Monday, June 13, 2016

Where Soars The Silver Surfer

We recently took a look at the sixth issue of The Silver Surfer, which turned out to be at the one-third mark of the book's entire series run--or, put another way, in another twelve issues The Silver Surfer title would be history. The book's oversized format, priced at 25¢ per issue, would end following its seventh issue; and with the final six issues of the series relying more on (who else?) Mephisto as well as a steady stream of high-profile guest stars, writer Stan Lee, who spearheaded the Surfer's segue to his own title, might have been wondering why this character that he held such pride in had failed to catch on with readers, or at least not nearly as much as he'd hoped.

It's been the consensus of subsequent writers of the book that the Surfer's second shot at a solo series in 1987, launched by writer Steve Englehart, sold quite well as opposed to its 1968 predecessor, mostly because the Surfer was finally allowed to roam the cosmos and was freed from languishing on the primitive and savage planet Earth--though there was also the hard-to-ignore fact that up until this point, only Lee was allowed to write the character's adventures in a series, a condition he relinquished in order for the new book to (you'll forgive the word) soar without his influence. And soar it did, with various writer/artist teams, for 146 issues--over eleven years.

Lee's vision of the Surfer differed markedly from those who came after him to chart the course of the sky-rider. With the human race no longer at hand for the Surfer to point out their failings and lament the grand destiny that they were throwing away, the character was able to seek out his own destiny in the vastness of space and pursue the new adventures that complemented the power he possessed as the former herald of Galactus. As he so aptly exclaimed in his first issue in over twenty years: "Free! ... Freeeeeeee!" It wouldn't have been surprising if readers of the new series had felt equally elated.

Englehart, in a two-issue "foreword" for the '87 series, gives a well-thought-out impression of why the Surfer's first series failed to be a success:

" be blunt about it... it bombed.

"First, it cost too much. A quarter may sound pretty cheap to you, and simple math shows that two normal books delivered the same number of pages for only one cent less--but in those days a quarter was way outside the norm. Just look at the fate of the bulk of the books that bore $1.50 price tags in this age of 75 cent comics.

"Second, in order to give the stories extra scope, Stan and artist John Buscema used larger panels. This did, indeed, give the art majesty and grandeur, but it gave the readers less story per page. Over 40 pages, you still got more story than an average comic, but not 200 percent more. And with other Marvel comics--the norm--being so densely plotted, some of the stories seemed slow.

"Third--and most importantly--there were some innate problems with the Surfer at that time which hadn't been clear when he was a guest in other people's books. Most of what a free Silver Surfer was about was denied him by Galactus, and while this was poignant from, say, the FF's point of view, it quickly became frustrating when seen from his, issue after issue. The main attribute left to him was failure--failure to escape his prison--and a lead character who may win battles but always loses the war starts losing readers. Furthermore, he spent a lot of time suffering over his failure, and that didn't seem too heroic either.

"So, after seven issues--several of which were Marvel classics despite the problems listed above, because Stan and John were really pouring their souls into the series--the book suddenly switched course. The 40-page tale scheduled for issue #8 was cut in half and used for two issues of a now normal, 20-page monthly. But by then the initial impetus of the title had been squandered. Starting with issue #14 they tried to recapture the magic the Surfer had had as a guest star by sticking guest stars into his book, but it was too late. Sales just would not respond, so with issue #18, Jack Kirby returned to change the direction of the character drastically, having him forswear suffering for vengeance on his enemies. But although the last page announced 'Next--the savagely sensational NEW Silver Surfer,' it truly was the last page, for there was no issue #19."

All fair points, some of which have been brought to light by others who have touched on the subject. (Though I'd argue that Spider-Man was also a character who won battles but often lost the war, and the sales on his book seemed to validate that approach. On the other hand, readers could relate to Peter Parker far more than a cosmic-powered alien who stood apart from the human race.)

