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.