Sunday, June 15, 2008

Catch a Wave and You're Sitting On Top of the World!

I have mentioned in the past the first appearance of the Silver Surfer, in Fantastic Four #48-50, as the herald of Galactus. The inspiration for the character was not hard to find; in the mid-1960s the sport of surfing enjoyed a brief mania, reflected in the many hit songs by the Beach Boys.

As was common in the Silver Age Marvel, the Surfer turned out to be morally ambiguous. He represented a horrific villain, Galactus, but he himself had something of a poetic, sensitive soul. In the initial story this soul is stirred by Alicia Masters, Ben Grimm's blind girlfriend. He rebels against Galactus, and this revolt disgusts the master, who abandons his attempt to drain all resources from the Earth, and banishes the Silver Surfer to be bound to the planet for eternity.

As was very typical, the alien found Earth to be unadvanced scientifically and socially. This was played as sort of a "Stranger in a Strange Land" way, with the noble Silver Surfer suffering mightily at the indignities visited upon him.

In his next appearance he was faced with Dr Doom. Doom steals the Silver Surfer's powers and his surfboard and defeats the Fantastic Four, then butts up against Galactus' banishment of the Surfer (and his board) from outer space.

After a few more appearances, Marvel decided to try the Silver Surfer in his own book, starting in August 1968. But they also attempted something very unusual. They put him in a 68-page comic book and charged 25 cents. This wasn't quite unique in the Silver Age; the Thunder Agents books had been similary sized and priced, as had a brief run of superhero comics by Harvey. Marvel itself had experimented with original stories in Marvel Super Heroes.

But still, it was a stretch. Again, I suspect that Stan was looking to see if he could catch those older readers, and this is a way of establishing market segmentation. DC's 25-cent comics were (at the time) 80 pages and almost always 100% reprint material.

Stan (with John Buscema on art) captures teenage angst rather well, here:

Weren't we all trapped on this world of madness? The story goes on to tell (as promised) the origin of the Silver Surfer. Norrin Radd was a discontented soul on his home planet who wondered why nobody'd continued space travel after the first few trips came back empty-handed. He longed to soar between the stars.

When Galactus came to suck his world dry, he offered his services as a herald to save his own planet, even if that meant a certain casual attitude towards other planets along the way.

Despite the cover claim there was not a book-length Silver Surfer story. The 38-page origin of the Surfer was backed up by a 13-page story about the Watcher featuring Gene Colan artwork. It's beautifully drawn but suffers the usual Watcher problem, which is that the story is most interesting when the Watcher decides not to watch but to intervene. It is shown why this became an ironclad law among the Watchers, without noting that the Earth's Watcher had violated the law on many occasions. But the artwork is extraordinary even for Colan:

This was clearly intended as a serious comic in Marvel's push towards the older bracket. Unfortunately (from the publisher's standpoint), it did not lead the way towards 25 cent issues, although that barrier would soon be breached by far smaller comics as the runaway inflation of the early 1970s began to be experienced. After the 7th issue Silver Surfer became a normal-sized comic and the price declined to 15 cents. The Surfer lasted until mid-1970, when the comic was cancelled.

The look of the comic is fabulous; John Buscema could really bring it. Perspective, emotion, and action; his stories never failed to deliver:

That was in 1968, and I would suspect those panels are about as influential on the 1970s as anything I can imagine. The villain in red is, shall we say, not Lex Luthor? These really are extraordinarily beautiful comics, and very much more modern-looking than most of the Silver Age DC. This was the Marvel 1970s on the rise before anybody knew about it.