Monday, February 19, 2007

The Rise of the Silver Surfer



Conclusion


Stan Lee and Jack Kirby both have conveniently bad memories. People who knew Kirby say that he rarely knew precisely where he was going with a story until he sat down and drew it. So we can really only speculate about how The Silver Surfer came into being. But we do know for certain that several pivotal elements of the Galactus so-called Trilogy were introduced by Kirby at the pencilling stage. If my speculations are right, then Lee had further ideas after he saw those pencils, which caused Kirby to go back and re-think his interpretation of the story. And if the comic shows signs of cutting and pasting, then surely we should say that the final version was partly created by the editor?

The romantic idea that Jolly Jack was simply the illustrator of stories that were created by Smiley Stan has been thoroughly debunked. But some people have swung the other way and said that Lee's role was simply to provide copy for stories that were conceived, written and drawn by Kirby alone. Some people even yearn for a 'pure' Kirby, unadulterated by Lee's interference.

The published Galactus so-called Trilogy is unquestionably a masterpiece. Partly, this is down to Galactus himself. He's become such a familiar and over-used part of the Marvel brand that it takes a bit of effort to imagine what readers must have felt in 1966 when the face of 'god' stared out from among the ads for sea-monkeys. Similarly, we need to make a conscious effort to ignore the 40 years of bad stories with which the Silver Surfer has been overlaid to see the elegant simplicity of the character that Lee and Kirby originally presented us with.

But the real genius of the story resides in its structure; the way several different plots are interleaved; the way we jump between the mythological story of the the Surfer and Galactus; the 'operatic' story about the Surfer and Alicia; the straight super-heroics of the Fantastic Four themselves, and the 'realistic' sub-plots about the panic in the streets and Reed and Sue's minor domestic tiffs.

Kirby without Lee never had this much breadth, this much discipline, this much suspense; Lee without Kirby never had – well, anything very much at all. Is it really so surprising that the story which is most obviously a collaboration between the two men is also the one which fans have generally regarded as their best work?

Speculation


The first thing we can say for certain about the the Galactus Trilogy is that it isn't. As published it consists of the following:

Fantastic Four #48 7 pages wrapping up the 'Inhumans' storyline from the previous issue; 13 pages build up to Galactus arrival on earth.

Fantastic Four #49 20 pages about Galactus and the Silver Surfer.

Fantastic Four #50 13 pages wrapping up the Galactus storyline; 7 pages setting up 'This Man, This Monster' (issue #51) and a soap opera about the Human Torch at college.

That is, the story of Galactus and the Surfer runs to 46 pages – six pages too long to be a two-parter, but shorter than the 60 pages an actual 'trilogy' would need to be.

A summary of the story would go something like this:

# 48: The F.F return to New York. There are weird phenomena in the skies, and the people are panicking. It turns out that the phenomena have been created by the Watcher, who is trying to hide the earth from the Silver Surfer. The Surfer is not fooled: he arrives on earth, lands on top of the Baxter Building and signals to Galactus. A brief fight ensues, and the Thing punches the Surfer off the building. Then Galactus arrives, and announces his intention to consume the planet.


49: Ironically, the Thing's punch propelled the Surfer to the roof of Alicia's apartment. Alicia is kind to him, and he starts to pity the human race. The Fantastic Four make various futile attempts to fight Galactus who sets a robot called The Punisher on the Thing. The Watcher transports the Torch through space to Galactus's 'home planet', which contains a weapon that can be used against him. The Surfer resolves to intercede with his master on humanity's behalf, to the consternation of the Watcher.


50: Galactus isn't interested in the Surfer's pleas, and there is a big fight, during which the F.F can only stand and watch. The Human Torch returns to earth with a weapon called The Ultimate Nullifier. Galactus is afraid that the the weapon could destroy the universe, and agrees to leave earth in return for the weapon. Before going, he removes the Silver Surfer's 'space time' powers. Alicia thanks the Surfer and Ben is left with the impression that she loves the noble alien more than she loves him.'


Let's call this 'G'.

Here is Stan Lee's account of how it was created: .

'Well, having written so many of them, I can tell you in confidence that stories aren't so difficult to create. All you have to do is loose weight, worry yourself sic, develop ulcers, become a nervous wreck, torture yourself unmercifully and go slightly out of your mind -- all this, of course, while watching the clock and realizing that if you don't come up with an angle in the next few minutes, you'll never be able to pull the whole fushlugginer thing together in time to make the printer's deadline! But I know how sensitive you are. I don't want to worry you any more than is absolutely necessary. So let's skip over the sheer anguish and misery involved in formulating our Galactus plot. Let's get to the good part.'

