GRAPHIC NOVEL AND TRADE
PAPERBACK (TPB) REVIEWS

by The Masked Bookwyrm


Silver Surfer

To save his planet from the world-devouring Galactus, Norrin Radd made a deal wherein his planet would be spared and he would act as Galactus' herald. Eventually he rebelled against Galactus in defence of another planet...earth. For a time he was free of Galactus, but a prisoner on earth. Eventually, though, he reclaimed the stars...a silver-coated sentinel of the spaceways...

Back to other GN and Trade Paperback reviews

The Silver Surfer published by Marvel Comics

The Essential Silver Surfer 1998 (SC TPB) 528 pgs.

Essential Silver Surfer - cover by John Buscema?Written by Stan Lee. Pencils by John Buscema (and Jack Kirby). Inks by Joe Sinnott, Sal Buscema, Dan Adkins, others.
Letters: Joe Rosen, Artie Simek. Edited by Stan Lee

Reprinting: Silver Surfer (1st series) #1-18 (1968-1971) and the Silver Surfer story from Fantastic Four Annual #5. I believe the first printing of this TPB only included Silver Surfer #1-17, but subsequent printings included the extra stories.

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 2

Additional notes:  I haven't read this. However, issues 1 to 14 of the Silver Surfer was reprinted (albeit, with some editing of a page or two here and there for space reasons) in an early '80s comic called Fantasy Masterpieces, all 14 issues of which I have.

Another mammoth book collecting multiple issues of a comic in black and white, the Essential Silver Surfer reprints the entire run of the Surfer's original series.

The only issue of the more recent Silver Surfer series I've read was an issue written by Jim Starlin and Ron Marz. As well, I've read the collection of text stories, The Ultimate Silver Surfer. Neither really inspired much enthusiasm in me for the Surfer's current interpreters.

This, on the other hand, is the real stuff. Stan Lee's prose was purple, intentionally written in a mannered, florid style, and his sermonizing about as subtle as a brick in the face. But you really believe he believed, and that makes all the difference. You believe that, as the Surfer laments over the folly that is mankind, as he seeks to find peace in a world that fears and hates him, Lee has opened up an artistic vein and is pouring his heart out onto the pages. This was in the days, after all, when it was still all right for artist-types to criticize society (the recent book, the Ultimate Silver Surfer, seemed more an opportunity for characters to criticize the Surfer's critiques, to explain that we're-all-right-Jack/how-dare-the-Surfer-criticize- humanity's-foibles). Reading these stories, it's so very easy to get swept up in the Surfer's (and Lee's) anguished passion.

Not that it's all high-minded solioquies. There are enough monsters, robots, and cosmic baddies calling the Surfer out to satisfy any action fan. It's precisely this blend of high brow histrionics and pulpy action, as the silver coated Hamlet (who some have likened to being a not so subtle comic book Jesus Christ) butts heads with rejects from 1950s monster comics, that gives the series its identity.

Commercially, the original run was not a great success. The early issues were published as double-sized epics, then cut down to half that, and eventually the series was cancelled. And, admittedly, the series maybe had exhausted itself. Its often formulaic plots -- open with Surfer, trapped on planet earth, bemoaning the madness of man; segue into a heartfelt pining for his beloved, the beauteous Shalla Bal, separated from him by the vastness of space; throw in an attempt to integrate himself with human beings, only to have their bigotry and mistrust push him away; add an alien/monster/megalomaniac trying to conquer the world, leading to a knock- down/drag-out fight; close with a dejected Silver Surfer returning to his melancholic lament (O.K., so that's an oversimplification, but not by much) -- leaned toward repetition; there was no sense the series was progressing anywhere.

And yet, it was precisely this rigid formula that makes the Silver Surfer memorable. The character found greater commercial success years later once he was freed from earth and the star-crossed love affair with Shalla Ball was dumped from the storylines, but all that resulted is a character less unique, less poignant, less romantic, less rife with resonance, less...well, less the Silver Surfer.

The art by John Buscema is, of course, excellent. There was some suprise among fandom when Buscema was tagged to draw the series, as opposed to Surfer co- creator Jack Kirby. But I can't help thinking it was the right -- mayhap the perfect -- choice. Buscema's classical, almost Renaissance style, married with his ability to invest the faces with raw emotion (not to mention drawing explosive fight scenes), combined to make the Surfer powerful, yet elegant, sad, yet confident. His anguished monologues all the more heart-wrenching. To this day, Buscema's Silver Surfer is, in my mind, the definitive one. I only wish Sinnott had inked more than three of the issues.

