Monday, June 24, 2019

The Thunder God, the Deceiver, and the Surfer!

Nearly seven years ago, I'd written pretty much what I felt was all I had to say about my take on the classic Silver Surfer #4 from early 1969. Looking over that post once more, I found myself nodding my head in reflection, mostly agreeing with the in-a-nutshell assessment I'd jotted down which wasn't exactly a glowing account of the handicap I'd felt the story was under and the various things that seemed to hamper it. But over the years, my head kept going back to that issue, which I still regard as one of the pinnacles of the Surfer's short-lived series. Writer Stan Lee boasts on the issue's splash page that its story is "perhaps the greatest fantasy saga of all time!", which in a broad sense has some truth to it. (Maybe not the greatest, but it's arguably right up there; I'd be hard-pressed to actually pick a number one.) That story was published over fifty years ago, and both writing and art still hold up incredibly well. The cover alone ranks in the top ten of all time (that call I am willing to put on record), while the story's pacing and gripping characterizations are prime examples of what established Marvel Comics as an industry juggernaut.

Which is partly what brings me back to it today, I suppose. The overriding reason, however, is that I haven't been comfortable with the short shrift I provided it, given its place in comics history and the effort that must have been put into its production--nor did I do the story justice, which I must say is a page-turner and not a bad Thor story, either. The prior post remains a "talking points" rundown of elements which are mostly focused on the Surfer vs. Thor scenario; but it's high time the PPC expanded on this classic tale and painted a more complete picture of its contribution to the genre that many of us have found to be so compelling.

And fittingly, we should begin with this issue's stand-out star--which in this case, contrary to the book's masthead, turns out to be someone other than a gleaming, glistening alien with a surfboard.

Loki, the god of evil and mischief, whose bitterness against his brother Thor has been the catalyst for so many of his schemes (and for an immortal, that adds up to a long time for someone to spend seething), is a vivid presence throughout this story. Loki has often used cat's-paws to strike at Thor and others, though in '69 we had only just begun to learn about them; and so the notion of concealing his involvement in an attempt against Thor's life still makes for interesting reading, and certainly adds to his character in yet a further demonstration of his obsession in that regard.

I still find it a nice touch when John Buscema or any other artist shows Loki (or Thor, for that matter) on horseback. Both gods have other means to transport themselves to a distant locale in Asgard--yet showing them as typical Asgardians adds to the flavor of the setting. But while Thor benefits from the visibility of being seen galloping throughout the realm, or even simply with his fellows, Loki is often covering his tracks when immersed in a scheme; one would think an open ride to the Cavern of Shadows is something he'd want to avoid advertising.

Speaking of Buscema, this issue also notably marked the point that inker Joe Sinnott was removed from the book, reportedly at Buscema's behest, which is why you may have noticed the Surfer having a distinct difference in appearance than in the first three issues of the series which Sinnott worked on. His replacement--Buscema's brother, Sal--would remain on the book for another three issues, after which its large-format page count would shift to a standard 20 pages and a smaller price.

Once at his destination, Loki mystically sifts through possible choices for one he can dupe to challenge Thor. With the exception of Hercules, his candidates all turn out to be mortal (which would also be the case in future stories). Yet the Hulk is rejected due to his lack of skill; and the Thing's mortality alone is enough to disqualify him. But the next prospect that crosses his mystic path looks promising indeed.

On his return to Asgard, Loki is so giddy with anticipation (well, giddy on the evil side) that he throws caution to the wind when encountering Thor's comrades in arms, who in turn seek out Thor in order to warn him of Loki's threat.

With his path forward now set, Loki proceeds to Earth--though we have some time before landfall to take in one of the moments of solitude that Lee often provides for the Surfer, in which he bemoans his fate as well as the perceived failings of the human race. And while there are a number of locales on Earth where the Surfer could isolate himself from the madness of those he shuns, in this instance he chooses a lush setting where the animal kingdom holds sway.

(What amazing instincts Buscema demonstrates in that panel with the Surfer's anguished reflection.)

While the Surfer is correct in pointing out the lack of avarice and smoldering hatred in wildlife, Lee provides him with something of a pass here, given that animals in the wild need not be hungry to kill others (animal or human) they perceive to be either a danger or an intrusion, or simply a threat to their position in a herd. (The Surfer even received such a lesson only recently, when he found himself a victim of a pack of Yetis who attacked him out of blind fear and savagery.) In spite of Buscema's imagery, I wouldn't trust my life to the assertion that not one of those animals in that setting was interested in making an unprovoked attack; in the Surfer's case, I wouldn't dangle that leg too near the water where that crocodile's on approach, sport.

