Surf’s Up

One of the most well-known and beloved characters in the Marvel Universe came as a surprise to Stan Lee.

As we’ve discussed previously herein, the majority of Marvel’s comics in their heyday were produced by way of what came to be known as “the Marvel method.” Since Stan was writing every book in the line, and since the majority of the artists were tremendously gifted storytellers in their own right (after all, you don’t waste Jack Kirby’s time telling him how to break down a comic-book page), Stan wouldn’t write a full script and hand it off to the artist. Instead, Stan would discuss the rough plot outline with the artist, where the story was going and what was necessary to advance the narrative. Then the artist would produce the penciled pages, having determined the majority of the story’s detail and pacing independently. Stan would then write the captions and dialogue based on the artist’s finished pencils.

This method was working like a charm on all of the Marvel books, and especially on FANTASTIC FOUR, considered by most then and now to be the high point of the Stan Lee/Jack Kirby collaboration. So let’s picture Stan in his office, looking over the Kirby pencils for FANTASTIC FOUR #48.


As Stan tells the story, he and Kirby had discussed the general story direction, with a cosmic menace arriving on Earth, more powerful than any the FF had ever faced. As Stan looks at the pages, he sees a shiny fellow flitting around on a surfboard.

“Hey, Jack? Who’s this guy?”

Kirby shrugs, and says he figures a bad guy as powerful as this new one would have an advance man, like a herald, to come check out the place first and prepare for his arrival.

So it was that first Stan Lee, and then comics readers everywhere, would be introduced to the Silver Surfer. Immensely popular for decades despite only a handful of starring appearances, the Surfer’s appeal comes solidly from two places: his look, thanks to Kirby’s elegant and brilliantly simple design, and his heart, courtesy of Lee’s characterization and dialogue, some of the best in his career. Let’s take a closer look.

In the pages of FANTASTIC FOUR #48, and continuing in the following two issues (often referred to in retrospect as “the Galactus Trilogy”), the Fantastic Four return to New York from a mission to find a city in turmoil. First the skies are filled with flame which mysteriously does not burn, and then with floating asteroids and “space debris.” As it turns out, the phenomena had been the work of the Watcher, an omniscient alien the FF had encountered before who had helped them on several occasions, despite his race’s oath not to interfere with other worlds or species.


Once again, the Watcher had elected to look the other way on the whole “non-interference” scenario, and was creating the disturbances in an attempt to hide Earth from Galactus, a cosmic entity who traveled the universe looking for the lush, life-giving planets he needed for sustenance, consuming all the planet’s energy and leaving it a lifeless husk.

But the Watcher’s efforts were for naught, as Galactus’ advance scout, the Silver Surfer, easily darts through the floating rubble and lands atop the Baxter Building, the FF’s skyscraper headquarters. The Surfer, a shimmering being astride a floating, flying board, alights and signals for his master Galactus, just before being belted off the rooftop by the Thing.


Soon enough, the enormous Galactus arrives, and after swatting away the attacking Fantastic Four like insects, busies himself with constructing the massive device that will convert the very Earth itself into the energy he needs to survive.


While the FF retreat to plan, the Silver Surfer awakens from Ben Grimm’s haymaker, finding himself in the studio of Grimm’s girlfriend Alicia Masters, a blind sculptress. Through Alicia’s kindness and emotion, the Surfer discovers his own humanity, and resolves to stop his master from consuming the planet and murdering the human race.


While the Surfer is getting chummy with Ben Grimm’s sweetie, the Fantastic Four have their own plans afoot. While Reed and Ben start tearing apart Galactus’ machines in an effort to slow down the operation, the Watcher stretches the definition of “non-interference” to its limit by not only telling the Human Torch exactly what device on Galactus’ headquarters could defeat him, but by opening a gateway to the gargantuan space station so that Johnny can fly there and retrieve it. But remember, the Watcher can’t get involved. Ooooookay.


