn’t get changed up every now and again.

At his best, the Surfer is a hero, an enigma, a warrior, a philosopher, a savior, a harbinger of doom and more. Here are some stories that showcase his various sides.

The Galactus Trilogy (FANTASTIC FOUR v1 #48-50)
Few characters whose first appearance is not also their origin are so vitally linked to that story as The Silver Surfer. The Galactus Trilogy is a classic for many reasons, but setting up the Surfer as a different kind of Marvel hero with a compelling mystique about him is one of the chief among those. He makes his debut as a menacing alien heavy that embodies the idea of “the other” and ends the story as a hugely sympathetic underdog we wish we could be more like. The Surfer’s discovery of humanity, his empathy, and his transformation underscore the big action and amazing art, tying a “when we’re at our best, we’re worth saving” moral to the story.

Not to cross brands here, but the Surfer’s initial 18-issue series from the 70’s, written by Stan Lee and illustrated largely by John Buscema, really is the character’s most essential tales. Out the gate, we get the origin of our hero, how Norrin Radd became The Silver Surfer, sacrificing love and a big chunk of his own morality in order to serve the greater good; that the character went years with this motivation for his actions in his first appearance as a question mark is pretty wild. That opening salvo is followed up by an exploration of both the Surfer’s exile on Earth as well as his past on Zenn-La, including the introduction of Shalla Bal to create one of Marvel’s most unsung (literally) star-crossed romances. You also get the genesis of Mephisto, that legendary first Surfer-Thor brawl with stellar Buscema art, and other classic stuff. Sometimes Lee hits the angle of the Surfer not understanding humanity’s violent ways a little too hard and too often, but when it scores it scores big.

SILVER SURFER v2 by Steve Englehart
The Surfer series that ran through the late 80’s and into the 90’s had him off of Earth and back soaring through the spaceways. I started reading regularly during Ron Marz’s tenure as writer, which had some cool stuff, and I just missed a Jim Starlin run I’ve always wanted to get around to, but the stuff that sticks with me is Steve Englehart’s work at the start. I definitely recall distinctly the period where the Surfer was entering into an awkward romance with Nova (the chick, not the real one), trying to quell intergalactic wars between the Kree and Skrulls, and dressing up as a pirate to go undercover among a crew of lizard people. It was weird, it was wild and it was ambitious—it was everything stories about a shiny demigod riding through space on a surfboard needed to be and presented a nice counterpoint to the claustrophobic 70’s stories where the Surfer couldn’t venture outside his earthly prison. Slick art from the late Marshall Rogers didn’t hurt either.

I’ve got a whole entry on this underrated beauty.

“On the Last Day” (NOVA v4 #13-15)
During the first Annihilation, Keith Giffen made the bold move to put the Surfer back as Galactus’ herald for the first time since his introduction (I think, please correct me if I’m wrong) and this was, to my opinion, the story that best played off that change in status quo. The premise is pretty simple: The Surfer leads Galactus to an inhabited planet and warns the folks living there to evacuate, Nova wants to save said planet from being eaten, Nova and the Surfer fight. There’s another plot about a body-possessing serial killer, but for me that good stuff is writers Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning digging into the psyche of the Surfer when he is not turning on Galactus to save the little people. They do a nice job showing the nuances of the character in part not caring because his value system has again been dulled, but also retaining a shred of that compassion and wavering the slightest bit in his duty. The Nova vs Surfer battle is great as the kind of underdog story I dig—Nova is nowhere near Surfer’s league—and because Wellinton Alves does wonderful work depicting it, but the moral debate and contemplation over the greatest good is the meaty stuff, really showing how complex The Silver Surfer is.

Fantastic Four: The Animated Series
The FF side of the Marvel Action Hour from the mid-90’s had very little going for it aside from a hilarious theme song and Brian Austin Green rapping as The Human Torch, but a pretty spot-on adaptation of the Galactus Trilogy is one of the series’ few treats. The animation is not pretty, but the folks responsible for the show do a very nice job with the story, and this was in fact the first place I experienced it in any fashion, so that’s certainly something worth noting.