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.