I was never more than a semi-regular reader of the original Silver Surfer series — out of the first year’s worth of bi-monthly issues, I only purchased #1, #4, and #5. On the other hand, I recall liking all three of those issues (especially the first two) quite a bit. So I’m not entirely sure why, after one more issue, #7 (which also happened to be the last that Marvel published in a double-sized, 25-cent, bi-monthly format), I basically told the book goodbye. I do remember being a bit disappointed by this issue’s “Frankenstein” tale — mainly, I think, because I was expecting a monster, and all I got was an evil replica of the Surfer himself. Perhaps that was all it took; in any event, when the series went to a standard 15-cent format and monthly schedule with issue #8 (Sep., 1969), I didn’t bite — and I wouldn’t, until almost a year later, when — probably attracted by the fact that the Inhumans were guest starring — I picked up #18.
Of course, I wasn’t the only reader who’d been giving Silver Surfer a pass. After an initial strong showing, sales on the book had begun dropping rapidly, leading first to the mid-’69 change in format, and later to the importing of such guest stars as Spider-Man, the Human Torch, and Nick Fury. But the title continued to hemorrhage sales, nonetheless.
Why were readers rejecting Silver Surfer? The conventional wisdom is that the lead character spent too much time moping about his tragic lot, and philosophizing on the topic of man’s inhumanity to man. There’s probably something to that, although I don’t recall such considerations figuring into my own disaffection with the series. Still, I tend to think that the main problem wasn’t so much the book’s “seriousness” as it was the limitations that were built into the concept: The Surfer was an alien — trapped on Earth, separated from the love of his life, and isolated from humanity. If he ever found a way to escape our terrestrial sphere, the series, at least as originally conceived, would be over. Beyond that, the hero’s isolation also meant that he never developed a supporting cast, and thus the series had little to none of the “soap opera”-type subplot material that was so much a part of the Marvel brand, and helped keep readers coming back issue after issue.
The final attempt to stave off the book’s cancellation was a drastic change in direction: the Silver Surfer was going to leave his pacifistic ways behind, and embrace anger and aggression. This decision must have come hard to writer-editor Stan Lee, who was, after all, heavily invested in the Surfer’s philosophizing, which had given him a chance to express his personal ideals more directly than any other Marvel series he’d scripted over the years. Nevertheless, he moved forward with plans for “The Savage Silver Surfer”, taking John Buscema (who’d pencilled issues #1 – 17) off the book, and giving the assignment to Herb Trimpe. But before Trimpe began his stint with #19, Lee wanted a transitional story for #18 — and he asked the Surfer’s original creator, Jack Kirby, to draw it.
As we’ve discussed previously on this blog, Kirby is known to have been very unhappy with Lee’s decision to launch a Silver Surfer title in 1968 without the artist’s involvement. He’d had his own ideas regarding the character’s origins and destiny which he’d intended to develop in Fantastic Four, but was forced to abandon in deference to Lee and Buscema’s take. Still, we don’t know that he ever actually expressed his dissatisfaction on this score to Lee — and if he didn’t, Lee probably didn’t realize he was rubbing salt in a wound by asking Kirby to help rescue the series, some two years later.
By 1970, Kirby was very unhappy with Marvel about a great many things, his loss of the Silver Surfer being but one of them. Nevertheless, he accepted the assignment (apparently without complaint) and set to work. And, as things turned out, the new “savage” approach Lee wanted for the Surfer lent itself so naturally to the expression of Kirby’s bottled-up anger that the end result would inevitably come across as a testament to the deep frustration felt by the “King” in his last months at Marvel Comics.
