Thursday, June 15, 2006

Where Soars the Silver Surfer . . . There Must He Soar Alone!
Part One

Although it's hard to view individual achievements in mainstream history outside of their respective contexts, the Silver Surfer's first, short-lived series is enough of an anomaly that it deserves to be judged outside the mainstream of Marvel's typical 1960s output. Conventional wisdom holds that the value of early Marvel's output can be judged solely by the outputs of Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, two strongly idiosyncratic artists whose work defined the burgeoning Marvel style (admittedly, the former moreso than the latter -- Ditko's specific quirks having proved a bit more resistant to assimilation than Kirby's). Stan Lee, when he is not explicitly vilified*, is often simply downplayed. I've been guilty of this myself, but it's an understandable impulse: the strength of the art in vintage Fantastic Four and Spider-Man tales is strong enough that you sometimes wish Lee would just shut up and let us enjoy the pretty pictures.

But despite the fact that Lee, as the primary writer for Marvel's entire line throughout the sixties, was himself responsible for more bad and mediocre stories than anyone else at the company, and despite the fact that his dual roles as writer and editor often precipitated conflict between his collaborators' purely artistic considerations and his awareness of commercial realities, he also appreciated the creative advances that the company had made in such a comparatively short period. All Marvel features were not created equally, and while it may be easy to hold Lee responsible for the many uninspired and underwhelming stories that the company produced during the sixties**, he was also able to take advantage of the creative climate for his own benefit.

As he has often said, the character closest to his own heart has always been the Silver Surfer, and he guarded this prize jealously. Kirby created the Surfer almost as an afterthought in 1965, during the first Galactus storyline in Fantastic Four***. Conceived as a herald to span the cosmos on behalf of Galactus, the character appeared sporadically in Fantastic Four and a handful of other titles before finally gaining his own book during Marvel's 1968 expansion. But the artist who was chosen to illustrate the Surfer's solo adventures was not Kirby, but John Buscema. It's easy to infer the reasons for this: Kirby's conception of the character was strictly at odds with Lee's. Of course, inference is only really educated guessing. At the time of the Surfer's debut, Kirby was extremely busy, producing some of the best work of his Marvel tenure on Fantastic Four, Thor and Captain America (which had graduated into a full feature after many years sharing the flip-book Tales to Astonish with Iron Man). He was also supposedly at work on a new Inhumans featuree. The Inhumans never actually got their own mag during this period, but a Kirby-created Inhumans feature was later published in the pages of Amazing Adventures. It's entirely possible, in light of Kirby's busy work schedule, that the slight was not made with malice aforethought. But considering Lee's affection for the character it's hard to dismiss other possible motivations. All things being equal, the motivations of the original actors will be lost to us.

The Surfer had not, up to 1968, been granted a specific origin. Kirby envisioned the Surfer as something of a tabula rasa, a naive construction of Galactus' will****. The Surfer's early appearances made no reference to any life prior to his servitude, and sure enough, the plots often revolved around the notion of the Surfer as an extremely credulous naif, easily tricked into fights and easy prey for the likes of Dr. Doom. This is something of a stock Kirby type. When he went to DC and was given a free hand to create his own universe of characters, this type -- innocent, big-eyed, full of wonder -- appears, with some adjustment, throughout his solo books. Not a year and a half after the Surfer first appeared, Lee and Kirby also introduced the similarly-conceived Him (nee Adam Warlock), a character who would amazingly remain fairly close to his original conception -- an inherently innocent being finding his place in the universe -- through a number of revamps under multiple creators.

No, although it may seem like an extremely underhanded thing to have done, essentially pulling rank on Kirby to assure that his vision of the character was the one that went to market, the decision was ultimately exonerated by the fact that the book would prove to be Lee's finest hour as a solo scripter. Whereas the value of Lee's contributions have been a source of controversy in regards to almost every significant feature developed by Marvel during the period, the primacy of Lee's vision in the printed origin and early adventures of the Silver Surfer -- as opposed to the actual credit for creating the character in the first place -- has never been in doubt. Lee created Norrin Radd, Shalla Bal, Zenn-La, Mephisto and Al Harper -- all the elements of the Surfer's mythology that remain in place to this day. Certainly, Kirby's Surfer would have been radically different, but it's all too easy to use the potentiality of what "might have been" as an excuse to dismiss what actually is. We'll never know what Jack's Surfer would have been, so we can't judge it: it would probably have looked good, but other than that, who knows? Perhaps a chronically naive, child-like and impressionable protagonist would have simply proven too flimsy a foundation to build an ongoing feature.

John Buscema is an artist who has long been hailed for his professionalism above all else. An exquisite craftsman, he also happened to be a willing company man, the kind of good sport who would later gain much infamy within industry circles for his "chalk talks" at the Marvel Bullpen, extolling the values of facile craft to younger artists in such a way as might be easily confused with blatant hackery*****. The creative conflicts that had marked Lee's partnership with Ditko, and were then close to sundering his relationship with Kirby, would never become an issue with Buscema.

If you don't have a taste for Lee's particularly melodramatic verbiage, the virtues of the first Silver Surfer series may remain opaque. Certainly, although he rates as one of the finest craftsmen of his generation, Buscema simply did not have anywhere near the visual imagination Kirby did. Often times you can see Buscema consciously borrowing technics from Kirby -- the trademark Kirby Krackle, for instance. Buscema often noted in interviews that he had little affection for superheroes and was far more comfortable with more human-level adventure stories, which certainly makes sense given his long association with Conan, a strictly human protagonist despite his fantastic adventures. But there is also something of a casual, naturalistic streak in Buscema's art that stands apart from Kirby's more mannered, design-oriented style. Whereas Kirby never drew a figure that didn't seem perfectly poised and exquisitely heroic****** (even his villains and passers-by seemed to be chiseled from granite), Buscema had a knack for regular, every day figures in casual movement. So the Surfer's body language, while still certainly exaggerated to match the breathless tone of Lee's purple prose, was far more informal. Kirby couldn't draw crackling energy or cosmic bolts without endowing the action with some notion of grandeur, but when Buscema drew the Surfer tossing around cosmic energy there was something almost offhand about the way he did it. Buscema's Surfer was identifiably human in his proportion and expression.

