Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Harnessing the Power Cosmic

If you've been reading this blog for any amount of time, you know I'm not exactly quiet about the fact that I think many superheroes are silly. I don't really care for Superman or Batman, and I've said so at length. Nobody seems to remember all the time I spent talking about how great Marvels, but even after almost three years they all still remember the "superheroes are fascist" debate. (And of course I still believe that superheroes are inherently fascist, but that doesn't mean I don't love Marvels.)

I've also discussed my inordinate fondness for Mark Gruenwald's Quasar -- one of the best, most interesting runs on a superhero book in modern times -- but I don't think I've ever really mentioned my favorite superhero. He's a character who has been on the receiving end of many, many bad stories. He's a character who doesn't get any respect from the current Marvel establishment (although that might be changing). He's a character who often seems to be relegated to the limbo of Permanent Guest Star, a powerful deus ex machina used by unimaginative writers whenever they have any kind of "cosmic" storyline, regardless of whether or not he actually belongs in said storyline.

I'm speaking, of course, of the Sliver Surfer.

Superheroes have flown through the air since the very beginning of the genre. Of course, Superman had to wait a few years before he switched from leaping tall buildings to totally breaking the laws of gravity, but it's been one of the most common powers since then, right up there with super-strength and super-speed. At this point, flying almost defines Superman -- just take a look at the commercials for the new movie, all of which stress Superman in flight, Superman poised above Earth looking down, Superman swooping between the skyscrapers of Metropolis. It's one of the most basic fantasies of every human being on the face of the planet -- to take off like a bird, free from the constraints of gravity, swooping and soaring through the sky and into the heavens.

The Silver Surfer doesn't just fly -- he is flight. He's the only superhero who makes the act of flying look graceful. Sure, superheroes can look powerful and sleek and fast, but can you think of a single picture of Superman or Thor or Captain Marvel or Storm or Green lantern that ever emphasized their grace in motion? The Surfer is the only superhero who actually seems to enjoy the process of flight (Samaritan in Astro City doesn't count) as more than a means of getting from one way to another. Just the very idea of flight is, for the Surfer, bound up in the notion of freedom and self-determination -- he won't be bound and he can't be imprisoned. Of course, many of the Surfer's stories deal explicitly with the idea of being imprisoned, either figuratively by circumstances and responsibility or literally, as in being imprisoned on the planet Earth by a fifty-foot tall purple space god.

If superheroes are, at their root, bound up in the process of wish fulfillment, then the Surfer stands starkly at odds with the rest of his four-colored brethren. Unlike most other superheroes, the Surfer isn't about using power to right wrongs or fight crime -- imposing his will on a chaotic or cruel or uncaring world. Although the Surfer rights his share of wrongs, he's more concerned with understanding the world -- the universe -- around him than in trying to impose any objective sense of order. In this respect, he's the model for a number of the iconoclastic characters who followed, folks like Swamp Thing, Howard the Duck and Concrete.

I'm always frustrated by people who point to the Surfer as being somehow inescapably absurd -- like the idea of a six-foot tall silver man on a surfboard is somehow more inherently weird than a guy who dresses like a bat to work on his Oedipal issues. Well, no, the Black Racer is absurd -- a black dude in multicolored medieval armor who races around on magic skis to collect the souls of the dead? That's weird. But the Surfer really makes sense if you think about it. Sure, on Earth surfing is a weird hobby associated with beachcombers and hippies. But in space, a flat object shaped so that it just happens to look like a surfboard might be the most expedient way for a demigod to travel. He doesn't use a spaceship and he can survive in the vacuum of space -- the board is all he needs, a focus and a conduit for the energies required to travel. We've seen the Surfer fly without the board at various times and it's extremely inefficient, channeling energy through his hands to propel himself in the direction he wants to go. The board is a tool, and the purpose of that tool would make as much sense on Earth, where surfing carries goofy connotations, as on the distant world of Zenn-La.

