Tuesday, November 26, 2013

There Are Two Silver Surfers

There are two Silver Surfers. There is the Surfer who appears occasionally in Marvel Comics to this day, the character who successfully headlined his own solo series for ten years in the late 80s and 90s, and continues to appear as a utility player in Fantastic Four, Thor, and most Defenders revivals. This Surfer has a new series set to premiere in March, from the creative team of Dan Slott and Mike Allred.

The other Surfer made only a handful of appearances in his brief career. This is the Surfer that originally premiered in Fantastic Four #48 (March 1966), the mysterious herald of Galactus who came to Earth and learned about humanity from Alicia Masters, who betrayed his master and was imprisoned on our planet for his transgression. This Surfer disappeared in the summer of 1968, when the first issue of The Silver Surfer hit stands.

The first Surfer was added to the art of Fantastic Four #48 almost as an afterthought by Jack Kirby (or so the legend goes). He was an especial favorite of Kirby's, but was soon thereafter unceremoniously taken from Kirby by Lee, who launched the character in a bimonthly, double-sized magazine whose increased scale underscored Lee's serious ambitions. Lee's vision for the Surfer, expertly enabled by John Buscema, was diametrically opposed to Kirby's. Kirby's Surfer was a cosmic naif, a blank slate created by Galactus to be a vessel for his power. Lee's Surfer was a man, Norrin Radd, from the planet Zenn-La, who sacrificed himself by volunteering to serve Galactus in exchange for Galactus sparing his homeworld.

Kirby did not take kindly to Lee's usurpation. The Surfer was immediately recognized as something special, a visually striking figure with great potential for future stories. The problem is that Kirby didn't run the company: he had no recourse when Lee decided to take the Surfer for his own and saddle the character with an origin and mythos Kirby had no interest in accepting or exploring. The split over the Surfer (or so the legend goes) was one of the deciding factors in Kirby's subsequent departure from the company. Kirby had believed the Surfer was his, the spawn of his visual inspiration and nothing else, but Lee had stolen the Surfer from under his creator's nose.

It is worth noting that in this instance the winners were able to almost completely efface all traces of the first Surfer from the historical record. The first Surfer, the blank slate Surfer who encountered every human custom as if encountering civilization for the very first time, who reacted like a petulant infant to conflict, who was for all intents and purposes a kind of holy fool, was soon retconned as a victim of Galactus' tampering. Through mercy or convenience, Galactus had tampered with Norrin Radd's mind, turning his herald from a noble and sensitive man into an unthinking automaton. His first few months on Earth (according to this retroactive rationalization) saw the Surfer slowly overcoming his amnesia, until by the first opening splash page of SIlver Surfer #1 Norrin Radd had regained all his memories, along with his native tendencies towards loquaciousness and self-pity.

All the differences between the first Surfer and the second Surfer were buried under the weight of a thoroughly comprehensive retcon. Kirby's designs for the character were effaced, as it were, without leaving so much as a trace.

Except that this is not strictly true. The trace remains: invisible, imperceptible, but ineradicable nonetheless. We see the modern Surfer, but anyone who knows the character's history cannot help but see the shadow of Kirby's Surfer floating behind, just out of vision, a character defined by nothing so much as the boundless potential of creative choices pruned before their time, a million roads less traveled. What would Jack Kirby's Silver Surfer have been, if Lee had given the King carte blanche for the character's solo debut back in 1968? We will never know, and so the alternate history of Kirby's Surfer remains a pure totem: a victim not merely of Lee's avarice and callousness, but a symbol of all the hypothetical possibilities curtailed by Marvel over the course of the company's long and bitter history.

Or so the legend goes.

I can't dispute these facts, nor would I. The Surfer was taken away from Kirby by Lee, and Lee's ideas - as they were the company's ideas - won the day. For many people, Kirby's Surfer is the only "legitimate" Surfer, in every way that matters, because every other Surfer was the product of original sin, the most basic original sin at the heart of Marvel's history. Substitute the Silver Surfer for almost any other character and you see the same story retold over and over again.

