GRAPHIC NOVEL AND TRADE
PAPERBACK (TPB) REVIEWS

by The Masked Bookwyrm


Silver Surfer ~ Page One

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...

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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 Pollard Silver Surfer: The Enslavers 1990 (HC GN) 76 pages

Written by Stan Lee, Keith Pollard. Pencils by Keith Pollard. Inks by Joe Rubinstein, Josť Marzan, Chris Ivy.
Colours: Paul Mounts. Letters: Michael Heisler. Editor: Bobbie Chase.

Rating: * * * 1/2 (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Reviewed: Oct. 2014

The Enslavers was one of the longest Silver Surfer graphic novels ever (though the longest was 1978s Silver Surfer) and ended up being just about the last Surfer story written by Stan Lee (who, according to some rumours, had for many years insisted no one other than he be allowed to write a Silver Surfer solo project). Though, as was often the case with Lee who pioneered the whole Marvel Style of collaboration, he shares writing credit with the artist, Keith Pollard (leading one to infer that maybe it was Pollard who was ultimately driving the story). Curiously enough this may also have proven Pollard's swan song in the comics biz -- an artist who was a Marvel staple in the late 1970s/early 1980s, drawing key series like The Fantastic Four and Spider-Man.

And curiously, despite the length, the lavish hard cover presentation, The Enslavers isn't really a great story -- yet at the same time, it's enjoyable enough.

The story, in a nutshell, is that an alien conqueror arrives on earth -- so powerful he might even rival the world devouring Galactus (and seems to have been inspired by, or perhaps inspired, DC's Mongul and his Warworld). But before this happens, The Silver Surfer arrives on earth (this being years after he freed himself from imprisonment there) having found his native Zenn-La depopulated and his beloved Shalla-Ball missing. The alien conqueror takes over earth -- defeating all existing super heroes -- and it falls to the Surfer to save earth.

Despite Stan Lee being a genuine comic book pioneer, whose 1960s work at Marvel literally revolutionalized the super hero genre, Lee's later -- and fairly infrequent -- writing gigs lacked the spark and sass of his heyday. The corny dialogue, the obvious characterization, remained, but without the knowing wry wit, or making the heartfelt emotions feel truly heartfelt. And certainly here in The Enslavers the dialogue is fairly clunky and obvious. The occasional attempts at witty or wry captions feeling a bit like autopilot.

While Pollard had been a serviceable, dependable artist (hence why he landed such significant gigs) working in a straight forward, semi-realist, John Buscema vein -- without really becoming exceptional. A John Buscema substitute -- but no John Buscema. And seeing him here, unleashed on a grand graphic novel (presumably) partly of his own creation -- it's pretty much the same. Adequate, decent work -- but not much more. Well, except that working with more pages, and so allowing him to spread out the story more, he maybe allows his panels to breathe (I think some of his earlier work suffered a bit from overly dense scripts forcing him to deliver a lot of cramped, small panels). There are certainly some interesting visual aspects. Instead of white borders around the panels, Pollard sets pages as a starfield. And a supporting character astrophysicist I wonder might have been drawn to resemble Carl Sagan.

Though the art does offer some atmosphere and receives an extra boost from the rich, multi-hue colours.

Yet despite its short comings, The Enslavers does the important thing -- it keeps you turning the pages. And that's because, despite the rather simple -- and simplistic -- scenario, it throws you a few curve balls, both plot-wise, and emotionally. Mostly in the form of the alien villain's mistress, and the aforementioned earth astrophysicist whose space signals first drew the villain to earth. These characters add in some subtle nuances Lee's blunt dialogue initially didn't seem to promise, the characters having some ambiguous agendas and emotions. Heck -- even at one point suggesting the villain himself started out a hero to his people but was corrupted by his own power! As well, the length allows the story to take its time building -- the conqueror not even arriving on earth until well into the story.

The result is that the story does (for the most part) fill out and justify its length in a way that the generic synopsis (Surfer once again saves earth from an evil conqueror) might not suggest.

There are some interesting side-aspects, too. Like with a few other Surfer projects (such as Parable, reviewed on the next page) there's a deliberate attempt to inoculate the story from the rest of the Marvel universe. I mean -- not entirely. Other super heroes do crop up in cameos (maybe just so Pollard can have fun drawing them!) but are disposed of fairly quickly so that the focus can be on the Surfer alone. The plot involves humans treating this alien contact as a momentous "first" when, y'know, by this point in Marvel history they might as well have a tourist bureau on the moon! And though Reed Richards of the Fantastic Four has a significant cameo -- he never actually uses his powers or is referred to as one of the Fantastic Four. A casual reader might just assume he's a friendly scientist the Surfer knows.

There's also a slight mature readers approach. Not in terms of violence or actual nudity, but in slightly adult scenes, including the Surfer in bed with an alien woman.

As I say, The Enslavers isn't really a great story. It does feel as though it's just trotting out usual Surfer staples of him standing between earth and a largely one dimensional alien invader. But with that said, and acknowledging the dialogue is fairly clunky, it does keep you reading, tossing in a few unexpected elements so that it's a little more than it at first seems, and does satisfy as yet another big, bombastic Silver Surfer saga.

Cover price: __. 


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