Wednesday, July 26, 2006

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

Stan Lee is known for many things, but subtlety is not one of them. Of course, when it works, this is perhaps his greatest strengths as a scripter. The fact that his 60s Marvel work is so unabashedly over-the-top in terms of bombast and bravado actually works in its favor. By refusing to hide the strident tone of his political allegories and soap-opera dramatics, he sells a great many stories that would perhaps have been, with a lighter touch, insufferable. I'm hardly the first person to point out that Lee's self-deprecating showmanship enabled him to pull off some surprisingly potent effects, but it's worth repeating for the purposes of this article. Behind the semi-ironic, borderline-postmodern hucksterism of his public persona, he was a canny storyteller.

But, for the most part, he was far more comfortable working with broad strokes than subtle delineation. Nowhere is this preference better seen than in the character of the Silver Surfer. Although the term "Mary Sue" is a relatively recent invention, there is no doubt in my mind that the Surfer qualifies as such for Lee. Although his philosophy found an outlet in most Marvel features of the period, nowhere is the line between character and creator blurred more ambiguously than between the Surfer and Lee. In much the same way that Steve Ditko would use characters like the Question and especially Mr. A as blatant mouthpieces, and Jack Kirby would come to use the entirety of the Fourth World books as springboards for more ambivalent but no less distinctively personal tales, Lee used the Surfer to illustrate his own moral prerogatives.

As such, the fifth issue of the original Silver Surfer series stands as one of the character's best stories, not to mention one of Lee's finest hours as a scripter. Those who ascribe the strength of his sixties work to his talented collaborators have a great deal of supporting evidence in the fact that almost all of Lee's post-60s work is dire, but caught up in the spirit of the moment he was still able to achieve something significant without either Kirby or Ditko's support. The plot is simple enough: the Surfer, once again frustrated by his failure to breach Galactus' cosmic barrier, plummets to the earth. His unconscious form is found by the hermit Al Harper, a lonely scientist living in semi-exile, working as a researcher for an unnamed company in a nearby city. After the Surfer awakes, he and Harper become fast friends and Harper offers to aid the Surfer in his attempt to escape earth.

But a complication arises in the form of the enigmatic, extraterrestrial Stranger. Never one of Marvel's better villains, the Stranger has rarely been treated as more than a deus ex machina, showing up in random books and antagonizing the heroes for mysterious reasons. Here is little different: in his ongoing attempt to sterilize the planet, the Stranger shows up and hides a life-destroying bomb somewhere on the planet. The Surfer turns away from his attempt to free himself in order to battle the Stranger for Earth's survival -- and the Surfer's interference allows enough time for Harper to defuse the bomb, saving the planet at the cost of his own life.

So far, so good. But the most remarkable thing about the story is Al Harper himself: or rather, the fact that Harper is a black man. Not, mind you, some kind of exotic African potentate or stereotype street-wise hustler -- a scientist, which in Lee's Marvel was about as noble an occupation as can be imagined. (To further accentuate the connection, Harper is constantly seen sporting a pipe, which at 60s Marvel was an almost sure sign of heightened intelligence and inherent nobility.) But Lee chose to soft-pedal the racial elements of Harper's story. Considering how ideologically-charged the Surfer's adventures were, it is probably for the best that Lee resisted the temptation to make A Statement. By showing uncharacteristic restraint, the message is underscored without the kind of showmanship that could have seemed hectoring or, worse, patronizing. Given that at the time this issue was released -- early 1969 -- many American cities were still reeling from the riots that had followed the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., a light touch was probably the wisest choice considering the controversy that an injudiciously topical childrens' comic could have created.

When the Surfer awakes in Harper's cabin, he is puzzled as to why Harper has chosen to aid him: "Unlike others on this savage world . . ." the Surfer explains, "you have befriended me! Why? To which Harper answers, succinctly, "Mebbe it's 'cause I know how it feels to be pushed around" Later in the story, Harper muses on his kinship with the Surfer:
He's treated like an outcast wherever he goes . . . Just because of the way he looks! Just because he's . . . different! Maybe it takes a guy like me to really understand!*

Through the course of the story, that's it -- no heavy-handed speeches about the injustice of racism or anything like that, just the quiet implication of prejudice. For once Lee is content to allow his readers to pick up on his thematic clues without utilizing a neon sign to indicate Significance. Whether by conscious choice or simply a nod to expedience, the relative subtlety works. It's not as if anyone reading this story is likely to forget the historical circumstances surrounding the late 60s. Towards the end of the story when Harper is attacked by a mob of frightened citizens, (after having foolishly announced to all and sundry that he was looking for a space bomb), it's hard not to grasp the potent imagery of a black man being mobbed by a group of angry white males.

