Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Where Slumps The Silver Surfer

You'll need your full power to deal with this

Marvel Trivia Question

What man-made device do we have to thank for the Silver Surfer getting his first series?

When Galactus first trapped the Silver Surfer on Earth, he removed the Surfer's space-time powers. I couldn't begin to tell you what space-time powers are; in fact, we never got an explanation of what they were and how they applied to the Surfer. Nor did their removal seem to matter, as far as the Surfer's abilities were concerned--whatever they were, the lack of them certainly didn't prevent the Surfer from flying through space (Fantastic Four #77) or through time (Silver Surfer #6, Thor #193) while he was imprisoned on Earth. Apparently, we were meant to think that their removal kept the Surfer from leaving Earth. Later, of course, that was modified with the revelation that Galactus had placed a barrier around Earth to prevent the Surfer's escape.

But when it came time to give the Surfer his own book, Marvel felt it had to handicap the Surfer more definitively. We'd had a graphic demonstration of the Surfer's powers when he battled the Thing in Fantastic Four #55 (not to mention when Dr. Doom stole his powers)--it was pretty clear that his power level was off the charts, and he could do just about anything. So who was he supposed to go up against in his own book, while he was trapped on Earth? What foe could possibly offer any sort of challenge to him, outside of the Celestials (who didn't even exist in comics at the time)? It wasn't like he could be menaced by Mephisto every issue.

So in Fantastic Four #72, a story was created that would prep the Surfer for a less all-powerful status in his soon-to-be-launched series. The Surfer, after travelling the world, was dismayed at the warlike nature of mankind--so he decided to bring them together by uniting them against a common foe: himself. He began a massive worldwide attack, which drew the attention of the FF--not to mention the Pentagon, which authorized the use of the experimental Sonic Shark against the Surfer.

The Shark was a missile designed to harness and unleash the power of cosmic energy; yet the FF raced to the scene, believing the Shark would probably also kill the Surfer. The Torch reaches the area first, and tries to alert the Surfer:

Yes, I know. Try to wrap your head around the concept that the Silver Surfer--the Silver Surfer--can't out-distance a man-made missile. Next they'll be telling us there's no Santa Claus.

So now the missile begins to deliver its coup de grâce:

You can't get more all-purpose than an "energy drainer," can you. But give army ordnance some credit for coming up with a missile that can be sicced on the Silver Surfer. Man, those guys deserve a raise. Who needs Tony Stark?

Set to explode in seconds, the Thing then hit the Shark hard enough to make it swerve off-course into the stratosphere, where it exploded harmlessly. But when the Surfer landed, the damage was done:

After some calming words from Reed Richards, the Surfer realized mankind wasn't as lost or hopeless as he had thought, and he flew off...

...right into his own book, though apparently not so weakened that he couldn't give the FF a hand in another encounter with Galactus before then.

Some interesting things to note in these panels displaying the Shark's attack. First, it's a little hard to swallow that a guy with the Surfer's heightened senses (being able to track a mote of dust through space, that sort of thing) wouldn't realize a missile is bearing down on him--I mean, give the guy some spider-sense, for Pete's sake.  So rather than writer Stan Lee's idea of having the Torch jolt the Surfer with a flame blast in order to alert him to the missile, I think artist Jack Kirby's intent was to have the Surfer fire on the missile, with the Torch realizing that it might simply harness that energy and use it to detonate and kill him--so he jolts the Surfer to throw his aim off. Perhaps there just wasn't room in the panel to elaborate on all of that.

Secondly, as I've already mentioned, the idea that the Surfer couldn't outrace--much less outmaneuver--a missile is preposterous. The Surfer could be in Tibet before the missile could even alter course.

Finally, the energy-draining process. I think that's how the missile was designed to function, but there's more to it than Lee's abbreviated wording. A simple exploding missile wouldn't harm the Surfer--so it first gets close enough to drain the Surfer's own energy. The process does two things--weakening the Surfer and preventing his escape, and at the same time quickly harnessing and building his energy into an explosive force that will destroy him.

Once he was in his own series, there were passing references to the Surfer's weakened condition, just to remind present readers and any newcomers why he wasn't wiping the floor with foes like Spider-Man and the Badoon.

Heh. "Still is mine the power cosmic!" Not from where we stand, bub. And after the Surfer's 18-issue series ended, his appearances in other books, limited as they were, seemed also to make clear the fact that the Surfer was nowhere near the invincible status he held as Galactus' herald.

But when his new series launched in 1987, that wouldn't do. The Surfer's stories were to be set in deep space, having escaped Earth at long last. And if he was going to be believable tackling space fleets, he needed to be back at peak power (if not as all-powerful as he was in the FF's silver age). Oddly enough, the Sonic Shark by name was never referred to again outside of that one FF issue; so over the years, the formality of the Surfer's reduced power level quietly faded into the background (except for sticklers like me who were pissed that it was done at all). As a result, when the Surfer finally headed back into space, it was treated as a given that the mere fact that he was returning to soar the stars also meant a return to the character as created.

Long-time readers never received any sort of closure on the Sonic Shark story, nor did Marvel editors seem eager to dredge it up again. The Surfer was given a clean slate. And after being trapped on Earth for so long, the Surfer now having a universe to soar in was enough of a gift to readers to leave the past in the past.


dbutler16 said...

Wow, I consider myself a Silver Surfer fan and I never knew that he'd been depowered. I'm glad I missed it and glad that it was never (specifically) referred to again.

Iain said...

I guess the writers felt Surfer was too powerful and needed to take him down a peg or three, I dunno why they didn't just say Galactus took away some of his powers as part of the banishment.

Comicsfan said...

That would make sense, Iain, since Galactus had already removed a portion of his power before leaving Earth. But being that Galactus was long gone by this point, there was really no way to attribute the Surfer's loss of power this time around to his former master.

Anonymous said...

The most modern mention I have seen of the Sonic Shark was from somewhere in Webspinners: Tales of Spider-man #4-6.

Comicsfan said...

Thanks, Anon--that story finally received a post of its own in the PPC about eight years later.