Of course, back in 1970, my twelve-year-old self wasn’t aware of any of this stuff. I did probably know by the time I picked up Silver Surfer #18 that Kirby was leaving Marvel for DC — the news had been announced in the “Stan’s Soapbox” column that ran in all of that month’s Marvel comics (including Kirby’s final issue of Fantastic Four) — but I wouldn’t have made any connections between that development and this comic. Rather, my first impression of SS #18 was probably mild confusion at the very different “look” of the book’s cover*, as compared to the John Buscema jobs I was accustomed to on the series; and that confusion was likely then followed by an ever greater sense of surprise, when I opened the book to the first page, and found that the interior art wasn’t by Buscema, either — that it was, in fact, by Jack Kirby…
…and, if I’m going to be honest with you, I was probably a little disappointed by that discovery. While I was at least dimly aware by this time that the Silver Surfer had come into the world via Kirby and Lee’s vaunted “Galactus Trilogy” in FF #48-50 — and besides that, had even acquired (and thoroughly loved) FF #57-60, featuring the classic “Dr. Doom steals the Surfer’s powers” storyline, as back issues — I had first gotten to know the Surfer through Buscema’s rendition, and I had an attachment to it. That said, I don’t think I was so disappointed with Kirby’s unexpected presence that it got in the way of my enjoying this comic for much longer than a moment.
Lee and Kirby waste nary a moment before launching into the action, as the Surfer finds himself ambushed by the renegade Inhumans who serve Maximus the Mad.
The Surfer quickly takes down Leonus, and then it’s Timberius’ turn to have a go:
Timberius sends a blizzard of tree branches flying at the Surfer, “like living, lethal spears!“, but our hero easily disintegrates them with his “Power Cosmic”. Essentially, the Surfer’s just toying with these guys, and he eventually wearies of the game:
Maximus figures that the Surfer has no way of knowing that there are actually two groups of Inhumans, in opposition to one another; and so, when he comes to the Great Refuge and encounters Max’s brother Black Bolt and the rest of the Royal Fam, he’ll assume they’re his enemies, too:
This is probably as good a place as any to note that this comic was released in the same month as Amazing Adventures #2, featuring the second installment of the new “Inhumans” feature which was being scripted as well as drawn by Kirby. The Inhumans’ appearance here may well have been intended to help promote that series, as well as to provide Silver Surfer with another guest-star boost.
Medusa’s explanation, such as it is, is that since the Great Refuge is currently at war with Maximus, she and Karnak didn’t want to take the chance that the Surfer might be attacking them on Black Bolt’s mad brother’s behalf. That seems like pretty thin reasoning, to my mind; but then, Gorgon shows up and announces that scanners have picked up Maximus’ flagship heading their way, which lends some credibility to Medusa and Karnak’s fears.
Triton’s fellows rush to his aid, and a seismic stomp from Gorgon knocks the Surfer off his feet, giving the Inhumans a momentary advantage:
It has to be said that Maximus’ scheme doesn’t make a lot of sense — based on Lee’s captions, only minutes have passed since the Surfer’s initial encounter with the renegade Inhumans, which hardly seems like enough time for the Surfer and Black Bolt to have destroyed each other. But, perhaps one shouldn’t expect rigorous logic from a guy whose name is generally accompanied by the phrase “the Mad”.
The other members of the Royal Family hurry to assist their monarch, abandoning the battle with the Surfer:
It may be silly, but the spectacle of the Surfer trying to pry his board out of Lockjaw’s mouth is probably my favorite thing in this issue.
The Surfer just wants to get outta town, but before he can clear Inhuman airspace, he’s set upon by a couple of unnamed, winged Inhumans — though, as you’d expect, they barely slow him down:
In the final two pages, Lee and Kirby come at last to the “point” of their story — i.e., the transformation of the peace-loving Surfer into a “savage”. But while that concept may have been Lee’s — and the dialogue, as well, at least in its final, published version — it’s impossible to read these words, and view these images, and not have an almost palpable sense of Kirby’s bitterness and rage:
As Mike Gartland put it in The Jack Kirby Collector #23 (Feb., 1999): “The Surfer was fed up with man and Jack was fed up with Marvel; before he left his creation, they both shared a catharsis.”
Silver Surfer #18 makes for a striking contrast to the other full-length Kirby comic of the month, Fantastic Four #102. Despite an ominous note or two, that story carries little of the emotional weight of this one; in fact, its mood approaches lightheartedness, especially in its early scenes set in the Baxter Building. The difference in tone can almost certainly be attributed to the different circumstances in which Kirby found himself while producing the respective books’ pages.