Tom Scioli, writing for The Comics Journal in 2013, made an observation while posting an excellent review of Silver Surfer #1 that gives one pause when pondering Lee's push to put the first Silver Surfer series on the racks: "The Silver Surfer series is possibly John Buscema’s finest moment. It’s Stan Lee’s first big self-conscious stab at creating something ambitious and meaningful. This was his attempt at something important, his big statement. This is him doing what he does with full control and full confidence. It’s also a good example of what Lee’s writing is like when you subtract Kirby or Ditko from the equation." With that in mind, it's interesting to read Lee's own take on the Surfer's beginnings and his vision for the character--and that ball started rolling following the debut of Galactus in the pages of Fantastic Four, with mail starting to pour in requesting that the Surfer get his own series. At the time, however, Marvel hadn't yet expanded its stable of writers and artists to the point where any of the current ones (including Lee and Kirby) could add another book to their workload--particularly Lee, who was writing all the books which Kirby was drawing, in addition to a number of other features.

But in 1968, things began to ease up, as Lee elaborates:

"By '68 we were cheerfully expanding in a million directions at once. It seemed that every time we turned around we'd find a new artist or two, some new writers or editorial assistants, and of course some new superhero magazines. By this time, I'd been lucky enough to hire Roy Thomas as my editorial assistant, and it wasn't long before the rascally one had taken enough of the scripting chores off my weary, sagging shoulders so that I could find the time to write a new Silver Surfer series. The only problem was--where would I find the one to draw it?

"Big John Buscema had been one of Marvel's youngest and most capable artists for a short period of time in the 1950's. [CF: Lee is likely referring to Atlas Comics, where Buscema did work for Tales of Suspense, Strange Worlds, and Tales To Astonish--a minor point, since Atlas eventually became Marvel.] Then, for some reason or other, he developed a case of wanderlust and journeyed off to seek fame and fortune in the field of advertising illustration. I hadn't heard from him or seen him in years. And now, suddenly, there he was on the phone, telling me he was sick and tired of doing illustrations of cola bottles and automobiles for advertisements--he wanted to come back, back to Marvel, back where the action was."

"I was so excited about the prospect of a Silver Surfer magazine that I convinced the moneybags behind Marvel to make it a bigger book than the average title. And so, while most of the other comics were 32 pages [CF: Well, maybe including ads!] and sold for 12¢, we made The Silver Surfer a 25-center, and jam packed it with 64 pages of sheer Marvel magic."

Scioli, on the other hand, maintains that the new Surfer book was "the straw that broke the camel's back" in terms of the working relationship between Kirby and Lee, alluding, as others have, to Kirby being side-stepped on the project--proving that there are two sides to every story, at the very least.

Lee's comments above are taken from his 1975 book, Son Of Origins of Marvel Comics, where The Silver Surfer #1 is reprinted. He goes on to explain his thoughts on how to present this new character that Kirby unexpectedly included in the Galactus story:

" I started to write the dialogue for the [first Silver Surfer appearance in Fantastic Four], I realized that The Surfer had the potential to be far more than just a high-flying, colorful supporting character. Studying the illustrations, seeing the way Jack [Kirby] had drawn him, I found a certain nobility in his demeanor, an almost spiritual quality in his aspect and his bearing. In determining what his speech pattern would be, I began to imagine the way that a space-born apostle would speak. There seemed something biblically pure about our Silver Surfer, something totally selfless and magnificently innocent. As you can gather, I was tempted to imbue him with a spirit of almost religious purity. In short, the more I studied him, the more I got into his thoughts and his dialogue, the more I saw him as someone who would graphically represent all the best, the most unselfish, qualities of intelligent life."

That last sentence reminded me of a scene from Silver Surfer #1 that I've never been able to reconcile with Lee's ideas for the Surfer's noble bearing and character. It's referenced in a separate post, but Scioli hits the nail on the head (and rather bluntly) when he speaks of the scenes where the Surfer, in his role as herald, refuses to summon Galactus when he encounters worlds with sentient life:

" 'I cannot summon Galactus here, where life abounds!' Two panels later the Silver Surfer serves up Earth on a platter to Galactus. If something happened between those two panels that made Surfer suddenly forget the value of life, you probably should’ve told us about it. That’s an important piece of story information, unlike the gratuitous flashbacks that make up the bulk of this 38-page story."

Lee continues his train of thought in the 2007 documentary, Sentinel of the Spaceways: The Comic Book Origins of the Silver Surfer:

"And then I decided, I want to use him in a lot of stories--and what I want to do is have him really be my voice. I want him to say all the things that maybe I've been thinking of for years, like 'We live in the greatest planet in the world [CF: (sic)]--there's enough food for everybody, we have sunshine, we have enough water, beautiful fields. Everybody should be happy living on Earth, it's paradise. And yet, are we crazy? We fight each other, we hate each other, we tear the place up--what is the matter with us? Are we an insane race?' Or I wanted the Silver Surfer to mouth all those kind of thoughts--as if somebody coming from a rational world were to see all the nutty, irrational things that human beings do."

