Written by: Stan Lee
Art by: John Buscema and Joe Sinnott
Letters by: Sam Rosen
Available on Marvel Unlimited
The Silver Surfer is one of Marvel’s most iconic characters. Introduced in 1966 in Fantastic Four 48, it wasn’t long before he got his own Marvel series, and it’s not difficult to see why. Having agreed to a lifetime of service as Galactus’ herald in exchange for the continued existence and safety of his homeworld, two years after his first appearance Norrin Radd finds himself confined to Earth – his punishment for helping the Fantastic Four save the Earth from Galactus’ all-consuming hunger. The character of the Surfer is, then, one of Marvel’s ‘bigger’ characters. An alien who nevertheless embodies very human notions of nobility and self-sacrifice, he is an isolated and misunderstood figure, and his background is drenched in tragedy and pathos. While it’s true that other Marvel characters had similar issues at the time (Spider-Man, the Sub-Mariner and, especially, the Hulk all spring to mind), I’d argue that it’s the Silver Surfer who represents the pinnacle of what you might call Marvel’s melodramatic tragic style. While I’m very conscious that I might be talking complete rubbish (and a lot of it!), I hope you’ll allow me to explain what I mean, as we take a deep dive into the over-sized second issue of the character’s first solo series.
Issue 2 of Silver Surfer bears the self-consciously melodramatic title “When Lands The Saucer!” and the opening page that bears it is similarly melodramatic. The Surfer is reclining on his board, his arm raised to shield his eyes in a typical (and classical) pose of emotional anguish. This is the posture of the slain or defeated hero, his prominent musculature of no use to him, his strength insufficient to the task of overcoming whatever obstacle has laid him low. The dialogue makes it clear that what has overwhelmed the Silver Surfer is not a physical foe, but an emotional – one could almost say ‘existential’ – one: “In all the world, there is no place for me! Exiled here, upon the planet Earth, I am a stranger amongst strangers… an alien amongst the race of man!” While this may be a bit grandiose for some, I’d argue that Lee’s writing does an extraordinarily effective job of establishing the grand and tragic narrative tone of the book in a very limited space. (The lurid red space background helps too – and there’s enough Kirby crackle going on to satisfy even the most jaded fan of the cosmic style.) That phrase “stranger amongst strangers” is more than just clever repetition; it sets out the thematic focus of what follows. The Surfer is not just a stranger to humans; they are strangers to him. Neither understand each other properly and the potential for tragic misunderstanding is considerable, although even the most imaginative comic book fan probably won’t guess just how creatively that potential is explored in this story.
Because this is an action comic, though, and you can’t just have thirty-odd pages of the Surfer moping around on his board (don’t get any ideas, any of you modern writers who may inadvertently be reading this!), our hero is interrupted by a meteor shower which, although being a ludicrously straightforward threat for the Surfer to confront, gives the creative team the opportunity to emphasize a couple of important points: the board comes at the Surfer’s call; the board and the Surfer cannot be parted; this relationship is set in stone and has been established by a higher power. (“Thus has it been ordained! Thus will it ever be!”) Buscema’s art is excellent here, incidentally. The final panel of this page six shows the Surfer regaining his board and landing on it, arms stretched out perpendicular to his body like a gymnast dismounting from a piece of equipment. He’s pretty cool, this Surfer chap.
Having been jolted out of his self-absorption, the Surfer decides to go down and visit the Earth and try to fit in. Unfortunately for him, he chooses a backwater village in the middle of Europe – possibly the Balkans; it’s difficult to tell – rather than, say, a large American city. Needless to say, the locals are rather agitated to be visited by a silver alien on a flying surfboard and do what apparently is the norm in these sorts of situations and reach for their pitchforks. The resulting confrontation is fairly typical, I suppose, but Lee elevates it with a couple of clever touches. The principal confrontation is not between the Surfer and the villagers, but between the man whose appearance (he wears a monocle, for crying out loud!) and demeanor would suggest that he’s the local ‘lord of the manor’ and a much less pompous-looking (and sounding!) gentleman with a white beard. It’s not stretching the case too much to suggest that the monocle-sporting mustachioed man represents humanity’s fear of the alien and unknown (a fear that leads too often to violence and destruction), and the distinguished-looking chap in the beard represents the more compassionate, trusting side of human nature. To cap it all off, the bearded man, exasperated at his opponent’s refusal to listen to reason, invokes the example of Christ (“If our Lord himself returned…”), which unfortunately only serves to inflame the situation further to the point that the Surfer himself has to intervene with the power of his levitating surfboard. Rather cleverly, the interruption allows the reader to complete the thought for herself (“… would you treat him the same way?”) and the reminder that Jesus was ultimately rejected by the people He came to save lingers uncomfortably in the mind. Perhaps. I guess it all depends on how regular your Sunday School attendance was back in the late 60s. Nevertheless, the symbolic cat has been pretty much let out of the bag here. The example of Christ is entirely appropriate at this point because, as we’ll see, the Surfer is explicitly a Christ-figure in this story and more generally in Marvel continuity as a whole.