So while the Watcher is unlocking Galactus’ screen door for the Torch, Reed, Sue and Ben just manage to hold off Galactus until the arrival of the Surfer, who has resolved to stop his master from destroying the Earth, and begs him to reconsider. The Surfer renounces his former master, and Galactus and the Surfer do battle, all the while debating their respective philosophical positions, with the Surfer lobbying for the value of humanity, while Galactus defends his actions as justifiable.


As Galactus is about to destroy the Surfer, the Torch returns and hands over the cosmic doohickey to Reed. Turns out it’s the Ultimate Nullifier, a weapon so powerful “it could erase the entire solar system in a microsecond.” Sounds pretty ultimate, all right. Galactus practically wets himself at the sight of the Nullifier in Reed Richards’ rubbery mitts, and quickly agrees to spare Earth in exchange for the return of the weapon (after giving the Watcher a good case of the stinkeye, that is).


Before Galactus leaves, he turns his attention to his former herald, and removes his ability to journey into space, banishing him forever on the planet he chose over his loyalty to his master.


Fan reaction to the Galactus trilogy was tremendous, and the Silver Surfer made numerous guest appearances in FANTASTIC FOUR and other Marvel series due to popular demand. By 1968, Stan was ready to spin off the Surfer into his own series. But not just a normal series. Each issue of THE SILVER SURFER would be double-sized, with a big-screen approach to the storytelling and plenty of room to really show off both Stan’s writing and the gorgeous pencils of artist John Buscema. Although the series wound up not being a financial success (being cancelled after only 18 issues, although Stan blamed the cancellation not on low sales, but on his schedule not permitting him to continue writing the book, and his refusal to turn what he termed his favorite character over to another writer. Sure enough, the Surfer didn’t get another series for 19 years…), from a creative standpoint, it’s one of the high points of Silver Age Marvel, with Lee and Buscema crafting gorgeous morality plays furthering cementing the Silver Surfer’s role as the Marvel Universe’s resident martyr and Christ figure. Best of all, the premiere issue of THE SILVER SURFER provided a long-overdue look at the Surfer’s heretofore unrevealed origin.


In THE SILVER SURFER #1 (August 1968), we’re shown via flashback the Surfer’s homeworld, Zenn-La, a technological paradise that held no joy for one of its residents, Norrin Radd. Norrin was restless and dissatisfied with the utopian Zenn-La, feeling its people had lost their desire for adventure and thirst for knowledge, due to thousands of years of living without effort.


Norrin’s dissatisfaction with life on Zenn-La was a mystery to his girlfriend Shalla Bal, who tried to convince Norrin of the wonders of their planet, but to no avail.


But the paradise of Zenn-La would be shattered by the arrival of Galactus, Destroyer of Worlds. The computerized defense systems of the planet were powerless against Galactus, and soon the people of Zenn-La waited helplessly to die. Only Norrin Radd retained the will to fight, and after using what remained of Zenn-La’s science to quickly create a spacecraft, flew skyward to confront Galactus.


His ship drawn in to Galactus’ massive vessel, Radd is soon face to face with Galactus himself, who is preparing to consume Zenn-La’s energies. Musing to himself, Galactus remarks that if only he had a herald to find him suitable worlds to consume, he could spare populated ones like Zenn-La. To save his world, Norrin Radd agrees to give up his humanity and Shalla Bal and eternally serve Galactus.


Galactus transforms Norrin Radd into the Silver Surfer, and dispatches him into space to find new worlds for Galactus to feed on.


After a tearful goodbye to Shalla Bal, the Surfer departs his homeworld forever.

The Surfer’s origin was masterfully done by Lee and Buscema, a fitting beginning to one of Marvel’s best creations. (It did, however, raise some questions about his FANTASTIC FOUR appearances: if the Surfer was willing to sacrifice himself to save his own world, why did he need such convincing from Alicia Masters to stand up for the Earth? Later writers suggested that Galactus had subtly tampered with the Surfer’s memories over time to make him less bound by morality, an explanation that’s as good as any, I suppose.)

