Saturday, August 21, 2010

The Saga of the Silver Surfer

As we continue our survey of the most cosmically cool characters in comicdom, the next logical stop is the original spacefaring hero in the Marvel universe, and one of my all-time favorite comic book creations: the one and only Silver Surfer!

As I’ve discussed before, the Surfer was introduced as part of the incomparably epic Galactus Trilogy that kicked off the cosmic comics era. At the end of that saga, the Surfer is imprisoned on earth by Galactus as punishment for betraying him and saving our planet from his world-devouring hunger. Now, this is a beautiful development in a tragic sort of way, but for fans of the Surfer it was a most unfortunate turn of events, because for the next 22 years he would spend most of his free time moping about his fate, pining for the beautiful Shalla Bal he left behind on his home world, and taking out his frustrations by slamming himself against Galactus’ impenetrable barrier. Not exactly the stuff of cosmic legend!

In 1968, at the peak of the Marvel explosion, the Surfer was given his own mag, along with Captain America, Hulk, Iron Man, Captain Marvel and several others. Surprisingly, the Surfer series was the shortest lived of these by far (along with Captain Marvel), ending after only 18 issues. Maybe it doesn’t say much for the commercial viability of cosmic-themed comics when Marvel’s two spaceborn heroes flamed out so quickly in their own series, but I think there’s an obvious explanation for their failure (which I’ll get to in a minute).

Silver Surfer, volume 1 started out brilliantly, with issue #1 recounting the epic tale of the Surfer’s origins on Zenn-La, his transformation into the herald of Galactus, and his later betrayal of his master and imprisonment on Earth. I really enjoyed going deeper into Norrin Radd's background, learning that he had been an idealist with dreams of heroism who felt horribly stifled by the life of comfort and complacency that prevailed on his home world. Here is an excerpt from this classic tale by Stan Lee and John Buscema:

I absolutely loved this story my only disappointment being that it was drawn by John Buscema rather than the godfather of cosmic comics, Jack Kirby. I think most of us who read comics can identify with Norrin’s dissatisfaction with the mundane world around him, and the way that problem gets resolved in his case is far beyond any comic nerd’s wildest fantasy. “You say you’re gonna coat my body in silver, imbue me with the power cosmic and give me a surfboard on which to soar the cosmos and scout out worlds for you do devour? Yeah, I think that oughtta take care of my little boredom problem, Mr. Galactus! Sign me up!”

Unfortunately, the incredible cosmic promise of the Silver Surfer could never be properly explored so long as he remained stuck on earth. Trying to make an interesting series about an earthbound Surfer is a bit like sending the Sub-Mariner to the 19th century American Southwest to do battle with cowboys and Indians – it kinda misses the point! So the Surfer’s first run fizzled out quickly after a promising debut, featuring mostly forgettable adventures with various less than stellar foes (Flying Dutchman? Dr. Frankenstein? Abomination? Spider-Man? Nick Fury? WTF?). Marvel made a similar mistake by confining Captain Mar-Vell to earth, and his initial run lasted only a little longer (though they did wise up and turn him into a truly cosmic character a few years later).

The Argent One would guest star in numerous comics throughout the ‘70’s, but it seems that Marvel couldn’t quite figure out what to do with this awesomely imagined, yet poorly developed character. Stan Lee was apparently so proud of his creation that he demanded to retain creative control over it long after he gave up his writing and editing duties for the company, but this was a rare case where Stan dropped the ball. The Surfer actually disappeared for about four years at the end of the decade, in what must have been a dark hour for comic cosmonauts.

Finally, in 1987, sanity prevailed and Marvel saw fit to give the Surfer his own series once again, but this time without the Terran tether. “Free at last! Free at last! Thank Galactus almighty, I am free at last!” At least that’s what I’d be saying, if I was freed to roam the cosmos after being stuck on this crazy rock for so many years. So began the Silver Surfer's finest hour since the original Lee/Kirby conception, as, in the gifted hands of Steve Englehart and Marshall Rogers, he was sent to the furthest reaches of the universe to do battle with suitably cosmic foes like the Elders, Skrulls, the Kree, Galactus, In-Betweener, the Celestials, Firelord, et al. I’m still in the early stages of reading this fine series — my comic book erudition being generally limited to the Silver and Bronze Ages proper — so I don’t have much more to say about it except that I’m really digging it so far! I’ll probably say more about the Surfer’s second, much longer run in a future post, so until next time, keep on surfin’ the comics cosmos!

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

All Hail the God of Thunder!

