Friday, October 19, 2018

Free At Last!

If memory serves, there were six instances* where the Silver Surfer managed to escape the barrier of Galactus while trapped on the planet Earth: (1), when Loki maneuvered him into traveling to Asgard and attacking the mighty Thor; (2) when he streaked into the future, to a time when the barrier no longer existed; (3) when Mephisto dissolved the barrier in a scheme to demoralize him; (4) through his own power, after meditating for an entire year to focus on piercing the barrier; (5) relying on the Hulk's gamma radiation to increase his strength; and (6) when Reed Richards provided him with a one-time-only opportunity to pass through the barrier in accordance with a unique planetary alignment. In one way or another, all attempts met with eventual failure, the last being made in 1982.

*Add two more to the list, if you're counting his "escape" to the Microverse or the misdirection he encountered in the dimension of the Nameless One.

But nearly five years later to the month, writer Steve Englehart, together with artists Marshall Rogers and Joe Rubinstein, launched a brand new Silver Surfer series. And in its first landmark issue, the question of whether the Surfer would still be shackled to our world or, instead, would be soaring among the stars once more is immediately settled in a bold, two-page spread which indicated an entirely new direction for the character--thanks to a single word, which spoke volumes and let the reader know that the Surfer was, finally:

Up until this time, the Surfer was in another type of void, as far as his readership was concerned--consigned to the status of guest star, with the prospect of another series for him on hold due to an informal arrangement with the Surfer's original writer, Stan Lee, to allow him to maintain creative control of the character. By 1982, however, Lee had gradually made a number of exceptions to that request vis-à-vis the growing number of writers who succeeded him**--and with Lee segueing to oversee Marvel's Hollywood projects, he formally released the Surfer to their management after his collaboration with John Byrne in the '82 Silver Surfer one-shot, ending years in virtual limbo for the character's direction.

**Circa 1971, when he was made Publisher--around the time when the "Stan Lee Presents" caption began appearing on each title's splash page.

More appearances in other titles followed, until the new series by Englehart in '87 breaks new ground for the Surfer in his own book. It's a promising first issue, where once again the Surfer received aid from the Fantastic Four to break free from his prison--this time with no cloud hanging over him that practically broadcast to readers that the attempt wouldn't succeed. Instead, we see the Silver Surfer racing toward the infinite, and, at long last, to new storylines that didn't confine him to a single world.

And yet the Surfer himself realizes that there is one loose end which he'll need to confront before moving on with his life--one being who will ultimately decide whether or not he can fully embrace his newfound freedom.

As to the how and why of the Surfer's good fortune, the "why" arrives in the form of Champion--one of the Elders of the Universe, a group that has apparently put a price on the Surfer's head. Champion, of course, needs little excuse to pursue competition with those reputed to have great strength; but in meeting defeat at the Surfer's hands, he reveals that he has a greater purpose in seeking out his foe.

Yes, "unless" the Elders feared the Surfer would escape Earth--which plants the fervent thought in the Surfer's mind that there indeed is a way to be found.

With Champion refusing to disclose any further information and disappearing, that leaves the FF and the Surfer comparing notes on the Surfer's previous attempts at escape. Neither Reed nor the Surfer come up with anything new that might yield the answer; fortunately, there is one other on the team who has, on several occasions, demonstrated a gift for cutting to the chase and tackling the source of a problem.

Ben's theory checks out--and immediately afterward he slips past the barrier and congratulations are happily offered, the Surfer turns his attention to retrieving his board which remains trapped on Earth. But from there, he knows that he must gain the pardon of Galactus to remain free--only this time, he has a bargaining chip if words should fail.

It was Byrne who first established the more personal ties between Galactus and Nova, though in that story Nova's growing love for Galactus was one-sided. Now it appears that Englehart wishes to pursue that "relationship" (I honestly don't know how else to phrase it) in a mutual sense--but to what end is unclear. Presumably, once the Surfer accomplishes his task and formally wins his freedom from his former master, he and Galactus part company--and given the new direction that Englehart has set this series, it seems unlikely that we'll see Galactus as a recurring character in the book and thus begin to keep tabs on the progress of the Galactus/Nova situation. For what it's worth, in succeeding issues, Nova switches her attentions from Galactus to the Surfer--officially making this possibly one of the most pointless storylines of Englehart's career.

On another note, you may find the style of Rogers for this character to be an acquired taste--though I will say, as a regular reader of this series, that his art in the book can grow on you. He does bring a resemblance to Jack Kirby's original concept of the character (while, like Kirby initially, also choosing to omit those absurd shorts that were later added to the torso--will wonders never cease). But there are times when you may find yourself asking if you're reading "the Adventures of Kid Surfer," as lithe and youthful as Rogers renders him. Were it not for his power, it would be difficult to buy anyone being intimidated by the Surfer--not the Skrulls or the Kree, and certainly not Champion or the other Elders.