Memorable tales included here are the poignant "And Who Shall Mourn for Him?", the eerily apocalyptic "Worlds Without End", "When Lands the Saucer" (the first Surfer solo story I read, so I may be biased) and even "The Good, the Bad, and the Uncanny" in which the Surfer goes to Asgard and ends up tussling with Thor. There's also the Surfer's origin, guest appearances by the above- mentioned Thor, Spider-Man, and cameoes by the Fantastic Four, and the usual villains like Mephisto.

The original Silver Surfer run, for all its flaws -- perhaps because of them, because it reached too high -- is one of those classic series of which critics speak, and is well worth picking up.

Cover price: $18.25 CDN./$14.85 USA. 


Silver Surfer: The Coming of Galactus 1992 (SC TPB) 48 pgs.

cover by Ron LimWritten by Stan Lee. Pencils (and co-plotter) by Jack Kirby. Inks by Joe Sinnott.
Colours: George Roussos. Letters: various.

Reprints: The Fantastic Four (1st series) 48-50 (1966)

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Additional notes: Fantastic Four #48 isn't reprinted in its entirety: the first few pages continued the Inhumans story from the previous issues and are left out. Likewise, #50 seems to be fewer pages than one would expect. But the editing doesn't appear to be within the story itself (all the pages reprinted appear consecutive and unbroken).

This is the story that first introduced the Silver Surfer and Galactus, with the Fantastic Four and the enigmatic Watcher facing the unstoppable might of the planet-eating Galactus and his herald, the Silver Surfer.

This has come to be regarded as a classic storyline -- not only because it introduced two significant characters to the Marvel Universe, not ony because it was written at the height of the Lee-Kirby collaboration on what was one of the most influential comics of the Silver Age, but also because it kind of introduced comics to "cosmic" stories. I don't know enough about that, but that's the claim. The idea of alien life and alien invasions had been utilized as story ideas before, but in a matter-of-fact way. The Coming of Galactus takes it one step further with the notion of "awesome" concepts, of an ineffable universe that could give birth to beings like Galactus who are "beyond good or evil", where things occur that were "never meant for human eyes".

All this in a story that unfolds largely in and around no more exotic a locale than the F.F.'s headquarters, the Baxter Building in downtown New York.

And what's most astounding is how well it works, even all these years later. From the chilling opening shot of a mysterious Silver Surfer, who seems to frighten even the nefarious Skrulls, to the eerie sequence of portents in the sky over earth, all the way to the contemplative ending. It's a curious blend of the mundane and the momentous, of the Thing's chuckle-inducing wisecracks (Lee could write them better than anyone and no one draws the Thing as expressively as Kirby) rubbing shoulders with the profound monologues of the Watcher and Galactus. Of Sue Richards noisily complaining about her husband's work habits while Ben Grimm tries to make a phone call, to Johnny Storm, almost shell shocked from an exposure to the vastness of the universe, muttering: "We're like ants...just ants...ants!!"

While many modern comics writers prefer to self-refectively explore the conventions of the genre, Lee and Kirby's stock in trade was something else entirely...sincerity. For all Lee's, at times, hokey dialogue, for all Kirby's blocky figures, there's more reality at work here than in a dozen, modern, "sophisticated" comics. Reed, Sue, Ben and Johnny banter, bicker, and emote with a curious plausibility...but all told with a breathless pacing. The quartet has never seemed more human than in Lee and Kirby's hands.

A story like this juggles big ideas, but never loses site of the fact that all stories are, fundamentally, about human emotion. When the Silver Surfer is swayed to the side of earth, it is not by superheroes, but by blind Alicia Masters. And when he turns on his erstwhile master, Galactus is not enraged, nor incensed, rather he is...hurt. In fact, humanity contrasted with omnipotent beings is at the core of the piece, and central to the resolution.

And just so our heads don't get too high in the clouds, there's always a wisecrack or two to bring things down-to-earth.

