Friday, 22 February 2013

Essential Silver Surfer volume 1

Essential Silver Surfer volume 1 contains the Silver Surfer stories from all eighteen issues of the Surfer's original series and, as a bonus, a solo Surfer story from Fantastic Four Annual #5 which was a forerunner to the series. However the volume doesn't contain the Watcher back-up stories from the first seven issues. Everything is written by Stan Lee. The first seventeen issues are drawn by John Buscema, with both the final one and the Annual story being drawn by Jack Kirby.

(I'll say it upfront that the absence of the Watcher stories doesn't seem to detract. As far as I can tell they were all science-fiction stories, including possibly some reprints, from inventory with the Watcher just added as a narrator.)

1968 was a big year for Marvel. For the previous decade the company had been restrained due to the collapse of its distributor, forcing them into a deal with Independent News, owned by DC Comics, that limited the number of titles the company could publish each month to eight (and further limited the number they could do in each genre - for example they could only do one Western book a month). Some imaginative work was done to work around this such as bimonthly books and a look at the total Marvel input in the 1960s suggests they either managed to increase their allowance or else they were breaking the terms and getting away with it. But it also acted as a restraint on titles and one result was that many heroes had to share anthology titles - for instance Iron Man with Captain America in Tales of Suspense, the Human Torch and later Nick Fury Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. with Doctor Strange in Strange Tales, or Ant-Man/Giant Man and later Namor the Sub-Mariner with the Incredible Hulk in Tales to Astonish. Then in 1968 Marvel managed to renegotiate its distribution agreement with Independent News to remove the title limits, and the following year it switched to a different distributor altogether. This change meant that Marvel could now increase the number of titles on the stands and give many more heroes their own series. As well as splitting each of the anthology books into separate titles headlined by the heroes, a few other series were launched from scratch. One of them was the Silver Surfer.

When I first started collecting comics, the second Silver Surfer series (volume 3 - don't ask) was one of the first series I collected solidly. Back then the Surfer's earlier series seemed a truly far off distant thing and I doubted I would ever get to read it all. But after some years I was given this Essential volume as a birthday present by my sister (Thanks dearest sibling) and it opened up a very different take on the character and his universal outlook. Whereas his later series was a cosmic action piece, this one was literally more rooted to Earth and highly philosophical.

Part of the problem is that the early issues were literally very different from their fellows. Whereas most of the other Marvel titles were at this stage 36 pages long (including covers, adverts and in-house pieces), the initial seven issues were 72 pages. The stories had twice as many pages but not twice as much story - instead more space was given over to showing off the artwork (and Buscema's artwork throughout the run is quite good) and to developing the characters and building up the situation. This is seen most obvious in issue #8 which (as confirmed by a caption at the end) was written and drawn to be the first half of a double-sized issue but wound up being cut in half when the book switched to a regular sized monthly. The Silver Surfer is barely in the 20 page issue, apart from a couple of pages where Mephisto makes a minor attack on him and a three page sequence with no relationship to the rest of the issue and which feels like it was added in precisely because of this. Otherwise, the issue is taken up with setting the scene and introducing or reintroducing the villains for the main battle in the following issue. It was decompression in a single issue, long before the word had been coined. Ironically issues #2 & #3 show signs of the reverse process as both have a second chapter beginning midway through - handy for cutting up the story for later reprints but a sign, perhaps, that originally the series was intended to be regular length with two-issue stories? This would also mean issue #1 would have been double length as a special event, one of the earliest such examples of that practice. But instead the first seven issues followed this format, coming out bimonthly at a double sized price but clearly the market couldn't sustain the format, hence the retreat to a regular sized monthly from issue #8 onwards.

But it's not just the high price or the slower stories or the excess attention to the artwork that was a problem. Fundamentally, the Silver Surfer's character just didn't work in this scenario. He spends an awful lot of the series moaning about one thing or another, but mainly about being trapped on Earth with the humans (in his fist appearance in Fantastic Four he betrayed his master Galactus to save the Earth and was confined to it as a punishment). Yes a lot of people in real life spend rather more time than they realise moaning about one thing or another, and rarely notice how much it gets on other people's nerves, but it's not an attractive character trait. It's also unclear why the Surfer doesn't try to do much to resolve his situation, when surely the most logical solution would be to approach the Fantastic Four and as for their help either in penetrating the barrier or at least in getting a better relationship with the human authorities and media so that he doesn't spend so much time retreating from hostile humans at whatever level.

The first issue carries the Surfer's origin, something that had been ignored in his previous appearances in Fantastic Four. The story is now so well known but it must have been a real surprise at the time as readers learnt of how the Surfer was Norrin Radd, a man dissatisfied with the ease of life in the utopia of Zenn-La and who craved adventure. Then when Galactus came to consume the world, Radd made a deal to become Galactus's herald in exchange for Zenn-La being spared, finding new worlds for Galactus in time to prevent lives being lost. Radd gave up his world and his woman Shalla-Bal, for all this. It's the stuff of legends but several questions arise. There's no real indication of just how long ago all this was and the impression given in the first issue is that the Surfer has served Galactus for many years if not centuries. However, from the second issue onwards we see that Shalla-Bal is still alive, hasn't aged at all and is still pining for him. It's also unclear if the Surfer had led Galactus to any other inhabited worlds in their time together before reaching Earth. Although not covered in this retelling, the original story saw the Surfer's compassion awakened by his encounter with the humans so might there be other worlds whose inhabitants were not so fortunate? As punishment for his betraying his master, the Surfer has been imprisoned on the second world he saved, but why didn't Galactus nullify the rest of the agreement and take action against the first? Every time we see Zenn-La in this series, all the signs are that it has rebuilt after Galactus's original visit and life is the same as ever. (Later on, writers would address many of the points raised but not at this stage.)