It seems to me that if a witness, in reply to a simple question, spends 200 words saying absolutely nothing, there is probably something that he doesn't want to say. Stan Lee's public persona has always been that of a fair-ground huckster or a wrestling promoter ('Step right up! The battle of the century!'). He's a past master of this kind of evasion. Look at his account (in Origins of Marvel Comics) of the creation of Spider-Man -- a character who no less than three other creators lay claim to. He says that he wanted to produce an unorthodox comic – a teenaged hero; a hero who 'loses as often as he wins...in fact more often', a story which avoided super-hero formulas. He then spends 500 words explaining that the idea of calling him 'Spider-Man' came from a 1930s 'Shadow' clone called 'The Spider'; and that publisher Martin Goodman was dubious about the idea. ('He patiently informed me that people didn't like spiders, that Spider-Man was an unlikely name for a hero...' This makes perfect sense on the assumption that neither Stan nor Uncle Martin had ever heard of Batman.) He spends a further 500 words describing how Kirby's heroic style was unsuitable for the character and how the project was given to Ditko instead. He concludes 'I asked Steve to draw Spider-Man. And he did. And the rest is history.' We've magically gone from 'A teenaged hero with 'Spider' in his name' to 'the rest is history'. This makes me think that Lee would rather not discuss the actual process by which Amazing Fantasy #15 came into being.

By his own account, Stan Lee used to present Jack Kirby with 'an outline of a story'; or 'discuss the basic plot with him, turn him loose, and wait until he brought me the penciled drawings'. A lot could happen between Stan's 'basic plot' and Kirby's 'finished drawings'. In 1966, a journalist recorded the conference between Lee and Kirby for F.F. # 55 (the second Silver Surfer story).

'Suppose Alicia is in some kind of trouble. And the Silver Surfer comes to help her...But the Thing sees them together and he misunderstands. So he starts a big fight with the Silver Surfer. And meanwhile the Fantastic Four is in lots of trouble. Doctor Doom has caught them again and they need the Thing's help. The Thing finally beats the Silver Surfer. But then Alicia makes him realize he's made a terrible mistake.' (Reproduced in Jack Kirby Collector #18)


Anyone can see that this is a very thin summary for a 20 page comic: Lee has left lots of things for Kirby to make up. (What kind of trouble is Alicia in? How did Doom capture the F.F?) But we can also tell that Kirby deviated from his brief in several respects. In the published comic, Alicia isn't in trouble: instead, the Surfer has gone to her to learn more about the human race. It is Reed, not Alicia who convinces the Thing that he's made a mistake. Doom isn't in the story at all. Towards the end of their professional relationship, Lee seems to have become (understandably) irritated with Kirby's habit of turning in work which was different to what he'd been asked for. At this stage, it seems to have been a positive part of their creative process.

So: what 'brief' did Stan Lee present to Jack Kirby as the basis for the Galactus / Surfer storyline? We have a surprising amount of information.

1: Stan Lee and Jack Kirby jointly came up with the character of Galactus.

A literal reading of Stan's evidence suggests that he came up with the name and Kirby thought up a character to go with it. Again we have to cut through the huckster persona, but the meaning is fairly clear:

'After hours of head scratching, gazing at the ceiling, stretching, yawning, bending paper clips, staring into space, then staring out of space, we finally got it. It suddenly all came together. 'Galactus!' we shouted. I didn't know what it meant, but it sounded real zingy to me. Jack, as usual, puffed his cigar and managed to look as if he definitely knew what it meant, and that was good enough for me. Galactus it was. Galactus it would be. We had our villain. Now all we needed was a story.'

2: Lee's original concept did NOT include the Silver Surfer.

Lee:

'When Jack brought back the drawings, I saw a guy on a flying surfboard and I said 'Who's this?' Jack said Galactus ought to have a herald who flies ahead of him, and I thought it was a wonderful idea...'


3: Lee's original concept was NOT for a three part story.

Lee:

'We didn't originally plan to make our Galactus / Surfer epic three separate stories It just seemed to happen that way.'

Unless Lee thought he could introduce and dispose of Galactus in 13 pages, it follows that the 7 page 'Inhumans' prologue was not part of the original story. Maybe they planned to fill out issue #48 with some other material – say, the beginning of Johnny's search for Crystal that was going to ramble on for the next dozen or so issues – and give Galactus issue #49 to himself. They presumably changed their mind when Kirby found that his story was too big for one issue, but not long enough for two; they must have originally intended to do a 13 page build up in #48, and to wrap the story up in #49.

