Sunday, February 11, 2007

The Most Important Question Facing Cult Movie Fans Today

The Silver Surfer was originally depicted as an alien being. He was a scout for Galactus, searching out planets that were fit for his master to consume. He is surprised that humans have to eat food in order to survive: he thinks it is more efficient to simply turn matter into energy. He doesn't understand the meaning of the word 'nobility'. He has never interacted with any other sentient life form; indeed, he seems to be surprised that the planets that Galactus destroys have people on them. 'Never have I beheld a species from such close range. Never have I felt this new sensation. This thing called...pity.' When he discovers that humans have thoughts and emotions of their own, he turns on Galactus. As a result, his master takes away his 'space time' powers and leaves him trapped on Earth.

Jack Kirby created the Silver Surfer without input from Stan Lee. Lee, however, was very impressed with the look-and-feel of the character. It is likely that Stan Lee suggested that Kirby expand the the Silver Surfer from a very minor bit-player in Fantastic Four # 48 to a major supporting role in # 49 and #50. Several of the subsequent stories that feature the now earthbound Surfer – particularly the one where Doctor Doom usurps his cosmic powers – look as if they were Stan's ideas. And there is no doubt at all that Lee created the Surfer's dialogue -- although it is open to question whether this is anything to be very proud of. 'Nay. Tis supremely credible The earth is but a twinkling dot. A paltry pebble in the vastness of space.'


The Silver Surfer went on to star in his own comic. The writer was again Stan Lee, but, as everyone knows the term 'writer' can only be applied to Stan in a rather Pickwickian sense. As he puts it 'There was really no need for me to labour over a fully developed script if Jack was to be the illustrator. All that was necessary was to discuss the basic plot with him, turn him loose, and wait until he brought me the pencilled drawings.' Which is as much as to say: while Lee was writing the captions and the speech balloons Kirby was creating most of the plot. So when Lee decided that John Buscema should draw The Silver Surfer, Kirby was deprived of all input into the development of the character which Stan Lee admits that he had originally created. This seems to have been the beginning of the rift which caused Kirby to leave Marvel, although I imagine Yoko Ono had something to do with it as well.


The Lee-Buscema version of the Silver Surfer is radically different to Kirby's. Far from being an outsider who has to learn about human life from the ground up, this Surfer is a mortal from a futuristic, decadent, but essentially earth like planet named Krypton, sorry, Zenn-La. When Galactus pays the planet a visit, a hippy named Norrin Radd offers to become his herald if he will take Zenn-La off the menu. It's never very clear how this is supposed to benefit Galactus. The idea may be that Radd will find uninhabited planets for him to eat; but this doesn't fit in at all well with Galactus's Lovecraftian claims that humans are simply beneath his notice, or with the Surfer's surprise that the inhabitants of earth are even sentient at all. (And anyway, if Galactus is so dammed powerful and wants a scout, why does he have to wait for a volunteer?) At any rate, he coats Radd in what is technically described as a 'life-preserving silvery substance' and sends him foraging for edible planets.


Subsequent writers have tried rather desperately to make this consistent with the original Fantastic Four story, suggesting that at some point between the flashback sequence in Silver Surfer #1 and his arrival on earth, Galactus took Norrin Radd to Anchorhead and had his memory wiped. No-one is very convinced. John Buscema's art is absolutely gorgeous.


Jack Kirby was well aware of the religious resonances of the character. When Galactus exiles the Surfer to earth, we are supposed to think of God casting his favoured angel out of heaven. (This is particularly pronounced in the 1978 graphic novel version of the story, in which the Surfer spends a full page plummeting to earth.) Of course, 'God' is here the baddy, and 'Lucifer' is the goody, but Kirby revelled in reversals of this kind. Think of the scene in Eternals where the handsome Reject turns out to be a psychotic killer; but the monstrous Karkas is noble and gentle; or the episode of Boys' Ranch where the cherubic 'Angel' is a vicious brat.


But Stan Lee either missed or deliberately expunged Kirby's Luciferian symbolism. He also claims a religious significance for the character, but can't really get beyond "silver equals good equals Jesus."


