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Silver Age Gold

Longbox Graveyard #27

I have a confession to make.

I don’t really like the Silver Age of comics.

I love the characters, and the concepts. I enjoy select issues. But for the most part, I don’t much like reading Silver Age staples like the initial runs of Fantastic Four and Spider-Man, and for all my love of The Flash and Green Lantern, I think DC books of that era are best viewed from a distance. Compared to the Bronze Age (which I find Golden), I feel Silver Age books are just a little too broad, a little too bombastic, and a little too overwritten.

There’s one Silver Age series, though, where those defects are a positive strength.

The Silver Surfer is the perfect vehicle for Stan Lee‘s think-out-loud-and-state-the-obvious writing style (and I say that with affection!) As a loner and unwilling exile on our planet, the Surfer pretty much had to talk to himself, and talk he did, in panel after panel lamenting the violence and intolerance of man, his own lost humanity, and his long-lost love, Shalla-Bal of Zenn-La. The perpetually-misunderstood Silver Surfer soars about like a hermetically sealed outer-space Hamlet …

… and it’s great.

Springing to life in what was arguably the greatest Marvel Silver Age Story of all (Fantastic Four #48-50), the Silver Surfer was the “cosmic herald” of the world-devouring Galactus. Tasked with finding worlds his boss could safely eat, the Surfer took one look at our planet — with its many wars, pollution, and racial injustice — and figured it was safe to ring the dinner bell. Of course, it doesn’t take the Surfer long to see the error of his ways, and turning on his master, the Surfer fights alongside the Fantastic Four to help save the earth (and gets himself pink-slipped by Galactus in the process):

Still possessing his near-limitless cosmic powers, but imprisoned now on Earth, the Surfer would fall victim to Doctor Doom and meet up with the Hulk before debuting in his own series in 1968. I was too young to enjoy these books the first time around, but taking down my reprints in the (still) reasonably-priced Fantasy Masterpieces Volume 2 in search of stories for another Top Single Issues blog, I was reminded of how I enjoyed these books when I first read them in the 1980s, and was delighted to see how well they still held up today.

(For the first four issues, at least)

Stan Lee was all about misunderstood heroes, but rarely have the man and the moment met better than in Silver Surfer. The Hulk may have been a misunderstood monster, but he really was a menace, and while J. Jonah Jameson kept the police on Spider-Man’s back, it was hard to understand why New York’s Finest kept hounding Spidey when he kept doing their job for them, issue after issue.

With the Surfer, the prejudice and constant conflict with mankind sort of made sense. He was remote, and alien, and he … kinda did lose his mind every now and then.

In the Silver Surfer, Stan Lee had a character who was a genuine outsider, an intellectual alien from a distant planet who was just high-minded enough to express continual shock over the barbaric nature of our planet, and just naive enough to keep walking into blind-side punches from cops, soldiers, and superheroes who were certain the Surfer was up to no good.

The first issue of the Surfer’s solo run revisits and deepens his origin story, showing how Norrin Radd went to bat to save his lotus-eating home planet from the world-devouring Galactus, sacrificing his humanity to save his world and serve forevermore as Galactus’ herald. A promising Silver Surfer dramatic DNA is on display here. The Surfer rescues an astronaut — and is attacked by the Navy for his pains. He pines for his lost home and his lost love. The Surfer is at odds with his new planet but feels a responsibility to protect it. He recaps his origin and past Marvel appearances in a broad, readable, and fast-moving tale.

This is melodramatic stuff, but it works in the context of space opera, and by stripping everything away from the Surfer, it’s easy to get on board with this character in a big way. No one on Earth really understands what the Surfer has sacrificed (but the reader does); cops and soldiers can’t know how unjust they are by shooting at the Surfer (but the reader does). Lee puts us in the Surfer’s shoes, and makes a virtue of the Surfer’s silence. We readers may yearn for the Surfer to confess his past but it would never occur to him to do so — which simultaneously makes him that much more heroic, and also preserves the misunderstood-hero-against-all dynamic that offers such great promise for this series.

Of course, just to make sure there’s no misunderstanding, the Surfer makes his ethos statement direct to the reader in the final panel of this first issue:

This panel, I think, is the Silver Age in a single image. This tendency to bombastically soliloquize external goals and inner struggles is a keystone of the age, and to a modern eye it can appear too much of a good thing.