I suppose now’s as good a time as any to lay my cards on the table. Yes, I am a Christian. I’m also a Doctor Who fan. Now, I know the connection between those two things isn’t entirely obvious but stay with me. Clearly, the notion of human beings needing to be saved/redeemed – and that by a sacrifice that is both physical and spiritual – is the imaginative and narrative engine of the Christian faith. It is in this issue of Silver Surfer, too. And it is in an awful lot of Doctor Who. The thematic connections between Doctor Who and the Silver Surfer are already fairly well known, having been thoroughly explored by massive Who fan Dan Slott in his highly-regarded run on the character with Mike Allred. In his series, the Surfer is a single alien with a tragic past, seeking to explore the universe and choosing a human female companion to explore it with. The Surfer is the Doctor-analogue in this set-up; Dawn is the companion-analog, bringing a very human perspective to the Surfer’s life in much the same way that Rose did in the revamped Doctor Who series. The board, of course, is the TARDIS – the Surfer’s mode of travel that, although not admittedly bigger on the inside than the outside, is nevertheless a Lewis-esque wardrobe door to adventure, danger, fun, and new and challenging experiences.
Anyone who knows anything about Doctor Who may already have picked up on some of the similarities between the Doctor and the Surfer in this issue. About 18 months after this issue was published, the Doctor will be captured by his people, forced to regenerate and exiled to Earth as punishment for continual interference in the affairs of other planets, not least Earth itself which has at this point been saved by the Doctor on numerous occasions. The Doctor is an alien who nevertheless displays admirably human warmth and self-sacrificial heroism. I’m not suggesting that Marvel ‘copied’ the BBC or vice versa. I’m just pointing out that both the Surfer and the Doctor occupy the same conceptual space in the human imagination – the strange, but wise outsider who puts his life on the line for a mass of humanity which doesn’t understand or appreciate him, but he does it anyway. He is, in short, a selfless savior. Or, if you’d prefer, a Christ-figure. How far you buy into all this is, of course, up to you, but I’m going to continue on the assumption that you’re at least partly with me. Let’s move on…
The Surfer boards his board (hah!) and flies off and, characteristically, muses aloud on his experiences. His view of humanity is less than flattering: “Of all the countless worlds I’ve known… of the myriads of planets upon which I’ve trod… Never have I known a race so filled with fear… with dark distrust… with the seeds of smoldering violence… as this which calls itself… humanity!” He goes on to say that, while other creatures battle for survival, it is only man who “battles in the name of nameless causes!” Which, again, is not quite as silly as it sounds. The Surfer clarifies what he means by that by suggesting that mankind is compelled by emotions that he barely understands, forced into battle by “savage pride”. Admittedly, this isn’t exactly peak philosophy, but Lee’s language at least has the rhythm (the tripling and alliteration really help in this regard) and vocabulary of grand discourse, if not its complexity of thought. What’s interesting is that Lee through the Surfer is suggesting that man’s problems with violence, hatred, fear, and distrust transcend the mere animal and come from something more metaphysical. We’re almost touching on the concept of sin here, but the Surfer retreats from the notion that mankind is uniquely cursed by his unrestrained passions and entertains the more humanistic thought that these qualities may lead to mankind’s progress and glory as much as they may lead to his doom. Pondering this, the Surfer decides to visit a city (I’m guessing New York), “a more enlightened clime” than the backward village. Needless to say, this doesn’t go very well, either.
From a philosophical point of view, I’m beginning to quite warm to Lee here. The more sophisticated citizens the Surfer encounters in the bustling city are, in their own way, just as ignorant and parochial as the villagers he met earlier. Lee lets his characters live and breathe in all their flawed glory. While the police officer is nominally a representative of authority, his status is casually usurped by a loud-mouthed man who, on hearing that the Surfer doesn’t have a place to stay or means of paying for one, opines that the city has too many bums and vagrants as it is and doesn’t need any more. When the police officer tries to exert his authority, the loudmouth reveals that he has friends in City Hall who don’t “go for police brutality”. In a darkly amusing moment, another man says that he’ll back up the loudmouth’s complaint. He saw the cop “try’n hit” him, despite the policeman having done nothing remotely threatening or violent in the exchange up to now. Throw in the truck driver complaining that he’s got eggs to deliver and the boy who, eyes gleaming with delight, urges his off-panel friends to come closer to see the ensuing confrontation and it’s no wonder that the Surfer takes off once more, appalled at “the torturous, incomprehensible assault of human madness!” His complaint that he “cannot be imprisoned… in a world without reason” is hard to argue with.