'Somehow or other King Kirby had imbued this new, unique, totally arresting fictional figure with a spiritual quality, a sense of nobility, a feeling of almost religious fervour in his attitude and his demeanour. As I studied that first drawing ,and the ones that soon followed, I immediately realised that there was something very special about this solitary figure upon the high flying space board -- something seemingly mystical, and totally compelling I knew I couldn't give him the sort of dialogue I'd write for any other colourful supporting character in one of our fanciful little epics.'


This isn't true, incidentally: the artwork that Lee must be talking about – the pencils for Fantastic Four #48 -- don't make the Surfer look particularly spiritual or noble : he flies through space, signals to Galactus, and gets punched out by the Thing. And he doesn't get a single word of dialogue. As usual, Stan is thinking of what the character eventually became, and pretending that that is what he had in mind from the beginning. But once the Surfer got his own comic, Lee certainly did depict him as, I quote, 'purity personified'. He speaks entirely in sermons:


'It is as if the human race has been divinely favoured over all who live, and yet in their uncontrollable insanity, in their unforgivable blindness, they seek to destroy this shining jewel, this softly spinning gem, this tiny blessed sphere which men call earth! While trapped upon this world of madness, stand I...'


It turns out that when the Surfer sacrificed himself to save the Earth from Galactus it was only a reprise of his previous offering up of himself for Zenn-La. In case you miss the point Stan makes the Surfer's main adversary a demonic figure called, very subtly, Mephisto, who wants to destroy the Surfer because, er, he does. ('How oft before have I trembled in the presence of such awesome goodness; martyrs all who men themselves in their abysmal madness did forsake....one so noble must not walk freely among those whom Mephisto would exploit, and so I now ordain that he shall die.') Where Kirby's Surfer has been cast down to earth from space, Lee's is merely home-sick for his very unpromising home-world. Kirby's character was an alien outsider who had to learn about the human race. (He was naive and childlike enough to be totally taken in by Doctor Doom.) All Lee's can do is angst about man's inhumanity to man and the girl he left behind. Buscema's art is absolutely gorgeous.


Superhero costumes are intrinsically unrealistic, but very easy to draw. They are pretty much nude figures overlaid with colours and insignia – you never saw a crease in Spider-Man's suit, not even when Ditko was drawing it. The Surfer takes this to the Nth degree: he is neither flesh nor spandex but silver all over. Kirby occasionally sketched a line along his waist and maybe diagonals at the tops of his thighs, but he's essentially featureless. In cheap four colour printing, 'silver' is pretty much the same as 'white', so the Surfer is a blank white nude: a plain sheet of paper waiting to be drawn on. In Buscema's art, the lines on the Surfer's middle are much more pronounced: he clearly intends us to think that the Surfer is wearing swimming trunks or shorts. This makes him look rather like an Action Man. The same Comics Code that would allow 'Mephisto' but not 'Satan' seems to have had a problem with cosmic skinny-dipping.


So.


The superior Kirby version of the Surfer is an alien, very probably created out of thin air by Galactus. Possibly, like his board, he's made of energy and sometimes takes on a solid form. He doesn't have digestive organs, so there is no reason to think that he is biologically human in any other respect. Although he is impressed by Alicia's nobility, there is never the slightest hint that he is sexually attracted to her -- he simply doesn't understand Ben's jealousy. And he goes naked.


The inferior Stan Lee version has flesh, bones and all things which pertaineth to man's nature: they just happen to be coated with a life-preserving silvery substance. He has emotions and a human lover, and he always keeps his knickers on.


So the answer to the pressing question 'Does the Silver Surfer have a willy?' is 'Up to Fantastic Four # 70, no; after Silver Surfer #1, yes.'

6 comments:

Gavin Burrows said...

It is likely that Stan Lee suggested that Kirby expand the Silver Surfer from a very minor bit-player in Fantastic Four # 48 to a major supporting role in # 49 and #50. Several of the subsequent stories that feature the now earthbound Surfer – particularly the one where Doctor Doom usurps his cosmic powers – look as if they were Stan's ideas.

Interesting idea. Any chance we could get you to expand on it at all? I’ve always thought of the Surfer as Kirby’s until the solo comic. Though of course Kirby was always throwing up characters faster than he was figuring out what to do with them. I’ve also seen him as a bigger, better updating of the Infant Terrible story. (The main difference being what happens when the ‘daddy’ turns up.)