It is impossible to look at the series as anything other than an allegorical playground for Lee's moral sensibilities. There's very little in the way of soap opera or continuing plotlines, certainly not in the same way that almost every other Marvel book of the period featured multiple ongoing parallel narratives. What little soap opera content there is is constrained by the fact that the Surfer's true love, Shalla Bal, lives untold millions of light years away. She shows up frequently enough to be a presence, but it's a much more restrained love affair than anything else at Marvel at the time, insomuch as the two lovers can't even exchange fervid glances with melodramatic thought balloon floating over their heads.

The series' original format was rather unorthodox -- double-sized issues filled with an original story twice the length of a conventional Marvel comic. Although this unusual format has been attributed to Martin Goodman's desire to try the viability of different price points and formats (this was concurrent with the short-lived Spider-Man black and white magazine), there's no doubt that Lee attacked the format with every bit of enthusiasm he could muster. There's a lot of room in these issues, and shorn of the need for extraneous exposition or a superfluous supporting cast, the series is surprisingly direct. Just in terms of structure this is Lee's most developed writing, book-length stories devoted less to moving any ongoing narrative than in taking the time to establish themes and pointed allegory in the context of self-contained narratives. Metaphor and allegory (oftentimes of the ham-fisted variety, it must be said) were always Lee's preferred devices, but they had never been as centrally important as they would become in this series.

*Thankfully, you don't see this a lot these days. The last decade has brought a more judicious reassessment of Lee's contributions, and considering the fact that this has come primarily without any commensurate downgrading of Kirby or Ditko's esteem, it is generally a good thing.

**I would rather not court the ire of fandom assembled by going on record as saying that certain specific sixties Marvel features were anything but pure storytelling gold, but some books are simply hard to love despite their cheesy charm -- the Hulk's feature in Tales to Astonish, many of the Sub-Mariner's solo adventures, hell, practically the entire sixties run of Iron Man . . . need I go on? It's not all Amazing Spider-Man #33, folks. I love Ant-Man, but not because it's pretty.

***The Surfer is one of the very few Silver Age Marvel characters with an uncontested paternity -- Roy Thomas was in the office when Stan received the pencils for Fantastic Four #48, and remembers that Stan was as surprised as anyone by the sudden appearance of a silver alien on a surfboard.

****For reference I dug up my copy of The Jack Kirby Collector #23 -- which was, of course, in a box at the very bottom of a large stack of heavy magazine boxes. This issue features the third part of Mike Gartland's series "A Failure to Communicate", focused on the discrepancies and controversies of Stan and Jack's long working relationship. The article in specific deals with the matter of the Silver Surfer's parentage. Re-reading the article again, I was struck by just how partisan it is in tone: it's obvious that Gartland feels very strongly that Kirby was explicitly robbed of the Surfer, or more specifically the right to use his Surfer, by a rapacious Lee. To quote from the final paragraph of his article:
Jack once said in a published interview about why he stopped creating for Marvel: "When I would create something (i.e. a character), they would take it away from me and I would lose all association with it". It is ironic that of all the creations attributed to the Kirby / Lee team, the Silver Surfer -- the one character universally acknowledged as Jack's creation -- would be so dominated and changed by Lee into a character no longer acknowledged by his creator. Time would be kinder to Jack's Surfer in the pages of FF than to Lee's Surfer in the failed first series.

He goes on to conclude with the sentiment that "[with] no malice on either side, and good intentions gone awry, the Silver Surfer turns out to be the prime example of a failure to communicate". This little caveat about "no malice" does little to dispel the notion raised by repeated derogatory references to the Lee / Buscema Surfer that the series was of measurably inferior quality. Anyone without any knowledge of the issues in question would probably take away from this article that the Lee / Buscema Silver Surfer was an obscure failure, rather than one of the most frequently reprinted and fondly remembered books of the period. I consider myself as much of a Kirby fan as any man alive -- I want my Fourth World Archives, dammit -- but I can't dismiss Lee and Buscema's Surfer simply on the grounds of partisan loyalty.

*****See issue #XXX of The Comics Journal, Fearless Front Facer!

******This was a problem later in his career when his fully baroque style had crystallized and he attempted to stretch back into genres other than action / adventure. He made a name for himself with romance in the 1950s, but after the creative leaps of the 1960s his women became increasingly expressionistic characters, with nary a hint of sensuality between them. I know Big Barda has her following, and Beautiful Dreamer is not without a certain charm, but sex was something that, for the most part, remained outside of Kirby's purview. (I say "for the most part" because he could certainly draw sexy gals if he really wanted to -- in that same issue of the Kirby Collector there are unpublished pages from a 70s DC magazine that would have been called True Divorce Cases which reveal a relatively shocking sensuality, as well as pages from a weirdo book called Soul Love that achieve a similar effect. But . . . it's also obvious that Kirby is holding himself back on these pages, trying for a more naturalistic and less Picasso-esque understanding of human form and movement. It works but really only because Kirby was enough of a pro to restrain his natural stylistic inclinations at will -- you can tell he'd rather be drawing something big and weird.)

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