Thursday, June 29, 2006

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

The Silver Surfer's origin was told in the first issue of the Surfer's own series, released in August of 1968. Although, as discussed in previous entries, the Surfer's origin was almost certainly the exclusive brainchild of Stan Lee, it is also one of the very best origin stories in the history of comics, and perhaps the single most interesting origin to come out of sixties Marvel.

I can already hear the protests: it is not so, you cry, what of Spider-Man's origin? Those handful of pages in Amazing Fantasy #15 -- I can hear the argument -- surely constitute one of, if not the single most effective origin in the history of comics. Yes, Spider-Man's origin is effective, and still powerful to this day, but it suffers from the same problem as almost all origin stories: it's, quite frankly, a bother.* The main problem with almost all superhero origins is that they are saddled with the burden of being a beginning to a story that can by definition have no end. Superhero stories are best when picked up in media res, a perpetual now that presents the situations in a constantly moving but essentially static position. For almost any superhero you care to mention, the origin is the beginning of a character arc that can never be completed to any satisfaction, least ways not in "real" continuity or the context of a movie. Best just to get it out of the way as quickly as possible, or you drag your narrative down.**

Let's take a closer look at Spider-Man. Great origin, works extremely well: establishes who Spider-Man is, what he does and why he does it in a very concise space. The ultimate O'Henry twist ending confers a compact and unassailable moral motivation . . . and then you can get on to the business of telling actual Spider-Man stories. I would argue that the origin itself is not actually a "Spider-Man" story; it's a story about how Spider-Man came to be, told in the format of a shock-ending suspense story, and only a prologue to the main event. Same with the Fantastic Four: the first issue of Fantastic Four has the origin pretty much randomly plopped down in between the main action, fighting the Mole Man and a bunch of monsters. Necessary, yes, but of little real consequence.

In a conventional superhero serial, the main protagonist cannot exhibit appreciable change in the course of a story. The Spider-Man of 1966 is still the Spider-Man of 2006 in most conceivable ways, save for a few cosmetic changes. The motivations he had at the end of his first story in Amazing Fantasy are still his primary motivations. He will never outgrow his preoccupations with responsibility and justice (not to say that he should), or move past his Uncle's death in any meaningful way, because the event still defines him, and if he did he wouldn't be Spider-Man anymore (or, at least, wouldn't feel the same compulsion to be Spider-Man, which amounts to the same thing). From a purely nuts and bolts perspective on craft, having to begin a Spider-Man story with Spider-Man's origin is a horrendous imposition, because in terms of conventional narrative the origin is pretty much complete in an of itself. To any real Spider-Man story it is an appendix: it defines the reader's understanding of the character but not the story. It's essentially narrative ballast. The normal rules of storytelling are warped in a serial environment, and therefore you can't expect to impose conventional character arcs and story structure to a static construction without seriously warping the original appeal. Those necessary things are usually indicated by secondary characters or situations, while the primary protagonist is for all practical purposes an inanimate object. He can change the course of the stories around him, but never be affected himself: Batman affects the lives of every incidental character he meets, but is never himself affected.

To put it another way: the superhero origin is the only place where a superhero's character can change and grow, and once it does, it's cemented for all time. Tony Stark is a light-hearted playboy who comes face to face with death and swears to use his inventions for the cause of justice as Iron Man. Dr. Stephen Strange is a callous surgeon who loses everything in a freak accident and must learn to act selflessly in order to become a powerful sorcerer and Earth's mystic protector.***

The Surfer's origin is special because it doesn't really illustrate a profound change in the protagonist's character. Whereas almost all other origins are predicated on some kind of arbitrary change in a character's life, the Surfer is one of the very few heroic super-characters who become as they are through a conscious decision. There is no moral imperative foisted on him by fate, no terrible lesson or primal trauma or fortuitous accident that makes him what he is: at the onset of his tale he is already a grown man, fully mature and very intelligent. Norrin Radd is a citizen of the fabled world of Zenn-La, a paradise of peace and contentment. Zenn-La's history has been filled with turbulence, war, exploration and achievement, but the planet has entered into a kind of polite senescence. People go about their lives blithely unconcerned with anything save the pursuit of pleasure.

Norrin Radd is the only man who feels discontent. He longs for something to snap the world out of its stupor: some kind of goal greater than mere amusement. He actually comes across as something of a scold, castigating the rest of his race for having lost the spark of curiosity and restlessness that inspires adventure and discovery. All this changes one fateful day when a mysterious spacecraft is spotted approaching Zenn La: a strange featureless metal orb, deaf to all attempt at communication, impervious to the greatest weaponry, bent on certain destruction.

