Silver Age Gold
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.
- Title: Silver Surfer
- Published By: Marvel Comics, 1968-1970
- Issues Rescued From The Longbox Graveyard: #1-18, August 1968 – September 1970
- Your Angsty Outer-Spacey Sountrack For This Series: 2000 Light Years From Home — The Rolling Stones
- Read The Reprints: Longbox Graveyard Store
- LBG Letter Grade For This Run: C+
NEXT WEDNESDAY: #28 Operation Ajax