Monday, October 8, 2012

The Startling Sagas of the Silver Surfer

The Startling Sagas of the Silver Surfer

This is not a contest between Jack Kirby, a great artist and storyteller and John Buscema who was also one of my favorites.

But I have wondered over the years, which back story of the Silver Surfer best suited the character, Kirby’s or Buscema’s. For decades I thought Kirby’s but now I realize, given the choice of just those two, it has to be Buscema’s not Kirby’s.

Jack Kirby’s Silver Surfer actually presented a familiar theme from Jack Kirby. In Fantastic Four #48, Kirby gave him form and Stan Lee gave him substance. But no one gave him pants.  Go back and look.  The Surfer was life from lifelessness, he had no gender.  Stan used the masculine pronouns for him, but he really was an “it.” He had no parts to be private with and did not need pants.

Kirby’s Surfer had no back story. 

Now take a breath:
There are some who feel that only Kirby should have drawn the Surfer. I agree. Kirby also should have been the only one to draw the Fantastic Four, Thor, Captain America, Avengers, X-Men, Nick Fury, Sgt. Fury, The Hulk and the Human Torch strips.  (Anyone could have drawn Ant-Man.)  However, the 14th amendment outlawed slavery and they had to take those shackles off of Kirby and let him draw only 60 pages a month. He was, of course drawing the Fantastic Four and Thor, but Captain America, in 1969 just doubled in length when he took over “Tales of Suspense.”  So when you say he should have drawn the Surfer, please mention which comic you wanted him to give up.

All John Buscema did when he drew the Surfer was do a beautiful job. But his first story gave us a very different Surfer. You see, Kirby’s Surfer was a murderer.


The Surfer had an ironic introduction. In Fantastic Four #48, in his very first panel, the text reads, “But life goes on--” This is ironic because the Surfer was the harbinger of death. If he came to your planet, life did not go on!
Kirby’s Surfer went from planet to planet, looking for life and then signaled thumbs up or down to his master. Galactus would come down and would suck all the energy out of the planet, something like Mobil-Exxon. So the Surfer was a murderer. If you say he wasn’t, that Galactus was, it was saying that all those Gestapo agents who loaded people on trains going to the concentration camps were not culpable.  The Kirby Surfer knew exactly what he was doing, even if he was “only following orders.”

Norrin Radd, in Silver Surfer #1 was a great seeker of truth and human perfection. In fact, he was a snob.  His planet was a place of peace and contentment, but he could not be content because everyone else was. He had a sense of danger, a “spidey sense”  that told him that something bad was going to happen. In fact when Galactus’ ship travels to his planet Norrin knows that they will be linked.  Showing nobility, Norrin gives up the life he wasn’t happy with to with and becomes the herald of Galactus.

Buscema’s Surfer changed the story.  In one panel, as I remember, the Surfer bypasses a planet because it was filled with primitive life.  Yet, the very next panel reminds us that he came to Earth to extinguish us all!

Kirby’s Surfer came to Earth with no humanity and gained it here fooling around with Alicia. He was programmed to kill, but once he gained his humanity, he realized it was wrong and began to change his ways. This works well because Kirby’s Surfer was a part time player, a supporting character.

But with a major problem: Galactus.  Since Galactus could take life, it would be wrong, seriously wrong, if he could create life too. This would make him God. Not a god, like Thor, but God.  Why couldn’t Galactus then create life, create planets, like we create gardens and live of them? No, Galactus should not be able to create life, that is too special.  So, as a full time character that needed an origin, the Surfer could not be life from lifelessness. As a part time character we did not need a back story. Galactus therefore needed to find then transform, Norrin Rand into the Blue Surfer, not create one from nothingness. (Take a look at the comic; he is really blue, not silver.)  We call him the Silver Surfer because that is what Stan wants us to call him. But honest, in my comics he was mostly white with some blue.

Galactus came to Earth, not only speaking English, but with a big G on his chest. So he not only spoke our language, he knew which country he was going to.  He asks the Fantastic Four in issue #49 and to Norrin, “Would you not hesitate to step on an ant?” Well, first, how does Galactus know about ants? (Another Henry Pym reference.).  However, someone should have mentioned to the big “G” that you don’t talk to ants and ants don’t look like you as earthlings do. And unlike Galactus, I don’t feel I have to explain myself to ants.

So while the Kirby Surfer was a good fit for a supporting character, if you wanted a hero with his own bi monthly comic, you needed the Buscema version: A character, with nobility, with motivation for becoming a hero, vulnerability, a sense of decency, and pants. OK, 40 later that origin story written in 1969 doesn’t hold up too well. Although given the greater length of the story, the characters are not quite developed enough and plot points are often glossed over. But it establishes what was needed to have a fully employed hero.

But the Surfer failed.  I guess some Kirby fans will blame Lee but who do they blame for Mister Miracle who failed after the same number of issues? Or the New Gods, Forever People or the Hulk?

The single biggest mistake in the run of the Surfer was to have one of their mightiest characters Earth bound. He was called the Sentinel of the Skyways, but he had no Easy Pass to get there, he was stuck on Earth. Thor got better when his stories took off Midgard and placed him in Asgard, the Underworld, or in different realms. The Surfer stories, especially in the beginning, were often about prejudice. This rarely fully captured the character, or gave him a serious threat, but would have made an interesting sub-plot every once in a while.  They should have been able to roam the Skyways, even go home, and have great adventures off the Earth. In his best story he went to Hell, in issue #4. Space travel might have also stopped his incessant whining.   

There is a difference between prejudice and common sense.  If I saw a naked person, painted blue (OK silver) walking down the street in the winter and we were 1,000 miles from the ocean and he was carrying a Surf board, is it prejudiced to think he is nuts?

Both Kirby and Buscema would return to their characters. Jack Kirby with Stan Lee produced a screenplay for a Surfer movie that became a trade paperback in 1978.  It showed Kirby’s version of the character and his first contact with Earth, but without the Fantastic Four. John Buscema’s 1988 Graphic Novel, returns the Surfer to his version, a herald who was once a man.  Notice the shape of the object the naked women are imploring him to enter. There was no comics code here.

Oh, the Silver Surfer had a great letter's page in issue #14.


  1. Barry, I substantially agree. Both the Kirby version and the Lee-Buscema version have strong points, and Kirby's isn't necessarily gold purely because he conceived the character.

    I don't think the "G" on the big guy's chest connotes anything but artist error.

  2. Gene,

    I just laughed at the "G" recently, when I thought about it. When originally published I didn't think about it at all.

  3. Kirbysaid he drew the G because, in his originals, Galactus would claim to be God. Stan later used this side of the Galactus premise when the FF would face Gabriel who would blow his horn to bring Earth to an end. And it almost did, because Gabriel served Galactus.

  4. I don't think the Surfer failed. I believe Robert Beerbohm's theory that there was a speculation and retailers false reported on their sales. That same series distributed in other countries was a great success. While it may be a matter of different taste across cultures, there are just too many fondly remembered runs from that era (Adams' X-Men and GL/GA, Kirby's Fourth World) that "failed".