To be honest, this is usually when I bail out on Silver Age books … unless (as is the case with the Surfer) I can see my way clear to enjoy them as … musicals?

When the Surfer takes center stage and emotes directly to the reader, it’s the same as a big solo in a stage musical. When Inspector Javert takes center stage to swear his eternal vigilance by the limitless stars, we don’t think it strange. This is when a character spills his heart out on the stage, revealing their yearnings, fears, and shortcomings. These are the high points of the show, and something musicals (and comics!) do better than any other dramatic form this side of William Shakespeare.

William Shakespeare, Les Miserables, and Stan Lee, all in the same blog! Lofty company for the Silver Surfer, but with this series, Stan Lee had it all  — a hip character, a superior superhero artist in John Buscema, and an opportunity to fill pages with cosmic superheroics while commenting on human foibles and heartbreak …

… and the first four issues of this series are Silver Age gold! The Surfer fights alien invaders, and takes on Thor and all of Asgard single-handed. John Buscema does his best Jack Kirby impression, overflowing his pages with bubbling cosmic dots and crazy space-age machines. In the series’ high point, the Surfer battles for his soul and the soul of the woman he loves against Satan Himself (well, actually it was Mephisto, but that’s a distinction without a difference).

For a full review of Silver Surfer #3, check out my Dollar Box column over at StashMyComics.com!

But commencing with issue #5, it starts to go wrong. Like off-the-rails crash-the-circus train wrong. After the classic confrontation between the Surfer and Thor in issue #4, Lee loses his mojo, and the series spirals into a black hole. Instead of a parade of Marvel guest stars and high-minded, socially-relevant tales of prejudice and souls in peril we get second-rate space opera featuring the worst run of villains this side of Ms. Marvel, Volume One. When the cosmically lame Stranger is the best bad guy you fight in a year, your book is on the cancellation express no matter who the hero may be, and that’s what happened for the bulk of the Surfer’s run, as our hero played down to the level of his competition in yawn-inducing confrontations with generic galactic warlords, the ghost of the Flying Dutchman, and some distant descendant of Doctor Frankenstein (I kid you not). Even a return engagement with Mephisto cannot recover the series’ initial magic. The series has become as remote and rootless as it’s hero, with stories that feel like they don’t matter centering on disposable characters and an increasingly tiresome Surfer who does not evolve or grow.

The second year of the book recovers a bit, with the high point being a cross-over with Spider-Man that is unselfconsciously meta in that Silver Age way, turning on the misadventures of a young boy who reads Marvel Comics himself, and gets involved in the story when he sees the Surfer fly past his very own window. But it was too little and too late — the book would be canceled with issue #18, leaving unfinished what was to be at least a two-part stint on the book by character co-creator Jack Kirby.

That was it for the series — though not for the Surfer, of course, who would remain a mainstay of the Marvel Universe, enjoying a long run in a 1990s series (which I haven’t read), and also headlining the second of the two tone-deaf Fantastic Four movies in 2007. But the Surfer’s days as a Silver Age solo hero were done.

If I were reviewing just the first four issues of this book, it would get an “A,” but that lackluster run through the middle of the series really pulls it down, earning the book a charitable C-plus on the idiosyncratic Longbox Graveyard scale. Great character, great promise, great start, but ultimately a great disappointment.

What do you think? Have I been too hard on old chrome dome? Am I expecting too much of innocent Silver Age classics? Tell me your opinion the comments section.

NEXT WEDNESDAY: #28 Operation Ajax

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About Longbox Graveyard

Revelations and retro-reviews from a world where it is always 1978. There's a new blog every odd Wednesday at www.longboxgraveyard.com!

Posted on December 21, 2011, in Reviews and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 31 Comments.

  1. Great post. I’m glad I’m not the only one who has some guilt about Silver Age. I’ve recently been rereading the complete run of ASM in order to get some post ideas and while there are some phenomenal stories in the initial Lee/Ditko run, there’s also a lot of corny stuff that just feels dated and uninteresting.

    Was never a huge Surfer guy personally, not for any reason specifically, though I will add that Surfer #4 is probably my favorite non-Spidey cover of all time.