SS #18 appears to have been produced while Kirby was deciding what to do about the new contract he’d received from Marvel, one which he considered unacceptable. FF #102, on the other hand, was produced weeks after the Surfer story, even though it made it to newsstands first; by the time Kirby put pencil to art board for it, he had decided to reject Marvel’s contract, and instead take up Carmine Infantino on his offer to come work for DC Comics. The Jack Kirby who drew Silver Surfer #18, then, was still feeling all of his burdens, while the one who turned out Fantastic Four #102 may have felt like he’d just been released from prison.
As it happened, of course, neither FF #102 nor SS #18 — nor June’s third Marvel book with new Kirby material (the aforementioned Amazing Adventures #2, with its 10-page “Inhumans” story) — would be the last Jack Kirby comic book from Marvel. He’d been working far enough ahead that Marvel still had several more months’ worth of his stuff waiting to be published; and, in fact, new Kirby comics would still be coming out from Marvel even as his first work for DC was released. Call it “the long goodbye”.
And speaking of goodbyes…
As most of this blog’s readers likely know already, Stan Lee’s intention for Silver Surfer #18 to lead into a new direction for the title never came to fruition; issue #18 was, instead, the series’ final issue.
This wasn’t immediately apparent to us readers in June, 1970, however, as there was no indication given anywhere in the comic that Silver Surfer was in trouble. And one whole month later, we would turn to the Bullpen Bulletins column in July’s Marvel comics, and read this item:
But sometime after this was written, new sales figures came in for Silver Surfer, and they weren’t good. Publisher Martin Goodman summarily cancelled the title, apparently before the Lee-Trimpe collaboration ever got past the conceptual stage. Would sales have improved enough to save the series, had “The Savage Silver Surfer” ever been given a chance to soar? There’s no way of knowing, of course (though, for what it’s worth, I don’t recall my younger self having any enthusiasm for the new direction at all).
Four months later, in Marvel’s comics cover-dated February, 1971, Lee delivered the series’ eulogy:
Regardless of how one views the aesthetic merits of Lee’s vision of the Silver Surfer over Kirby’s — or, for that matter, the ethics of Lee’s appropriation of Kirby’s creation — it seems inarguable that the Marvel editor-in-chief’s personal investment in, and attachment to the Sky-Rider of the Spaceways was deep and genuine. For the next decade and beyond, even as his involvement in the day-to-day running of Marvel Comics became less and less, Stan Lee retained a proprietary interest in the character. From 1970 up to 1987, Marvel produced just two comics with the words “Silver Surfer” in their titles, and both had Lee as their scripter. The earliest of these to appear has the distinction of being Marvel’s first real attempt at the “graphic novel” format; published by Fireside Books in 1978, Lee’s artistic collaborator on the project was none other than Jack Kirby himself — a turn of events few comics industry observers would likely have predicted in the wake of the two creators’ messy 1970 “divorce”.
Of course, by the time that minor milestone of comics history was published, the Surfer had made plenty of guest appearances in other Marvel titles — some written by Lee, though most not. Indeed, the very first of those would arrive a mere five months after the release of Silver Surfer #18, in November, 1970. Your humble blogger just so happens to have been on hand to snap that one up; so, if you’re interested in learning what came next for the Savage Silver Surfer and his intended war against humanity, just come back this November, and I’ll be happy to tell you all about it.
*There seems to be no consensus on who produced the cover, though Herb Trimpe is generally credited with at least inking it, possibly over Kirby’s pencils.
I was entering the Marvel stage of my comics readership right around the time this book was cancelled. I was never a fan of the Surfer. Aside from the fact that I could never decide if the idea of a guy riding a surfboard through space was the coolest thing I’d ever heard of, or the dumbest, the dude was seriously in need of a couple of Xanax and a few years of therapy! Maybe at age 12, I just wasn’t “old” enough for Lee’s attempt at a “grown-up” comic or maybe Lee just got carried away with all his philosophizing, but when Surfer left the stands, I wasn’t sorry to see him go. Some months later when Kirby tried to recreate a new version of the character for DC in the Black Racer (look kids, he’s black AND he’s on skis!), I appreciated Jack’s efforts to make superheroes out of such left-field ideas as surfing and skiing, but I recognized it for what it was and remained unimpressed by the Racer by himself, though I loved the Fourth World and the New Gods stuff over-all.