The next page is a sequence of panels in which the Surfer flings himself against the invisible barrier keeping him from leaving Earth, an action that reminds him (and the reader) that he really is trapped here. Having witnessed not one but two encounters with humanity’s less appealing side, it’s hard to feel anything other than sympathy for him and that is, of course, the point. More than anything, it’s the Surfer’s failure to make himself understood that hurts here, something to which most of Lee’s largely teenage (and pre-teen) readership could doubtless relate.
Perhaps inevitably, the Surfer’s thoughts turn to the homeworld he has left behind and the woman, Shalla Bal, who lives there. The reader gets to see her still upset by Norrin Radd’s self-sacrifice, although of course, the Surfer is ignorant of her emotions. If you were to say that this section is not terribly great and even a little bit sexist, I wouldn’t argue with you; it does, however, remind the reader that the Surfer’s suffering did not start with his exile to Earth. While the indignities he’s currently suffering are certainly unpleasant, they are relatively minor compared to what he has had to give up to save his planet. It is only after this that the Surfer finally shakes off his self-pity and reminds himself that, whether they like it or not, human beings still need his help. This takes place on a page which I’m tempted to say is almost the Surfer’s (and the comic’s) manifesto. The Surfer identifies “poverty and want… the cancer of crime” and “the brutal scourge of tyranny” as the unholy trinity plaguing the human race. Buscema’s art does a grand job of portraying all three, particularly in the faces of the starving people. (Although I do like a good futuristic-looking tank, to be fair.)
The Surfer having decided to take on the responsibility of saving humanity from itself, the Badoon show up because this is actually a superhero comic book, not an extensive quasi-philosophical treatise on the flaws of human nature. This is rather disarmingly acknowledged by the narration which sort of admits that the story has yet to “really get going”. The design of the Badoon’s ship owes as much to Star Trek as classic UFO lore. In fact, it’s essentially a green, slightly curvier and more malevolent-looking version of the USS Enterprise, but never mind. What follows is a rather slow, methodically-delivered alien invasion tale interspersed with examples of humanity being, well, a bit crap, really.
There are some nice touches, though. The Badoon don’t reveal themselves (apart from a suitably ominous green claw hovering over a control panel) until after the Surfer’s been put in jail (out of which he promptly breaks) for trying to warn the inhabitants of the city in which the Badoon ship has landed that they’re in danger. The problem for the Surfer is that the ship has been rendered invisible – although he can see it, naturally. The local citizenry thinks he’s trying to start a riot and they mob him for his trouble. Even here the Christ-like elements of the character are foregrounded. Being physically attacked despite having peaceful motives? Check. Not fighting back? Check. Being unjustly imprisoned? Oh, yeah.
The Surfer is eventually welcomed onto the Badoon ship and told by the Badoon leader that he and his fellows are on a peaceful mission of discovery and exploration. This is disputed by a young human woman who has been abducted by the Badoon so they can learn the English language and has, somewhat conveniently, escaped just in time to reveal the truth. When she is subdued by the aliens, the Surfer realizes that they’ve lied to him and so he rescues her and leaves the ship. This opening chapter ends with the Surfer realising that, with humanity not being especially inclined to believe his previous warnings, he’s going to have to sort this out by himself. We’re kind of in Doctor Who territory in the sense that, although the unnamed girl is not a companion per se, she is an example of human bravery and resourcefulness and provides the Surfer a personal focus for his altruism. More of her in a bit. In addition, we’re told that the Badoon ship is an advance scout for an invasion fleet that will decimate the planet if the current mission proves successful. This kind of thing happens a lot in science-fiction. The present threat is amplified by a promised greater threat if it isn’t dealt with successfully by whoever the hero happens to be at the time. (See The Sontaran Experiment and The Horror of Fang Rock for Doctor Who-related examples of this sort of thing.)
The Surfer flies off with the girl and, realizing that she’s still alive, places her unconscious body in a protective force field orbiting the Earth. Meanwhile, the Badoon leader has dinner, partly because he’s hungry and he’s entitled to it, and partly because he’s actually pleased that the Surfer has intervened because it’ll make the Badoon’s conquest of Earth less boring. Green, scaly, vicious and supremely arrogant, then? You guys are really aiming for that supervillains-of-the-month prize, aren’t you? There’s also a reference to the Badoons’ super-weapon that, perhaps in a deliberate piece of misdirection, looks about as impressive as the Ultimate Nullifier.