The link between the two sections of issue #48 is rather clumsy: when the F.F realize that New York is in a state of panic they fly to see what is going on in their jet-cycle. A caption reads: 'Having retrieved their jet cycle which they left at the airport before flying to the great refuge...'. This suggests to me that in the first version of #48, the F.F set out from the Baxter Building (where their jet-cycle lives); that this was pasted directly after their return to America by passenger jet; and that Lee, spotting the inconsistency, wrote a caption saying they left the jet-bike at the airport. (For comparison, see how carefully the epilogue to #50 is tied in with the main story: there are newspaper headlines which say 'Galactus vanishes'; Ben is still jealous of Alicia and the Surfer; the Torch is still thinking about his journey through space.)

It may also be significant that issue #48 ends with a big, nearly full page panel of Galactus (2 small panels of his ship opening up and one big one of Galactus emerging from it.) This 2 /1 grid is used fairly often by Kirby (on page 16 of #49, for example) although he is much fonder of putting the big panel first and the two small ones underneath. But I can't off-hand think of another example of him ending an issue on this kind of spread. However dramatic the situation, the 'To be continued...' is usually a small caption at the bottom of the last panel of a three-by-two or three-by-three grid. Note that letterer Rosen has had to place the caption in a starburst (another relatively rare devise) that partially obscures the Watcher's head. Because of this, it's easy to miss the fact that the Watcher is in this panel at all. I can't believe that Kirby drew a page intending one of the main characters to be covered up; but if 'To be continued...' had been placed more conventionally, in a box at the bottom of the page, then we'd lose the heads of Johnny, Sue, Ben and Reed. All this suggests to me that page 20 of F.F # 48 wasn't originally intended to end the comic. Once Kirby or Lee realized that they weren't going to finish the story in a single issue, they must have looked for a place to split the material which they had, and realized that this dramatic spread was the perfect place to end the episode. It was an inspired decision, creating one of the best cliffhangers in comic history. (Again, only Spider-Man #32 comes close.)

4: Lee's original concept did NOT give the Watcher a major role.

Lee writes:

'The mysterious Watcher plays a rather important role in the the Galactus Trilogy. He's a perfect example of what I'm talking about. I originally expected that we'd use him for a panel or two in the first portion of the story, just to add a little drama. But did it work out that way...Suddenly it seemed that the Watcher had become a totally pivotal character and much of the plot development was dependent upon his crucial role in the gathering drama.'

It is hard to see how a character could run away with itself if Stan was providing such pared down summaries as we have seen that he gave Kirby for issue #55. It's much more likely that he said '....and what if the Watcher was there to help them?' and Kirby took the hint and ran with it. In other words, when Lee says 'The Watcher became a totally pivotal character' he must mean 'Jack Kirby made the Watcher a totally pivotal character.'

Based on this, can we reconstruct Stan Lee's original, Surfer-less, Watcher-free, single issue 'Galactus' story?

It's easy to picture the story without the Silver Surfer in it. In truth, he sits un-easily in the published version. His sub-plot has very little effect on what is going on; his rebellion doesn't actually achieve much. Galactus is defeated, not by his herald's defection, but by the Watcher's perennial violation of the Prime Directive. Cut the Surfer out of the story, and you are left with 'Galactus invades earth; Human Torch fetches Ultimate Nullifier; Galactus goes away again.' The Watcher talks some melodrama at the end of #49 about how the Surfer's defection has spoiled his plan and may end up causing the end of the world, but this idea isn't developed in #50. Galactus says he will defeat the Surfer by threatening the human race but since he's planning to destroy the world anyway, this doesn't make much sense. Possibly the Surfer's rebellion delays Galactus until Johnny can get back with the weapon, but this isn't made explicit in the story. It would have made more dramatic sense if the F.F had thrown everything they had at Galactus, and when they were utterly defeated, the Surfer saved the day. As it stands we get the impression that it's Mr. Fantastic who saves the Surfer. (Galactus: 'Now by my hand, the Surfer must perish' Reed: 'No Galactus, it is you who will perish...')

A Watcher-free Galactus trilogy is rather harder to imagine. In the story we have, everything turns on the Watcher giving Johnny Storm the Ultimate Plot Device. Yet Lee is clear that the Surfer was originally only going to appear at the beginning to give Galactus a dramatic build up. Perhaps, in Stan's conception, the Nullifier is simply a weapon created by Reed; or perhaps Reed works out where Galactus home world is and sends Johnny to fetch it?

