Friday, March 28, 2014

To Soar No More!

It was just over a year and a half ago when I made a brief entry on the 1978 Silver Surfer graphic novel by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and Joe Sinnott, and hopefully those who came across it were intrigued enough to seek out this classic work and feast their eyes and imagination on (as the cover puts it) "the ultimate cosmic experience." It's still a work I remember fondly, the last great collaboration between these "Bullpenners" before Kirby would take his second and final leave of Marvel Comics. You could almost see the Surfer from his vantage point in Earth orbit, seated on a small piece of rubble and glancing down with those distance-piercing eyes of his, noting the turning point that was taking place in both Marvel history and his own.

Four years after Lee and Kirby's story, artist John Byrne would join with Lee to craft another stand-alone Surfer tale, though it wouldn't be the 114-page behemoth of the '78 book--yet in its own way it has just as much scope. But while in the latter story the Surfer's focus shifts to (who else?) Mephisto, here the story centers solidly on the Surfer and Galactus, and whether or not they can come to terms. With no other Marvel characters to play off of, the story must eventually come down to the two of them--and in the middle of their tug-of-war is the human race, and two questions: Can it be saved? Should it be saved?

The prelude to the deeper struggle to come between Galactus and the Surfer, of course, is the Surfer's discovery of Earth as a probable source of life-giving energy for his master. It's really the only problem I have with the story, as it again tries to play on the balancing act Lee must manage vis-à-vis the Surfer's role as "herald." Whatever twist Lee may add to it, the key to this story is to distinguish humanity in such a way that the Surfer feels compelled to sacrifice his standing with Galactus and risk his life in order to save it from extinction. Yet, that's to imply that in all the other inhabited worlds the Surfer led Galactus to, the Surfer felt absolutely nothing for the people living on them. In the Surfer's original Fantastic Four tale, that approach worked since he arrived on Earth without any sort of conscience; yet in this story, the Earth obviously sparks interest in him, though you'd think human beings were the first inhabitants of another world he'd ever encountered:

(Kirby's art at times reminds me of a line from the song, "Ladies Who Lunch": Does anyone still wear a hat? It's 1978, and the man is still drawing businessmen wearing hats. You almost feel like looking for Wally and the Beav in every crowd!)

Inevitably, Galactus arrives, and the Surfer makes his case:

Putting aside for the moment the burning question of why the heck the Surfer didn't make these plaintive arguments on any other inhabited worlds Galactus was about to wipe out, their exchange is an interesting study in contrasts. The Surfer is obviously impassioned; yet Galactus tends to speak in absolutes. Lee tends to go overboard a bit when he tacks on "...power is all!" to Galactus' argument, since it can come across as insane ambition if spoken by anyone else bent on destruction; but the point is that Galactus depends on these worlds for survival, and to him there is no other choice. I've sometimes wondered: with all of that advanced equipment he has access to, has Galactus even tried to investigate other options for his survival? With the way Lee writes him, as being so above-it-all, it seems doubtful. He's Galactus, this is what he does, and that's that.

But for the Surfer, the discussion is far from closed--and the dramatic moment we've been waiting for has arrived.

Here, as in their battle in Fantastic Four, the Surfer also attempts to trap Galactus in an energy cocoon--and the tactic fails here, as well. But more fascinating is the back-and-forth between these two entities as they continue to battle--and it soon becomes clear to the Surfer that Galactus isn't about to budge.

The battle causes massive destruction in the city, with streets and buildings reduced to molten rubble. Imagine the people caught in the middle of it all--not having any idea of who these two are, where they've come from, or why (or how!) they're causing this level of death and destruction:

(Very cool use by Kirby of the Surfer's shadow on the buildings as he flies by, heightening the magnitude of the battle as well as its drama.)

Even with different variables, we know the Surfer is unlikely to prevail in this struggle--after all, which of these two combatants appears to be fighting defensively? But even with no Ultimate Nullifier handy, the battle must end at some point, and it's indeed the Surfer who falls, and nearly fatally:

With a pause in hostilities--and a good thing, since you can't get more hostile than nearly killing your opponent--the Surfer takes the opportunity to make one last attempt to reach Galactus. And he seems to have so simple a solution--leave this world, and I'll find you another one. But again, Galactus reasons in absolutes. To him, it makes no sense for him to leave. He's Galactus, and he's found a suitable world, case closed. It's his herald--who, after all this time, inexplicably questions his master's purpose--who has the problem. And so each of these two beings seemingly has been left with no choice in what they do next:

As Galactus strikes, we see in this revised story that the Surfer's punishment is displayed much more dramatically than the single panel he received in the original version--a full page to drive home the consequences of his decision to sever his ties to Galactus and cast his lot with the human race.

There seems to be some symbolism at work with Kirby's art here--perhaps attempting to show the great loss the Surfer has suffered by being denied the universe, and instead left with only the gritty structures of a primitive race. Or it could simply be a representation of a literal "fall from grace."

As for humanity--the "collateral damage" from this all-out battle--their wreckage, devastation, and injuries remain; but Galactus dispenses energy particles which remove all other evidence of what took place, including memories. Have you ever surveyed and begun repairs of extensive damage from a war that you can't even remember taking place?

Frankly, I don't know why Galactus would bother. If, as he says, he has little to no regard for these beings, why would he be concerned about their impressions of what occurred? What would he care about being identified by the inhabitants of this world? Even if Earth's defensive capability were ten times what it is, he wouldn't be concerned in the least if the Earth launched some sort of retaliatory strike. (Though it might be a source of amusement for him, assuming he paid it any sort of attention.)

Finally, what of the Silver Surfer? We find him on that rooftop, where he at last regains consciousness and comes to grips with his situation:

The Surfer is resolved to make the best of things--but is Galactus? Earth is still a viable target for his hunger--and his former herald remains unrepentant. It seems there are yet events left to play out in this drama. When we explore this story further, we'll learn how the Surfer fares with this race he's condemned to spend his exile with--as well as discover if even the dispassionate Galactus can become bitter at the prospect of rejection.

The Silver Surfer (Graphic Novel)

Script: Stan Lee
Pencils: Jack Kirby
Inks: Joe Sinnott
Letterer: John Costanza


Anonymous said...

Surely any planet would be suitable for Galactus, they are all made of the same basic chemicals and elements and it must be those he needs to consume. The Surfer must have been one of the most tedious characters in Marveldom - constantly feeling sorry for himself and wailing about how terrible and worthless Mankind was.

Anonymous said...

Colin, I think the break point for Galactus is not just the chemicals and elements but the life force of a planet. I think the planet has to have life for it to be suitable for consumption. That point made the Silver Surfer who/what he was. His job was to judge the worthiness of the life on a planet to continue. This he did in exchange for Galactus to spare his home planet. When he, the Surfer, rebelled the deal was moot.

The Prowler (out of things to put in his parenthesis).

Nathan said...

I think Galactus wiped the planet's memory so that the Silver Surfer would not be seen by Earth as its savior. The more the people of Earth treated the Surfer as an outsider to be feared and not a hero to be praised, the quicker the Surfer would see the true nature of Earth and realize its not worth saving.