Wednesday, June 15, 2016

The Stranger And The Sacrifice!

While the cover to the 1969 Silver Surfer #5 might have you thinking that the issue will be all about the Surfer's clash with the formidable Stranger, their battle actually takes place rather late in the story. Until then, the bulk of the issue has several intriguing tangents that for the first time has the Surfer interacting on a more face-to-face level with the humans that, up to this point, he's been keeping his distance from. Issue #2 depicted his initial effort to descend to Earth and attempt to fit in with humanity, which saw him shunned and rebuffed and finally ending in disaster--becoming persona non grata with humans in general and a near-enemy to Earth's armed forces, even as he sought to protect the planet against alien invaders. From there, the book virtually avoided humanity altogether, as the Surfer came into conflict with other-worldly characters such as Mephisto and the Asgardians. And now, with the Stranger's appearance, it would seem that writer Stan Lee is once again mining the depths of space in order to find characters which operate on the Surfer's level and provide him with a credible adversary.

But elsewhere in this 39-page story, Lee is taking steps toward acclimating the Surfer to the world's indigenous inhabitants--people which the character must interact with on some level if his large-format book is to fill its stories with something other than musings from orbit or battle. Now that mankind is under the impression that the Surfer is dangerous, taking such an approach will be difficult, limiting his exposure to humans to chance encounters or circumstance. There's also Lee's penchant for writing the Surfer as an observational character, who often makes it a point to be judgmental and find reasons for not interacting with humans. As a result, the book's foundation is becoming one of social commentary, rather than a book that moves the Silver Surfer forward as a character.

Yet in this issue, the Surfer nevertheless becomes more involved with humans, thanks to a man named Al Harper--a man the Surfer meets (yes, through circumstance) after another failed attempt at escaping Earth, and someone who becomes his first real friend in this book. It's a step in the right direction--and by the time the story concludes, the Surfer will gain additional perspective on the humans he's failed to understand and come to terms with. Assuming, that is, the Stranger doesn't extinguish us all from the face of the planet.

Harper, who works as a physicist and lives a solitary life in a cabin, has heard of the Surfer through various news reports but still tends to him without a second thought after his fall to Earth--an act of kindness which could have just as well stood out on its own, though Lee alludes to Harper's race as a motivating factor ("Mebbe it's 'cause I know how it feels to be pushed around!"). It's a part of his character that Lee resorts to sparingly, but enough to make sure that it resonates. Otherwise, Harper strikes us as a stand-up guy, who takes an interest in anything that challenges his intellect or arouses his curiosity; and so when the Surfer describes his plight, Harper is intrigued enough as a scientist to go all in with the Surfer.

Given new hope, the Surfer isn't the one to waste any time, and heads out to get this "money" Harper needs to proceed--though Harper has time enough to first point the Surfer toward his wardrobe so as not to draw undue attention to himself.

It's a striking look for the Surfer--who walks among passers-by as an ordinary person but yet remains unmistakably the Silver Surfer, as he can't help but cast his gaze around to assess the hundreds of humans he finds himself in the midst of, tending to their own affairs. Granted, even self-involved New Yorkers would probably be doing double-takes at this individual who very much stands out in a crowd--though for the sake of the story, Lee only has a mother and her daughter take notice of his odd appearance, at least for now. The Surfer would make use of this disguise in future stories, and it works quite well as a change of pace. Here, it suits him as a seeker of gainful employment--quite a good idea of Lee's, and a sequence of scenes which demonstrate just how difficult an alien might find adapting to our customs and expectations.

Nor has the Surfer grasped the notion of just how much money Harper would need for his work, and that starting at the bottom isn't going to see much of a return for him in that respect. We can safely assume that the Surfer isn't going to have the patience for working his way up the ladder. Just how would one explain to one's employer that he needs a high salary so that he can depart your planet as soon as possible?

Dismayed but not defeated, the Surfer decides to cut out the middleman entirely and take the shortest route to success. And that route leads right to the source.

It's been a long day of pounding the pavement for the Surfer, and he certainly wouldn't be the first to strike out after a long day of job-hunting. But fortune (so to speak) appears to be smiling on him, when he encounters a human down on his luck and at the end of his rope--another interesting diversion that Lee provides well before the Stranger makes his appearance. Through our friend's hard luck story, the Surfer sees a way to both gain the funds he seeks as well as to help this man whose sincerity has moved him.

Lee writes these scenes of "the common man" nicely and full of subtle amusement; for instance, as the Surfer is shown into this establishment by the doorman, we get the impression that it's the latter who thinks the other is the easy mark here, even as artist John Buscema provides the Surfer with the mother of all poker faces.