Today I’d like to heap praise on a series that deserves more recognition as one of the all-time great cosmic comics: the Mighty Thor. Thor has always been one of my favorites, because it combines intergalactic sci-fi, fantasy and mythology in a way that no other comic has before or since. Is there anything more epic than the Asgardian Astronomer Royal counseling Odin about a dire new threat out of the Black Galaxy, or a Rigelian robot and the God of Thunder sailing the cosmos together as friends on a quest to save the universe? I say thee nay!

Here's Thor's first encounter with the awesome Ego-Prime, the Living Planet. The Colonizers/Ego Saga from issues 131-133 was probably Marvel's second cosmic epic after the Galactus Trilogy, and it set the tone for Thor's many intergalactic adventures to come:

Comic Cosmonauts have to love Thor, because with the possible exception of the Fantastic Four, he has explored more of the Marvel universe than any other character. Look at the incredible places Thor has visited and the powerful entities he has defeated: Asgard, Olympus, Rigel, the Black Galaxy, the Dark Nebula, Blackworld, the Doomsday Star, the Colonizers, Ego-Prime, Mangog, Loki, Surtur, the High Evolutionary, the Destroyer, Firelord, Exitar (a 20000 foot tall Celestial Terminator!) — the guy has literally been to Hell and back, the End of Time, and survived Ragnarok, for Odin's sake!

One of my favorite things about Thor's world is his spacefaring wooden Viking ship, the Starjammer — what a perfect symbol for what makes this series so unique, and so cool! Thor and his merry band of Asgardians sailed this beauty on numerous intergalactic quests, stopping off on an asteroid to repair its sails from a meteor storm at one point, and later arming it with twin laser cannons!

And let’s not forget the humor – despite the heavy, cosmic themes, the Lee/Kirby Thors have some of the funniest comic moments I’ve ever read. Here's one from Thor #132, back in the days when comics didn't take themselves too seriously:

So to summarize: classic Thor is pure comic book magic, and required reading for all explorers of the Marvel universe!

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Welcome to the Comics Cosmos!

Welcome! This blog is dedicated to the mind-blowing comic books of my youth — the Bronze Age beauties I bought on the newsstands and the Silver Age classics I spent my allowance money on at the comic shops. Having recently rediscovered my love for comics after a 25 year hiatus, I’m now obsessively reading everything I can find from that era, in what must be some strange form of midlife crisis.

What I love most about comics from the Silver and Bronze Ages is their unbridled creativity; just about every far out, crazy, cosmic idea imaginable was explored in their pages at one time or another, with an energy and innocence that modern comics just can’t match. The influence of these comics on the young minds of today's creatives is almost beyond calculation (unless perhaps you’re the Mad Thinker or Brainiac). Just about every meme of modern movies, TV and video games can be traced directly to the classic comics of the 1960's, 70's and 80's — a connection I'll explore further on these pages.

Sure, the classic comic book writers borrowed many of their ideas from the titans of science fiction and fantasy, but for boys too young to read those works, comics had the power to visually inspire our pre-literate imaginations like no other medium. In those long-lost days before video games and the internet, comics were *the* gateway drug that allowed pushers of the fantastic to hook young minds. So as a former child comic book junkie, I dedicate this blog to the creative geniuses who dared to keep me buying their product month after month, and whose incredible visions have stayed with me for 35+ years.

I will be focusing especially on the cosmic-themed comics that have always been my favorite — the epic tales of science fiction and fantasy that spanned galaxies and dimensions, from Midgard to the Dark Nebula, the Negative Zone to the Phantom Zone and all points in between.

Let me admit up front that I was, and remain, a Marvel kid at heart, so I apologize to DC fanatics if I give their universe short shrift. I am currently exploring the "Infinite Earths" in an attempt to make up for decades of ignorance about the DCU, so I hope to have something interesting to say about that region of the comic book multiverse eventually. In the meantime, prepare to set sail for the furthest reaches of the comics cosmos!

I'll leave you with a few pages from the saga that really ushered in the cosmic age at Marvel: the incredible Galactus Trilogy from Fantastic Four #48-50. This was the story arc that kicked things up a notch at the House of Ideas, and made it clear that Jack and Stan were providing much more than cheap children's entertainment — they were creating modern myths of the most cosmic kind. This epic might not seem that stunning to today’s readers, but when you compare awe-inspiring forces of nature like Galactus, Silver Surfer and the Watcher to the rather simplistic heroes and villains that were the norm at the time, it’s nothing short of revolutionary. Enjoy!

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