The hierarchy of power in the Marvel Universe hadn't been worked out at this stage and so it was less surprising then than now to see various beings with the power to either open Galactus's barrier or bypass it. Loki is able to get the Surfer to Asgard in one issue whilst in another Mephisto is able to open it completely. The Surfer also tries other methods to escape. In issue #5, he teams up with physicist Al Harper to develop a device to disguise his molecular field. However, the escape attempt is abandoned when the Stranger comes to wipe out life on Earth and Harper gives his life to destroy the Stranger's bomb. But it's not explicitly stated at this point (and indeed wouldn't be until issue #1 of volume 3 in 1987) that the device hadn't been refined by Harper, and so readers are left wondering why the Surfer wasn't able to escape from Earth then. Issue #6 is worse as the Surfer experiments with time travel (by flying faster than the speed of light) and discovers that in the future the barrier is no longer present. But after defeating the menace in the future (by the all too easy get-out in time travel stories - travel back in time and nip the disaster in the bud; in this case stopping the accident that led to the Overlord's mutated birth) there is absolutely no explanation whatsoever as to why the Surfer simply doesn't return to the present away from Earth.

The series puts the Surfer through a variety of situations, with a variety of existing Marvel characters popping up, most notably from issue #14 onwards when there's a guest star every month - first Spider-Man, then the Human Torch, then for two months Nick Fury & S.H.I.E.L.D., and then finally the Inhumans. Issue #4 also features a clash with Thor (which was Sal Buscema's first published comics work when he inked his brother's pencils) that also contains the Warriors Three, Sif and other Asgardians. Several familiar Marvel villains pop up such as Loki, the Stranger, the Abomination and Maximus, whilst the Fantastic Four annual story sees the Surfer battle Quasimodo, a being created by the Mad Thinker. But there are also a number of new villains introduced. There are the Badoon, yet another alien race invading Earth, the Ghost of the Flying Dutchman and the Doomsday Man, an indestructible robot created by the US Army that has got out of control. And one other but I'll discuss him in a moment. Amongst those who haven't returned are the Overlord, the mutant warlord ruler of the future universe, Baron Ludwig von Frankenstein, a descendent of the scientist from literature, Yarro Gort, a rival for the hand of Shalla-Bal, the General, the unnamed military dictator of a Latin American country (oh how original!) invading its neighbour and Warlock Prime, a British aristocrat who heads a coven. Notably some stories don't have any villain at all but rather basic misunderstandings, particularly the encounters with Spider-Man and the Human Torch.

But by far the most regular and famous of the Surfer's foes introduced here is Mephisto. I am amazed that Marvel would be so bold as to introduce a foe that is all but named as the Devil. Yes I know that later on Marvel backtracked on that with several other characters who could also have fitted that role and eventually established them as being not the actual Devil, but at this stage there is no such evasion and he's acknowledging other names such as Beelzebub and Lucifer. Mephisto appears in five of the eighteen issues which may seem excessive at first, but considering two of those issues were originally going to be a single double-sized one then it doesn't seem so bad. On all three occasions he is trying to secure the Surfer's soul through various methods, including twice bringing Shalla-Bal to Earth whilst his other attempt involves taking another lost soul and turning it into a powerful agent to force the Surfer's hand. The problem is there isn't a great deal of diversity in the foe's methods and nor is he at this stage seen undertaking other schemes that could broaden him out. So we get a foe to spark and terrify the imagination on the first encounter but beyond that he's doesn't seem to be terribly durable as a regular menace.

There's another potential menace in the offing when the series ends on a cliffhanger (although due to the placing in the volume, in at least the original edition, it's followed here by the Fantastic Four annual story) with the Surfer tired of all the hatred he has faced and the failure of his attempts at reason, and so he angrily declares that he won't hold back any more but instead:
"Let mankind beware! From this time forth -- the Surfer will be the deadliest one of all!"
It's a powerful moment but an unfortunate point on which to end the series. And for nearly thirty years it was never resolved - when the Surfer next appeared in the try-out issues for what became the Defenders, he was back to normal. The later volume 3 ran for eleven and a half years but never felt the need to address this either - indeed I seem to recall a letters page brushing it off as the Surfer having a brief angry moment. It was only in the late 1990s, not long after this Essential volume was first published, that a resolution was given in Web-Spinners: Tales of Spider-Man #4-6.

Ultimately the main problem with the series is that the Surfer's character as presented here just isn't that likeable. There's too much moping about rather than either trying more methods to escape his prison or else finding ways to adapt to life on the planet. With no recurring supporting cast beyond Shalla-Bal, the Surfer carries the series on his own and so we get a very one-sided approach to life. But ultimately it's the Surfer's reflections on life on Earth that defined the series. Far too often he ends up in confrontations and fights due to the fear and/or hatred of humans, and when read in one volume it all gets very repetitive. The artwork is great, and somewhat justifies the larger panels and makes up for the slower paced stories, but the plots and dialogue needed to be more positive and give the Surfer some breaks. And they really needed to explain better just why his two major attempts to escape the barrier failed. There's a lot to like about the character and he can work well either as a guest star or a team member, but when presented on his own he needs to be much more positive. And yes, the "Sentinel of the Spaceways!" (as he's called on the cover of the first two issues) or "Sky-Rider of the Spaceways!" (as he is on all the rest bar the final issue) should be allowed out into the spaceways to truly soar and explore. There are some good ideas and good pictures here, but the series as a whole just meanders along without much development to overcome the early weaknesses. All in all it was a lost opportunity.

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