Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Victim And The Victims

If you were to line up the full-page art from the 1982 Silver Surfer one-shot--six such pages in all, if you count the opening splash page--you'd have a reasonably good idea of how the story plays out:

  • The Surfer is brooding in an Earth setting, slumped in a depressed state, so he's more than likely thinking about his continued imprisonment on the planet;
  • He flashes back to his origin at the hand of Galactus;
  • We see him flying over the devastated Zenn-La landscape, indicating some planetary disaster has occurred;
  • Mephisto gloats while holding the Surfer's lover, Shalla Bal, captive;
  • The Surfer and Mephisto, locked in combat;
  • And finally, the Surfer soaring over Earth again.

So we can probably conclude that the Surfer escapes imprisonment, returns to his home planet to find it a dead world, discovers his old enemy Mephisto has taken the one he loves, the Surfer battles him, and whatever complications have come about during the story end up resolved or at least are dealt with satisfactorily. But that's a terribly distilled look at this issue, which is really a fun read back when the Silver Surfer was a very simple formula to write: a former herald to Galactus who is confined to Earth, a planet which holds no future for him and is populated by a human race which spurns him. And it's written by the person who refined that formula to the standard it remained for so long--Stan Lee, whose scripting of the Surfer here is like he'd never put him aside. And Lee is teaming up with the penciler/inker artist team of John Byrne and Tom Palmer, all three of whom craft a vintage Silver Surfer tale and pack it into a whopping 48 pages.

Yet in this story, the Surfer breaks from that formula and is granted his heart's desire when Reed Richards, leader of the Fantastic Four, informs him of a breakthrough.

And since we all know how smart Reed is and how he's no doubt double- and triple-checked everything down to the micro-detail, let's just cut to the chase and experience the Surfer's elation at his newfound freedom.

If I'm remembering this point in time correctly, this was the first story where the Surfer had actually been able to escape the barrier of Galactus for "real" (i.e., to mesh with continuity for the character), so that alone made this issue intriguing reading. He'd broken through or otherwise bypassed the barrier at other times, by methods which were often only temporary in nature and usually carried some hook which attached conditions or unexpected complications to his escape; but here we finally see the Surfer free and clear, at last. Of course Reed's warning is still ringing in our ears, so it's likely those complications are still waiting in the wings.

With this no-strings-attached freedom, the Surfer naturally makes a beeline for his home planet, Zenn-La, where his lover Shalla Bal pines for him (or so he believes). Yet upon arrival, he finds a sight as unexpected as it is horrifying.

It's here where this story seems to diverge into two parts: one, the fate of Zenn-La, and two, the Surfer's conflict with Mephisto, each seeming to have little to do with the other. The one common thread that I can see is Shalla Bal, and only because it's she whom the Surfer longs to see even when faced with the refugees from his world's destruction. Frankly, it's their story which should really drive this issue, as we've seen enough Surfer/Mephisto stories to last us for a good while. Because with the Surfer's discovery of the planet's ragged survivors, and their angry confrontation of him, the Surfer's homecoming takes on a more interesting and dramatic tone.

The Surfer is understandably caught off-guard by his people's hostility toward him, but finally learns the reason for it when he's told the cause of Zenn-La's doom.

Whether the return of Galactus to Zenn-La was in retaliation for the Surfer's actions against him on Earth is up for debate, since we're constantly reminded (often by Lee himself) that Galactus is above such crude concepts as rage or revenge. He may have simply considered his vow to refrain from feeding on the life force of Zenn-La to be void when the Surfer removed himself from his service, and travelled to that world when the need arose. From past issues of Silver Surfer, we know that Zenn-La continued to exist without reprisal for an indeterminate period, so it seems clear Galactus didn't just leave Earth and head directly back to Zenn-La in order to satisfy a grudge. (Though I still don't exclude Galactus from being able to have a grudge.)

But that doesn't mitigate the outright blame the people of Zenn-La assign to the "betrayer" of not just Galactus but also of their world.

Looking at this panel, it seems that Byrne (who plotted the story) had one idea how the Surfer should react to the truth of this man's accusations, while Lee had another. If you were to remove Lee's dialog for the Surfer, he would look wracked with guilt over what he'd done, and rightfully so: it was only his vow to serve as Galactus' herald that kept Zenn-La safe from Galactus, and when he turned against him on Earth he effectively sacrificed one planet for another. And that's a valid point which couldn't be made at the time of Galactus' first arrival on Earth, since we knew nothing of the Surfer's origin at the time. Here, the circle closes, and Byrne seems to have the Surfer facing the consequences of his decision for the first time. Yet Lee clearly prefers not to go that route, and has the Surfer insisting that he didn't betray his people while not offering anything to back up that claim. Instead, the Surfer immediately pivots to trying to find Shalla Bal, with the story following suit.

As for Shalla Bal, this story picks up on two prior developments from both Silver Surfer and Fantastic Four. In the first, Mephisto starts the ball rolling by appearing on Zenn-La (which is still thriving at the time) and abducting her to Earth as part of a scheme against the Surfer.

