Icons: SILVER SURFER – The ‘Radd’est Cosmic Creation of Marvel Comics
CREDIT: Marvel Comics
There have been superheroes before and since, but it’s hard to be more original than the Silver Surfer. Created by Jack Kirby in early 1966, the silver-skinned alien being was, and is, one of the most exotic but inextricably human characters in the superhero genre. With a humbling visual design bereft oflacking the usual superhero accoutrement in favor of a simple but iconic chromed exterior and his surfboard, visually the Silver Surfer has more in common with Greek gods as seen in ancient sculpture than the four-color superheroes that he shares the comics shelves with. As we near his fiftieth anniversary and the launching of a new Silver Surfer series by Mike Allred and Dan Slott, Newsarama looks to the so-called sentinel of the spaceways to see what makes the character the enduring icon that he is.
“The Silver Surfer may be the most original character in superhero comics,” Batman/Superman and Action Comics writer Greg Pak told Newsarama in 2010. “No one had ever seen anything like him when he first appeared, and he remains an internationally recognized icon to this day. My earliest memories of the Surfer come from reading a battered trade paperback of Son of Origins over and over again. I think what compelled me was that intense combination of sacrifice, heroism, tragedy, romance, and mind-blowing cosmic adventure. And there was the sheer audacity of putting a silver dude on a surfboard — and making it awesome.”
The “sheer audacity,” as Pak puts it, of Silver Surfer’s features almost snuffed the character’s chance from even appearing in comics. Kirby created Silver Surfer while fleshing out the plot Stan Lee had written for Fantastic Four #48; Lee’s notes to the legendary artist hadn’t included the character at all, instead focusing solely on the introduction of the world-eater Galactus. Kirby added the character on his own to the pages, and Lee was taken aback by this new character Kirby had introduced to the story.
“There, in the middle of the story we had so carefully worked out, was a nut on some sort of flying surfboard,” Lee recounted in the foreword to the 1995 book The Ultimate Silver Surfer. Calling this creation an “irrelevant little bit of whimsy,” the writer/editor asked Kirby to remove the character from the pages. According to Lee, Kirby fought back with Lee and explained that a character of Galactus’ stature should have a herald, “someone to fly around and find planets for him to gobble up.” To explain the inclusion of a surfboard, Kirby said he added it because he was “tired of drawing spaceships.”
After taking some time and Kirby’s words to heart, Lee eventually came around to the character Kirby inserted into his story and actually became one of Lee’s favorite characters at Marvel.
“I detected a nobility in the way Jack had drawn him, a feeling of worthiness, of goodness, of - I might as well say it - of spirituality,” Lee explained. “As drawn by the genius of Jack Kirby, he was far more than merely some goofy stooge for the main super-villain. To me, he was honor and virtue personified. And that was the way I knew I had to write him!”
Lee would go on use the Silver Surfer not only in the Fantastic Four series but also on several solo Silver Surfer projects. Of all of Lee’s comics oeuvre, his Silver Surfer stories would grow to be seen as some of the author’s most thoughtful and introspective works for the celebrated showman. Those qualities that Lee seized upon became the key differentiator between the Silver Surfer and Marvel (and the medium’s) other superheroes. This humble and introspective quality was “emo” decades before 21st century teenagers coined the term, and served as the character’s defining attribute – for good and for bad.
“I sometimes have a hard time empathizing with the motives of superheroes, but show me a cosmic guru-philospher who’s just plain decent – despite being frustrated by the idiocy he sees where he goes – and that’s the headspace I’m happy to occupy,” said X-Men Legacy writer Si Spurrier in an 2007 interview with CBR. “The Surfer is a perpetual idealist: he can spot the potential for great things in the people around him, but can't understand why, in spite of it all, they're so petty, small-minded and intent on self-destruction. He lacks the ability to just shrug and say 'that's life', so he wanders about trying to make things better whilst constantly being reminded of how little success he's having. It's a really weird combination of depression and optimism that I love.”