Admittedly, the Surfer's change-of-heart is mayhap a bit quick, but at least there is a change of heart (that's called a plot twist folks, something sorely absent from a lot of stories); and the resolution a bit clumsy, but there's a gutsy storytelling flare at work here that literally flings the thing over the rough spots. Too many comics do half as much in twice as many pages.

Aiding Lee and Kirby (who hardly need my praise) is Joe Sinnott, whose inks over a number of successive F.F. artists (Kirby, Buscema, Perez, Pollard, Byrne) maintained an appealing familiarity to the characters, even when drawn in different styles. George Roussos' colours are aggressive and bold, and gain an added vibrancy on the crisp white paper.

My main quibbles with this presentation is minor: simply the rather prosaic cover by Ron Lim and the fact that it would've been more appropriate to title it Fantastic Four: The Coming of Galactus.

It's easy to forget just how fun and exciting Lee and Kirby could be at their best.

Original cover price: $7.50 CDN./$5.95 USA.


cover by Ron Garney Silver Surfer: Inner Demons 1998 (SC TPB) 80 pages

Written by J.M. DeMatteis with George Perez (co-plotter Glenn Greenberg). Pencils Ron Garney. Inks by Bob Wiaceck.
Colours: Tom Smith. Letters: John Constanza. Editor: Jaye Gardner.

Reprinting: The Silver Surfer #123, 125, 126 (1996-1997)

Rating: * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

O.K. -- not, technically, a true trade paperback. I mean, sure, it's got a square spine, and no ads, but the paper (cover included) is definitely more of the comicbook variety. But I picked this up in the discount TPB bin, so what the hey?

It's hard to review this collection of three Silver Surfer issues...because I'm darned if I know why they were collected. Mired rather heavily in then-current events, read a few years later it's hard to quite orient yourself. The Fantastic Four and a bunch of other heroes are believed dead (this following, I believe, on the heels of the Onslaught crossover epic), and the Hulk is apparently dying of a terminal disease and his alter-ego of Bruce Banner is dead (I think he got better...both aspects of him).

The Silver Surfer returns to earth, apparently suffering from a strange affliction which has robbed him of his capacity for emotion and he's hoping returning to earth will help reawaken those dormant feelings. He looks up Alicia Masters (Fantastic Four supporting character) who was the first human to befriend him (in the story collected as Silver Surfer: The Coming of Galactus), then runs into and has a tussle with the Hulk, then hooks up with Dr. Strange who tries to help uncover the source of his lack of emotion.

By the end of these three issues, the Silver Surfer has not reconnected with his emotions, nor has he discovered its cause (though he learns an unknown intelligence may be responsible). You see why I'm confused as to why these issues were collected? They don't form a complete story together, and even the individual issues are nothing to write home about.

I mean, it's a Silver Surfer collection...in which everyone acknowledges the Surfer isn't really acting like himself anyway.

The art by Ron Garney is not uninteresting, but would work better with stronger scripts. Technically proficient, there's a certain coldness to the art that, ironically, could be seen as mirroring the Surfer's (lack of) emotional state. Garney uses a lot of innovative panel arrangements, but they can seem busy, interrupting the narrative flow rather than aiding it.

I've become a bit of an appreciator of DeMatteis' often ambitious writing, but here his attempts at profundity seem built on an insubstantial foundation. Of course, maybe he was ham strung trying to pick up a story idea left by George Perez, his scripting predecessor.

Maybe these original issues of the Silver Surfer suffered from a limited distribuion, so this collection was intended for fans to fill in their collections. Maybe it was published to highlight some continuity points for some then-unfolding story line. After all, this includes hints of the beginning of a romance between Alicia and the Silver Surfer. That aspect is a particularly awkward bit of retconning, with the text assuring us that Alicia had always felt a powerful connection to the Surfer but, just to explain why there was no indication of it in the last four hundred issues of the Fantastic Four, we are told that she just never mentioned it to anyone. Yeah, right. But then, these issues came on the heels of a Surfer story line by George Perez wherein the Surfer discovered his home planet, and his beloved Shalla Bal, had actually died millennia before, and what he knew was actually only a hologram. There were more than a few readers, I think, who felt that such a narrative twist came too much out of nowhere and went way too far. I guess throwing in a retroactive romantic attraction seemed positively prosaic by comparison.

