My Misspent Youth: Silver Surfer by Stan Lee and John Byrne

I read a lot of comic books as a kid. This series of posts is about the comics I read, and, occasionally, the comics that I should have read.

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When I started reading superhero comics, I was enamored with the history I did not witness. Immediately deciding to Make Mine Marvel, I had an endless excitement for studying that publisher’s previously traveled terrain. It helped that it was easy to digest, with fewer than twenty years of stories when I started pulling together the necessary change to purchase their monthly, ongoing adventures. They also had a pure mastery of genial grandstanding in their self-promotion, a vestige of the days when Stan “the Man” Lee signed off on practically every line of dialogue that populated the buoyant word balloons. The comics were made to seem important. Among the things I knew, or at least believed, was that the most aspirational writing of Lee’s comic book career — the material that most clearly reached that promised importance — had its home in the late nineteen-sixties series The Silver Surfer.

Curiously, given the contentiousness surrounding the creation lineage of many of Marvel’s most venerable characters, the Silver Surfer was the one figure who was acknowledged to have sprung completely from a collaborator’s pencil instead of Lee’s typewriter. By all accounts, when Lee gave artist Jack Kirby the plot for the titanic tale that would be known as “The Coming of Galactus!,” for a 1966 issue of Fantastic Four, there was no mention of a sleek, metallic-clad slicing through the air on an outer space surfboard. It was Kirby who decided that a being as formidable as Galactus would have a herald, a servant who flew on ahead of him to announce the imminent arrival of the towering malevolent force. While that’s undoubtedly true, Lee gave the Surfer his anguished soul expressed through the purplest of poetic prose. The impresario of Marvel Comics always noted that his early goal in life was to write the Great American Novel. With the Silver Surfer, he indulged that penchant as he did with no other character, tapping out a modern tragedy one florid monologue at a time.

Lee wasn’t writing many comic book stories by 1982, so the arrival of a Silver Surfer one-shot boasting a script credited to him felt highly significant to me. That it was published on highly glossy paper and distributed strictly through the direct market, both rarities at the time, only enhanced the appeal. Paired with artist John Byrne, still early in a run on Fantastic Four that was already being cited as the closest rival to the Lee-Kirby heyday that the title had ever seen, Lee crafted a tale that drew upon the heavy history of character. The Silver Surfer was imprisoned on Earth after defying Galactus to help the Fantastic Four save the humble orb (it happened back in Fantastic Four #50, True Believer!) and he spent his time morosely pining for his own home world and his one true beloved, Shalla Bal (while occasionally flying into spectacular adventures, natch). In the one-shot, though, the scientific genius of the Fantastic Four’s leader, Reed Richards, allows the Surfer to finally penetrate the cosmically-generated barrier and race across the universe.

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The Silver Surfer heads straight for Zenn-La, the planet he hadn’t set foot on since he was Norrin Radd, a noble man who sacrificed himself to the service of Galactus in exchange for the world being spared. When he arrives, however, the Surfer discovers all is not well. After the Surfer’s betrayal, Galactus venegefully returned and ravaged the planet, leaving the remaining populace to gather in abject misery in a small corner of the now barren world. There’s even worse news about Shalla Bal. She was spirited away by Mephisto, the Marvel Universe Satan stand-in who’d been maliciously obsessed with the Silver Surfer for ages. The perpetually lovelorn Sky-Rider of the Spaceways has no choice but to seek her out, which leads to nothing less than battles against the most dire mystical beasties in Hell.

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The battle escalates until Mephisto reaches his sadistic endgame. In order to rescue Shalla Bal, the Silver Surfer needed to return to Earth, again subjecting himself to the planetary imprisonment he’d recently escaped (the contraption of Dr. Richards was evidently built for single usage only). As she is zapped away, the Surfer desperately imbues her with a touch of the Power Cosmic that gives him his abilities. When she arrives back on Zenn-La, the hastily given gift of the Silver Surfer has an interesting effect.

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For the second time, Norrin Radd has saved Zenn-La.

This was precisely the sort of comic that made me swoon back then, with its veneer of high literature pushed up against the simplest good versus evil tropes. There is an aching poetry to the Silver Surfer’s story, and Lee revels in it. I did, too. I might have missed a lot of that grand Marvel history, but this comic made me feel like I was holding an important new part of it in my eager little hands.

Previous entries in this series (and there are a LOT of them) can be found by clicking on the “My Misspent Youth” tag.

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