When that scheme failed, Mephisto had the Surfer believing that he'd returned her to Zenn-La when, in fact, he sent her to Latveria with her memory altered to believe she was "Helena," a servant girl. That led to Dr. Doom later entering the picture, who realized that Helena resembled Shalla Bal (how he knew, I don't know--maybe he got ahold of Norrin Radd's yearbook) and married her, but refusing to release her unless the Surfer attacked and destroyed the Fantastic Four. When that fell through, the Surfer discovered Helena's identity as Shalla Bal had been fabricated by Doom, and left Latveria--playing into Mephisto's hands, since "Helena" had truly been Shalla Bal all along. (I know. Try to keep up. I'm a little dizzy myself.) Consequently, when the Surfer discovers Mephisto's abduction of Shalla Bal, he puts two and two together and realizes she's been on Earth all along. He immediately takes off, heads back to Earth, and of course flies back through the barrier which traps him on Earth once again.

When the Surfer arrives at Doom's castle, Mephisto confronts him and spirits Shalla Bal back to the netherworld, where he restores her memory. And as tired I am of Mephisto, I think he deserves his moment. I mean, credit where credit is due, the guy can bring a plan to fruition.

Naturally, the Surfer follows, and deals with Mephisto's demons before directly confronting the evil lord himself. And this time, Lee plays that confrontation differently, with the Surfer actually looking like he might take him this time. Given that the Surfer is fighting to finally free himself and his lover from the machinations of this demon, that's believable; but it also serves to heighten the drama of yet another Surfer/Mephisto battle, since this is the culmination of a long, involved scheme that's played the Surfer as a pawn throughout. Who doesn't want to see him nail Mephisto to the wall at this point?

But Mephisto's no fool. He really has nothing to gain by letting this battle play out--and so he snatches victory from possible defeat by turning the Surfer's attention to Shalla Bal, who has become a ball of energy and is being sent back to Zenn-La. The Surfer attempts to catch her, but realizes the barrier will prevent that. However, he takes one last measure before she reaches space.

And the "undo" part becomes clear once Shalla Bal reaches Zenn-La.

But, Surfer, don't you mean it would undo the horror that you have wrought? Lee again deftly seeks to shift blame in this aspect of the story, sweeping the Surfer's role in Zenn-La's situation under the rug. I wish he'd made the more difficult choice; yet he seems adamant to having the Surfer emerge from this as once again the noble, shining character he's sheparded through Marvel stories all this time. Which sets up the final page, where he and Byrne seem to be of one mind.

When Lee went on to other pursuits, and the Surfer's adventures were chronicled by other writers, the character would go on to face his demons (not Mephisto this time!) as well as more directly confront his role in Galactus' service. So this one-shot issue is a sort of parting glance for the Surfer's creator, who had a much different idea of how the Silver Surfer should exist as a Marvel character. In Lee's vision of the character, the Surfer was constantly playing the victim--but had Byrne scripted this particular story, I can't help but wonder if the Surfer might have taken the first step toward realizing that there were countless other victims in the galaxy, all pointing the finger of blame in his direction.


Edo Bosnar said...

Had this issue back then, and reacquired it a few years ago. I really like it, but then again, I'm kind of a sucker for these Lee-scripted Surfer stories, florid as they can be. Thus, I like those graphic novels from the '80s as well and, obviously, Parable.
However, you make some good points: I have no doubt that Byrne (if given full control over the story) probably would have taken direction you suggest in your conclusion. And that would not have been a bad thing, either.

Comicsfan said...

It certainly piques my curiosity. It wouldn't have altered the resolution of the story significantly; in fact, the resolution would come off seamlessly either way. But assuming Byrne indeed had meant to hold the Surfer accountable, apparently it was too much of a leap for Lee to make.

NorRad said...

In judging the Surfer so harshly, you have overlooked some key elements of his origins. Yes, he agreed to become Galactus' herald to spare Zen-La, but part of his bargain with Galactus was that, as Galactus' herald, Norrin would find UNINHABITED worlds that for the big guy to consume. When Galactus concluded there were only so many of such planets in the universe, he basically brainwashed the Silver Surfer, erasing the Surfer's memory of his true origins and suppressing his compassion so that the Surfer would find worlds for Galactus whether they be inhabited or not without any pesky moral qualms. So the argument could be made that it was Galactus, not the Surfer, who violated the terms of their bargain. Furthermore, even when Alicia Masters' appeal reawakened the Surfer's conscience and compassion, his memory had not yet returned. So when the Surfer turned on Galactus, he didn't remember even having a people to betray.

Comicsfan said...

NorRad, it's somewhat inaccurate to say that the Surfer's memory of his origins was erased or that he was otherwise "brainwashed." If that had been the case, he would have been little more than an automaton, never knowing his purpose as Galactus' herald nor why he was living a life of servitude. In essence, what Galactus did was to alter the Surfer's personality and tamper with his soul, so that he would cease to feel guilt for his actions in leading his master to populated worlds where his need for sustenance would require him to destroy all life therein. Norrin Radd would continue to attempt to find uninhabited worlds for Galactus--but, as was the case with Earth, he would signal his master to come to a populated world if need be.

As a result, the assertion that it was Galactus who broke the terms of their agreement isn't really valid. Norrin Radd swore to serve Galactus--to probe the heavens for worlds, in exchange for Galactus sparing Zenn-La, period. There were no other terms on the table than that. Given his state of disregard for the fate of others (thanks to Galactus), it's to the Surfer's credit (with a helping nudge from Alicia) that he stood up for the human race when Galactus was about to destroy them; but even though Stan Lee had not divulged the Surfer's origin as yet, the Surfer knew that he was turning on his master and severing the bargain he had made with him. And this issue demonstrated the likely price of that betrayal.