But in terms of naked aggression and outright hostility and viciousness, even the Surfer during his time on Earth may have never encountered it on the scale of what he's about to experience at the hands of the being who intrudes on his respite.

As often as Loki has met defeat from Thor et al. (including mere mortals such as the Avengers), we can all probably agree that he's hardly one to be judging someone's prowess or battle skill. We can also boil down the success of Loki's scheme here to a simple matter of deduction: If Loki's power can't clean Thor's clock, and yet Loki can wipe the floor with the Surfer, then how does he expect the Surfer to contend against his half-brother? But hold that thought for the time being.

As we've seen, Loki has had no problem provoking the Surfer into trying to stop him from lashing out at the humans he now turns his rage to (and thus baiting the Surfer into unwittingly demonstrating his abilities); but the real reward to the reader here is in seeing how much of an effort Loki must make to defend himself from the Surfer's attack, as he begins to see his pawn as an upstart mortal who believes he can challenge a god. It's consistent with Lee's usual treatment of Loki, a wily god who has been known to overplay his hand and underestimate the force(s) he contends against.

Having ceased his attack and made it seem as a test for the Surfer's suitability, Loki now acts as a suppliant, who pleads with the Surfer to use his power to quash a power play by Thor to use his armies to usurp the throne of Asgard and destroy the realm's current ruler, Odin. And thanks to Thor indeed marshalling his armies (to meet the threat from his half-brother that his friends warned him of), Loki has the perfect visual to prove that Thor's attack is imminent.

Loki goes on to explain why only the Surfer can save Asgard, though his glib words of course skim past his true motives: "Thou art a stranger! None wouldst suspect thee!" And so, with Loki's assurance that the barrier of Galactus will not stop their passage to Asgard, the Surfer agrees to do what he can in Asgard's defense--and to sweeten the deal, Loki also offers assurances that the Surfer, should he succeed in his mission, will remain free to return to his home world and rejoin the woman he loves.

Upon their arrival at Asgard's rainbow bridge, Loki vanishes from the Surfer's side (the better to hide his own involvement, though the Surfer is none the wiser)--and the Surfer prepares to clear his first hurdle.

Buscema wouldn't debut as the new artist on Thor until a year and a half after publication of this story, so if I'm not mistaken this would be his first work in depicting Asgard, its architecture, its warriors, its principal cast, and of course Odin. If that's true, he makes a splendid first footprint here, even adding a jousting tournament for good measure.

But it's at the evening's feast that the Surfer makes his appearance--and his challenge.

As is evident, the Surfer can't help but note the deep feeling and regard that Thor's friends have for him--but since even despots have been known to have their circle of close, loyal friends, Lee appropriately only plants the seed of doubt here, rather than making more of it at this early stage.

Meanwhile, Loki's astral form, floating around the hall like a vulture, is ready to take advantage of any opportunity which will stir the Surfer to action, and attack. Already he has heightened an air of suspicion in the Surfer's mind--and when the tournament concludes, he is ready to capitalize on it.

As you might imagine, there aren't too many lone foes of Asgard who can confidently claim they can decimate its forces (Surtur and Mangog being two examples that come to mind)--but that's just what the Surfer, a mortal, begins to accomplish with devastating effect. Soon enough, Thor makes the decision to enter the fray, yet it's obvious he refrains from doing so in earnest--as opposed to Loki, who has provided his army of one with an advantage which he as yet remains unaware of.

It saps a considerable amount of excitement from this conflict to discover that the Surfer's might has been augmented, to the point where he can hold his own against even gods--which, it must be pointed out, he was managing to do when he battled Loki. On the other hand, we'd already learned from Loki that the Surfer was no match for Thor--which was confusing at the time, since there would have been no reason for Loki to proceed with using him for this mission. We're left to presume that Loki had planned to add to the Surfer's power from the beginning, and was only trying to determine what the Surfer would bring to the table in a fight with the Thunder God in order to see if a power boost would be effective.

As for Asgard's All-Father, Odin, he receives the news of the fight by messenger and acts accordingly... by, er, getting ready to hit the sack. Yet Buscema cuts an imposing figure of him nonetheless.

Back at the site of the carnage, Lee and Buscema have at last isolated Thor and the Surfer for some one-on-one scenes, which is a mixed blessing--for while the Surfer acts as if it's his own skill and power which is successfully seeing him through this struggle, Thor is convinced that cosmic power alone wouldn't normally be able to cut it against gods. The problem here is that he'll be proven correct--which is a shame, since the Surfer would have otherwise ended up giving a good account of himself (and maybe gained a few Thor readers in the process).