The problem with the Surfer is that he is an extremely difficult character to write well. Although there have been many good Silver Surfer stories, there have also been a pile of pointless, redundant or just plain stupid Surfer stories, the likes of which make the character's fans grit their teeth in consternation. In this respect the character shares a lot with Doctor Strange. Both characters possess immense power, and both characters' adventures can be near-limitless in scope, or at least only limited by the writer's imagination. But because of these attributes, many writers just plain don't seem to understand how the characters need to be written. They can't just be plugged into a villain-of-the-month superhero format. They have very specific genres (speculative fiction and high fantasy, respectively) and they don't need to be changed in order to fit into genres that specific creators may have more experience with. Shoving Dr. Strange into a massive crossover like House of M doesn't make any sense considering the fact that anyone reading the story has to basically ignore the fact that Strange could singlehandedly fix the problem himself with the right spells.

Similarly, every time a new cosmic bad guy shows up, the Surfer invariably follows right behind, but just as invariably gets his ass kicked or teleported away or something like that in the first act, both to prove how bad the bad guys is and to get someone as powerful as the Surfer off the board before he screws up the story. And then the hero of the book figures out some ingenious way to beat the villain without the Surfer's help and the character just gets devalued a little more because he got taken down by a chump who even XXXX could beat and will be forgotten in very little time. Or even worse, a hero is fighting an insanely powerful villain, and then the Surfer shows up to beat the villain, essentially obviating the hero in his own book -- I can remember this exact scenario happening in Daredevil, Hulk and Fantastic Four, and that's just off the top of my head.

The Silver Surfer is not a deus ex machina, he's not a chump, and he deserves better. I once had a discussion with Scott Tipton (of Comics 101 fame) about whether or not the Surfer was really cut out to be a protagonist in his own book. Tipton argued that the Surfer worked best as a perennial guest star, appearing infrequently. I don't agree. Obviously, if you're going to insist on writing the Surfer as some sort of regular superhero title, with a supporting cast of Galactus, Thanos, Nova et al. moving through the book like a soap opera, the results are going to be disappointing. But the Surfer isn't a superhero and shouldn't be written like one. All you need is a writer with some imagination, and there is literally no limit to the kinds of stories you could tell with a character like the Surfer.

Look at what Alan Moore did for Swamp Thing. There you had another character with ambiguous motivations and ill-defined powers, who for many years had proven extremely difficult to write. He didn't work as a superhero fighting evil and having superhero adventures, and many of the writers who came between Len Wein and Moore flailed around because they didn't seem to know just what to do with a character like that. So what did Moore do? Expended a modicum of brainpower to figure out how to tell stories with a character who didn't necessarily fit into the superhero mold. He may not be patrolling Houma in a Swamp-Car, looking for evil to foil with Muck Boy the Swamp Wonder at his side, but he has conflict, motivation and drama just like any other well-defined character. All Swamp Thing needed was someone to come along and figure out how to tell stories that focused on what made that specific character unique, instead of merely trying to shoehorn a square peg into a round hole. (Of course, now Swamp Thing faces the problem that since Moore redefined him everyone has more or less used the same model, and with a couple notable exceptions, he's been the exact same character since 1985. And as you can tell from the fact that his last series was ignominiously cancelled, that tactic seems to have run out of steam.)

The Silver Surfer just needs a little bit of imagination. I'm not going to cast aspersions on the folks who run Marvel, because they have produced some good books for the company since they took over. But for the most part it doesn't seem like anyone in the editorial department understands Marvel's roster of science-fiction and fantasy characters. If it's not a relatively street-level or character-oriented concept, they either try to massage it so that it becomes a street-level character-oriented drama, or they just pretend it doesn't exist. That seems to be changing a little bit -- after a few false starts, the cosmic books seem to be getting a significant push with the current Annihilation series. I haven't read it yet but I've heard generally good things -- I imagine I'll get around to it sooner or later, because I do try to follow the Surfer. But will the series prove to be merely another disappointment in a long line of Surfer-related disappointments? We shall see.

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