So, the brief which Lee originally gave to Kirby may have looked something like this:

'The F.F return to New York. The Watcher warns them that Galactus is going to destroy the earth and feed off its energy. Galactus arrives. The F.F plead with him and then make futile attempts to fight him. Galactus shrugs these attacks off. Reed disappears into his lab, and designs a weapon so awesome that Galactus fears for the universe. Reed agrees to hand over the weapon if Galactus leaves earth.'


We'll call this 'L'. It would not be unlike many F.F tales from the period, and would fit nicely into a single issue.

Now, a lot of Kirby fans would like to say that Kirby took this brief and expanded it into the comic we now have pretty much on his own. They reason that since, by Lee's account, Kirby introduced the Silver Surfer into the comic and since the Silver Surfer is pivotal to the story, the story as it stands must be Kirby's kreation. But two very clear gaps in the text indicate that life is more complicated than this.

In #49 there is a two-page sequence in which the Watcher transports Johnny Storm into 'the center of infinity'. Johnny has to fly through 'the celestial barriers known as un-life' (which takes him a panel) and arrives at Galactus 'home planet', one of those rambling abstract geometrical thingies that only Kirby could draw. The Watcher says that it contains 'the device with which you will battle earth's greatest menace.' When we next see the Torch in #50, he is already on his way home. 'The watcher has done it, I'm heading for earth again, I can feel it.' It is very strange to show Johnny's journey to Galactus' home, and his journey back, but not to show what happens while he was there. Surely Kirby would have loved to have drawn the interior of Galactus space station? It looks distinctly as if a page or two has been cut here, or at any rate, as if someone changed their mind about the focus of the story.

The Silver Surfer appears for a total of 13 frames in #48. He doesn't get a single word of dialogue. I don't think people have paid enough attention to how strange this is. When talking about the Surfer, Lee always puts great emphasis on how much care he took over the dialogue for this very special character. But when he first appears, he doesn't give him any dialogue at all. Why write ''On and on he soars, dodging meteors, skirting around asteroids, rocketing from planet to planet, being paid by the word...' where he could perfectly well have given him a soliloquy? The reason must be that at this point, neither Lee nor Kirby had realized just how special the Surfer was going to be.

Once he has signaled to Galactus, Ben clobbers the Surfer, and he falls from the Baxter Building. He is very clearly shown plummeting downwards, head first. Ben tells Johnny to catch him before he hits the ground; Ben says that he 'bounced back like he wanted to fall off the roof'. The Watcher says that the fall won't hurt the Surfer; that the Surfer let the Thing punch him out of the way 'because it was the easiest way for him to depart.' However, in #49, we discover that the Surfer has been rendered unconscious ('shocked into insensibility') by Ben's blow. The caption, indeed says that 'a being who straddles the starways can hardly be injured by a single blow no matter how powerful it may have been' – but this contradicts Ben's remark that 'I didn't hit him that hard.' Further, while he was clearly shown falling from the Baxter Building, he has somehow ended in Alicia Masters apartment -- which we know is some distance away. Clearly, between issue #48 and #49, Lee and/or Kirby have changed their mind about the direction of the story. The Surfer didn't allow himself to fall from a skyscraper – he was punched across town, hard enough to stun him.

The Surfer appears in #49 for only 3 pages (7, 11, 20): an extended scene between him and Alicia in which the F.F do not feature. There is also a two panel lead in on page 6, and a 1 panel lead out on page 12. Page 7, 11 and 20 can be read consecutively as a single scene: on the last panel of page 7, Alicia offers the Surfer food; on the first panel of page 11, he turns the food into energy. As page 7 begins the Surfer is discovered lying on Alicia's couch. The two panel lead in on page 6 show him unconscious on the skylight of her apartment; which falls open, causing him to land on the couch. This is surely very contrived. Similarly, page 20 could be placed straight after page 11 -- Alicia is still standing behind the Surfer, continuing to plead with him to save the earth. In the additional panel on page 12, the Surfer has gone over to the window, but on page 20, he is again standing in the center of the room. It looks very much as if Kirby had a near complete version of #49 into which he inserted a stand-alone 3 page cameo about the Surfer.

If this is correct, then there was an intermediate stage between Stan Lee's summary brief (L) and the completed comic (G). Let's call it 'K'. 'K' represents Kirby's take on Stan's brief, with the addition of the Surfer and an expanded role for the Watcher.