Ultimately, if you're desperate to read a trio of Surfer comics circa 1996, and are hot for guest appearances by the Hulk and Doc Strange -- here you are. But if you're looking for some great stories, or at least stories with some sense of closure or direction -- beware.

Original cover price: $4.50 CDN./ $3.50 USA. 


The Silver Surfer: Judgment Day 1988 (GN), 62 pages.

Silver Surfer: Judgment Day - softcover cover by Joe JuskoWritten by Stan Lee (story John Buscema and Tom DeFalco). Illustrated by John Buscema.
Painted by: Max Scheele. Letters: Phil Felix. Editor: Ralph Macchio.

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 2

In the movie "Crimson Tide", there's a scene where there is a heated argument over who is the definitive Silver Surfer artist: the Surfer's instigator, Jack "King" Kirby, or European Art-House fave, Mobius. To me, the answer is: none of the above.

The definitive depicter of the Silver Surfer is "Big" John Buscema, whose rendering instilled in the brooding hero power, yet also elegance and dignity, adding presence to Stan Lee's prose in the pages of the Silver Surfer's self-titled comic in the late '60s/early '70s.

So imagine my pleasant surprise when, in a local comic shop, I came upon Silver Surfer: Judgment Day, a decade old graphic novel (even when I bought it) I was unfamiliar with...by John Buscema and Stan Lee (Lee being, to my mind, the only man who can really write the Surfer).

Silver Surfer: Judgment Day has the Silver Surfer tooling around the cosmos and getting ensnared in yet another of Mephisto's schemes to acquire the Surfer's soul. Mephisto's plan is to cloud the humanitarian judgment of Nova (the former Frankie Raye and the then-current herald of the planet-eating Galactus) by having her lead Galactus to inhabited planets to satiate his hunger. Thus bringing the Silver Surfer, defender of the defenseless, into conflict with his former master, Galactus.

This eventually results in Mephisto and Galactus going toe-to-toe, which might have been the genesis for the project. The ultimate clash of the Titans.

The format of Silver Surfer: Judgment Day is kind of unusual (in his intro, Stan Lee even suggests it's unique, at least at the time) by telling the story with a single illustration per page. On the surface this would suggest an awfully thin story (comprised only of 63 panels -- one page is divided up into three panels, another is a two page spread), but surprisingly, Lee and company manage to deliver a reasonably substantial read. The full page illos, combined with the oversized pages, and the "cosmic" nature of the story, makes for a visually captivating experience as well...truly allowing the reader to "slip the shackles of earth" for the time it takes to read. Stan Lee suggests that at one point they had considered telling the story simply with captions at the bottom of the page -- essentially doing it as a picture book. Fortunately they went for the more conventional comic book technique of word balloons, etc. in the end.

Lee has an unerring knack for the pretentious, poetic language of the Silver Surfer, Galactus, etc. (guys of the inverted adjectives) while effortlessly mingling it with Frankie Raye's colloquial English. I wish other Surfer scribes would take the time to "listen" to his writing.

There are quibbles, of course. It is a Mephisto story, with all the baggage that entails. I mean, you don't read a Silver Surfer vs. Mephisto saga and expect it to be substantially different from other Surfer vs. Mephisto sagas. And like a lot of Marvel's over-sized graphic novels, the price tag might be a bit daunting if you're a stickler for value for money, particularly given the limited number of panels ($13.25 CDN. softcover, more for hardcover -- though I got it on sale for around 11 bucks).

Still, Silver Surfer: Judgment Day is atmospheric and lyrical: beautifully drawn, beautifully coloured and beautifully written with some surprisingly poetic phrasing (and hey, just to be fair, it's well lettered, too). And the reteaming of Stan Lee and John Buscema is certainly a fantasy fulfillment for this reader.

Post-script: I recently re-read it again after a number of years, having largely forgotten what it was about or even my original opinion of it. And though initially skeptical...a few pages in, I started to dig it all over again. It's a simple story -- but effective.

It was published in both hard and soft cover.

Softcover cover price: $13.25 CDN./$10.95 USA (published by Marvel Comics)


Silver Surfer: Parable - cover by MoebiusSilver Surfer: Parable  1998 (TPB) 64 pgs.

