Friday, 15 August 2014

Essential Silver Surfer volume 2

Essential Silver Surfer volume 2 contains the character's 1982 one-shot (volume 2), the first eighteen issues and first annual of his 1987 series (volume 3) plus Marvel Fanfare #51, a story from Epic Illustrated #1 and a promotional article from the promotional magazine Marvel Age #52. Epic Illustrated was an anthology magazine that allowed creators to retain ownership. The Marvel Fanfare issue contains what would have been the first issue of a limited series set on Earth rather than the ongoing cosmic series we got when plans changed. The only thing I can spot missing is the chapter of the history of the High Evolutionary in the annual.

The one-shot is plotted and drawn by John Byrne and scripted by Stan Lee. All issues of the 1987 series, including the annual, are written by Steve Englehart and drawn by Marshall Rogers, Joe Staton and Ron Lim. Englehart also writes the Marvel Fanfare issue which is drawn by John Buscema, with an introduction editorial written & drawn by Al Milgrom. Lee writes and Buscema draws the Epic Illustrated story.

It's that last story which the volume kicks off with and it just demonstrates all the problems with the character until 1987 as he explores the edge of the universe. It's a vague, philosophical peace set retroactively during the years when the Surfer worked for Galactus. Along with the late 1970s graphic novel it just reinforces the view that it was impossible to find anything solo to do with the Surfer other than retreads of his debut story. As a short one-off piece reuniting the original series's creative team it's a nice touch but there's nothing to suggest that the Surfer needed a new series in the early 1980s.

Nor does the 1982 volume 2 one-shot. Drawn by John Byrne at the height of his powers, it's a visually impressive spectacle but a lot of the storyline is retreading old ground as once again Mephisto uses Shalla Bal to torment the Surfer and once again an attempt to escape the barrier imprisoning the Surfer on Earth ultimately fails. There are some new ideas such as Galactus returning to Zenn-La to take further retribution for the Surfer's betrayal, but this feels somewhat at odds with the portrayal of Galactus that was developing at the time which made him less a being of emotions like revenge and more a cosmic force of nature. In light of these developments it seems strange that Galactus would bother himself with such a petty indirect revenge, or for that matter give the inhabitants of Zenn-La a day to evacuate the planet before he consumed its energy and left a husk of a world behind. Oddly the state of Zenn-La, and the power the Surfer gives to Shalla Ball to heal it, will go on to be significant elements driving the ongoing series but the one-shot itself falls firmly into the category of endless retreads. It's amazing that anyone thought there was any mileage in an ongoing series at all.

Indeed the original plan was for a twelve issue limited series set on Earth, with the completed issue #1 eventually showing up in Marvel Fanfare a few years later. It's a nice bonus to have in this volume as it allows glimpses of the original plans for the series but it also shows that Marvel still didn't quite get it. It's clear that subsequently a great deal of thought was put into working out what had gone wrong with the Surfer's earlier series and avoiding the same mistakes. Steve Englehart wrote a multi-part essay on the character's history that appeared on the letterspages of the first three actual issues and which is reproduced here; in this essay he identified the too expensive format, slow paced stories that devoted more attention to art than plot advancement and the general aura of failure surrounding the lead character. The Marvel Fanfare issue falls into some of these traps - the mid 1980s comics market may have been a little more favourable to higher priced series but double-sized books were still less attractive and seen as overpriced. Keeping the Surfer trapped on Earth restrains his appeal by denying him the chance to soar the spacewaves and instead it leaves him looking an ultimate loser. It also makes a mess of his getting caught up in conflict with the Kree. And lurking in subplots for future issues is Mephisto, who had been vastly overused and needed a rest. There's some new ideas with an alternate start to the latter-day Mantis storyline - here she's living in Connecticut under an assumed name and raising the child she had with the Cotati - but in general the issue feels too much like a 1960s throwback, with John Buscema's artwork unfortunately reinforcing this effect. It shows some signs of ideas but it's still clear the Surfer needed to break free of the barrier and the baggage that had accumulated, and soar the spacewaves again. And that is exactly what we got in the end.

By whatever means the decision was taken to instead launch an ongoing regular sized series in which the Surfer was put back into his natural environment and really allowed to soar. The series opens with the statement "Space is infinite!" and this sums up the approach taken. In the space of just one issue the Surfer escapes Earth - the method itself proves to be ludicrously simple - and gets a pardon from Galactus, permanently ending the exile. The second then addresses life on Zenn-La and shows that life has finally moved on with Shalla Bal now the world's Empress and slowly leading a restoration of the planet's life force - a role that leaves no opportunity to marry the Surfer. Thus the Surfer is released from ties to both worlds, although he still maintains contact with them and seeks their safety as the series progresses. The stage is now set for a truly cosmic adventure.

I must confess a bias as this series was the first Marvel US title that I ever collected, although I didn't come on board until a few years later and had to catch up via the back issue boxes. As a result this is one of the few Essential volumes where everything (bar the Epic Illustrated story) is familiar to me from the original issues, though I lack experience of the original pace. Collected together it's easy to see how the whole thing was planned as an ongoing saga, building up a variety of different concepts and ideas into one overall coherent whole.