His night a profitable one, the Surfer is unfortunately worked over pretty well afterward by the club's thugs--though it's clear he's playing along and is impervious to their blows. Yet once his new friend makes the scene and finds himself in danger, all bets are off. (Heh, get it?)

This interlude's ending gives an idea of what kind of a book The Silver Surfer could be, as long as Lee insists on keeping the character confined to Earth. The focus on a more close connection with the lives of humans would perhaps provide the book with more of a "Strange Tales" feel to it, and set a precedent of the Surfer interacting with regular characters more than super-beings. The covers of the issues would have to be very cleverly thought out in order to tease and attract the reader into picking up a copy, particularly at 25¢ per issue; and the shift in direction might annoy those readers of Fantastic Four who became fans of the Surfer because of his more cosmic, star-spanning bearing. The more sensible move would probably be for the Surfer to find his freedom and soar the stars again--but Lee apparently feels there's more story material to unearth in a being created to soar the stars, yet trapped on a world which doesn't welcome him.

Back at the cabin, Harper is more than a little suspicious of the Surfer bringing pocketfuls of large sums of cash--but the Surfer assures him that it was legitimately earned. The faith the Surfer has in Harper to keep his word and help him is nice to see after several issues which had left the Surfer feeling much like our gambler, trapped in the memories of his failure; and as Harper sets to work, he grows as a character before our eyes, as he makes good on his promise.

(Yes, you probably spotted the contradiction: What did Harper need tons of money for, if he was just going to use the equipment from his lab? Yet there's nothing dubious going on here--just an oversight on Lee's part.)

It's a clever approach to the Surfer's dilemma--a sort of cosmic camouflage for the Surfer that will be effective long enough to let him slip past the barrier at the right moment. Regrettably, though, it's time for this story's villain to make his appearance, returning to Earth with a renewed desire to wipe out the entire human race.

Upon hearing the Surfer's story and convinced of his sincerity, Harper heads to the authorities--another nice sequence that Lee indulges in, as skeptics of alien attackers or invaders are a long tradition of fictional adventure. And whether it's the army, or the F.B.I., or a simple police precinct, Harper receives a similar reception to his warning.

Meanwhile, the Surfer confronts the Stranger, who would seem to have the edge on the Surfer but who finds himself challenged nevertheless. And while the Surfer seeks to keep the Stranger from departing so that his null-life bomb will not be detonated, Harper gains the time he needs to seek out the bomb's location and attempt to defuse it. And he succeeds--but pays the highest price possible.

With the bomb defused, the Stranger senses that he has again reached the wrong conclusion about the human race and departs, while wiping human memories of the event and restoring the damage. Unfortunately, the one thing he can't restore is a loss the Surfer is forced to face.

The Surfer's tribute to Harper--to his friend--is a fine moment that brings the story to its close, and perhaps paves the way for the Surfer to take more steps toward becoming more involved with other humans on some level. Right now, his understanding of humanity exists in a curious state of conflict, with the Surfer often condemning the human race as savages, trapped in their own senseless fear, distrust, and violence--while also realizing that many of them are good and decent, and that the race as a whole shows great promise for the future, if they don't destroy themselves. Exploring humanity will unfortunately often mean taking the bad with the good--a realization each of us lives with on a daily basis, and something which Lee appears to be counting on to sustain this book as it prepares to hit the one-third mark of its run.

The Silver Surfer #5

Script: Stan Lee
Pencils: John Buscema
Inks: Sal Buscema
Letterer: Sam Rosen


Rick said...

Used this issue for a book report in high school. Seems a little heavy-handed now, but back then, the story really resonated with me.

Anonymous said...

One solution (sort of) for the Surfer's problem was the Negative Zone. He'd be free to go wherever he wanted - of course, he couldn't return to Zenn-La and Annihilus would be lurking around causing trouble but it might still be a better option than being stuck on Earth forever.

Comicsfan said...

That would certainly make for an interesting face-off, Colin--a cosmic-powered being like the Surfer facing a villain who has a cosmic control rod. At any rate, since Galactus apparently didn't care for the Negative Zone, it's hard to say whether or not the Surfer would. As you note, he would have to be wary of its inhabitants, to say nothing of those planets that have exploding atmospheres. He could always return to sub-atomica, as well, which he seemed elated to explore. Either option would serve him well, allowing him his "freedom" even while still a prisoner on Earth.

dbutler16 said...

Good issue. Much as I love the Silver Surfer, though, I think it would have been better if he'd been freed from earth much sooner. Like, maybe around 1969.