Of course, every reader knows that this ship belongs to none other than the great Galactus, and that he has come to destroy Zenn-La, consuming the planet for its energies and leaving the uninhabited world a dried husk. Of course Norrin Radd doesn't know this, and has no conception of the dangers facing him as he commandeers a ship and steers it towards the alien spacecraft. He simply knows that as the rest of his world descends into panic and chaos, he must try something -- anything -- to prevent the most terrible annihilation.

As the citizens of Zenn-La stumble from the wreckage of their cities, which have been reduced to rubble by the power of the Weapon Supreme -- the planet's last line of defense which has failed to even dent the unknown foe's spacecraft -- Norrin Radd attends to his fallen love, Shalla Bal:
How could it have happened? (She says) Brief moments ago we wanted for nothing! Our world was secure! But now --! All we can do is helplessly await . . . our final seconds!

Norrin Radd, of course, refuse to accept this fatalistic prognosis:
No! We still have our lives . . . our unconquerable spirit! We must fight . . . as our ancestors would have done! . . . Nothing is impossible, except to one who has lost the will! And Norrin Radd shall never lose his will! I must find those who will join me . . . those who will close ranks to make a final stand! For we must now be true to the proud heritage of Zenn-La!

Radd's words echo falsely, however, as he is unable to find a single soul to stand with him. Eventually he is able to convince a group of scientists to fabricate a ship in which he alone may approach the unknowable craft and enter it. Upon entering the ship he comes face to face with Galactus.

Although he pleads with the space god to spare his world, Galactus refuses to relent. Finally, in desperation, Radd makes a fateful offer to serve Galactus:
If a herald you desire . . . then a herald shall I be! Let me probe the heavens . . . scan the starways . . . roam the endless cosmos for you! All this will I do . . . if you will but spare my people . . . spare Zenn La!

Galactus warns Radd not to make the offer lightly, as any pledge of service will be irrevocable and absolute. Radd replies:
If such be my destiny . . . willingly do I accept it! My fate is of little consequence . . . if it can save the world that gave me birth! Mighty Galactus . . . do but spare Zenn-La . . . and I am ever yours . . . to command!

At this, Galactus begins the fantastic process by which Norrin Radd is transformed into the Silver Surfer. He is altered forever, having been remade into a demigod of almost indescribable power, imbued with a fraction of Galactus' own essence and pledged to his eternal servitude.

As everyone knows, the Surfer later rebelled against his master and was banished to the planet earth. Later stories illustrate how Galactus, in vengeance for his herald's broken vow, returned to Zenn-La and devoured it in a fit of pique, as well as how his mental tampering distanced the Surfer from his human emotions in order to better serve his master (an attempt, no doubt, at reconciling the naive Surfer of his early appearances with the more assertive Norrin Radd of later tales, as well as coming to grips with the fact that for so long as he served Galactus the Surfer was by definition a mass murderer on an inconceivable scale). But if all the essentials of the Surfer's character and power are communicated in his origin, it's also important to recognize that it doesn't really look like any other conventional superhero origin: there's no motivation here, no cause-and-effect to explain why the Surfer does what he does. Sure, he has goals and desires -- to break free from Galactus' barrier, to be reuinited with Shalla-Bal -- but these aren't his casus belli. He has no overarching mission, no need to patrol the city to prevent crime or solve mysteries or combat evil. He is, essentially, a free man -- encumbered only by exterior circumstances and the force of his own ethical responsibility. Much like Moore's reconception of Swamp Thing, Gerber's Howard the Duck or Paul Chadwick's Concrete, he is defined less as a bundle of motivating signifiers put to the service of plot than as, amazingly, a distinct individual set outside the storytelling exigencies of conventional superheroics. A distinct individual with a tendency to whine and who flies around on a surfboard made of cosmic energy, but more of a person than any other super-character of the period.

The Surfer's original series ran out of steam in a very short period. After the early, double-sized bimonthly format flopped, the book reverted to a relatively conventional monthly superhero book. It makes sense, in retrospect, that Lee might have been intimidated by his own creation: the Surfer represented an evolutionary leap forward from the standard-issue "Marvel Age" heroes of the time. He was an odd-man-out in a universe of characters with well-defined motivations and strictly defined purposes, as much an anomaly in comparison to the Marvel stable as the early Marvel characters had been in comparison with the staid DC protagonists. There's a reason why many Surfer fans -- including Ron Marz, who wrote the character for many years -- have maintained that the character works best in a support capacity and not as an independent protagonist. It's hard to fit him into the conventional template without totally violating the character's uniqueness, and let's be frank, most mainstream writers just don't have the imagination to think of anything more fitting. If it hadn't been for Alan Moore, who today would remember Swamp Thing as anything more than a short-lived early 70s horror hero?

