Friday, June 10, 2016

Fall Of The Universe!


Coming into its sixth issue in mid-1969, it's difficult to look back and speculate as to how The Silver Surfer mag was doing at that point. It hadn't folded, at least, so there was that; in fact, to look at either the Bullpen Bulletins or the book's letters pages, both of which as a rule maintained the image that Marvel was a well-oiled machine being driven onward and upward by its enthusiastic fan base, you'd think the the Surfer book had settled right in among Marvel's other comics and the character had caught on with readers.

With each story clocking in at nearly forty pages (while being supplemented with a "Tales Of The Watcher" feature that brought the mag up to 64 pages), it was easy to understand why the book kept a bi-monthly publishing schedule, and was priced at 25¢ per issue, a cost usually reserved for annuals but was unprecedented for a regular title. Its seventh issue, however, would be the final one to be published in that kind of format, shifting the book afterward to a standard 20-page count while reducing its cost to the 15¢ price tag that Marvel's other books had recently adopted--the format change due, of course, to being "flooded" with fan mail "demanding" that the book go monthly.

If you sidestep the Marvel hype, though, it was fair to wonder whether the stories in Silver Surfer justified shelling out over double the cover price of a regular Marvel book, particularly when each issue was padded with backup material that looked like it was being imported from earlier issues of Strange Tales or Tales To Astonish. What did the Surfer stories offer that was a cut above what you could find in Fantastic Four, Amazing Spider-Man, Mighty Thor, and other Marvel books? What were you getting with those extra pages of story? If the Surfer had brought something to the table beside his constant efforts to break free of our world and his morose observations of the human race, those questions might have had worthwhile answers; but for half the money of a Surfer story, you could get a monthly comic book filled with more exciting characters in stories packed with human heroes and human adventures--while by contrast, the Surfer interacted with practically no one, and put as much distance as possible between himself and the human race in every issue. And your sense of adventure instead was often interrupted so that you could be dragged through soliloquies like this:




Six issues in, and The Silver Surfer is still sounding like a broken record.

In issue #6, you may or may not find something new and interesting in the way the character is handled by writer Stan Lee and the plot that he has the Surfer navigating his way through. My feeling is that it will be more of the former. Since it deals primarily with time travel, it offers the Surfer a chance to get out of Earth orbit (and his funk) for a change and pursue a less confining series of events where he again becomes the "Sky-Rider Of The Spaceways!", in a mission this time to save the universe. That certainly sounds like it's putting the Surfer back on track, doesn't it? If he indeed possesses "power beyond the ken of mortal man," tying him to Earth conflicts wastes both his power and his potential as a character. Will this story show us more of the Silver Surfer as designed?

It sure looks as if the Surfer is excited about shaking off his leash.




With his freedom beckoning, the Surfer wastes no time (heh heh, sorry) in putting his plan into motion, nor does he give a passing thought to any of Earth's military installations that might be reacting to his sudden, alarming presence on their tracking screens--for the brief seconds that it can be tracked, that is. In moments, the Surfer has faded, launched toward the far future. But what he'll find there serves as a grim omen to realizing the fruits of his labors.





If you've read the issue of Thor where the Surfer guest-stars in the Thunder God's clash with Durok the Demolisher, you'll no doubt notice similarities between that issue and this one, in terms of both the Surfer's method in travelling to the future and his discovery of man's fate. Yet in this story, we may learn that the destruction of the human race came about through other means--though that doesn't deter Lee from weighing in with one of his many admonishments regarding our inability to rise above our hatred and fear of each other, and the possible consequences thereof.



Thankfully, Lee and artist John Buscema don't linger on the wasteland of Earth's surface and allow the Surfer to mourn our fate overlong with what might amount to I-told-you-sos; given the Surfer's short time on our world, and the fact that he's established few ties to its people to speak of, he's really said all there is to say in these brief scenes. The greater story awaits--though, again, we might find that there's another reason Lee chooses to spend only minimal time with this aspect of it.

Heading into space, the Surfer finds that his theory has proven correct, and he's now free to soar through the cosmos--but his elation is unfortunately short-lived.




It would perhaps be a moot point to remind the Surfer that, because he's now in the far future, the woman he mourns has already been dead for a very, very long time, which would hold true even if Zenn-La were still thriving in this time period.

In any event, the Surfer must now live with the fact that, whatever the circumstances, the two worlds he felt closest to are now lost to him. Of course, now that he's free of the barrier of Galactus, he only has to travel backwards in time to nullify those losses and pick up the pieces of his life again, and rejoin the woman he loves. It's only for the sake of Lee's story that he stays, and pursues the mystery of the cataclysm that appears to have befallen all the worlds that he investigates.




His spirit resigned to hopelessness and despair, the Surfer is soon overpowered by the savage beings who speak of a master they serve in fear--the "Overlord." Soon enough, the brutes are confronted by members of their master's guard, who take custody of the Surfer and bring him before the one they serve--a vicious conqueror who is genuinely surprised that there is one who has apparently escaped his merciless reach. And with the Overlord's posturing, the Surfer realizes who is responsible for laying waste to all the dead worlds he's encountered, and far more.