Not everyone was on board with the Surfer's apostolic, spiritual, "biblically pure" approach to the Surfer, an approach which also may have factored into decreasing sales of the first Surfer series. Writer J.M. DeMatteis, however, featured in the same documentary, was one of the biggest boosters of this aspect of the Surfer's character.

"You know, this is the guy who had 'Stan's Soapbox' on the Bullpen page, so here it was... and the first issues were double-size, 44-page stories? So, it was a 44-page Stan's Soapbox, essentially--you know, he got to talk about whatever was on his mind, and do it in this wonderfully melodramatic but truly heartfelt... Stan at his best was always so from the heart. And that's why I love that character and I love those books so much.

"A lot of people out there are gonna get the Christ on a surfboard thing and roll their eyes and wanna walk away--but me, I'm like 'Yeah! Christ on a surfboard!' I love the philosophical aspects of the character--I love the sort of Lord Byron poses and and the long speeches... it reminds me of Rod Serling would always have these characters giving these wonderful long outraged speeches about humanity. No one had done anything quite like what Stan did with the Surfer then."

Interestingly, there were others who tried to follow Lee's lead in this respect when including the Surfer in their stories--Roy Thomas in Sub-Mariner, Gerry Conway in Mighty Thor, and even Englehart in The Defenders, though with each writer stopping short at long-winded monologues (which, admittedly, were unnecessary since there were others present with the Surfer in these later stories). Mostly, it demonstrated that the Surfer's observations could be an important part of his character, without beating us over the head with them.

In this look at Lee's take on the character he fleshed out from Jack Kirby's creation and presentation of the Surfer in Fantastic Four #48 (over 50 years ago, if you can wrap your head around that), and then going on to define him much further in his own series, it seems clear how much Lee invested in the Surfer as a writer--his "first big self-conscious stab at creating something ambitious and meaningful ... his attempt at something important, his big statement," as Scioli postulates. It's fair to wonder, then, what opinion Lee might have of how the Surfer was handled by other writers, or whether he could think of any later stories that stand out for him and perhaps gave him a sense of accomplishment at having developed a character who stood the test of time. The closest he addresses that point, to my knowledge, is from a comment he makes during his interview in the documentary, which is presented here and perhaps fittingly brings this post to a close.

"I'm sure they did a wonderful job. I couldn't get myself to read the stories--I could not get myself to read Silver Surfer stories that other people wrote, 'cause... I wouldn't care if Shakespeare had written 'em, I'd have been disappointed. (laughter)"


Anonymous said...

Thanks for this post, C.F. A pretty insightful and well-researched take on why the Surfer comic wasn't successful.
I have a couple of the originals and some reprints, and they really are beautiful to look at, but there just isn't much to build a character around. The Surfer doesn't have much to do except fly around and bemoan his fate. Imagine a comic about me with a jet-pack. It wouldn't sell! Still, the Surfer covers would just knock your socks off. I had the one where he fights the Torch in a plastic thing on my wall for a few years, but when I moved I got lazy and gave up on decorating.
Great post!

Rick said...

A nice follow up to your previous post. A wonderful examination of the Surfer. The Tom Scioli article was interesting and thought-provoking. I had all the Surfer books, bought them off the stands. They're gone now, but I did pick up the 2nd Marvel Masterwork Silver Surfer volume. All in all, pretty weak story-telling. Nice pictures though.

Comicsfan said...

M.P. and Rick, thanks for the nice words. Nearly fifty years after the fact, and with the stories of the original series popping up on the PPOC lately, it felt like the subject merited a closer look. Lee clearly remains fond and proud of the first Surfer series--but it would certainly be interesting to hear reminiscences from him (particularly from a business perspective) as to what he might have been thinking as it became more and more clear that the book was in trouble. I get the impression that he felt it was important to stay the course, in terms of the basic way the Surfer's character was handled and his continued presence on Earth--but putting speculation aside and hearing his actual insight on the matter would be riveting.

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