    • Thanks for the comment! Your own (excellent & recommended) “Chasing Amazing” Spider-Man focused blog and Horace’s gentle chiding here in various comments have encouraged me to take another look at Spidey, and I’ve actually been reading those self-same Lee/Ditko books via Marvel’s digital subscription program. I’ve found that thinking of their more exaggerated moments as beats from a musical (as noted with the Surfer) has helped me better enjoy the stories, and even drill past the dated and corny stuff to freshly appreciate the brilliance of those first books. I kind of stumbled on that analogy between the Silver Age and musical soliloquies while writing this Surfer blog and feel like I may have cracked my own personal code for better enjoying Silver Age books, which opens up a whole new era of comics to explore.

      I wouldn’t put the Surfer on my own Top Ten list, either, and hadn’t intended to write about him until I pulled down those issues to evaluate #3 and #4 for a Top Single Issues blog. I came away with a higher opinion of the character than I had going in, and a real sense of missed opportunity for the reasons I outlined in the blog. I am hungry for more and better Surfer tales, and now that I’ve tumbled to a Marvel digital sub I will try a few of those 1990s issues (though I am not optimistic in that regard).

  2. Surfer did go down-hill after #4 so you’re not being too hard on him. Although, we did enjoy that Frankenstein tale – mostly due to the way Buscema crafted each and every panel with pure awesomeness. “O Bitter Victory” was also interesting, with the South American rebels and lots of moral gray areas that prove a step above most good/bad Silver Age writing. But the best thing about the last 2/3 of the series may be the reprinted Starlin Warlock backups!

    Thanks for the tip on the reprints – somehow we missed these, and they look like a great way to fill in our original issue collection. We’ll be back to click your link next time we’re buying.

    The 1990s series didn’t do it for us at all. Not even when Starlin was on it. But Engelhardt had one great idea, and that was getting Surfer back into space. Lee was calling his mag “Sentinel of the Spaceways” on the cover, but really it was “Sentinel of Moaning Endlessly about not being in Space.” Engelhardt made the mental leap to get around the barrier and get Surfer back where he belongs.

    If you really want to rock some more modern Surfer, skip the 1990s series. We humbly submit our 3 favorite recommendations:

    1) The Lee/Buscema oversized graphic novel where every page is a splash and Mephisto & Galactus have a showdown in Hell.
    2) The 14-issue Silver Surfer series from 2003 which is one long story about Surfer’s involvement with aliens rescuing humanity – or are they? (Communion + Revelations).
    3) Silver Surfer Requiem (4-issue ‘death of surfer’ story)

    • Of the stories toward the end of the run, that “O Bitter Victory” does stand out, I agree. I also kind of liked the Doomsday Man story, and the Spidey story as noted in the post. But overall the tone is just wrong in the back half of this series. The Surfer doesn’t grow and it doesn’t work having him wander around in an overcoat and hat to observe earthlings. The character and the series were lost.

      The only problem with collecting this run via Fantasy Masterpieces is that it only goes through #14, so you don’t get the last four issues of the Surfer (notably the return of Mephisto and the Kirby issue).

      I’ll check out the Surfer stories you mention — most of them should be available thanks to the Marvel Digital Unlimited sub I scored for a Christmas gift (finally the gift for the comics nerd who has everything!) I’ve read the first of Starlin’s modern Surfer run (#34) and found it second-rate, but second-rate Starlin is better than a lot of the first-rate stuff out there from other creators. Ron Lim was better than I expected on pencils but I can’t help but think how much better it would be if Starlin was doing the art, instead of just the script.

      Thanks for posting, Mars, always look forward to your comments, and I know the Marvel “cosmics” are a special interest for you.

  3. I don’t know what year “Big” John Buscema broke into Marvel. But, by the late 60′s he was a force with those Silver Surfer, Avengers and Sub-Mariner books.

    What a talent.

    The definitve Silver Surfer artist.

    • It was John Buscema who created the post-Kirby visual DNA for Marvel — he was the dominant look for decades after The King. One of the most interesting things about this run of Silver Surfer is watching Buscema gradually transition from Kirby homage in the first few issues to his own take on the character. Buscema’s pencils generally remain strong through the series but (as noted in the blog) the scripts aren’t strong, and Dan Adkin’s inks didn’t help much in the last few issues, either.