'The F.F return to New York, and are warned by the Watcher that Galactus is coming, and that he will consume the planet for energy. The Silver Surfer travels through space to earth. The Watcher tries to hide the Earth, but the Surfer sees through his ruse and signals to Galactus. The F.F first try to plead with him not to destroy earth, and then try to use their powers against him. Galactus shrugs these attacks off. The Watcher sends Johnny into space; Johnny, after many cosmic adventures, returns with the Ultimate Nullifier. Galactus agrees to leave rather than risk Reed destroying the universe.' (K)

So why did Kirby add three pages about the Surfer to his almost complete saga? The answer, surely, is because Stan Lee told him to. Lee spotted that the Surfer in #48 was (if nothing else) a design classic, and must have demanded that Jack make greater use of him. 'Maybe some human – no, maybe Alicia – convinces him that human are okay.' It is very hard to believe that Stan looked at the inhuman Surfer in #48 and thought that he had 'a spiritual quality, a sense of nobility, a feeling of almost religious fervor in his character and demeanor '; but this description fits the pencils of #49 perfectly. It must have been at this point, when looking at those pencils that Lee conceived of the hippy poet character that has become the 'received' Silver Surfer.

In summary, I think that the creation of Fantastic Four # 48 – # 50 must have gone something like this.

1: Lee briefs Kirby for a one issue story (L)

2: Kirby expands the plot, adds the Surfer and gives the Watcher a bigger role. (K)

3: Kirby finds that the story is too long to fit into a single issue. Either he or Lee decide to split the story when Galactus arrives on earth, and to preface it with the conclusion of the Inhumans storyline. (G, #48)

4: Kirby begins work on #49, which is going to focus on the Human Torch's quest.

5: Lee is impressed with the design of the Surfer in #48, and tells Kirby to give him a role in #49. Kirby draws 3 additional pages and adds them to the issue he is working on. As a result, part of the Human Torch's adventures are either deleted or never drawn. This makes the published version of #49.

6: After discussion with Lee, Kirby draws #50, presumably utilizing some material that would have been in #48, drawing the different threads (Galactus and the F.F; the Human Torch and the Watcher; the Surfer and Alicia) more or less seamlessly together. Since it is clear that this won't take the whole issue, the final 7 pages are used to 'trail' two future storylines.

Introduction

No comic book has ever been admired – not to say revered – in the way that 'The Coming of Galactus', 'If This Be Doomsday' and 'The Startling Saga of the Silver Surfer' -- Fantastic Four #48, #49 and #50 – have been. It was comic book fans who dubbed the three stories 'The Galactus Trilogy'; but Stan Lee enthusiastically adopted the label. 'It sounds like it should be required reading, up there with the Harvard Classics and War and Peace. And for all I know, it is.' Page 2 of #49 has been called the best page, of the best issue, of the best comic of all time. Only Spider-Man #33 (by Lee and Ditko) has anything like the same reputation. So naturally, the authorship of these three comics has been the subject of more heated debate among comic fans than almost any other subject.

Writers are always being asked 'Where do you get your ideas?' People think that if they had a source of this mysterious commodity, then they would be writers too. They think that if the four words 'Boarding School For Wizards' had jumped into their head first, they too would currently be richer than the Queen. Once you have the idea, the process of actually writing the book is donkey work which practically anyone could do.

Writers, on the other hand, will tell you that someone with sufficient skill, talent and craftsmanship can work up almost any idea into a successful book. If you can produce the kind of prose, the kind of convoluted plot, the funny names and the silly jokes that children want to read (and can produce hundreds of pages of it by the deadline) then you'll become a best-selling children's writer, 'idea' or no 'idea'. We hear a great deal about how Paul McCartney woke up on emorning with the tune 'Scrambled eggs / Oh my darling how I love your legs' running round and round his head. We hear less about the weeks of work to produce a sensible lyric, a middle eight, an arrangement, to say nothing of the decade of jamming and improvisation that preceded this moment of 'inspiration'.

Yes; but. We happily talk about 'Walt Disney's Bambi' and 'Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings'. Yet Peter Jackson doesn't act, or compose music, or create special effects, or perform stunts. Perhaps we think that 'actually editing footage together' and 'telling people where to point the camera' is the key, creative role in producing a motion picture. Or perhaps 'Peter Jackson' is simply a code-word, meaning 'The man who co-ordinated all the people with the actual talent who made the movie.' But when we think of directors and conductors as creative auteur, we seem to be getting perilously close to saying 'Oh, the creative part is sitting in an arm chair and imagining what the finished product will look like. Then, it's just a matter of hiring more or less interchangeable technicians to put your idea on the screen.' We see this idea in its most extreme form in some kinds of modern art. The 'artist' is the person who has the idea of a bisected shark or a plaster cast of a bed. They then hire students to do the actual work. (I can't write computer code or produce computer art, but I am the 'designer' of two computer games. I was sometimes told that this means that I was the 'vision keeper' of the project. What, I ask in all seriousness, did that mean?)