Of course, Harper himself dies deactivating the Stranger's bomb, and is buried in an unmarked pauper's grave. Only the Surfer is there to bear witness to his heroism -- not only has Harper given himself to save the lives of all those who had persecuted him (once again, the very Jewish Lee's odd fondness for Christian allegory rears its head), but in so doing the Surfer has been deprived of one of the few friends he had met on Earth up to that point, as well as further help in freeing himself from Galactus' prison. The Surfer sets an eternal flame to burn vigilantly over Harper's grave as a memorial.

The issue also features another strong sequence featuring a lengthy digression as the Surfer learns about money. Assigned to earn money to enable Harper's research into the Surfer's dilemma, he first attempts to find employment, but his strange looks and lack of employment history earn him little but contempt. In desperation he knocks over a bank -- a matter of the utmost ease for one who possesses the Power Cosmic -- and is bemused by the importance given to such meaningless paper currency:
Money! Most truly worthless of all Earth's bounty! And yet . . . what incalculable suffering . . . what immeasurable anguish has been endured for the lack of it!

Coming to his senses, the Surfer realizes the folly of his actions:
But, what has come over me? Am I so driven by despair that I would steal what is not mine? To escape the mad, unthinking humans . . . must I descend to their own lawless level?

Eventually the Surfer stumbles upon an illegal casino where he rigs the games to win the necessary money. After breakign the bank, the mob sends a group of toughs to rough him up, which has something less than the desired effect -- after casually zapping them, the Surfer gets up and flies away in disgust. The sequence is one of the series' strongest by virtue of Buscema's somewhat laconic urban landscape. The Surfer strolling down deserted city streets wrapped in a billowing trench coat is one of the series' most indelible images -- a perfect metaphoric encapsulation of the alienation and isolation the Surfer encounters wherever he goes.

The Silver Surfer is a difficult character to write. There's a delicate balance that needs to be drawn between the space opera adventure that the character most often finds himself associated with and the more thoughtful speculative fiction that has provided the backbone for his most memorable stories. The Surfer was a difficult enough character that even Lee, who has said time and again that he identified more strongly with the Surfer than any other Marvel character, was unable to properly continue with the series. After the initial burst of creativity that heralded the book's first year, the series slowly petered out, after which the Surfer was seen sparingly for many years. The Surfer remains an incredibly potent character, and has often been regarded as one of Marvel's most popular -- could still be one of Marvel's most popular, save for the fact that the quality of his solo stories has always been wildly inconsistent. I have little doubt that with the proper creative team the Surfer could easily be one of Marvel's most popular books: the character has an immediate appeal that has not been dimmed by years of mediocrity. But there's the rub: putting words in the Surfer's mouth is hard work. If even Stan Lee at the height of his powers could barely manage a years' worth of good stories, what hope does J. Michael Straczynski have?

While a new movie may raise his profile, the fact is that the character lives and dies on the imagination of his writers. That alone places him somewhat at odds with the majority of the spandex set. A symbol of the creative turmoil that marked the end of the Silver Age, the Surfer is in many ways as much of an enigma today as he was at his creation. His featureless design presents a blank slate for any creator to remake to his satisfaction: unfortunately, very few creators have proven themselves willing to rise to the challenge. Most of the great corporate characters possess a degree of malleability by virtue of their popularity, allowing them to change with tastes by allowing for multiple interpretations while rarely deviating from a central premise. The Surfer is unique because he is a corporate property that acts for all intents and purposes like a creator-owned character, inviting extremely individualistic interpretations that might, at first glance, seem starkly at odds with a commercial nature that would tend to steer towards the kind of conservative variations on a theme that have made dependable cash cows out of Spider-Man, Batman and the X-Men. That so few creators have successfully tapped into the character's true potential is regrettable, but probably not surprising.

*In preparing this essay I briefly toyed with the idea that Harper was also intended as a covertly gay character -- based on these statements as as the subtlety with which sexual identity was broached in mainstream media at the time. But after poring over the book again I could find little support for this thesis, other than the basic idea of a middle-aged bachelor living alone who befriends a strangely androgynous alien with glowing silver skin. Make of that what you will.

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