With the truth on the verge of coming out, it falls to the Surfer to put all the pieces together, though not as smoothly as it might seem from a reader's perspective. For instance, the fact that he realizes that Loki is the one likely responsible for increasing his power doesn't imply duplicity on his part; he could have simply wanted to give the Surfer the best fighting chance he could have while increasing his chance of survival, nothing more. But with Thor refraining from lashing out against him, and with continued examples of loyalty and concern from those who serve with him, the Surfer can act (or in this case, not act), given what he has come to believe.

Although the details are still sparse to Thor and his comrades, the Surfer dropping Loki's name is enough to cause the god of evil to abort his plan and return the Surfer to his earthly prison. As for Loki himself, no doubt Thor and probably Odin will be having a few words with him--and wouldn't you like to be a fly on that wall.

With this belated review of this issue at last put to bed, it's gratifying to have finally given the work of Lee and Buscema its due in full. With this eye-catcher hitting the stands, there was every reason to believe that Silver Surfer had a bright future ahead of it--with even Marvel acknowledging (in the letters page addressing this issue) that most of the letters they'd been receiving on the series thus far had been laudatory. Yet in six months' time (which worked out to three more issues, on a bi-monthly schedule), Lee's grand experiment of the large-format issues would be history, and what eventually became of Silver Surfer would make their efforts here stand out all the more... at least in the eyes of your humble host.

The Silver Surfer #4

Script: Stan Lee
Pencils: John Buscema
Inks: Sal Buscema
Letterer: Artie Simek


Anonymous said...

The Surfer defied Galactus because humanity was so noble and worth saving...and then in his own book he was constantly complaining how terrible we were :D

Big Murr said...

Vis a vis the Surfer sitting with the animals; it's a common trope amongst writers that animals sense, and are cool with, humans (or humanoids) who are pure of heart and noble of spirit. Which connects with why Mephisto so wanted to add Surfer to his collection.

There's also a raw power aspect at play here. In The Incredible Hulk #121, an army scout observes the Hulk in the Everglades. He reports over his radio: "It's him all right. What else is big, green, and ugly...and walks like it couldn't care less if it stepped on a gator?" To paraphrase for this story "What else is silver and shiny and couldn't care less if a crocodile tried for a bite?"

Marvel's publishing decrees could be so...thick-witted back then (pretty much now, as well). For a while, stories had to be "done in one" and bedamned how distorted and crushed the final result might be. This tale was mostly saved by being in an oversized volume, but still could have benefited by another issue to give it some breathing room. Well, maybe not really necessary, but it wouldn't have hurt.

Colin- I never considered that angle before. It's a solid point. Now you have me wondering...

Comicsfan said...

Colin, one thing to note is that, at that point, the Surfer hadn't yet spent any time among the human race, with the exception of Alicia. Only later would he be exposed to the confusing, even maddening contradictions of our dual nature--some of us kind and generous, others cruel and hateful, to say nothing of our long history of war and violence that continues to this day. The Surfer's protestations to Galactus, to me, were based on seeing our potential as a race--a debate he has in greater depth with Ardina, a creation of Galactus who sees only the worst in us and implores the Surfer to leave us to our fate.

Murray, that's a fair point regarding the Surfer falling in with other characters whose air of nobility is exemplified for the reader by the trust placed in him by lesser creatures. (Though even the Surfer gives the impression that such a tranquil scene depended on the bellies of those sharing the glade with him being sated!)

Big Murr said...

Maybe the Surfer created matter from air molecules with a simple wave of his fingers. (a power cosmic ability that came and went at random in his history) The critters might be happy and relaxed because he just provided a major all-they-could-eat buffet.

On the matter of humanity's worth, CF has beaten me to what I was coalescing in my brain as the day wore on. I think the Surfer pictures the human race as a big stinky pile of manure from which stellar individuals like Alicia Masters and Al Harper blossom. As long as that potential is there for more such humans, he'll support us.

Killdumpster said...

Used to be mad that I couldn't find the Silver Surfer on the racks. Now that I'm older and have read the reprints, I'm glad I bought Hulk,
FF, Daredevil, etc instead.

What a whiney, mopey bastard. He made Adam Warlock at his most regretful, self-loathing stage seem like "Captain Sunshine".

That is an iconic Loki pose on the splash page, though.

Killdumpster said...

If I was Dr.Strange, after I needed his "power-cosmic" in the Defenders, I'd send him into a reality where Galactus gets tired of his crap and just eats him.

