Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Even A Surfer Can Cry

When the first Silver Surfer series began, it was odd watching the slow but steady progression of Mephisto, the sadistic lord of the lower depths who spends his time dunking hapless souls in searing sulphur pools, becoming the Surfer's main foe. Yet writer Stan Lee didn't waste much time making the Surfer Mephisto's fixation. It took quite awhile for their conflict to come full circle; but in the beginning, Lee was content to make the Surfer vs. Mephisto a strictly good vs. evil story--though we should really reverse the order, since Mephisto was always the aggressor in pursuit of the Surfer's soul.

And speaking of that aggression, sometimes he just couldn't help himself:

Which brings us to this fun two-parter in the Surfer's first series that I really enjoyed, mostly on a kick-back-and-relax entertainment level:

Arrrr.  The Surfer battles a ghostly treasure hunter.  And it's a real page-turner, matey.

This story follows up on Mephisto's first encounter with the Surfer, where he spends most of that issue trying to tempt the Surfer into surrendering his soul. This time, though, Mephisto lets his rage get the better of him--and, using a pawn, he attempts to bludgeon the Surfer into submission. Fortunately, the same writer/artist team of Lee and John Buscema, who produced the first Mephisto story, are aboard again for this one, and they pull out all the stops.

First, just take a look at the inspired choice they give us for Mephisto's hired gun, someone Mephisto himself had damned long ago--a sea captain who selfishly led his men to their deaths. But Captain Van Straaten wouldn't be fortunate enough to be granted his final rest, and Mephisto would make him infamous:

There are times reading this story when you wonder whether it really needed to be a two-parter, because some of it seems like pointless padding--and the Surfer doesn't even meet this opponent until the next issue. Since this story comes on the heels of the larger format of 40+ pages in which the Surfer's stories had been published up to this point, it's reasonable to assume that Lee had actually written it with one book in mind, which this story would fit like a glove. And indeed, in a note to readers at the end of part one, Lee confirms that's the case:

With the book now reduced to 20 pages, and the story effectively split in half, a few things stand out where they otherwise wouldn't. For instance, Mephisto spends a full two pages seeking out and making use of a human low-level Satanic worshipper to act as a sort of "relay station" so that he can make contact with Van Straaten's spirit--but since when does Mephisto need help communicating with one of the damned? Particularly since he was responsible for damning Van Straaten in the first place.

On the other hand, there is such a thing as build-up, and the Surfer will basically be fighting a souped-up ghost, so all of this preamble is time well spent. It's going to take some doing to make this opponent interesting (to say nothing of powerful enough to challenge a cosmic-powered foe); and it would be difficult to provide background info on Van Straaten, transform him into a threatening villain, and have him battle the Surfer while trying to condense everything into a 20-page issue. So while this story on its own wouldn't quite be enough for two full issues, it needs more than one, now that the book no longer has the luxury of elbow room.

Thankfully, nobody can chew the scenery quite like Mephisto, especially with the combination of Lee and Buscema portraying his scheming like a major stage production. And when the dark lord seals the deal with Van Straaten, Buscema gives us this beautiful full-page rendering of the pact:

And all that Van Straaten must do to to be freed from his ghostly existence is to secure the Surfer's soul for Mephisto. Nor is Buscema finished with the character yet, because now Van Straaten's original look and garb must be merged with more contemporary elements to give us a combination of super-villain/operative of Mephisto:

So the stage is set, except for one final touch which every Flying Dutchman should have:

And here I thought New Yorkers were supposed to be unflappable.

And where a forty-page story in one book might not have needed a dramatic "to be concluded" panel, it now needs some sort of teaser to entice the reader into picking up the next issue in order to see the battle this story has been building up to:

In that next issue, the battle is joined. Van Straaten has done a good deal of dishing out "nether blasts" that have caused carnage in the city, and the Surfer finally arrives to deal with him. But this ghost has a big mouth, because right out of the gate he lets the Surfer know who he's working for:

Sort of defeats the purpose of sending a proxy into battle, doesn't it? I mean, Mephisto himself has more than enough power at his disposal to defeat the Surfer with one hand tied behind him--why take the time and trouble to arm Van Straaten to do the job, if he's going to give the Surfer the knowledge of who's behind it all? Now the Surfer is going to fight all the harder, knowing just what he has to lose.

Van Straaten's desperation may have tipped his hand--er, if he still had a hand, that is--but he still hammers the Surfer relentlessly:

But what about the author of this scheme? Well, we know how eager Mephisto is for the Surfer's soul--so he decides to hedge his bets and travel to the scene to guide Van Straaten's actions personally. And boy, does this guy know how to make an entrance:

Hidden from the Surfer's senses, Mephisto goads Van Straaten on and directs strategy. Though from the looks of it, it doesn't look like this ghost needs a helping hand in the kick-the-Surfer's-butt department:

Yet the Surfer battles on, with an indomitable spirit that probably makes Mephisto wish Van Straaten had kept his name out of the fight:

So Mephisto raises the stakes, and has Van Straaten seize a woman and threaten to kill her unless the Surfer surrenders to Mephisto. But with a supreme effort, the Surfer separates the ghost from his hostage while appealing to Van Straaten's lost humanity. And then the tide turns against Mephisto as his pawn bails on this scheme, having seen the Surfer fight so valiantly for his soul:

But Van Straaten need not fear Mephisto's retribution, because the enemy he has brutalized takes pity on him, and unknowingly brings him the freedom he's yearned for over hundreds of years:

Naturally, even though deprived of two victims, Mephisto promises to bide his time where the Surfer is concerned, seemingly confident of eventual victory. I don't know why he doesn't go into politics--he'd be a natural.

Anyone having grown used to the large format style of these early Silver Surfer stories would probably have enjoyed this tale as much as I did--because even though it was spread out over two issues, it still had the feel of a forty-page story because it was originally written and drawn as such, as Lee indicated. The rest of the title's run would have a more compressed feel, with most of the issues being one-shots. In a way, the Van Straaten story signalled the beginning of the end for this first Silver Surfer series--and the well was certainly running dry, with the Surfer battling witches, the Frankenstein heir, and now a ghost, with Mephisto well on his way to earning "special guest-star" billing. I was glad Van Stratten escaped his fate in limbo--but with his savior now confined to soaring in a mere twenty pages, I was starting to get the feeling that the Surfer might take his place.


Kid said...

I'm lucky enough to have all 18 issues of the original series - as well as the Omnibus edition, which is great. Big John was definitely the artist for this series - I don't think Jack would have been able to match him at this point, judging by the 18th issue he drew.

Comicsfan said...

I think those later issues, with their rushed feel and lower quality, kept me from collecting the entire series. I picked up the one featuring the Torch on a whim, and I think my mind was made up at that point. :)