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“… the ethics of Lee’s appropriation of Kirby’s creation”?
Laying it on a bit thick here, aren’t you?
This was a “Work For Hire” era creation. There was nothing inherently “unethical” about Lee or anyone deciding to write, or draw, any character created for publishing in a company’s magazines.
Would you claim that Denny O’Neil was “unethical” in writing Batman stories at the time? Would Bob Kane, who had positioned himself far better than Kirby had, while doing a lot less creative work, have a similar claim of ill treatment?
Stop the Lee bashing. The lawsuits settled.
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Lorne, I don’t think I’m engaging in “Lee bashing” at all. Please take a look at some of my other posts tagged “Stan Lee”, especially those for Silver Surfer #1 and #4, and let me know if you don’t think I’ve tried to give “the Man” his due.
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Lockjaw using the Silver Surfer’s board is a genuinely laugh out loud moment in an otherwise grim, downbeat story.
It’s really unfortunate that Stan Lee & Jack Kirby’s long collaboration came to end on such a sour note. I know that hindsight is 20:20, but it’s regrettable that Lee was either unable or unwilling to perceive how unhappy Kirby had become, and that Kirby could not find a way to clearly explain to Lee exactly how he felt.
I don’t know, maybe at the end of the day nothing could have kept Kirby at Marvel. As I have observed before, at the end of the day it was Martin Goodman’s company, not Stan Lee’s. Even if Lee had been totally accommodating to Kirby, there would inevitably have been things Lee could never have given Kirby, such as ownership of characters and a share of the profits, because that would have been Goodman’s decision to make, and Goodman was notoriously tight-fisted.
Echoing my previous musings, it is very regrettable that something like Image Comics did not exist in the early 1970s. Looking back at Kirby’s difficulties with both Marvel and DC Comics, it becomes clear why creative ownership in the comic book business became so vitally important.
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Another fine post Alan, although I agree with the “work for hire” response to your comment about unethical treatment toward Kirby. Kirby had the misfortune (as did many others, e.g., Siegel and Schuster) of having been born at the wrong time. Until product synergy and technological media advancements came along, you needed to work for a big company like D.C. or Marvel to have your creations see the light of day publicly, and the price for that was signing over ownership.
I remember feeling rather “eh” about the Silver Surfer at the time his book was cancelled. Maybe it was the reliance on guest stars, maybe it was the limitations of the storyline as you suggest. I do know that it did not bother me like it did when X-Men, SHIELD and Strange Tales got the axe. I don’t remember if I thought it odd, to say nothing of annoying, to see two fairly identical plot lines regarding the Inhumans in the same month, to say nothing of both involving Jack Kirby (my guess is that Kirby might have shook his head at the idea, but didn’t care anymore as he was leaving).
I had to smirk a bit at the Stan’s Soapbox “eulogy”. This is Stan playing con man at his best–and I say that with love. First he admits the actual reason the book was cancelled, poor sales. However, then, to make the whole thing sound noble and to look heroic for the book’s fans, he concocts this bull story about choosing integrity instead of changing the Surfer’s characterization to attract younger readers (which a book called “The Savage Silver Surfer” featuring basically a space Sub-Mariner might have done). Stan himself might have been unhappy about it, but he seemed perfectly willing to do it, considering the set up for it in this issue and the big Item! hyping the change on the Bullpen page. Finally, if you intend to change the book’s title to “The Savage Silver Surfer”, you kind of are jumping into the concept with both feet. The truth of it all is, of course, that Stan and Marvel would have gone this route if Goodman hadn’t ordered the book immediately cancelled.
Personally, I think that was for the best because it would have been sad to see the uniqueness of the Silver Surfer ruined by making him into a vengeful “savage” Silver Surfer. It WOULD have been a good storyline to have him that way for a few issues before realizing that he was wrong and embarrassed for letting his experiences on Earth push him in that direction, but Marvel seemed to be wanting this to be a permanent direction for the Surfer. Then again, right now I am reading the Silver Surfer books circa 1991-1992 and boy are they terrible.
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Insightful comments as always, Stuart! Thanks.