  4. What I saw of the 90s surfer was pretty good, FWIW. I fondly remember the “Job Hunting” storyline. Nice writing by Jim Starlin.

  5. I am mostly a DC guy, but in the Marvel U, Silver Surfer is on of my favorite characters. I actually got a lot of my info from the animated version of him, and as bad as the two recent FF movies were, it was great seeing the Surfer brought to the big screen.

    In terms of specific stories, I enjoyed JMS’ mini-series from 5 or so years ago, Silver Surfer: Requiem, in which the Surfer learns that his shell is deterioirating, and the 4 issues are him reflecting upon his impending death. I am a fan of much of Straczynski’s comic writing, and thought this series had some great moments.

    On an unrelated note, I refer to my wife’s cat at the “Silver Surfer,” as she leads my wife down the stairs every morning …….. hopefully my wife never figures out who that analogy makes her ………

    • I will check and see if that Surfer series you mention is part of my Marvel Digital sub. I am still looking for the definitive Silver Surfer series … after the first four issues or so of this run it is hard to hang in there.

      Interesting that you are a “DC guy” but that the Silver Surfer is one of your favorite characters — actually I’d say that makes sense as the Surfer feels like a DC character to me. His deep Kirby roots are inescapable, and even though the character developed along different lines that Kirby may have intended, I can see the Silver Surfer fitting in just fine with DC’s New Gods.

  6. Yeah, probably not a coincidence that my favorite Marvel characters are Doc Doom & Silver Surfer — both have a deeper backstory that characters like that don’t always have, and Marvel (Stan?) was right in realizing that both were characters with potential to become important / iconic.

    And (as you rightly surmised) I am a big fan of Kirby’s DC work. Though to be fair I like plenty of DC stuff, from the Legion to Barry Allen Flash to JSA, etc …

    • I do review Flash a bit later in the blog, you’ll encounter it if you keep marching forward, and I do some Batman stuff too. I lean Marvel more than DC but I do like select DC books, and lack of coverage here at Longbox Graveyard owes as much to lacking good digital versions of the books as anything else (digital is so much easier for getting screen shots). I’m reading original Mister Miracle now and have the first Legion of Superheroes Archive edition on the way from an eBay auction but I don’t know as I’ll write about either of them here at the blog.

  7. I’m pretty sure there was a second Surfer Essentials volume that covers a decent size chunk of the 90′s series – at least enough to help you decide if you want to pursue it further. I know some people don’t like the B&W nature of the Essentials, but that doesn’t really bother me too much.

    • A lot of the Silver Surfer might as well be in black & white — that silver/white surfer against a black star field doesn’t always admit a lot of space for color.

      There’s decent coverage of the Surfer via Marvel’s all-you-can-eat Digital Unlimited service (to which I subscribe) … I notice they’ve been filling in a lot of cosmic titles lately, to support their latest Infinity launch and the pending release of Guardians of the Galaxy next year. Was reading “The End” last night, staring Thanos in the last days (sort of) of the Marvel Universe, and our Norrin Rad makes an little appearance there.

  8. You know, i don’t think i’ve actually read a whole lot of Surfer books but he’s always been one of my favorite characters anyway. Like the others here, i’ve read those early few issues, which i suppose we can all agree were pretty amazing, considering we’re now decades beyond them and the Skyrider of the Spaceways is still a well-loved character.
    He’s got a great visual and his philosophical nature combined with how cosmically powerful he is makes him compelling. Plus i always loved the sound bite i heard of Kirby talking about his origins. He was back from the war and saw kids surfing at the beach and wondered what it would be like to surf through outer space. Brilliant!

    • The Surfer (like the Hulk and the Sub-Mariner) is really better as a supporting character than a lead. I shouldn’t be surprised he’s had trouble carrying his own book.

      I expect if the character had charted the course Kirby originally intended that we’d have a very different opinion of him.

  9. I loved Buscema and Kirby on the Surfer. Incredible background info! Great pics and amazing post. Thanks!

    • Thanks for the kind words.

      This post ended up being a kind of personal turning point for me, as I have come to enjoy Silver Age books much more since writing it. I think I just needed to develop the “ear” for the way they told stories. Of course, opening up a whole new era hasn’t helped my much in my quest to grind down my existing collection, but I suppose this is a happy problem to have!

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