For the time being, the Overlord is amused at the Surfer's resistance--defiant words and actions which he's no doubt experienced from the countless beings throughout the galaxies that he's subsequently crushed. Consider, as the Surfer does with astonishment, what Lee is asking us to accept--that one being has conquered the entire universe. That would make the Overlord not only impossibly powerful, but also immortal, since the time it would take to conduct such campaigns would involve centuries upon centuries upon centuries, to the billionth power--with even that estimate on the conservative side. It also goes without saying that it would mean that the Overlord is the most powerful being in the entire universe by far, which would obviously make the Silver Surfer insignificant in his eyes.

It's only when the Overlord casually slays one of his female slaves (who, naturally, resembles Shalla-Bal) that the Surfer renews his attack in earnest, determined to end the Overlord's threat here and now. Yet he quickly learns how formidable--and invulnerable--his foe truly is.





Almost nonchalantly, the Overlord orders the Surfer to be taken away and dispatched by disintegration. Fortunately, however, the person assigned to the task turns out to be the sole survivor of Zenn-La, one who remembers the legend of the Surfer from "countless ages ago" (which gives us an idea of just how far the Surfer has travelled into the future). But though this man revives the Surfer--perhaps in the slim hope of gaining his assistance toward freedom--he seems resigned to his fate, and his hope of resisting the Overlord quickly fades. For now, he disguises the Surfer as a "trustee" (i.e., a high-ranking slave, but a slave nonetheless), and seeks to answer the Surfer's questions on how the Overlord rose to power--a malevolent mutant born from an atomic accident, who would destroy his own world before going on to ravage countless others.







Upon hearing the Overlord's origin, the outraged Surfer begins to conceive of a plan to deal with this seemingly invincible foe, though the survivor of Zenn-La asks an important question: "What can be done? The past is dead--it cannot live again! Even if the Overlord should fall--is not the damage already done?" The Surfer appears to disagree that the situation cannot be salvaged--but before he can elaborate, it becomes clear that the conversation between the two has been monitored by the Overlord himself, who sends in his men to fatally deal with both the Surfer and his new ally.




What happens next is a whirlwind of closure to this story, a dizzying wrap-up that decisively deals with the Overlord and saves the entire universe in just a few panels, using the same method that brought the Surfer into this conflict in the first place--time itself.




Unless either the Overlord or the survivor from Zenn-La has been extremely forthcoming with specifics, it's unclear how the Surfer would know which planet the Overlord hails from, to say nothing of the exact day and time when the Overlord's father would be exposed to the radiation from the explosion of an unstable atomic reactor--both of which are crucial pieces of information that are necessary for the Surfer's plan to succeed. Instead, we're left to assume that, somehow, the Surfer can do all of this. The basic elements of this ending are sound, so the shortcomings of how it's brought about aren't really a dealbreaker for the reader--but it's nevertheless far too convenient an ending, given the stakes of the conflict the Surfer became involved with and the overwhelming odds against his prevailing.

And speaking of dizzying wrap-ups, the Surfer seems to be feeling a little dizzy himself in this final panel to the story:



Lee glosses over a great deal here in returning the Surfer to his status quo of being imprisoned once more on Earth, returned to his own century--so that he can resume the Earth-based stories that Lee has in mind for the character for the duration of this comic.  One question that must be asked at this point is clear:  With this method of escaping the barrier of Galactus having proven to be successful, why would the Surfer decide to again entrap himself and return to the same place from which he sought to escape, given that he's demonstrated the ability of depositing himself anywhere he chooses? Also, what makes this a one-time attempt? Instead, Lee takes the approach of raising doubts within the Surfer that he had this experience at all, even though those doubts come just moments after he believes he's brought himself back; and with dialog that almost seems meant to sweep this matter completely under the rug, the Surfer's musings appear aimed at raising broader doubts within the reader, as well. It's the mother of all reset buttons, which abruptly ends a fairly fresh and entertaining tale in an almost halfhearted manner, couched in reflection and punctuated with a question mark that effectively takes Lee and Buscema off the hook in regard to ending this story more sensibly.

Just what was Lee going for in putting the Silver Surfer his own series?
We'll look at what The Man himself had to say on the subject.

The Silver Surfer #6

Script: Stan Lee
Pencils: John Buscema
Inks: Sal Buscema
Letterer: Artie Simek

4 comments:

Kevin Portwood said...

Wow...the golden age of monologuing... beautiful artwork though.

Colin Jones said...

As far as I understand, if you traveled faster than light (which is impossible) you would go backwards in time but you couldn't choose to go forwards in time then backwards again as the Surfer does here by traveling in the "opposite direction" - whatever that means. I didn't know that Tales Of The Watcher first appeared in Silver Surfer - I read them as UK reprints and one TOTW story that stuck in my mind was about a man who discovers a crashed, unoccupied spaceship. He runs around frantically trying to convince everybody that an alien is on the loose - the twist ending is that he himself is the shape-shifting alien who lost his memory in the crash.

Rick said...

I always found the Surfer book beautiful to look at, but never very interesting in terms of story. I did enjoy the issue with Thor and #5 with the Stranger. Mephisto and Flying Dutchman were boring as were the guest star issues with the Human Torch and Spider-Man. Lee should have let Kirby have the book. Surfer was his creation, after all.

Comicsfan said...

Rick, be sure to keep an eye out for the PPOC review of Silver Surfer #5, coming next week, as we continue to surf through this series. :)

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