Friday, April 29, 2016

When Lands The Saucer!

In looking at the early issues of the ambitious 1968 Silver Surfer series, it's puzzling to see the approach that writer Stan Lee took with the character following the Surfer's very successful string of appearances in the pages of Fantastic Four. In that comic, the Surfer was something of a wanderer, a character who stood apart, limiting his contact with humans and being content to explore the planet from his vantage point in the sky--and though he eventually concluded that the human race was warring, savage, and self-destructive, he was never hounded and shunned in the same manner as the Hulk, nor was he the victim of aggression or hatred. Yet once he began starring in his own series, the Surfer was immediately made into a figure of suffering, and became more self-absorbed with his predicament--despondent at his imprisonment on our world, and finding himself persecuted by the very humans he would attempt to help.

Now in the spotlight of his own comic book, it was perhaps understandable that Lee would want to raise his profile from what it had been in Fantastic Four and find some sort of angle to make him more relatable to his readers--that is to say, more sellable. With the preliminaries over and his origin well-explained in his opening issue, all eyes were undoubtedly on the crucial second issue, which would give us some idea of what Marvel was going to do with this character. For the first time since his solo story in the 1967 FF annual, the Surfer would be the principal character who drove the story and was responsible for holding the attention and interest of the reader in a (bimonthly) 40-page issue. A forty-page issue. How would he spend his time on our world, and in all of those pages? In what way(s) would he interact, as he now must, with the humans he had been content to leave to their own devices? How would so different a hero from the more conventional ones in Marvel's lineup sustain a larger, more expensive comic? What sort of adventures could the Silver Surfer have on our planet that a reader would be excited about? The second issue would be looked at to point the way--expectations would be high, and a lot was presumably riding on how the issue would integrate the Silver Surfer to a life spent on Earth, and with Earthlings.

And yet issue #2 chooses to go off-world for its enemy, and likely evokes an unwelcome question:

"Good lord--alien invaders, so soon?"

The first issue of Silver Surfer gave us an idea of what the Surfer could expect from the human race as far as a welcome mat, with suspicion and distrust being the operative words in reports of any sightings of him--which in time became the status quo concerning the treatment of the Surfer in his new series, though considerable hostility would be added to the mix. The entire world must have seen how the Surfer, who heralded the coming of Galactus, later fought valiantly to protect the human race from his master's intent to render their world lifeless; in addition, the Surfer later seemingly went mad and began causing widespread destruction (in a misguided attempt to unite the human race against him). So while there was already foundation for being apprehensive at the Surfer's intentions while trapped on our world, there was also room for debate (just as there seemed to be with the Hulk), enough to supply decent plots for the first few stories, at least. Instead, the Surfer became an outcast almost from day one--and the plot of this second issue would help to cement that status considerably.

The other side of the coin in Lee's approach was to focus on the tendency of humans to fear and mistrust those who are different, a theme often used in Lee's stories with other Marvel characters but which would be taken to its ultimate extent when applied to the Surfer, a powerful alien who already had a dubious history and who was now seeking acceptance from humans who wanted nothing to do with him. The theme is also crucial to this story's plot--which is why Lee and artist John Buscema spend time in the issue's opening pages to have the Surfer explore the possibility of sanctuary for himself, where the circumstances of his rejection would make his warnings of the alien threat all the more problematic.

At this point, the Surfer concludes that an existence among humans is both unworkable and intolerable, and he soars towards the atmosphere to make another futile attempt at escaping the planet. It's after his failure that he notes the approach of an alien spacecraft--one that he grows suspicious of when it assumes a covert approach to the city in order to hover in its midst undetected.

The Surfer's instinct is to warn the humans that there is potential danger all around them; yet because the supposed threat is unseen, the Surfer's announcement becomes further reason to distrust his motives, with that distrust quickly turning to anger and then to hostile action. (Did the Surfer think to offer proof by just throwing a rock at the area where the ship is, so that everyone could see and hear it bounce off of something?) Lee, it appears, would have us believe that any encounter by the Surfer with humans--in a city teeming with millions of them--will lead to unreasoning violence fueled by hatred and distrust, which is a stretch by any measure. New Yorkers have something of a reputation for cynicism, yes--but a tendency to turn into a lynch mob at a stranger's odd behavior?

To avoid bloodshed, the Surfer allows himself to be taken into custody--but he realizes now that he must investigate this threat on his own.

This would be our first exposure to the infamous Brotherhood of Badoon--a merciless, world-conquering race that in the far future will have expanded its reach to amass a virtual empire, and of course would be instrumental in the formation of the Guardians of the Galaxy. Upon the Surfer's second approach to their vessel, they realize that subterfuge and deception are called for in their dealings with him--until the matter is taken out of their hands.

Now that open hostilities have been declared by both parties here, there seems little reason beyond arrogance for the Badoon to treat the Surfer as a source of amusement and announce their intention to hunt him for sport, rather than ending his threat while they have him here in their midst. One other reason might be the fact that there area many pages yet to account for in this issue, six of which are now taken up with sizable panels by Buscema which don't move the story forward in any meaningful way--particularly a segment which has the Badoon leaving their ship to infiltrate the humans on the street invisibly and toy with their perceptions. They soon tire of their outing--and it's easy to imagine a few readers feeling the same.

Finally, the attack of the Badoon on the Surfer begins in earnest, though it's curious why the Surfer hasn't been the one to launch the attack. The story has him waiting in order to "learn what I can of the enemy's power"--yet this is the same being who angrily warned the Badoon that neither their weapons nor their power would save them from his retaliation. Once he sees to the injured girl's safety, it makes no sense for him to allow the Badoon the advantage of time, particularly with their fleet on the way.