Later issues of THE SILVER SURFER delved even further into the Surfer’s morality. In issue #3, “The Power and the Prize!” (December 1968), readers were first introduced to Mephisto, the Marvel Universe’s answer to Satan himself.


Mephisto can sense the Surfer’s power and nobility, and resolves to destroy him so that his example cannot inspire the rest of humanity, whose damned souls populate Mephisto’s hellish realm. Mephisto lures Shalla Bal to Earth, then kidnaps her to his underworld, to use as leverage against the Surfer.


The Surfer tracks Mephisto and confronts him, demanding Shalla Bal’s release. In a scene straight out of the New Testament, Mephisto tries to tempt the Surfer, first with wealth and riches, then with the pleasures of the flesh, and finally with power, but the Surfer is unmoved.


Mephisto then tries to physically destroy the Surfer, eventually reducing him to a random thought, but the Surfer’s purity is too much for Mephisto to contend with. Finally, the Surfer goads Mephisto into returning Shalla Bal to Zenn-La, and the defeated Mephisto sends the Surfer back to Earth.


Following issues of THE SILVER SURFER don’t disappoint, including a trip to Asgard to duke it out with Thor (thanks to Loki’s deception) in #4 and an ode to the bravery of the common man in #5. The first six issues of THE SILVER SURFER are currently available in softcover collection at Barnes & Noble, and they’re very much worth picking up. However, for my money, the best Surfer story of all is the 1978 original graphic novel THE SILVER SURFER by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.


By 1978, the acrimonious Kirby/Marvel split was already history, as was his much-publicized stint at DC. Around 1976, Kirby had returned to Marvel, and had created books like THE ETERNALS, MACHINE MAN and DEVIL DINOSAUR for the publisher, as well as returning to his creation CAPTAIN AMERICA for a run as writer/artist. It was rumored that the ’78 Surfer graphic novel was created as part of a movie pitch, with the intention that this would be the version of the character that the film would follow. It makes sense, as the book retells the Surfer’s battle with Galactus without any involvement of the Fantastic Four, and the Surfer’s strong moral values are up front from the beginning, with him needing no convincing to fight to save the Earth.


Lee and Kirby also introduce a new character to the Surfer mythos, Ardina, a prospective mate for the Surfer created by Galactus in the hopes of tempting him back to his service, abandoning Earth in the process.


The Surfer and Ardina fall in love, and Ardina too defies Galactus to stand with the Surfer, and is cruelly taken from him in a demonstration of Galactus’ limitless power.


In looking back, with the knowledge of the second ugly split between Kirby and Marvel to come, it’s difficult to know how closely Lee and Kirby really collaborated on the book, but this much is clear: here we have an example of both men at the absolute top of their game. Kirby’s art is reminiscent of his classic Silver Age Marvel stuff, but also shows the confidence and innovative panel breakdowns of his DC FOURTH WORLD work. Given the luxury of space (the book runs 100 pages), Kirby’s not afraid to open things up with plenty of full-page splashes, like these gorgeous renderings of the Surfer and Galactus.

thesurfer.jpg galactus2.jpg

At the same time, Kirby flexes his storytelling muscle with this sequence illustrating the Surfer’s fall from grace, having been banished to Earth for disobeying his master.


As for Stan, while the Silver Surfer’s dialogue had always given the writer an opportunity to delve into the philosophical (and occasionally border on a little religious martyrdom) here he balances the Surfer’s pathos and Galactus’ imperious monologues with a genuinely light touch, providing some of the best writing of his career. Here’s a bit of the Surfer’s dialogue, having just fought off a band of thugs who attempted to befriend him in order to capture and exhibit him like a carnival freak:

”Power is your god, and you bow to force and might! Thus you worship naught but folly! For power is blind – and serves any who pay it homage!

Only truth is constant. Only faith endures. And only love can save them.

But where can love be found?”

Stan calls back the moment in the book’s final panels:


The 1978 SILVER SURFER graphic novel isn’t easy to find nowadays, and sadly, Marvel shows little interest in re-releasing it. If you should stumble across it somewhere, don’t pass it up.

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