Two main themes dominate these issues. One is the second Kree-Skrull war as the two galactic empires conflict once more. This time round there is the complication that the Skrulls have all lost the ability to change shape due to genetic bomb. Though it occurred in a couple of other series' annuals not included here, I've found the mechanism behind this plot device to be rather silly, even if the results are highly effective. At the same time the Skrull homeworld has been destroyed and the Empress killed, with five warlords claiming the throne. The result is a paranoid race desperate to survive that gets sucked into war, in part due to external manipulation. The Kree aren't in the strongest position either, with racial tensions undermining their efficiency and driving the Supreme Intelligence to insanity, leaving the empire in the hands of Nenora, a Skrull spy trapped in the form of a Kree. The Surfer at this stage is trying to keep Zenn-La and Earth out of the conflict yet finds himself drawn into local conflicts with representatives of both sides, not least due to a Skrull impersonating him. As a result the war drags on throughout most of the volume, making for a tense backdrop to the universe and feeling suitably epic by not being over in a mere six issues.

A more direct threat comes in the form of the Elders of the Universe, gathered together for what I think is the very first time. A mixture of pre-existing characters such as the Grandmaster, the Collector, the Gardener, the Contemplator, the Possessor, Champion, the Runner and Ego the Living Planet, and new ones such as the Astronomer, the Obliterator and the Trader, they are seeking to remake the very universe. It's an audacious plan but it seems credible given the way it's laid out in multiple steps to defeat first Death then Galactus and finally Eternity. It's also set out over a long time, building on the Contest of Champions limited series and also a storyline in the 1987 Avengers and West Coast Avengers annuals (neither of which is included here). Their conflict with Galactus comes in two phases, first in an assault using the six Soul Gems (later renamed the Infinity Gems) and then the consequences of Galactus consuming five of the Elders and the others being scattered across the universe and beyond. This leads to a trip into the magic realm of Lord Chaos and Master Order, with a chilling sequence as the guest starring Sue and Reed Richards are mentally pulled in very different directions. The result is a conflict with the In-Betweener, and the final issue is a grand battle with Galactus. Elsewhere the search for another Elder, the Contemplator, leads to the first appearance of the space pirate Reptyl and his sidekick, the walrus-like Clumsy Foul-Up.

The Surfer also develops his relationships, slowly opening up but he soon responds to the more relaxed approach of some of the women he encounters. As discussed above, early on he cuts his ties with Shalla Bal, and subsequently he encounters Mantis, now occupying a living plant body with the ability to replace itself and transfer from planet to planet, and the source of the information that sets him against the Elders. She and the Surfer soon become enamoured with one another as they set out to stop the Elders, but it doesn't last long as the Gardener blows her up just to distract the Surfer when securing the final Soul Gem. However a back-up story in the annual shows Mantis resurrected on Earth albeit with amnesia of all her adventures in space and sending her on the way to following things up in the pages of West Coast Avengers. Meanwhile the Surfer is spending ever more time with Nova as they undertake missions together and getting ever closer to her. The Surfer's relationship with Galactus in their post exile encounters is also much easier than could be expected.

The first annual came in a year when Marvel opted to do a crossover between all of its special issues, and the result was a sprawling 11-part saga. Now I've written a bit about "The Evolutionary War" before so I won't rehash my thoughts about the pricing strategy, but the crossover as a whole is fundamentally flawed by the need to find reasons for each title's hero(es) to get caught up in the High Evolutionary's schemes. This annual is the third part of the story and goes for the approach of the Evolutionary trying to expand his knowledge of genetics by trying to map the DNA of the Silver Surfer. The Surfer at this stage has left Earth - this is in fact his first return to the planet since escaping - and it's not clear if the Evolutionary is trying to direct human evolution towards the form of an alien humanoid transformed by a cosmic entity, or if he's just trying to fill in a gap in his library. Nor does he bother to undertake the task himself but instead asks the Eternals, one of the more confusing races in Marvel continuity (they were originally created to be outside it and provide an alternate explanation for the heroes and deities of ancient history; however they were since added to a universe that already had the Greek Gods running around), and the whole thing occurs because the Surfer just happens to be looking in on Earth again. The entire plot just doesn't work and it's little surprise how easily the Eternals just give up on the Surfer or how (in one of the back-up strips) the Surfer rapidly ditches his resolve to investigate the Evolutionary's scheme in favour of responding to a distress call from Nova and Galactus. However the story does seek to advance one of the series's own plotlines by resurrecting the Super Skrull with the implication that he alone holds the key to restoring the Skrulls' shape-changing abilities and in turn offers hope of ending the war. There are two back-ups in the annual that introduce Ron Lim as the new penciller for the series; one focuses on Nova as it sets up plotlines for the next few issues and the other resurrects Mantis but that storyline is carried over into West Coast Avengers. In general this annual is a sign of the mess that the giant crossovers create and it's to its credit that it does its best to advance its own series's plotlines amidst having to contrive a nonsensical encounter to tie in with a wider storyline.

Overall this volume shows the second ongoing series taking a very positive approach to the Surfer's character, ditching the exile set-up and the aura of negativity that had surrounded him. It also avoids well-worn scenarios, particularly Mephisto using Shalla Bal to torment the Surfer in pursuit of his soul. Instead it puts the Surfer into his natural environment and runs him through a high intense space saga. The additional material included here works as an indication of how easy it would have been to get things wrong, but the main series shows how to get it right.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...