At 2013’s New York Comic Con when Dan Slott was announced as launching the new Silver Surfer series, the writer told Newsarama that Silver Surfer was the first superhero he ever read and it made an impact – even leading Slott to create a knockoff character for his college newspaper called the Nuke Surfer.
“So yeah, I have a strong affection for the Surfer,” Slott told Newsarama. “Silver Surfer is something I look at and say, "I can't wait!" When I work on Superior Spider-Man, I'm stressed. I feel the weight. I feel the great power and the great responsibility that comes with sitting in the Spider-Man chair. I fret and fuss over everything. And when I get to work on Surfer, it's like eating dessert. It's a lot of fun.”
At his most identifiable, the Silver Surfer has a certain Charlie Brown-esque humanity, possessing a deliberate conscientiousness to himself and the ability to hope for the best. And in the same way that the Peanuts’ Charlie Broown could never seem to fathom that Lucy would continually swipe the football out of his way at the last moment before a kick, Silver Surfer has a certain hope for greatness in others that can’t be beat down – be it himself, others, and namely is sometimes master, Galactus.
“As for his flaws – I can think of only two,” Spurrier explained. “The first is that he simply won't allow himself to accept that people are vicious, brutish creatures; he's so convinced that we all have the potential to be better that he'll do anything to bring that about. The second is that there's still a lot of the man he once was inside him, which ironically can sometimes make him subject to the same flaws - temper, impatience, self-centeredness - as the people he's trying to help."
Those aspects of the character have in effect made him a solitary figure in the Marvel Universe; with that much compassion and that much power, it’s a harder character for comics creators to handle without the character becoming every story’s problem solver and thus he finds himself frequently on his own, both in the story and in Marvel’s line-up.
"Many Marvel characters are loners, but the Surfer is the ultimate loner because when he’s in his element he’s a million miles from any other living soul," longtime Silver Surfer scribe Steve Englehart tells Newsarama. “It’s tricky for a writer, in that he has to keep us interested all by himself, buif a writer can figure out how to pull that off then the Surfer is literally one in a million.”
Although the Silver Surfer’s stories don’t yet reach that million mark, there have been a notable number of tales told by Kirby, Lee, Englehart, Pak, Spurrier as well as the likes of Mœbius, John Byrne, John Buscema, Ron Marz, J. Michael Straczynski and others. Most frequently seen as a supporting character, the Silver Surfer has had his moment in the sun with these creators and has even won an Eisner in the case of Lee and Mœbius’s Silver Surfer series (collected as Silver Surfer: Parable). For Greg Pak, it’s the Silver Surfer’s origin that really asks as a key through which to understand the character.
“It’s easy to forget how itchy-scratchy Norrin Radd was back in the day, disgusted with the complacent culture of idyllic Zenn-La and filled with a longing for adventure and conflict,” Pak told Newsarama back in 2010. “A great set up for someone who ends up with more adventure and responsibility than any mortal should ever have to bear.”
Pak goes on to point out two lesser known Silver Surfer stories that both happen to show the character as part of an odd duality with other characters. In Tales To Astonish #92 and #93, Silver Surfer is paired with the Hulk which brings out the parallels between the two as misunderstood outsiders. And in the 1969 one-off story in Silver Surfer #5, putting the silver-skinned alien alongside a thoroughly normal man named Al. B Harper simultaneously showed how unusual he is compared to humans while possessing a humanity deeper than most.
With all the ups and downs in the Silver Surfer’s 45+ year history in comics, it’s hard to argue that his high point for the character in terms of popularity was in the late 1980s and early 1990s. it all began when Marvel tapped Englehart to launch a new series for the character, and unshackling him from the long-held rule since 1966 that Silver Surfer’s imprisonment within the confines of Earth was a key part of the character.
