Monday, July 1, 2013

We're Fresh Out Of Epics

When Silver Surfer #17 hit the stands, there would be one more issue in the run of the series, and that would be that. After issue #18, the title would be cancelled without ceremony, or promises of greater things for the character. And with the "everything's hunky-dory here as usual, Marvelite!" tone of that issue's Bullpen Bulletins page, as well as a letters page which didn't give a hint of the book's end, you'd never have guessed otherwise. In hindsight, it was almost like thumbing through the missives of a Stepford comics company:

On the Bulletins page, there was a biographical piece on John Romita, as well as a plug for the spin-off Marvel fan club, Marvelmania (which would go on to a rather undignified implosion). But most importantly, the page had a "Stan's Soapbox" column that normally would have sent shockwaves through readership but was so played down you'd think nothing of consequence had occurred:  the announcement of the resignation of long-time Marvel fixture and artist Jack Kirby, in barely a sentence of wording.

We can only guess how many people were still reading Silver Surfer at the time; but I can't imagine they were too crestfallen when they scanned the comics racks the next month and found no 19th issue, even with the prior issue's dramatic ending. Issue #17, the last issue to be pencilled by regular artist John Buscema, gave continuing indications of a book on life support. The Surfer, once so fresh a concept, and so compelling a character within the pages of Fantastic Four, had become utterly uninteresting and predictable. What Marvel character would he face this month? In what way would his spirit end up being crushed? Who would misunderstand his intentions this time? What shortcomings of the human race would be hyped? How many times would he utter the name "Shalla Bal"? In addition, with his physical appearance now bleached to an absurd degree and his build shrinking by the issue, the most recognizable thing about "the Silver Surfer" was now the fact that he had a flying surfboard.

So in this next to last issue, I'm betting that I don't even need to tell you who the villain is going to be, or what his goal is. The only thing left to do is to plug in who else would be involved, and I doubt the choice did anything to spike readership:

Right. Mephisto wants the Surfer to target SHIELD. What did Nick Fury ever do to get on Mephisto's radar? We know that Mephisto plans to place Shalla Bal in the SHIELD installation that the Surfer will attack, so that she'll end up being killed in the assault and he'll thus be crushed enough to fall to Mephisto--but Mephisto could have chosen any number of installations run by any number of heavily-armed forces for this plan. SHIELD, of course, is just another familiar Marvel entity for this book to exploit.

You've probably already given an eye-roll to that last panel's caption, though an epic in the pages of Silver Surfer at this point would indeed be unexpected.  But if you go down the list of Marvel epics, I guarantee that Silver Surfer #17 isn't going to appear anywhere on it, at any ranking.  Yet at least the story is honest enough to discount SHIELD's overall importance to Mephisto:

SHIELD's main visual selling points are the Helicarrier and, to a lesser degree, Nick Fury. Fury is given a generous amount of pages in this story, though there's a lot of "Fury filler" (barking orders, trademark Fury quips, that sort of thing) to take up the slack of SHIELD being any kind of challenge to the Surfer. The Helicarrier, on the other hand, is missing entirely--instead, the Surfer attacks a SHIELD land installation, since his plan revolves around bending Mephisto's orders by destroying property rather than lives, and buildings being evacuated and reduced to rubble can accommodate the plot more easily than a single flying base that can be crippled and downed in one attack.

That leaves the weaponry of SHIELD itself. Yet the story puts all of its stock in, of all things, guns that fire gas. Let's hope that "Z-gas" is the kind of gas that can take out cosmic-powered, non-breathing aliens who aren't susceptible to the effects of gas, because otherwise it's asking a lot of us to swallow this next scene:

Fortunately, it works in the Surfer's favor, because Mephisto can't help but overplay his hand as a result. And in doing so, he inadvertently reveals his treachery:

At that point SHIELD is all but forgotten, as the story reverts back to what usually becomes the case: the Surfer vs. Mephisto. And how do such battles usually end in the pages of this book? Again, by now you know: inconclusively, as Mephisto continues to chip away at the Surfer's resolve.

As for making sense of the Surfer's motives or actions, SHIELD won't have any better luck than many of his other guest stars. Ironic indeed, for an intelligence gathering agency:

For all intents and purposes, this story ended the Surfer's first series, as the following story drawn by Kirby only refers to the SHIELD story by splash page caption and comes across as independent of both prior story direction as well as the entire series--with the exception being the "I've taken enough" attitude of the Surfer in the story's ending.  Readers of Silver Surfer could probably relate to that sentiment with this next to last issue--not in terms of the rage felt by the Surfer, but with despondence at a series soaring nowhere.


Kid said...

I always felt that SS #18 proved that Stan was right in giving the previous 17 issues to John B. Had Jack K been in at the start of the series, I doubt it would've lasted as long as it did.

Anonymous said...

I think the concept was the problem. I don't think anybody knew what to do with the Surfer. I mean, the idea of a stranger in a strange land, fallen angel, I could see how a writer could use that to give his own take on the human condition, but how far could you take that idea?
Kirby originally came up with the Surfer, visually arresting, cold and alien, but I don't think he considered what to do with the Surfer after Galactus.
Lee wrote him as a Christ-like character, and some those comics were great, beautifully rendered by John Buscema, but,where do you go from there? How does the character have an arc? How does he change? What makes him interesting?