So we have two Surfers - the original Surfer, and the second Surfer, the illegitimate Surfer, the schismatic Surfer of the "Zenn-Lavian Heresy." And we have the moral weight of Lee's great betrayal pushing a thumb down on the right side of the scale, imposing an ethical burden on a character who has subsequently passed through the hands of dozens of worthy creators. Even readers who accept the second Surfer cannot quite dispel the phantom image of the first, like an blotchy imprint of the sun on the inside surface of their eyes. Which is the real Surfer? The Surfer who appeared in a dozen issues before disappearing forever, or the Surfer familiar to forty-five years of subsequent readers?

I knew and loved the Surfer for years before I was able to read his original appearances. I was intimately familiar with the Lee / Buscema stories before I read the original Galactus saga in Fantastic Four - which might seem obscene to some, I realize. I have always maintained that the Silver Surfer is my favorite comic book character, and I will continue to maintain it even as the character has lapsed into a long period of disuse alternating with misuse - perhaps not as badly misused as Dr. Strange, but still. The Surfer's personality has changed conspicuously depending on the needs of his stories: one month he's the character who spent decades on Earth and is a close family friend of the Fantastic Four, the next he's once again a disconnected and disconcertingly alien figure. At the very least, it can be said that there is already an established reason for his personality shifts, an excuse most other characters do not have: dating back to the origins of the "Zenn-Lavian Heresy," it is established that the longer the Surfer spends in close proximity to Galactus, and consequently the more Power Cosmic he is able to harness, the less human he becomes. Every inconsistency falls away.

All of which, to anyone unsympathetic to the character's second incarnation, may seem like so much useless window-dressing to rationalize the fact that the Zenn-La Surfer is a poor bastardization of the character's initial promise. From an ethical standpoint, it's hard to argue with this assertion. But from a practical standpoint, we're left with the fact that the Surfer I like, the Surfer I grew up with, is a completely different character from the Silver Surfer Jack Kirby created.

How do we reconcile these differences? How do we resolve the tensions between the Surfer we have and the Surfer we might wish we had? Can we keep the question from devolving into merely another iteration of the standard Lee vs. Kirby nerd litigation? Is it possible to accept both that the Surfer was stolen from Kirby by Lee and that Lee's produced his best non-Kirby and non-Ditko work with the character? Anyone looking to renew the indictment against Lee will note that even left to his own ostensible devices, he was still reduced to cribbing from Kirby's notes in order to achieve anything of lasting effect. But at the same time, I assert that Lee's Silver Surfer, especially the first six double-size issues, are the best things that Lee ever wrote by himself.


esteban said...

Personally, I found those Lee-Buscema issues difficult to read, to the point that they sparked a lifelong distaste for the character, I never traced this back to the Lee-Kirby split, but now that you've mentioned, I did love the character in the original Galactus trilogy (actually, a lot of it had to do with how whiney and self-pitying Lee wrote the Surfer, which sums up that particular split as well an anything else). Thanks for posting this, you've really changed the way I look at the character.

yrzhe said...

There's also the '70s Lee/Kirby Silver Surfer graphic novel, which IIRC, acknowleged and played off his Zenn-La origin. Would you consider that a reconciliation between the two Silver Surfer concepts?

timoneil5000 said...

I was thinking about pulling it off the shelf soon. I'll get back to this topic when I do.

mumd0g said...

I'd love for a feature length column on Dr. Strange. Even reading about the formation of the character and delving into a lot of his stories, I can't quite figure out what he was 'supposed' to be (if that makes any sense in the context of this article). But I feel like everything is almost there and so close it ends up being too wrong.

Bloode Murder said...

This is the Surfer that I first loved. Not the Surfer I first encountered which would be the Lee/Buscema version as reprinted in Fantasy Masterpieces as well as the early Defenders and Hulk guest versions. The latter day Lee/Kirby effort does not represent a fulfillment of that early Kirby promise. It's still basically Lee's character with Kirby's essential art.
Truth to tell, many of Kirby's solo efforts lacked compelling stories and character development. His overall style feels stuck in the 50's or earlier. I think it was inevitable that the Surfer would be retold by other authors. Who better than Lee? I don't hate Stan. The whole situation between them was a product of the times, if not the industry as a whole. All major comic publishers hack their characters. A pure Surfer only exists in our imaginations where all nostalgia resides.

keith el otro said...

you're correct, lee/kirby did play off the zenn-la origin in this graphic novel; i vividly remember norrin radd/silver surfer going to zenn-la, finding his ex-wife/girlfriend in a crowd and confronting her / trying to connect, and her just looking at him in pure horror (along with everyone else in the mob, as they thought he was the precursor to galactus showing up & eating all of them) - I think I remember this book so clearly because it was one of the first things I read as a kid that seemed so a part of the marvel universe yet so completely not a part (ie non-continuity) of it

tommycentro said...