“I thought then, and still think, that the "woe is me, I'm trapped on earth" thing had long since run its course,” said Englehart, who launched the second Silver Surfer series in 1987. “It was a great take on him when they ended the Fantastic Four/Galactus arc in 1966, but what it meant after that was, we were told he was a sentinel of the spaceways but we never saw it. Stan and John Buscema couldn't sell that, John Byrne couldn't sell that, so I decided it wasn't the creators, it was the box they'd put him in, and kept him in for over ten years. When the book was offered to me, the first thing I said was "He needs to get off Earth" - and they said, "No, that's what his stories are all about" - and I said, "But it makes him a wuss!" - and we went round and round on it, and they wouldn't budge. So I wrote three issues of a series with him on earth - and then, out of the blue, I got a call and they said "Maybe you're right." I don't know what changed their minds, but I started over, with the series you saw, and indeed, getting him out into space, with the vistas and all the Marvel space characters, was what was needed. It made him come fully alive, as a character and a concept, and that gave him the momentum and fan loyalty to keep him going long after I eventually left.”
Englehart charted a course for the Silver Surfer that crisscrossed the Marvel Universe with abandon, going straight through the Kree-Skrull War to black holes and even Surfer’s long-requited homeworld of Zenn-La. It went up another notch when famed cosmic writer Jim Starlin took over the book in 1990, bringing with him his popular characters such as Thanos. During Starlin’s 15 issue run on the series, he enforced the idea that Silver Surfer was one of the primary forces for good in Marvel’s space titles and began to stoke the embers of what would become the massively popular Infinity Gauntlet series. After the series’ fiftieth issue, Starlin handled the title over to his friend – and comics rookie – Ron Marz, who carried forth the ideas of his mentor and ended up writing the title for 54 issues, making him the most prolific of all Silver Surfer writers.
“Those were the days of the speculator boom, and everything was selling in numbers that are almost unimaginable in today's market,” Marz tells Newsarama. “Silver Surfer was selling really well when I took it over, somewhere between 250,000 and 300,000 copies an issue. It was a boom time across the industry, so you have to remember there were titles selling a million copies an issue. Silver Surfer was popular, but it wasn't Uncanny X-Men. Even so, I remember realizing at some point during my first year on the book that we were outselling Superman by a pretty wide margin, which just seemed insane to me. Obviously, the more copies your book is selling, the more scrutiny from above you have to deal with in terms of editorial oversight. So it's probably a good thing for me that there were other books selling much more. That allowed me to be left to my own devices more than you would be on a big franchise. I had to plug into various crossovers, and bring in some guest stars once in a while, but other than that, I was pretty much left to my own devices to decide where the story was headed.”
Growing simultaneously as the larger comic industry experienced a groundswell of popularity, Marvel’s Silver Surfer character became a franchise with the publisher launching several graphic novels and miniseries outside the ongoing series, and even doing a video game, an exclusive trading card set and an animated series in 1998. But as the comics industry went through some down years, so did Silver Surfer. His ongoing series was ended with issue 146 in 1998, and since then has primarily been used as a supporting character in various series with some rare chances at a solo spotlight in various miniseries of his own. When asked if he thinks a Silver Surfer series could work in 2013, Marz says there’s no doubt – given the right tools.
“It would take the same thing it takes for any series to succeed: great story and great art,” says Marz. “I always felt like one of the real boons of the Surfer in general was that you could do any kind of story in any setting. You could do something small and character-driven on Earth, you could do something huge and cosmic in outer space. The playground is limitless, and despite being an alien, the Surfer can serve as a mirror for humanity.”
Solo series or not, to this day the Silver Surfer remains one of the most identifiable characters in comics and emblematic of the genre’s cosmic stories. At the end of the day, many of the character’s writers say his enduring popularity is tied inextricably to his early stories and original design that’s brought him all this way.
“I think there's always an attraction for a tragic character,” states Marz. “He's incredibly powerful, he can do damn near anything, but there's always an aspect of tragedy or sadness to the character. That's great fodder for drama.”
For Englehart, he attributes it all to one man.
“He looks great. Bright white silver in deep black space. Very iconic,” says Englehart. “Credit Jack Kirby with that.”