Friday, February 15, 2013

1987 and all that 001: space is infinite!

by Matt Derman

Hello and welcome to the first of a new feature that I’m very excited to be writing for the awesome dudes here at The Chemical Box. I was born in 1987, and through a combination of inheriting comics from my dad and randomly being interested in titles from back in the day, I have ended up with an inordinate number of issues published that year. So I’m going to go back and examine this stuff one series at a time, in order to eventually get a larger sense of what my first year on the planet was like in the medium I so adore today.  Starting below with a piece on Silver Surfer...

Silver Surfer (v. 3) #1-6 (Marvel)
by Steve Englehart, Marshall Rogers, Joe Rubinstein, John Workman

I love Silver Surfer, but I haven’t read all that many stories in which he was the star. I never followed his title when it was current, and only obtained the 1987 issues a few months ago at a Black Friday sale. I did read his origin story as a kid though, and ever since I have been drawn to the idea of a man riding through the universe, out in the open, tapping into untold cosmic power. It’s a nice raw superhero concept that won me over immediately and stuck around even without a big library of Surfer-centric comic books.

What luck then, that Steve Englehart and company seem to have targeted the beginning of their run at just such a reader as me. The series plays up Silver Surfer’s space-traveling, ultra-powerful aspects, but is also a deliberate exploration of who he is as a man, a hero, and a character. I suppose my view of the Surfer will now be forever shaded by Englehart’s & co's version, but so much of it was in line with what I’d imagined and hoped for already that I doubt anything significant has shifted.

'Silver Surfer' #1 opens with a five-page celebration of the endlessness of space and the Surfer’s unique place within it. The rest of that issue focuses on him getting past the barrier Galactus had long ago constructed to keep him trapped on Earth. Once free, he not only has the ability to travel the stars as he pleases (theoretically, anyway), but his Power Cosmic is fully unharnessed for the first time in ages. It’s an ideal status quo, and a smart opening move.

From there, Englehart writes the book as equal parts sci-fi soap opera and interstellar superhero action story. It allows Silver Surfer to battle foes appropriate for his power level without disconnecting him from his grounded, human side. Knock down drag out fights with the Elders of the Universe are punctuated by melodramatic stories of lost and new love and/or political intrigue, all built around a protagonist who’s at odds with himself. He says he wants to be free, but his actions don’t line up with that, as he continues to get involved in the affairs of others. He promises to defend his home planet of Zenn-La when needed, primarily because he’s still in love with Shalla-Bal, now the unavailable empress of his former people. He no longer sees Zenn-La as home, but he can’t completely break free of it's hold, either. Escaping from one world to be bound by another, the Surfer is never as free (or content) as he wants.

Even in the voids of space, he is attacked by the Elders of the Universe, who’re planning to wipe out the current reality in order to create a new one where they can live like gods (or, as they describe it, like “a race of Galactuses”). Englehart gives these already nigh unkillable beings true immortality through a trick they play on Death, which opens the door for their existence-erasing scheme. Part of me would like to see them succeed, if only so Englehart could write a book about their lives as the most powerful beings in a fresh new universe. But it’s at least as much fun to watch Silver Surfer struggle to defeat them, battling with confidence and incredible might every time despite not always defeating and never entirely destroying his opponents. Over the course of three head-to-head confrontations with three different Elders, we get to see the full range of the Power Cosmic, and ultimately learn the depths of the Surfer’s resourcefulness when he realizes he cannot beat them in straight combat. An impressive and intelligent hero, you start to think he might be just the guy to keep reality intact.
One reason I so enjoyed this plot-line was Marshall Rogers’ designs for the new Elders. Many of them were well established in the Marvel Universe prior to this series, but when Silver Surfer and his companion/love interest Mantis find a secret meeting of the entire group, there are several previously unseen members there, and Rogers gives them each a distinct and memorable look. The Trader resembles a troll doll with its limbs stretched into sticks; The Obliterator is a square and bulky oaf covered in square and bulky weaponry; and The Astronomer is like a cyborg Greek philosopher with a cape. I don’t know if I would go so far as to say that I liked all of these characters’ appearances, but they certainly captured my attention and stuck in my mind.

Rogers’ work overall is an excellent fit for this series. He can do the stranger, more outlandish stuff described above, but not all of his figures are so bizarre or exaggerated. He mixes the alien with the familiar, the ridiculous with the realistic, bolstering what Englehart is doing in his scripts already: telling sci-fi adventure with grounded emotional narratives. Silver Surfer looks just as natural unleashing his powers against the Elders as he does contemplatively pining for the life he once knew. Rogers is comfortable in both realms, which is necessary for the series’ goals.

He is also one of the most reliable artists I have ever seen, at least for these first six chapters. Every character is immediately recognizable and consistent. There are no overly crowded or confusing panels, no poor layout choices, nothing that seems rushed or unfinished. It may not be groundbreaking artwork, but it is unwavering and always clear. It must help that Rogers doubles as colorist, and I’m sure Joe Rubinstein’s inks deserve much of the credit for this visual solidity as well. Any time a comic can be in the hands of only one or two artists, it adds a consistency that makes each new issue that much easier to slip into. 'Silver Surfer' has a sizable cast, from the Elders to the people of Zenn-La to Mantis to the Kree and Skrull and so on. Rogers & Rubinstein handle them expertly, and have no trouble capturing the enormity and grandeur of outer space. Oh, yeah, and they do a damn fine job with the title character, too.

As a protagonist, Silver Surfer is an odd duck here. His victories are only ever semi-sweet if not bittersweet, and despite the scope of his powers he can’t find a way to give himself the life he says he wants. And though he’s never dishonest with the reader, he’s not entirely trustworthy either, because he is often dishonest with himself. Though what he professes to desire, even internally, is the independence to surf the stars alone uninhibited, what he chooses for himself instead is to fight against the oldest beings in existence. Delaying his personal goals indefinitely out of super-heroic duty, he gets caught up in not only a massive battle for reality, but also a new romance with Mantis. The more he commits to taking on the Elders, the harder it is to believe that he’ll ever be able to ride his board into the depths of space as he wishes.

He’s a singular being in an infinite universe, which is simultaneously freeing and restrictive. That dichotomy is key, because more than any other theme, the elusiveness of freedom is the heart of this series. The first issue is titled 'Free', yet even after the sixth (War), Silver Surfer is not dramatically freer than before. His romantic feelings, sense of honor, and even outright arrogance keep him tethered to people and places he claims he’d like to leave behind. I would not have expected to be such a fan of this self-contradictory take, because what has always appealed to me about him is the notion of traversing the cosmos unrestrained, and the thought of a Surfer who can’t quite achieve that is frustrating. That said, even while they examine his inability to break his various bonds, Englehart, Rogers, and Rubinstein include so much large-scale cosmic action that everything I wanted to see was present, just mixed in with elements I never anticipated. I have no sense of where this creative team stands in relation to others who have tackled Silver Surfer before or since, but they highlighted all my favorite facets and pleasantly surprised me with new pieces as well. These are quality comic books that hold up easily after 25 years, presenting an interpretation of the character that is boiled down and layered all at once.

On to 1988!

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