Tuesday, June 27, 2006

The Great Comic Book Covers

Silver Surfer #4

This is certainly one of the most famous covers from the late Silver Age, and with good reason -- it's a pretty memorable image. It's unusual in that most covers of the period were draped with multiple captions and extraneous information, whereas this cover sticks out for its silence. It's easy to imagine Stan Lee sitting around the Bullpen, trying to decide upon an adequate cover caption -- "When Titans Clash!" or, "The Hammer and the Hero!" or something along those lines, and finally choosing instead to allow the image to stand on its own merits. Anyone perusing the stands would have gotten every bit of information about the issue's contents from the picture: the Silver Surfer fights Thor. Not a lot of ambiguity here.

Unfortunately, as memorably as this cover is (undoubtedly one of my personal favorites), the story inside is just not that great. The early double-sized Silver Surfers were notable for their high-minded, some would even say hysterical use of allegory in the service of Lee's humanistic hobby horses, but this issue unfortunately drops the ball, situated between the excellent first appearance of Mephisto in issue #3 and the Al Harper story in #5 (quite possibly the best Surfer story ever). Lee had a thing with recurring plot devices: if a plot device worked once, it would work a hundred times. When you're writing so many comics on a monthly basis, it's probably hard not to reuse certain ideas -- as I've noted before, Lee was responsible for some pretty bad stories, and given the quantity of his output it is not hard to see that some books were given more thought than others. Just about the single hoariest cliche in early Marvel is Loki tricking or hypnotizing another hero to fight Thor. Just off the top of my head I can think of at least half a dozen instances of this happening -- hell, that's essentially the origin of the Avengers right there. Silver Surfer #4 may have an unbelievably gorgeous cover, but the story is basically Loki tricking the Silver Surfer into fighting Thor. You can dress up a pig and take it to the prom, but good luck getting it to dance . . .

It's slightly amusing to see Loki underestimate the Surfer throughout the story. He approaches the former herald of Galactus with the idea firmly nestled in his head that no mere mortal can possibly approach the power of a god, and then proceeds to get his ass-whupped seven ways to sunday. But somehow the Surfer still manages to get tricked into flying to Asgard and fighting Thor. the Surfer crashes an appropriately Conan-esque feast in the fabled halls of Asgard and despite his misgivings, eventually goads Thor into fighting. Thor is pretty powerful and the Surfer is no slouch either, and they tear things up for a few pages before the Surfer figures out he's been had and leaves. That's it. As the Surfer floats off into the horizon, the assembled Asgardians are left wondering "what the fuck just happened?", but Thor gets the kewpie doll for sounding most clueless, spouting some nonsense about how inherently noble the Surfer is or whatever.

Um, dude, some silver guy on a surfboard just blew through town and demolished half the city, and then flew off when he figured he was getting played -- there are many appropriate responses to this, but speechifying isn't one of them. But I guess if you just got your ass handed to you by a naked man on a surfboard you'd probably try to spin it in the best possible light.

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