Everyone, apart from Marvel's lawyers and a few journalists, now know how Stan Lee and Jack Kirby worked together. Stan came up with a 'concept'; Jack turned the concept into a 20 page comic book; Stan then wrote copy (speech bubbles and captions) that matched the pictures. But what did Stan mean by 'concept'? He neither wrote nor drew the first issues of Thor, but he still claims co-creatorship of the characters. Once you remove the waffle, his account of how he 'created' Thor goes like this: 'I thought I would do a mythological hero. I thought I would use Norse mythology. I thought I would make Thor the main character. I thought he could use his hammer to fly.' In Origins of Marvel Comics he adds 'I thought his secret identity could be a doctor.' I am very happy to believe that this was the brief which he gave to Jack Kirby, and which Kirby worked up into the (lackluster) Journey into Mystery # 83 and which Lee's kid-brother then wrote dialogue for.

But it is taking nothing away from Jack Kirby to say that it was Stan who spotted that there was a place in the market for a mythological hero; and that Stan was proved to be quite right. Practically all the characters who were launched under Lee's editorship – Spider-Man, Doctor Strange, Thor, Hulk, Fantastic Four, Avengers, Nick Fury, Gi/Ant Man – everyone apart from the solo Human Torch and Millie the Model -- are still being published 40 years later. That's a pretty impressive hit-rate. This may explain why Lee was courted by Hollywood, where Kirby, right up to his death, was employed as an ideas-gerbil by toy and animation companies. Lee had a knack for saying 'Here's a one-line concept for a character that will sell'; Kirby had a genius for saying 'Here are ten pages of sketches of interesting characters – I'm not sure who they are or what they do yet.'

If Stan Lee is one of those who thinks that the hard part about writing is coming up with 'those crazy ideas' and that all the rest is donkey work that can be contracted out then, according to his own lights, Lee is the onlie begatter of the Marvel Universe. But some of us think the creative process is a bit more complicated than that. What can we say about the process by which the first Galactus story came into being?

12 comments:

Phil Masters said...

Yet Peter Jackson doesn't ... write scripts ...

Er, point of information. Yes he does.

Andrew Rilstone said...

..."directors rarely write their own screenplays"....

Gavin Burrows said...

Speculation
Yes. But informed speculation, which is most likely the best we’re ever going to get. Nice post! You make me want to go back to my issues, to see if I can find the marks of sticky tape and glue you point to.

The romantic idea that Jolly Jack was simply the illustrator of stories that were created by Smiley Stan has been thoroughly debunked. But some people have swung the other way and said that Lee's role was simply to provide copy for stories that were conceived, written and drawn by Kirby alone . Some people even year for a 'pure' Kirby, unadulterated by Lee's interference.

Lee is Galactus and Kirby the rebellious Surfer to a lot of people, aren’t they? My personal take on people’s response to all this is that there’s something in the concept of commercial art that makes them uneasy. They gravitate more towards Fantastic Four comics than Wagner operas, but then there turns out to be something uncomfortable about the bed they’re lying on. So they try to subdivide, someone must have been providing the true art and someone else dragging the vision down into the tawdry world of commerce. Some Beatles fans like to effectively believe Lennon was Kirby and McCartney Lee. (Their ‘evidence’ being Lennon for a while managed to convince himself of this, like Lennon couldn’t convince himself of anything.)

Kirby without Lee never had this much breadth, this much discipline, this much suspense.

Once you take the fans’ emotional investment out of the equation, it seems abundantly clear that both Lee and Kirby were bringing things to the table. You could even argue they needed each other, in a volatile marriage sort of way. I’m often amused by the way people often talk of things as if Lee and Kirby never worked apart, so it was impossible to see what they would do without each other. When flying solo, Kirby had such a ceaseless imagination that there became something reckless about it. His later stories sometimes read like you’re being bombarded by ideas. He needed if not an editor exactly, someone by his side to say “that silver guy looks cool. Why not do something more with him before you rush onto the next thing? And the guy with rotor blades coming out of his head? Well, confidentially Jack…”

It's easy to picture the story without Surfer in it. In truth, he sits un-easily in the published version. His sub-plot has very little effect on what is going on; his rebellion doesn't actually achieve very much. Galactus is defeated, not by his herald's defection, but by the Watcher's perennial violation of the Prime Directive. Cut the Surfer out of the story, and you are left with 'Galactus invades earth; Human Torch fetches Ultimate Nullifier; Galactus goes away again.'.

