Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Flame, The Fury, The Foregone Conclusion

I'm sure that in mid-1970, this cover looked pretty impressive on the sales rack:

But if you take away the cover's masthead, and remove the sideshow captions attempting like hell to get you excited about this fight, you start to have a better idea of the stretch it must have been to get this kind of lopsided battle to appeal to readers:

Yes, that's the Silver Surfer you're seeing, alright--hanging onto his own board for dear life, because a bolt of flame is keeping him off-balance. And no, your eyes aren't playing tricks on you--this is the same Silver Surfer who can remain standing while navigating meteor storms and riding the shock waves from super-novas.

But, let's give this issue the benefit of the doubt. Maybe the Torch can be more effective against the Silver Surfer than a furshlugginer super-nova was. Johnny Storm is sure making the Surfer look like a fool on his own cover. And it's hard not to get psyched for this fight when Johnny himself reassures us with this pre-battle assessment (um, while digging himself out from a pile of rubble):

Okay, I can buy that. I doubt that someone who's travelled through galaxies and done battle on distant worlds is going to be able to cope with an opponent whose advantage is:  being familiar with his own planet. Your logic is superb, as always, Johnny. But before we begin a play-by-play of this fight, perhaps it would be a good idea to get Johnny's assessment of the Surfer's power after the last time he went up against it (when it was being wielded by Dr. Doom). An assessment given, I must point out, when he's again digging himself out from rubble and debris.

But, lessons learned, right? This guy's one of the Fantastic Four, and he's not going to let one little decisive thrashing get him down. And like Johnny has told us, he's got a lot of abilities of his own that he can bring to the table. So let's start with Johnny's speed:

Whoops--not only outdistanced in a flash, but those "home grounds" Johnny spoke of now look a lot like outer space. But since Marvel probably doesn't want to be accused of false advertising, the battle moves back to the city streets. (Though if the Surfer wanted to avoid the battle, he could just as easily have descended to, say, Tokyo's city streets, instead of New York's.) And since the Torch's blazing speed wasn't so blazing, let's try his dazzling maneuverability:

Man, that guy's probably peeved. How would you like a flame trail knocking you for a loop in your own living room while you're enjoying a football game? At least the Surfer probably got a laugh out of it. And given his luck to date, he'll probably get blamed for it.

So how about that board, then. The cover showed the Torch making some headway against it, so we'll settle for him at least beating the Surfer's board, right? I mean, it would be pretty humiliating for one of the FF to have trouble with a surfboard. But it looks like that cover sucked us in but good, didn't it:

Strike three. So what have we got left? Well, we haven't seen the Torch go head-to-head against the Surfer in a test of sheer power yet--so given Johnny's confidence level, pouring on his power against the Surfer directly is bound to tax the Surfer to the limit, no? Well, let's just say that Johnny simply trades rubble for a train track.

In all fairness, since this particular battle was the result of a misunderstanding, we could certainly assume that Johnny was only trying to subdue the Surfer rather than harm him; and the Surfer, while hurt by the Torch's seeming betrayal, was still attempting to end the battle without injuring him. But if you're thinking that an all-out fight between the two would have ended differently, have a look at that prior battle where the Torch was gunning for a cosmic-powered Doom with no holds barred.

A battle which puts this newer issue in perspective, given that we've just witnessed a major fight between the Torch and the power of the Surfer taking a maximum of just three full pages. Comparatively, that leaves about 17 pages of story to wrap around the more recent battle. Yet if the remainder of writer Stan Lee's plots were any indication, those additional pages served to help build momentum toward developing the Surfer as being increasingly hunted and hated by the humans he was trapped with. We know how that finally plays out, but scenes like these have been padding these earlier issues in a steady display of the Surfer being treated more and more like a hounded animal.

It was a running theme for almost the entirety of the Surfer's first series: the Surfer battles on our behalf, yet through a series of misunderstandings about the circumstances, the humans he defends end up seeing him as a lethal menace who must be put down. And that theme builds to a crescendo that's reached on the last page of his last issue. In a way, I don't blame the Surfer for thinking we're all crazy--look at the odd contradiction in this very issue concerning the military's role. It's a general who approaches the FF about "getting" the Surfer in order to solicit his assistance with their space program--yet the soldiers on the street show open hostility toward him. Didn't the military's left hand talk to its right? And while the Torch tries talking the Surfer down, he quickly resorts to renewing their battle in order to bring the misunderstanding to an end.

In any event, things end on a sour, depressing note (par for the course with Lee at the helm of this book), but with the twist that it's the Surfer who comes up short in the trust department--though the military and the Torch could have probably handled things differently in order to prevent the situation from escalating. Even now, the FF and the military don't seem like they're on the same page:

As for the Torch, he at least has something to be proud of after this thrashing--when he was helped up this time, nobody had to dig him out of a hole.  Maybe he's onto something with that "home grounds" theory, after all.


Kid said...

I think it's safe to assume that Doom would use the power cosmic far more ruthlessly than ol' Norrin, hence Victor making such short work of wee Johnny. Ain't that four-issue FF battle a classic 'though? Makes you wonder why the good Doctor hasn't tried to steal the Surfer's power again. He's not usually one to give up so easily.

Comicsfan said...

The point I was really making was that "wee Johnny" wasn't pulling any punches in that battle, either, and the result was basically the same: in effect, a being whose power is discharging flame, at whatever intensity, isn't going to make any headway against a foe who can shrug it off. ;)

As for Doom, I think there was a story in the second Surfer series where the Surfer actually sought out Doom in order to have him repeat the process of stealing his power, probably in an effort to be rid of it. I'll have to look that up--I'm curious as to how the good doctor reacted.

Kid said...

Actually, I was reiterating your point that the Surfer was 'pulling his punches' (while Doom wasn't), hence the Torch lasting longer in his battle with Norrin than with Victor. Johnny was probably subconsciously pulling his punches with Norrin - not that it would've made much difference. He was clearly outmatched in either case, as you say.

Unknown said...

The first story I ever read from the Surfer. Loved it. It was what distinguished DC from Marvel. Another example was Thing v Hulk in the FF/Avengers crossover. The hero DIDNT win. There was no clever flick of the wrist. Simply someone in trouble prepared to fight to the end, no matter the cost to themselves. Amazing.

Comicsfan said...

Your point of the contrast of different styles between the two companies when laying out these battle issues is a good one, particularly with regard to Silver Surfer. Perhaps instead of "hero," he needs a label unique to himself, since his status as a mistrusted outsider is ongoing throughout this series.