Having safely stowed the girl in her forcefield cocoon, the Silver Surfer flies back to Earth, musing as he does so that, once again, he is “forced to fight for those who despise” him. He also opines that he is “just like a parent who protects his unmindful offspring”, a phrase that echoes Jesus’ heartfelt cry: ” O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the one who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings…” While he’s doing that, the Badoon have left their ship (invisibly, naturally) to go and have some fun, incapacitating an unsuspecting man on the streets and demonstrating not only their callousness but also how sorely humanity needs the Silver Surfer’s protection.
Having decided that human beings are too weak to provide much in the way of entertainment, the Badoon return to their ship and turn their attention back to the Silver Surfer. Their first attack on the planet Earth is a missile whose advanced propulsion and targeting systems mean that it eludes the Silver Surfer’s attempts to stop it directly. Instead, the Surfer has to rely on the time-worn trick of flying straight towards a mountain and then swerving at the last minute before the missile that’s following him can self-correct. This is easily the least successful part of the story so far, not least because the transition from the Surfer flying in space to the missile crashing into a convenient mountain is handled off-panel. It looks as if the mountain has just suddenly appeared somewhere in Earth’s orbit.
Perhaps because he’s realized there’s not much of the issue left, the Badoon leader unleashes his ultimate weapon, which isn’t an unusually small superweapon after all, but a weird orange monster who, at one point, the Surfer calls a robot, despite it having a mostly organic-looking body. This is a fairly straightforward fight made more complicated (and given more emotional impact) by the fact that the monster can’t be seen by the watching humans, so it looks to them like the collateral damage is caused by the Surfer and that the whole confrontation is just the Surfer freaking out. So, while he’s laying his life on the line for humanity, the humans he’s potentially sacrificing himself for are either wishing him dead or, in the case of the US military, planning to attack him.
In a weird way, this works in the Surfer’s favor. Because he’s flying close enough to the Badoon ship, the US military’s missiles hit it rather than him and this causes the Badoon to retreat. All well and good, but there’s one last twist in the tale. Having witnessed humanity’s antipathy towards him, the Surfer tries to catch a lift with the Badoon, riding in the ship’s wake in an effort to escape the energy barrier and leave the largely ungrateful Earth behind him. But, he can’t. Because he remembers that he’s left an unnamed girl floating in her own private forcefield just outside the Earth’s atmosphere and if he leaves her there she’ll die. He has to go back for her. And he does, sacrificing a chance at freedom for the life of someone he barely knows. In a further twist of the tragic knife, the US military has located the Surfer and fires one last missile at him. In order to preserve the girl’s life, he has to absorb the blast of the weapon into himself. His dialogue here explicitly echoes that of Christ on the cross: “Let… all of the shock… be borne by my body! We must… forgive them! For, in all the universe… only an insane humanity… kills, in the name of justice!”
In a story that has already shown the Surfer intervening on behalf of humanity that largely rejects him, this last moment makes the Christ comparison even clearer. The Surfer takes on the pain of others; his suffering is undeserved, and he acts as a substitute not only for mankind as a whole but also for individuals in immediate danger. The issue ends with the Surfer on his own, turning his back on the reader and, perhaps, the human race. The final narration box asks what would happen if the Surfer “with all his matchless power… should crave revenge… and turn against us?” A pertinent question, but for this issue at least, the Surfer has been the epitome of the noble savior, a tragic figure whose suffering and self-sacrifice help add a certain richness to the storytelling.
All in all, then, Silver Surfer 2 is an interesting and really very enjoyable example of Marvel’s late 60s grand epic style. Kirby isn’t mentioned anywhere in the book, but his influence is stamped all over this – not just in the almost omnipresent cosmic crackle and futuristic character design, but also in the issue’s tackling of grand themes like alienation, nobility, sacrifice, and tragedy. Not that this is just a big gloomfest; there’s dry humor (“He don’t need protection… He needs a tailor!”) and skillful plotting to put a pathos that borders at times on the overwrought into a more grounded and human context. And that is, ultimately, the point. It’s humanity rather than the Surfer that is the uncomfortable focus of this issue and the message seems to be that the human race has got a lot of growing up to do.
Buscema and Sinnott’s art is, on the whole, wonderful – particularly when it comes to the facial expressions of a plethora of human characters who have only a limited time to make an impression. Lee’s dialogue already clearly defines them, but the art really helps them stand out. It’s excellent work.
This is a story that, a few years previously, might have been played more for adventure and laughs, but here provides an unexpectedly powerful examination of the human condition within the context of a rather silly space invasion series. Lee’s clever narration and Buscema’s art present the Surfer’s nobility and courage with a skill that is pleasantly surprising. If you fancy a look at what Marvel was doing in the late 60s, you could do a lot worse than start here.