Probably like most who haven’t re-read the story for a while, I’d forgotten all about the Great Big Button… sorry, I mean Ultimate Nullifier. You remember the emotional drama of the Surfer’s defection, don’t you? The Nullifier’s obviously an analogy for the nuclear deterrent, but Galactus is remembered precisely because he’s so much more than just another ‘Red horde’ stand-in.

For some reason this has never occurred to me before, but why isn’t it the Surfer who goes to get the Great Big Button? For one thing he’s the most qualified candidate. (“What we need is someone who knows how to soar the spaceways. Oh sod it! Johnny, you’ll have to go! Fire burns well in space, I hear.”) But it would also take the heresy of the defection up a notch. It would be the rebellious kiddie sneaking into daddy’s bedroom to nick his shotgun, his whuppin’ belt or whatever other symptom of his power.

It is very strange to show Johnny's journey to Galactus' home, and his journey back, but not to show what happens while he was there. Surely Kirby would have loved to draw the interior of Galactus space station? It looks distinctly as if a page or two has been cut here, or at any rate, as if someone changed their mind about the focus of the story.

Possibly, but this seems to me the weakest of your arguments. For one thing Kirby was never one to let sense get in the way of drama. If he’d have drawn that scene, I suspect he’d have kept it in, even at the expense of losing something plot-necessary. But more importantly, what you leave out can be as dramatically effective as what you put in. (I always thought it was a mistake to show the inside of the Mother Ship in the reconstituted Close Encounters, for example. In the original it’s bigger than anything you can imagine!) I’m writing from memory, but doesn’t Johnny’s return feature him passing out at the sights? “We’re just ants!” etc. (‘scuse me if memory fails me here!) This gains in weight if we know that he’s been subjected to sights we the reader have missed.

Andrew Rilstone said...

For some reason this has never occurred to me before, but why isn’t it the Surfer who goes to get the Great Big Button? For one thing he’s the most qualified candidate. (“What we need is someone who knows how to soar the spaceways. Oh sod it! Johnny, you’ll have to go! Fire burns well in space, I hear.”) But it would also take the heresy of the defection up a notch. It would be the rebellious kiddie sneaking into daddy’s bedroom to nick his shotgun, his whuppin’ belt or whatever other symptom of his power.

Curse you and your critical faculties, why didn't I think of that?

Mind you, I'd be more inclined to think of it in mythological terms than as a straight father vs son thing. Surely what has happened is that someone has flown up to heaven and stolen the weapons of the gods to use against them?

I said that "The Watcher" was a necessary plot pivot to get the Human Torch from earth to Galactus "planet". But this assumes that Galactus "planet" has to be just round the corner from the center of infinity. But it could just as well have been in orbit around the earth, say, a "Mother Ship" from which the Spherical thing emerged. In which case, Lee might have said:

"While the rest of the F.F try to hold out against Galactus, the Human Torch flies up to Galactus Mother Ship and steals the Ultimate Nullifier."

Kirby decided that it would be more fun if the space station was further away, and used the Watcher to send him there.

This means that in Version #1, Galactus would have been defeated by the Human Torch stealing his own weapon from under his nose; but Version #2 had his favored servant rebelling against him. Since Lee and Kirby had already sent the Torch off into space, you end up with both version side by side in the same story. On the one hand, the legend of Prometheus stealing fire from Zeus (naturally, Jonny Storm gets to play the fire-thief) and on the other the legend of Lucifer rebelling against Jehovah and being cast down from heaven.

Isn't there a long standing and well-attested tradition that the first concept that Lee presented to Kirby was "Have them fight God?"

Eric Spratling said...

This is rather outstanding work.

I like it much better than the extended Dave Sim parody you were doing a few weeks back.

Phil Masters said...

..."directors rarely write their own screenplays"....

I'm not sure what this is a quote from, but as a skim of IMDB suggests that Peter Jackson is (along with his wife) credited as one of the writers on every major film which he's directed - adapted or original - I would tend to assume that he's one director who does write his own screenplays. Unless I've missed the "Jackson exposed as amazing serial liar" story somewhere.

Incidentally, I don't know much about what goes on inside film studios, but a lot of people who do, seem to agree that directors are responsible for much of the quality and style of the films they make (and indeed, there are one or two directors who even I can see have distinctive styles). This opinion isn't only held by effete French academic critics; it seems to be accepted by hard-nosed Hollywood businessmen too. Making a movie is a hideously complex process, and the director is evidently the one who holds it together and gives it structure - he's not just some loon who sits in an armchair throwing off vague ideas.