Written by Stan Lee. Illustrated, coloured and lettered by Moebius (Jean Giraud)

Reprinting:  Silver Surfer: Parable #1-2 (1988 mini-series)

Rating: * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 2

The world-eating Galactus presents himself to humanity as a God, quickly winning legions to his anarchistic new religion -- all as a plan to destroy earth by getting humans to destroy themselves. The Silver Surfer, still in exile on earth at this point, sets out to stop him, but hasn't counted on the fanatical devotion of the newly-converted humans.

Silver Surfer: Parable might be better titled Silver Surfer: Concept, because that's really what it is: a High Concept that needs fleshing out. The bones of the idea promise provocative rumination on religious fanaticism, intollerance, mob mentality, and spirituality. Unfortunately, it doesn't entirely fulfill those promises. Stan Lee says all he intends to say in the first few pages and has nowhere to go from there -- and he says it with all the subtlety of a baseball bat. In his introduction, Lee makes it clear he intended Parable to be "important", a "this-is-serious-stuff-kids" sort of thing. And that's the danger. From time to time, Lee's stuff has evinced lofty ambitions, and his old Silver Surfer work was prone to preachiness, but it was usually done in the context of telling a story. Tell a good story, I say, and the Art will invariably follow. Here, he seems to have put the cart before the horse.

For a fifty page story, it's surprisingly thin: thin on story development, thin on themes, and thin on characterization. There are only really four characters: the Surfer, Galactus, a pragmatic evangelist who sets himself up as Galactus' high priest, and his good-hearted sister. But these characters seem more there to fulfill functions than as flesh and blood people. Ironic, since the Marvel Age that Lee began was all about putting the human drama into super-human stories.

There are some nice elements here and there: Galactus musing that perhaps he really is a god; a change-of-heart in the evangelist; a good, post-Galactus epilogue, and other scenes. But most of them seem too little, and too little realized. Silver Surfer: Parable is also nicely self-contained -- a true "graphic novel": despite the global threat of Galactus, no other super-heroes show up, and there's little need to be familiar with ever nuance of the Marvel Universe.

The dialogue is a bit problematic. Lee's Surfer prose is always delightfully purple and poetic, but the trick is to marry it with the earthy dialogue of "real" characters. Here, everyone talks in a stilted, unreal way. Maybe Lee intended it as part of the "parable" aspect of the story, presenting the whole thing as kind of an unreal fairy tale. Still, when a guy refers to a helicopter as a "ship", you know something's not quite gelling (I mean sure, it's not inaccurate...but wouldn't a person really say "chopper" or "helicopter"?)

And then there's Moebius.

Moebius is pretty much a giant in the European comic field. The TV series Prisoners of Gravity once devoted (I think) a whole episode to him, with many American comic pros (many whose work I greatly admire) singing his praises.

I just didn't think he worked well.

His work is cold and passionless. Above all, the tragic Surfer, and Lee's in-your-face dialogue, needs passion. I think that's why John Buscema worked so well on the Silver Surfer's comic in the late-'60s/early-'70s: his figures emoted. Moebius' Surfer barely changes expression throughout the whole story -- it's like starring Kevin Costner in a Shakespearian play. And in the "action" scenes, he looks as though he's out for a Sunday stroll.

There's a lengthy end editorial by Moebius detailing the artistic process. Unfortunately, some of it just draws attention to problems. At one point he explains how he re-drew a minor character because, as originally depicted, the character was just too interesting for such a secondary part. Which is bizarre. Surely that should make an artist work harder on his main figures, to overshadow the supporting figure, rather than homogenize the supporting cast because the leads just aren't interesting enough to compete. If the latter is the case, surely that's indicating a problem with the main characters. As well, it reinforces the problem with Lee's script: a failure to put the simple human drama (and characters) on a level with the big ideas and themes.

Moebius also goes on to explain that it might not be fair to judge his depiction of the Surfer as the greatest of all time -- a lack of modesty (dressed up as pseudo-humbleness) that is truly staggering. If someone wants to praise his vision of the surfer dude, fine, but it should come from someone other than Moebius himself. But maybe I misunderstood what he was trying to say (as he points out, English isn't his first language).

Silver Surfer: Parable is ultimately disappointing. Still, maybe my expectations were unrealistically high (particularly after reading, and enjoying, Silver Surfer: Judgment Day).

Cover price: $8.40 CDN./$5.99 USA.

Back to