Following the successful completion of his mission, we return to find a very interesting discussion taking place between the Surfer and Galactus, on a topic that's reared its head often enough: that at times, Galactus himself forgets who he is. Dispassionate... aloof... he roams the cosmos, searching for worlds to sustain him and sate his hunger, heedless of those who must perish in the process. "Emotion is for lesser beings!" "I feel no anger! I know no pity! I merely do what must be done!" With Nova freed, he and his herald should simply be on their way, back to business; instead, he wishes to mete out punishment to the Skrulls by consuming their worlds, even though this being has also claimed in the past that vengeance is not for him.  And so it falls to the Surfer to remind him of the fact that Galactus is Galactus.

Whatever we believe that Galactus is poised to do here, it's Englehart who uses the moment to provide this first issue with a closing scene that fulfills the promise of excitement and potential that was previewed in its beginning--and so, in one awesome, swift motion, the Silver Surfer becomes the character he was meant to be, and soars to his destiny among the stars.

You almost walk away from this issue as if you're seeing the Surfer for the first time, though there is still one tie to his past which must be addressed before he truly soars "free"--his relationship with Shalla Bal, and his reacclimation to his homeworld of Zenn-La, both of which are covered in the following issue.

In the first three issues, Englehart also provides some thoughts on the Surfer's history, as well as where he would like to take the series. Primarily, however, his focus would be on the Surfer as a much different character than we've seen previously: "...[T]he whole thrust of this series is to unleash the Silver Surfer, so he'll win a lot more than he'll lose--and even when he does lose, he won't mope about it..." Hand in hand with that aim, of course, is that the Surfer no longer has cause to mope about his imprisonment on our world--specifically, being forced to coexist with those whom he finds impossible to understand or reason with and who will inevitably destroy themselves. There's admittedly a great deal of truth in how the Surfer views the human race, but we have the news to remind and inundate us with our failings on a daily basis--we generally don't expect to open an adventure comic only to find its title character giving us more of the same.

Rogers, as it turned out, would stay with the new series for only twelve issues (abandoning it for G.I. Joe--how's that for a change of pace), though the book found an able replacement in Ron Lim for a good deal of its run--while Englehart would clock out at just over thirty issues. Silver Surfer hung on for an astonishing 146 issues in all (along with a few annuals), with an eclectic mix of creative talent stepping on and off its surfboard throughout--and while "stopping short" before even hitting the 150-issue mark could be seen as a rebuke of Englehart's perpetual caption for this series ("Space is infinite!", i.e., "There's no limit to the stories we can have for this character!"), and, yes, there were times you had trouble seeing the Surfer for all the guest stars, the series can probably still be counted as a success in light of the fact that, at one time, the future for the Silver Surfer seemed anything but vast.

Silver Surfer #1

Script: Steve Englehart
Pencils: Marshall Rogers
Inks: Joe Rubinstein
Letterer: John Workman


Big Murr said...

"Space is infinite!"

This development for the Surfer is logical and way past due. I recall being excited and intrigued...for about six or seven issues and then lost all interest.

On the one hand, travelling alone meant we once again had the Surfer endlessly talking to himself, like in the old series. And too many stories once again became morality-metaphor plays. The alien planet wasn't a fully functioning civilization, but some weird, "one-joke" world obsessed with some trait to give the humans reading another finger-shake admonition. I recall feeling like I was experiencing the worst episodes of Star Trek

Then there would be a story with a familiar face. Characters that the Surfer and the reader know. This also began to annoy me. Space is apparently about as infinite as Rhode Island, bumping into the same people over and over.

I guess if they had created a credible cast of supporting characters for the Surfer to talk with, it would have sustained me better. But, the nature and power of the Surfer makes creating such a cast pretty difficult.

HellRazor said...

This was a great series for most of its run. Englehart was perfect for this comic, I think it was some of his best work. Epic cosmic storylines that made great use of (and built upon) Marvel's space-borne characters and the Elders of the Universe.

Even beyond Englehart's run, it remained a good read at least up until (and including) the Warlock and Thanos storylines. I quit collecting right around that time.

Not so great toward the end of the run though, from what I've seen.

Most modern writers don't seem to write the Surfer very well. Not sure what he is doing these days, but a couple of years ago he voluntarily became Galactus' herald again, which I thought was completely out of character and illustrated a basic lack of understanding of the character.

Comicsfan said...

I remember coming across those issues where the Surfer rejoined Galactus, HellRazor, and I agree it seems an unusual move on his part given what we've seen here. I don't recall the circumstances, but now I'm curious to revisit that story and discover what prompted his decision. (I also seem to remember other Marvel characters (like the Thing) bringing it up with him, as if it were a casual piece of news that was no great concern, which seems strange in itself.)

Colin Jones said...

After reading the first six I thought triumphantly: "He's forgotten the Microverse one" :D

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