There's a good rule about storytelling that is almost universally ignored in superhero comics: character defines plot. If the character doesn't dictate the plot, the results are going to ring false at every turn. In superhero comics this is almost completely reversed, because the necessities of creating monthly ongoing adventures with serial characters dictate that the character is a distant second to endlessly shifting and inventive plot mechanisms. The Silver Surfer's origin is not defined by any motivating trauma or misfortune, he does what he does because of who he is, which means that his adventures, when done right, are not about simply the things which happen and the ways in which he reacts but what he thinks and feels, in much the same way any decent narrative is about more than merely the cause and effect of events and circumstances****. He makes a bad fit in a plot-fueled conventional superhero book wherein the characters, however well defined they may be, are merely elements in a mechanistic construction. Thus his origin is not narrative ballast but absolutely essential: more than any other character at Marvel at the time, his character in a purely literary sense defines what he does, and not any external circumstance. In this way he's one step further removed from the original template of Peter Parker, a well-defined character but still dependent on external exigencies for motivation.

The Surfer's origin is such a compelling story because it isn't an origin in the way we usually consider the term in relation to superheroes. Whereas most superhero origins, no matter how well-constructed and effective, are essentially springboards on which to launch proper superhero narratives, the Surfer's origin is more an introduction to his character -- and the term character refers not to a mercantilistic conception of character as object (as in "library of 5200 characters"), but character as in an honest-to-goodness attempt at three-dimensional personality. There aren't very many characters so strongly defined by who they are as opposed to what they do, at least in this context, and that's why the Surfer -- when done well -- sticks out like a sore thumb to this day.

So, yes, it's easy to criticize the Surfer for Lee's heavy-handedness, the simplistic morality plays, the overwrought pseudo-Biblical portentousness of the dialogue and the Surfer's endless self-pitying monologues. But despite all of that, there is still something new and revolutionary at the heart of the Surfer that resists any attempt to commodify the character. The Surfer himself would become a symbol of the growing pains in the American industry, as his two creators were forced apart by the contrasting desires of artistic prerogative and commercial necessity (not to mention plain old personal animosity). Just a couple years later Jack Kirby left for DC to try his own hand at creating something totally new by himself, and for the rest of his career, with a few exceptions, his energies would be devoted to his own creations. Lee chose a different path, and his own artistic legacy has been continually diminished by questionable choices made throughout the years to the present. But the Surfer's long and puzzling career has been indelibly defined by Lee's own desire to create something of lasting value outside the constraints of conventional superhero stories. Perhaps he didn't even realize how much so at the time, which would explain the fact that he essentially ran out of stories to tell with the character, but the Surfer was special. If he had come along fifteen or twenty years later, who knows? The character could have easily fit in among the first wave of creator-owned adventure books that exploded in the late 70s and early 80s. All corporate-owned characters are by definition sundered from their creators at the moment of genesis, but the Surfer's tale is especially poignant, a symbol of so much that was right and wrong in the industry at the time of his creation. His origin story defines a character of almost unlimited potential, bound only by the imaginations of the men who own him on our real planet Earth. Like the barrier constructed by Galactus to ensure the Surfer's exile on the fictional Earth of the Marvel Universe, these limitations would prove a singularly effective constraint.

*To properly illustrate this problem, look at the storytelling inefficiencies to be found in almost every superhero movie ever made. In order to introduce a story about a super-character, a large chunk of any movie needs to be spent detailing said hero's origins, and it just doesn't work. Although it may seem necessary to fill the reader in on just how said hero got their amazing powers and earned their baroque motivations, it essentially brings the story to a standstill. In terms of movies, the best origin is probably Batman's, in that it can be dispensed with in maybe a minute of exposition. (Superman doesn't have quite so much of a problem because his origin story is inextricably bound up with the public perception of what Superman's "story" is -- but it's perhaps not fair to use Superman as an example because his ubiquity is such that he does not exactly play by the same rules in the public imagination.)

**Don't spend half the movie detailing the hero's origin or you are likely to produce a shambling, halting mess that refuses to cohere: Blade didn't spend more than, say, two or three minutes on the characters origin and the film was all the better for it's concise structure. Hulk fell on the sword of spending a whole feature simply on a character's beginnings.

***Worse still are the origins that have no real motivation behind them: the Fantastic Four get strange powers and decide to use them for good because, ah, I guess they're just good people. Thor kicks ass because he's Thor, dammit. The X-Men? Um, some bald guy tells them what to do . . .

****Of course this is a wild generalization, but I do believe that it is generally true: good narrative art is as a rule defined by its insight into human character, because human character has been the only real subject for art throughout history.

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