Now, writers may be under-credited in the business (insert the Hollywood joke about the starlet who was so dumb she slept with the writer - though as Joe Eszterhas boasts of getting Sharon Stone into bed, and Stone doesn't seem to be entirely stupid, that one may be out of date by now), and I gather that editors are regarded as much more important by people who know what they do than by outsiders - but people like John Woo, John Ford, or Orson Welles are apparently valued for something.

(However. "Michel Gondry needs the discipline provided by Charlie Kaufman to produce something moving rather than just cute." Discuss.)

Gavin Burrows said...

Mind you, I'd be more inclined to think of it in mythological terms than as a straight father vs son thing. Surely what has happened is that someone has flown up to heaven and stolen the weapons of the gods to use against them?

This sounds like one of those rare occasions when we can say “we’re both right”! Galactus is both the anti-father and anti-God. (Rather than granting life, he seeks to devour it.) We may be sad forty-somethings discussing all of this, but Marvel comics had a juvenile audience so you’d expect images of the father to come up. And of course Reed is the ‘good father’ to Ben and Johnny, so ‘bad father’ antagonists are likely.

Since Lee and Kirby had already sent the Torch off into space, you end up with both version side by side in the same story.

Seems the most likely explanation to me. They either thought of the Surfer going too late or not at all. More to suggest the Surfer sub-plot was being developed on the hoof. (Or, more accurately, even further on the hoof than usual.)

…in Version #1, Galactus would have been defeated by the Human Torch stealing his own weapon from under his nose

Galactus doesn’t really see the Ultimate Plot Dev… I mean Nullifier as his weapon so much as That Thing Which Must Never Be Used And Kept In the Back of the Cupboard. He recoils against it when Reed brandishes it like Dracula against a crucifix or George Bush against common sense. Reed doesn’t use it of course, but his willingness to is important. I think it’s a bit more than the bomb analogy I mentioned earlier. The God-like Galactus represents the weight of tradition, which our heroes defy by Moving Stuff from Its Accustomed Places. The Surfer rebels and Reed grabs the Nullifier. (About the only point where the two sub-plots coalesce!)

I did look through these issues last night. Certainly the Surfer who lands on Alicia’s skylight doesn’t seem the same Surfer who fell off the roof of the Baxter building. (Moreover the robot they later fight would seem to take the role of the original Surfer, something which hits people and doesn’t have a speaking role.) But isn’t it mere supposition to see his changing role as coming from Lee? It could have come from Kirby, or a combination of the two.

And while the speaking-role Surfer isn’t the original kid-who-hangs-out-with-the-school-bully conception, neither is he the ‘agonised Hamlet’/’sufferin’ Jesus’ that Lee wrote in the solo comic. So noble as to be somewhat retarded seems his chief characteristic.

PS I still have the Marvel UK Surfer summer special with the inspired byline “Share the anguish of the Surfer! Free colour poster inside!” That’s always seemed to me the most succinct summary of Marvel at the time.

Gavin Burrows said...

The God-like Galactus represents the weight of tradition, which our heroes defy by Moving Stuff from Its Accustomed Places.

‘scuse the swift follow-up, and the self-quoting, but like Lee and Kirby I’m writing this on the hoof!

Galactus represents the Great Chain of Being. Don’t grumble when something bigger than you decides you’re for dinner, that’s just the way of things mate. Their argument against this is that humans may be small potatoes now but they’re doing their best to grow and develop. Humans don’t have a fixed role in the cosmology, they’re able to evolve. Galactus’ parting speech makes this explicit. “If I’m going hungry tonight, it had better be because you’re gonna grow into something worthwhile!”

Phil Masters said...

“Share the anguish of the Surfer! Free colour poster inside!”

Beautiful.

Gavin Burrows said...

I am currently working on a Freudian interpretation of the Galactus saga which combines both your posts here. I estimate it will eventually run to a three-volume book published by a major academic group. However my provisional findings are as follows…

The empowering Nullifier is of course the Father’s penis, stolen from him by the ‘son’ emerging into manhood./self-determination, thereby nullifying/castrating the Father’s symbolic power. Galactus recoils to see his own member in the hands of a ‘child’. This is of course why the later Surfer needs to wear trunks.

(NB When I say a ‘three-volume’ book I also estimate the beginning and end of it will be about something else entirely.)

Kevin said...

Hmm... been reading source and redaction criticism, Andrew?

Andrew Rilstone said...

Kevin...

You are going to love my Easter special...