Jack Kirby was well aware of the religious resonances of the character. When Galactus exiles the Surfer to earth, we are supposed to think of God casting his favoured angel out of heaven. (This is particularly pronounced in the 1978 graphic novel version of the story, in which the Surfer spends a full page plummeting to earth.) Of course, 'God' is here the baddy, and 'Lucifer' is the goody, but Kirby revelled in reversals of this kind.

While I doubt it’s any kind of conscious influence, I’ve tended to see the relationship in Blakean terms. God/The Patriarchal Father versus the Rebellious Son, What is Lawful vs What is Good. (Is there anywhere round here where I can link directly to Pseuds Corner?)

In case you miss the point Stan makes the Surfer's main adversary a demonic figure called, very subtly, Mephisto, who wants to destroy the Surfer because, er, he does.

I’ve always seen that as an example of Marvel’s gravitas backfiring badly. It basically becomes a variant of John the Baptist exiled to the desert, facing the tempter. Yet that guy who wrote the Bible made all of that but one scene in a larger work. Repeating it month after month doesn’t embellish it so much as drive it into the ground. (“Join the dark side.” “No thanks mate.” “How about today?” etc etc) The Bible, I note, has gone on to sell more copies. (Glenn Dakin played it better as a gag cartoon.)

Whether he’s predominantly noble or innocent, the Surfer is a kind of Platonic figure representing an absolute value. Such a character needs a human foil to spark off, just like the nobles in Shakespeare plays need the common folk. Creating Mephisto or some other cosmic opposite makes things not only somewhat predictable but also remote, disconnected from the reader.

I’m a Kirby purist of the strictest school and even I acknowledge Buscema did some of his best work on the solo Surfer.

NickPheas said...

Are you sure that the jewish creators of the Silver Surfer would really have been making a 'good=Jesus' connection?

Andrew Rilstone said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Andrew Rilstone said...

Are you sure that the jewish creators of the Silver Surfer would really have been making a 'good=Jesus' connection?

Kurtzberg wouldn't and didn't. He definitely said that Galactus was like God casting Lucifer down from heaven (Isaiah 14)

You are right that Lieber doesn't explicitly say that the Surfer is Jesus, but he certainly used a Christian iconography for Mephisto in "The Silver Surfer." (Mephisto is the adversary of goodness, not merely the tempters, and he hopes to win the ultimate victory on "the day of Armageddon" -- a clear reference to the Christian book of revelation.) Lieber says that "people" have "likened his suffering to a pictorial depiction of the agonies of the early religious martyrs". Isn't that a round-a-bout way of saying "paintings of the Crucifixion". (What paintings of Jewish martyrs could he have had in mind.)He also "preached a credo that could he been taken directly from the Bible." Surely "credo" is a Christian term? (What about "Bible"?)

We should ask Mark Evanier or someone how observant a Jew Jack actually was. I know he had a Jewish funeral, but beyond that...did he keep passover, go to temple? I actually don't know.

Andrew Stevens said...

The superior Kirby version of the Surfer is an alien, very probably created out of thin air by Galactus. Possibly, like his board, he's made of energy and sometimes takes on a solid form. He[Photo] doesn't have digestive organs, so there is no reason to think that he is biologically human in any other respect. Although he is impressed by Alicia's nobility, there is never the slightest hint that he is sexually attracted to her -- he simply doesn't understand Ben's jealousy. And he goes naked.

The inferior Stan Lee version has flesh, bones and all things which pertaineth to man's nature: they just happen to be coated with a life-preserving silvery substance. He has emotions and a human lover, and he always keeps his knickers on.

So the answer to the pressing question 'Does the Silver Surfer have a willy?' is 'Up to Fantastic Four # 70, no; after Silver Surfer #1, yes.


I agree with Mr. Rilstone that the original conception of the character is superior to the Russell T, er, Stan Lee version of the character.

Andrew Rilstone said...

Interesting idea. Any chance we could get you to expand on it at all? I’ve always thought of the Surfer as Kirby’s until the solo comic. Though of course Kirby was always throwing up characters faster than he was figuring out what to do with them.

Your wish is my command.