We do, however, get to sample some splendid artwork by Buscema with these pages, though even work from one of Marvel's top artists can still kill a story's momentum if it's superfluous and, worse, doesn't feature in any meaningful way the main character whose book is trying to find a foothold with an audience. It's only when the Badoon return to the threat of the Surfer that our attention returns to where it should be--and when the Badoon unleash their ultimate weapon, the aptly-named Monster of Badoon, the story begins to cook on all cylinders again.

With their "weapon of weapons" in danger of being destroyed, the Badoon recall it and decide to retreat. Unfortunately, as we've seen, the monster was rendered invisible, which no doubt made it appear that the Surfer had gone insane and was attacking the city for no reason. And so even though the Surfer has acted to save the entire planet from a deadly alien threat, American military forces mobilize to target the Surfer with deadly force--a bombardment which serves to instead drive off the Badoon, even as the Surfer realizes that his bridges to humanity have effectively been burned by the Badoon's tactics.

To twist the knife, Lee even provides the Surfer with an unexpected benefit to the Badoon incursion--an opportunity to pierce the barrier that holds him here. Tragically, the attempt fails, as the Surfer realizes the price of his freedom.

With the military now gunning for the Surfer, and with two pages left in the story, it's reasonable to assume that this issue will not end well for the character. Misunderstandings have abounded in this story of woe, all to the Surfer's detriment--and with the conclusion, where the Surfer attempts to heal the injured girl, Lee makes it crystal clear what direction he intends to take the Surfer in for the foreseeable future.

One of the statements this story makes is one that will persist for the run of the series--that the human race is its own worst enemy. As a statement, it's a powerful one, with the Silver Surfer proving to be its most persistent and misunderstood victim; but as a draw for a bimonthly comic book, stories that spend a good deal of their time making statements aren't likely to be enough to sustain a character who represents much more than an object lesson to readers who have followed his exploits elsewhere and who might have been expecting entertainment as opposed to teaching moments.

The Surfer, judging by what we've seen here, will become a character who exists apart, a reluctant hero who mostly voices his discontent and who no one on Earth really wants to have around. This important second issue of Silver Surfer leaves us without a clear course for the character, other than the impression that he'll be fighting an uphill battle all the way--not unlike Spider-Man or the Hulk in certain respects, but with more of a sense of futility that borders on clinical depression. Adding to the Surfer's misery is the fact that he considers himself isolated and hopelessly alone, in a world of billions. How does such a character progress from here? Apparently, by coping.  The Surfer admittedly finds himself having no choice but to accept his fate in a world he cannot comprehend, while struggling to remain true to himself--a holding pattern this hero settles into which, if this issue is any indication, may not take him nearly so far in his own series as his soaring board would in the depths of space.

Silver Surfer #2

Script: Stan Lee
Pencils: John Buscema
Inks: Joe Sinnott
Letterer: Sam Rosen


Anonymous said...

"...For in all the Universe only insane Humanity kills in the name of justice" - the Surfer sure changed his mind quick about the Human race. Only a couple of years earlier we were apparently so noble that he defied Galactus to save us which he hadn't bothered to do for any other alien species.

david_b said...

Marvel continuity never, NEVER fails to amaze me sometimes..

When I was a young, newly-born Marvel Zuvembie (circa 1973..), I had thought the Mandrill/Negra characters were new Gerber characters in the pages of DD/BW.., didn't know they were introduced in the way-too-brief Shanna mag earlier.

Here I see the Badoon monster.., which I thought was first introduced in MTIO 4 with the Thing and Cap. Too funny.

Great write-up..., shame the Bullpen just couldn't nail the characterization and supporting cast down right.., leaving us with the Surfer delivering the seemingly-endless soliloquies on the failings of mankind, ad nauseam.

Comicsfan said...

Have enough missiles fired at you and angry, irrational groups of people attacking you on the streets, Colin, and it's probably easy to forget about people like Alicia Masters who struck a chord of pity and compassion in you. The difference between the Surfer's feelings then vs. now would seem to be based on the fact that Galactus was on the verge of committing genocide, and the Surfer acted in the only way he could after Alicia's impassioned plea; and while the Surfer's exposure to us since then has given him the impression of the human race being self-destructive, unreasonable, and, yes, even mad, his patience has never been pushed enough to the limit to wish us wiped out as a species. (Though the final page of his last issue would beg to differ!) Even rejected as he finds himself while on Earth, perhaps he's still giving us the benefit of the doubt.

david, you raise an interesting point--that Silver Surfer never had any sort of supporting cast. I don't suppose it ever could, given that the title character is basically a wanderer (like the Sub-Mariner, once he abdicated his throne and left Atlantis). Stan Lee seemed determined not to open any doors for the Surfer in that respect, perhaps to maintain his feelings of isolation while trapped on our world.

Anonymous said...

It's weird, but I first read this story (or most of it anyway) waaaaay back in an issue of MARVEL PRESENTS, which featured the Guardians of the Galaxy. The Guardians were schlepping around the universe when they discovered a Badoon recorder-satellite (hey, don't look at me) floating in space and retrieved it, and viewed for themselves this drama-drenched tale.
Apart from a few pages at the beginning and the end, showing the crew retrieving the Badoon device and reacting to it, it was essentially a reprint, no doubt a result of the Dreaded Deadline Doom.
Still, I really liked that comic, it was my introduction to the Guardians and the Surfer.
After watching the recording, Vance Astro, always a hot-head, blew his stack and raged about how horrible it was that humanity persecuted the Surfer, given that he had saved them at least twice.
Anyway, I had no idea who any of these characters were, so I devoured that comic greedily.

Comicsfan said...

Thanks for bringing that up, M.P.--it makes for a nice epilogue to this story. :)

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