Let us not also forget the Moebius Silver Surfer, another version in its own way (I'd point you all to the only scene I've ever viewed from the film Crimson Tide, in which two sailors argue over the true Surfer, not Kirby or Lee's but rather Kirby or Moebius'). I'll have to take your word on the first six double-sized Surfer issues being Stan Lee's best, as I've yet to read them, but Parable remains the only work of Lee's that I can both tolerate and enjoy (although I heap most of the credit on Moebius himself.) It is truly a wonderful book.

Perhaps the Surfer was the nexus for Lee's innate, albeit often unused, writing talent. Maybe that was the character he cared most about, stolen or not, and writing his stories forced Lee to peel back so many layers of the weird pseudo-colloquial language of most of Lee's characters and the constant factory-churning mentality of the world of monthly periodicals to reveal something unique and message driven underneath.

I wish I was more literate on this subject, but the plain truth is that I cannot sit through most of Lee's work. When Kirby was operating on his own, the increase in storytelling quality was and is immediately apparent.

Jason Barnett said...

I'd never heard of this before

Kirby's Surfer doesn't sound interesting to me at all

Anonymous said...

Worth mentioning this analysis of SS1 from The Conics Journal, by Tom Scioli: http://www.tcj.com/silver-surfer-1-an-examination/

Anonymous said...

Kirby was doing for the comic book world what people like Asimov had done for science fiction .. ask the question, 'what makes a human?, what makes a person?' Lee couldn't see that. In the same way, Lee couldn't see what made Spider-man what he was, and Steve Ditko had to convince him that Spider-man wouldn't work with aliens coming from outer space, because he had his own visions, Lee couldn't, or wouldn't allow a philosophical theme like Kirby's to exist. So he gave us soap opera.

Daryl Pinksen said...

Whatever Lee's sins, he could write sublimely. The Lee/Buscema series is Lee's "Hamlet". Lee himself said the analogy was deliberate. Jack's was the creative impetus , but Lee's creative guidance was essential to form the marvel universe as we know it.

Al said...

Lee's writing was sublime? I didn't think that even when I was 13. Now, he was a competent writer of dialogue, but beyond the soap opera tropes, was not creative, except when it came to writing the credit boxes in the comics. Lee ruined some very fine Buscema art in the Surfer's first run in his own book.

dragon said...

There is a pervasive misconception about all this, particularly about Stan Lee's "writing". Like the Miracle Man in FF #3, Lee's powers are based on hypnosis and illusion, whereas Kirby was exposed to Cosmic Rays....... or , just directly wired up as an instrument of The Source, but I'm getting way ahead of the story.... Lee wrote dialogue and captions, Kirby did the storytelling as he drew. Kirby was the Author of most of everything that is found in the so-called Lee-Kirby stories. This wasn't a Lennon and McCartney analogy, this was more like Lennon and Starr, with apologies to Ringo, and with not a little Brian Epstein thrown in for good measure. Lee made words, so literally was a "writer" for the duo of Kirby and Lee, but not the "writer" in the common sense of what a "writer" does, meaning telling stories, creating characters, developing plots, etc. That was Kirby, the King of Comics, doing that. Mr. Lee created nothing of significance before, or after his incredibly lucky partnership with Kirby, while Kirby went right on creating visual storytelling masterpieces and inspiring new mythologies, revitalizing the collective spirit's connection to the Imaginal Realm. He was no illustrator, as Lee , with more than a little help from Marvel Corp., wants everyone who will listen to him believe , and Lee was no writer. Lee was a dialogue writer, and , certainly most unfortunately in the case of the Silver Surfer, an editor. Jack Kirby was an artist and storyteller who revolutionized and explored the potentials of the new Artistic Medium of Sequential Art the way Louis Armstrong revolutionized jazz. Possibly the only reason that the Lee-Buscema stories are interesting to those who find them interesting is the storytelling ability of John Buscema, rather than the emotionally adolescent input of frustrated artist wannabe Stan Lee.