Killdumpster said...

Wouldn't be the only time Strange back-stabbed an ally.

Anonymous said...

There weren't very many happy, contented Marvel superheros. Maybe Johnny Storm, but he had woman trouble, or Tony Stark, up till he started to hit the sauce. Or Reed Richards, till his marriage hit the skids.
None of these guys stayed happy for long!
It was all so we could feel better about ourselves.


Anonymous said...

Got to agree with Killdumpster (weird, eh?) about the Surfer. Not just because he spent so much time whining, but also it seems like having seized on the character - the only classic Marvel character we know for sure was created by Kirby alone - Lee didn't seem to have much idea what to do with him.

Perhaps it was because as great as John Buscema was - and the Surfer was some of his best work, particularly this issue - he simply wasn't a creative artist in the same sense as Kirby or Ditko, which is what the classic "Marvel method" required to work well.


Killdumpster said...

Hah! Sean, oh my brother!

I dug the Surfer when he was learning about humanity, and trying to understand emotions. When it became a cosmic-pity party, that's when I left. He might as well of used the power-cosmic to put a Kleenex dispenser on the front of his board.

Killdumpster said...

MP, I understand that's what drew us to Marvel comics in the first place. Non-perfect heroes with non-perfect lives. Personal conflicts as well as physical.

Surfer was just too weepy. Johnny B's art is always a plus, tho.

Comicsfan said...

Sean and Killdumpster, I think you might enjoy a separate PPC post that explores Lee's approach to the Surfer in more detail.

Anonymous said...

The Surfer had previously led Galactus to many planets, presumably resulting in the destruction of countless civilizations and trillions of individuals. So we must assume that the Surfer never met a single being on any of those planets who was deemed worthy enough to cause him to rebel against Galactus?
And when the Surfer was constantly bemoaning humanity's despicable nature did he ever contemplate his own part in the destruction of so many civilizations?

One more thing - in 1980 Marvel's powers-that-be apparently decided that Jean Grey had to die in Uncanny X-Men #137 because she had destroyed an entire planet and all the beings on it - but the Silver Surfer gets a free pass despite helping Galactus destroy countless planets??

Comicsfan said...

Colin, I believe all of your questions can be answered in one way or another by a 1991 issue of Silver Surfer which reveals how Galactus tampered with his personality in order to rid his new herald of any remorse he would feel in performing his assigned task which at times led him to worlds teeming with life. We saw the condition the Surfer was in when he met Alicia Masters--completely devoted to his master, without a shred of guilt at knowing that he played a part in the imminent destruction of her world. We could assume that, on other worlds, he wasn't put in the position of meeting with any of the indigenous population--and so there was no opportunity for anyone to "reach" him and persuade him to act.

As for the Surfer "getting a pass" from his writers, the floodgates of guilt opened wide in that '91 story; but even before then he was hardly the arrogant and uncaring creature that Dark Phoenix had become, through no fault of her own. It's the true villain who mostly gets a pass--once they've been dealt with, they pay the price in some manner and invariably return with something of a clean slate in terms of their past actions.

Big Murr said...

That 1991 retcon-explanation never quite jigsawed into the Surfer picture for me. The Surfer was always the "Herald with a heart", doing his utmost to find those special planets that could sustain Galactus but didn't have indigenous life. (How often he succeeded was a different matter). This pesky nobility in his heralds is why Galactus tried using a totally immoral creep in Terrax. And when that failed miserably, Galactus was optimistically intrigued with Nova's particular self-centered attitude.

To me, punishing the Silver Surfer feels almost literally like "shooting the messenger". The direct destructive equivalent of Dark Phoenix is Galactus, not the herald.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the link Comicsfan.
I actually don't have a problem with the Surfer being trapped on Earth, for the same reason that I reckon it made sense to combine Mar-Vell with a human (just a pity it was Rick Jones!)- without some connection to the everday, who cares?

The Comics Journal piece on Surfer #1 nails what was wrong with the original series - the writing. You see that in Epic #1, with Lee's Surfer in space. That kind of thing at greater length doesn't bear thinking about.
Not trying to knock Stan Lee, I just don't think science-fiction was his forte. A shame the original didn't last longer - a few issues of Kirby's version would make for an interesting comparison.


Comicsfan said...

Sean, feeling as you do about Lee and his sci-fi writing, I'd rather not see your reaction to the Bullpen note gracing the splash page of the Watcher backup feature, "The Coming of the Krills!", in Silver Surfer #2. You were warned! :D