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The first time I saw the Silver Surfer was on the cover of Fantastic Four #55. I was immediately blown away by the Kirby/Sinnott rendition. I had never seen anything like him in a comic book and was immediately intrigued. After I got through reading FF #55, I was a fan of the Silver Surfer. I stayed a fan until the Silver Surfer came out in his own comic book two years later, at which point, after a few issues, I lost interest. I quit buying the Silver Surfer comic book after issue #5 but did buy SS #18 and several years later, the Silver Surfer Graphic Novel by Lee and Kirby, probably more out of my loyalty to Jack Kirby than anything else.
As a recurring character in the Fantastic Four magazine, he was hugely popular and very successful. If what I read is correct, both in your blog and elsewhere, Jack Kirby was working on another story about the Silver Surfer for the Fantastic Four book, evidently an origin story, and was blindsided when Stan Lee launched the Silver Surfer book. All too bad, in retrospect.
It’s obvious somebody made a wrong turn, since the Silver Surfer magazine folded (mercifully, IMO) after a short run of only 18 issues.
The “Savage Silver Surfer” would just have been a redo of Fantastic Four #72. In that one, the Silver Surfer didn’t quite look so berserk, but still “the supremely powerful Silver Surfer [attacked] all of mankind. ” to use the words of the Watcher. The Silver Surfer’s rationale: “The very air I breathe seems tainted with the arid stench of bigotry, hatred, greed, and oppression! But if men refuse to turn away from wanton, unthinking savagery then shall the Silver Surfer show them the fate that must be theirs! The only way to make them cease their constant warring is to provide for them a common foe! Let them unite to battle me, the ultimate enemy.”
Humanity survived through the intervention of the United States Armed Forces that stopped the Silver Surfer’s rampage when they launched the “Sonic Shark” missile that drained the Silver Surfer of nearly all his cosmic power, supposedly permanently. Then again, maybe not permanently.
It would appear that the Silver Surfer has an achilles heel similar to Superman’s Kryptonite. The Silver Surfer can be drained of his cosmic power if not have it outright stolen and used by someone else. In FF #57, Doctor Doom steals the Silver Surfer’s cosmic power. In FF #60, Doctor Doom is nearly drained of the cosmic power by Reed Richards’ Anti-Cosmic Flying Wing and in FF #72, the Silver Surfer was similarly drained of his cosmic power by the Sonic Shark.
If the Silver Surfer goes on another rampage, just roll out another Cosmic Power Drainer.
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That’s interesting — I didn’t recall that Lee & Kirby had used that “Cosmic Power Drainer” gambit multiple times in such a short period. I’m not sure, but I think later writers have for the most part ignored how relatively easy it should be to take the Surfer down.
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I’ll never understand Marvel’s decision not to award the Silver Surfer to Kirby from the beginning. It was as if they were doing everything they could to drive him away. I certainly found Buscema’s version lacking (except for # 4. What a difference full pencils make, as opposed to the layouts and breakdowns Big John pumped out the majority of his career at Marvel). And then to add the dreary whining of the Surfer about his fate every issue. I don’t know how Stan felt this was a winning formula. I found it depressing. I’ve read that Stan saw the Surfer as a Christ figure (interesting take for a self-proclaimed atheist). But people were drawn to the Surfer as this cosmic demi-god. I know they had to reduce his power to enable him to not be too powerful for his foes, but i think this was a lazy way to approach the Surfer bound on earth storyline. Certainly when Engelhart and Rogers relaunched the Surfer in ’87 they immediately freed him from Galactus’ barrier and sent him on his correct milieu of cosmic adventures in space. That title was outstanding and, through many creative changes, lasted 137 issues.
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From what I’ve read, I get the sense that Lee was remarkably obtuse about how invested Kirby was in the Surfer as a character On the other hand, Kirby doesn’t seem to have ever directly expressed his dissatisfaction to Lee — not only about this, but other things as well. I think there was a failure to communicate, on both sides.
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Was Silver Surfer really ever quoted “from pulpits” like Stan claimed? It seems like a stretch, but then this is Stan Lee we’re talking about. Why should I be surprised if he exaggerates?
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